Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Man in the High Castle--A Review

As I mentioned in a previous post it was during my junior year in high school that I took Mr. Edgerton's world history class and became fascinated with humanity's past. I have long forgotten the title of the textbook we used but there was a passage inside it concerning the period normally called Pax Romana that twisted my teenage mind into a multidimensional pretzel.

For those who don't know Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was the long period of order and stability in the Roman Empire and nearby regions that ran from the years 27 BC when Augustus took control of Rome to 180 AD with the death of emperor Marcus Aurelius. During this time you could travel from Roman provinces on the island of Britain all the way over to Egypt in relative safety and conduct business using the same coinage and the common language of Latin. Paraphrasing of course, but the paragraph in the textbook that boggled my little mind said something to the effect that Romans of that period just assumed the good times would go on forever, that to them the stability and peace the Empire provided was perpetual.

Of course it wasn't, after Marcus Aurelius the Roman Empire started sliding downhill through a combination of internal and external factors that would ultimately lead to its division and collapse in the portion encompassing Western Europe. Yes fellow history nerds, the eastern half lasted another thousand years but with the rise of Islam was slowly eaten away until Constantinople fell in 1453. What I never could wrap my brain around was the idea that Romans thought their way of life would go on indefinitely. From the perspective of a teenager sitting in Mr. Edgerton's classroom it seemed clear as day that with all the systemic faults inherent to the governing of the Roman Empire there was absolutely no doubt it was going to fall once enough stressors combined to overwhelm its institutions and methods.

Since my one chief and longtime talent is contemplating stuff ordinary people never consider because they have normal and healthy pursuits I then began wondering if we oblivious Americans were ignoring some factor or fault that will eventually bite us in our fat asses. The answer on that one is a big, dangerous yes but my current ramblings is fixated on an exponentially more abstract concept. How could our institutions, practices, culture, in short our entire reality been different?

There is a natural assumption by many to think our reality is the only possible outcome from all the decisions and events that came before us. But like the belief that our way of life will continue on indefinitely it is just as gravely flawed. Speculating on what could have been is dangerous and imperfect pursuit since those involved tend to paint that doppelganger with their biases. Case in point are unrepentant Southerners who think the Confederate States would have been close to a paradise on Earth had it won the Civil War.

There is a sub-genre of science fiction that deals with alternate realities but those authors also tend to paint their fictional creations with broad strokes either making these different worlds to close to our own as to be boring or so different to the point they lose credibility. Good alternate reality stories have to negotiate a fine line between the familiar and the alien. The new Amazon Prime series, “The Man in the High Castle” appears to successful walk that line. 

Loosely based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, the series takes place in a world where the Axis Powers won the Second World War resulting in the United States being divided between the two. The exact details resulting in this defeat are never spelled out directly but the viewer can tease out enough throughout the episodes to realize there were a series of alternate events that eventual spelled doom for the United States and allies.

Set in the year 1962, the Nazis control the eastern two-thirds of America with it becoming a totalitarian state with an eerily similar pop culture to the one of our world at that particular time. The pilot episode opens with a movie theater newsreel extolling the virtues of America belonging to the Greater German Reich. In the newsreel there are scenes of busy workers in factories and at desks with a narrator saying everyone has a job and knows their place. This is a bit of a cheap shot, but the fact that none of the people in that newsreel were colored would warm the heart of a few Southerners lamenting their Lost Cause. Additionally in one episode there is a scene that sent cold chills down my spine where two suburban white guys dressed in Mister Rogers-like sweaters say “Sieg Heil” to each other in American accents. In this reality I have enough problems with stifling neighbors and the homeowners association already, given my inherent counterculture attitude I'm sure someone like me would have long since heard a midnight knock at the door.

The other victorious Axis partner, the Japanese, control the western third of the country and while their rule is brutal and there is absolutely no freedoms, they are the nicer of the two empires occupying the United States. One of the differences being that Japanese let those with Jewish ancestry still exist, although the Nazis are pressuring them to synchronize the laws concerning that matter to theirs.

Buffering the two empires is a Neutral Zone that is generally lawless but has numerous secret Nazi agents living undercover watching for trouble along with traveling bounty hunters looking for prewar holdouts. One scary scene has a bounty hunter character named the “Marshal” entering a used book store to question the owner about a woman he is pursuing. The bounty hunter, who looks like a badly dressed character from a second-rate western, then pulls out a deck of cards that happens to have the faces of resistance leaders printed on them. Turns out the store owner has been wanted by the Nazis for years and soon ends up hanging from a town lamppost with the Marshal instructing everyone not to cut him down until the crows have picked his bones clean.

The series centers around the characters Juliana Crain and Joe Blake who are both transporting a mysterious film from different ends of the country to a location in the Neutral Zone. These films show a very different world where the Nazis were defeated. Juliana received her copy from her sister who was working for a weak resistance network before being shot dead by Japanese soldiers. Joe on the other hand is a Nazi secret agent on orders to use his copy to infiltrate the resistance in an attempt to locate the maker of the films known only as the Man in the High Castle.

Juliana believes Joe to be a legitimate member of the resistance and the two spend a great deal of time in the Neutral Zone looking for their mutual contact to turn over the films. During that time Joe begins to develop feelings for Juliana that conflict with his assigned mission. Whether those feelings will ever develop enough to make him abandon his Nazi loyalties is an open question.

Supporting the main conflict of the series is a number of subplots and supporting characters that paint a wide and varied picture of a complicated world that is dark and unnerving because in many way it is so familiar.

The first supporting character has to be Frank Frink, Juliana's live-in boyfriend, who at first just wants to keep his head down and try and live in peace with the Japanese occupiers. That is until they take his sister and her children prisoner and threaten to kill them in an attempt to force him to reveal his girlfriend's whereabouts. This forces Frank to begin to question the way he is dealing with the world.

The character of John Smith is so utterly evil you want him to die in the most painful manner, that is until you see him as a family man. John Smith is one of the bosses of the American gestapo and totally dedicated to the world the Nazis created and maintain. When he returns to his plush middle class suburban home at the end of the day though you see him as a loving father to his children and at least a decent husband to his stay-at-home wife. In many ways this character is the most uncomfortable to watch since Smith is the epitome of the American family man. Now wait a minute you say, how can a certified goosestepping Nazi be a decent, God-fearing, Ward Clever-looking fellow that most suburban types even now would love to have as a neighbor? 

Damn glad you asked, see while very few American males go to work to torture and kill in support of a bloodthirsty regime out to suppress the most basic of human rights here at home overseas is another matter. The American government and corporations even now find ways to ignore the practices of some of the worst regimes on the planet. It's not just the usual two suspects, common Americans love their cheaply made consumerist crap we regularly buy at places like WalMart, Best Buy, Target, Apple, and numerous other retail stores. These items don't just magically spring into existence, they are often made in factories that have much in common with the way Nazis ran slave labor camps.

Oh no Mr. Blogger you say, I'd never buy items made from places like that, I'm a decent person. Well, that may be the case but Mainland China ain't a free country and that is where the vast majority of our consumerist garbage is produced. Yeah, I found it outrageously funny that certain people in the United States lost their little, hypocritical minds when President Obama began the process of restoring relations with Communist Cuba but continued their total ignoring of the worst practices of one of our largest trading partners.

Possibly the most tragic of all the characters in this series is Nobusuke Tagomi, the trade minister for the Japanese government running the occupied Pacific States. He is truly a decent and good man in every sense of the word, it's just that Fate has placed him on the wrong side. Unlike many people he sees the injustice and utter corruption around him but is mostly powerless to do anything about it. He is also one of the most fascinating characters in a way I will not explain, you'll just have to watch the series yourself to find out.

