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The Prisoner of Chillon and Scattered Short Stories

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The Prisoner of Chillon

and Scattered Short Stories

Erik D. Weiss

Copyright © 2014 Erik D. Weiss

All rights reserved.

ISBN-13: 978-1503152656

ISBN-10: 1503152650

ISBN: 9781310477461

 

Library of Congress Control Number 2014921216

 

DEDICATION

 

 

To my parents, Robert and Ilana, who have inspired me to have wide-ranging interests and passions, and who have put up with me when those passions and resulting directions get so scattered.

CONTENTS

 

 

table=. =. |=.
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|=. p<{color:#000;}. Acknowledgments |=. p<{color:#000;}.   | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#0563C1;}. The Prisoner of Chillon |=. p<{color:#000;}.   | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#0563C1;}. The Factory |=. p<{color:#000;}.   | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#0563C1;}. Baseball |=. p<{color:#000;}.   | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#000;}. Heist at Scone Palace |=. p<{color:#000;}.   | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#0563C1;}. A Light in the Dark Wood |=. p<{color:#000;}.   | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#0563C1;}. The Egg |=. p<{color:#000;}.   | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#000;}.   | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#000;}.   | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#000;}.   | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#000;}.   |

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

 

Many thanks for finely tuned editing and constructive criticism by Dr. Robert Weiss and Ruo Fu – my unmatchable R&R team!! Ruo Fu is also an amazing computer whiz and was a huge help with formatting, many thanks and love. Also thanks to my mother, Ilana, for taking me to see the Château de Chillon, which inspired me to read Byron’s poem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Prisoner of chillon

 

 

I had not strength to stir, or strive,

But felt that I was still alive—

A frantic feeling, when we know

That what we love shall ne’er be so.

I know not why

I could not die,

I had no earthly hope—but faith,

And that forbade a selfish death. …

These heavy walls to me had grown

A hermitage—and all my own!

 

*
p={color:#000;}. Lord Byron, The Prisoner of Chillon

 

The rippled water lapped against the stern. The flag’s direction shifted and the pilot adjusted his rudder with a keen eye and hand. The orange sun’s shallow rays cast a long shadow of the mast onto the water as the late autumn afternoon descended into dusk. His starboard glance beheld a nearby steep shore while distantly off the port bow the snow blanketed Alps brooded with permanence. “She’ll hold on this course,” he reported to his partner in front.

“We ought make haste beyond the next turn. Tarrying in these waters is a curse on the booty. They’ll call the tariff at Chillon.” He turned and faced forward, holding tight to the jib rope on their small trading ship. The bags and boxes were stacked behind him, neatly, with a precision necessitated by close quarters.

Pulling closer to the wind, as far as he could, the pilot pushed his boat faster, glancing from rudder to sail, to jib, to mountain. The blast of a cannon came upon them like wind. The hour had been struck. The cannon was fired from the highest parapet on the Château de Chillon.

Jutting out on a promontory over the water as an eagle sits over the edge of its nest, Chillon surveyed the watery passage with many cold human eyes and flaming mouths of steel. Galant waving flags, sternly pointed roofs, delicate stained glass, and carved stonework surmounted its long lines of turrets and interior gun galleries. Music played and the ghosts of knights from days gone by challenged each other in youthful mirth in this rich home until stifled by smoking muskets and cannon.

“Ho, there, why such speed?” came a guttural voice in broken Italian. “We see you, off your stern.” The traders turned and eyed a larger boat behind them, its decks dotted with soldiers. They turned to the castle, and colored hats, helmets with plumes, appeared among the trelliswork. “These waters are restricted for passage, in the absence of a fee.” The soldier on the boat grinned toothlessly as he eyed the two traders scuffling among their small stock. The ship came up beside them and the pilot dropped the anchor.

“We know the tax,” said the man in front. “We know it and want no trouble.” The soldier stepped over into the small boat with a musketeer behind.

“We’ll see, we’ll see,” he muttered as he lifted blankets and began prying open boxes against the silent protest of the traders. He turned and spoke quietly to the soldier behind him in French. Then in German – the pilot turned. “Aha, I see clearly.” He climbed toward the front of the boat with a smile, put a hand on the trader’s shoulder, and hurled him into the large boat. As he tried to stand the soldiers directed their muzzles at his face. The butt of a musket collided with the pilot’s chest and he fell overboard. “Fish him out and tie a lead to the boat. Bring them in.”

The small trading vessel was tugged toward the castle and tied to a pier on the shallow rocks nearby. The traders, one with blood staining his shirt, were dragged toward the castle. They looked up fearfully as the gargoyles perched in the massive archway overlooked their forced march along the drawbridge over the cold, watery moat leading out into the river. They were led through the thick gateway, lined with the metal spikes of the open locks and gates, and up the cobblestoned hill toward the chief guard house. They were entered for questioning in the register and a man in red plumed helmet entered.

“Good day,” he sat down hard in a stiff chair as they stood before him. “Your offense is of a most grave nature-”

“But we can sail our skip-” the pilot was knocked to the ground by a guard and lay prostrate, clutching the back of his head.

“Ah, but you may not. It is not permitted. You yourselves, not only your booty, are contraband in these waters. The Governor at Chillon has declared it and so it will be.”

“We’ll turn back, I swear,” sobbed the other man. “We’ll pay the tax and reverse course.”

The soldier laughed. “I wish I could do this, good sir!” He gave a wide smile. Another guard pounded the trader to the ground beside his companion. “But no, I cannot. You are contraband. You will return.” He paused and looked out the wrought iron window into the cobblestone courtyard and across to the barracks. “Take them away.” The traders began to scream and beg as guards behind them lifted their pained bodies to their feet and led them out the door, the chief guard waving them farewell. “It is as difficult for me as for you,” he called after them with a grin. “I am obeying my orders.”

The two traders were led to the side of the gateway and down a narrow and steep stairway. Passing through the kitchen area they could smell the meats roasting and the cheeses ready for the governor’s dinner. They were dragged past the kitchen and led down a further staircase, this a narrow spiral, and into a corridor leading directly to the infantry barracks. The terrified traders watched as each locked door was opened by guards and they were thrust over one cold and wet threshold after another, finally reaching the long stairway that led into the lowest pit of the rock upon which the Château de Chillion was built.

They pulled back from the smell reaching them at the top of the stairway. The stench was forced upon them as the groans and cries of pain and desperation below began to reach their ears. Even the guards flinched as they opened two further sets of doors. Into the throng of prisoners they were pushed and both fell together by a sleeping old man.

“Up! Up! I want everyone awake! It is time.” Two cooks entered behind the guards, closely protected by the spearmen at their sides. They tossed bits of bread and worthless meat bones into the air over the crowd of straggling prisoners who converged around each morsel like starving hyenas. The traders did not move. They stared with bloodshot eyes at the chaos in this long, massive, and colonnaded stone gallery. One embraced the other and began to cry before a guard kicked him in the stomach. “Get bread now, fools. There shall be none till tomorrow sunset.” He tried to push them to join the fray with the butt end of his sword but they resisted with their pitiful shrieks, as of injured hounds. “Suit yourself. This one refused the same and finally received his due reward.” He kicked a man lying near the wall, who fell over with wide open eyes, dead. Two soldiers dragged the corpse across to the water-bound side of the dungeon, opened a trap door in the floor, and shoved the body in. A moment passed before it splashed in the water far below. The traders screamed in terror. “As I said, get your bread now.” They scrambled into the continuing fray of arms and legs, managing to retrieve a small bun to share between them before the cooks and guards left and locked the deathly hold tightly behind them.

The cries persisted unabated, with groans of gloom accented by shouts of pure ferocity as men struggled to preserve their worthless bits of territory on the icy stone floor. The two new additions were examined closely in the hope that their garments held unseen treasures. They paced along the side, near the high gated windows, allowing the tiny specks of sunlight to reach them until the absolute darkness of night shrouded the dungeon cavern. With blackness came a relative quiet and the moaning became subdued and movement slowed.

The night’s silent pause until morning was all that could be expected and the coming of dawn brought little new hope or freedom. The two traders were now accepted as equals among the prisoners and walked freely, exercising their swollen and painful limbs. They conversed with farmers, traders, and even lords as they discovered their disordered companions to be the entire strata of political prisoners from the surrounding Swiss territories. Here were placed the most savage of thieves, the most melancholy of writers, and the most confident of spies. Most did not communicate with one another, for the sake of language or hostility bred from desperation. Here were contained close friendships and vicious feuds, all based, it seemed, on the scramble for food and for air.

A drone of mutterings, grunts, spastic laughs, and enraged scowls pervaded all moments – even silent ones. These were cast out erratically by the man chained to the center column. He was mad, all said. A vagabond in old and worn clothes who had been in the dungeon longer than any prisoner could remember. He sat alone, leg clasped in the heaviest of shackles and tied by strong chain to a nail, embedded deep into the stone column. Stories, fed by the guards, had it that he had one day killed and devoured all of his fellow prisoners in one single winter night and had been chained to the column for their own protection.

The two traders moved cautiously past this chained man as he glared and growled after them, some said with hunger and appetite in his eyes. His look was low and close to the ground. Burn marks scared his arms and legs, forever imprinting the forms of leaded tongs on his skin. He looked up at the prisoners and the guards with a sly and suspicious glance, revealing the penetration of his big hazel eyes under bushy eyebrows. His grayed hair and thick beard emerged from darkness as he bathed in the cracks of light from the large and barred window. During the day, he would pull his chain as far as each of its links would allow toward the light. And all made way for his desire and his frenzy.

The guards entered once each day to serve the prisoners their scant meal and to threaten death or remove the dead. With a pike they forced the chained man to lie prostrate on the ground, moaning and screaming, thrashing back and forth as a cook came within a safe distance to throw food down in front of him. In the midst of their own frenzy to partake in the joint scramble for bits and pieces, the two traders watched as the chained prisoner, always unchallenged by any other, slowly and meticulously devoured everything put before him, grunting and nodding.

It was said that he had not spoken a single word in years. Some said that he spoke only a far off tongue that none could comprehend as it was neither here nor there nor even of a human mind. As stories were told of his Russian or Chinese background, of his animal forefathers, of his exploits in devouring his fellow prisoners, or of the possibility that he truly was more than two hundred and thirty three years of age, they eyed his penetrating eye, examining their cunning reaction, as if seeking for a sign of understanding. It was assumed that the castle governor kept this monster alive so that one day he would be released, kill all the prisoners, and clean the dungeon for a new population.

When new prisoners arrived and were thrown into the constant scuffle for food and air and light, the prisoner mob pushed and cried and bit, while the chained prisoner just growled – and stared and pondered. The traders eyed the chained man closely each day. To them, his look was certainly unbridled. His eyes, though – his hazel eyes were looking and thinking and calculating. All at once, they realized on one quiet day, ferocity merged with simple anger and a calm, penetrating glance. A sane, human aspect fused with the chaos of his profuse animal hair.

Days passed, the common ordeal of isolated misery within a mass of disparate humanity. Some inmates were friends, and some were sworn enemies to the death, who threatened each other with bites and punches and kicks in the constant struggle for food. For the outcome of losing that ongoing battle was death, as seen through the water-door.

The two German traders cried together, a rare grouping among the chaos. They had known each other since childhood and each of their cries and grunts in the melee bore a common tongue and a common background.

One rainy day they were offered a share of meat. The chained prisoner of Chillon reached out his hand, stared through ragged gray hair, thrust out a handful of meat and nodded. Pulling back in fear, the traders circled at a safe distance and then one – Franz had been his name – took the meat.

Scrambling through the mob of raging men to the wall, the two huddled. And stared at the chained prisoner. He had gone back to shouting and swinging his arms at the other prisoners, the chained animal. “I felt his eyes,” Franz spoke.

The other trader pondered the ground, then peered sideways at the chained prisoner. He had been called Ludwig once, although that name seemed an almost forgotten memory. The two had lived together in the streets after their families had fled the attack of an invading army. They had formed a bond of necessity rather than of friendship, and bought and sold wool and guns along the roads and waterways of the mountains.

“He saw us, I know he saw us.”

More uncountable days passed before they dared approach the chained prisoner again, after he had received a musket butt from one of the newer guards which left him prostrate and muttering as he devoured bread slowly and quietly. When the traders approached under of the cover of a spray of food scraps from the cooks and guards one day, he looked dead. Ludwig pushed his arm.

The chained prisoner rose to his knees and growled at them in Italian, unintelligible. Again in a broken French that sounded like the ramblings of the drunkard.

Perfect Swiss German. Words flowed from his mouth as from an author of fine books. The traders hadn’t heard their own tongue spoken so sweetly. “Come sit by me during the night, under the darkness.”

The night came after hours of anxious waiting. Sleeping during the remaining daylight, Franz and Ludwig kept their spot along the wall. The night fell and with the darkness the savage cries and rantings of the day softened into angry mutterings and the dream-words of the terrified.

They approached. The prisoner spoke slowly and quietly. “I do not know how long I have been here. Men who have fought in this ceaseless and insane fracas for food and space have died long ago and will continue to die.

“This crowd has produced attacks on our guards many times. But no more attacks on guards than attacks on each other – soon after I arrived here, I knew that to survive I had to be isolated, protected from this mob. This chain and my madness protects me. No one challenges me for food or space. But I continue to live with one desire: to fight. To fly. Madness serves no end, we live only to be free.

“Our guards arrive almost every day with food. When they do, at random times, isolated attacks have been by one, maybe two prisoners. This always ends in one, maybe two dead men dragged to the water door. We need to build a joint purpose in this scattered mob. We are divided by language, by experiences, by suspicion, and by pure self love and protection. The greatest insanity of this place is forgetting that our preservation can only be gained together, with one purpose, as one fighting force.

“You and I know that you are the ones to speak, to tie this mob together. I have long waited for a pair such as you. I heard you speak a little to the others, you speak minimal French and Italian, that is all we need. Speak to them, speak to as many as you can, one by one. I will hoard food and you offer it to them as peace gestures! You must make each on his own realize that his own life depends on the life and actions of everyone around him. Winning our own scraps of worthless food will keep us alive only so long, and I have seen many times that that is not very long. Our goal is together, fighting as one.

“When you have captured as much of this collective purpose as you can, we can speak to them as one, and jointly strike. Our guards, our tormentors, must die.”

And so it began. Slowly, days upon days ran by as the two traders approached their fellow prisoners, mostly in the light, some in the dark. With many, there was no reply or at most a violent outcry that threatened injury or worse. With many there gradually was a shred of patience. They brought food morsels with them to gain trust. Language was often a barrier, with some it was insurmountable, but with time cold or scared eyes melted into some semblance of sympathy. They spoke again and again, to at least one prisoner each day.

The chained prisoner of Chillon watched and nodded to them. The fear of this central chained prisoner was too strong to overcome for many in the wretched hole, but the soft words of the traders become a faint beacon of what could be. If they broke through the walls they had created between themselves, they could together break the walls that held them all in this deadly dungeon.

They counted their converts and on a sunny day in July, the chained prisoner determined that the numbers gained would suffice and hopefully their joint attack would not be stymied by the few that remained alone. The word went out to each of the prisoners, when the signal would come and what it would be.

Over the days, the traders had noticed that the chained prisoner became more quiet, more withdrawn. He had sacrificed much of his own food to provide bargaining chips for the traders to use. He spoke in more weary tones. They eyed his chains, chafing at the edges of his skin burn marks. How would they break these chains? The prisoner never mentioned them, maybe he had a plan they did not know.

The time was ripe regardless, with new prisoners arriving every few weeks, it would be difficult to maintain a sufficient joint cadre, and the time was at hand. Enough of the prisoner mob knew what was at stake and what was required of each of them. A joint purpose would create a joint effort.

They picked a dark, rainy day. The chained prisoner had instructed them that increased shadows in the dungeon would conceal attacks, especially directed from the far walls.

The many door locks began to click and turn one morning. Franz ran to the central pillar to which the chained prisoner had been tethered, and slapped his palm five times firmly on the stone. The prisoners looked up and several scrambled to the walls and corners. The doors opened and the guards entered, followed by the cooks. Each held a spear and carried a sword at his belt. Some likely had additional knives hidden in their uniforms. There were four guards. The cooks held pails and long metal tongs. There were two cooks.

