by Robert B Finegold, M.D.
“My soul yearneth, yea, even pineth for the courts of the LORD…”
The rap of metal upon metal rang within the small cabin, startling me. Knocking before entering was a courtesy the Jews on the transport neither expected nor received.
“Rabbi Makal? The Captain requests your presence.”
At sight of the officer, I nearly dropped my chumash, and the words of the Psalm were immediately forgotten.
“‘Requests’, Danel?” I asked.
The automaton’s face conveyed no emotion, but the human-like hesitation was unmistakable. Its voice softened. “‘Commands’ would be more accurate.” It paused, and then added, “It is good to see you, sir.”
When had I last seen him? Lyons in ’42? Paris in ’44? Yes, Paris; but then I’d been but one face among the many gathered at the grand exhibition of war machines. So many years ago…but–should I kvell? Look at him now: the pressed white suit with the ringed planet and dual stripes of an enseigne de la marine interstellaire de France on his epaulets, brass buttons as polished and gleaming as the unmarred silver skin of his face and hands. “It seems you’ve come far, Ensign,” I said, closing the chumash and placing the book in my jacket pocket.
I raised a finger. “There is but one Creator, Danel, and He is in Heaven.”
The gold-leaved irises within the glass cylinders of his eyes cycled closed and then opened. “My apologies, Abba.”
I shook my head and took off my prayer shawl. Was he utilizing his programming to choose words to make me receptive to his orders? Not that I would have dared to refuse the Captain. Folding my tallis, I placed it in its blue velvet bag, and then rested my hands on the metal shelf that served as my desk. It was cool to touch and vibrated with the thrum of the great ship’s engines. “I may have built you, Danel, but I am not your father. You are a machine, not a man…” I waved a hand at his uniform. “…regardless of how they dress you.”
He chose not to reply. I buttoned my tweed jacket and gave my yarmulke a perfunctory check. It perpetually threatened to slip from atop my balding head, which wouldn’t do. The yellow badges of the Reich may have become history, but God forgive the Jew who failed to wear his or her identifying headpiece, for the New Europeans would certainly not. “Let us not keep the Captain waiting.”
“That would be wise, sir.”
Captain Emile Pétain stood as stiff as his handlebar mustache. His tall and square-jawed First Mate and Commanding Officer, Mr. Henri L’Hereux, belied his surname and gazed sullenly at the ship’s médicin conseil. The latter sat on the edge of a cot, the bell of his stethoscope pressed to the chest of its occupant.
I’d seen the captain and first mate upon boarding, of course, scowling down at us from a catwalk above the great hold where we’d lined up holding our two permitted carry-ons. The bosun had identified them as our temporary gods for the duration of the voyage to HD 10307 before reading the edict of expulsion and the rules of conduct for which no transgression would be permitted upon the frigate Joan d’Arc.
“Doctor Makal, thank you for coming,” said the seated man. His voice was high-pitched, and squeaked like an adolescent undergoing the change. He stood, a small gesture of respect, but he did not extend his hand. He was short, round-faced, with pince-nez spectacles perched on an upturned nose. His uniform was unbuttoned at the neck and splayed open to accommodate his extra chins.
I inclined my head to the Captain and First Mate and then to the ship’s physician. “How may I be of service…” I looked at his I.D. plate. “…Doctor Eugène?”
Mr. L’Heureux interrupted, his words clipped as one used to barking orders. “The doctor is stymied. He suggested you might be of use.” His tone indicated skepticism.
“Of course,” I said. “Whatever I can do.”
I stepped toward the cot but halted when Doctor Eugène moved aside and I saw the patient.
“Lieutenant Haran was found upon D deck,” the doctor said, “away from the, ah, passenger quarters.” His eyes flickered beneath his lenses like fish behind aquarium glass, first toward the Captain and his CO and then to me. The two officers’ scrutiny was a tangible pressure on the back of my head. I had the urge to check that my yarmulke was secure but stilled it. “He was in the state pretty much as you see him now,” said Dr. Eugène.
And I saw him very well. Lieutenant Haran was a wiry middle-aged man with ringlets of thick ebon hair streaked gray at the temples. He was thin but not scrawny. His navy issue white tee molded to his chest; his bare arms bulged with muscle under the tawny skin but lay flaccid at his sides, one trailing an intravenous line. It was neither the golden brown color of his skin or his lax open mouth that arrested my movement, nor the dark walnut eyes staring sightlessly through the cabin roof, outer decks, and ship’s hull to the endless dark of space beyond, but the tattooed necklace of linked black scimitars encircling his neck–one for each Jew he’d murdered in the sack of Palestine.
Or its reclamation. It depended on your point of view. How they could call it that when Haifa, the jewel of the Mediterranean, with its bright new schools and hospitals, its cultivated farms and young forests, blazed and turned to cinders, I couldn’t fathom. The thick pillar of smoke rising from the city could be seen from the deck of the Cyprian rescue ship for days, and the taste of ash had never left my tongue.
My mouth went dry and my vision blurred. I fought against the flashback, but failed.
Ruthie smiled through the open window, and the warm honey smell of fresh baked challah wafted into the yard where I sat on the grass with Hannah. Our child, our sheyna medele, stood petulantly in front of me, hands on her tiny hips and her lips pursed in disapproval. The perfect cat’s cradle she’d passed me dangled like twisted tzitzit from my fingers. “No, Abba!”
Nails scoring my palms, and the image faded. I unclenched my hands. Doctor Eugène wore a worried expression, his herring eyes darting again between me and the two command officers. Small beads of sweat glistened like oil on his brow.
