The sun shone in a brilliant blue sky, as SS Obergruppenfuehrer Karl Dietz stepped smartly up the broad white marble steps that led to SS High Command. He smiled as he looked at the red and silver banners that hung from the lampposts on either side of him. They marked the 100th anniversary of the final triumph over the plutocratic Western Allies and their traitorous Japanese lackeys. He stopped at one swastika-and-eagle tipped lamppost, where a foreign guest worker—a South Slav by the cast of his brow—struggled to hang one of the banners.
“You,” snapped Dietz, “take care with that! The warriors of the Greater Reich did not sacrifice themselves so that you could sully their memory.”
The poor fellow gulped as he looked at the SS runes and the rank tabs on Dietz’s black uniform lapels. “J-Jawhowl, Herr Oberst!”
Dietz straightened his high-peaked cap as he marched to the top of the stairs. He was in a good mood, not because of the anniversary celebrations, which were still a few days away, but because he had received a rare personal summons from the Riechsfuehrer SS, second in line to the Fuehrer himself.
Dietz paused long enough under the wide marble columns of the front entrance to take in the view. From the top of the steps he looked out at the broad expanse of the Welthauptstadt Germania, the world capital that the legendary First Fuehrer, Adolph Hitler had built out of the bomb-shattered ruins of Old Berlin. His eyes traveled with pride along the long broad avenue, busy with midday traffic. The avenue passed under the enormous Victory Arch that, as legend had it, the First Fuehrer had sketched as an art student, and around the world’s largest building, the 290-metre high dome of the Volkshalle, now covered in the respectable green patina of age. Atop the dome, perched the symbol of imperial might, a golden Nazi eagle with a globe in its talons remained untouched by time, an enduring symbol of the Thousand Year Reich.
So much more to do. Dietz turned around and entered the building, returning the black-uniformed guard’s whip-crack salute. His jackbooted heels clicked on the marble floor as he walked down the long corridor and into the darkness.
“Sit down, Dietz.” The Riechsfuehrer’s cough echoed in his darkened office that reeked of stale cigarette smoke. The curtains had been drawn and the only light came from a small green bankers’ lamp on the Riechsfuehrer’s broad mahogany desk. His condition surprised Dietz. While he knew the Riechsfuehrer was an old man, he had not known that he was this far gone. When he smiled the Riechsfuehrer looked like a living skull. “Come, sit.”
“Yes, Herr Riechsfuehrer.” Dietz sat down in a leather armchair.
The second most powerful man in the Reich took a cigarette from a wooden case on his desk, struck a match, and lit it, the match-head briefly flaring before he touched it to the cigarette. The cigarette tip glowed red as he inhaled. “It’s been a while since you were attached to the Ministry of Space, now hasn’t it?”
“Yes . . . I did tours of duty at both the Lunar and Martian stations.”
“Are you familiar with the Von Braun Lunar farside array?”
“It’s our deep space communications post for the Jupiter missions . . . I’ve not been there recently.”
“Very good.” The Riechsfuehrer coughed as he exhaled from his cigarette. “What I am about to tell you is a State Secret.”
“I am honored.”
“Spare me your gratitude. Have you any other cases pending?”
“Just the resurgence of some writings of a lunatic Dutchman who was sent to the camps about sixty years ago. His writings about the earth being visited by ancient astronauts have been gaining some measure of popularity among the lower classes.” Dietz sniffed.
“Give it to one of your subordinates.” The Riechsfuehrer coughed again. “I have something far more fitting your station.” He smiled, the lines in his skeletal face showing in the dim light. “Two weeks ago, Lunar farside picked up a deep space signal. It wasn’t one of ours.”
As Dietz’s big Mercedes drove up to the gates of Peenemunde’s Hermann Goring Manned Spaceflight Centre, he could see the long finned silver shapes of the giant three-stage A-22 rockets at their gantry towers along the flight line. He smiled as he sat back in the padded rear leather seat of the car as it breezed through the Luftwaffe checkpoint. Almost makes me wish I were back in space.
The car pulled up in front of the center. As the Mercedes’ gas turbine engine spooled down, a guard opened the door for Dietz and he climbed out. From out of nowhere, a stalky man in a white lab coat who hid his bald spot with a comb-over thrust a clammy hand into Dietz’s. “Herr Obergruppenfuehrer, I’m Doktor Kolb, the center’s Administrator.”
Dietz began to walk to the front door, leaving Kolb scrambling to keep up. “I trust you know my reason for being here, then.”
