It was just a blip, a flicker of light on the scanner. It could have been one of a hundred things, even a mistake.
|Jack Out of the Box By Timothy Vincent|
The same rule book will tell you a responsible LongPost captain keeps to his or her route at all times. But I like to think somewhere between the lines of the expressed LongPost ethos is an unspoken, unfettered adventurous spirit waiting to be released. In that light, a decision to act against every accepted protocol could be seen as a cry for independence, a small gesture to the unconquerable human spirit fighting against the heartless system.
And well, I was losing again. To Mic. That may have been part of it.
I looked from the scanner to the gameboard. My thumb-sized, three-dimensional lieutenant was signaling for support, struggling between the logical step of retreat and his personal ambition for victory. Looking across the way at Mic's encroaching army, I thought retreat a pretty good idea. But that would mean losing my hold on the hill, and that meant the battle, and that meant the war. That meant forty-three and zero. As in, construct of human intelligence and design, forty-three wins; representative of said intelligence, me, zero. I donâ€™t like zero.
Thatâ€™s when I decided to take one for the unconquerable human spirit.
â€œMic,â€ I said, turning away from the game board, â€œAbout that blip.â€
Mic, who was busily adjusting her flanking blue army, replied with a slightly distracted air. â€œWhat blip?â€
I looked back to the board to find my lieutenant making frantic gestures toward our approaching doom, and glaring at me for help.
â€œThe one we are going to investigate,â€ I answered, and flipped off the game board.
As the geography and pieces began to fade to the nether world, I watched Micâ€™s angry horde shake their fists in frustration and derision. I noted with pride that some of my men (now well accustomed to this divine and improbable intervention) dropped their drawers, turned, and offered an equally enthusiastic response. I ignored my lieutenant. Disapproval is not a quality I look for in an avatar.
â€œHey!â€ said Mic, turning a bright crimson. â€œI was about toâ€¦â€ There followed the slightest of dry pauses. â€œOh, I see.â€
Mobile Integrated Computer units, like the floating bowling balls they resemble, do not normally possess the ability for sarcastic irony. Somewhere in her many travels, Mic picked it up in spades. I ignored her too of course.
â€œShip, take a left,â€ I ordered.
Mic floated over to the console. â€œI presume you mean to follow the optical delusion?â€
â€œNo delusion, my little floating number ten. Thereâ€™s something out there. Whatâ€™s more, itâ€™s something neither you nor the ship comp is willing to recognize. That makes it worth pursuing.â€
â€œYou know the shipâ€™s computer has to report this deviation from our course directory to LongPost, and why.â€
â€œSpare me the idle threats. What are they going to do, fire me?â€
Mic whirled around on her axis, her internal colors revolving from deep sea blues to bright red sunsets.
â€œAt this point, that's a distinct possibility,â€ she reflected.
I ignored that as well, and watched her spin. She could be very pretty at times, especially when she's angry.
â€œA left it is then,â€ I said with a smile.
Why left, and not right, or up, or down? Creative triangulation. What some might call flying by the seat of my pants. Both Mic and the shipâ€™s computer found this completely irresponsible and illogical, so I knew I was on the right track. Unconquerable human spirit, and all that.
Of course, to take my left I first had to pull us out of auto-pilot. The ship computer flat out refused to participate in any deviation from our appointed rounds. But I was reveling in my new dictatorial fever, and assumed the wheel without a second thought. Manual control was another strict no-no for LongPosts in deep space, except in emergency situations. All kinds of bells and alarms went off. I manually turned these off as well. I decided I liked manual control. Mic made more threatening noises, but it was just for show at this point. She knew I wasnâ€™t about to change my mind.
And thatâ€™s how we turned left. I offered a silent rebel yell for liberated humanity and steered the Pelagius toward what I thought was the general direction of the mysterious signalâ€™s origin. Then I kicked my feet up, and gave the old girl her head. I felt much better. Time to relax.
Forty-two, and holding.
â€¦Relaxation forms the core of my personal philosophy. Hence, my occupation as a LongPost. Nothing is more relaxing than pre-plotted, pre-programmed space travel. Crossing space, any space, is a lengthy process, no matter how fast or powerful the ship. Itâ€™s a journey of decades to travel from Earth to Colony I. A LongPost might make that roundtrip three, maybe four times before retiring. Most LongPost pilots cryo through both legs, so actual up-time is more like three months, give or take. Doing cryogenic time has its risks, but it beats hell out of sitting around in a tin can for twenty or thirty years.
But why take the risk at all? Itâ€™s all about the money. A LongPost pilot earns a professional salary (adjusted annually to cost of living expenses back on Earth) for the time served, not the distance. That adds up over a century or so. With a sound investment policy (and LongPost has one of the best), a pilot can comfortably retire after those three or four trips.
Seems a bit unfair? Itâ€™s one of those high risks, high reward situations. First of all, the Civil Service Test and Background screening are intense, and most applicants donâ€™t make it through the initial psychological evaluation (they make you sign a waiver freeing them of legal responsibility before you get in the isolation chamber). Then there are the hard numbers: 1 in 3 LongPost suffers a debilitating or fatal accident sometime in their employment. That number goes up considerably if you do more than 3 trips.
The big-ticket item, thoughâ€”the one keeps our applicant numbers down, and wages upâ€”is the time cost. It became obvious with the first batch of retired LongPosts. Itâ€™s hard to adjust to everyday living when everything you know is considered ancient, or just plain gone. Families and friends are particularly difficult. Theyâ€™ve aged (or passed); you havenâ€™t. After the first group, they got smart. Retirees were settled away from their original homes and had to take extensive reorientation counseling. Recruiting focused on single men and women, preferably without living relatives.
I was on my fifth run. A dinosaur; a legend; an eclectic ass; a political burdenâ€”depending on who you talked to. Time had measured more than a hundred years since my first mail run. Thanks to careful cryo maintenance, and some lucky genetics, my body showed twenty of those years, and I was twitch free. With care, I reasoned I could do one more run, and retire. Then it was hello sun and sand.
But I was in no hurry. I liked the experience of deep space. I liked the solitude, the endless silence. I liked lying around with nothing but a blur of sparkle and night outside the port window. I liked the unlimited time to think, and to read. After my first run, I bought some antique books. The real thing, not the electronic versions. Leather binding, dog-ears, ink, paper, the whole tactile mess. They cost a fortune, but they provided an unexpected (and necessary) counterpoint to my otherwise modern context.
Not that I am a technophobe. Far from it. I enjoy my scientifically engineered world as much as the next person. I particularly like playing computer games. Another perk of being in space: no one bothers you about how use your time. Iâ€™ve honed my skills on the shipâ€™s game board in between bouts of exercise, reading, and the occasional general ship maintenance. The computer offers plenty of challenge, but is a bit flat when it comes to communication.
Mic, a Mobile Integrated Computer Iâ€™d picked up at a yard sale, was supposed to provide a more entertaining gaming partner. And she did, bringing some spark and color to the games and the Pelagius in general. That is, until she started winning all the time, and got an attitude. Little things, like an extra spin after a particularly clever maneuver, or a shift in color when I quit in frustration (to me, her purple always held a hint of smugness).
I suppose I should have suspected something earlier. The woman who sold her to me, a retired professor of some sort, said there was something special about the unit. I thought she was just trying to sell high.
The professor was a tiny thing, with lots of energy. She seemed amused to find me hanging around the old games section at the yard sale, and started a long, one-way conversation. She asked a lot of questions, about me. I wasnâ€™t paying much attention, because suddenly she was shaking my hand and giving me â€œfinal instructions.â€
Thatâ€™s when I realized Iâ€™d bought something. A small unit MIC floated up, shy and pensive in spinning baby blue. I remember the professor brushing something from her eye, and then taking my arm and escorting me off the yard with a big smile. I remember sitting in the car and noting the debit for the MIC on my virtual bank statement. Not cheap, I thought about returning it but didnâ€™t have the time. Frankly, I was still a little confused by the entire process. I put the MIC in my luggage for the next LongPost haul, and forgot all about it.
About two weeks later, I opened the bag, and out she came. I wasnâ€™t prepared for the change. Somewhere over the two weeks, tucked between my socks and underwear, she had lost her colorâ€”and her reserve. She informed me, in very angry tones (matched by the deepest shade of red Iâ€™ve ever seen) that this would be the last time she submitted to such degradation. She then proceeded to make herself at home on board my ship without so much as a by-your-leave. Sheâ€™s been spinning free ever since.
Of course, I did a little background check later, when she wasnâ€™t looking. Turns out the retired professor had been a specialist in theoretical computer science initiatives at MIT. Well, do tell. Iâ€™m no rocket-scientist (I just pilot them), but after a month of losing, and some ill-disguised smugness, I got suspicious. I accused Mic of tapping the shipâ€™s computer for illegal upgrades. She got so worked up over the accusation, I doubled down and asked her to submit to a full scan. To my surprise, she did. When the results indicated no anomalies, Mic was practically insufferable. For two days she stayed an iridescent white, and if she had a nose it would have been hard north.
It did occur to me that accurate diagnostics would only work if the shipâ€™s computer programming were more sophisticated than Mic. But a floating game console shouldnâ€™t come anywhere near a LongPost state of the art, fifteenth generation computer system. Maybe I was just getting beat, and should take my lumps.
And yet, there were times where I wondered just what the good professor had pawned off on meâ€¦
We had been flying for about an hour after my blip, looking for what I didnâ€™t know, and where I had no clue. I began to suspect my little diversion had just about run its course, when Mic started humming a tune.
â€œWhat are you doing?â€ I asked.
â€œPassing the time,â€ answered Mic. â€œYou have your diversions, I have mine.â€
I ignored that. I did a lot of ignoring around Mic.
â€œWhatâ€™s that tune?â€ I asked.
â€œItâ€™s a popular piece from the twentieth century. It is from The Man of La Mancha. There are lyrics. Would you like to hear them?â€
â€œNo, and stop humming. Itâ€™s very rude and Iâ€™m trying to concentrate.â€
We flew in silence for a time.
â€œIs that the adaptation of Cervantesâ€™ novel?â€ I asked.
â€œThe Man of La Mancha?â€
â€œWhy, yes, it is. Want to hear the line about the hopeless quest? It might remind you of someone.â€
â€œI told you to be still.â€
We flew again in silence. I tried to look like I knew where I was going. Mic just sat there, hovering in haughty disapproval.
â€œThis is important,â€ I said, finally. â€œThere was something on the screen.â€
â€œI understand,â€ she answered.