In closing, this series is in NO WAY a rehash of Red Dawn or any other story that has the United States being invaded and occupied. By in large the Americans in this series have largely accepted their defeat and adjusted to living with the tyranny imposed on them. Hell, in fact in the much different book version I read back in the 1980's, I vaguely remember a passage saying the southern American states adapted quite fast to the Nazi way of life the occupiers forced on the supposed land of the free. In fact the series makes it clear that the American resistance movement barely exists at all.

Like the Romans I mentioned earlier, this series in a weird way reminded me that there are no real certainties in life. As much as some will hate this idea, and it's just my humble opinion, the reality or existence most of us know and love was not handcrafted by some omnipotent God looking out for his creation, or at least his specially chosen people. It largely came about by humans blindly bumping around and pursuing their own selfish interests. Now for most of human history this has been a bad thing causing untold suffering, death and destruction for most and a comfortable life for a very few. No matter how secure, permanent, and normal things look, change a few things and the ripple effect will completely alter how the world is ran making the kings into beggars along with the reverse. To me this suggests the best thing everyone can do treat everyone like they would like to be treated and keep a rational mind and try to shape events instead of having to react to them.

Honestly I can't really include any spoilers in this review, because I have no idea where the series is going. The last twenty minutes of the this season's final episode literally throws everything and everyone up into the air and I have no idea how it will all land if and when Amazon produces a second season. All I can say if that if Amazon does renew this series I will again totally clear my weekend schedule, cut off my cell phone, and put a sign on my front door saying unless you're delivering a pizza go to hell, I'm busy. Yeah, the series was that good!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Bad Moon Rising

The conversation I found myself having with an acquaintance/neighbor last week quickly turned into one of those odd, surreal rarities that others would think you were lying through your teeth if you told them about it. However, the terrible events that took place the next day made it relevant in a way neither my visitor nor I could imagine.

Lately my wife has been beseeching me to be more open and approachable to the natives, so I felt obligated to try when this gentleman said hello and crossed over into my yard as I was raking the leaves littering the ground around me. I admit, this unnamed person was doing his best to be friendly and while I happily wrap myself in the banner of a snobbish prick who considers himself several levels above the rank and file suburban serfs I met him halfway and shook his hand. Unfortunately, while things stayed friendly and personable the conversation quickly went off the proverbial cliff.

After a few generalized niceties the guy went straight into a rehearsed spiel about how my family and I should start attending his church, a small fundamentalist place a few miles down the road from the subdivision we both live. Contrary to my wife's assumptions upon hearing this I didn't freak out and throw the guy out of my yard for wasting my time. Nor did I go into a half-assed diatribe about how it would be a cold day in hell before I ever set foot into his right-wing, Taliban-like evangelical church whose members probably gather together each Sunday to discuss when Obama will come for their precious guns. I simply told him no thanks and tried to return to my chores.

Somehow this person didn't get the hint and then proceeded to start talking about current events before telling me about on a sermon he heard on the radio a few days before. According to him, the sermon dealt with Canada's very liberal immigration policy and how it was a threat to the national security of the United States. This is where it started getting seriously weird with him spouting off points about the length of the U.S./Canada border and how it's essentially undefended. His point being that any number of nefarious individuals or even groups could leave behind their socialized health care and come south to blow things and people up.

Quite frankly I found myself dumbfounded that I was being drawn into a conversation that I didn't want to participate. Nor did I want to justify his verbal offal with a response since I considered this guy full of paranoia topped off with gobs of stupidity like icing on a cake. After totally berating Canada for several minutes I expected this person to start on Mexico but for some reason he seemed to have forgotten about our unlucky neighbor to the south. Against my better judgment though I did try to explain to this guy that securing the U.S./Canada border would require an unimaginably massive amount of personnel, which in turn would force taxes to be raised to pay for the people and material to support such a mission.

True to form this guy responded that we could pay for it by cutting wasteful spending and other programs, which I took to mean the much belittled welfare and food stamps. Somewhere in the nether regions of my brain I registered his comment to mean that while he, and probably many others, lived in abject fear of some nebulous Canadian immigrant boogeyman that was still not a reason to raise taxes.

Maybe it's because I'm married to a tax attorney with years of experience with government financing but what nearly all tea baggers utterly fail to understand is that there isn't any giga-pile of money being wasted that could be put to constructive use. Neither is there really any room to cut discretionary spending, the United States already has the highest child poverty rate in the Western world making our country an embarrassment to the rest of the industrialized nations. Further more, as much as right-wingers want to deny it, our infrastructure like roads, bridges, and electrical power grid is old and being held together with duct tape and good intentions. So the idea of somehow securing the Canadian border to prevent individuals from sneaking over wins the glorious booby prize of being so completely stupid as to defy human imagination.

Call me foolish, but for reasons I can't really define I didn't try to have a coherent conversation with this guy as to why he and his radio preacher were wholesale morons. But said something to the effect that if terrorists wanted to sneak into the country all they had to do was wrap themselves in bails of marijuana or cocaine. Because the federal government has spent untold hundreds of billions to try and stop the importation of drugs since Ronny Raygun and failed miserably. I didn't think my point was that abstract, but the look of total incomprehension on my unwanted visitor's face made him appear to be contemplating quantum mechanics instead of considering alternate routes to sneak into the country. Whatever the case, Mr. Acquaintance/neighbor, chose that moment to say he had to leave.

Of course, this conversation took place last Friday, one day before the horrific terrorists attacks in Paris. Making matters much worse, one of the ISIS terrorists involved in the attacks was carrying a Syrian passport and appears to have been masquerading as one of the thousands of refuges fleeing the ongoing civil war in that country. Not to take away the humanity of both Mr. Acquaintance/neighbor and his radio preacher, I figure it's safe to guess that both spent much of that weekend filled with righteous indignation that their favorite nightmare came partially true.

That Saturday night the already scheduled Democratic debate had the three candidates running around in circles trying not to appear soft on terrorism. I didn't see the entire debate, only segments posted to You Tube but I came away with a creeping fear far different from the possibility of followup attacks either in France or here in the United States.

Way back during the 2012 presidential campaign I compared the Republicans running for the nomination back then to the aliens in the cantina scene from the original Star Wars movie. Those movie aliens were truly bizarre creatures but quite comparable to the collection of preening rich boys suffering from delusions of grandeur and amoral, failed politicians desperate to regain power. Unfortunately, the 2016 Republicans candidates running for the nomination make the ones from 2012 look halfway normal. Things are so bad Ted Cruz alone appears more like a fictional character from a political thriller written with H.P. Lovecraft-inspired overtones than an actual person running for president. Throw in Donald Trump and Ben Carson, the current front runners no less, and you have enough material for a Constitutional nightmare. The one unifying theme all these lackluster and brain dead puppets share is that their belief the United States must be ready to bomb the living shit out of anyone who even looks cross-eyed at us.

The point in all this rambling is that the American electorate even in the best of times is a bunch of barely sentient animals that usually responds more readily to fear than hope. For all the glib assumptions that either Hillary or Bernie would easily defeat any of the Republican morons in a general election that idea is based on the current political dynamic in this country. After the 9/11 attacks the United States essentially lost its feeble mind and willingly embraced things like indefinite detention, warrant-less wiretaps, and even torture. Oh, the media and politicians wrapped those concepts in clean, justifiable terms to make them tolerable to the hazy American center who at the time were more worried about bad guys flying airplanes into public buildings. So please excuse my cynical belief that a couple of Paris-style attacks here in the United States would push the mushy American middle into electing a president who would make George W. Bush seem enlighten and thoughtful.