The cooks moved forward, and as they reached their tongs into the pails, the prisoners rapidly converged. Those in the front and sidewalls attacked from the front and those from the corners by the doors attacked from the rear, taking the guards from behind. As the traders threw their weak frames into the scuffle, Ludwig managed to steal a sword from one of the guards. The doors were opening quickly and more guards were heard running down the stairs toward the dungeon entrance.

The spears were captured first and made a speedy, bloody end to the guards in the room. The cooks fell next. With weapons in their hands, these prisoners who had felt the pain of beatings and whose stomachs growled constantly wasted no energy in sympathy. With more guards quickly entering the dungeon, the only thought was to kill or be killed.

Minutes of fighting ensued. The guards were merciless, but the prisoners were desperate. Seizing access to the heavy chamber doors, the prisoners emerged into the antechamber and attacked the few cooks and guards at the foot of the stairs. Step by step they fought their way through disorganized guards up the long stairwell.

Ludwig dashed into a kitchen to the right, at the top of the first flight of stairs. Waving the sword he had captured from the first guard, the cooks fled before him. He frantically scanned the kitchen instruments, seizing upon a fireplace iron with a right-angle head. From his young days on the streets with Franz, he appreciated a makeshift torsion wrench. He also grasped two large forks and ran back toward the stairs and down.

Jumping over the dead guards and cooks, he ran to the central pillar and the chained prisoner looked up at him. “Get out there! You should be fighting with them!!”

“You should be fighting with us.” Ludwig attacked the chain clasped into the rock pillar. He pried at the chain link with the iron wrench, struggling with all his weight while the chained prisoner implored him to help the others first. “You can lead us better than me and Ludwig!”

Without a word, Ludwig dashed away to the body of one of the fallen guards. He quickly picked the pockets and carried sacks bound to the man. “Gunpowder. We need to strike a fire!” He ran back and poured the powder evenly around the chain links near the stone pillar. Grabbing the forks he had taken from the kitchen he began to scrape them fiercely against the stone, hoping for a spark. “Keep as far back as you can,” he shouted at the prisoner, who pulled the chain taught.

A small spark. No reaction. More scraping. Small sparks became bigger ones.

Ludwig was thrown backward as the gunpowder ignited. He rose with black soot covering his face and a burning sensation of seared flesh. “Pull!” he shouted to the chained man.

The chain broke. It was the first time Ludwig had seen the chained prisoner stand. He was tall and thin. He quickly grabbed the chain links up, holding them in a ball at his chest, as he ran for the door and up the stairs with Ludwig close behind him. They could hear the shouts and screams from above.

They emerged into a hallway along which a few scattered bodies were strewn, and followed the sounds of desperate cries onto the courtyard. A few of the prisoners had climbed up to the parapets and were firing captured muskets into the guard units below.

The prisoner pointed to the Château gates along the far corner of the courtyard from where they stood and began to run. They reached the gate after Ludwig managed to severely injure a guard near the cobblestones leading up to the exit pathway, and the chained prisoner took the man’s spear in one hand, dragging the heavy chains with the other. They attacked the gate lock mechanism.

The heavily bearded prisoner shouted at fellow prisoners who had begun to seize the other gate. “We need to use this gate! It leads out to a small side pathway. If reinforcements have been summoned by the cannon signal blast I heard, they will come by the larger road on the other side.”

The scattered, formerly captive men stared at the ragged prisoner, still carrying his chains. Those who understood German ran to him, and the others quickly followed.

The lock mechanism was in fact simple, and soon the long cross-fitting beam was being lifted to open the gate. There were more shouts and musket blasts from the rear, as the prisoners perched on the parapets were shooting down at boats converging on the Château de Chillon. With the gate opening, they began to pull back from the high walkways and scrambled down the stairways, onto the courtyard and toward the now open gate.

They ran out onto the small dirt pathway and scrambled as fast as their tired legs could carry them up a nearby hill. Franz and Ludwig grasped each other’s hands and ran to the bearded man still lugging his chains. “Go,” he said to them. “Go. Go live!! I will now live my life! First free action?! To the blacksmith!!”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Factory

 

 

Elizabeth and I walked by the ocean, inhaling cotton candy. She loved both. The cotton wisps flew back behind us as the water lapped at our ankles. We had talked and talked and talked all day along that walk from the little town.

“I’m so glad we had nice weather. It would have been sad without the sun by the water.” She smiled as she looked up at the clouds.

“Me too,” I grinned back at her. It was so nice to walk together again. “The ocean’s calm this time of year. I think it has something to do with the moon.”

“Yes.” She smiled at me, pulling back her hair. “So many nice houses. What’s that building up there? Looks like one of those walled cities from the old days, doesn’t it?”

I looked up from the sand. Ahead of us on the left, looming over a seaside cliff, was a monstrous structure, looked a mile or more on a side. “That’s the factory, Elizabeth. Didn’t you read about it? It was written up as the most efficient producer of modern technology around these days.”

“They make tools and things like that?”

I was interested in military affairs at that time in my life and knew the impact that this factory was to have if it came time for war again. “They make various munitions and other gadgets. Quite a feat of organization and engineering they say. Somebody back at school said it was interesting to visit.”

Elizabeth could not possibly have been interested, but I think she knew that I was. “Want to go up there? Think it’s open?”

“Well,” I paused and looked at the water, away from her, “maybe after some ice cream.” She laughed and knew what I was thinking. Well, I figured, there wasn’t much else to do but look at dull shops – that’s all we ever did.

The factory was open for visitors and we bought tickets. It was daunting to be inside such a huge, metal structure. Everything was steel, the walls, floors, even the sculptures adorning the entrance hall. Shining, polished, hard metal. A speaker from above announced the coming attractions that we could see as we walked through this testament to industrial efficiency. The Factory was built with steel, molded into fine machinery, and serves today as the dawning achievement of a future in which we can be ready to assert our mechanized power. Whose power? Ours. The power we worship.

Further along we passed through a corridor lined with the Factory’s marvelous productions, all mounted on pedestals and glimmering back at us with open gears and bold handles. Elizabeth grimaced as she stared down the hole of what appeared to be a mobile grenade launcher but turned out to be a model for a new sort of tool for experimental satellites.

“You don’t like this, miss?” A tiny man in gray came up behind us. He saw her distaste. “These are the guarantors of the peace of tomorrow. A glorious peace!” He worked for the Factory. The other visitors were nicely quiet about it all.

“Peace?” she smiled back, touching the end of the dangerous contraption as I stared down the man with the wire-framed spectacles.

“The peace will follow a war – a war of assertion.”

She began to laugh. “Who needs that?! And by the way, how do you know so well?” Elizabeth was as opinionated a student as they come, and I took hold of her arm, hoping that she wouldn’t get into another of her heated arguments with this little man with the stern, angry complexion.

“I know. We all know. It is our destiny. And the Factory will make it possible.” Sounded too religious to me, but looking at the Factory’s productions, I almost couldn’t help agreeing. It may be the time already. The time to unleash war and technological contest to mold the shape of the future. Perhaps.

“Whatever you say,” she muttered as I pulled her away. “What’s he talking about? We’re doing just fine without all this-”

“Yeah, seems that way.” I didn’t want to get her started. “Elizabeth, look at that one!” We were facing a large, shining refrigerator. She shrugged.

“I think there’s a movie starting in a few minutes. Something about the Factory’s history. Want to catch it?” We walked toward the small amphitheater and waited for the film to start. “Let’s not argue any more,” she said. “There’s no point. We don’t have a say in their notion of the future anyway.” Maybe.

The lights dimmed and a melody that seemed like one of Bruckner’s came over the speakers. A majestic voice proclaimed its welcome to the steel Factory and was followed by a gray man in overalls. “I’m so glad you came to visit my Factory. The wonders you will see here will amaze and startle you, amuse and frighten you, make you happy, make you ambitious, make you patriotic. Our great land made these wonders possible and our ever-expanding frontiers will be the backbone upon which their use will be mastered and converted into greater living for all of us.” The man spoke with a wide smile. He was pictured in a workshop. “I am truly charmed every time I walk through the corridors that you are shortly to examine at your leisure. These contraptions were previously never imagined feats of science and technology – but it was our destiny to produce them and it is our destiny to see them used for the greater good of us all.”

I couldn’t see Elizabeth in the darkness but I knew she was rolling her eyes. The camera panned through the corridor we had already walked through, stopping for the man with the majestic voice to make a comment or two about the manufacture of these several wonders. Then the gray man in overalls was back, sitting in his workshop, discussing a blueprint with some very rigid engineers in white coats. He turned to the camera. “I try to oversee all the operations of the Factory, but it is the men who have mastered the science behind the technology who make these imagined goals a reality.” The engineers nodded and left the workshop hastily, holding computers under their arms. The camera dove downward into the recesses of the Factory, where enormous steel machines churned out steel manufactures. With the credits, the short film ended and the lights came up. There was a murmur among the people and they slowly started to file out.

Elizabeth? Where did she go off to? I looked all around, but she had indeed left. I hated it when she did that. She must have gone on ahead, I figured, so I left with the group of tourists and continued through the corridors of steel. She was nowhere to be found on these floors, and I proceeded to the lower levels where the machinery was visible behind glass barriers. Shafts, gears, conveyor belts – all shining steel. Monstrous combines and loud, pounding, automated hammers. But no workers. Somebody had to prepare the steel sheets, I figured, but then again, what did I know?

I stopped one of the silent Factory guards as he moved at a quick, staccato step past me. “Excuse me, I’m looking for someone who got ahead of me and-”

“You’ll have to take that up with the Central Overseer Department.” He rushed on past me, eluding my hand on his shoulder. I stopped another, who looked oddly similar to the first, and he replied with the same answer, although this time curtly informing me with the hint of a grin that there was no such thing as any Central Department of anything. Thank you very much.

I moved along the steel corridors, looking less at the marvels the Factory had set out for me and more and more for Elizabeth. I stood outside the ladies bathroom for a while, but someone told me there was no one inside. I pushed on past a small cafeteria, and back toward the machines. This time I stopped, but there were still no workers to be seen. I looked up and down, climbing onto the ledge to see over the wall of machines and stooping down to see under the conveyor belts – there was another row of monumental contraptions behind the first.

Now I was certainly beginning to lose my temper. Was she hiding? No, she didn’t play games for this long, never. I moved on through the main corridors, this time taking a turn off the beaten path. It was much more stark in these parts, the only visions to challenge the mind were reflections off the polished steel. There were wires above me now, glimmering ones. I examined them for an instant and was shocked to find that they blinked the news of the day down to those passing beneath them. With no windows and scarcely a video screen, this faint flickering was the only tie to anything outside the Factory. The news started, the news stopped, it started again

A group of engineers was heading my way. They looked to be the same exact ones from the movie, complete with wire-rimmed glasses and white coats. They were looking at each other and at the floor, never straight ahead to see me and never upward to see the blinking wires above. I stood in their way but before I could speak they rushed on by me. What was that on their necks? No, not that.

I continued down the corridor until there was only one room visible at the end of the hall with a light on. That light flickered and bounced all the way down the dark, steel corridor to me and it seemed like the only hint of civilization within these monotonous, shiny tunnels. I moved closer and closer and the brightness of the light felt in the darkness like the tug of a visible gravity through opaqueness. I knelt on one knee on the side as a group of engineers, followed by tour guides, walked past me in the dimness. I continued, for nothing, not even Elizabeth, called me forward more pressingly than this light.

This was the workshop. The same as that in the movie. All was silent except for the persistent pattering on a keyboard. I made no sound, but a voice emanated from inside. “Come in, young man.” The voice was strident, almost shrill like a cawing bird yet silvery as a muted french horn. “Please, you can come and take a look. You came this far.” I hesitated and stepped in. There was the gray man, sitting at the computer. The same workshop, the same tools, the same overalls. “Got a bit away from the tour,” he smiled and laughed a little. “No matter. Please, sit down.” He pressed a button and a stool rose up from the floor behind me. He stood up and walked toward another computer, typing something in. “What do you think of my Factory?”

“Uh,” I stuttered, “well, it’s been very interesting and the Factory seems very nice, and, uh, but. . .”

“But?” He turned and lifted a darkish eyebrow, without a smile. “Any doubts?” I didn’t know what he meant. He walked to a door on the side and pressed a button. A small man in wire-rimmed spectacles entered as the door slid open. He stared at me, as if concerned and at the same time confident that he had seen me before and knew I was easy prey for his frown. He waited. “Gerhard, bring in my darling pooch, I think our visitor would like to meet him.” The man nodded and left through the door, after what I could have sworn was a bow or a clicking of the heels. “Come on, please, sir, tell me what you thought of my Factory. I get little chance to talk with visitors. All my own people say yes this and yes that – no opinions.” He laughed and I almost smiled with him.

“Well, actually, I’m here on another matter. You see, I lost-”

“Oh,” he chuckled, “we’ll get to that. But now, I am intrigued. You look like a bright young fellow – go to school?” I nodded quickly and tried to get a word in, but he continued. “What do your little school buddies think? Do you have colleagues who speak of my Factory?”

“Well, yes, but we don’t really get a good idea at home about the ideas behind the Factory. But really, I have to find-”

My words were cut short by his open, harsh laughter as he rose to type something into the computer, grin at me, and receive his dog, some sort of German shepherd type, at the door. He bent on one knee to pet the dog under the chin while his assistant betrayed the glimmer of a smile. “What ideas?! What do you mean?” he laughed as he looked back at me.

“All this stuff about the future and war and peace. – too omnipresent here.”

“There is a reason for that, my friend.” He was no longer smiling as he led the dog by the collar back to his work station. “I am not spouting idle promises when I declare that the use of the Factory’s production for the good of the nation is our destiny. Do you think this is idle wording?”

“Well, I,-”

“The young still do not know, my lovely Schiller.” He talked to the dog, then looked back to me. “Words are too abstract, aren’t they? Actions will make them burn . . . and live.”

I had had just about enough of this and knew I had no time to waste. “Sir, I’d love to talk with you, but,” the dog growled at me, “I have to find my friend who’s-”

“A friend? Where is this friend?”

“Well, actually, she’s kind of disappeared. We were together at the movie but she left in the middle.”

He looked back at the dog, away from me. “Well, the Factory’s a big place. I’m sure you’ll find her.”

I was ready to tell him right then what I thought of his curt reply, considering it was his Factory, but I realized that it would be of no use. “Well, sir, I have to go.”

“Very well. I hate to miss talking to you, young man, but if you must go I can’t stop you.” He smiled at the dog and at me. “If there’s anything I could do, please-”

“Actually, it would seem that you could do something, wouldn’t it?” I probably sounded fully perturbed for he seemed to pull away from me a bit, and tighten the strap on his overalls. “You wouldn’t happen to have some way of finding out where she could be? Some sort of PA system places like this usually have.” I was furious at his calm grin. He shrugged and turned back to his computer. I walked out.

Back in that steel corridor, facing the other direction, away from the light, the narrow path seemed a pit into which I was descending, and the only escape was the still accessible light above me – the man in the overalls. I proceeded, ducking to the side as engineers moved toward and away from the light which seemed more gray with distance.

There was something funny going on. Something strange. I looked back to the wires above and they blinked repeatedly the news of the day. But I noticed how they dimly stuttered, almost struggling to issue their message to the Factory. In the darkness, only the wires provided light, only the wires provided guidance of which way was which, which up, which down. Only they, as well, delivered any message external to that of the gray man in the overalls behind me.

I moved more rapidly as the light from the exhibition galleries ahead became clearer. The voices from the tours began to reach me, but my destination was the machine floors. The tourists moved through the steel corridors calmly, saying nothing and showing no concern for the continuing patriotic rambling of the tour guides and the video shows. They could not denounce it and they could not approve either. They hardly noticed me rushing through toward the escalators that sank into the depths of The Factory.

Down below I could again hear the rushing and grinding of the turbines and I stopped to stare at that wall of shifting, turning, sliding, biting steel monoliths. Still no workers.

My impatience was getting the better of me and I headed into the men’s restroom to wash my sweating face. Even the mirrors reflected a dim light on these lower floors, more opaque than on the floors above. I touched them, rubbed them. Murmurs. Voices.