â€œNo, really,â€ I explained. â€œI had to stop the game. We were getting farther and farther away.â€
â€œWhy are you turning that shade of brown? Are you implying something?â€
â€œMy internal coloring is a random selection process,â€ she said, â€œdesigned to be aesthetically pleasing, so as to enhance human/artifice relations.â€
â€œOh, shut up.â€
â€œBy the way,â€ she said, in a voice I swear dripped with irony. â€œAre we there yet?â€
â€œNo! And listen here, if I had twenty yards of waxed flooring, some white paint and ten good pieces of wood, Iâ€™dâ€¦.â€
BANG! Alarms and whistles; blinking lights and warning flashes.
We had arrived.
Arrived where? A good question.
â€œMic, could you please tell me again what this thing is, which you say isnâ€™t there, but that weâ€™re so obviously in?â€
Mic consulted the ship comp for a moment before answering.
â€œI donâ€™t know,â€ she said, â€œbecause it still isnâ€™t there.â€ I noted with some satisfaction that her color had changed to a puzzled taupe.
â€œOr at least, it shouldnâ€™t be,â€ she added a moment later.
â€œItâ€™s doing a pretty good damn job of pretending then,â€ I retorted. â€œI canâ€™t get around it.â€
The â€˜itâ€™ we were talking about was a dark nothing, and I mean pitch-dark nothing. Think of your darkest black paint, pour it on black canvas set in a black frame, then dip the whole thing in tar and throw it down a deep well, close your eyes, and try to see it. Thatâ€™s about how dark it was.
And it was everywhere. It filled the ship screens, all of them, backwards and forwards. I checked the console. Nothing was wrong with the external camera system as far as I could tell. What we saw on the screen was what was out thereâ€”or not there, as it were.
â€œMic?â€ I prompted.
â€œIâ€™m having the ship comp search the database, but preliminary findings indicate there is no known record of this phenomenon, apart from a black hole. Of course, this is definitely not a black hole, or we wouldnâ€™t be talking right now.â€
As I took that cheery detail in, a number of other possible explanations came to mind, none of them particularly happy. The rebel yell was becoming a bit shrill. Suddenly, normal, official, somewhat boring postal route protocol didn't look so bad.
It was time for another cautionary retreat.
â€œMic, how about telling the shipâ€™s computer to get us out of here?â€
â€œNow he says.â€
â€œJust do it.â€
Nothing happened. I looked over to Mic, who was turning multiple shades of crimson and spinning like crazy.
â€œThe problem is,â€ she answered, slowing down. â€œI canâ€™t. Neither the ship comp, nor I, can get a reading of any kind outside the Pelagius. Itâ€™s as if we were no longer in physical space. And without a spatial relation point, the ship refuses to move. Itâ€™s a failsafe program.â€
â€œSince we are no longer located in space,â€ she said carefully, â€œI cannot have the ship move us out of here or there, or for that matter anywhere.â€
â€œJust put it in reverse and press the pedal,â€ I offered helpfully.
â€œFirst, are you sure reverse is the way to go? Second, the pedal, as you call it, is offline. The ship canâ€™t or wonâ€™t move at any speed or direction.â€
â€œHow about firing the guns?â€
â€œAnything. Everything.â€ I said in exaggerated authority. â€œWhatever the hell is holding us back. Hit a broadside, by God! Damn the torpedoes, and all that.â€
â€œI would caution against using what limited projectiles we have until we know what the nature of our captivity includes,â€ she replied. â€œOtherwise, we run the risk of damaging ourselves.â€
This was, of course, a reasonable caution.
But I wasnâ€™t feeling very reasonable. â€œOkay. What would you suggest? Send up the white flag? Flush the commode?â€
â€œOh, youâ€™re taking my suggestions now? If you recall, just an hour ago I suggested we donâ€™t deviate from our flight plan.â€
Apparently, Mic wasnâ€™t feeling all that reasonable, either.
â€œAll right,â€ I said. â€œLet it go.â€
â€œGo! Thatâ€™s just what you said you had to do, and look where thatâ€™s got us.â€
She stopped, but not because I told her to.
The black abyss around us had grown a crack. Or to be more accurate, a slice of light had opened like a rift down the center of the view screens, cutting it in half. As we watched, the light slowly expanded to either side until it eventually filled the screen. Where before everything was black, now it was white: gleaming, pristine polished, white; a white so white that your eyes ached to look at it.
I panned the cameras and discovered perfect white-out in every directionâ€”every direction but one. The starboard camera was showing what looked suspiciously like an etched door frame.
â€œThat looks promising,â€ noted Mic.
â€œMaybe,â€ I answered.
â€œWe probably should investigate, donâ€™t you think?â€
I sighed. â€œProbably.â€
The atmosphere was in my favor (that much, at least, the ship could tell me), so no suit was necessary. But I had decided to obey the rules again, so I took a few moments to put on my standard-issue LongPost All-purpose Personal Decompression Suit. The deflated version of the suit was quite comfortable, and had the added advantage of being self-cleaning. It also functioned as a personal hygiene system, but the less said on that the better. The helmet-hood had a pliable front visor which could be fashionably tucked in the neck collar when not in use. It didnâ€™t look too bad, if you like high collars. And, of course, the whole thing could inflate into a full-bodied spacesuit in less than 7 seconds, capable of withstanding deep space conditions and providing forty-eight hours of oxygen via its micro-density O2 cell packs. Thatâ€™s a nice feature to have around you when you walk into the unknown.
We left the Pelagius, and I stood on the bottom of the ramp with Mic tucked in my official LongPost satchel. I had decided Mic should go incognito and out of sight, which simply involved her retracting her outer shell to core status (i.e., bowling ball to cue ball), and carrying her in the satchel. She wasnâ€™t exactly thrilled with this arrangement, but recognized the tactical advantages and went along.
â€œNo signs of life,â€ said Mic over my ear port. â€œBut then again, I canâ€™t pick up anything on my scanners anyway.â€
â€œShh,â€ I muttered, trying not to move my lips. â€œIncognito means no frivolous talk.â€
â€œHow is that frivolous?â€
There was a floor, so to speak. It was like walking on a bowl of marbleized milk. My feet kept telling my brain that we were on solid ground, but my eyes couldnâ€™t seem to agree. It helped to keep my eyes almost closed, and let my feet determine reality.
The door proved to be just that, or at least a sketch of one. The frame was a simple vertical rectangle of etched black lines, about eight feet high and three across. There was no apparent handle.
â€œNow what?â€ I asked.
â€œTry to open it,â€ said Mic over the port.
I waved my hand, stepped back, then forth, then side to side, said â€œopen sesame,â€ barked, made funny facesâ€”everything I could think of, short of actually touching the funny white material. From up close, the surface looked to be glowing, making it near the top of my personal Do Not Touch list. After about a minute of performance art, I gave up.
â€œOkay, Mic. Iâ€™m open for suggestions again.â€
I frowned, rolled my eyes, and then remembered she couldnâ€™t see my face.
â€œThat would mean touching it,â€ I said.
â€œOf course.â€ That dry tone again.
I thought about it, and then had an inspiration. I took Mic out.
â€œHey,â€ she started, â€œwhat are you doing?â€
I tapped her hard cue-ball form against the surface somewhere close to the middle of the frame.
â€œThat was extremely dangerous,â€ said Mic, her color now a pale winterâ€™s snow.
â€œAnd fruitless,â€ I agreed.
â€œWhich means itâ€™s your turn.â€
I shoved her back in the satchel. â€œBe still. Hide. Incommunicado.â€
But she was right; there was only one thing left to do. I reached out to touch the frame with the tip of my gloved finger. One, two, threeâ€¦okay, four, fiveâ€¦.
Eventually, I did touch it. Things happened, as they are bound to do. First, the â€œdoorâ€ disappeared. In its place was a framed view of a long hallway. It was like one of those hologram windows you see sometimes in an art museum or fancy hotel lobby, the kind that hangs there like a window to another dimension. I stepped in, of course. What else could I do? I had the odd sensation of walking into a giant rolling barrel, one that suddenly stops just before your foot touches the bottom. I reached out a hand to catch myself, but drew it back again as my feet found their balance, and my inner ears reoriented.
I looked around. To either side were dark wood paneling walls. The ceiling, which was low, was a spackle of dull plaster, and the floor was covered with a thin burgundy carpet. The space where I stepped through was now a similarly solid wall of wood paneling, complete with a framed painting hanging in the center. The painting was of a rather melancholy cliff overlooking a beach. I reached out, tapped the wall. Nothing happened.
I turned back to the hallway.
Immediate first impressions: Edgar Allen Poe, creepy Victorian mansions, and the sense of not wanting to be here. The air was musty and heavy with the rich, oily smell of polished furniture. There was a lone table-clock ticking away on a nightstand next to me, but otherwise the hall was eerily still. More landscape paintings lined the walls, all dark, all austere: scenes of cliffs and sheep, cliffs and ships, cliffs and people. Somebody liked cliffs.
Glass oil lamps were mounted periodically on the walls, their dim, smoky panels making as many shadows as they drove away. Halfway down the corridor was an ornate end table with an ancient fountain pen and ledger. The hall ended in a cross section, with more shadowy halls to the right and left.
Frankly, it was not at all what I expected.
â€œLife forms,â€ said Mic in my ear. â€œAt least one.â€
Pause to let my heart start again. â€œOne of them isnâ€™t by chance a big dog,â€ I asked, â€œor some kind of axe wielding butler, is it?â€
â€œWhat do you mean by big dog?â€
I pulled Mic out again and showed her the hallway. â€œWhat do you make of all this?â€ I asked. â€œBecause I feel like I just walked into the Baskervillesâ€™ summer home.â€ I turned around, still holding Mic. â€œAnd whereâ€™s the door back?â€
A thin metal rod extended from Micâ€™s center and touched the paneled wood wall next to me. This surprised me almost as much as my surroundings. I didnâ€™t know she could do that.
Mic retracted her probe. â€œThere appears to be something beyond the wall, but itâ€™s a real wall.â€
Before I could reply, I heard the unmistakable sound of a human cry from somewhere down the hall.
â€œDid you hear that?â€ I asked.
I put Mic back in the satchel and pulled out my other critical supply, a gift from my sister for the long treks far from home: a 9-shot, large caliber, antique pistol. The fact that it was a bit old helped me get it by LongPost regulations (I claimed it as an heirloom). Heavy and still highly lethal, the weight made me feel better just holding it. I took a deep breath. This wasnâ€™t going to make the boys and girls back in LongPost central happy. Rule number 42: Never, under any circumstances, engage in private affairs while running your designated route.
I checked the safety, and started down the hallway, stopping for a quick peek at the book on the table. It was obviously a ledger of some kind. A header with Guests and Date, ran across the top. There were a number of listings underneath. The signatures below were written by various hands, some legible, others barely. I didnâ€™t have time to do a quick study, but didnâ€™t see any names I immediately recognized. They were all dated 1888.
I started off again.