I once thought the 2016 presidential campaign would on the Republican side be a laugh riot. The idea that any of them, even the so-called moderates like Jeb Bush and that governor from Ohio, could be elected seemed ridiculous. Now, when your consider the conversation I had with Mr. Acquaintance/neighbor all I can say is that I'll be sweating bullets until Election Day next November.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Like Father Like Daughter

 Far more years ago than I really want to remember, there was an incident with my National Guard unit that in a way came back to haunt me this week. Being more specific with the time frame, this all started in the spring of 1999. My son, Darth Spoilboy, was almost five years-old and playing Pee Wee soccer for the first time. In fact, his first game was on a Sunday during one of my National Guard drill weekends and this is where things went south.

In the old days, ending around the mid-1990's, the National Guard use to take into consideration things like important family events and “minor” stuff like civilian jobs. Both of those circumstances, along with the birth of a child or the death of a loved one was almost an automatic “get out of jail free card” allowing a soldier to skip drill weekend. The National Guard unit would then work with the soldier allowing them make up the missed time, usually having the individual come during the regular work week and do chores for the full-time Guard staff. The other option was to send the soldier off to drill with a different unit or some sort of special training at yet another location.

For various reasons in the mid-1990's, this easygoing policy went out the door with drill weekends starting to resemble a short term prison sentence. One of the causes of the leadership becoming far more stricter was that, of course, a lot of people abused the relaxed attitude about attendance to the point they had to do something. Another reason was simple bean counting because desk bound bureaucrats were actually closing National Guard units that were understrength. There was a rumor that never quite died that the bean counters, over the course of a number of years, found several units where the attendance roster didn't match up with the people that were suppose to be wearing the uniform in the armory that weekend. The results being that the leadership and full-time guys and gals of those units were relieved of command and had their careers ended.

Such an extreme circumstance caused the people in charge to lose their minds and clamp down like the fate of Western Civilization rested on perfect attendance. This extended to even no-brainer issues like civilian job work conflicts with the unit leadership literally informing the soldier to tell their civilian boss and coworkers to suck it up and deal with it. During the last four to five years before I retired from the Guard, I had to work around this issue many time resulting in severely strained relationships with my boss and coworkers.

All that being said, my issue that Sunday in 1999 didn't amount to the proverbial hill of beans in the greater scheme of things but on a personal level it was monumental. My loving spouse, the great Dragonwife, never agreed with the part of the National Guard spousal support manual that tells the wife or husband of a National Guard soldier your significant other belongs both body and soul to them until they say it doesn't. She wanted me at my son's soccer game and there would be hell to pay if I missed it. Initially, there shouldn't have been a conflict since my son's soccer game was scheduled so late that my unit was usually dismissed before that time.

Not that weekend, just after lunch all the officers and senior NCO's came out of a meeting telling everyone that the unit had a whole shitload of stuff to do and no one should expect to get home until well after 6:00pm. There wasn't any use in calling my wife and trying to explain the situation because I knew she would hit the roof and frankly, I was rather pissed myself. I'm uncertain how many people who have never served in the military have heard the euphemism, “Hurry up and wait”, but after the declaration that every soldier would be running around like chickens with their heads cut off for the rest of the day, somehow no direction or orders as what to do ever appeared. Enlisted soldiers and junior NCO's like myself just clustered together and began waiting for some sort of guidance to manifest itself.

A couple of hours ticked by with me getting increasingly upset. My son had an important event in his life about to occur and I was marooned on the other end of town. That was when I spotted the old fashioned phone booth inside the drill hall. A true relic from a past era, it had a small bench seat and those folding doors that allowed someone shut themselves off from the rest of the world. As I stared at that early telecommunications wonder a plan quickly formulated in my tiny and inefficient brain.

I immediately called my brother, who lives in the upstate of South Carolina, and told him to phone my unit and say he was in Columbia and had just been involved in a car accident and needed a ride to get back home. We worked a short but important back story with the major point being that he had called my house looking for me but found out from my wife that I was doing my National Guard weekend duty. Another important point was that he had to wait thirty-minutes before calling the unit because several people had seen me in the phone booth and I didn't want the wrong person to connect the sudden emergency with my curious actions.

After that, all I could do was wait while remembering that I had once asked him to drop off some army blankets to my old National Guard unit that he passed within twenty yards (a little over 18 meters) everyday while on the way to work and back home again. I somehow forgot to turn them in during the process of transferring down to the Columbia unit. A couple of months later I'm reviewing my National Guard pay statement and discover my old unit had charged me sixty dollars for those blankets. I learned that my brother had forgotten to drop the blankets off with them ending up covers for the back seats of his van.

He came through this time with some nondescript lieutenant calling me to the office and almost immediately releasing me for the rest of the day. Not before I literally bumped into the first sergeant and having to explain the situation to him. You would have to have served in the military to understand the nature of first sergeants, having worked their way up through the ranks they know every stunt or scam a soldier could possibly pull. He didn't say anything, but just as sure as bears leave steamy piles of poop in the deep dark woods I realized he knew the scam I was attempting. For reasons I never figured out he told me to haul ass but drive safely.

Luckily for me, I got out of there with enough time to make it to my son's soccer game. This is where my daughter's recent scam comes into play.

It was last Wednesday around 10:30am when my ringing cell phone woke me up. “Hey Dad,” my daughter Darth Wiggles said, “I need you to come pick me up from school, the nurse says I have a fever and I feel awful.”

Working third shift is a pain in the backside but I did the required dad stuff and made my way to my daughter's school with every intention of taking her home. When I arrived I found that the two ladies that work at the reception desk in the main office had just stepped out and left the school nurse there to answer the phone and deal with slightly dazed parents like me.

“Hi,” I said, “my daughter just called and said she had a fever and needed me to pick her up.”

Since the school nurse has to deal with dozens of children each morning she just asked me for my daughter's name and her homeroom teacher then called that classroom. After hanging up though the nurse suddenly remembered dealing with my daughter.

“Ah Mr. Johnson, I checked your daughter's temperature about an hour ago and she was fine. Not only that, I've been her at the desk or my office the entire time and she hasn't used any of these phones.”

No one will ever make the mistake and think I'm that mentally swift but it was at that moment I realized the number that was displayed on my cell phone screen was the one for my daughter's cell phone. Since she had woke me up, I didn't pay attention to the number and just assumed everything was legit. It was also then the memories of my own phone scam to get out of drill and get to my son's soccer game came flooding back. I also remembered that my daughter had an algebra test that day and that she probably didn't study enough on Tuesday and was looking for a way to get out of it.

Instead of just turning around and leaving I had the nurse call my daughter's classroom and have her report to the office. A couple of minutes later Darth Wiggles walks into the office and sees the nurse and I talking. The “Oh Crap” look on her face was totally priceless. She then immediately turned around and went back to class while I was soon driving home eager to get back to sleep.

I know it was wrong, but I couldn't help but feel a little proud of my daughter. Oh yeah, she passed the algebra test with a B-minus so I let whole incident slide without telling Dragonwife.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

What Happens On A Cruise Stays On A Cruise--Flash Fiction Friday

 (Author's Note: Had to use the words tunnel, measure, eyebrow, corporation and cuff in the story. They're all in there, I just haven't highlighted them like I did in the past. Here's the link to the Flash Fiction Friday site.)