I spun around to see a guard. He said nothing, washed his hands, and left with a smile. Why the sound? It came again, this time deeper, more penetrating, yet for a moment high-pitched, like a squeal of a pig with its tail smashed.

It came from below, from the air vent near the floor. I opened the door to make sure no one was coming and knelt down to listen. The voices were unintelligible, but nervous, afraid, and angry. They stopped abruptly and I waited. There was movement in the hallway so I turned again to the sink, only to hear a man rush in behind me. He was tall and dressed in dark brown, shoes torn, face roughened by a short grey beard. He nodded meekly and began to wash his hands. They were strewn with cuts, as if from a blade, both old and new. He winced as they dried under a hot fan and left after looking at himself in the mirror. Or maybe at me. I turned toward him to speak, but he was gone. Following his shabby figure into the hallway I found that he had indeed vanished.

There were no doors, no windows, no screens, only solid steel walls. I heard voices again to my left, and rushed toward the large picture windows looking onto the gallery of machinery. Still the clanking and clawing continued without a trace of humanity to gild the silver.

But now there was movement. Movement behind the conveyor belts on the left, where the sheets of metal poured into the cutters and the molders. A hand, an arm, a torso emerged. It was far and the glass was dirty, but I could make out the shabby man I had seen in the bathroom. He looked at me, his eyes long and open and stiff. He opened his mouth and I heard nothing, only the more present grinding and shifting of the motors. His arm flew up in the air and he was pulled backward, out of sight. I saw him no more.

I pounded on the glass and it gave as if I were punching a block of smooth wax. I hit again, and again, and my imprints were manifold but my objective no nearer. I turned and pounded on the steel behind me, the pores in the metal digging into my knuckles. I heard shouts from the vents in the bathroom, and rushed in to hear their fury grow louder and then disappear.

Running back into the hallway, I fell to my knees in agony as I slipped on the shiny floor. A tour guide was walking in my direction and I arose to run or to hide, but there was nowhere to go, and I faced him.

“Please, sir, I must speak with you.” He did not stop. “Sir, I must have a word with you, a word with someone!” He smiled and very politely said hello, asking me if I were lost. “Lost?! How dare you?” I growled at him. As I gripped his shoulder he gently removed my hand and informed me in the most pleasant of accents that the exhibition floors were directly overhead and the stairways could – “You don’t understand! There are people-” I pointed to the glass and then instantly fisted my hand and struck him. He paused, and then continued on his way, saying no more.

I knew where the escalators were and raced for them, bounding up the steps as the motors pushed me forward. I escaped through the exhibition floor and into the dark, windowless corridor again, this time at a run. I did not hide from the engineers nor did I shirk from the blinding light – only the wires were too daunting an obstacle. So fascinating they were. The news of the day blinking down like tropical fish in the depths of the North Atlantic. I stopped and stared, reading their message, realizing that there was a world outside this Factory, realizing that there were minds free of this abyss. But the message stopped, it blinked, it stuttered more and more. And finally a new message became intertwined in the blinking – “The news of the day is made possible by THE FACTORY. The news of the day is a part of-“ Then it stuttered again and again, and finally the real news of the day resumed, as strong as before. More interference, and then continuation. I continued to run. This time the hallway seeming longer and brighter. I stopped, panting. No breath.

I did not enter the workshop. That would have done no good. I stopped and looked upward along the corridor, striving to create a maze where there was only a direct path. No vents, no boards, no light fixtures, only steel. I jumped. It was too high. I scraped at the floor on my hands and knees. It was too smooth. No hinges, no doors. Only corners, seamless? No. I dug into the minute cracks separating the floor from the walls. I dug in and blood seeped out under my nails. I pulled and the wall board began to crack open. I pulled more and my hand could fit underneath. Soon I could prostrate myself and my arms could fit under, pulling with my full force until the seemingly solid steel wall gave with a shearing screech.

I struggled in and found myself in a crawl space that ran along both sides of the corridor, and perhaps on top of it. I scurried forward again, toward the workshop, only stopping as footsteps approached and continued down the corridor. But the crawl space eventually ended and I was faced with what I thought to be a much thicker wall. Nowhere to turn but backward.

The voices I heard this time were more tempered, more focused, and less afraid. I did not move a muscle. It was the man in gray, certainly still wearing his overalls and certainly petting his lovely pooch. He was talking to someone subordinate, someone whose life’s ambition was only to listen and execute, probably Gerhard.

“What is the meaning of this?” the man gruffly purred as I heard him ruffling papers and typing into a computer. “Still no success with the wires? I don’t want static and interruption any more, my incompetent fool. I want it eradicated.”

“ But sir, it seems that -”

“It will be done. The news of the day is still strong in their blinking. The people, my people, will begin to know, will begin to understand. Once they do-” He said no more as I heard more footsteps entering the room. The ensuing discussion was of a sort more germane to the workings of an ordinary factory – presumably he was talking with his engineers. Once they left, the gruff voice resumed and the talk of wires and The Factory’s victory and the news of the day ensued as he continued to type into the computer constantly, evidently trying to program the wires, or perhaps his own servants. He pounded on a table in frustration. “By this evening I want nothing but the beautiful message of my Factory, the beautiful message of truth and the future, to appear on the wires. Nothing else” He slammed on the table again and I could hear the steps of the other man leaving. The man continued to mutter to himself rapidly and I could not make out his words, something about the destiny of the people, the evil elements . . .

I turned slowly and painfully in the narrow crawl space and made my way in the darkness toward my secret entrance to the gap. As I emerged, the dim light from the workshop was blinding and I grasped my eyes to shield them as I rolled onto the floor. Minutes passed as I moved slowly through the corridor toward the exhibition galleries, praying that somewhere in the mess of steel I would find the key to the Factory’s solution and to saving Elizabeth. I thought little of ideology, little of his truth, little of his intentions, and only of my objective. Seeing no further way to arrive at the machine rooms, I raced toward the escalators. The wires above continued to blink, but the news of the day was so dim by now that I could scarcely make it out. The tour guides and guards looked at the wires and moved more forcefully, more obediently. Finding the lower hallways closed off by a new steel barrier, I searched along adjacent corridors for another entrance into the machine area, finding none.

What was holding those steel doors shut? The men who closed them. If I could convince the men, I could open the doors. I raced back toward the dark corridor and the gray man’s workshop. There had to be a diversion somewhere, a way to evacuate the room, even for an instant. Fire. The source of ancient fears and desires. People would run from it and people would run toward it. My hands still raw and bleeding, I reached under the area of wall I had weakened earlier and struggled back into the crawl space, leaving my shoe in the crack to mark my position. If I did not escape on time, fire would be my deadliest ally.

But steel did not burn. What was beauty to some and horror to others was that The Factory was devoid of organic matter – except for the humans locked within. Only we could burn.

I grimaced as I searched my memory for any clue to the Factory’s openings. It seemed that there were none and had never been any, except for the news of the day flashed on the wires, however slowly and unclearly. With a slap across my forehead I vaguely remembered how the Factory looked as Elizabeth and I first faced it from the beach. It was massive and silver, but weren’t there trees growing on its roof? My memory seemed so foggy that I couldn’t easily trust myself, but it was my only chance. If only I was on the top floor of the building. If not, there would be no way.

I began struggling with the corners binding perpendicular plates above me as I had with the boards in the wall of the corridor. With painful labor I managed to create a crawl space that led up over the wall of the workshop, so I could rest on its ceiling with a good bit of standing space above me. If this were indeed the top floor, there was a high empty space between it and the roof. I found a ladder along the side wall, its rungs still finely polished despite what should have been periodic use by maintenance crews. At its peak was a hatch that opened easily, with a little shoulder power, to the roof.

The air rushed in on me with the force of cold, thin oxygen. I breathed in deeply, almost feeling my ears pop, and climbed with new vigor onto the roof. My memory had not failed me – my only friend – and I found myself in an orchard. Unfortunately it seemed to be immaculately groomed, and I jumped up to pull down a large branch with my full weight. The wood was dry and it crashed down quickly, only sheltering its fall by landing on me.

I wasted no time in tossing some twigs and grass into the open hatch followed by the branch. As I climbed down, the concerned, angry voices beneath me were unmistakable. I pried open another wall panel of the attic space to reveal a nest of wires. I wrapped a few of the twigs, some grass, and leaves into my handkerchief and ripped open one of the fuse boxes. The sparks shot out, biting at my fingers as I shoved the full handkerchief in. With a few gentle puffs it lit and I put it down by the hot wires and lifted the branch. I smashed the sharper end down onto the ceiling below me. It gave only slightly. Aiming my spear between the steel boards, I could feel the floor beneath me shaking, it’s bindings coming loose as I pounded harder and harder, the flames behind me still smoldering quietly and the voices beneath me calling for help. With a final thrust – it certainly felt like the last I would be able to manage – the board fell through. There was a bench below, I could see, and I plunged the spear into a computer monitor, grabbing the hot handkerchief bundle as the burns seemed to heal my wounds, and dropping it onto the open circuits. I pulled back as the monitor and computer beneath it exploded. The man in gray was still in the room, but as the fire grew two of the engineers pulled him out of the workshop to safety. I catapulted myself over the low burning computer and raced to find the one linked to the Factory wires. No time. I grasped the hot spear and smashed each computer terminal as quickly as possible, hoping that every circuit, every chip could be destroyed in my rampage.

The flames grew too hot and I rushed to safety in the corridor after stealing the last piece of paper I would need – a schematic blueprint of the Factory. With no idea how long the flames would live I ran toward the exhibition hallways, past the wires which now blinked so brilliantly the news of the day, clear, convincing.

The tour guides stopped, the engineers did not move. They all stood and stared and nodded. No one tried to stop me and one even opened the steel doors leading to the machine floors. The gray man’s voice came over the loudspeakers, as the visitors rushed back and forth in confusion. “Halt there!” he shrieked. “All my guards, seize him!”

I threw myself at the escalator, tripping down half the distance. The machines still ground and screamed, their noise rising in a magnificent crescendo as the gray man resumed control of their operation in another workshop within the Factory. I did not care, for the wires above gleamed and flickered and blinked the news of the day over and over again, not halting, never faltering.

The gears cried out at me, telling me that their might was unconquerable, that their mission was one for eternity, destined never to fail. I pounded on the wall panels, feeling the steel exposing dents beneath my fists. A door slipped open, I know not how or by whose instigation. I walked, this time slowly for the steaming air collided with my face, holding me back but only for a sweating instant. The machines were to my right and the noise was more than deafening. Screaming had ceased to bother me. Words were mere sounds.

I ran directly into the work area behind the machinery. The guards stood and stared at me, and then back at the wires. The workers, old, dirty, begging, stared also, smiles spreading over their faces with the exuberance of a major chord to end a minor movement. I screamed for Elizabeth, but my voice seemed to curl and return to me in the dense heat. Along the back wall she was chained to one of the heating pipes and I grasped her from behind. “What have they done? Why? Elizabeth?!”

She turned and her face was strewn with cuts and soot. Her smile was luminous. “I’ve been naughty again,” she whispered into my ear. “Naughty, bad girl. They punish.”

“Guard, please!” He did not hesitate, but opened her chain and petted her gently on the head.

“We can do no more,” he growled down at me. “Go.” His face was so empty, his eyes somber, as if missing something, not understanding.

“Frederich, we can’t leave him. My friend.” She pointed at an old man lying on the floor nearby, diligently polishing a shaft holding up one of the machines. We would leave no one.

“Elizabeth, you must gather everyone because there is one more thing I must do.” I looked around at the workers, all of them so weak, so wrinkled, so thin. These vibrant youths, these healthy men and happy women. “Where are all the others? Are there more?”

She looked up at the lights and then glanced at me as if I truly understood nothing – and she was right. “No organic matter here.” She paused and looked around like an infant observing its first sunset. “Energy. Only we can burn.”

I sat down hard on my knees, staring into her blank expression. “Then the oil. Where is it?” She didn’t understand, muttering about burns and fire. The same guard pointed up to the ceiling, and there I saw a gas tank. “Get them all together, we need to make a move toward the exhibition gallery.” I helped her to stand atop her gentle legs, and slowly she moved around the warehouse, gathering the workers together as the guard showed me a latch that would open into the hallway, a short run from the escalator.

I was no architect, but the line bringing fuel into the factory and directly into the machine shop was clearly indicated on the blueprints. A fuse made from a rope doused in oil would be able to convey the flames of the workshop along a tiny crawl space to one of the smaller pipes.

While the guards stared at the wires and Elizabeth entreated her companions to follow her toward the escalator, I grabbed a crowbar sitting on a bench and returned to the pit, to the smoldering workshop. The wires meant no more to me than light to guide my way as I ran toward the dimmest of brilliant hues, hauling a rope from the machine shop behind me. Easily prying open one of the wall panels, a short climb led into the crawlspace with the oil pipe on my left and the tight path leading to the workshop on my right. Without room to swing my arm, breaking open a hole in the pipe with the crowbar was a long, but vital endeavor. Oil spurted out onto my face as I shoved the rope in, pushing and pulling to soak it. I squeezed my sore body into the steel tunnel and scraped and clawed my way along those hot and smoking twenty-two feet toward the workshop. I heard voices shouting beneath me and I knew I had climbed over the secure room to which the man in gray, wearing his overalls, had escaped. I coughed and spat out sooty grime for that distance as the heat grew stronger and the light from the flames ahead grew more splendid.

Reaching the workshop was like arriving at the brightest light and the warmest den in a cave of ice. I jumped down into the burning room, the flames scorching my leg before I rolled along the floor to put them out. I turned to throw the rope back into the crawl space, but it had already lit and was steadily burning toward the pipe.

Racing the flame. As it smacked and hissed and whispered its searing hot message along those twenty-two feet of cold steel I ran down the dark corridor, not looking back at the light which pushed me harder and harder toward the exhibition gallery with the force of an enormous piston nor at the wires which continued to sing the news of the day.

Elizabeth was still in the exhibition hall, helping the weaker ones out toward the tourist entrance – amid the throng I could still see tourists looking at the Factory’s inventions calmly while being pushed toward the door. “There’s no time,” I cried to her, “we have to leave now!”

She smiled calmly back at me. “Yes, there is no time. We must get everyone.” She continued to push and pull the men and women and children out toward the entrance hallway while the guards stood by idly, some shuffling out as well. Carrying the last small children out, we ran toward the pasture, running through the high weeds thrashing at our legs and arms. We stopped, fell, panting.

We could feel the factory burst open at its many seams and the flames rise high into the night behind us with its heat emanating to the heavens. A guard near us stood and pointed at Elizabeth. “It is your fault.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baseball

 

 

The sun glints over revolving stitches. On its directed path, the ball rotates forward, to the side, downward spiraling as man-driven momentum hurls its form from pitcher’s hand toward catcher’s glove. I clutch my bat tightly, drawing my spear closer in my fixation on the ball’s hurling, rotating motion. No catcher’s mitt, no pitcher contorted, falling sidewards on one twisted leg, no anxious fielders with crouched stance and lowered gaze, no ground, no sky, just bat and ball.

No. A game.

The pull of my wrist and arm propels the wooden spear inexorably on its glide against driven ball, cutting through air. I angle its frame to collide rotating stitches. The force of wood against leather melds for a scant instant like soft lead on bone. The ball follows the guidance of shoulder, elbow, wrist and bat as motion engendered of human vigor reaches beyond third base into left field.

A point in time with momentum in space creates its own direction. This event of bat against ball is the beginning of a new journey, a new pathway through time and life.

This journey would be a circular one. In running the diamond figuration of a circumference, the tour would itself become a figuration of circularity. Its form would encompass a whole, infinitely connected and harnessing within its two-dimensional compass the whole of experience and the whole of understanding. Enclosing a circle. A circular vision. Encyclopedic contemplation. Unlike cities of the sun, this inclusive circle could not be exclusive. Like the city, the diamond-circle is surrounded by external elements. But to insist on exclusion – to accept that exclusion as desired fact – is but folly. The ball returns from the outfield. I watch myself, and I see myself in the diamond, the diamond invaded by the ball at second base.

I run past the bag, halting my frame in acquiescence to the pause of my journey. Pulling back, sauntering to the bag, I accept respite. There is another – another time and another figure. He follows in the batter’s box, stepping gingerly into the footprints I left in the dust and my predecessors left before my time.