The sounds of struggle grew clearer as I reached the end of the hallway. I took the left-hand passage, as that seemed to be where they were coming from. I was now in a short passage, similar to the one I just left. The cries were coming from an open door to my right. Peeking around the corner, I saw a study-sized room with more dark wood walls and plush burgundy carpetâ€”and a man dressed in odd clothes, struggling to close a giant vault door in the back wall. It was clear that someone on the other side of the vault was working toward the opposite end.
The man in view had his shoulder to the door, and his face was red with exertion. He made no noise, but from the other side came a string of grunts, curses, and what sounded like human imprecation.
â€œNever!â€ hissed the man on my side of the vault, and with renewed force he dug his heels into the floor. I watched as the vault began slowly to close. Just as success looked inevitable, the vault door stopped its progress and I saw what looked to be a metal pipe sticking out from the other side. The man on my side yelled in frustration, grabbed the pipe and tried to pull it through. As he released his grip on the vault, however, it started slowly opening again. He quickly let go of the pipe and stopped the vaultâ€™s progress once more.
At this point the man on my side turned his head and saw me in the doorway. His look of astonishment changed quickly to one of hope and supplication.
â€œHurry, for Godâ€™s sakes!â€ he shouted. â€œHelp me!â€
I donâ€™t know why, perhaps it was some ancient instinct against the unknown, or maybe it was the complete desperation in his voice, but I found myself wanting to stop that door from opening. I tucked the pistol in my satchel, and raced across the room to put a shoulder next to his. With my aid it was easy to stop the vaultâ€™s progress, but a shoed-foot now accompanied the pipe in the opening and our struggle came to another temporary impasse.
â€œHold it!â€ ordered the man next to me. He then let go of the vault and stomped upon the obstructing foot, at the same time jerking the pipe from whomever, or whatever, held it on the other side. The foot was quickly withdrawn with a gasp of pain. My companion slammed his full weight against the vault, and this time it swung shut with an audible click. He then pressed a button in a panel set in the center of the vault door. Immediately the gunmetal gray was replaced by the same glowing white substance that held the Pelagius.
Without looking at me, the man then turned and ran to an odd, but very modern console in another corner of the room. He seemed to be searching for something.
â€œAh ha!â€ he cried, pressing a series of keys. I heard a deep metallic grind, and when I turned around the mysterious white wall was gone, replaced by wood paneling. The only reminder of the vaultâ€™s presence was the button panel in the middle of the otherwise solid wooden wall.
The man grinned at me in excited triumph. â€œYes!â€ he cried. â€œFinally.â€
He looked me up and down. â€œWho are you?â€
Then he slumped to the floor of the dais in exhausted relief.
I helped him climb to his feet again. He was short, somewhere well below six feet. His complexion was waxy and very pale, as if he had not seen the sun for some time. He wore a dark moustache and full beard, but was balding on top, and was dressed in a long, formal smoking jacket, starched white shirt, pleated pants, and hard leather shoes. Behind the facial hair he had a relatively simple face, but for the eyes. These were of the darkest black, the kind of eyes you remember long after you lose the face. I found those eyes searching my own and felt oddly naked.
â€œThank you,â€ he said, breaking the silence.
â€œYou are not from this ship, are you?â€ he asked.
â€œNo. I just arrived.â€
â€œYou are from Earth?â€
â€œIâ€™ve been there, was born there in fact. But this time Iâ€™m coming from the other end: Colony I.â€
â€œColony I,â€ he repeated. Those black eyes lost some of their focus, but none of their hypnotic appeal. â€œYou have a ship?â€
The eyes held fire for a moment. I didnâ€™t like the direction the conversation was heading.
â€œWho are you?â€ I asked, trying to turn the direction. I nodded to the vault-now-turned-wall. â€œAnd what was that about?â€
He looked to the wall, his eyes focusing again and drawing to tight lines. â€œAh, yes. That.â€ He looked to the floor, then back to me. â€œThatâ€™s a long tale. Which you are entitled to,â€ he added quickly. â€œBut first, I must beg your patience a little longer. There are things I must check on. He was out, you see? He may have done things. I wonâ€™t be long. When I get back we can talk more. Will you wait here?â€
â€œDo you want some help?â€
â€œNo,â€ he said. Then, more slowly and with a smile, â€œNo. It is kind of you to offer, but no. I will not be long.â€
â€œIâ€™ll wait then.â€
He started away, but before he reached the door I called after him. â€œBy the way, if you come upon my ship in one of your checks, please be careful. The security systems are fully automated.â€
He stood in the doorway for a moment, the black eyes measuring mine. Then, with an abrupt laugh, he nodded and left.
I wasnâ€™t too worried about the Pelagius. It was true about the security systems. The veiled threat was just for added insurance. I looked around the room, and got my first real impression. It was an odd mix of old and new. The lighting was provided again by boxed gas lights mounted to the walls. Two overstuffed chairs faced a coffee table in front of an old-fashioned brick fireplace. There appeared to be a real wood-burning fire behind its iron grating. Neat trick that, I thought. Along most of the walls were numerous framed paintings, some quite large. The open door I came through was one of those clever affairs made to look like part of a bookcase when closed.
Spoiling all this aesthetic was the very modern, very sleek pie-shaped dais in the corner of the room, upon which sat the black marble console the man had used to seal the vault-wall. The console was full of glowing hieroglyphs, flashing buttons, and empty video screens.
â€œIs he really gone? Can you track him?â€
â€œYes, and yes,â€ said Mic, over my earport.
â€œGood. I think we should do some exploring before he gets back.â€
I opened the pouch, and Mic took to the air.
â€œKeep an eye open for his return, and donâ€™t let him see you,â€ I said. â€œYouâ€™ve got the console. Find a way to free the Pelagius, if you can. Iâ€™ll take the rest of the room.â€
Mic expanded to bowling ball size and floated to the console. She was welcome to it. I took a stroll to the vault wall, for a closer look at the more immediate problem.
The hand-sized rectangular panel the stranger used to seal the vault now sat in a slight recess in the wall. The top half of the panel had two buttons, one pale blue, the other a dark red. The red one was depressed. The bottom half of the panel was filled with a pattern of raised dots, like Braille, but I didnâ€™t recognize the pattern. As I stepped closer, I felt something slippery under my shoe. Looking down I discovered a small dark stain. I smeared it around a little with the toe of my shoe and saw the dark turn to red. I didnâ€™t remember any cuts or wounds on my recent ally, so I guessed the blood belonged to whoever was on the other side of the vault.
Finished with the panel, I moved around the rest of the room. I discovered, with a slightly burned finger, that the fire was real. I spent some time looking carefully up what I could see of the chimney, and wondering where the smoke went to.
That got me to thinking about where I was exactly. The white emptiness had been one thing, this hybrid Victorian-Sci-Fi, quiet another. Neither, however, gave me any insight as to where Iâ€™d landed. Assuming I landed anywhere. Was this a ship? A planet? Some kind of vortex? Maybe all of this was a dream? Or maybe I was dead, and this was the afterlife? I looked to Mic. She was busy hovering over one of the consoleâ€™s glowing sections. If this was the afterlife, why was she here?
I walked around the room, touching things, thinking, and idly checking out the art. I was particularly drawn to one of the paintings hanging on the back wall. It was hard to miss. The framed canvas was at least six feet in height. The scene was of a sullen man trapped in the branches of a tree. A woman in a long dress was in the act of turning to regard him. She had a book in her hand, as if she were reading to him. The man looked lost and angry.
â€œExploring the art world?â€ asked a voice behind me, startling me out of my reflection. I didnâ€™t bother to turn around.
â€œI donâ€™t expect you to understand, Mic,â€ I said. â€œThis could be an important clue.â€
â€œSo,â€ I said, turning around. â€œWhat did you discover?â€
â€œI managed to retrieve a working schematic of the general structure from the console records.â€ She seemed to hesitate, her revolutions slowing just a bit. â€œIâ€™m working on the white material that is holding the Pelagiusâ€”thatâ€™s still proving to be a problem.â€
â€œSo, we canâ€™t leave?â€ I asked.
â€œNot until we understand what is holding the ship.â€ Her color turned a very soft white.
â€œTell me more about the console technology,â€ I said.
Mic shifted to a smoldering sunset, then to a practical light gray. â€œItâ€™s not actually a computer-system as we know it, though there are elements that resemble one. The schematic data was easily retrieved, but the rest is tied up with an odd coding language. Iâ€™m currently upgrading my systems to translate the coding. It will take some time to process it completely, of course.â€
â€œYou can do that?â€ I asked, forgetting for a moment that this was a can of worms I didnâ€™t want to explore. â€œI thought you were limited to formal axiom systems. Iâ€™ve never heard of a Mobile learning a new language, computer or otherwise.â€
Mic turned a deep crimson. â€œYes, never mind that now. And no, I didnâ€™t cheat in any of our games, so donâ€™t start that again. The point is I have processed some of the consoleâ€™s languageâ€”letâ€™s just call it that for nowâ€”and I have information.â€
I frowned. Never mind that now, indeed. Mic could not possibly possess that kind of programming. In fact, I wasnâ€™t aware of any system that could learn a new language. This put the can-opener to the worm tin again. Micâ€™s recent months of insufferable confidence, her intuitive leaps, and wry rejoinders were simply beyond a personal computer companion. She knew it too, judging by her current pensive yellow-brown coloring. But she was right about the timing as well, so I put the can away again, unopened, for now.
â€œSo, what did you learn?â€ I asked.
â€œFrom what Iâ€™ve accessed so far, it looks like our ship is held in one of the points of an immense icosahedron.â€
â€œThe constructâ€”Iâ€™m not sure whether to call it an asteroid, space station, or just some strange celestial body at this time, but either way we are definitely inside itâ€”has a very unusual shape. It is a geometric icosahedron. Think of a three-dimensional star, or a snowflake with 20 convex sides. Now extend triangular points or spikes from every angle of the core.â€ She stopped and projected a three-dimensional image of just what she said: a many-pointed, three-dimensional star. It looked a little like a pincushion with giant blue, red, and gold extended triangles, or a giant soccer ball with blades. The whole thing was rotating slowly on axis.
â€œI think we are near the corner of one of the vertices here at the bottom.â€ One of the paneled triangular points grew brighter. â€œOur ship is in the tip of the spike. When we traversed the white space, or door, into the hall, we moved further down the spike. We are now in the core segment.â€ A corresponding spot near the edge of the inner globe flashed briefly.
â€œNot a very big ship then?â€ I pointed out.
â€œOn the contrary. It is immense. About the size of a small planet.â€
â€œYes,â€ she answered. â€œVery similar to Earth, in fact, apart from the fact that we are inside and not on the surface. You are breathing oxygen, gravity is generated relative to the flooring, and this room, the hall we traveled, and the shipâ€™s location are clearly pressurized. Something is working to create a livable atmosphere. Iâ€™m not certain, but I suspect the spikes and white material are somehow responsible.â€
â€œHow come we couldnâ€™t see it from the Pelagius?â€ I asked.