The cruise ship, Ocean Wanderer was already docked at its Port Canaveral terminal when I arrived and still in the process of disembarking over two thousand irate passengers. The basis for their anger was that the ship was back in port three days early from what was supposed to be a week long Caribbean cruise.

As I walked up the gangway, many of the departing could be heard on their cell phones talking about suing the corporation that owned the ship. Their anger was reasonable given that the official reason for cutting the cruise short was an engine problem requiring immediate repairs. Had they known what really happened I could only guess at the panic that might have ensued.

“Mr. Jonathon Carter?” The man with bushy eyebrows and dressed in the white suit yelled from across the grand entrance lobby as I stepped onto the ship. I stopped and waited as he quickly threaded through the thinning crowd leaving the boat. “You are the federal agent sent to examine our shipboard problem? He asked leaning in close to me.

“Yeah,” I said being careful not to pull out my badge and ID and alert the departing passengers that something had gone gravely wrong while out at sea. “I'm guessing you must be Thomas Sullivan, the ship's purser.”

“Yes agent, the captain has instructed me to escort you to the cabin in question.”

Sullivan then did an almost military-style about face and began walking away. I followed behind and began checking out the surroundings along the way. Before the divorce, my now ex-wife and I did a lot of cruises but the Ocean Wanderer was one of the newer and very upscale ships people like me only saw on television. The designers had gone with the ultra modern look making the ship seem like something from a science fiction movie. My one off the cuff criticism though was that the passageways looked more like tight, foreboding tunnels.

I followed Sullivan for several long minutes trying to memorize all the twists and turns as we worked our way through the ship. As Sullivan and I approached the cabin in question I wondered how the crew had gotten the passengers out of this area without alerting them that a crime had been committed. I didn't have time to ask before Sullivan walked right up to the door and lightly tapped it three times.

Waiting inside for me was the ship's captain, Nathan Anfinson, and the safety officer, Catherine Hammon. The briefing I read on the drive down said Anfinson was in his early sixties and a retired veteran of the Swedish Navy. On first glance I could tell the life as a cruise ship captain agreed with him. Anfinson was tan, physically fit, and except for the pitifully thin array of gray hair on his head looked fifteen years younger than his actual age.

Catherine Hammon on the other hand looked like all sorts of trouble. My guess was that she was in her late-thirties, a few years younger than me, and with a body men would definitely kill for the chance to touch. While both Anfinson and Sullivan wore the official, and out of date white suit that was standard uniform for the cruise line, Hammon's version had obviously been tailored to fully display her body in all its glory. As a counterpoint to the uniform, her blond hair was neatly bundled up in professional style but that just had me imaging her pulling out a couple of pins and allowing it to freely fall about her shoulders.

Both Anfinson and Hammon shook my hand and then showed me the reason for my presence aboard the ship. Anfinson pulled back a blanket that had been thrown over the bed to reveal the body of Mr. Ernest Kenward. The murderer had tied Kenward's arms and legs to different corners of the bed then slit his throat. The silk sheets still gleamed with the look of the blood puddling around the body.

“Ms. Hammon,” I said, “the report you sent stated Mr. Cohen's companion, a Joanna Hilbert, discovered the body around three o'clock in the morning. The followup report also states that you allowed her to disembark just after docking. Can you explain why you allowed her to leave?”

“Agent Carter,” Hammon said in a sultry voice as smooth as silk, “you have to understand the nature of our cruise line. We cater to a select clientele who cherish their privacy. Mr. Kenward was an investment manager for a major American bank in New York and Ms. Hilbert is a federal judge. Given her stature and obvious reaction to Kenward's body I used my authority as chief security officer to released her. Given the trauma she endured, I can't imagine what might have happened had she been forced to stay any longer and answer questions that might humiliate in front of her colleagues.”

It didn't take a rocket scientist for me to recognize the implied warning. “Okay, your report also left out where Ms. Hilbert was during the time Mr. Kenward was murdered.”

Catherine Hammon just smiled, “She was being entertained elsewhere.” She said with a look that suggested far more than I was authorized ask.

The cabin was large and roomy, a given when you consider the abundant wealth of an investment manager, and even possessed a balcony allowing the privileged to sit outside and enjoy the ocean. “Captain Anfinson,” I said, “doesn't the Ocean Wanderer have an elaborate camera system that records the passengers in the corridors?”

“Yes Agent Carter, and we reviewed the tapes. It only shows an obviously drunk Mr. Kenward entering the cabin and no one else until Ms. Hilbert several hours later.”

I stepped around all three and walked over to the sliding glass doors. They were unlocked and easily slid open. I stepped out on the balcony and took some deep breaths “How about the camera system mounted on the side of the ship to detect someone falling overboard? No one on the bridge saw anyone climbing up or down the side of the ship to reach Mr. Kenward's cabin?”

Anfinson now looked obviously upset, “No agent, the system went down late yesterday and has yet to be repaired. Why are you asking questions that will embarrass my cruise line. The murder happened in international waters and the Ocean Wanderer is a ship registered to the nation of Panama. Our calling the FBI was just a courtesy, one you seem to take enjoyment in abusing.”

I admit Catherine Hammon was good, it took less than a minute for her to whip out a cell phone and dial my boss. He promptly reminded me about the nature of cruise ships and how the investigation of the murder was something the cruise line and government of Panama would have to pursue. I was new to the Port Canaveral area and had little expertise in how relations between the FBI and these foreign-registered cruise ships worked so I measured my next words carefully.

“I apologize Captain Anfinson, I meant no disrespect. Thank you for being patient and I will file your report just like I was briefed by my predecessor.” With that I allowed Sullivan to guide me back out.


That night I'm back in my apartment when I heard a knock on my door. It was after midnight and as a precaution, I reached over for my pistol. When I opened the door, I was somewhat surprised to see Catherine Hammon standing there wearing a silky black dress.

“You were good, Jonathon,” she said walking in, “even I almost believed you didn't know what was going on.”

“Well, this was the first time I had to cover for your kind, although you went a little overboard with all the animal blood on the bed. And at least I didn't ask whether or not there was any blood left in Kenward's body.” I said feeling my lust growing.

“Yes,” Catherine said as she casually pulled loose the straps on her dress and let it drop to the floor. “Anfinson is a good man who is easily managed, I wouldn't want anything unfortunate happening to him, or you.”

She then rushed towards me and we kissed. It was pure animalistic passion devoid of any higher emotion. When we finally broke apart she smiled and I could see that her upper and lower fangs were exposed.

“You might want to call in sick tomorrow morning, Jon,” she said smiling like a wolf. “We're going to have a busy night.”

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Last Thing You Should Consider

Idle Speculations on Alien Intelligence and the star KIC 8462852. 

This is just a personal observation subject to error but as someone far more interested in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) than the average person I have noticed something over the last few years. While all the excellent and totally professional science guys and gals still say we are only now reaching the technological level that could allow us to gleam an artificial signal out of all the normal background static I sometimes detect a hint of uncertainty in their voices concerning their research.

Don't misunderstand me, I totally support SETI and do believe that our galaxy does host some number of intelligent, technological advanced alien species. The chief debate to me centers on just how many stars have planets that can spawn and then support for extended periods of time lifeforms that evolve into intelligent creatures. Current research suggests habitable planets are plentiful but whether or not the circumstances that allow intelligence to evolve and then survive are common is still a huge unknown.