He looks to me – a foundation that has been laid before him, ready to use for further advance. Without my groundwork, he has only a shot to the rafters.

He steps to the plate and I crouch low, my initiative ready to overpower the mere whims of chance. As the pitch drives low, he feints a bunt. The moment is a small gift to be seized. I thrust myself upward into a run, knowing it is time to harness inner strength at the sacrifice of outer perception. The catcher scrambles. I do not see him. I run. This is a challenge placed into my journey not only of space, but of time. Arrival at second will not occur without the run, the distance, the time spent, the sacrifice of energy. The crowd roars, I glory in the run, I draw the effort into greater strength.

The distant island in a sea of terrors. Second base. Looking across the mound, the batter, plate, catcher, umpire are at their smallest in my eye. First base behind me, third ahead. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. The run to first, the sojourn on that first island, and the desperate run to second are remembered. The run to third and home blooms in imagination like a nascent petal. My perspective is my own view, myself, my identity, my limitation. At second, I am given the gift of centrality, the ability to climb up and down the ladder of life, to create my being.

But I am not me without the diamond. I exist in the game. To know me, to know second base, to know my vision is insufficient. What I see must merge with all lines of seeing. What I do must meld with all actions. Only then do I play the game.

A hit and a jump toward third. I see the ball fly low and training – not instinct alone – drives me forward. Action is the pursuit of desire. To climb or descend the ladder is to follow a quest for motion. But desire must exist within the diamond. Desire for the bag must follow a route – established or not, right or wrong – a route defined by anti-chaos. To pursue a mere circle is to dive into the chasm of insanity. The dirt path. Signals. I think and I open my eyes, ears, nose. To be alone is the scourge of glory.

Past third, leaving the bag without remorse on a journey that demands no pause. Draw passion into concerted, focused extension of distance. In the diamond. In the ballpark. I see my destination/origin close approaching in my vision. A desire open to thought. I slide. Easily safe, but more sure for the sliding.

The return home is the purpose of my journey. The run scored is a token of the richer reward of an ability to look back, to see where my journey led me and where it could have gone. A voyage, an epic, is the encompassing motion of departure, trials, and return to the point of beginning. Knowing the player is knowing the player’s stance and the player’s run. How can a story of my run – my story of my run – be understood in full before the journey is over? The voyage itself and my place on that tour can now be contemplated in its whole and the story retold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heist at Scone palace

 

 

The man smiled broadly as the waiter took his order in the cosmopolitan throng of Shun Lee. A friendly ‘thank you’ escaped his lips as a boy in white poured his water. He examined the faces around him – a boisterous party of businessmen, a group of sailors on leave in the Big Apple, girls on a ladies night out, friends just arrived from the concert at Lincoln Center.

This man sat alone. His silver gray hair was full and cropped neatly. Clean-shaven, a distinguished jaw, strong cheek-bones that bordered on handsome. He wore black jacket, black shirt, black pants, shiny black shoes, no tie necessary – only a pearl neck-pin. The man stared at the other diners with interested eyes and an almost sarcastic grin. He seemed to crave company, while at the same time basking in cool solitude.

One of the girls at the next table nodded to him. He nodded back with the most cordial of smiles and resumed his examination of the wine list, finally putting it down with a soft shrug.

He ordered his steamed razor clams with extra garlic and scallions, just the way he liked it. After each bite he put down his fork and continued his examination of the diners. The businessmen were still busy, the sailors were becoming tipsy and rocked as if again on a swell off the Cape, the girls giggled as they perused their fortunes, the concert-goers criticized boldly the performance they had just witnessed. The man continued to eat.

He signed his copy of the receipt and walked out after a few friendly comments to the maitre’d. Walking at a steady pace, his legs were long and his strides were expansive. His shiny black shoes clicked with the periodic precision of a metronome as he said goodnight to the bartender. His coat was a long and black Austrian wool and his scarf was as white as the snow upon the Mont Blanc. Outside, he stepped into a black stretched limousine.

“The hotel, Pierre.” The lights of Broadway glimmered over the shiny hood. The door opened and the man glided out of the car, stepping swiftly up the marble front of the Plaza Hotel. He walked with sophisticated indifference through a crowd of party-goers and emerged on the twentieth floor after holding the door with a gallant nod to a small old lady. “Have a good evening, ma’am,” resonated his sonorous baritone, infused, for an instant, with the most suave of Tuscan accents.

The man immediately noticed the blinking message light on his suite’s telephone. He did not call the operator, but sat at the desk and began leafing through the morning’s newspaper after making himself an exceptionally dry martini from the suite’s bar.

A knock came at the door. “Room service.”

“I did not order room service,” the man answered as a cool Spaniard.

“Sorry, sir. I just figured you would enjoy some ice for your bar.”

“My bar is equipped fully.”

“Maybe not as fully as the bar down at Cheers?”

The man opened the door and the bellman stepped in, locking the door behind him. He strode forward with the ice, placed it on the bar, and inserted a converter in the open slot of the room’s Pay-Per-View box. The man opened the door and handed the bellman a twenty dollar bill in which he enclosed a small white paper. “Thank you. Good night.”

The man turned on the television and dialed 343 on the video box. A message followed in German and pictures flashed across the screen. The man stopped the tape and burned it in his trash can. “Very good,” he muttered, and left the room.

The valet drove up a white Mercedes. He swung out onto Madison Avenue with the aggressive celerity of a NYC cab driver, making his way toward a posh bar on Riverside Drive. He sat at the bar and ordered a Scotch. “Where’s my girl?” he uttered with slurred speech to the bartender.

“She said to send you away if you came.”

“Come on, she’s not like that,” the man smiled. He laughed out loud. “Out back in five minutes?” he muttered conspiratorially, with a drunken shake of the head.

“Yeah, she’ll be there. She’ll be gone for long?”

“You know how these things go.”

In five minutes, the man walked out the front door and around the corner into an ally behind the bar, careful that no one was shadowing him. “Maggie, my dear,” he grinned as he saw the waitress waiting for him. Her wide, perfect smile betrayed her additional cover post as a fashion model.

“Finally, you come to save me from this rat’s hole.”

“Sorry it took so long, darling. I had some small business to attend to.”

“Without me? How did you survive? Where to now?”

“Plaza. My room at three. Avoid the man in white smoking jacket riding elevator three – I see him too often.”

“Will Harry be there?”

“Going to get him now.”

“We need optics?”

“I think so. Prepare accordingly and look your finest – you’re going inside this time.”

“Perfect, I’ve needed a little party for a while.”

The man laughed and walked to his car. He made his way through the crowded streets past Lincoln Center and dashed up a flight of stairs leading to a second floor aerobics studio, just in time to watch the tired, but fit, late-night bikers and swimmers leave the bright studio for the glimmering darkness of Broadway. A young chap with stubbly beard and balding head in a L.L Bean windbreaker tripped on the step and crashed right into the man. As he apologized, the man whispered, “3. Plaza room, come up the back elevators.”

“Pardon me, sir. Good night.” And the windbreaker dashed down the stairway and out the door. The man in black went out onto the street and stepped into his car.

Maggie arrived promptly, now changed out of her T-Shirt and mini skirt from the bar into a long, black evening gown. “Looking lovely as always,” the man muttered as he looked through the peephole.

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” she smiled. “Where’s Harry? Late again?”

“Yeah. He has a paranoia for shadows, you know.” Just then a knock came at the door. “Maybe I spoke too soon.”

“Is this Dr. Spacey’s room?” the tuxedo-clad fellow in the hall asked with a wry smile.

“No, but I’m a good friend of his. Come in.” The door opened and Harry stepped into the room.

“Those little call things are driving me crazy. What’s all the fuss?”

“I’ve been tracking a mole the last few weeks and we’re not really sure that the whole operation doesn’t have a shadow team following us. I try to keep things safe – for you, of course.”

“Naturally.” Harry winked sarcastically at Maggie. “And how are you, princess? I can’t believe they placed you as a waitress.” He laughed.

“Oh, shut up. You’ve been relaxing at a spa, right? Jacuzzi, everything. We’ve allowed you to get too soft.”

“Hey, let’s settle down there,” Harry snickered. “Just a bit jealous, right?”

She sat down on the other side of the room.

“I love it when you get angry, you know.” He smiled affectionately and sat down next to her. “Come on, let’s make up, sweetheart.”

She gritted her teeth.

“Okay, people, it’s time to get to work. Harry, you’re going to work the system’s security computers from the inside air ducts. You’ll get in with the repairmen from the electric company, tagging along as an observer from Con Edison.”

“So I won’t have to see him?” Maggie smiled.

“If all goes according to plan, no. I have already had a position as a curator for the Yale British Art Center up in New Haven for the last six months. You, Maggie, are playing my graduate research assistant.” He handed her some papers. “This is your background and itinerary. Mine is in the back of that packet.”

“Paper mache vases,” she exclaimed. “No way!”

“Yes, quite shocking how they did it. They were molded very carefully by hand and glazed with a polish that is still a secret even to the top art materials analysts. Truly extraordinary.”

Harry took the pictures from Maggie and whistled. “A full set of twenty four? Sweet.”

“Yes. We’ll move out tomorrow evening. I have a flight scheduled for the three of us, under these covers.”

“Oh, we should have made Maggie a flight attendant, no?” Harry laughed.

  • * * *

Within two days all was ready. Complete with new identities, Lynn Peterson and Dean Westerfield drove north across the Scottish border in a shining, silver Alfa Romeo while Harry accompanied an electrical work crew down into the steaming tunnels beneath the streets of London. In another day, they would rendezvous at the Castle Scone.

“Harry’s on his own now. He altered his schedule on the electric company’s computers so that he’s assigned to the Scone team for tomorrow. He and his work crew leave this evening out of Gatwick.”

“How’s he going to shake off the zombies?” asked Maggie, referring to the impartial, but still problematic, workers that Harry was following.

“A simple tie up job. No hassle, no body count.”

“Do you really think he can handle that?” snickered the young grad student.

“I wonder if you could break into MI5’s security computers, my dear,” he laughed.

“I am still highly skeptical of that little trick of his.”

“We got in, didn’t we? We weren’t detected for at least two days. He’s not conventional, but I’d hate to have to operate without him.”

While his comrades drove through the beautiful landscape of Northern Britain and the southern reaches of the Scottish Highlands on a sunny day while laughing at his expense, Harry wiped the grime from his face as he followed three electrical technicians through the damp darkness of the London subway system, looking with the aid of harsh red lanterns for the break in the circuit.

“Ah,” he whined to the others. “What did I just step on?!”

“Don’t look down, ducky,” laughed one of the workers. “Nasty stuff likes to live under the tracks.” They consulted a map and trudged off down a passageway toward a parallel sewer tunnel to the right. “The busted circuit’s up this way, I think.”

“It better be,” groaned Harry.

  • * * *

Historically, Scone ranks among the most important Scottish castles, for it was there in 1328 that Robert the Bruce was crowned the first king of a united Scotland. The stone upon which that rite was held still stands on a small hill overlooking the castle – only feet from a utility access panel that leads directly into the tunnel system beneath Scone.

Harry was entering that tunnel with his three companions from the electric company. Meanwhile, only meters above him, Dean Westerfield and Lynn Peterson were driving down toward the castle, through the parking lot thronging with tourists, and to the security post guarding the private driveway and car lot.

“Good day, sir,” the guard halted them.

“Hello, I’m Dean Westerfield, the art curator from Yale. This is my grad student, Lynn Peterson.” They handed the guard their passports.

“Mr. Westerfield, the Duke has been expecting you. It is a pleasure to have you here, sir. Drive right in and there’s a space to park on the right.” He smiled and pulled the gates open.

A butler to make Americans either laugh or drool greeted them as they stepped out of their beautiful, shiny car. “Good afternoon, sir, miss. The Duke is waiting for you inside.” Maggie reached into the trunk to take out her bags but a footman stopped her. “They will take your luggage to the guest suites, miss. Please, follow me.”

Once inside, they turned two corners and were introduced to the Duke, whose family still owned the castle that was such a national historic landmark. “Mr. Westerfield, I’m delighted to see you. I’ve read all about your research. And this is. . .”

“Lynn Peterson, my graduate student. She’ll be assisting me with the evaluation.”

The Duke bowed and kissed Maggie’s hand. “Miss Peterson, it is indeed a pleasure to have you as our guest.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” gushed Maggie, who glanced at Dean with a lucky smile. She beamed at the Duke and was thoroughly flattered. Dean Westerfield bowed his head and rolled his eyes. She fixed her hair as the Duke turned to lead them into an adjoining sitting room.

“Unfortunately, I have some urgent business to attend to in town, so I will leave you to the care of the finest replacement I could find. She is the daughter of the Duke of Argyll and, although having just graduated from Cambridge with a degree in molecular biology, I have heard that she has quite an interest in art history. Mr. Westerfield, Miss Peterson, allow me to introduce Lady Jennifer of Argyll.” He nodded to them all and soon left the room with an aide.

A tall, rosy cheeked young girl seemed to step out at them from within the pages of a Jane Austen novel. Dean Westerfield betrayed a smirk in Maggie’s direction as he advanced to kiss her hand. Lady Jennifer curtseyed with a wide, but gentle smile. “Sir, it is an honor to have you here.” She turned to Maggie. “Miss Peterson,” she reached out her long tapered fingers toward Lynn Peterson and Maggie responded with a hurried and rough shake of the hand. “Please, let’s sit down.”

“Thank you, my lady, it is a pleasure to be here.” Dean Westerfield reclined in a soft leather chair and sipped at the lemonade brought to him. “Lynn Peterson here is my graduate student. She is developing her expertise in the field of British art history.”

“That is your field of study primarily, sir?”

“Yes, most of my research has been a series of roamings across the British Isles.”

“Then you must have had a quite pleasant time doing your research, no?” She laughed. “Well, my knowledge of art, although quite simplistic yet, is also within this sphere, although more in the field of paintings than vases.”

“The Duke mentioned that you just completed your studies at Cambridge in a quite different field.”

“Oh, yes. Art and music, especially the violin, is merely a hobby to me. Something to keep me occupied while I’m not in the laboratory.”

“Well, I think you will find my investigations here to be very interesting to you in both fields of thought. While the paper mache vases held here at Scone are a great triumph in the field of artistic development, the makeup of the polish that makes them look so staggeringly like porcelain is a great mystery for chemical analysis as well.”

“Then you will be happy to hear of my readings in the field of polymers as stains which I began upon hearing of your visit.”

Maggie smiled. “Then you are truly prepared to help us achieve our mission in coming here? I am sure you as well will be surprised by the results.”

Lady Jennifer nodded. “Oh, I’m sure I will. My research has proven that your task will, however, be a difficult one. There are many similar stains that could, by their covalent bonding properties and molecular geometry achieve such results.”

“Lynn here has been looking through old chemistry texts from college to freshen up her knowledge.”

“Very good!” Lady Jennifer beamed. “It will do you great service. Did you study at Yale?”

“Yes, I got my bachelor’s there in Art History. I’m afraid that except for intro chem., I didn’t really do much science.”

Lady Jennifer laughed. “After intro anywhere, I can’t really blame you. Well, sir, when do you start?”

“As soon as possible. I think I’ll stop up at the guest suite to get some equipment and then,” he glanced at Maggie, “it’s time to examine the target of this visit.”

  • * * *

Harry followed on his hands and knees into a crawl-space connected to the main tunnels beneath Scone.

“This should take a bit of new wiring, I think,” said one of the men up ahead, who was already examining some of the tangled wires carrying the compound’s electric and telephone lines. “Let’s move up and find the control box to tell Castle security what we’re up to.”

“Do they know we’re coming?” piped in Harry, immediately sensing danger at the very word ‘security.’

“Sure, our plans are their plans as well,” the senior man laughed. He patted Harry on the shoulder with the gentle hand of a coach discussing curveballs with his rookie pitcher. “Very soon in this business you’re going to find that the people using the phones and the lights are always on top of those fixing them.” The others laughed. “They always know where and when we’re doing anything.”

Harry stopped to think for a second, and then continued after them. As he walked, he rummaged in his backpack and in a hidden pocket that he had sewed into his pants. The lead repairman picked up the phone. “Security, this is the repair crew sent for a maintenance check. Are we clear to establish temporary lines and fix some frayed wiring? The phones may be disconnected for a second or so.”