“Yes . . . most intriguing.” They entered the building and walked briskly down a short corridor lit by fluorescent tubes, its walls marked by the heroic images of the Reich’s ongoing conquest of space, with the pride of place given to a scale model of the Neptune Probe, its solar panels outstretched like the wings of a robotic valkyrie. “You will have our full cooperation, of course.”
“Of course.” Dietz walked past a startled secretary and into the administrator’s wood-panelled office, trailed by the hapless Kolb. He parked himself at Kolb’s desk even as Kolb closed the door behind them. “Now, Herr Doktor, about the signal.”
“What? Why didn‘t you tell anyone?” Dietz’s eyes narrowed.
“It came in just this morning, Herr Obergruppenfuehrer.” Kolb shrugged apologetically as if that helped. He led Dietz over to where the computer terminal sat in its alcove in the corner of the office. “Let me show you: one of the new solid-state Telefunkens. Ten times as fast as the old ones.”
Kolb sat down at the computer and pressed the “on” switch. A half a minute later, after the machine had warmed up, his fingers began to rattle at the keyboard. “There,” said Kolb pointing at the green phosphor monitor. “Those are the coordinates in space of the first signal that we received two weeks ago. The first originated in the constellation of Cassiopeia, at this point, near Schedar, a star of the K0 spectral class, roughly 163 light-years from Earth.”
Kolb touched another key and a string of ones and zeros flew across the screen. “And that is the message. It lasted for twelve seconds and then repeated twice before we lost it.”
“Amazing…” Dietz reached out, touched the monitor and smiled briefly. “It’s like the stuff out of the pulps I used to read as a child.” He looked at Kolb. “And you’ve ruled out all possible explanations?”
“Believe me, Herr Obergruppenfuehrer, we were very careful.”
“And the message?”
Kolb looked at him, a bemused expression on his face. “I- I thought they would’ve told you: SS Cryptographic Analysis is looking after it.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “The Riechsfuehrer’s orders, apparently.”
“Of course,” murmured Dietz. “The second signal?”
“Ah yes,” Kolb typed away on the keyboard. “ It was the same as the first signal, but it was repeated just once. It was still originating in Cassiopeia, but now near Ksora, an A3 class star, approximately seventy-six light years from Earth.” The green screen now showed the relative origin points of the two signals in Cassiopeia.
“The way the signals are being repeated, it’s almost as if someone’s expecting a response,” said Dietz, feeling vaguely uneasy. “And the signal source is moving towards us?”
“Who can say? Perhaps it is some kind of natural phenomena we don’t yet understand. Or perhaps, if the Obergruppenfuehrer will allow me to conjecture, it is some kind of automated probe of the same type we sent to Neptune. Whatever it is, it’s very, very far away from Earth, Herr Obergruppenfuehrer.” Kolb smiled gently. “No need to worry. Coffee now?”
As he finished his report for the Riechsfuehrer, Dietz found himself wishing he had one of the fancy new Telefunkens like Herr Doktor Kolb had. His machine was about ten years older and ten times less reliable. Whenever his fingers hit the keyboard, the machine balked and the green phosphor screen flickered dangerously. Why can’t the SS get the good machines?
“Herr Obergruppenfuehrer.” Unterstandartenfuehrer Schmidt rapped on the lime green fabric wall of Dietz‘s cubicle, carrying a thick file under his arm. “I was wondering if I could have a moment.”
“Ah, of course, Dieter,” smiled Dietz, looking up from the computer. “How goes that case I gave you?” He motioned the younger officer inside with his hand.
“That’s the thing, sir. I started analyzing the Dutchman’s writings and those of some of his adherents. Absolutely insane, of course. It’s about the ten lost tribes of . . . Israel.”
“What? Dieter, sit down.” Dietz waited until the other had seated himself in front of him and said in a very low voice, “The Reich has been judenfrei for over seventy-five years, now. You should be careful with that sort of talk. It won’t do your career any good.”
“No sir,” Schmidt hung his head.
“Now, show me that file.”
“Well as I was saying, sir,” Schmidt opened the folder and began to read from his notes. “The ten lost tribes comprised the northern Kingdom of Israel in Biblical times. In the 8th century BC, after they were defeated by the Assyrians who deported them, they were lost to history.”
“And good riddance, I say. Good work, Dieter. Perhaps we can work something on that Assyrian angle with the boys in Propaganda.”
“There’s more sir. By consulting old Assyrian tablets and Biblical scrolls, the Dutchman’s followers believe that at least some members of the lost tribes were rescued by benevolent aliens who wanted to preserve the Jews.” Schmidt snorted. “As I said, sir: utterly insane.”