For further, and sadly, just as needed clarification. NO, I do not put any stock in all the UFO reports and alien abduction stories that have made it to the popular media over the last fifty to sixty years. On the rare occasions I get to have an reasonable conversation about the possibility of intelligent alien life, someone nearly always chimes in about Roswell, Area 51, or some other tripe about UFO's and the government covering up their existence.

As much as I dream of manned interstellar flight being possible, right now it looks incredibly hard and so expensive it would take a truly prolonged global effort to pay for the project and engineer. We naked primates are still fighting over religion and whose nation is most special, the idea of us working together to cross the distance between stars is lubricious. Of course, a totally unexpected and out-of-left-field technological breakthrough could change the equation but that is just wishful thinking on my part.

Getting back on point, it seems some of the SETI folks are getting a little worried. For the last twenty years or so we have been scanning huge swaths of the galaxy and millions of frequencies and except for periodic false alarms and the rare and mysterious burp that doesn't repeat, come up with nothing. This has lead some in the biological sciences to suggest that complex life might be quite rare. They point out that while Earth has been around for over 4 billion years it was only 542 million years ago during the Cambrian Explosion that complex life appeared in the fossil record. Before that, all the evidence suggests that life on this planet was limited to single-cell organisms. These “Rare Earth” types argue that there are a complex array of interlocking conditions required before life can move beyond simple organisms and that if you remove a few from the equation further development is stymied.

Even if some complex organisms on an alien world evolves into an intelligent species there is a whole host of different disasters that might drive them extinct before reaching the technological point where they can hope to make their presence known to the wider galaxy. The late, and great, Carl Sagan speculated that all intelligent species might go through a cultural adolescence where their moral and ethical development is outpaced by their technological abilities. In short, they might nuke themselves into oblivion over inconsequential things like religion, nationalistic bullshit, resources, or whose penis is bigger.

(Important side note: Let me go on the record to state I not just talking about us arrogant Americans. At least here in the United States many of us blow off this “Exceptionalism” bullshit. I frankly find Russians more obnoxious with their ethnic based belief that their shit doesn't stink which is made worse by the chip they perpetually carry on their shoulder. It also appears that the Chinese harbor grand ideas of taking charge of the world and get quite upset when everyone doesn't go along with what they consider promotes harmony, which they define as anything that advances their national interests.)

It was the author and astrophysicist David Brin who in his book Existence upped the ante on intelligent species survival by mentioning there are a multitude of cosmic booby traps just waiting to cause an extinction level event for the members of any unwary civilization. These traps ranged from the known threats of a major asteroid or comet impact to being too close to a star going supernova or a passing neutron star. He also included “man-made” disasters such as a genetically created pandemic, the release of nano-sized robots that consume all matter, to climate disaster, which might be the one that already has our name.

Despite the fact that I am a huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and his buddy Bill Nye I highly disagree with their skepticism when it comes to talk about the near-term human colonization of Mars. They tend to think colonization requires a planet with a breathable atmosphere, and while that would be nice such worlds are in short supply in our solar system. I would much rather deal with domed or underground cities on Mars if it meant the survival of the human race in the face of some man-made extinction event.

Long story short, when you take into consideration all the possible disasters-- or filters-- awaiting to befall intelligent species not only do they need to damn near be saints but extremely lucky as well to survive much beyond our current technological level. None of this bodes well for us humans looking to find other intelligent life in our galaxy.

Just speaking for myself, I was quite happy to hear last week that researches have spotted a strange star that does something none of the science types have ever seen before. The star, KIC 8462852, located about 1400 lightyears away dims in way never seen in any of the other stars observed by the famous Kepler orbiting telescope.

The Kepler space observator was designed to monitor the brightness of stars and detect when a body, such as a planet passes in front. Since its launch, the Kepler spacecraft has detected over a thousand confirmed exoplanets with some believed to be close to the size of Earth and orbit in the habitable zone of their parent star where water could exist as a liquid.

In the case of KIC 8462852 what has everyone buzzing is that Kepler detected two massive dips in the brightness of the star roughly every 750 days. One dimming event blocked up to 15 percent of the star's brightness with a later event blocked up to 22 percent. These changes in brightness are consistent with many small masses orbiting the star in tight formation. One thing seems to be clear, that whatever is causing this bizarre event is not a planet. Something the size of our Jupiter would only block 1 percent of our star's light. Whatever is blocking the light of KIC 8462852 is covering half the width of the star.

The overwhelming possibility of what we are seeing is either a cloud of disintegrating comets, essentially a bunch of massive balls of ice and dirty involved in a cosmic-level traffic pileup. Or a recently captured asteroid field kind of like the one Han Solo had to navigate through to escape the clutches of Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.

KIC 8462852 does have a close by stellar companion that might have stirred up the cloud of comets that surround all stars, sending them crashing inward and after 1400 years of its light traveling our way screw with H. sapien astronomers here on Earth desperate to make a first contact with aliens. And while we believe it to be an older star it's possible KIC 8462852 is actually young and still has a lot of primordial junk floating around it. For this one I guess the best analogy would be your average teenager's room.

There is another possibility that is only barely mentioned in passing and only half seriously. What we might be is evidence of an artificial construction called a Dyson Sphere. The idea being that stars put out a lot of free energy and that if an advanced race built a shell around it they could collect all that light and use it for some super advanced purpose.

Needless to say, I hope we have found evidence of an alien civilization that has somehow found a way to survive all the natural and self-inflicted wounds an uncaring universe can throw on an intelligent lifeform. I'm not looking for some event that knocks humanity out of its tried and true combination of ignorance and apathy. Just a flicker of some awareness that we are not alone in the universe could be enough to defer our appointment with extinction.

One final note, as of this writing the Allen Telescope Array is even now scanning KIC 8462852 for signs of artificially generated radio signals. No, I'm not optimistic but when you're playing this type of game patience is a vital element in this research.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Fading Promises--Flash Fiction Friday Week 8

 (Author's notes: Jump over to the Flash Fiction Friday website and read the other, better crafted stories. The theme this week was broken promises.)

 Make no mistake, Captain Jeffery Hawthorne was an incompetent dick. I first met the guy during the final phase of ROTC out at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was part of a group of over two-hundred cadets being run ragged by the most sadistic collection of NCO's and commissioned officers ever to wear an army uniform. Before the first week was over thirty of the cadets had quit from either injuries or simple fear of the staff. I almost quit twice myself figuring I'd rather deal with the nightmarish complications of failing than have to go through one more day of such demeaning and dangerous behavior by the instructors.

It didn't take long for those of us working together to survive that Hawthorne somehow seemed immune to all the crap coming down on our heads. On those rare occasions when the instructors would actually give us a few hours to rest it was damn near normal to see Hawthorne walking around still looking like a fresh, clean flower while rest of us were dead tired with our bodies and uniforms caked in mud or something worse. It didn't take much to realize that Hawthorne had the type of personality that allowed him to bullshit his way out if nearly all the instructors had planned for us. Making matters worse, Hawthorne could even shuck and jive a good number of fellow cadets into doing what dirty, strenuous, or monotonous work did come his way.

As anyone who has ever encountered such person could guess, Hawthorne had those dubious combinations of good looks, extreme but easy-going charisma, and slightly above average intelligence that allowed him to pretty much write whatever ticket he wanted in life. It didn't take to long before someone learned that Hawthorne came from a rich and well connected Georgia family hoping to break into the realm of politics and the easiest way to do that was have one family member join the military. The fact that Jeffery was the vanguard of such dynastic aspirations actually made me question my commitment to serving in the armed forces.