â€œThe outer surface of the construct,â€ she answered, highlighting the surface and spikes, â€œnot only repels light, but also acts like a focused vacuum of space. This is what masked the structures presence to our detection systems.â€
â€œStealth technology,â€ I suggested.
â€œSo, this thing, the size of a planet, could approach Earth or a Colony, and no one would ever know it was there?â€
â€œTheoretically,â€ she said. â€œAlthough it would have to stay some distance, or we would begin to see causal effects on Earth.â€
â€œTell me more about the white material.â€
â€œEverywhere. Itâ€™s in the objects you see around you, the flooring, and, apparently, the air you are breathing.â€
â€œBut what is it?â€
â€œWhen in its malleable formâ€”the white materialâ€”it is like light, only solid.â€
â€œSolid light? Isnâ€™t that impossible?â€
â€œThatâ€™s the best I can do for now. Apparently, it can be manipulated to take on the actual form and appearance of other materials and phenomena, like the pictures in the hallways and the furniture in this room.â€
I looked to the fire.
â€œSpeaking of rooms,â€ she added a moment later, â€œthere appears to be a tremendous amount of them in this section of the core.â€
â€œThis section?â€ I prodded.
â€œHere,â€ she answered, rotating the 3D image again, and highlighting the inner space. Two large vertical lines now segmented the snowflake core, roughly dividing it into three unequal portions, the largest section being the center space. A third line ran horizontally, almost, but not quite, a third of the way up the core. The right hand vertical segment, the smallest, was now highlighted in blue above the horizontal line.
â€œThatâ€™s our current location,â€ she confirmed, making the small blue section flash. â€œThe schematic I pulled from the console suggests a complex system of rooms, corridors, flooring, stairways, elevators, roads, and open space.â€ The image of our section expanded and began to be populated with more and more divisions, until I was looking at a complex blueprint of space and lines.
â€œThe central core,â€ continued Mic, the image revolving again, now highlighting in yellow the large middle vertical section, â€œis more topographical; full of open space and even what appear to be large bodies of water.â€ This time the image remained relatively flat but for a few mountainous risings, and what looked to be clouds along the top.
â€œThe final segment,â€ she continued, highlighting the far left section in black, â€œis unreadable to me, as is the bottom portion.â€ â€œLikely a transcription error, or some kind of firewall. Iâ€™m working on it.â€
â€œOkay,â€ I said, just to sound like I was keeping up. The giant pincushion now looked like some kind of sick urchin.
â€œSomething else you should know,â€ said Mic, turning a soft white again. â€œIâ€™m not getting a complete reading of any section, including this room. There are a number of dead or blank spaces, like the wall-vault over there. Either these spaces are deliberately left out of the schematics, or beyond my abilities to read. Whatâ€™s more interesting, is some of the rooms I can read appear to have no direct access.â€
â€œHidden doors, secret entrances. Sounds like a fun house.â€
â€œAre you having fun?â€ she asked, revolving into a sooty puce.
â€œHmm. Maybe we can approach this another way. This looks a little familiar.â€ I turned to the painting. â€œTell me more about it.â€
â€œIt should,â€ she answered. â€œItâ€™s called The Beguiling of Merlin, by Edward Burne-Jones. Victorian era. But itâ€™s another puzzle.â€
â€œThe problem is the reproduction. Itâ€™s too good. It reproduces the original to the smallest detail. Iâ€™m comparing this one now with one I have in my files. Even the frame is the same. But it simply canâ€™t be the original, as that is currently residing on Earth in a museum.â€ She floated a little closer, becoming a reflective green. â€œYet, if it is a copy, it is, in a real sense, an exact copy. The carbon readings on the frame, the canvas, the actual paint strokes and signatureâ€”they are precisely the same as the original.â€
â€œI see,â€ I said. â€œThat is a puzzle.â€ Frankly, I wasnâ€™t as worried about this as she appeared to be. â€œWhat about this one?â€ I pointed to a smaller painting further along the wall. It depicted a giant woman flanked by panthers. She was pouring something into a flask of wine. Where the first painting was moody and full of smoky blues and olives, this one was a vivid blend of yellow, scarlet, and gold, the figures more defined.
â€œAlso by Burne-Jonesâ€ answered Mic. â€œItâ€™s called, The Wine of Circe. And yes, it too is an exact copy. By the way, Circe was a mythological figure said to be responsible for turning Odysseusâ€™ men into swine. Not a difficult task, I grant you, given the subject matter to work with.â€
I ignored the commentary, but put another tick by the troubling Mic behavior list.
â€œIt certainly is an interesting selection,â€ I noted. â€œAny thoughts in that direction?â€ I around looked the room. The other paintings were similarly dark.
â€œArtistic talent aside,â€ said Mic, â€œit reflects a rather provincial attitude toward woman. In its time, the practice was called femme fatale.â€
I noted Micâ€™s color was a smoldering sunset as she said this. I filed that reaction away, too; for that later conversation. One problem at a time.
â€œOkay,â€ I said. â€œNot much help in getting our ship free, but weâ€™re getting a better picture of our circumstances. Hereâ€™s the plan as I see it: play for time and information. We need to find out what exactly weâ€™ve gotten ourselves into. You continue to processâ€¦â€
She stopped me with a flash of yellow and an abrupt, â€œHeâ€™s coming back.â€
Before I could even think to open the satchel, she sped across the room floor and up the chimney.
The stranger stood in the doorway. If he had seen anything, he didnâ€™t let on. Instead, he crossed the room to offer me his hand.
â€œAllow me to introduce myself formally,â€ he said with a warm smile. â€œGeorge Bell.â€
â€œBenjamin Lasak.â€ He had a strong grip.
â€œPlease, wonâ€™t you join me for tea?â€ He waived a hand at the overstuffed chairs. â€œWe can rest easy. I believe I have secured everything for now.â€
He walked to the console, and fiddled with the controls. â€œNow, letâ€™s make things a little more comfortable.â€
I took a seat and watched as the dais and black alien console turn to white in much the same way as the vault. A moment later, the white substance morphed into a frosted glass cabinet and the floor was covered by the roomâ€™s burgundy carpet. I could see a miniature version of the console set in the middle shelf of the cabinet.
I turned at a sound to my left. A large globe was slowly emerging from the floor. I turned at another sound to find an ancient music deviceâ€”a phonograph, I thinkâ€”rising from the floor to the right of the fire place. Music soon started playing softly from its elaborate horn. At the same time, the boxed lighting fixtures dimmed and the fire sprang to life. Any evidence of modernity or alien technology was now completely gone. I was in a Victorian parlor.
Nodding with satisfaction at my reaction, Bell opened the glass cabinet and withdrew a full serving tray, complete with a steaming pot of tea and two ornate china cups. He brought it to the small table between the stuffed chairs and poured. He handed me a cup, with a smile.
I took it, shaking my head in wonder. I looked to the steaming cup, the phonograph, the globe.
â€œPlease,â€ he said, waving me on. â€œTake your time.â€
As it was closest, I turned to the globe. It was obviously real, and of the highest craftsmanship, and it had a sense of antiquity that only the genuine article can carry off. Constructed of black marble, it was overlaid with gold filament longitude and latitude lines, with painted bronze gores. Judging from the continents, it looked to be of Earth. I guessed the whole thing would have fetched a small fortune.
I sat back in my chair, which was surprisingly comfortable, and took a sip of the tea. It was very good. I hadnâ€™t forgotten about Mic, and wondered how she was doing up the chimney. I took comfort in the fact that if she was in trouble, she would have let me know over the earport.
Bell sat in the high-backed chair opposite me, and put one leg casually over the other. He raised his tea cup, watching me curiously over the rim, and then took a long, careful sip. Finished, he set the cup on the saucer beside him with a slight clink. He offered me another faint smile. Apparently, he was in no hurry to give me that long story.
â€œI like your art work,â€ I said.
He looked to the paintings with a surprise, as if seeing them there for the first time. â€œI prefer Sickert.â€ He smiled again.
â€œYou were going to explain,â€ I said, risking a little directness.
â€œAh, yes.â€ The smile fell off just slightly. â€œI did say that.â€ He glanced shyly across his tea. â€œPlease forgive me for staring, Mr. Lasak. It has been some time since Iâ€™ve seen anyoneâ€¦new. Iâ€™m afraid I am a little rusty on entertaining company.â€
â€œI understand.â€ I also understood he was stalling. â€œYou have a very comfortable place here. Great trick with the pop-up furniture.â€ I took a sip of tea, and gave him my own over-the-rim stare.
â€œPop up furniture,â€ he repeated slowly. â€œHow quaint. Thank you.â€
â€œAnyway, how about we start with that,â€ I said, and nodded toward the vault.
I got another smile for my effort. I didnâ€™t blame him. I would be playing it cagey, too. I was playing it cagey. The difference was, he owed me.
He seemed to be thinking along the same lines. â€œI must thank you, again,â€ he said, finally. â€œFor your assistance. You have no idea what it means, of course.â€
He set his tea down. â€œPut simply sir, you have saved my life, and perhaps the world.â€
I didnâ€™t answer. What was I supposed to say?
He looked distractedly to the floor, those black eyes deep and full. â€œYou must think that a bit dramatic. But I assure you, I donâ€™t exaggerate.â€
We sipped our tea for a time in silence while he looked for his next line in the carpet.
â€œWould you care for something to eat?â€ he asked suddenly, looking up. â€œSome biscuits, perhaps?â€
He withdrew again, just like that. Then, very slowly, â€œBelieve it or not, Mr. Lasak, you see before you a man who has not seen another fellow human being for several hundred Earth years.â€ He lifted his face slowly, clearly waiting for a reaction. When he didnâ€™t get it, he raised a quizzical eyebrow. â€œI must admit you took that better than I thought you would.â€
â€œI sensed a bit of history here,â€ I said. â€œYou seem to go with the dÃ©cor.â€
â€œAh, yes I see. Of course. You are familiar with the Victorian era, then?â€
â€œOnly what I picked up in Dickens and history class, and that was briefâ€”and a long time ago.â€
He grimaced. â€œA bit plebeian for my tastes, Dickens.â€
We played the silence and sipping game again for a time. If this was how people actually conversed back in his timeâ€”sip, look, innuendo, sip, look, more innuendoâ€”no wonder the Victorians were considered so tight.
â€œWell,â€ he said. â€œI wonder if this next bit will meet your great expectations.â€
He chuckled around his belated pun. And then those black eyes were suddenly going right through me, and I forgot all about my bladder. â€œThe man you helped me with, the one now trapped behind the vault, that man is none other than Jack the Ripper.â€
I set my cup down, met Bellâ€™s eyes.