The security guard at the main controls paused to check the register of arriving repair crews. “You’re on my list. Let me just check the phone lines for a second. . . okay, you’re clear to establish the temporary line now.”

As soon as the intercom button was released, Harry lighted a small flare and kicked it past the three repairmen. A flash of bright green light filled the passageway. “What in bloody hell?!. . . “ Each man grabbed his neck and fell to the ground with a groan as Harry fired his tiny tranquilizer gun.

“Yuck. I hate it when they grab their necks.” He stepped forward over the prostrate bodies and waited for a minute before activating the intercom. “All’s clear, ducky!” he reported to the security guard who replied with a curt ‘thank you.’ Harry began tying the men up with the wires in the tool boxes. “I love saying ‘ducky.’”

  • * * *

“Harry should be in position by this evening. Let’s check the scene and establish contact with him after dinner. He’s going to give us two clear, adjoining hallways to work with. We have to take care of whatever mechanism they have set up to protect the case holding the vases. So be very perceptive when we get down there. Let me do the art talk while you inspect the technology.”

“My specialty.”

“By the way, Maggie, what was all that crap about ‘you’ll be surprised about the results.’ She’s very nice, but just don’t take her for a fool. Actually, I think she’s quite charming.”

Maggie shrugged.

“Enough. It’s about time. Take the bag and let’s go down to meet her near the exhibition case.” He looked out the window at the cars leaving the parking lot. “I think visiting hours are over.”

The curator and his student walked down toward the area of the castle which the Duke had opened to visitors six years earlier as a means to gain some profit from his family’s beautiful holdings – the value of landed wealth had been corroding for a long time. A guard led them to Lady Jennifer, who happily escorted the researchers to the display case holding the precious paper mache vases.

“Marvelous,” Lynn Peterson smiled at her teacher. “So different from all the pictures.”

“Certainly,” Dean Westerfield almost purred as a guard helped him lift the top off the case, while Maggie watched the placement of the safety locks. “That makes perfect sense, for the camera could not capture the full reflection capacity of the glaze.” He turned to her, now holding one of the vases. “Remember those vases out of the third Ming Dynasty that I was showing you a few months ago? They have the same resistance to dust gathering.”

“That is explained by the lack of static electricity formed by its surface atoms,” Lady Jennifer smiled, gently touching the vase. “I’ll look again for my paper on the various properties of the polymers.”

“Don’t worry your busy schedule about it,” Maggie snapped back sarcastically. “I have the right books upstairs.”

Lady Jennifer replied with the calmness and soft grace that was expected of her. She managed to take no offense. “I’m sure you do, Ms. Peterson, but if any assistance is needed, I would be. . .”

“Thanks.”

Westerfield turned and glared at his companion. “Don’t you just adore the minuteness of the figures at the neck?” he persisted, trying to turn Maggie away from her presumed rival and back to the display case.

“incredible.” While the examination continued, Westerfield showed his findings to the fascinated Lady Jennifer while his assistant, pretending to take notes, was examining the laser emitters that criss-crossed the sides of the heavily protected display case. They would have to be very careful, she knew. But once the vases were out, the rest was up to good old Harry.

  • * * *

“My, that dinner was lovely,” The man commented with a smile as he led Maggie to her room. He took a note from the inside pocket of his pressed black jacket. “Our hostess has invited us to a late-night discussion session with the castle’s head tour guide.”

Perfect. She slows us down at every turn, doesn’t she? She continues to meddle.”

“We just play along, and by morning we’ll be gone. What about the case?”

“No problem. As long as we place the first two mirrors carefully, the rest is a piece of cake. Did you notice that she gave us full security clearance passes?!” Maggie took hers out of her stylish pocketbook. “We can wander about as if we were the Duke himself!”

The man stared at his with a glimmer of skepticism. “We shouldn’t extend our welcome too much. Show no extraneous interest.”

  • * * *

Lady Jennifer’s exuberance for the material extended their interview well into the early hours of the next day. It was almost four before all was finally ready.

“Wouldn’t that brat shut up?” Maggie muttered quietly as she packed a set of mirrors into the side pockets of her black jump-suit. The man signaled her to be quiet as he typed hurriedly on his laptop computer.

“I have contact. He’s in position and starting the countdown. Will disable video in five minutes and motion sensors . . . what’s going with the motion sensors?” he breathed heavily through clenched teeth as he fingered across the keyboard. “Motion sensors intact. He lost control. It’s on a different system.”

Maggie stared at him with her dark eyes opened wide.

“No, no,” He struggled to maintain his calm as he continued typing. “He said it’s been altered. He’s trying to establish connection with the other mainframe. . . lost him.” He shoved an earpiece into his right ear. “I’ve got audio. Move now.”

The two, suited in black, moved swiftly and silently out the door and down the hall. The man pulled his lapel, which held a tiny microphone, to his mouth. “At the stairs, Harry. Follow us in.”

Maggie reached into her side pocket, turned the corner, and shot a tranquilizer dart into the neck of the startled guard. “Fast now. Hussle!” The two stepped down the stairs with the softness of cats.

Boy around next corner. Got him?” Harry, held by suction cups to the walls of a central air and wire duct, moused his way across his screen as he remotely scanned the castle’s security computer for guard positions. “Maggie, one’s rolling right. No, left . . . sorry. Get him around next corner.”

“Bingo,” she whispered after firing her dart gun. The man hurried along behind her.

“What about the motion sensors in target hallway, Harry? Do we need to prepare measures?” There was a pause. “Quickly, boy! Almost there.”

“Two boys around next corner, Mags.” She fired her darts silently and accurately.

“Never call me ‘Mags’.”

“What about the motion bugs, Harry. I need info now.”

“Still no recognition of your presence. Keep moving quietly. As of now, you’re still ghosts.”

“Keep it that way,” Maggie muttered as they dashed down a long hallway.

No news on the motion stuff. Still disconnected. But there’s another passageway, through an air duct near the floor that you can use to get close enough to the case.”

“How close?”

“Three feet. Nah, too far. They’ll smush you by then.”

“What’s with motion, Harry?!” The man angrily scowled into his mouthpiece. “Where can we get at the case from above? I could lower Maggie down.”

“To a laser field inside that case?” she looked at him incredulously. “I don’t think so. He better get the motion sensors down or we’re going to have to trigger the full alarm and move very, very quickly.” She was surprised to see a guard turn toward her before she fired at the very last second. “Harry, why didn’t you warn me? You bastard!”

“Number one: I’m trying to disable the motion sensors from another line. Number two, darling: you’ve got to shut up for me to talk.”

he man glared at her and she continued in silence.

The two arrived at the end of the hallway in which the paper mache vases were displayed. While Maggie surveyed the hallway behind him, the man blocked the system’s laser beams criss-crossing the room with carefully and quickly placed mirrors.

“Lasers down.”

Nope. Missed one on your right.” Harry laughed as The man swiftly blocked off the last laser emitter. “Getting a bit old for optics?”

“We’ll talk later, Harry. What’s going on with the motion sensors? Everything seems pretty quiet.”

“It is. I’m pretty sure you have a good ten minutes before they call around for the guards. Wait. . .the connection is opening up. Stay tuned.” A pause tightened the very cells making up their bodies. “It’s down. Don’t know how I did it, but I sure did it. Blocked up the whole system for the castle. Move now! I hear someone moving above me.”

They charged into the hallway, unpacking a set of mirrors as they ran. They went to work together on each side of the case, disarming the laser beams one by one.

“I’ve got two.”

“You then have three more in that corner. There are six parallel and two perpendiculars across each side and double that on top and bottom.”

“My, you were perceptive. Good work.”

“Did he say good work?” Harry interceded in their ears. “My, oh, my, Maggie did a good job!”

“You better keep up your good job or I’ll . . .”

“Wait. . .what’s happening?!” Harry shifted in the narrow passageway to look below him. A mechanized steel door was slowly closing beneath him. He struggled to look upward and found that he was indeed being trapped from both above and below. “The doors are closing!! My wires. . .are trapped.” He eyed a DISCONNECTING message blink on his screen. “Abort now! Get out of there!”

As the two masked figures struggled to hear their trapped comrade, a bright light flashed across the windows. The man scrambled to look out, only to see a squad of black cars parking in the driveway and a team of suited men walking toward the side entrance of the castle, only meters from the hallway in which the two stood transfixed. A loud feedback whistle burst in upon their eardrums from Harry’s audio apparatus and then only static. “Abort now. Maggie,” he called after her as she was making her way toward the other window. “Walk away. Walk away now!”

As the night door guard moved toward the entrance hallway, the alarm began to scream. The motion sensors had been activated . . . and alerted. Maggie ran down the hallway and he followed her.

“There’s a dumbwaiter around here. I saw it on the way in, but I’m not sure. . .” she stopped to fire another dart into a guard’s neck. “Out of the way, buddy,” she sneered as she stepped over the body and hurried down the hallway.

The man raised the dumbwaiter door and slid in while Maggie covered him and then followed. Within seconds, they were back on the third floor of the castle, ready to leap out into the guest suite corridor and back into their rooms undetected.

The door was locked. The security computer must have picked up movement on the butler’s dumbwaiter and remotely locked the unit. If they tampered with the lock, their location would be picked up and relayed to the pursuing guards. Maggie swore. “There’s no way out of this thing,” she moaned as she pounded on the metal walls.

“Quiet please, Maggie. We have work to do.” The man reconnected his earpiece. “Come in, Harry. Do you hear me?” No response. “I repeat, do you hear me? Are you online now?” Still no response. “Maggie, take out the cutting laser. It’s our only option now.”

Maggie reached into one of her chest pockets for the instrument. There was no other option. It was either cut out, or be cut down.

Listen to me, Maggie. We can’t touch the lock itself. If we climb on top of the dumbwaiter we’re trapped again unless we manually lower the whole box using the wires above. . .”

“Betraying our position as they detect the mechanism’s movement. Damned either way.”

He thought for a second. “But at least we’ll have time to get out of the shaft and into our rooms before they get here.”

“That depends on the composition of the door and how fast I can cut through it.”

“Information that is on Harry’s computer. Damn.”

But it was their only feasible option. In thirty-four seconds they were both crouching together on top of the dumbwaiter. In another twenty-three seconds, straining to pull upward on the cables, they managed to lower the dumbwaiter to a level at which Maggie could readily cut through the metal door. In fifty-two seconds Maggie’s laser had cut a hole of sufficient diameter for them to slip out into the hall just before the remaining guards began their assent up the majestic marble staircase. Maggie turned right and began opening the doors to their rooms while the man grabbed a chair on his left and hurled it out the window at the end of the hallway. In just over 129 seconds, they were securely in their rooms while the black-suited men were investigating the broken window and climbing out onto the roof in pursuit of the thieves.

A guard knocked on Maggie’s door. He called into the room: “Miss Peterson? Miss Peterson? Please remain in your room. There has been a security breach in the castle.” She opened the door to ask what was the matter, her hair frazzled and her white nightgown flowing loosely around her as she rubbed her tired eyes in front of the security man. “Sorry to bother you, miss. We just wanted to see that everything was fine.” She smiled weakly and nodded a friendly good night.

  • * * *

Dean Westerfield and Lynn Peterson walked down to breakfast the next morning with smiles on their faces, only to find an obviously distressed Lady Jennifer greeting them at the open porch on the side of the castle. “Good morning,” she said, sitting down with them and calling the butler to bring in some tea and marmalade. “Unfortunately, it seems we had an unwelcome visitor last night.”

“I heard the siren at about four. What happened? I didn’t leave my room and I don’t think Lynn did either,” Dean glanced with a concerned expression at his graduate assistant, who shook her head.

“Someone came by to see that I was all right, but I went back to sleep. I did notice the broken window at the end of our hallway this morning. Did someone come in that way?”

“Well, all we know now is that someone entered the castle in search of the vases.”

“Did he make off with them? Oh, my God!” Dean fiddled uncomfortably with his napkin, glancing around the room.

“They are fortunately still here. The alarm sounded before they could succeed in their designs. They tranquilized a couple of our poor guards!” Lady Jennifer’s expression did not change. Her normal, smiling demeanor was overcome by tension. “Whoever it was knew what he was looking for. As to the window, they think that the bandit, or bandits, made their way out that way.”

“So at least they were scared out off the premises,” Dean smiled. “Did they find anyone?”

“You don’t think that anyone really left that way, do you?” Lady Jennifer looked at him seriously. He nodded and chuckled. “No. Anyone who entered this castle knew what he was looking for and the castle from which he was to steal it. No one in his right mind would go out onto the roof on top of the security station of the castle and overlooking the main driveway. It was foolish to follow anyone out that way because they must have stayed.”

“In the castle?” Lynn tried to make the idea seem ridiculous.

“At least for a while. This will be such an embarrassment when the Defense Minister arrives tonight. I have just met with his. . .”

“The Defense Minister?!” both Lynn and Dean blurted out together.

“Yes indeed. He has been informed of the situation but has decided to come anyway. MI5 is sending an additional contingent of men for his security during his stay.” The man was perplexed. He didn’t know of any visit by the Defense Minister to Scone scheduled for that month. “I am very sorry, sir. It was a last minute decision for him to come here to meet with the Duke and Duchess on his way to a conference in Glasgow. I did send a letter to you in New Haven two weeks ago.” Dean laughed and blamed it all on the university mail service. “Well, you are invited, of course, to the ball in his honor tomorrow evening. That is why the rear wing of the castle has been closed off for preparations. As for now, however, I have some business to attend to with the security men. They say you can resume your work with the vases at about three, so until then, you are on your own. Why don’t you take a walk along the grounds? The Victorian garden is beautiful at this time of year.”

  • * * *

Maggie followed the man into his room after waving good morning to the guard stationed on their floor and sat down on his bed. She put her head in her hands and groaned softly. “Do we have contact with Harry? It’s time to abort, isn’t it.” There was no answer. She looked up.

The man was sitting at the desk, staring at the screen on his laptop with a smile on his face. “We have contact with him again. The security doors opened and he escaped to a safe air duct. I told you to bring optics, didn’t I?”

“Yes. What are you talking about? We have to get out of here.” She began looking around the room, almost frantically, and began putting her things together. “She knows that the thieves didn’t leave. It’s only a matter of time before. . .”

“She knows nothing. Maggie, listen and learn. I have never aborted a mission.”

“You aborted last night, you . . .” she began to raise her voice.

“No need for names, young lady,” he sternly hissed, pointing for her to sit down. “I never continue in the face of bright lights and a screaming siren either. As for now, we are not leaving.”

“They’ll get us as soon as MI5 puts us through their security check. We have to disappear while she’s busy today.”

“Nonsense, even if they put us through the FBI database, they’ll find no record because we don’t really exist. They’ll just accept the fact that the thieves escaped out the window.”

“You’re insane,” she stood and glared back at him. “Something went wrong last night and you just have to accept it! I can’t believe. . .”

"Leaving now means leaving without the vases. Leaving without the vases means two things: no money and a very angry Mr. ____ - an unhealthy prognosis." Silence. Maggie sat down on the bed again. "We have optics and holograph equipment, right?" She nodded. "Then we will find a way. . . Or we will make one."

  • * * *

They returned from their walk, which had ranged all over the grounds surrounding Scone. From a distant hill they were awarded a spectacular view of the castle amidst the expansive lands of the Duke. These were the battlegrounds upon which the wars of Scottish feudalism and later of Scottish independence from England had been fought. Now, these two modern soldiers for a different cause surveyed the battleground of their own clandestine venture, which would be a war fought not by kilted Scottish armies, but by three determined individuals without identities.

  • * * *

Maggie critically surveyed her appearance in the mirror behind the bathroom door. She was now just minutes away from making her appearance on the ballroom floor of Scone. “How about that?” she smiled in the mirror to her partner, who was straightening his bow-tie and cummerbund behind her.

“You look marvelous, my dear girl,” he exclaimed, grabbing her by the arm and leading her to the drink table. He poured champaign into two glasses. “Here’s to making the impossible possible!” As he lifted his glass, a voice spoke in his earpiece – ‘Cheers!’ “I got you, Harry?”

“All the way in. You hear me, Maggie?”

“Unfortunately it seems that I have to with this thing in my ear. Where are you anyway?”