I took a penlight from my pocket and sat on the edge of the cot. Lieutenant Haran had no pupillary response. He displayed no bruises or any sign of recent physical injury. I leaned forward and sniffed. No fruity breath to suggest ketoacidosis. No asymmetrical laxity in his facial muscles or body tone to suggest stroke. His limbs gave no resistance when I moved them. In fact, they’d maintain any position in which they were placed, like a manikin or an inactive automaton. From the corner of my eye I noted Danel standing in the shadow of his superiors, respectful, vigilant, observant.
I looked under the lieutenant’s eyelids, pressed upon his abdomen, and questioned Dr. Eugène about his medical history and lab results. His replies provided nothing of significance.
“How long has he been like this?” I extended my hand and Dr. Eugène suspended his stethoscope upon my palm.
“Three days,” said Dr. Eugène.
“Truly? No response to stimuli at all? Not the slightest resistance to movement?”
The doctor shook his head.
“As limp as a jellyfish,” the First Mate said and then demanded. “What’s wrong with him?”
I listened to the Lieutenant’s chest and then sat back. “I’d say he’s in a catatonic stupor, or possibly suffered a severe stroke.” I shook my head, dissatisfied. “The signs are mixed.” I checked the Lieutenant’s pulse. It was thready, but he displayed no other signs of going into shock. I took the pillow from beneath his head and elevated his feet, and then I checked the i.v. bottle suspended above the head of the cot, opening it further. “His pulse is weak.”
“…and growing weaker,” Dr. Eugène said.
“Have you administered vasopressors?”
Dr. Eugène’s lips pressed together and he didn’t answer.
“He needs norepinephrine,” I said.
“No Jew drugs,” the First Mate said. “It must be as God wills.”
Goyim. “His God or yours?” I said, the words slipping out before I could stop them. Mr. L’Hereux’s eyes widened. I thought he would strike me, but he mastered himself.
“Captain Pétain?” I asked. The older man’s face was as unemotional and unreadable as Danel’s, but then he glanced upon the stricken Lieutenant and his imperiousness crumbled like halvah. He lowered his eyes and shook his head.
I sighed and stood. “As God wills then.”
Danel returned me to my quarters. Lieutenant Haran died the next day.
Dr. Eugène requested that I be present for the autopsy. The infirmary was more a laboratory than a hospital. New European medical science had made grudging, and begrudged, advances in medical analysis and clinical diagnosis despite the restrictions on interventional treatments. The Holy Emperor was as keen on the prevention of illness as he was on submission to God’s Will once a person was afflicted.
We found no sign of malady in the Lieutenant. No pathogen, occult injury, or predisposing congenital defect, merely a nonspecific mild elevation in his white blood cell count, and a slight inflammatory response in his nose and lungs. A mild cold or allergy perhaps, though his antibody counts were normal. His body was in great physical condition, not even a hangnail or pimple, which made the cause of his death the more perplexing.
Danel remained quiet while we worked. It was not until hours later, when tired and annoyingly befuddled, I again stood outside my cabin door, that he finally spoke.
“Sir?” he said, stopping me before I entered my small berth.
Down the passageway past an open bulkhead, a number of young Jews gathered near the curtained entrance to the converted cargo hold. Leaning against the walls like school chums, they kibbutzed and laughed. That would change once word spread of the lieutenant’s death.
“The crew will be concerned that a natural cause of death could not be found.”
“I am as well.”
His golden irises cycled open and closed. “There are some…who are not happy with the reassignment of this ship.”
“Or its cargo?”
“As you say, sir. Interstellar travel is new to la marine France. Most of the crew have served only interplanetary.” He became silent and his glass bottle eyes continued to study me. For the first time, I found this disconcerting. I should have made him eyelids so he could blink. “Few have sailed the Deep Dark,” he said.
“Have you, Danel?”
“Yes, sir.” He turned from me in an oddly human characteristic of recollection. “It is…” He stopped, seemingly lost in thought.
“Dark?” I suggested.
“Wondrous,” he said, almost in a whisper, and then my voice, though a much younger voice, emitted from the metal grille of his mouth. “‘What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that Thou thinkest of him?’”
And this time I couldn’t speak.
“The crew is not fond of your people, sir. While they approve of the expulsion edict, they resent being tasked to perform it. And the Deep Dark…is unsettling to some. Please take care, sir.”
I slid open the door of my cabin, but before I could enter, Danel barred my way. “Lieutenant Haran…” he began.
I suppressed my irritation and the sudden rush of anger at the thought of the Arab lieutenant. Was I angry at him? Or at the First Mate and Captain and the foolish prohibition against medical therapy?
“He volunteered for this voyage.”
“Reveling in it, I suppose.” I took hold of his arm and tried to push it away, but it was like pushing against the ship’s hull.
“No, sir. He felt remorse over the deaths he caused as a youth in Palestine.”
I again yanked ineffectually at his arm but only pulled loose my own frustration. “And yet he proudly displayed his tattoo of all those he murdered!” The words echoed down the hall.
Silence followed in their wake. Like shadows, my kinsmen slipped through the heavy curtained doors and disappeared into the hold.
Gently, Danel slid back the cuff of my jacket to display the numbers tattooed upon my forearm. “As you would not forget your past,” he said, “neither would he.” He lowered his arm, and I rushed into the tiny sanctuary of my cabin.
Before I could close the door, I heard Danel say to himself, “It was as if all his programming had been erased.”
The planet was named Zion, and the irony that it was mostly swamp, barren waste, and rocky hills with no resources valuable to New Europe was not lost among the exiles upon the Joan d’Arc. Yet, it would be ours–or so it had been promised. We need but reach it. When a second crewman, a mere matelot, was discovered with a malady alike to that which killed the first, it seemed more likely we’d be spaced instead. Who would shed a tear?