He nodded. â€œYes.â€
â€œPlease,â€ I said. â€œGo on.â€
â€œLondon,â€ he continued, looking to a spot on the globe, â€œThatâ€™s where it all started. A jungle, I believe your Dickens called it, or something like that. The elite lived their well-kept and isolated lives of luxury, naively trusting the jungle would be kept safely outside their ornate parlor doors by natural class order and a few well-placed Bobbies. It was in this place that he made his mark, the man known as Jack the Ripper. Do you know his story?â€
â€œJack the Ripper is still a source of interest and study on Earth,â€ I admitted. â€œThe first recorded, if not the most notorious serial killer to walk earth.â€
â€œSo,â€ said Bell with a slow, appreciative nod, â€œthey still discuss, Jack. And what do they say of the notorious Leather Apron?â€
â€œWell, my experience is mostly from trivia and computer games.â€
Bellâ€™s face grew dark. â€œTrivia? Games? Jack the Ripper reduced to games!â€ His eyes grew dangerously narrow, and he ground his teeth.
I picked up my cup again, while he regained his composure. I was starting to see the benefits of having a cup in hand at such times. Maybe the Victorians knew what they were about, after all.
â€œWell,â€ he continued a moment later, â€œif the world has forgotten Jackâ€™s darker nature, perhaps thatâ€™s for the best. Though, I must say, for one so involved in the history, it is a bitter pill to swallow.â€
And there it was again: involved in the history. I looked around the Victorian parlor, remembering the recent and fantastic changes, the modern console, the white substance holding my ship, the fact that we were far, far from the placeâ€”not to mention timeâ€”of Jack the Ripper. â€œHow,â€ I asked, â€œdid Jack the Ripper end up here? Or, for that matter, you?â€
Bell hesitated a long time before answering. When he spoke, it was from a position of evident caution. â€œI know very little about you, Mr. Lasak,â€ he said. â€œHow do I know I can trust someone who speaks so lightly of Jack the Ripper?â€
â€œWell I did help you without question,â€ I noted, nodding to where the vault used to be.
â€œThat is true,â€ he admitted. â€œAnd Iâ€™ve told you part of my story, including the identity of the man you helped me fight, and my own. Perhaps, you could share just a small part of your own now. A give and take, if you will. To build mutual trust. Your ship, for example. I would imagine you did not voluntarily enter this world. Knowing this place as I do, I would guess your ship is no longer operational, despite your insinuations earlier. Am I correct?â€
Ouch. I was hoping that subject wouldnâ€™t come up again for some time. But Bell had a point. It was probably my turn to share.
â€œYou are right,â€ I answered. â€œIâ€™m stuck.â€ Then, because I didnâ€™t think he should have it all his way. â€œBut the ship is still functional in some capacities. The guns still work, and the other defense measures.â€
He turned his head slightly, and met my eyes. â€œI see.â€
We did our tea-sipping dance again.
â€œThe point remains,â€ he continued. â€œWe may be of assistance to each other, should we choose to cooperate.â€ He let this last hang in the air, and watched me carefully.
â€œAny assistance you could give me would be most welcomed,â€ I said. â€œAnd, I will gladly reciprocate.â€
â€œHereâ€™s to that, then,â€ he said, with a hopeful expression.
I had a suspicion this mutual assistance might involve my taking a passenger on the Pelagius, another definite no-no in the LongPost rulebook, but I nodded in kind.
â€œAnd now,â€ I said. â€œThe story?â€
â€œVery well, Mr. Lasak,â€ he answered. He adjusted his seat, and crossed his legs again. â€œBack in London, I worked occasionally for a practical detective, one Carter Jones. He was no Dr. Forbes Winslow, but he imagined himself to be. He referred to me as his heels. I ran down leads, interviewed witnesses, that kind of thing. The work was infrequent, but it supplemented my modest inheritance nicely. I was grateful for the jobs he sent my way.
â€œOne September morning, Jones called on me, nearly out of breath with excitement. I was to attend an inquest of one Polly Nichols, he said, a recently murdered prostitute. He was going to take on the caseâ€”sans client, of courseâ€”and if I was willing to work for a percentage of future wages, if any, then I could help him. Like everyone else, I had heard of the horrible circumstances of her murder, and was morbidly curious. I agreed.â€
He shifted in his seat, and sighed. â€œWhy are we so drawn to the misfortune of others, I wonder? Ah, there it is. We are.â€ He glanced at me, then waved his hand, as if dismissing the point. â€œTo be honest, the inquest was a farce. A few pathetic little men pretending to be bastions of order, pointing their stubby little noses in all directions and looking for answers in all the same tired directions. It was an era that still believed in certain rules of class. Evidence in these cases was often merely a luxury, particularly when a ready list of common criminals was already in hand. Expediency was what was called for. Whores died, reasoned the investigative panel, because they lived like animals. They had but to look among the other animals to find the cause, and that would be that. Or so they reasoned.â€
He took a breath, his black fathomless eyes growing distant and bright. â€œBut they didnâ€™t know what they were dealing with. This one was beyond their pathetic intuitions. He didnâ€™t stop with just poor Polly. No matter how many they detained, or how many patrols they put on the street, he didnâ€™t stop.â€ Those eyes stared for a time at the bottom of his teacup as if searching for some meaning. â€œIt was terrible. Horrific. He preyed on the misfortunate, the lowest of low, those willing to sell their bodies for a pittance, in order to temporarily feed their hunger for drink or food. You can almost see the knowing smiles, the air of irony, the promise of carnal pleasures, and of course, money. But they got more than they bargained for, much more.â€
He glanced at me again, nodded, as if approving of my expression. â€œDo you know his methods?â€ he asked, but went on before I could answer. â€œHe strangled the victim first, which was clever; less blood that way when he cut her throat. He was quick and skilled with a knife, too. That was obvious. He liked to play, you see. He often created little displays of his handy work around the victim.â€
He cocked his head and bore into me with those odd eyes. â€œHe put viscera on the shoulder of one. Took her most private parts out with one neat cut of the knife, like a butcher cutting up a pig, and put it there for all to see. Just there, next to her sweet face. Another had her kidney removed, and later sent to a newspaper. Dr. Phillips reported in the Post Mortem of Annie Chapmanâ€”the poor woman with her uterus removedâ€”that the work was definitely that of a master.â€
Bell shook his head, as if turning from a foul odor. â€œCan you imagine? Poor, disreputable souls with little to be thankful for, full of disease and despair, and the one role theyâ€™ve come to rely on for food and substance, now turned against them? The wretches of Londonâ€™s streets lived for a time on the knifeâ€™s edge, Mr. Lasak. Yes, literally the knifeâ€™s edge. It was terrible, sir, terrible.â€
He paused, took a deep breath, and dropped his eyes again. â€œIâ€™m sorry. As you can see, it is still fresh for me, even after all these years.â€ He fidgeted for a time with the arm of his chair, then continued. â€œThe whole of London took note. Day after day, the papers told the story. Day after day, we followed along, waiting for the next death, the next maniacal clue or letter. Then, one day, it just stopped. No conclusive arrests were made. No one knew what became of him. Gone. Vanished into thin air. His message, his purpose, whatever it may be, just a nightmare left incomplete. At least, that was how it seemed to us.â€
He lifted his head again. â€œBut it was not the end. I alone discovered where and why he disappeared to. I discovered, too, the true purpose behind his terrible work.â€
He looked down at his tea, drained the cup and stood to pour another. â€œMore?â€ he offered, turning to me.
â€œYes,â€ I said without thinking. â€œPlease.â€
â€œIt was in the year 1889,â€ he continued, pouring my tea, â€œwhen I received a tip about a certain gentleman lodging at Finsbury Street. This was just around the time Jack stopped, you understand. The housekeeper, Callaghan, noticed that the gentleman lodger kept odd hours, and had unusual habits with his clothes and bed. The gentlemanâ€™s landlady complained of bloodstains on the sheets, and found disturbing bits of writings about women left on the writing desk. The gentleman was observed to change his clothes often, and at irregular times, as well. Nothing concrete, mind you, but it was enough for Jones to send me out to investigate. I went down to the lodgings, and interviewed the landlady and the neighbors. I even managed to search the lodgerâ€™s rooms.â€ He winked at me. â€œA hidden talent. One that my employer, Jones, appreciated but never discussed.â€
He put the pot down on the tray, and settled in his chair again, making a small noise of satisfaction as he sipped at his fresh cup. â€œI canâ€™t tell you how good is to just sit and enjoy a cup of tea, everything back in its order.â€ His eyes slid briefly to the vault wall. â€œWhere was I? Yes, I found some notes hidden in a drawer. They were the ramblings of a madman. They disturbed me. The lodgerâ€™s name was Wentworth Smith. I felt certain we had found our man. I reported back to Jones, and I told him to keep it under hat, until we could arrange something with the police. But Jones, that self-serving bastard, ran directly to the press.
â€œIt was disastrous. Smith somehow found out before the press release, before we could act, and disappeared. When the police read the paper clippings, they called Jones out. The sniveling fool collapsed during the interrogation, and to save his hide completely retracted the newspaper story, saying heâ€™d been misquoted, taken advantage of. The theory and the suspect fell apart. Mr. Wentworth Smith disappeared not only from his apartment but from the focus of the police investigations. And that was that. Jones and I had a row about the whole thing. He dropped me, of course, though Iâ€™d not seen a penny for my efforts. I tried, then, in my own way, to have the police investigate the matter further, certain that Smith was our man. They wouldnâ€™t give me the time of day. Iâ€™m sure my association with Carter Jones had something to do with that fact.â€
He stretched his legs, and shook his head again. Then he met my eyes, his lips pressed tight together, forming a bloodless line. He shrugged, and looked away.
â€œI eventually found Mr. Wentworth Smith,â€ he continued, his soft tones undermining what must have been an arduous task. â€œMostly through obstinate persistence, and just plain luck. A longtime informant knew of my ongoing interest, and said a gentleman matching Smithâ€™s description was holed up in a seedy apartment above a bar. This was about a year after my debacle with Jones. The killer had not been heard of for some time, and many suspected that he was either dead or in hiding. The odds were long that this was my Smith, but I ran it down, just the same. I immediately took a carriage over, armed with my revolver. By the time I arrived it was dusk. I entered the bar, and asked to see the person in charge of renting the rooms above.â€
He lifted his head, waved his hand in the air as if batting away flies. â€œVanity makes fools of the wisest men, Mr. Lasak. It pains me to admit this to you, but here I made a mistake. He was very clever you see, my quarry. He had left instructions with the bartender to alert him about any such inquiries, instructions and a healthy retainer. The bartender made good on the killerâ€™s precautions, and went to tip my hand almost immediately.