“Not telling. My secret for now.”

“By the way, Harry, let’s keep things silent unless it’s an emergency. I don’t want all the ladies I’m dancing with to be drawn away by your alluring voice,” he laughed. “Everything in position? Will we have a clear path through to the target hallway?”

“As clear as a summer day in Bermuda – which, I may add, is where I’m headed once this Scottish fun is done. How were the recordings? I didn’t get to hear any of them.”

“Perfect, if I do say so myself. You agree, Maggie?” She had walked into the bathroom to put an additional dab of blusher on her nose.

“Magnifique! You are the next Olivier.”

“Come on, let’s get out of here before our fine Lady Jennifer comes after us herself.”

“She’s going to be there?! Oh, spare me!”

“She’s not that bad, Maggie. Give me a break,” he smiled as he led his ‘graduate assistant’ out the door while she mimicked their hostess’s bows and smiles and laughs.

They followed the sound of voices chatting and glasses tinkling toward the reception room at the far end of Scone. A butler announced them and they entered, soon finding Lady Jennifer, who proceeded to introduce them to this and that neighbor and local politician. ‘At Yale? In the States?’ ; ‘You are studying the paper mache vases? Wonderful.’ ; ‘You heard of the robbery attempt? How dreadful!’

Dean Westerfield and Lynn Peterson made their way around the floor, waiting for the crucial moment when they would make their unexcused exit. Out stepped the Minister of Defense and the Duke, ready to lead the evening’s festivities. They approached the podium.

“Welcome, friends and family, to Scone!” Everyone clapped for formality’s sake. “I have the honor to introduce our esteemed colleague and friend, who drove all the way up from London to see us,” laughter, “Minister Simpson.” Everyone clapped as the Minister of Defense climbed the steps and walked past the band.

“Thank you, Richard. The honor is all mine. I couldn’t think of a more healthy respite from the daily business of the government than a visit to Scone and our Scottish friends. For now, however, I hate to bore you with more verbiage so I will allow the band to take over.” He smiled and waved.

The music began to play and the dance floor was cleared. This was the cue for Dean and Lynn to step aside. She raised her arm for him to smell her perfume, and his lips moved to her bracelet. “Harry, all set?”

“Yup. Got ya. I just need about two minutes to check all the detonator settings on the outside area up front. Hold tight and keep clear to make the break.” Maggie grabbed him by the shoulder, pulling him further down the wall after seeing Lady Jennifer nearby. This was no time for chit chat.

Their hostess pursued. “Damn, what’s she up to? She’s following.”

“Don’t make eye contact but keep an eye on her. Also, try to move toward the door instead of away from it.” He smiled at her, pretending to laugh at something she said. “Watch the clock. Two minutes.”

Maggie’s back rubbed up against a table of hors d’ouevres. No place to move but onto the dance floor. As she turned to look behind, Lady Jennifer came up quickly.

“My American friends! How do you enjoy the party?!”

“Splendid indeed, my lady,” he turned to her. “Astounding, the job they’ve done here. Quite magnificent.”

“I’ve heard the Duke really likes to entertain.”

“He seems to be in his medium in a large crowd of politicians.”

She laughed. “Would you like to dance? I can’t help it when they’re playing American oldies.”

He quickly glanced at Maggie, whose wide smile cloaked her concern. “Oh, I don’t think my bad knee would appreciate it, my lady. I’m. . .”

She took him by the arm. “Please, we’ll take it slowly.”

“Harry, Harry,” Maggie began panting into her bracelet, frantically scanning the eyes of the security men around the room. “Hold up, we’ve got problems. Hold until my signal.” No response. “Harry, do you hear me?” No answer. She grasped her right earring and began to hear a faint static. Either Harry’s connection had malfunctioned or he had been found inside the air duct and captured. Maggie began to dance with the music, spinning in the direction of her partner. She looked Lady Jennifer in the eye, smiling and nodding. Dean Westerfield saw her out of the corner of his eye coming toward them and knew instantly that something was wrong. Maggie began to wave at him, but allowed her fingers to fling upwards toward the ceiling – she meant that Harry had flown away, and it was time for them either to follow along on their own or be captured.

She made her way through the crowd toward the large window overlooking the now dark lawn. She came up against a tall security man and smiled a friendly good evening to him just before he was thrown forward on top of her by the panes of glass shattering inward at the blast of a detonation just outside.

Screams rose through the ballroom and a masked soldier appeared on the ledge. He fired his gun into the air and cried out over the din first in Gaelic and then in English with a strong Irish accent. As he pointed his rifle at the crowd, the sound of machine gun fire sputtered down from the speakers Harry had planted in the light fixtures above them and small pellets exploded from beneath the plaster on the opposite wall. The team of MI5 counterterrorism agents stationed throughout the castle began running in their direction. They arrived just in time to witness a compact paramilitary IRA unit enter through the window as explosions continued both inside and outside.

Lady Jennifer hung tightly to Dean Westerfield and there would be no getting away without her – until a large man, charging unusually fast with Maggie’s aid, collided with the two dancers, flinging the young lady to the ground and then falling on top of her. Maggie grabbed him and began heading through the panicked crowd toward the door.

Both threw guests violently aside as they reached into their pockets for their night vision-enabling goggles, just in time for Harry to cut all power to the castle, except for his battery powered hologram generators, speakers, and exploding pellets. The guards rushed into the crowd as the lights gave out. Vases smashed, statues fell, the chandeliers rained crystal down upon the panicked party, and the two bandits made their way quickly up the steps. Before the security men could grab their night vision goggles out of the ammunition chest placed near the door, Maggie fired tranquilizer darts into their sides.

They ducked into a small side hallway as a team of soldiers rushed down the main corridor. They could see ahead that their way would be blocked shortly by a reserve force of MI5 security officers and instead headed to the left toward the opposite side of the castle. Maggie yelled into her bracelet, hoping that her partner in the ducts would hear her.

“We’re in the fourth hallway, moving left. Do you hear me, Harry?”

“Got ya there, baby. Somebody’s been messing with my wires but I don’t think I’ve been found yet.”

“The path is blocked! I thought you said. . .”

“There’s a vent on your right near the floor about seven feet from the end of the hallway. Get in it,” she was now using her laser to cut open the grating while the man covered her from behind, “then go straight for fourteen yards, make a right – NO, a left! – and then another right just five yards further on, and you will bypass everyone I think.”

“What do you mean ‘I think’? Find out now!”

“They’re moving left and right. I can’t tell where they’re going to be but I don’t think they’ll be there. I know that there are three guys in the target hallway, heavily armed. Be careful.”

“Why don’t you take them out, Harry?” the man shouted behind her and Maggie repeated into her bracelet as they crawled hurriedly though the ducts.

“They’re bigger than me and I don’t have a dart gun.”

“Damn. What are we going to do with that guy?”

“Hug him when he gets us out of here.” They could hear the ongoing explosions from the other side of the castle.

Maggie inserted a thin mirror through the grating of the air duct, allowing her to look first left and then right along the corridor which she recognized to be perpendicular to their target. “All’s clear after these two guys pass.” The sound of boots could be heard approaching and then quickly vanishing off toward the ballroom chamber. “Let’s move now!” she wasted no time with the laser cutter but instead kicked through the metal cover, sliding out into the hallway and immediately taking account of their location. “Target two meters to the left,” she grunted.

“Hold tight there and check for the three fellows waiting for us.”

“Correction: four now. I’ll play princess and you follow.” Maggie stood up, straightened her long evening dress, and rushed, screaming, into the hallway. The soldiers all lifted their rifles at her but then stopped at her appearance, lowering the muzzles and replacing aggressive concern with sympathetic eyes. She rushed headlong into one of them and he grabbed her by the arms. “My husband, I can’t find. . .” she shoved a dart hidden in her hand directly into his neck and before the others had time to realize what was happening they each received the same as the man emerged behind her with his gun ready.

“Magnificent display, my dear!” he exclaimed as the men’s faces crashed into the marble floor.

“Sweetheart, I’m dazzled!” Harry’s voice could be heard from within the air vent near the floor as he cut through the metal with his cutting laser. “Only a few more minutes and we can vacation in a tropical paradise together.”

“If you’re going to the tropics, I’m headed for Siberia!” Maggie hissed back at the vent as she began unhinging the corners of the case of vases. She inserted mirrors one by one to deactivate the laser beams crisscrossing the case and within just over twenty seconds they were removing vases carefully one by one. Maggie entered the vent and jumped down through the hole that Harry had cut at the base of the duct to a basement room below. A basket with pulley was quickly put in place and Harry lowered the vases down to her. In 124 seconds, slightly above their estimate of the day before, the vases were safely in a padded box which Harry had put together the night before in an electricity duct below the castle.

Maggie turned from the box after she had closed it and looked up at the duct above her. “Done, right?”

“Yup. Just a second here while I close up this vent and we’re gone.” He replaced the metal grating with a new one he had found in the basement. “Got it. We’re on our way.” He jumped down and the two began wheeling the box along the basement tunnels toward a distant vertical shaft that would let them climb out as far away from the castle as was feasible considering the short amount of time they had to work with.

“Dean Westerfield” – or so they called him on this mission – turned from the display case and grabbed one of the prostrate soldiers by the collar, pulling him out of the hallway and into a nearby closet. He soon emerged not as the suave, tuxedo-clad guest of the Duke, but as a corporal in Her Majesty’s Army. He ran out along another hallway toward a side exit of the castle, stopping to salute an incoming captain.

“Where are you headed, soldier? Our main line of entry is not in this direction.”

“That is correct, sir. I was instructed not to impede the attacking units by going the other way, sir. I’m bring reinforcement munitions for the fourth company.”

“What? The fourth company is in York, you. . .”

The captain received a stern fist in the nose and a swift tranquilizer dart in the neck. “Bloody Brits don’t know when to step aside,” he muttered as he turned toward the driveway. Four Marines stood near a humvee jeep parked along a side wall of the castle. He ducked behind a bush and crept along over the flower bed to come out near them at an angle facing their backs. He leapt out with his gun ready. “Men,” he imitated the captain’s Cornish dialect “this way on the double!” The four guards turned and were shocked to find tranquilizer darts planted in their chests. “Nothing personal, fellas. Just business.” He climbed into the jeep and immediately headed off the road and up toward the hill upon which the ancient crowning stone of the Scottish kings stood. Maggie and Harry emerged from a utility access, tugging the box of vases behind them on ropes.

As loaded the rear cargo hold of the humvee, bullets screamed just above their heads. “Halt there!” a voice came from far behind them. Maggie and Harry ducked into the jeep and the wheels skidded down the grass as they drove toward the road and smashed through the parking lot gate with two army jeeps now in pursuit.

“Get your measures ready, Harry! I want to lose them by the turnoff to the main road up ahead. Where did you repair people leave the van from London?”

“‘You repair people’? Well, we repair people left it on the main street in the village two miles to the right on the highway.” Harry removed two weapons, a smoke screen generator and a gun from his bag, handing one to Maggie, and turned to look out the rearview mirror. “What the hey?. . .What’s that thing doing?!”

Maggie screamed and the jeep swerved. “What’s going on back there? Just take them out.”

“There’s a helicopter – some sort of black military thing – behind us as well. Did you see this thing on the roof before? I could have sworn. . .”

“They must have brought it in at the emergency call. Does it look armed or is it just a transport?”

“You bet it’s armed. This thing looks like an air force in itself.”

“Great. Just perfect.”

The swift chopping of the rotors deafened out their voices and a spot light crossed back and forth around them. “We’re done.”

“Never.” They turned sharply to the right, out onto the rolling grass hills. As he began to make his way out over the tumultuous terrain with Harry and Maggie’s head slamming into the roof, the helicopter hovered and swerved around to face the chasing humvees. Machine gun fire reigned down and the army tires were shredded while the bullets ricocheted off the armor plating. “What’s it doing back there? What’s happening Maggie?!”

“Oh my lord! The chopper just disabled them. I don’t. . . Ahh!” she screamed and plunged her head into Harry’s chest as the helicopter accelerated, descended, and hovered just feet behind the racing jeep. A distorted, high pitched voice was emitted from the helicopter’s speakers.”

“Look at your marvelous vases, my dear curator!!!”

Harry climbed back and pried open his padded case. There was nothing but a piece of paper inside:

 

My Dear Mr. Westerfield and Ms. Peterson,

Nice working with you.

Best wishes always,

“Lady Jennifer”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Light in the Dark Wood

 

 

The greatest splendor hung above us, a glorious wheel of shining metal and solar panels reflecting the most golden of sunlight, drawing in warmth and energy for the secure home within. An easy ascent, with both lateral and anterior thrusters, would take me there, to the home of my finest of creatures, Lynn. There her robes would melt over the steel floor panels as snow bathes a calm and frosty field. From the moment I saw her from behind a corner in Florence, I followed this vision to her most marvelous of interplanetary housing stations. There together we would live, with her sky-rooms, gravity filters, and massive text-file libraries.

A sudden jolt from the posterior engine room. I rushed to the ship security panel and heard the buzzing of a warning light. Something had struck the posterior hold and cameras on the rear thrusters indicated that a sharp piece of debris, perhaps ejected from one of the cruisers that shuttle between Jupiter and Mars, had struck my ship. With this, another collision. This time a small rock to my port thruster. I quickly grabbed the controls of the ship and turned swiftly down and to the right, hoping that most of the debris would be caught in this same planar orbit.

Glancing longingly out of the window just above my control station, I watched the glimmering space station rise upwards in my perception, one rock and then another piece of metal obstructing my view of her. A slow grinding came from the rear entrance portal of my ship and I could see on the screen that another small cruiser was docking. Cables quickly established a fast communication link to the control room of the adjoining spacecraft.

“Please identify yourself,” I spoke hurriedly into the microphone. “I need some identification before I can open my entrance portal.”

How a greater harbinger of circular vision could have come to my aide than he at that moment I cannot tell. He that helped to bring us out of the limits of ancient philosophy to the realm of expanded human imagination. “You must take another road,” came his reply, and my portal opened to allow Dante to enter.

“The rocks and debris are not going to let you gain that orbit the way you’re going, my friend,” he smiled and shook my hand. Walking to my control panels, he commented on how full an array my ship possessed and then stared for a moment at the various scanners positioned all over the exterior and interior of the ship. Pressing a few buttons, the image of Lynn’s space station came up and he pointed. “You can’t achieve that orbit from here. Besides, if you did you wouldn’t have enough fuel to catch up with her path along that orbit.”

“But I timed my approach perfectly!” I exclaimed. “I was going to rise right on target, by my calculations.”

“Your number crunching was good. But a bit of debris got in your way. Can’t get there from here now.”

“How did you know to come to—”

“She with the flowing robes above sent an alert signal through Plato to me for your guidance, and if I follow her instructions at the moment of her command, it is already too late to do proper service to one so fine.”

My mind was comforted and I sat beside Dante. He smiled again at me and patted me on the shoulder of my suit, which -- I now allowed my mind to wander -- seemed to be fitting more and more tightly each passing season. There is no up and down in space travel, so we usually refer to the plane of the planets in this solar system as the ground, or zero plane.

“We need to go down to get around and beyond all the clutter up there,” Dante began typing into the autopilot program. “We should watch our course steadily. You already took some damage upstairs.”

“Do you think it will be a problem? Can we make it?” I bought this ship with my scarce earnings just out of the Academy.

“Sure. We just need some fuel and a few repairs. I think after a stop at a repair station, we can easily make it as far as Io.”

“ Io?!” I was stunned. Dante planned on taking me down to the lowest dregs of the solar system. “We can’t!” Io was the refuge -- or, rather, the punishment -- for those who had committed crimes to civilization and to humanity.

“ This is the only way up. Besides, I have been to those parts, in the days when our first missions out that far were envisioned by Alistair.” That was a long, long time ago. “It was a challenge, but no challenge is unconquerable. Just stay with what you believe, think hard, think wisely, and Io is a place where you can expose your mind -- expand your mind -- to a lot, open you to the context of your life.”

Expose me to robbery, I thought inside, but my gratitude for such guidance forbade my protests. I sat back and watched Dante manipulate my main computer. His ship had been secured to mine for interplanetary travel at the speeds required to make the distance manageable.