Danel came for me at Dr. Eugène’s behest. The seaman, a lad really, with freckles still dotting his cheeks and an unruly sprig of red hair sprouting from the back of his head like an antenna, demonstrated the same listlessness, sightless gaze, and nonresponse to external stimuli as had the late Lieutenant.
Mr. L’Hereux’s surliness was even more abrasive, but the way he hovered around the infirmary whenever his duties permitted bespoke of a concern greater than that of the CO for a crewman, and Dr. Eugène confided to me that the boy, Henrique Delacroix, was L’Hereux’s nephew. After two days of the same deterioration of vital signs that we had witnessed with Lieutenant Haran, I again suggested the use of pharmacological agents and was rewarded with a voluminous stream of thick-voweled curses betraying the First Mate’s rural Belgian upbringing.
Mr. L’Hereux pressed us for answers, to try something, anything–anything permissible. He did not object to electric shock therapy, though I was hesitant to suggest it. I doubted it would be efficacious, and this proved the case. The boy died two days later.
Mr. L’Hereux knelt by the lad’s bedside, so silent and still that for a moment I grew concerned that the affliction perhaps was transferrable. But then the CO stood and tugged on the hem of his jacket to straighten its creases, his eyes still locked on the boy’s. When he turned them upon Dr. Eugène, they displayed no animation; yet they ignited when they set upon me. The lines of his face tightened in anger and despair. He spat upon me.
“Génie Juif de Saint-Germain!” he mocked, “Génie Juif!” He walked stiffly from the room.
Dr. Eugène said nothing in the silence that followed the CO’s departure. He would not look at me. Instead, he turned and began preparing the boy’s body for transport to the morgue. Danel, however, watched me closely.
The Genius Jew of Saint-Germain. Rabbi, physician, mathematician, inventor of calculating machines and the weaponizing of la puissance de l’atome.
“That will be all for now, Albert,” Dr. Eugène said to me. He removed the boy’s intravenous line and crossed the lad’s arms across his chest. I was struck by how little had changed in the young man’s expression with his passing. “Get some rest and meet me in the lab at 1400,” he added, pulling the bed sheets over the boy’s head.
I nodded and left. Danel followed.
On our descent of the stairs to C deck, Danel stopped me upon the landing. “It was unjust of Monsieur L’Hereux to mock you.”
“You caught that, Danel?” I withheld any intimation of bitterness from my voice. “You’ve come far in comprehending human sarcasm.”
“You taught me to listen. Not only to what people say, but how they say it. To deduce what they do not put into words. To place human speech and action into context with the events that initiates them. It has been…” He paused. “…challenging.”
“This is not something you could do when we lived at Saint-Germain.”
“I’ve observed and experienced much since then.”
“So have we all.” This time my acerbity slipped through.
The clang of a door opening followed by rapid footfalls echoed up the stairwell. We pressed ourselves against the wall as a half-dozen crewmen in jogging outfits ran past us. At sight of me, their eyes narrowed, their distrust unfeigned. Their suspicions slithered toward Danel by association, but their eyes lowered at the sight of his officer insignia. Danel was the product of my invention but few had knowledge of this below the command level. To the general populace, such an achievement as Danel was only possible by a true Frenchman and a man of God. In this case, the honorable and distinguished Monseigneur Remond of Nice, descendent of kings. For the many years after Danel and Michal had been taken from me, and until the priest’s untimely and foolish death, Remond had served as their stepfather and the public icon for unequaled French ingenuity.
And I as its corruptor.
Danel observed the sailors until the turn of the stairwell hid them. “They are ill at ease. That may pose a problem, sir. I detect insubordination. I will need to inform the Captain.” He began to descend again and I followed.
“I suspect he’s aware, Danel. And as long as you hover around me, you’ll acquire guilt by association. And by being different. That, at least, is an experience you’ll always share with my tribesmen and me.” We exited the stairwell to D Deck.
Interpersonal differences became sharper and more alarming when traveling the Dark. Space paranoia has been blamed for the derelicts and disasters that have plagued la marine interstellaire in its forays deeper and deeper away from the home planet, although the common sailors whispered of Deimons.
“It is unjust.”
“It is human.”
“Ab…Rabbi, you were hailed the Hero de France for ending the war with Germany.”
“That appellation was short-lived.” I whirled upon him. “And I don’t want to hear it repeated. Certainly your shipmates do not. Or do you not fully comprehend what you just witnessed?”
Danel’s irises cycled close and he shook his head. “I observe much,” he said. “But the capacity for human nature to recast good as evil and evil as good is beyond my programming.”
I sighed. “It is because we humans cannot keep our passions, or our fears, from influencing our actions. We do not possess your capacity to envision all potential repercussions before we act.”
“Such as when you deserted France to join the Zionists?”
His words held no recrimination. They were merely a question, but they stopped me cold. He halted and we stood alone in the long passage with only the wheeze of air compressors and the hum of electric lights in their wire cages.
“Yes,” I said.
That the Holy Emperor may have considered my unique knowledge and ingenuity within the new Zionist state a potential threat to his realm was not lost among the people to whom I was once hailed as a hero and was now a pariah. The blame for the well-armed and organized Arab invasion and the massacres of the second Shoah was laid upon my bald head as was our current expulsion to the end of the known universe where I, and the people who had produced me, could be no threat.
In silence, we proceeded to my cabin. The door was open. Inside, Mrs. Katz was restocking the shelf above the microwave with my weekly allotment of meal packets. She was a Jewish Quasimodo, so kyphotic from age and osteoporosis that she could not raise her head to see the shelf upon which she placed the ration boxes. She noticed us hovering in the doorway, however.