Yeah, the rest of us loathed Hawthorne but quite frankly we didn't have time to do much about it other than harbor a smoky hatred and hope the bastard fell down a deep but camouflaged hole in the ground. It all seemed beside the point once we graduated. For the most part we went our separate ways, as much as you can in the United States Army, with the new Second Lieutenant Jeffery Hawthorne utterly disappearing as if he was just some figment of our collective sleep-depraved imaginations. All that changed for me two years later when my platoon sergeant walked into the tiny office I shared with fellow First Lieutenant Nathan Riggs, a survivor of that awful period out at Fort Knox.

By that time Nathan and I were platoon officers in the 4th Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Tanner, Texas. A nice place if you liked desolate prairie that was broiling hot in the summer and Siberia-like in the winter. Throw in the occasion rainstorm and on the warmer days we all got to play in waist deep mud for up to a month.

“Hey Lieutenant Bryant,” SFC Taylor said coming in and sitting down in a chair next my desk, “just got word from battalion who our next CO is going to be, and I believe you might know him.”

Sergeant First Class Mike Taylor was probably the best NCO I had ever met in my short career but he often treated me like a slightly mentally deficient kid brother, which irritated they crap out of me. Truthfully, I realized that was generally how all platoon sergeants thought of their lieutenants but I still didn't like it.

“What's the guy's name?” I asked with the faces of about ten to fifteen guys quickly running through my head.

“His name is Captain Jeffery Hawthorne and if I remember correctly he graduated from ROTC about the same time you did.” Taylor said absentmindedly while grabbing a copy of the Army Times newspaper off my desk.

Not only did I almost fall out of my chair upon hearing that news. My stomach turned so abruptly I about puked up the macaroni salad and turkey sandwich I had for lunch less than an hour before in the mess hall. Several hours later Nathan and I were sitting on the little patio balcony of my apartment chugging down cheap beer and wondering about the nature of a cruel universe.

“How in the hell did the slimy bastard make captain before either of us?” Nathan said finishing off another bottle of Rolling Rock beer.

“Connections my friend,” I said feeling the slightest tingling of an alcohol induced buzz “our great nation may not be as corrupt and despotic as say Russia or Nigeria or any other second rate country but we're trying.”

“Seth, you know Hawthorne is a disaster waiting to happen. He's going to get people killed.” Nathan said to me with a dire look on his face. “Dude, he continued, “given what we already know about the guy we've got to promise each other to expose him if people die for his incompetence.”

“Damn straight,” I said as I gently put a now finished bottle on the floor beside fifteen other of his empty comrades. Somehow I slightly knocked that bottle over causing a chain reaction of all the others to fall down like bowling pins. The alcohol running through my system almost allowed me to ignore the possible allegory to our future.


Fifteen months later we're all in Afghanistan with the battalion broken up occupying little outposts on top of mountains. For most of our deployment us and the Taliban had an unspoken agreement, they halfheartedly attack us twice a day and with the exception of patrols we didn't willingly bother the local too much. This arrangement worked too, until intel got word that a new guy had taken over as leader of the Taliban units in our area. This fellow had same commitment to God as a preacher I knew back in my home state of South Carolina. So no one will misunderstand me, I considered that a bad thing.

It was a Tuesday when the shit absolutely hit the fan. The Taliban decided to assault the outpost where Nathan's and my platoons were located. Twenty minutes into the battle it was clear that their intention was to overrun the place and everyone of my fellow Americans knew what would happen if they did.

Making matters worse good old Captain Jeffery Hawthorne had picked that day to visit. Up until then the little weasel had holed up exclusively at Headquarters making his presence known through daily inspirational speeches over the radio. For reasons none of us ever could figure out about a week before he had started flying to the mountain outposts to visit. I guess for photo-ops and to shake a few hands for his future political campaigns. Truthfully things had been going good for the guy. Our deployment had just passed the halfway mark and with an experienced First Sergeant to back him up Hawthorne hadn't yet made a fool of himself or our unit until then.

Forty minutes into the attack the mortars and RPG's started pounding and everyone of our guys were either at their positions or running ammo. When the two guys tasked with resupplying ammo to the others in my platoon were taken out I took up the job. That was when I saw Nathan, he had caught a round in the chest and while he had a couple of medics working on him there was just too much blood soaking the ground underneath his body.

The Apaches gunships flew in at the last minute and ended the siege. As the bodies and injuries were being counted I found Captain Hawthorne inside one of the bunkers underneath a table. The smell of piss and shit signifying his actions during the battle. I wanted to kill him but my better judgment only allowed me to cut the bastard down his face and forcing him to promise to leave the army once we returned home.


When we returned to the States I left the army myself. I never realized it during the worst of the battle but a piece of shrapnel had gone through my left knee and while it seemed minor it had nicked several tendons and they eventually popped due to the wear and tear. The operations to repair them was a bitch and because I would never get full use of my left knee I jumped at the chance to return to civilian life.

After that I tuned out from the world and left it all behind me. I rode a motorcycle across the country, joined the crew of a fishing boat in Alaska, and eventually made my way down to Costa Rica to work at one of those high class resorts Americans and Europeans like to go for that rain forest experience without forgoing full service spas and room service. That was when I learned about Jeffery Hawthorne's senate campaign.

I immediately wanted to kill Hawthorne out of simple spite. But I had begun to build a real life in a place that made me happy and it was stupid to do anything that might threaten this existence. Of course, I soon remembered my promise to Nathan, that I would expose Hawthorne as the incompetent and cowardly fool if he got people killed. The fact that Nathan had been my best friend pushed me over the edge. I was on a flight a couple of days later, whether it was just to expose Hawthorne or kill him was something I hadn't yet decided.

I arrived in Atlanta with a campaign rally already in progress. As luck or fate would have it I bumped into an attractive campaign worker and began talking with her. Somehow I let it slip that I had served in Afghanistan with Hawthorne and the next thing I know she is introducing me to the bastard's mother.

“I have no idea what Jeffery went through in that godforsaken country, but he was a changed man after leaving the service.” His mother confided in me as if I didn't already know. She was clearly from one of those aristocratic Southern families who obsess over such things as heritage and history. She smelled of old money and privilege and I hated every part of her down to the DNA in her cells.

“Jeffery's father and I had such high hopes for him,” she continued. “We had already lined up millions in campaign funds and all he had to do was agree to help our longtime friends. But the ungrateful twit rejected all that, he said he was going to chart a different course for himself and that he would do it alone if forced. Never since the day he was born did he show such a backbone, of course my husband washed his hands of the boy but I found Jeffery's change refreshing. You know he actually wants to help the workers and immigrants and says we've been all wrong about poor people. Poor Jeffery almost sounds like a Roosevelt socialist my grandfather use to rail against.

“What brought about this change?” I asked actually quite puzzled for a moment.

“It was something in Afghanistan,” his mother whispered as if she was talking about a disabled child. “He doesn't actually come out and say what happened but whenever he talks about charting a different and better course for himself I always see him touching that scar running down his face.”

I stayed a few more minutes but eventually slipped out before Hawthorne's mother forced me to see him. I know what I had promised Nathan but somehow that didn't seem to matter anymore. The war in Afghanistan was a huge cluster fuck and would continue that way for decades to come. It had killed and wounded far too many good and decent people, both locals and Americans. But somehow it seems one man walked out of the place changed for the better and I felt he should have a chance to make the most of that new perspective.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Hard Transitions--A Star Trek Fan Fiction Story

 (Author's notes: This is the second attempt at Star Trek fan fiction using characters I have created. The first story, "Out of the Darkness", seemed okay after near countless hours of me fixing the damn thing. Unfortunately, since this went far longer than I wanted it's part one of a multi-part story.)