“No wonder they sent the Dutchman to the camps. We’ll have to stamp out this drivel, Schmidt, even if that means cracking a few heads.”
“Yes, Herr Obergruppenfuehrer.”
The van had pulled away with the last of the people picked up in the night’s sweep. As Dietz had suspected, many of them were from the lower classes, but he was clearly surprised at the night’s final stop: a townhouse in an upscale district of Potsdam, one of the few remaining vestiges of the old city. He shook his head as he pushed open the shattered front door, barely hanging off its hinges now, and walked in. Would never have suspected him of being one of the Dutchman’s adherents: a professor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and all. Dietz looked around the elegantly furnished living room that was so typical of the intelligentsia. A big color television that was still tuned to one of the Reich’s four channels squatted in one corner, while a couple of overstuffed chairs and a couch occupied the rest of the space.
Ignoring the current affairs program that droned on in the background, Dietz looked down. In front of him on the coffee table was a Bible. That was not so odd: despite over a century of official Party pressure, a few elements of Christianity still held out. Definitely frowned upon but in and of itself, not worth a trip to the camps. He picked up the small leather-bound volume and opened it to where a bookmark held an underlined place at Isaiah, Chapter 11, verse 11:
“And it shall come to pass in that day, the LORD shall set his hand on a second time to recover the remnant, which shall be left from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathos, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar …”
“Herr Obergruppenfuehrer.” Schmidt came into the living room.
Dietz turned around as he quickly closed the book and slid it into his tunic jacket. “Are the premises secure, Dieter?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve posted a guard.”
“Good, good.” He paused. Something made him look at the television set. The newsreader was talking about Neptune. Odd…
Dietz held up his hand as he reached for the bulky remote control and turned up the volume.
The newsreader, a pretty young blonde Aryan girl was smiling impassively in the practiced manner used to deliver bad news. “. . . Officials with the Manned Spaceflight Centre are at a loss to explain why they’ve lost touch with the Neptune Probe but expect to regain contact shortly. And now for the All-Reich soccer scores . . .”
“Sir?” asked Schmidt. “What does it mean?”
Dietz looked at the television and its blandly smiling announcer and then back at Schmidt. “I don’t know Dieter, but I wish I knew.”
Dietz walked alone from the townhouse back to his Mercedes, unsettled. As he got in the back seat, the car phone chimed for his attention. He picked up the receiver. “Dietz.”
“Please hold for the Riechsfuehrer SS,” instructed a soft yet professional feminine voice. There was a brief electronic tone and then and Riechsfuehrer’s voice came on. “Dietz, I received your report. Well done.” He coughed.
“Thank you, Herr Riechsfuehrer.”
“Just to let you know that Cryptographic Analysis finally got back to me last night on the original message: they couldn’t make heads or tales of it; they say it might as well be written in some dead language. I don’t like puzzles, Dietz: that’s why I’m depending on you. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Herr Riechsfuehrer.”
The insistent beeping of the telephone dragged Dietz out of his sleep. He brought himself to a sitting position in bed and turned on the lamp so he could see the digital clock: 4:20 a.m. The phone was still calling for his attention. It better be good or heads will roll. He picked up the phone. “Dietz.”
“Dietz, it’s Kolb. We need to speak.” The phone line was unusually heavy with static.
“Why, Herr Doktor,” yawned Dietz, “did you lose another space probe?”
“Listen to me,“ said Kolb, tersely. “It’s much worse than that. We need to meet now.”
“What’s this about, Kolb?”
“I can’t tell you; you’ll have to see this for yourself.”
Dietz was still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes as his driver brought the Mercedes up to the front of the building. He dozed on and off as they raced up the autobahn to Peenemunde. By the time they reached the gates of the Manned Spaceflight Centre, a watery sun was just peeking over the eastern horizon. He jumped out of the back seat and opened the door without waiting for the guard to do it for him. “Where’s Kolb?” he demanded.
“Herr Obergruppenfuehrer,” stammered the guard. “Herr Doktor Kolb is in Mission Control. He requests that you meet him there.”
“Does he now?” growled Dietz. “All right, take me to him.” He followed the guard down the hallway to a darkened room that was lit only by banks of flickering display screens and winking lights, arrayed in rows before a massive projection screen on the wall. Anxious technicians hunched over their gear and scurried to and fro, talking in low, worried voices. The place stank of sweat and stale cigarettes. The guard pointed to Kolb who stood over a bank of monitors at the end of the room on a platform raised above the others.
Dietz walked over only to hear Kolb scream into a phone, “I don’t care; try them again! Try them both! Someone must answer!” Kolb slammed the receiver down and looked at him, blinking. “Ah, Dietz.”