“Just a moment, Rebbe,” she said. Her smile was shy, almost coquettish, a remnant petal from the bloom of her youth. Her eyes were among the few of the ten thousand remnant Yehudi that did not look at me with scorn. Her liver-spotted left forearm bore a tattoo similar to mine, small black numbers like an oddly legged caterpillar. The few Survivors from the first Shoah saw me, saw the world, a little differently. She shuffled to the bunk at the rear of the room, moving slowly and majestically, like a Galapagos turtle. She began to change the linens. Her body was failing, and yet she maintained a definable dignity. She knew, like Moses, she would not live to enter the Promised Land, but even so, she had a grace, a living presence…
I recalled Danel’s words.
“‘It is as if his programming had been erased…,’” I said aloud.
Danel picked up the conversation as if no time had passed since he’d made the observation. “Yes, sir. Neither Lieutenant Haran nor Seaman Delacroix demonstrated any volition, either conscious or unconscious. There was no recognition of input, processing of data, or function generation. No command comprehension, initiation, or completion at all. They were…” He paused. “…not who they were.”
He was correct. Both the Lieutenant and the First Mate’s nephew displayed no will, no anime. It was as if they’d been stripped of their élan vital.
I staggered as the thought triggered a kaleidoscopic flash. Danel’s visage shattered into scintillating fragments of silver and gold and white.
Hannah laughed as she spun, her Sabbath skirt twirling about her waist. Ruth picked her up and rubbed her nose in our daughter’s belly. Hannah squealed and pulled at her mother’s hair. Their shared laughter rose on a Mediterranean breeze and turned to cries; fire everywhere, ash falling from a steel gray sky like ebony snow.
“‘Amor est vitae essentia.’”
“Rabbi, are you well?” Danel’s hand rested upon my arm. I had fallen back against the door jamb.
“Huh? Yes, Danel. Thank you.” I stood straight and checked my hands for the soot covered burns long washed away. I was momentarily confused and struggled to recall our conversation. “Yes. I concur, Danel. They seemed emptied, brain dead patients. Their life essence gone, their souls fled.”
I shuddered and the world again began to blur. This time by ghostly images of dead-faced men and women standing barefoot in the snow, sexless in identical striped black and gray pajamas. Their soiled clothes hung off emaciated flesh and flapped like banners in a sirocco wind blowing hot and dry from the crematoriums near where we clustered for warmth… I pushed the vision back.
“It is as if their souls had fled,” I repeated, “…or been taken from them.”
“Taken, sir?” Danel said. “What could do that?”
I was about to answer, “Nothing. Humans are not machines that can be reformatted to completely forget who they are, what they are. I’m just talking nonsense,” when from the back of the cabin, a voice as dry and shrill as a rusty hinge said, “An erev-rav.”
The shell of Mrs. Katz’ back swiveled and revealed eyes like sapphires in shallow pools. “My bubbe would scold Yosef, my brother, and me when we were little nudniks,” she said. “‘Behave or the erev-rav will snatch you!’” She tittered fondly at the memory. “They would leave only shells she’d need crack and bury so dybbuks and mice wouldn’t infest them and make us a bigger nuisance.”
“That’s…” I began.
She cackled. “Schtuss? Ye. I know.”
Her job done, Mrs. Katz waddled down the length of the small berth and Danel and I parted like the Red Sea to make way for her. She stopped and twisted her body so one rheumy eye could gaze up at me. “But out here in the Dark, so far from God’s Earth, who knows? The Abyss is their abode.” She glanced at her arthritic fingers, knobby as tree roots with skin so thin and pale I could see her tendons and veins. “Will Adonai be able to keep them from devouring my soul when these farshtunken goyim toss my corpse into the Deep?”
I touched her hand. The skin was like soft papyrus. “You’ll be buried upon New Zion,” I said.
She patted my wrist. “You’re a good boychik with bad luck. Like Yosef.”
She raised the thin alabaster thread of one eyebrow at Danel. “I don’t know what you are. So let God decide. Nu?” She walked down the corridor, her movements so slow and measured she seemed to float. She called back, “Ask Reb Ludska. He knows souls.”
That he did, I thought.
The mystic Hassidic Rebbe Shlomo ben Yitzhak Ludska had made aliyah to Safed with three thousand followers to grow crops and to grow closer to God. The black-coats and hamantashen-shaped fur hats of the Ludskites mingled incongruously among the secular Zionist pioneers in their swim trunks and bikinis upon the golden shore of the Galilean Sea. And the incongruity disturbed none. The Holy Land was for all Jews, whatever their stripe–or shape of hat. Of Reb Ludska’s devoted flock, less than one hundred of his sheep survived the Assyrian assault to accompany him to New Zion. Yes, he knew souls very well, having lost so many.
After Mrs. Katz passed through the bulkhead and shambled slowly to the passenger hold, Danel asked, “Do you think Michal had a soul?”
The strangeness of the question drew my attention from my reverie, but there was nothing that could be read from the metallic mold of Danel’s face. The implication of his question was…but, no. No matter how he spoke or dressed, Danel was not human. And neither was Michal. Who would know better than I?
Michal was a thinking machine, my first, and I had turned him into an atomic bomb. Through me, he ended the lives of millions in Berlin and simultaneously the second world war, thus earning me both the appellations of Hero and Butcher. Michal had been the earliest success in the process to create Danel, to whom Michal was a good-natured Neanderthal by comparison. He could have never voiced or considered the question Danel asked.
I had never lied to them. It would have been fruitless in any case with Danel who could read the slightest stiffening of lip, the faintest blush, the millisecond of hesitancy in voice, and every other telltale. At Poque, Danel could never be bluffed. I studied him.
His eyes in the lamp light were like the sun’s corona around pupils black and unfathomable.