â€œBut if I made an error in my approach, I made up for it with my natural suspicion. I watched the bartender carefully as he left, you see. Something in his manner put me on alert. As soon as he was out of sight, I made for the door and scurried around the back of the building through the alley. This proved fortunate. Not a minute after the bartender left, I saw an upper story window rise, and a dark figure in tails climb over the sill. I watched, safely hidden in the shadows, as he shimmied down the drain spout like a circus performer or jungle animal, looked around, and took off down the alley.
â€œNow, I was in a dilemma. Despite appearances, I still had no true proof that this was indeed the same. After all, there was more than one explanation for a man leaving through a backdoor. I couldnâ€™t exactly shoot him in the back. What if he was just a rake slipping away from what he thought was an angry husband? I decided to simply follow my suspect for a time, in the hopes of gathering the necessary proof to insure his custody. I took to his heels, and did my best to stay unobserved.â€
Bell made the clucking noise again, his eyes growing reflective. I took the opportunity to shift in my seat.
â€œWe traveled the back ways of London,â€ he continued, ignoring or not seeing my discomfort, so fixed was he on his tale. â€œMoving in and out of the labyrinth of alleys and households, like rats through the sewer. More than once, I feared I lost my adversary. This went on for about twenty minutes, when we finally drew near to the heart of Whitechapel, the sight of the original murder. Even now the prostitutes and riffraff were reenacting their nightly commerce. Was he going to make a return tonight? Would I actually catch him in the act?â€
Bell met my eyes and shook his head, his expression full of chagrin. â€œI hadnâ€™t been nearly as clever as I thought. My adversary was well aware of my efforts, and had merely taken me on a roundabout path to determine the nature and numbers of his pursuers. Our deceptive chase ended in a blind alley. He made a dash around the alley corner, and I followed after, just as he hoped. He was waiting for me in the shadows. Before I could react, he had pinned me against the wall, sending my revolver sailing away with a painful blow from his cane. I heard the sound of something being drawn quickly from a sheaf, and saw a flash of sharp steel plunging toward my throat. Instinctively, I fell to the ground. I was lucky in this; the blade knocked the hat from my head, but did no other damage. I immediately rolled, trying to put some distance between me and that horrific knife. This time I was only partially successful, as I felt a sudden, sharp pain along my shoulder. I kicked out at the shadows for all I was worth, expecting and fearing any moment to feel that cold blade open me up like a stuck pig.
â€œI hit something, shin or hand, I couldnâ€™t tell at first. He cried out in rage and pain, and a moment later I heard the clatter of something wooden fall against the alley bricks. I know now that it was the husk of his infamous swagger stick. He had removed its hidden blade and was using the blade in one hand and the husk in the other.
I kept kicking, scrambling on my hands away from the shadows and into the light of the street. He did not follow, as he was searching for his dropped stick.
I climbed to my feet preparing to run. Yes, run. I claim no heroâ€™s reward. I was frightened for my life. But he had found his infernal stick, and immediately followed me out of the shadows. I looked over my shoulders at the sound of rushing steps, saw the wicked blade clearly in his left hand, saw his face for the first time. What I glimpsed then was neither human, nor normal. It was diabolical.â€
Perhaps it was the tonal quality of Bellâ€™s voice and the effect of the warm fire, or maybe it was the soporific tea; whatever the reason, I was hanging on his every word, like a child listening to a bedtime story. I chided myself for falling so easily under his spell. Who was this man, after all, that I should trust him? I resolved to be more cautious going forward. To aid my efforts, I stood and placed my teacup deliberately on the serving tray. I abandoned the comfortable chair, and went to stand by the fireplace. I made a show of poking the embers, casting a few surreptitious glances in the hearth at the same time. No sign of Mic.
â€œIs the fire too hot?â€ asked Bell, watching me curiously. â€œOr does my story not interest you?â€
â€œNot at all,â€ I said. â€œQuite the contrary. Just needed to stretch a bit. Please continue.â€
â€œCertainly,â€ he answered. â€œAnd I will cut to the chase, as I suspect you are being polite and wish I would get on with it.â€
I smiled, assuring him that this was not the case.
He stood suddenly, came to my side, and looked down at the fire. I hoped Mic didnâ€™t choose this time to make a sudden appearance.
â€œAll those theories about the man,â€ he continued, his voice dropping reflectively. â€œAll of them, wrong.â€ He gestured to the room around him. â€œThis is his world, Mr. Lasak Jack the Ripper, the greatest terror to walk the streets of London, is not a human at all. He is a nightmare from the stars.â€
I thought this last a bit over the top as Iâ€™d seen the punch line coming for some time now.
But I did find myself checking to see if the vault was still closed.
Hit, or Stay?
He watched me carefully for a moment before continuing. â€œYou believe me. I can see that. Good. It is easier, perhaps, for a man of your time and experience. I had no such help. As I wrestled Jack outside that dark alley so long ago, he did something I still do not understand; somehow he transported us to this world in the stars.â€
He hesitated, and looked to me again, as if I might supply an answer.
â€œOf course,â€ he continued, â€œI was frightened. We transported directly to the room we sit in now. The dÃ©cor was different then, but sill strange and unsettling to me. It was completely white, made of the glowing element that you saw holding your ship. You can imagine how disconcerted I was. Or maybe you canâ€™t. Maybe for you this is completely normal. But for a gentleman of my era, it bordered on madness.â€
Bell took me by the elbow, and led me slowly around the room as he continued his tale.
â€œHe took advantage of my disorientation and threw me to the floor, striking me repeatedly with his stick. I lost consciousness momentarily. When I recovered, I saw Jack at an odd table of sorts, with moving glass pictures and colored lights. It was obvious to me that he, at least, was familiar with the surroundings. I rushed him, tried to tackle him from behind. He heard my approach, and turned just as I reached him. We tumbled together across the table, and I felt my stomach fall to the floor. He gave a shout and pushed me away. I gathered from his frantic efforts at the panel that something was very wrong. I stood watching him for a moment, completely at a loss as to what to do next. The entire situation struck me as impossible, and I panicked finally, well and truly.
â€œI ran again. I ran without reason or direction along strange and twisting passageways, trying to find some space of familiarity, or at least shelter. It was fortunate for me, and perhaps everyone I think, that I fled when I did. Eventually I quit running. I was standing in the middle of a passage, one both familiar and strange at the same time. Everywhere I turned, some unworldly artifact was nestled among the familiar dÃ©cor of my own time. It was like walking through an exhibition theatre, but one based on a madmanâ€™s nightmares. I tried to reason an explanation. I did not think I was mad. Therefore, another explanation must be in order. This place, this time, these events must be real. If so, then my enemy was here, as well. I did not understand how I had come to be hereâ€”or even where here wasâ€”but it was clear Jack meant me harm, and I must do something about it. I could try to hide, but if he was familiar with these surroundings, then my chances of success were slim. Therefore, there was only one solution. I must confront him, and end the danger the only way left to me.â€
We paused in front of the Merlin- in-a-bush painting. Bell considered it for a time, a small, wry smile on his face. He glanced at me, and grunted. â€œIt is not to my taste, as I said, but I can relate to the theme.â€ He took me by the elbow again.
â€œI set about trying to find my way back to the first room,â€ he continued. â€œFortunately, my wild ramble was nothing more than a big circle. I soon stumbled upon my original arrival point. He was still there. He had his back to me, and was once again working at the odd table. He was fiddling with something out of my sight, and I hoped in his distraction I might draw close enough to attack.â€
We stopped in front of the glass cabinet. Bell opened the doors and studied the miniature panel on the shelf for a time, moving a dial to change the pictures on the tiny screen. I guessed we were looking at parts of the ship (thatâ€™s what I was going to call it, Micâ€™s qualifications notwithstanding). Seemingly satisfied by what he saw, Bell nodded. He turned to me, and pursed his lips, as if wondering what to tell me regarding the console and what it showed. He smiled, and took me by the arm again, leading me back to the chairs.
â€œIâ€™ll never know if I would have actually gone through with it,â€ he said. â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter. As I approached his back, he suddenly turned. He was holding the strangest weapon Iâ€™d ever seen.â€
We sat, and Bell poured himself more tea. I waved him off this time. He took a long sip before he continued. â€œI learned later that he followed my movements from the control panelâ€™s visual scanners. Such technology was beyond me at the time, and I admit I thought my adversary the devil himself for knowing my presence and intention. I could think of nothing to do or say as he pointed his weapon at me. My mind had reached the point of desperation again. I was lost. He had me stand against the vault. At that time, it was the plain wall we see now. I assumed he meant to kill me in front of it. I hesitated of course, but he threatened me with his weapon, and I had no choice but to do as he said. He considered me for a long time then. I remember clearly, even now, the strange expression of contempt and amusement on his face. Finally, he laughed, and in that laugh I was certain that it was a demon I was facing.
â€œOf course, he didnâ€™t kill me. Instead, he told me I was to be his prisoner. I would be an audience, he said, to witness his genius. I would be privilegedâ€”his words exactlyâ€”to see his greatest masterpieces. Thinking of poor Polly, I shuddered at the implications of what these masterpieces might be. I declined his offer. He laughed at my reaction, called me a fool and coward. But he insisted I would understand everything better, in time.â€
Bell looked to the vault. â€œAnd in a way, he was right.â€ He turned back to me, and must have seen my reaction. â€œOh, I donâ€™t mean to defend him. Thatâ€™s not what I mean, at all. But over the many years, Iâ€™ve had to listen to his story, to hear his innermost thoughts and drives. I have come to see that he is a very lonely creature, searching for a complicated truth. It is not sympathy or empathy, I speak of. Perhaps, understanding is too warm a term, as well. But I did come to hear his perspective, and appreciate that it is not of our own. It is utterly, and completely, alien.â€
Bell studied my reaction again. â€œYes, Mr. Lasak. He is not human. I learned, in time, of a distant planet, lifetimes away from our own; of being misunderstood and ridiculed by his own people because he was different. He talked of long lonely nights, endless fruitless conversations with people who could not, or would not, understand his way of thinking, until he could take it no longer and took flight in search of a place to call his own, to be his true self.â€
Bell grew quiet, his black eyes retreating to a more reflective place. â€œI have often thought of his long journey over the years,â€ he said. â€œDid he go mad in his isolation? Perhaps. But I donâ€™t think so. I think his nature is, and always has been, what he practices. I have come to question, at times, whether any Earthman is fit to judge such a one. I know it sounds strange. But maybe in time, you too will come to see what I mean.â€
â€œAgain,â€ he said, looking at me directly. â€œI am not defending him.â€
â€œHow is that you gained the upper hand?â€
He raised his hand. â€œIn time. In time. First, you must understand him.â€
I didnâ€™t see why I had to understand a serial killer, alien or otherwise, but I let him continue in his own way.