The Freedom-class starships that served during the Dominion War can directly trace their linage back to the similar Saladin-class vessels first constructed by Starfleet in the early 2240s. Designated as destroyers meant to provide cover for larger Starfleet ships in times of conflict, Saladin-class vessels proved extremely versatile for planetary survey, short to mid-range exploration, and convoy security missions in unsecured sectors of Federation space. However it was during the Four-Years War between the Federation and the Klingon Empire that the Saladin and her sister ships proved their worth by being able to take heavy damage and continue on with their missions. For that reason alone the basic Saladin design has seen only relatively minor changes from its initial construction to the Freedom-class. The chief design upgrades starting in the late twenty-third century, were the elimination of the main deflector and the adoption of navigational shields along with far superior off-axis maneuvering field generators. 

USS Saladin

Like their predecessors, Freedom-class starships were able to blunt numerous Klingon attacks during the short but intense conflict of 2372. Klingon K'vort and Tha'linn-class light cruisers (both Birds-of-Prey designed ships) were totally ineffective when they faced Freedom-class vessels. During the Dominion War though, Freedom and her sister ships took heavy losses against both Jem'Hadar fighters and Cardassian gunboats armed with Dominion weapons allowing them to breakthrough and attack the heavier Starfleet and allied vessels they were supposed to protect. It took Starfleet months to develop countermeasures and defensive upgrades before they were able to meet the enemy on equal terms.

After the end of the Dominion War the Freedom-class vessels, along with nearly every other space-worthy Federation and allied ship, no matter how small or lightly armed, found themselves occupying numerous Cardassian star systems and facilities. All in an effort to contain any possible rogue elements or outside force from gaining access to to enough resources and ships to restart a war even the Klingons were happy had ended.

Mandith System, deep inside Cardassian space
7.2 lightyears away from the Cardassian homeworld
Stardate: 53211.6

“Occupation duty is vilest and most degrading type of service you can ask any Starfleet officer to perform.” Commander Mya Farias exclaimed from the operations duty station situated beside Lieutenant Joshua Curtis who was manning the helm of the Freedom-class, USS Justice.

“That may be the case commander,” Captain Ubaid Sallem said sitting in the command chair, “but I would rather avoid anyone getting their appendages on all the weapons stored at these shipyards. The Orion Syndicate alone is crazy enough to attempt a raid ”

On the main bridge viewscreen was a constantly updating tactical display of the Mandith system. At the center was the system's only star, a dim and unremarkable red dwarf orbited by two Class-K, Mars-like planets and a couple of billion kilometers beyond them, a Class-T super gas giant. What made the Mandith system vital to the Cardassians during the war and important enough for Starfleet to secure now that the conflict was over was the massive asteroid belt between the inner and outer portions of the star system. Consisting of thousands of proto-planets rich in vital strategic metals, the Cardassians had long ago built huge shipyards in the system along with other facilities including weapons factories and dilithium crystal extraction plants to take advantage of the resources.

With the successful allied invasion of the Cardassian homeworld, the Mandith system was quickly taken since the only real personnel left were military support and thousands of civilians living in the giant habitat cylinders. Cardassian resistance forces were in nominal control of everything but the Federation and Klingons had about a thousand Marines and warriors scattered in all the facilities making sure no one in the previous Dominion-allied regime attempted anything. Securing the system were three Starfleet vessels, the Justice, and two Steamrunner-class ships, the Hummingbird and Kraken.

“Any idea when Starfleet will redeploy or reassign us?” Curtis asks without taking his eyes away from his station.

“That's easy,” Captain Sallem said, “as soon as the allies stabilize the Cardassian homeworld including making sure the new government has control of most its territory. The Klingons, Romulans, and us want the Cardassians to stay a major player in galactic affairs. With the Breen still a mystery and the possibility the Dominion might sneak back through the Bajoran wormhole, no one wants a lot of fragmented space and disgruntled former Cardassian military types without something to do. No one is stupid enough to cut them all loose, while there will be exceptions it's far better to embrace as many of our former enemies as possible. Were we to completely wash away the old regime and try to rebuild Cardassian society would be playing occupier for decades. At least the way the allies and the Cardassian provisional government are trying to work it, our stay will be considerably shorter than if we try the alternative, ”

“So in other words,” the Lieutenant said, “we're here until they tell us not to be, which could be awhile.”

“That about covers it.” The captain said grinning.

“Captain,” The Vulcan tactical officer, Ensign T'roe said suddenly breaking the easy going mood of the bridge crew, “incoming transmission to all Starfleet vessels from the central civilian habitat, it's Gul Burrid and General Kartan.”

Ubaid Sallem frowned, Gul Burrid, a Cardassian captain in the resistance was also the provisional leader of all the system's civilian habitats and had told Starfleet that he wanted to keep some distance between him and the occupying forces to avoid looking like a puppet. If he was making a system wide call to Starfleet ships something quite bad was about to happen. Given that Burrid was making the announcement with Kartan, the Klingon commander of all the marines and warriors stationed on the facilities only made the situation worse.

As soon as Gul Burrid signaled the beginning of his transmission, Ensign T'roe switched the main viewer over to him. “To all Starfleet vessels, my security detail stopped an attempt to disable all the facility defenses in the Mandith system. The culprits were captured and after a search of their quarters and property we have determined they were agents for insurgents tied to the old Dominion-controlled regime. While the facility defenses are under our control and still functional in twenty-four hours three Keldon-class battleships and three Galor-class cruisers will arrive in an attempt to steal weapons supplies and even as many of the fifty unmanned and powered down warships currently in the Mandith system. General Kartan has already signaled the joint allied commands stationed around Cardassia Prime and informed them of our immediate need for massive reinforcements. Until they arrive we are on our own, but this system must not fall to the insurgents. As provisional director of the Mandith system I am prepared to enable the general self-destruct of all system wide facilities. Given the nature of how the shipyards, factories, and civilian habitats are constructed it would mean the deaths of over sixty-two thousand Cardassian civilians.”

Gul Burrid fell silent for several seconds and just looked at the camera. Showing Cardassians have a talent for understatement he added one last part. “This war has caused enough deaths, I'd rather avoid detonating the power cores and adding that number to the butcher's bill.”

General Kartan then took over looking severely grim in the face of yet another battle and what it meant if the insurgents gained access to the weapons and unmanned ships. “Captain Sallem, given the tactical superiority of your ship you are in overall command defending the space around the established facilities. I'll lead the marines and warriors and try to slow the insurgents down once they transport over to their intended targets. None of my warriors mind dying captain, but I rather not take any civilians with me and the other under my command. You know even going at maximum warp we'll have to hold the system for close to three hours before we can expect relief.”

“Understood general,” Sallem said, “we'll make it work.”

The viewscreen then went blank and the bridge of the Justice was quiet. It was Lieutenant Joshua Curtis who finally broke the silence. “If the insurgents get even ten of those unmanned ships they could restart the war.”

“That's their entire plan.” Captain Sallem said as he pushed a button on his command chair. “All hands this is the captain go to red alert and battle stations.”

Sallem caught Commander Mya Farias looking at him, while showing visible concern was out of the question he knew her well enough to know what was going through her head. Given the three Cardassian battleships and three heavy cruisers on their way to the Mandith star system the ships Starfleet had on hand didn't stand a chance.