How regrettably I looked through my upper window at Lynn’s station hurling away into the distance. Its fading form was a drop in my spirits, and I think Dante saw my eager expression wane as the glorious wheel faded into a dot of reflected light. “Of things unknown to you will you learn,” he calmly spoke, adjusting the controls. “Keep your eyes open and your mind alert, for challenge can then become gain.”

I nodded and followed his motions along the computer consoles. The depths of interplanetary space are divided into designated zones. Certain routes are for cruisers, public or private, while other expanses of three dimensional space on an orbit are reserved for a registered station or other orbiting outpost. Dante knew that the ship would need some repairs before we could continue on the journey to a full fuel intake on Io, which we could already see ahead.

“Get on the communication console and clear us for a landing on that mobile port over there,” he pointed to a distant orbiting module on our screens. These were placed in fixed orbits at a prescribed distance from each other. There we would be able to fix the minor damage and move on. Dante looked at my slothful figure as I slouched in the large chair. “Get up, friend,” he nudged me. “Nothing comes of this sitting around. You do want to make the journey, no?”

“Not all the way to Io,” I tensely replied, angered that I hadn’t seen the space debris approaching on time.

“The long road must sometimes be taken. Don’t fault yourself for the past. Now move.”

I felt ashamed at my languor in the presence of my author’s active assistance and walked to a small room to the rear of the main console room, where a series of communication devices offered all sorts of radiowave options. I went to work at contacting the station at the coordinates which Dante read off to me. The module seemed somewhat busy, but the operator reluctantly cleared my ship for docking.

These close ties between ships are delicate, but Dante’s steering maneuvers were both calmly selected and on target. We gave our identification through the portal and were allowed to enter the repair station while suited specialists went to work both inside and in the outer airless space. Their tethers extended for over an earth-mile, allowing free motion to float around the spacecraft, examining every external panel for dents and ruptures and then repairing and replacing parts. Some of the more sophisticated repair stations had complete inner holds where workers could operate on the ships in simulated gravity without suits.

Dante and I strolled down the main corridor toward the office of the station captain. “Got a nice piece of work out there,” she grinned. “What hit ya? Debris or rock?”

“ Both,” I muttered, still upset about the accident. It would cost me both time and Union Credits. “Came out of nowhere, I mean, I don’t think they showed up on my --”

“Sure they did. You missed it,” Dante popped in. “You can admit an error to the captain.”

“ Yup, you can. Those things must have been pretty big. Of course it was on your monitors. Don’t worry ‘bout it -- people do that stuff all the time.” The captain was calm and smiling. She should be, I thought. This kind of nonsense pays her salary. She turned a monitor in our faces.“You guys have to fill out this information, show me your I-P badges, and then you can grab a chow down the corridor on your right.” Dante filled in the forms quickly and we sauntered down the hall for a drink of water, straight from the mines on Mars equator. Sweet and cold.

The captain walked in and sat down next to us. On an orbit, no piloting is really needed unless an emergency arises, and with all her workers occupied, there was little for her to do. “Where you guys headed?”

“We need fuel,” I explained, before Dante could inform her that I hadn’t loaded enough for a long voyage. “Io seems to be the spot.”

“Oh, so you haven’t heard the news. There’ve been gas explosions off Jupiter, bad scene. Communications and landing have been rough over there. The cruiser debris that hit your ship was probably from the Army units sent out from Earth.”

“We need fuel,” Dante informed her calmly, not seeming to worry about the ugly scene we were headed into. These small gas flare-ups are generally short but nasty, with folks getting launched out of the solar system plane and becoming lost before rescue can locate them. “We have to go that way.”

“I can’t stop you, buddy, and you’re right, that’s the only place you can get to from here on the amount of fuel you have in those tanks. You had an extra one, should have loaded up on Mars.”

Dante looked at me. Again, he was right. “Well,” he smirked, “there is much to be learned on this voyage.” After the captain left, Dante sat back and looked at me. “People have been through those gas flares before, I’ve been through them through their accounts. We just have to keep that experience in mind, trust in our own abilities, and watch everything very closely.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“Do you think that Lynn would have sent a signal from her station on high for me to aid you if I were not the proper guide when you were lost in that field of debris? Stay with me, follow my guidance, and all will be well.”

I did trust in him and it was that trust alone that got me back aboard my ship. We dis-docked from the repair station and set a direct course for Io, still in our visual monitors. With our full thrusters on, the journey would take little time, but our fuel would be entirely spent, prohibiting any destination other than the rough terrain of Jupiter’s moon.

“From what I have read of previous voyages to Jupiter in gas storms, we need to approach the far side of the moon, and then land at a shallow angle.” Dante set the controls and autopilot. “I question some of the old methods, really,” he continued, “but I know how to forge a new course.”

The great sage was a fine pilot, I knew, and my trust blew my fear to the far corners of the Jupiter orbit perimeter. “Yeah, we can do it,” I said assuredly, while watching a large gas jet spurt out from Jupiter’s Big Red Storm. Scientists from the Mars colony recently did a study on predicting these Jupiter gas flare-ups, but I don’t remember that they saw this one coming. Always something unexplained, I guess. I mentioned this to Dante. He did not reply, just worked at the controls. The gas flares were something to see. Bright bursts of blue, green, red, all the colors, with the sun’s rays glinting and sparkling over each tiny particle. Especially exciting was to see a collision of gas particles with Jupiter’s ring, a crash of light into light.

More disconcerting, however, were the flames that rebounded off the Ionian terrain when a gas jet extended out that far. These ruptures of particles off the moon reminded me that we would very shortly be in -- or hopefully just within visual distance of -- those flares. A communication signal came in and flashed on the console. At Dante’s command, I rushed back into the rear console room.

“Attention private cruiser,” came a garbled voice. “This is Army patrol 529HGF3. This area is a hazard zone. You’re heading right into it.” I could see up ahead a series of tiny specks floating about, coming into view. Their shiny hulls glistened in both the light of the distant sun and the gas flames, sparkling on their sloping curves through space. Army engineers and rescue personnel. “We advise you to change course to a vector at least 50˚ deviant from your own.”

Dante appeared behind me and took the microphone. “We need fuel,” he informed the Army radio operator. “Our approach to Io must continue. Do not block our passage.”

The Army operator replied in the affirmative and our course continued. The cruisers cleared a path for our entry. Their striking frames loomed on port and starboard, with laser weapons gleaming on both anterior and posterior surfaces. A landing clearance was ordered and received. Scarcely beginning our approach, a wide gas burst flamed out from the planet and Dante shoved the stick forward, deactivating autopilot and plunging the craft straight downward. As he struggled to pull us back onto course for the moon, another flame erupted and he pulled us up and sharply to the right, the simulated gravity on the ship pushing us hard into our seats. Just as I stood to run toward him to help, the ship shook violently and I fell face-forward toward the floor. Before the collision of my cranium into the steel panels, our gravity filter died and I floated sharply up into the air. My stomach jolted with nausea and I tried to hold back my previous snack, I cried out to Dante.

“ What happened?! What’s going --”

He, now floating over the main computer, replied with slight agitation, “That flare sizzled the posterior side on my turn. I think a bunch of circuits were fried.”

I could hear voices coming from the communications console as the Army cruisers checked in to see if we were all right. I floated back toward the controls and activated all Army public frequencies, straining to reach the controls. One of the cruisers had been hit badly and rescue modules were pulling the crew to safety outside of the range of the gas flares -- or so they hoped. The signals were garbled so I could hear only bits of their screams back and forth.

Dante had pulled us back onto a more circular approach to the far side of the moon (not from our perspective, rather, the planet’s). Ducking away from gas bursts which struck from all angles at the ship, we began to feel the gravity of the moon tugging us into its realm. The terrain rushed up beneath us quickly as Dante tried to make a striking approach toward the moon’s surface. The radio signals from the Army cruisers died away and I saw their tiny forms darting back and forth on long arching curves to avoid the gas flares while directing private cruiser traffic past this side of the enormous planet.

“I see no landing station on this side,” I muttered, looking frantically through a map computer.

“Neither do I,” he frowned. He pondered while steering us down below the horizon to avoid the flares. My ship cruised over the dark moon, the engines softly humming as the rudder-thrusters jolted us lightly up and down to avoid rocks and small floating stones. A pile of rubble up ahead smoldered inside an oxygen net which looked to be recently constructed.

As Dante turned a sharp right to miss a crashed ship, a rush of pressure from beneath stimulated an enormous thrust of heat in the cabin. “Can’t feel the controls,” Dante shouted.

We spun three times over the rocky terrain until sliding to a halt, fortunately on our posterior. The moon’s gravity pulled us to the floor and we lifted our battered bodies to stand. I shook my head, looking around as the lights flickered.

“What hit us?” I helped Dante to his feet, angrily staring into his eyes. Looking out the side window, I saw the now distant oxygen net in flames. If there were any survivors there, they had better have been wearing oxygen suits.

“There’s a market not too many earth miles from here,” Dante pointed straight ahead. “We need to drive out there and get some fuel.”

“My ship!” I spun around, feeling the heat still baking the cabin.

“You feel how hot it is in here?” He now seemed angry. “This moon rotates too much more and we’ll be a gas-blown stir-fry. You and you your ship. I have a speed rover on my ship above. Get your oxygen net.”

I followed. He messed my ship up pretty nicely, I was sure, but the sage of such vision, of whose journey in the dark wood I read so profoundly, still garnered respect and trust. I grabbed my suit from a locker and tugged its heavy frame up and into Dante’s ship.

His was an older version of my craft, although his speeder was a work of transportation art. “She’s a beauty,” I muttered. The silver frame glistened under fluorescent lights in a small rear hold, which looked like it had been added onto the ship. With both forward and rear lateral thrusters -- beta-thrusters! -- this thing could probably turn on a single unit of Union Credit. Small posterior jets would take the contraption on short flights over rough or gassy terrain, at least in weak gravity systems. I walked all around as Dante adjusted a few knobs to get her ready for the ride. A sign in back read ‘I don’t even brake for Minos.’

“Get your suit on, friend. Time to go.” I activated my private oxygen net and with the main ship sealed off, the rear door opened into a plank. We descended backward on the ramp as far as possible and then hovered to the ground. Dante looked at me and smiled from within his helmet. “No problem,” he assured me. As we shot out around the ship, I could see that the damage was worse than I had thought or felt before. Massive dents pockmarked the hull and whole patches of steel were tarnished by the gas flares. There were certainly damaged circuits.

As we raced along the Ionian terrain, Dante planned out our task ahead. “We won’t have time to repair your ship. Sorry about that. Also, the repair shops around here are kind of rough. Leave your craft in there and you might never see it again.” He smiled and patted me on the shoulder.

The Ionian surface was very uneven and we bumped along at greater and greater speeds as Dante pushed the thrusters to their maximum potential. The threat of gas flares still distant over the horizon worried him. Army ground units were stationed along the stretch of marked road to the main station facility. More would be inside, surely on alert for a potential revolt of these scoundrels if the natural conditions on the moon became much worse. We received clearance for a parking port from an angry woman at the radio controls.

As we waited for the docking doors to open, Dante tapped in agitation on the steering wheel. “Shouldn’t take this long,” he muttered. “Keep close to me when we’re in there. Those goons are capable of anything. They all belong on the poles of Pluto.” Rough judgement, but then again, he had been here.

We got out and removed our heavy suits. Dante was right. These folks were rough. The attendants who came out to watch the speeder wore tattered suits and were negligently unshaven, smoking some nasty and gaseous weed from Venus. Dante put some coins in their hands. “You better up this with a speeder like that,” one of the men sneered with a puff of smoke into Dante’s face. He paid them more to watch his craft and cautioned them that the thrusters were protected by an alarm. The chap laughed. I don’t know what he meant and Dante shrugged his shoulders as we entered the station.

Concentric circular hallways surrounded a central control station, which had just recently been taken over by Army operators. The station attendants seemed angry and nervous with the troops around, but I was glad to see the glimmering weapons at the ready to keep order.

The smell was noxious. What with the fuel transports leaving from here and the repairs of large craft on the other side -- not to mention a general body odor of the like I hadn ’t smelled since laser-joust practice at the Academy. The excellent nature of medical and dental care, as well as hygiene, on Earth and on most space stations hadn’t reached this Ionian outpost. Here were assigned those workers who had misbehaved, instigated riot or mutiny on other stations or on Earth, or were just plain criminals. Their suits were generally of old issue and badly stained by grease and fuel. They stared at us walking down the halls in our flowing robes and I could hear them remarking in a squeaky dialect that we were “ripe for sonic harvesting.” I held my purse close to my belt, as did Dante.

We came in the fourth circle to a shop which sold fuel containers for small craft, such as mine. Dante drove a hard bargain with the small man behind the counter. I never knew that one who thought he had seen such beauty could really be so rough on the tongue. The man stood his ground pretty nicely, I must say, but I think I got a deal that was fair, at least for this frontier outpost.

Grabbing hold of the two straps on the massive radiation-sealed container of fuel, we lugged our load out and back into the corridors, circling slowly around as workers offered to take a few Union Credits to give us a hand. Dante informed me that we would have no money by the time we reached our ship if we talked with these off-duty workers. I felt better with the Army guards watching our progress.

The speeder was still there and Dante actually smiled at the attendants who stood by it, polishing some of the valves as we entered the parking dock, sticking their hands out, palms up. As we pressed coins into their palms, they replaced small thrusters and tools. Thank you very much.

With their help, we loaded the enormous container into the rear compartment of the speeder and with a glance at the placement of the sun, our suits back on, we darted out of the hold and raced back toward our isolated ships.

The moon was turning and the flares came closer and closer. I turned on the radio and heard reports of accidents on the other side of the rock as Dante pushed the thrusters to the max. His speeder would be out of fuel by the time we reached my ship, but his purpose was to give me every assistance before returning to his place.

The sunlight betrayed the large and very noticeable dents on the fuselage of my craft. We had really done a handsome job on the poor girl. I shook my head and Dante looked at me. “Are you dissatisfied with my guidance,” he seemed to honestly wonder.

“Uh. . .no, of course not.” How could I not say that? It just seemed that his vision was betraying more shadow than light. And yet I was and am grateful beyond words for his guidance and the direction he lent in so many ways. The enkuclios paidaia, the artes liberales.

Dante jolted the speeder up into the air and quickly into the rear hold of his ship. He was out in a flash. Activating a robot arm from the outside, we stood in the open hold with our oxygen nets on, watching my craft’s computer pull the enormous fuel container into its energy storage compartment. The massive robot arm had cost a large amount over the regular price of the ship, but boy, what a convenience. I’m glad the salesman at Paris convinced me.

“You get the fuel loaded and running,” Dante yelled to me through his mask. “I’m going inside to prepare for the launch.” He rushed inside, past the air-lock, leaving me outside to direct the robot arm at its work. The fusion container had to be carefully opened, the tubes connecting the compartment to the thrusters and main engines replaced and secured, and the container closed again. We had only about 45 Earth minutes, as far as Dante could tell.

“Get in here!” Dante shouted over the short-distance radio. “We have a problem.” I slapped my thigh in frustration. What was Lynn going to think we were up to? I pulled myself up and to the air lock, pressing the entry code to enter my ship. As I hastily pulled my oxygen net off, I could hear Dante working with the panels up front. I walked in.

“ The targeting computer is out.” He was upset. The same system used to target weapons systems was now used for small private ships to target lift-off trajectories. The computer -- when working -- was supposed to send us up off the moon at a trajectory that would intersect Lynn’s ship on its orbit, as determined by a massive satellite above the plane of the solar system which continuously broadcast the location of all ships in the system. To access a particular ship’s location, I had to have a code for that ship -- unless I was the Army, which could access the coordinates of any ship. In other words, you couldn’t really get lost. But if we took off on the wrong trajectory without the computer calculating our appropriate velocity, we could get hopelessly off course very quickly. Its circuits had been among those wrecked by the gas flare, it seemed. The coordinates of Lynn’s ship, however, were still on the screen.

Only about 37 minutes to go. Dante sat dumbfounded before the computer. Just as my hope of rising to a greater vision was failing, there was the sound of thrusters pulling a craft to a halt next to us, the unknown pilot connecting his ship to ours for flight, but finding no open portal through which to enter. Instead, he came out of his ship’s air lock in an oxygen net, walking toward my human-entry docking station. Funny, I didn’t even ask for identification before opening my portal for the stranger.