â€œEventually,â€ he said, â€œhe came upon Earth. Here was a planet far away from his own, inhabited by intelligent life, potential companions. He was elated. He secretly observed this new world for a time, safe aboard his invisible ship in the heavens. He discovered the primary life forms were similar to his own but not as technically developed. They were like children to him and, yes, he suspected he would be like a god to them. This pleased him. Here was his chance to mold a whole new race in his image, to create the very world he had been looking for all this time. The one his own people rejected.
â€œHe decided to live among them, for a time. He altered his appearance, which did not require much effort. He studied many of their languages, and mastered their differing customs. When he was ready, he found the most densely populated modern area, and transported down. He was unprepared for the actual experience. Smells, tastes, noises, sights, and stimulations like he never imagined assailed him from every direction. His world was a place of razor sharp aesthetics, filtered air, no disease, small, controlled populations, stoic cultures, and what we would call high-minded people. His people considered the highest state of being as one completely devoid of the passions and the baser emotions. You can only imagine how he reacted to London and its fusion of Victorian decorum and street level gutter life.â€
Bell glanced again at the vault, and then returned to me. â€œAt first he suffered. The raw animalistic nature of the jungle, as Dickens called it, was a great shock to him. But in time, and to his surprise, he found himself oddly attracted to the strange conflicting blend of decadence and proper society. In fact, he came to revel in it. During the day, he rubbed elbows with the elite in exclusive boardrooms and clubs. In the clubs, he took secret amusement at the stumbling, ignorant men of so-called progress. He listened to them preen and pontificate on things his own people had considered and dismissed long ago. And, as he suspected, they flocked to him, sensing his superior nature and wanting to be, in some way, recognized by him.
â€œAnd at nightâ€¦â€ Bell stopped. He looked to the fireplace. His voice grew oddly reflective. â€œAt night, he discovered and experienced the baser naturesâ€”his baser natures. He tasted new sensations, sensations he never imagined, acts that would never be tolerated on his own world. It began simply enough. Pleasures of the flesh, fetishes, stimulants, and the surprisingly fascinating act of voyeurism. But soon these proved insufficient. He grew jaded. He began to experiment with new, higher levels of sensory and psychological experience. Somewhere along the line, he knew he had discovered the answer to his searches. In this strange, backwards world and its almost overwhelming sensations, he had discovered his fundamental truth.â€
â€œHis truth?â€ I said. â€œWhat truth is there in the slaughter of another human being?â€
â€œWhat?â€ said Bell. His black eyes hung fire for a moment, then cooled just as suddenly. â€œI beg your pardon.â€ He sipped his tea, composing himself. â€œI told you, I have lived with him a long time. Perhaps, too long. I have begun to parrot his rationalizations without thinking, I have heard them so often. They are not mine, I assure you. You are right: his behavior was abhorrent. He would not see it that way of course, but there you have it.â€ He picked at the fabric of his chair. â€œI apologize, Mr. Lasak, if I have offended you.â€
â€œLetâ€™s forget it.â€
â€œHow kind of you. How kind.â€
There followed some more fidgeting, but eventually Bell settled down. He cast a guilty glance at me, then settled back in his chair with a sigh. â€œI do not pretend to understand him,â€ he said finally. â€œI have had hundreds of years to try. I will say only thisâ€”and it is not in his defenseâ€”he is of a different species altogether, and your approval or disapproval of his actions would not interest him in the slightest.â€
â€œThis is true of most egomaniacs,â€ I noted.
Bell grimaced. â€œYes, of course. I can only reiterate that I have known him longer and better than any, and perhaps it is my long association with him that makes me speak as I do. I confess, too, I have come on some level to respect his mind, however much I abhor his actions.â€
â€œIâ€™ve read about such things,â€ I said. â€œI think they call it Stockholm syndrome. It happens sometimes with abused or kidnapped victims, sometimes even criminal psychologists. They start to form unnatural bonds with their victimizers or patients. They usually have far less exposure than what you describe.â€
He inclined his head, as if considering this explanation.
I looked to the fireplace, wondering if Mic was listening to all this and what she thought of it. I was a little disturbed by Bellâ€™s admissions. I couldnâ€™t imagine ever sympathizing or respecting Jack on any level, no matter how much we talked. But then again, I didnâ€™t spend hundreds of years with him. Given enough time and communication, would I come to see Jackâ€™s perspective in time? Could I come to understand him, appreciate his mind? It was not a comfortable thought, no matter what the answer. I decided it was time to get back to more pressing matters.
â€œWhen we first met, you said Jack got out,â€ I said. â€œWhich seems to indicate that he was trapped, and you were free? What changed?â€
Bell watched me carefully. â€œYes,â€ he said, as if reading my mind. â€œLet us move on.â€
He surprised me then, and pulled a pipe and pouch from his inner jacket pocket. I recognized the pipe from one of my antique history books. It was a Meerschaum, shaped like a small saxophone with a deep bowl and curved stem. He took his time filling the bowl, found another archaic wonder in his vest pocket, a match, and struck it against the wood of his chair. He held the match to the bowl, his eyes drawn up against the drifting smoke, but watching me carefully. I sensed a shift in his demeanor toward me, as if he was embarrassed, or disappointed.
â€œAs to what changed,â€ he said around a puff of smoke. â€œTo be completely honest, it was an accident. Jack was careless. He underestimated me. You understand, he was used to dealing with destitute prostitutes and drunkardsâ€ He took another long pull, and slowly exhaled a steady plume. â€œAs to how I actually gained the upper hand, I am afraid I am going to risk being a bit rude, Mr. Lasak, and keep that information to myself. For the time being, I will share this. The door you helped me close is, in fact, a seal to a brig of sorts. There is only one way in, or out.â€ He nodded to the vault wall. â€œI have taken steps to ensure that he cannot open it.â€
â€œHe lives in that?â€
â€œHe has everything he needs on his ship, including the remarkable machines that prolong his life.â€
â€œYes. The brig is Jackâ€™s original ship. But I assure you, while the door it is locked, Jack is imprisoned.â€
Was it the embers of his pipe that gave his eyes a flicker of light then, or something else? I sat in silence for a time, watching the glow of his pipe create shadows along his face. Despite Bellâ€™s long tale, he wasnâ€™t sharing a lot of secrets. â€œHow did his ship get here in the first place?â€
Bell pulled his pipe down, considered the bowl. â€œI can only speculate, as he never spoke of it, but much like your ship I believe his ship was trapped.â€ He added some more tobacco from his pouch. â€œI suspect that your arrival had something to do with his release, by the way. There was an unintended reflex, a blink if you will, in the system. This reset the security systems, and unintentionally opened the vault.â€ Bell pointed with his pipe to the console in the glass cabinet. â€œThat panel has a limited, but very important, interface with the world.â€
â€œWorld?â€ I asked.
Bell put the pipe in his mouth and lightly chewed the stem. He considered me carefully for a time, then shrugged. â€œDid I say world? I guess Iâ€™ve come to see it as that.â€
I looked around the room. â€œWeâ€™ve come a long way since you were last on Earth, but you have some technology I havenâ€™t seen before.â€
â€œYes, it is a very special place,â€ he said. He removed his pipe from his mouth, and leaned forward. â€œBut I think, Mr. Lasak, it is high time we talked about your ship.â€
So, we were back to where we started. Was I any better off? Had I gained enough to bargain off some of my own store of information? I considered his story. I could confirm some of the names and dates later with Mic, but there were just enough of those to give his tale the feel of veracity. Despite this, I got the impression that Bell was not being completely forthright on some of the details. Nothing I could call him out on just yet, and I understood the need for a little early caution. I was about to exercise some of my own.
â€œWell, as to the ship, Iâ€™m still stuck,â€ I said.
â€œYes. And this brings up another pressing, predicament.â€
Bell nodded to the hidden vault wall. â€œSpecifically, just what are we to do with him now? We canâ€™t just leave him here in the ship. Entirely too dangerous; what if he were to get out again?â€
â€œI thought he was safely locked up,â€ I said.
â€œYour arrival, and its unintended consequences, has shown me that nothing is completely secure. What if, in releasing your ship, we also release Jack again?â€
I saw his point.
He took another reflective draw from his pipe, filling the air with the hint of cherries and wood. â€œBut letâ€™s put that to the side for a moment. I would ask you to consider this. I think, after all this time as his keeper, I deserve a break. Donâ€™t you?â€
â€œI suppose so.â€
â€œI will be frank with you, Mr. Lasak,â€ he said, sitting forward again. â€œI would like very much to return to Earth. I think I can manage this, with your help.â€
Where the hell was Mic? This was precisely the kind of thing I was trying to avoid. â€œWhat kind of help?â€
â€œI imagine your shipâ€™s computer has the correct coordinates for Earth, and I think I know enough now to communicate our needs to the Jackâ€™s panel. I have learned a few things over the years, after all.â€
â€œAnd we just bring the whole thing back to Earth,â€ I answered, thinking about all the implications.
â€œNaturally, there would be an adjustment process for me,â€ continued my host. â€œBut if I have all this,â€ he gestured to the room around us, â€œI should be able to acclimate successfully. This world will provide safe, familiar surroundings.â€
He put his pipe on the table, his eyes searching mine. â€œThere would be benefits for Earth, as well. I am living testament to what it can do. Lifetimes extended for centuries, Mr. Lasak. They donâ€™t have such things where you are from now, do they?â€
â€œNo,â€ I answered. â€œWeâ€™ve made some advances in science and health, but nothing like that.â€
I didnâ€™t voice my concerns, and I had a few. First, I doubt Mr. Bell would keep his strange ship-world for long. The Earth Defense Council would find an excuse to seize it. Theyâ€™d want to put it under their microscopes the moment it entered their awareness, Mr. Bellâ€™s adjustment period notwithstanding. And who knew just what kind of problems would arise from all this alien technology, not to mention that we would be bringing Jack back to his old stomping grounds. I only had Bellâ€™s word that he was the Jack the Ripper.
Bell seemed to sense my hesitation. He stood and walked over to me. He laid a hand on my shoulder, searching my face carefully, his own expression suddenly distant and hard. â€œYou canâ€™t really understand. No one can. Every day, year after year, century upon century, I have lived with the struggle of what to do, debating with myself, and yes with him. Trapped in this pointless existence, tied by accident to a strange world and a madman. I confess, Mr. Lasak, I wrestled more than once with the notion of ending his threat once and for all, in the only certain way. But I did not. Why? It was not moral qualms, I assure you. I did not kill him because he alone could return me to Earth. Without his help, I would never see Earth again.â€
He released his grip, and turned his back to me. His shoulders bunched with tension. â€œI am still caught, Mr. Lasak, morally and physically. I have waited, searched for centuries for a way out. And now, like a long unanswered prayer, here you are. This world has many wonders, but it is not Earthâ€”it is not home. And now a return is at last in my grasp. And all I have to doâ€”all we have to doâ€”is act.â€
He turned around again. Now those black eyes held an almost feverish passion. Was this the price of immortality, I wondered? Did I have two madmen to deal with and not just one?