Commander Connor Douglas stepped back from working on a field-deployable replicator and looked up to see what seemed a never ending line of Cardassian survivors patiently waiting for their small daily ration of food and water.

“Here's the problem Ensign Hasegawa,” he said handing the junior officer the burnt out transitional relay, “all the toxins in the source material are overloading replicator's ability to break them down. They buildup in the phase coils until the transitional relays overload. Might want to have the ship send down a couple of dozen extras and immediately have the old ones rebuilt.”

“Aye sir,” the young officer said before rushing off to the local Tactical Operation Center to have Douglas' orders implemented.

All around Connor hundreds of Starfleet personnel and Federation Marines were scrambling to feed and keep order in an attempt to prevent anymore death. A battalion of the Starfleet Corp of Engineers were stretched thin clearing rubble and building medical stations and temporary housing for Cardassian survivors. Medical personnel were either treating the injured or making the dying comfortable in their last few moments. It was utter chaos on a scale that defied the imagination of most civilized beings. And that was just in Connor's area of responsibility, some places on the planet were far worse.

It was noontime in the city of Pogar, at least what was left of it after the Jem'Hadar had followed the orders of their Changeling masters and began to lay waste to the Cardassian homeworld once the planet-wide resistance became so widespread and open that their control was in real jeopardy.

Most of Pogar was in ruins with smoke still rising from many of the hundreds of burnt and shattered high rise buildings. What was worse for the survivors though was that the Jem'Hadar troops had paid special attention to the city's power, medical, water, and waste reprocessing facilities making sure they were utterly destroyed. For a city with a prewar population of over fifteen million the destruction of the supporting civil infrastructure amounted to an attempt at genocide. Throw in the all the hazardous chemicals released from the fires and Pogar was the epitome of an Apocalyptic wasteland. The environmental situation was so bad Starfleet Command had issued orders for all planet-side personnel to wear hazard suits as well as breathing filters.

The terms of surrender forced all Dominion and Breen forces off Cardassia immediately, not that they wanted to stay around, they were on the verge of being massacred by an enraged population. On the other hand that left it to the allies to pick up the shattered pieces. Jem'Hardar forces were still in the process of leaving when relief and reconstructions teams began to be deployed. Despite the best efforts of everyone it was taking all the resources Starfleet, the Klingons, and even the Romulans could muster to stop the slide to utter collapse.

Connor had seen holographic displays of what the city looked like years before during that all too short a peaceful period between the end of the First Cardassian War and the start of the Dominion conflict. It had been a sparkling jewel situated by the Krill ocean, a place of sophisticated arts and sciences. Now most of its surviving population had been reduced to just this side of savagery with former enemies doing everything in their power to save them.

The formal surrender of both the Dominion and Cardassian forces may have ended the devastating armed conflict that engulfed much of the galaxy. But to Connor it was clear that like in all previous conflicts the innocent were going to have to pay the price for the few who started the war. A bit of bile rose up in Connor's stomach as he remembered reading about how his own species had once justified war because of all the technological progress it brought never once thinking of all the innocent men, women, and children it killed in the process.

A chirp from his combadge forced Connor back to the present. “Connor here,” he said after tapping the device located on the left side of his uniform.

“Commander,” the voice said coming tiny speaker, “ this is Chief Huang at the TOC, priority incoming message from Captain Thrawn for your eyes and ear only.”

“Acknowledged chief, I'm on my way.” Douglas answered breaking into a run wondering what in the name of the Great Bird of the Galaxy had gone wrong now.

Connor arrived at the perimeter of the TOC ten minutes later but was forced to wait as a marine sentry did the required security scan before letting him inside. The prefab building was one of the first things constructed on site as the recovery efforts quickly ramped up. Insider were over two dozen Starfleet and marine personnel coordinating efforts in the area surrounding Pogar city. From the moment it had become fully operational, it had immediately went to a full twenty-seven hour Cardassia day work schedule with all indication the pace would only get worse before things even hinted at getting better.

While Starfleet personnel from the lowest enlisted to the most senior admiral on site would have bristled at being called a military occupation force with the Cardassians considered a defeated enemy, commonsense still required that certain operations be classified. One of those operations included high-level communications that had to be received in a secure environment.

After being cleared to enter the TOC, Connor proceeded to the second floor of the building and entered a small room. To Connor, all the skulduggery was taking vital moments away from him receiving the message but he had to figure that if the odorous organic waste had hit the air recirculation and filtration device Captain Thrawn would have had him beam over to his current location.

The small room was actually a type of holodeck and within seconds an entirely different location coalesced around Connor. The image that took shape was of a large office dominated by an impressively carved table with his Andorian captain the lone person sitting at it. Behind him were several windows showing another shattered city. Connor immediately recognized it as the Cardassian capital where his captain was assisting diplomatic negotiations in establishing a new government for their former enemy.

“Captain Thrawn,” Connor said, “I'm afraid this has to be extremely bad news to pull me away from relief efforts but I'm at a loss as to why you didn't have the Saratoga just beam me to you.”

“You're correct Connor,” Thrawn said, “but this situation requires I talk with you personally, if you can call a holo-conference such a thing. First thing, the Federation State Department has offering me the position of ambassador to Cardassia and I have accepted. Of course given the current situation, this means I will be relinquishing my command of the Saratoga immediately. Secondly, I have recommended to Starfleet Command that they promote you to the rank of captain and that, naturally, you assume command of our ship. You have been with her from the moment she first left dry dock and through the long repair and refit after the Battle of the Tyra System. You have shed enough blood on the Saratoga's decks that you might as well consider it a blood relation.”

Connor held up his hand,”What do you mean current situation captain?” He asked feeling as if Thrawn was about to reveal the real reason the formal ceremonies associated with a major change in command were going to be skipped.

“The Cardassian in charge of the Mandith system, a little over seven lightyears away from here, has learned that rogue elements of the previous regime are en route and are going to to try and seize the fifty deactivated warships currently sitting in dry dock. If they capture even a small number of those warships and can establish an independent government, it will throw our section of the galaxy back into chaos. It is believed they will arrive in about twenty-four standard hours and given the distance from here to Mandith our forces will have to hold the system for at least three hours before reinforcements can arrive. Starfleet is now organizing a relief force and it will leave within minutes. Your first mission as captain of the Saratoga will be as part of that armada.”

Thrawn hesitated for a second before he continued and Connor knew this last piece of news would be the worst. “Connor, there are only three starships holding the system, two Steamrunner-class starships and the USS Justice.”

Connor tried to ignore the news that is former fiance and former best friend were about to engage in a near hopeless battle. But Thrawn had served around humans long enough to see the look of shock and concern on his friend's face.

“I know my duty as a Starfleet officer, Captain Thrawn,” Connor said. “And I'll make sure the Saratoga and her crew live up to those standards.”

The meeting with Thrawn ended abruptly without the two men saying any other words. Time and circumstance just wouldn't allow that luxury. Connor just left the small holographic conference room and exited the building. Standing outside of the TOC, Connor Douglas gave himself a moment to organize his thoughts. He had joined Starfleet to explore strange new worlds and seek out new civilizations, not prattle about playing the same game that almost drove human extinct back on Earth. It was there he made a promise to himself, that after this last battle he would do everything possible to see his ship returned to that mission.

Saratoga,” Connor said after tapping his combadge, “this is Captain Douglas, beam me up to Transporter Room One and prepare all hands for emergency departure.”

USS Saratoga

What Cardassians look like.