“Only God can create souls, Danel,” I said. “Machines, however wondrous, are the works of man and therefore flawed and imperfect.”
He thought upon this. I could imagine hearing the electronic synapses in his brain sparking as they cogitated. Then he asked, “God is perfect, no?”
“Man was created by God?”
“Yes, Danel, of course.”
“Is Man not flawed and imperfect?”
I blinked and struggled for an answer, fighting the resurgence of nightmare visions, but as the silence stretched between us, Danel again placed a comforting hand upon my arm and suggested, “Perhaps this is what God intends, sir. It is for His creations to perfect the gifts they’ve been given.”
I could only stare at him. What had happened in the years we’d been separated? Did Remond actually tamper with his programming? I would have thought that bathroom scientist couldn’t build a Ferris wheel out of Tinkertoys.
Danel continued, his tone identical to my own when long ago I’d instructed him in the dusty basement in Saint-Germaine. “Perhaps Michal felt he was achieving his perfection with his sacrifice. If he could bring an end to the evil that was destroying so many, that threatened the entire world…”
The automaton’s golden pupils slowly dilated, and I felt a twinge of vertigo.
“…the evil that had caused his creator such suffering and pain.”
He glanced down the corridor to where Mrs. Katz had disappeared. “The loss of a soul before achieving its perfection is the greatest tragedy; and if forcibly taken, the greatest evil. What could do this?”
“I–I do not know.”
“I would like to speak with this Reb Ludska,” Danel said.
I nodded. “Of course, Danel.”
I followed Danel into the echoing noise and stale smells of too many cooked meals and too many people crowded together. The converted cargo hold was a maze of stacked crate walls and sheet partitions hung on strung laundry line. The faces were a haunting mix of fear, irrational hope, and deliberate ignorance. Their mouths flowed with a constant babel, halting like crickets at sight of me and Danel, only to resume with increased tempo and hushed imprecations when we passed. Some made hand signs to ward off the evil eye.
Physically and emotionally depleted after years of expulsion, resettlement, and tragedy of a scope the world, including its Jewish remnant, could not or would not comprehend, these last ten thousand Jews of the continent milled, kibbutzed, and strove to weave dreams from nightmares. Their hands were rubbed raw in recalling past woes and anticipated future ones; yet their eyes were alight with an insane hope, that damnable incorrigible Yid hope, that this time, this new land, this new world would be different. Forty light-years to reach the new Promised Land? Feh! No problem. Indeed, the number was auspicious. Did not Noah traverse the great deep in forty days and nights to the freshly cleansed earth? Did not Moses and the Israelites wander forty years in the desert to reach Eretz Yisrael? The dual star that cast its brilliance in silver and carmine light upon their new home world…this star, this HD 10307…shone within the constellation the Gentiles named Andromeda. But it had another earlier name, a Babylonian one learned long ago in a former exile: Anunitum, the Lady of Heaven. And who was the Lady of Heaven, but God’s Shekinah? Nu? Is it not clear? HaShem still guided His People Israel, His Presence in His Shekinah still encompassing them. And as He brought them home to Eretz Yisrael from Babylon, one day He would do so again!
Such is Yid hope, Yid obstinacy, Yid eternal self-delusion.
The Seer of Safed was secluded in an inner chamber of a makeshift enclosure in a far corner of the cargo hold. Given the choice, he would not see me or the abomination of the automaton golem; but la marine interstellaire uniform and the officer’s insignia upon Danel’s shoulders he could not deny; and where Danel insisted I go, he could not gainsay. Reb Ludska was proud but not stupid.
His twelve closest disciples in their black frocks and pastry–shaped hats frowned at us in silence, their thin lips faint creases within their beards. One apostle guided us through seven successive rings of dyed ship linens hung on ropes as makeshift walls, like seven levels of a city, until we reached an immense rectangular shipping container converted into the Rebbe’s sanctuary and personal abode.
Our guide had us wait while he passed the final screening drapery, one painted with a Star of David encircled by arcane mystical symbols and the multifarious Hebrew names for God. A low rumble of voices came from inside, but the words were obscured by the clamor and hubbub of Jews arguing, petitioning, davening, and yelling at their children, sounds that a mere seven walls of bedclothes on clothesline could only muffle. Our Ludskite guide returned and held the starred curtain aside for Danel and me to enter, then closed it behind us.
To our left, the inside of the long container was obscured by darkness save for the wan orange glow of an atomic cell lamp that served as a ner tamid, God’s eternal light, watching above a makeshift ark. Upon a linen-shrouded table, I perceived the unmistakable oblong outline of a Torah scroll under the dyed sheets. The congregants would face astern when praying, toward Earth, toward Jerusalem. I wondered what they would do when settled upon New Zion, if any of us reached it.
On our right, the container was partitioned by another cloth divider, of a deep red, fluttering almost imperceptibly in a current of warm air. It was lit from behind and bright light leaked around its edges, like flames spouting briefly from embers. Passing through this last barrier, we entered the apartment of Reb Ludska.
Tapestries, actual tapestries, lined the walls and floor. Who among his minions had sacrificed their own baggage allotment to permit this, I did not know. Then again, it was not impossible that “exchanges” had been made with His Holy Emperor’s officials. Some of the Hasid sects had prodigious resources not evident in their penurious appearance. And, as was true with death, they could not take any riches into this last great exile. A half dozen fold out chairs lined both walls, and the Rebbe stood between them awaiting us.
Rebbe Shlomo ben Yitzhak Ludska , the Seer of Safed, had the chest of a scarecrow and the belly and tuchus of Behemoth, a little man seeming to rise from within the body of a larger one. By force of will I quenched the memory of the sweeping gaze of searchlights, the barking of dogs, and a child’s broken matryoshka doll shattered upon soot covered rails, the smaller dolls spilling from its belly like seeds from a smashed gourd.