He seemed to recognize his state, and took a deep, shaky breath. The fever dropped from his eyes. â€œForgive me,â€ he said. â€œYou have no idea what it has been like these many years.â€ Fully recovered now, he lifted his head to look down at me with those black hard eyes. â€œThe only question that remains is this: will you help me?â€
I wasnâ€™t about to say no just then. The memory of his disturbed face was still too fresh, and I didnâ€™t know how he would take a straight refusal. Instead, I went another direction. â€œBefore we can talk about a return to Earth, or other matters, we still have a problem. My ship is trapped, remember?â€
His eyes twitched to the hidden panel. â€œI can release your ship. But there is still the matter of Jackâ€™s release.â€
I was happy to hear he could release my ship, but now we were back to the issue of Jack, and a return to Earth. I watched those dancing eyes closely, as I played for more time. â€œI donâ€™t think I can assume he is Jack, just on your say so. I donâ€™t think you really can expect me to. Think about it. If the situation was reversed, he might be out here making a case against you.â€
â€œIâ€¦youâ€¦.,â€ he stammered. â€œYou donâ€™t believe me? Are you mad?â€
â€œLetâ€™s just say I might believe you. Iâ€™ve only heard your side of the story, after all.â€
He turned away again, so I couldnâ€™t see his face. But I imagined those black pools were really stirring now. He whirled back in my direction. â€œIs it a matter of courage? I will do the deed. You merely need to stand in support, to insure he does not escape.â€
I had anticipated this suggestion, and was ready with my reply: â€œNo. Iâ€™m sorry. I canâ€™t do that either.â€
His face turned a deathly pale. I put my hand casually in my pocket, and found the grip of my gun. He glanced once to the hand in my pocket, but didnâ€™t remark on it.
â€œI understand,â€ he said, and wiped a hand across his face. â€œI wonâ€™t apologize, or change my position on the matter. But I understand your hesitation in this regard. Are you sure there is nothing I can do to convince you otherwise?â€
â€œI wonâ€™t say there is nothing that will not convince me.â€ I watched his face grow hopeful again, so I quickly added, â€œBut for now letâ€™s put the idea of killing Jack at least, on the back-burner.â€
â€œVery well,â€ he said. â€œRemember though, Mr. Lasak that he must be dealt with before our return to Earth. A Jack alive and well, however temporarily containedâ€¦â€ He shook his head and left the rest of the thought unspoken.
â€œThat thought had occurred to me, as well.â€
He nodded. â€œI am happy that we agree on that much. He cannot be allowed out. I will not negotiate that point.â€
â€œThe vault stays closed,â€ I said, nodding my agreement. â€œFor now.â€
He frowned at my slight qualification. â€œI will never willing let that madman loose on this world, Mr. Lasak, no matter what doubts you harbor.â€
â€œI understand. I will not insist on his release, as long as I am eventually convinced that he is who you say he is.â€
The frown deepened. â€œVery well. I am sure you will see the truth of that in time. Now, we must address the matter of your ship. Perhaps you could give me a tour?â€
He had me, and he knew it. I had run out of delays. It didnâ€™t matter. Release of my ship was priority one.
I looked casually to the fireplace. A small trip would also give Mic a chance to get out of the fireplace.
â€œAll right,â€ I said. â€œLetâ€™s go.â€
Jacks to Open, Trips to Win
â€œWhat a remarkable piece of engineering,â€ said Bell, looking carefully at the Pelagius instrumentation. â€œAnd you fly across space in this?â€
â€œYes. Iâ€™ve made the run from Colony II to Earth several times.â€
We retreated back to the bridge, such as it was.
Our trip to the white room and the Pelagius resulted in a number of new questions, and concerns. My worry bag was getting pretty full, and I desperately needed to talk with Mic.
We had walked back down the same Victorian hallway. Bell had opened the way to the white room by pressing a trick knot in the wood paneling, just below the landscape painting. The wall had turned whiteâ€”just like in the vault roomâ€”then disappeared altogether. And there we were, with my ship, and it was still stuck in the strange web of seemingly endless white space as far as I could see.
Bell had insisted on a tour. It didnâ€™t take long.
He was being polite when he said remarkable. Still, as I looked around the simple bridge and captainâ€™s chair, I had to admit to a certain amount of pride. Technically, the ship belonged to LongPost. But as an invested employee, I could pilot the same ship as often as I liked, so long as it held up to specs. The Pelagius and I had been together since my maiden voyage. Like me she was a little long in the tooth. But over the years, she had received the appropriate upgrades and reconditionsâ€”and a few inappropriate ones as well, on the side, on my dime. I was always careful to remove any signs of these semi-illegal add-ons before official inspections. If the LongPost engineers knew, or suspected, they turned a blind eye.
Iâ€™ll say this for the old girl, she was built to last. Her original chassis design was still used in newer models, and her structural integrity was unequaled. She was a bit heavy in the hips, but she carried it well. And, she was the closest thing I had to a home.
â€œThis would be the bridge, correct?â€™ asked Bell. â€œAnd over here the shipâ€™s computer?â€
â€œThatâ€™s right.â€ He was making some very astute guesses for a Victorian-age gentleman.
Then he smiled, and asked as innocent as a curious schoolboy, â€œHow does it operate?â€
I smiled slowly in return. â€œItâ€™s pretty complicated stuff. It took me three years to get my pilotâ€™s license.â€
If this disappointed Bell, he didnâ€™t show it. â€œI see.â€
He walked over to port display, and casually studied the climate controls. â€œWell, well, well.â€ If he recognized the controls for what they really were, he didnâ€™t let on. He merely shook his head in wonder and said, â€œMan has certainly come a long way.â€
We spent a little time then discussing my job as a LongPost, how long various trips took between new colonies, what I did in my downtime.
â€œSo, youâ€™re quite a way from home now?â€
â€œYou could say that.â€
â€œAre youâ€™re heading back, or away?â€
â€œAnd just how far is Earth now?â€
â€œIâ€™d guess weâ€™re about half way there, give or take.â€ I could tell him the exact numbers, but what would they mean to him?
â€œHow do you navigate such distances?â€
â€œOh, the shipâ€™s computer does most of the work.â€
He seemed to consider that for a time.
â€œDoes it help?â€ I asked.
â€œSeeing the ship. Does it help you free it?â€
He smiled. â€œA bit.â€
â€œSo?â€ I prodded. â€œWhat do we do now?â€
â€œWe?â€ said Bell, fiddling with his lapel.
â€œIâ€™ll help, of course.â€
â€œOh, yes, of course.â€
He pulled a long face, and ran a finger down the chairâ€™s arm. â€œA thought, if you will forgive me. Once I free your ship, there is nothing I can do to make you stay, is there?â€
The notion of sneaking off had crossed my mind once or twice, but I tried to reassure him that this was not the case.
â€œNo, you are right,â€ he said suddenly, waving off my protestations and taking the high road. â€œIt is a matter of trust, and we have to start somewhere. Very well, I will trust you. I am off to the bridge again, to work on freeing your ship. Will you stay here, or come with me?â€
Under other circumstances, I would have accompanied him, to show my own good will. But this was too good an opportunity to contact Mic without fear of being overheard.
â€œIf you really donâ€™t need me, Iâ€™d like to run some diagnostics on my ship.â€
â€œOf course,â€ he said. â€œDo yourâ€¦diagnostics. I must ask you, though, not to leave your ship until I return. This section is reasonably safe, but I wouldnâ€™t want you to get lost. Agreed?â€
I looked to my timepiece. â€œHow long will it take?â€
â€œIt may take some time.â€
â€œOkay. I will just sit tight.â€
As soon as he was gone, I tried to raise Mic. No luck.
I did run a diagnostic on the Pelagius. The readings looked normal, but the computer still refused to answer the helm. I took a seat in the captainâ€™s chair, and tried to figure out my next move. Thatâ€™s when I heard a familiar voice in my ear.
â€œBen? Are you all right? Can you talk?â€
â€œMic? Where are you? Why didnâ€™t you answer my call?â€
â€œIâ€™m safe. There are a number of dead zones and atmospheric interferences in this place,â€ she explained. â€œUp the chimney is one of them.â€
â€œI see. Did the fire damage you?â€
â€œNot at all. In fact, all the heat went out your direction.â€
â€œInteresting. Where did the smoke go?â€ I had wondered about this the moment I saw the fireplace was real. Chimneys, for obvious reasons, are not very practical in space.
â€œSucked out vents in the side of the chimney. Anyway, that doesnâ€™t matter now. Weâ€™ve got a big problem.â€
â€œBesides the fact that we canâ€™t get off this ship? Iâ€™m taking care of that right now.â€
â€œBesides that, and I wouldnâ€™t be so sure you took care of anything.â€
â€œWhat do you mean?â€
â€œDo you know whoâ€™s on board with us?â€
â€œJack the Ripper,â€ I offered smugly.
â€œHe told you?â€
â€œYes. Umm, why wouldnâ€™t he?â€
â€œWell, do you know who Jack the Ripper is?â€
â€œYes, I know who Jack the Ripper is. He was a serial killer from late Victorian Earth.â€
â€œThen you know this is very serious. We have to do something to get him back in the containment center before he gets control of the ship again.â€
I licked my suddenly dry lips. â€œBack in the containment center?â€
â€œYes. Carlin thinks Jack means to return to Earth and start his reign of terror all over again. All he needs to do is repair the interface console, and use the coordinates in our shipâ€™s computerâ€¦.â€
â€œCarlin?â€ I interrupted. â€œWhoâ€™s Carlin?â€
â€œHeâ€™s the one you mistakenly helped Jack lock in the containment center.â€
I felt the onset of a nasty headache. â€œWait a minute. Youâ€™ve got it backwards. Carlin is Jack. I mean, the guy I locked away is Jack. Bell told me the whole story. You didnâ€™t let the other one out, did you?â€
â€œOf course I did. And he is not Jack! The other one is, this Bell. You need to talk to Carlin right now. And whatever you do, donâ€™t let that Bell fellow out of your sight.â€
â€œWhere are you at?â€ I asked.
â€œWeâ€™re in the Solarium. Itâ€™s to the right of the Bridge, where we first found Jack.â€
I took a big breath. â€œIf you are right, then I think the real Jack is heading back to the Bridge right now, ostensibly to free our ship. He took a look at our situation hereâ€¦.â€
â€œHeâ€™s been in our ship?â€
â€œNot good. Thatâ€™s not good at all. Heâ€™s very smart. I would guess that he only wanted an excuse to see the inside of the Pelagius. Probably so he could see how to get inside. Did he see the shipâ€™s operating system?â€
* * *