“What’s going on, Herr Doktor?”
Kolb fumbled for a package of cigarettes. He took one out and put it to his lips, then struck a match and inhaled, letting the tip grow cherry red. He closed his watery, tired eyes and exhaled.
“Kolb! I’m waiting!”
“I’m sorry, Herr Obergruppenfuehrer, as you can see we have a situation here.” He motioned over to a monitor. “Last night, something incredible happened.”
“We received another message!”
“From Cassiopeia again?”
“No, much closer. The same signal; only one transmission. But this time, the signal was from much closer. Just four light-hours distant and within the Solar System.”
“Where?” Dietz felt the ground about to give way.
“The orbit of Neptune.” Kolb inhaled.
Kolb nodded his head. “All I know is that two hours ago, we lost contact with the Mars outpost.”
“My God . . .” Dietz’s voice fell to a croak.
“And twenty-six minutes ago when we tried the raise the moonbase for the regular time-check, no one responded.”
“Whatever it is, we need to sound the alarm. Has someone informed the Fuehrer?”
Kolb shook his head again. “All radio and video communications are now out, all over the world; you were about the last person in the capital I was able to speak with. I’ve sent a courier to the Chancellery, but I’ve heard no word back.”
“Perhaps if I spoke with the Riechsfuehrer.” Dietz drew himself up. “I need your fastest plane and your best pilot.”
The stub-winged Heinkel ramjet interceptor blasted out of Peenemunde on its short ballistic arc for the SS landing strip at Templehof. The thrust of the near-vertical liftoff pushed Dietz back into his acceleration couch. His vision grayed but he never blacked out completely. As he looked out the clamshell canopy of the jet, Dietz could briefly see the curvature of the blue-green Earth, and above that, the stars: pinpricks of fire against the eternal night.
. . . and?
The Heinkel glided down the runway and taxied up to the main hangar. As the ship powered down, Dietz popped the rear canopy and tossed off his helmet. He looked around him: the base was quiet if a little tense. Some men were working on ships like his by the front of the hangar; other men milled around, carrying themselves in a strange, expectant way. Amazing: so they don’t know yet. Dietz turned to the ground crew who were wheeling an access ladder towards him and called to their crew chief. “Sturmscharfuehrer, what’s happening here?”
“Don’t rightly know, sir,” replied the NCO, as he helped Dietz climb down the ladder. “We’ve lost all communications; nobody knows what’s going on!” He looked hopefully at Dietz. “Do you, sir?”
Dietz jumped down from the ladder. “Effective immediately, I am placing this base under war alert. Where’s your commanding officer? I need to speak to him!”
It didn’t take much convincing for Dietz to commandeer an SS staff car and driver and head into Germania. Traffic along the outer ring road was lighter than usual for a work day; it was as if the entire city were on edge. So much the better, if I can get to the Riechsfuehrer faster. As he hurtled towards the great Victory Arch of the First Fuehrer, Dietz was gratified to see units of both the Waffen SS and Wehrmacht on guard around the imposing public buildings of the capital. Somebody must be on the ball. As his car slowed down under the Arch he caught a look at a young SS trooper. Under his helmet and visor, he tried to look brave but instead, he looked afraid.
If only he knew.
The car pulled up to the front steps of the SS High Command. Dietz jumped out and began bounding up the long, broad steps of the building, flanked on either side by the 100th-anniversary banners he once thought so important. The Riechsfuehrer must see me. He will see me. He’s depending on me. Reaching the top of the steps, he leaned on one of great marble pillars and tried to catch his breath. Can’t weaken now . . .
And then he heard it and then felt it. A low, subsonic thrumming that seemed to penetrate every fiber in his being. And out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone laughing and pointing to the sky. He was a foreign guest worker; a South Slav. He turned and looked at Dietz and began to laugh even harder.
And then there came a long, low rumbling sound from behind him, rising like millions of angry voices. SS Obergruppenfuehrer Karl Dietz turned slowly around. Hovering directly above the golden eagle-and-globe of the great Volkshalle was something infinitely larger. Half the size of the city, the saucer-shaped craft blotted out most of the sky above his head. It loomed dark and menacing.
And now long-dormant air raid sirens began to wail. But Dietz already knew they would be of no use. Anyone who could come that fast from Cassiopeia . . . He opened his tunic and pulled out the Bible he had pocketed the long night before.
And yes . . . Dietz blinked again, as he looked up at the bottom of the immense saucer, just to be sure. In spite of himself, he began to laugh, softly and nervously at first and then louder until he had lost all control.
I’ve never seen a Star of David that large before.