The Rebbe was dressed in a tent of black: an ebon jacket, slacks, and vest of a material so non-reflective it seemed to absorb light. Only the twisted white fringes of his tallit katan broke free, loose threads squeezed from the constriction of his ballooning vest.
Behind him, a dark-haired boy in a red-knit yarmulke sat at a metal desk between a stack of old books and a small potted castor oil plant. He poured over a volume splayed open on the desk, his nose nearly touching the yellowed pages. His lips trembled as he read silently. I estimated he was either eight or nine, his round cheeks still plush with the cushion of childhood.
Reb Ludska did not offer his hand in greeting. He glared at Danel. He ignored me completely.
“Thank you for seeing us, Reb Ludska,” Danel said. “You are aware of the unfortunate incidents that have befallen two members of the crew?”
The Rebbe’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly to briefly show a ring of white around his irises, ice blue, and the bristles of his gray moustache rose with the flaring of his nostrils; but then weariness seemed to suffuse him. He sighed and motioned for us to sit. He settled himself upon a chair that squealed and groaned under his weight. We sat opposite him, the woven carpet embroidered with a kabbalistic tree of black circles and branches separating him from us.
“Unexplained deaths,” he said. His voice was rich and melodious yet hollow, like a monk singing hymns alone in a cathedral. A bitterness was in it as well, one I recognized too often in my own voice. “And here you are again,” he said to Danel.
“Again?” I asked.
A look of disdain crossed his face. “You’re supposed to be a genius, no?” He leaned forward. “When wells run dry or crops are poor…” He chuckled dryly. “When children go missing or the Plague blackens flesh, regardless that Gentile and Jew are equally afflicted…the blame for these they cast at our feet as kindling and set us afire.” His eyes burned as if seeing these flames. Then, seeing his own reflection in the mirror of Danel’s face, the flames went out and his shoulders sagged. “Are they blaming us yet again?” he asked, his voice weary, the question posed rhetorically.
Danel answered, “Yes.”
I was surprised by his candor. He voiced the threat, but there was no cruelty in it, merely truth. “Many are unhappy with this mission,” Danel said. “We are travelling to the edge of charted space. Few ships have voyaged so far across the Deep. Some have not returned.”
“‘Here there be monsters?’” I mocked.
“Exactly, sir. And some of the crew fears we carry the monsters with us.”
Reb Ludska bowed his head and mumbled a prayer.
“Danel,” I said, “That’s…”
“Some worry about a contagion you may have unknowingly brought on board or…” His glass eyes swiveled from the Rebbe to focus upon me. “…designed to specifically target the crew as a form of retribution.” My face betrayed my thoughts. He nodded. “Nonsense. I agree, sir. I am only providing you what I have heard in the hope to avert any further unfortunate incidents. Much has been said outside the Captain’s hearing. There are so many unsubstantiated and unlikely assertions that no single one has united the crew to independent action.”
“I fear it is possible, sir.”
“What else has been said?” I asked.
“The suppositions vary from a Zionist grudge against Arabs like Lieutenant Haran for the massacres in Palestine to a Jewish plot to commandeer the Joan d’Arc by killing the crew. Others among the more devout have rekindled old fears and superstitions concerning Jewish warlocks and witches.” His voice changed as he played a recorded voice whispering, “‘Spawn of their father the Devil.’” In his own voice, Danel continued, “My hope is Rabbi Ludska can help Chaplain Thévet deter this. The Chaplain has spoken out against such inflammatory statements, and the Captain has warned that such talk is sedition.”
“Bully for him,” I said. “So Reb Ludska is correct? They blame us for these deaths?”
“Not wholly, sir. Some blame Deimons. Others say it is merely a space psychosis brought out in travelling the Deep Dark.”
“Demons?” Reb Ludska’s face went pale.
“Dei-mons, sir,” repeated Danel. “Another human superstition, I’m afraid. When la marine interstellaire established its base on Deimos, they discovered the moon riddled with tunnels and caves. Some argued these were made by alien intelligences whom they nick-named ‘Deimons’. The von Dänikens took this up but the whole idea was mostly ridiculed. That is until similar tunnels were discovered on Ceres, Tethys, and later Centaurin B. No artifacts of any sort or aliens have ever been discovered; and the xenogeologists claim extensive evidence indicates that these tunnels are natural phenomena for low G planetoids of a similar type. I concur.”
“Sailors are not so easily divested of their superstitions,” I said.
“Correct, sir. Deimons replaced…” He paused, then said, “…‘gremlins’ as the cause of any unexplained mishaps occurring among the fleet and colonies.”
Reb Ludska’s lips twisted faintly into a wry smile. “Are they Jews then, these Deimons?”
“No Jews have been permitted in space until this voyage, Reb Ludska,” Danel said.
The Rebbe nodded. “See? And now these Deimons have competition. They must be scared of going the way of the, what you said, Gremlings.”
“This is not a humorous matter, Reb Ludska,” Danel said.
“I suppose not. But if we didn’t have humor, we’d have drowned the world in tears long ago.” He looked down at his hands. “‘Deimons,’” he muttered. “Such goyishe nonsense.”
“What is an erev-rav, Reb Ludska?” Danel asked.
The Rebbe’s eyes slid up to meet Danel’s. “Erev-rav? Where’d you hear anything about…?” He clapped his hands and our Ludskite guide stepped briskly through the curtain, glancing at Danel and me warily.
“Aaron!” The Rebbe called to the boy sitting at the desk. Aaron raised his head from his studies, his eyes veiled behind bangs of straight black hair. “Go with Reb Ephrem. Stay with him until I call for you.”