Dante looked with fierce suspicion at Galileo. “Lynn sent me along when she realized that perhaps a more rational approach was needed.” Dante shook his head but said nothing as Galileo sat by the calculating computer, which had a few mathematical programs.

“This is not exactly the traditional way,” Dante frowned and chuckled.

Galileo turned to him. “You want to get out of here before this moon turns too much, don’t you?” Galileo was gruff and silent, but seemed to know what he was doing. He calculated the trajectory and speed manually, working against the clock as the outside temperature rose steadily.

He manipulated equations on the screen, graphing our course on both a three-dimensional coordinate axis and on a simulation of the moon and Jupiter. He had to take into account our velocity and acceleration, the pull of the moon’s and planet’s gravitational fields, and those of all bodies we would pass. The coordinates of Lynn’s ship made this all possible.

With scarcely six minutes left before the moon’s rotation on its axis brought us directly under the gas flares, Galileo turned around. Dante and I had been sitting in the main control chairs. We had said nothing. Dante was silent and sullen.

“We are ready,” Galileo informed us. “Ready the launch thrusters while I enter this program into the main autopilot computers. We have only . . . 2 and a half minutes.” Dante and I began pushing buttons on the consoles, checking all the launch systems and readying them quickly.

“Should I leave, go back to my ship?” Dante asked Galileo firmly. I could sense hesitation in his voice.

“No,” Galileo replied, “we can take you along. It is good to remember what our past teachers have taught us.”

“Very well.” With the thrusters ready, Galileo gave the signal to start the main engines. The autopilot took over with 30 seconds left to lift-off.

Dante patted me on the shoulder as our rockets hurled our three ships into the air. He smiled weakly, but the confidence he gave me was still of immense value. “You have taken me far,” I told him.

“Not all the way.”

“No, but thank you. I will never forget.”

Galileo watched our coordinates rapidly changing on the screen, numbers flying by as we ascended and accelerated out of the moon’s orbit onto a rapid trajectory away from Jupiter’s system. “Are we secure?” Galileo inquired. I checked all the main system consoles and replied in the affirmative. “We’ll increase speed then.”

I have never before been so exhilarated by the beta-thrusters. We were away from that terrible place and racing on our course, covering distances immense in little time, ready to face challenges we couldn’t face before. Galileo adjusted our course appropriately to avoid interplanetary debris. I could still see Army cruisers headed for Io, but they were far off and not of concern to us now.

Galileo had had to reconfigure my targeting computers manually. The circuits would have to be fixed, but this would work for now. The clock counted downward toward our expected rendezvous with Lynn’s station. With the aid of a telescope I had mounted on the anterior starboard deck, I could make out her station in the distance. The glorious wheel was still but a dot in the sky, but as our paths intersected and our perceptions drew inward on each other, it grew into focus. Dazzling. The sun reflected off the solar panels as the central wheel spun in unison with its orbit.

Our approach, under Galileo’s guidance, was smooth and direct. I basked in the glow of the light reflecting off the wheel and entering through the window above my main console. It was a beauty that spun us inward. We were quickly cleared for docking by an assistant on board the station and docked at an open port on Dante’s ship. We walked through it and into the station. The walls and floors glimmered brightly.

Lynn approached and silently took me by the hand. She led me along the circular corridors, with Galileo following behind and then Dante. Our forms were reflected in the mirrors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the egg

 

 

Somehow the Egg had vanished from the club, and not a few of the lot speculated that it had done so before Madam’s steadfast departure. No longer taking her punctual march through the orange grove, it had become something of a card–table inquiry to deduce her newly bombarded panorama. The bets were in.

“A fiver on Ascot,” grumbled the stately, though seldom well–versed, Lord Fitzhugh. “The season! Natural.”

“Bogs on the season. She was never a bird for schedules,” spat the conversational sprinkler. “The Egg . . . something’s amiss, and not only among the oranges.”

The Egg was certainly something of a muddle. Was it a whim? Or was it the nascent scandal? Madam with the Egg. Was there ever a more scurrilous couple? No word had come through from the croplands of Madam’s wanderings, and none would. Once adrift, this ship would respond to no signal, flag or flare.

The steward arrived with the new cucumber sandwiches and swollen knees fought their way out of armchairs to tackle the onslaught of nourishment. Whether pretending to read in order to avoid the literary hyenas lurking the carpeted rooms, trapped in stale conversation with mindless seniors or, even worse, mindless contemporaries, or openly basking in the self–reflected light of their loquaciously effulgent erudition while squeezing the lifeblood out of their listeners, the club regulars pondered the status of their departed grand commander.

For it certainly had always seemed as if she was in command, without any responsible superiors to assess her perpetuance in that position. Always entering from the rear, garden door, carrying her wet raincoat over the carpets, and seizing not only a cup of tea, but the entire pot, Madam planted her structure stolidly in the stately seat of maximum exposure, at the center of a circle of would–be followers.

“A lovely day,” she would mutter, despite the state of the weather. “How nice of you all to come,” she would greet her fellow club members. The succeeding conversation, or more likely monologue, was intended to arouse both admiration –– both Madam– and sometimes even more Madam–directed –– and a desire to be nowhere else but in the presence of this feature.

“A lovely day,” she glanced around at Lord Fitzhugh, a peacock or two, and the young Mr. Wallows. “How nice of you all to come. Are both of these lovely sandwiches with you, Mr. Wallows?” The poor bloke was trapped and he knew it. He looked rapidly between the sandwiches in front of him and the two young ladies sitting to his right, huddled together with heads close and gleaming smiles of abject terror. Madam was wont to refer to both sandwiches and young ladies as ‘sandwiches’. What could she mean? His mind was a frantic mess.

“Eh, yes, I–”

“You are accustomed to bringing both sandwiches to the same club at the same time, Mr. Wallows? You have not learned the game properly, has he, Fitzhugh?” Lord Fitzhugh grumbled a staunch laugh and turned back to his tea. The young ladies giggled like drunken nightingales.

“Oh, no, Madam, I just–”

“Right, right, it’s all in good order, I’m sure. The delicate balance of one with the other must be gained by foresight and cunning, young sir, not by innocent aspirations of your own–”

“Foolish boys are these days, positively foolish,” blurted Lord Fitzhugh to Madam’s evident distaste. She shot him a glance from the coldest, wettest corner of Malebolge.

“I was to say something of a more constructive nature for the young man, my dear fellow, but you have dashed all our hopes for a conversation of stature.” Lord Fitzhugh almost bowed his head in shame for his reckless transgression.

Mr. Wallows sat with his mouth open, glancing rapidly between the sandwiches and the birds. “Mr. Wallows,” Madam restored her reign, “are you driven more by stomach or heart? You puzzle me terribly. Where is the game at, my young man? The game is to be played on a field of your choosing, so choose it.”

“Oh, uh, eh, cricket’s lovely this time of year. I can handle a wicket as well as the next chap, I, eh,” he stopped with a grin of despair as the birds flittered in flights of frivolity.

“You seem pleasantly amused today,” Madam silenced their chirping. “That is the issue with those of our sex today –– no capacity for discernment. There is variety in the world, so grasp it! Sunrise to Sunset, Weddings to Funerals, Bombay to Yorkshire, it’s all one flag–topped circus to you.” The young ladies obediently fell silent. “I would not be surprised to find your entire inner monologues written by Will Gilbert on one of his off–days.”

“There, there,” Lord Fitzhugh grumbled with a mischievous smile at the girls. “Madam, you don’t mean to–”

“So now everyone knows what I mean to do?! Mr. Wallows, lend me something of your insight in matters of the mind. Where do my intentions, desires come from, and can Lord Fitzhugh deduce them?”

The young man’s head bobbed as the blood rushed out. He smiled, made a glance toward the sandwiches, and then smiled even more broadly. “Still more hungry for cucumber sandwiches than Mr. Freud, are we not? Imbibe, dear sir, imbibe!”

With this, she rose to her feet, glared down as her companions struggled to rise out of cushioned chairs themselves, and before they could, was gone.

Mr. Wallows, for one, was hardly put off at all by the absence with which Madam had made them all suffer so dreadfully. And he cared not a fig for the Egg either, nor was he restrained in saying so.

“I think this is a far more Scottish place without her,” he beamed one afternoon to Lord Fitzhugh.

“Scottish? What do you want that for, my chap? Are you one of the spotty English who find those rugged barbarians romantic and such? There, there, we can’t have–”

“Oh, but they are! They are a jolly bunch. I was in Edinburgh once, and saw–”

“Edinburgh?!” He grunted the grunt of a Lord. “Where are the birds?” He nodded contentedly as the steward filled his cup of tea.

“My cousins, you mean? Madam need not have bothered the poor dears such. They are so ever impressionable and this was a fine time at the club until she descended upon them. Madam could not help but fix her impression upon such new fodder.”

“What is your stand on that front?”

“I have not taken one, nor will I. I care not for her placement in Ascot nor Yorkshire nor Los Angeles. And I definitely do not give a fig” he fondled that word, “for the Egg.”

“The Egg?! And Madam is the bastion of this very club–”

“And how finely we have carried on without her! And without that … Egg!” He gestured to the members all around, ensconced in their endless ensconcements. “Except for those who continue to ponder her new terrain, the terrain here seems clear of the minefields that once littered it. And the orange grove has certainly breathed a huge sigh of relief, I am sure.”

“So you care not. I can assure you they do.” He pointed with a gleeful smile at a huddled team of conspirators in the next room.

They had no tea nor cinnamon toast in front of them. Their business required far more intensity. “I assure you she has left the country entirely,” exclaimed the young and vivacious Lady Weatherby with the gleaming pride of a conqueror and the glimmer of a coquette. The steward quietly crept up to their table and placed a plate of biscuits at their close reach.

“And taken the Egg! Away! To another country!” the puppy dog at her right nodded with endless fervor, as if the jouncing of his head would capture the raptures of his life’s dreams. “Oh, I am sure you do know!Í You do know!”

“What poppycock!” Mr. Teller, the banker who never left his bank, grumbled. “How does she know? She knows nothing of Madam’s whereabouts. The idea of the Egg leaving this island, this blessed plot, is beyond reason.”

“Surely not even Madam would conceive such an embarrassment,” agreed Professor Blakey.

Lady Weatherby stared back and forth at those who so bluntly blasphemed.

“You underestimate her audacity. I am positive that she and the Egg have ventured forth together to pursue their new ventures!” exclaimed the puppy dog. “Oh, Lady Weatherby, you have calculated all the–”

“Calculated?!” Prof. Blakey was stunned. “Where did that come from? She has calculated nothing. Her guess is as good as mine or yours or the steward’s.”

Across the living room, near the fireplace, the budding Cole Porter grasped his cup of hot tea. “Splendid day in the neighborhood! I just came from a long walk through the orange grove. A wonderful time to harness the beautiful music in my head into my nascent composition. Troubadours and Villains! Pirates and Giants! A musical in the vein of Arthur Sullivan!”

“Your last show was anything but, Howard, I am sure none here is at all otherwise informed.”

“Janet, the trials and challenges of the stage are not to be mocked! It is the musical tradition that drives my spirit!”

“All the way to a rubishheap of prancing tenors and cackling sopranos. Madam would have squashed your ambitions at their core, dear Howard, if only her astute musical acumen, resplendent in her ongoing vigor of the orchestra and the theater, were with us now!!”

“Janet, your doting on that dot is sheer drudgery at this club. From you we hear nothing but Madam’s praise and from Madam we hear nothing but lambasting of everyone else but you—”

“Don’t be jealous of my mentor, she is dear to me, Howard, she possesses a sensitivity for grace and refinement and erudition of which your ‘musicals’ are entirely bereft.”

“Sirens and their serenaders! The rhythm and pause of the theater!”

“The only tempo we need in this club is the tempo of Madam and the Egg! I’ve devised a scheme, Howard.”

“But Janet, we know not where to look for her, the entire world must be suspect. Madam’s wanderings can only be far and wide, for there the splendors of life are to be found!”

“Precisely. Thus I have devised a scheme of letters, written missives, to systematically be conveyed to the far corners of the Earth. Madam’s presence cannot but inspire notice in all around her (as it so instantly sparked my notice the moment I stepped foot in this blessed club). If our letters are many, we cannot fail to capture her whereabouts!”

“How is it, my dear, that Madam wouldn’t have shared her secret with her most loyal prodigy? You were intimately acquainted, were you not.”

“It was an intimacy of the mind and spirit you only dream of in your ballads, Howard.” She grimaced “As to why I was not privy to this knowledge, I know not, but one does not question the ways of Madam! We will enlist the labors of all in this club” she gestured to the banker’s group and Mr. Wallows “to write these many letters.”

And so Janet Fizzwizzle’s clever expedient to discover the whereabouts of her mentor, the club’s indispensable fixture and chief object of sentiment, was implemented. The hounds were baying. Madam and the Egg would be run to ground! Fortunately for her vision of hundreds of letters, the club members had enough tea to last them hours of tedium with stationary, nothing whatsoever more desirable to occupy themselves, and a steward who grimly nodded as he took their many letters to the post.

They each arrived each day at their own appointed time. They drank their tea. They ate the steward’s cucumber sandwiches. They played croquet. They read their Punch. And most of all they waited. Their guesswork bred diatribes to each other of the merits of this or that corner of the world as the nesting ground of Madam and the Egg. She could have been in Johannesburg or Moscow or San Francisco. Her locale would be exposed!

A scarce few letters arrived, placed dutifully on the foyer table for their perusal. Lady Dunsmore, from within her husband’s Bombay camp: “Madam and the Egg adrift. Surely we see no sign here, for I assure you the tigers and elephants would be running for the hills!”. Roger Ducksuckle of Hampshire: “Since your note, I have walked the moors from dawn to dusk, and Madam nor her apparition have appeared. The Egg!!” Penelope Vignette of Wisconsin: “If she arrives I will send word. It is cold here for Madam’s tastes. Although I would suggest a colder climate. Have you written to Siberia?”

The days and days passed and the conversations slowly shifted to the landscape of a club without her landmarks.

The garden door opened at 4 in the afternoon. Madam trudged in, grasped a teapot, plodded without a word or nod past Janet Fizzwizzle’s stunned, smiling face, and planted herself at a table by the cucumber sandwiches. The steward brought her a napkin. Prof. Blakey and Mr. Teller stood in the doorway, speechless. Lady Weatherby fritted back and forth across the living room carpet, twittering to Mr. Wallows of the blessed occasion and the success of their letters!

“What? Where ….?” Lord Fitzhugh struggled to stay within his seat. “You?”

“I have been in the kitchen.” Madam was gruff and direct. “The kitchen. Through that door.”

“How did you-” Janet Fizzwizzle had tears in her eyes.

“I did. I escaped the doldrums of these carpeted rooms, with the books of poetry on the shelf, Cole Porter’s self reviews of his own plays, Mr. Wallow’s cricket stories. I wanted to know this club entirely!”

“But you do! You are here every day!”

“I knew not where the cucumber sandwiches came from. I knew not where the steward came from. I have been crafting your cucumber sandwiches myself for the past weeks.”

“The steward never said-” Mr. Teller was stuttering.

“He has a name. It is Andrew.” They all stared at the steward standing in the corner, and he nodded his confirmation that this was indeed his name. “He never told you. Since you did not ask him.” The steward nodded again.

“Where is the Egg?!”

“Ah, the Egg—”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

 

A native of New Haven, CT., Erik D. Weiss grew up in a college town, and was accordingly nurtured by the artes liberales. He studied history at Yale College before pursuing a career in medicine/radiology. Having travelled extensively, Dr. Weiss has varied interests that span literature, history, and science, and is a keen devotee of music ranging from classical to jazz to bluegrass to classic rock. A fan of baseball and football (the greatest reality television!), he is a New York Yankees fan, since he needs an imperious, undying winner in his life, and a lifelong New York Jets fan, since he is an extremely tolerant and loyal person.

 


The Prisoner of Chillon and Scattered Short Stories

  • ISBN: 9781310477461
  • Author: Erik D Weiss
  • Published: 2016-01-02 23:40:12
  • Words: 28259
The Prisoner of Chillon and Scattered Short Stories The Prisoner of Chillon and Scattered Short Stories