The boy slid off his chair without a word and passed between us and the Rebbe. He was small for his age. He reached up and took Ephrem’s hand. The man blanched slightly under Danel’s scrutiny, then he parted the curtain and they left. The Rebbe waited until he heard the susurrus of muffled chatter from the cargo hold rise and fall as Ephrem and the boy passed through the bedsheet partitions of the perimeter. “Such discussions, however foolish, are not for the ears of children,” he said. He sat back and folded his hands upon his lap.
“Foolish?” asked Danel.
“Yes. Dybbuks, ibbur, lilin, ruhotra, golems…” he pointed at Danel, “…erev-rav are found in whispered warnings by parents frightening their children to behave; and in the aggadot of the Talmud to extort obedience from ignorant Jews in the keeping of HaShem’s mitzvot; and in shtetl stories to assuage the helplessness we’ve felt under Gentile oppression by imagining fantasies where the goyim instead fear us!” He ran his hands through his hair, closing his eyes as he did so. Opening them, he saw Danel unmoved and impassive. “You would continue with this narrishkeit?” he asked.
The Rebbe sighed. “An erev-rav is the consequence of the mixed seed of Adam and Lilith.”
“Lilith was a demon, a female spirit of the sitra ahra…the other side, the realms of Darkness,” I said to Danel. “A succubus who purportedly stole the seed of men and the breath of infants. She was blamed for sudden infant death syndrome.”
The Rebbe nodded. “Just so. Silly, isn’t it, doctor?” To Danel, he said. “Like Lilith, the erev-rav are spirit thieves, vampyrs who revel in the spreading of the dark which is their abode. Nu? Nonsense.”
“There is no greater dark than that upon which we sail,” said Danel.
Reb Ludska’s eyes rolled upward and he shook his hands at Heaven. “Oif a nar iz kain kasheh nit tsu fregen un kain pshat nit tsu zogen!”
You should not ask a fool a question, or give him an explanation! He leaned forward again, as if by his will alone he could pierce the automaton’s metal skin. I was struck by the incongruity of the rabbi striving to have a machine see reason, be logical. “The nukba di-tehoma rabba, the maw of the Great Abyss, is all around us,” he said with passion, as if giving a sermon to the sad remnant of his flock. He slapped both hands against his chest. “But it is what is inside us that matters! Man with his God-given capacity to reason, to hope, and to love is all that stands between HaShem’s Creation and the Abyss.”
Danel said nothing. He returned the old man’s gaze. They seemed joined in some hidden battle of wills, or just petulantly engaged in a child’s staring contest.
It was Reb Ludska who first lowered his eyes, sinking slowly back onto his chair. He waved a hand dismissively. “But you are not a man. You can never comprehend.”
In the subsequent silence I could hear the distant cries of a woman screaming at her wailing child. These faded leaving no sound save for the soft buzz emitted by the Eternal Lamp in the dark sanctuary beyond.
“What attracts an erev-rav?” Danel asked.
The Rebbe’s face blushed. He stood, his body shaking. “It’s a fairy tale,” he yelled. “A fable, a chain around our necks forged by our own fears. We must break them! We must make a fresh start and not drown in our own drek! And you, Reb scientist,” he shouted at me. “You believe in this? The greatest Jewish scientist of the age should ask such questions? Folklore! Myth! Bubbemeisers!” He stabbed his finger toward me. I noted he was one who bites his nails. “You cannot, Mr. Rabbi Scientist, make a pilpul study of that which is imaginary. What is the weight of a thought? How many centimeters is a dream?”
The curtain parted and two identical black-garbed Ludskite men peered in, faces goatish with alarm at the Rebbe’s shouting.
Reb Ludska walked between them and into the darkness of the sanctuary. Beneath the faint orange glow of the Ner Tamid, he pulled a prayer shawl over his head, a tallis of silvery luminescence, and began to daven, rocking slowly back and forth, head bent before God, murmuring a rolling litany of prayer.
The Rebbe’s two guardians motioned for us to leave.
Danel remained silent until we stood again outside my cabin. “Sir, may I ask your impression of Reb Ludska.”
“A beaten man,” I said. “But a Jew’s Jew. One who grows roses from his crown of thorns and braids his hair shirt. He won’t forget or forgive past wrongs, but he will not be ruled by them as long as he has a single sheep to lead. ‘To save a single Jewish life, or any life, is to save the world.’ And for us, that world is to be New Zion.”
Danel stared at me with the same inhuman impassivity that Reb Ludska had found so unnerving. I was used to it, however. I opened the door to the cabin and then paused, reflecting. “His ardent dismissal of Jewish mystical beliefs was…somewhat surprising. I am pleased he shares my views on such claptrap. But it is odd that the famed Seer of Safed should be so dismissive. To quote another sage, albeit a Gentile one, ‘Methinks he doth protest too much.’” I shrugged. “But with all your talk of the crew’s superstitions concerning Jews and Deimons, he may be trying to dispel such fears. Goodnight, Danel.”
But Danel did not leave. Instead, he said, “That may be true, but…” He stopped, studying me, and for the first time his impassionate stare made me uncomfortable.
“Do you think he was lying?” I asked.
“I detected no indication of untruth.” He hesitated again.
He looked away. “Do you recall Marcel the Marvelous, sir?” he said with uncertainty.
I chuckled. “The stage magician?”
I had taken Danel to The Moulin Rouge where Marcel performed while the late night patrons gathered and ordered drinks before the can-can girls made their appearance. We sat in the back, furthest from the stage, where there was little light and Danel was hidden behind his hat, gloves, and winter scarf.
“Yes, sir. The magician. There was no untruth in him as well.”
Danel’s lenses fixed upon me and I felt like a butterfly under the scrutiny of a lepidopterist.
“And yet he deceived,” he said.
I saw Danel for the last time three days later.
Beneath the unfaltering hums and steady vibrations of the ship’s engines and the clockwork sibilant hiss of ventilation compressors, a growing sense of fear and ill-ease infiltrated the rhythm of life upon the Joan D’Arc. It was seen in the wariness of the crew delivering supplies to the colonists, the number of guards that accompanied them, and the diminishing of what little small talk there had been between Gentile and Jew. It was evident in a rising wariness among the shipmen toward their passengers who outnumbered them fifty to one, and in a growing wildness in the eyes of the colonists who woke to the knowledge that they were yet again penned in, crowded together in the immense hold, and restricted to D Deck; an environment reminiscent of the Displaced Persons facilities–and the concentration camps. I again thought of the Rebbe struggling to protect his vestigial flock and willing to say anything, even deny his beliefs, to save their lives as Peter denied Jesus to save his. And like sheep, my tribesmen herded even closer together within their makeshift shtetl and no longer ventured outside to the permitted encircling hall of D Deck, with few exceptions.
The cacophony of Yiddisher kvetching and shrayen condensed to white noise and faded ten meters from the curtained cargo access. The corridor was devoid of Jews. The usual crowd of Yids was absent. Teens and young men and women no longer leaned against the hallway walls seeking haven from the noodging of their parents. Couples wishing to whisper endearments that would otherwise be drowned in the raucous clamor of the mishpocha no longer traversed the passage to and from the viewing ports that lined the outer hull. On the wall beneath one of the many red-lit fire warning switches, some child had scrawled in yellow crayon three circles, two with radiating lines, one with branches and buds sprouting from its top…two stars and a world with…an apple tree? No. “‘V’yashvoo, eesh tachat gap’no vtachat t’aynato.’”
‘But they shall sit, every man under his vine and under his fig tree.’
I pulled my tallis over my head and my chumash from my pocket. At the intersection with the starboard corridor, I turned aft, turning the Bible’s pages as I walked, seeking words, seeking something behind them. But I saw only random black lines and curves interweaving like the tattoo around Lieutenant Haran’s neck or the one forcibly inscribed upon my forearm; vowels and punctuation like the series of binary input I fed to Michal, simple loyal Michal, for his terminal flight to Berlin; verse and chapter numbers like the endless rows of numerals tallying all who perished in that world-shattering detonation. Devastation beyond all human conception paradoxically conceived to stop devastation–and genocide.
The words, letters, and numbers blurred and faded. Only blank pages remained, white paper so thin it appeared translucent, a match for the pallor of my skin in the photographs of the victory parade down the Champs-Élysées with captions declaring the Hero de France. Later, other captioned photos proclaimed “Traître!” and “Boucher de Berlin!” when I’d escaped France to join the Zionists in Palestine after the only country who deigned to forgive my being a Jew reneged on returning Danel to me.
I stopped short. My tallis slid off my head and gathered around my neck like a winter scarf.
“You need to stop surprising me, Danel.”
“My apologies, sir.”
Danel stood in front of one of the observation ports. The actinic glow of the sluice stream that flowed over the hull shone like moonlight and silhouetted the right half of his head and uniform, the latter neatly pressed with brass buttons like tiny stars. His metal skin gleamed like quicksilver. The glass cylinders of his eyes sparkled and cast prismatic shadows across his face.
“I have information,” he said.
I waited but he did not speak.
He said, “I have not shared this with Captain Pétain or Mr. L’Hereux. I would not have harm come to y-…any of you. I fear…”
“Fear? You fear, Danel?”
He was silent.
I moved closer, imagining a tingle upon my face as I stepped into the beam of light with him. “Tell me,” I said.
“Lieutenant Haran was one of the fedayeen who led the massacre of Safed.”
“In the slaughter of the Ludskite community?” I blew out my cheeks and exhaled. “You think that someone…the Rebbe himself perhaps, recognized him?”
“This is what I fear.”
This is what I fear. The words projected from the small mesh screen of his mouth, little different than the grille of a radio, yet emotive, personal.
“Even so, Danel. We do not know how Haran died or…”
“The plant on the Rebbe’s desk. Did you recognize it?”
“The castor oil plant?”
“The Ludskites cultivated it in Palestine. Why?”
“It’s a versatile shrub. It can be used to create lotions, soaps, lubricants, insecticides, even fuel oil… Oh.” I stopped.
The castor bean, lovingly known as the Palm of Christ, was the source for ricin, a subtle and fatal poison that suppressed respiration and blood pressure… But the catatonia and bradycardia? No. It didn’t fit. And why young Henrique Delacroix? The nephew of Mr. L’Hereux? He’d at best have been an infant during the second Holocaust. “We must speak to Reb Ludska,” I said.
The pounding of my heart in my ears resolved into the slapping of running feet. The Rebbe’s grandson Aaron appeared, face swollen raw with tears, fear, and exhaustion.
“Help! Please! Come help!” He collapsed at Danel’s feet, his breath whistling through his teeth. Danel extended a hand and the boy grasped it, shuddered, and staggered to his feet. “It’s the Rebbe!” Aaron’s hair was disheveled. Somewhere he’d lost his yarmulke. “He’s collapsed! Come quick. Please!”
The lad pulled on Danel’s hand and led us in a run down the long corridor. We traversed long stretches of twilit halls severed by beams of light from the observation windows. We were further aft than I had gone before. The hum of the engines grew louder and its vibrations pulsed along the floor. And on the floor, lit by the glow emanating from a hull window, lay the sprawled monstrous form of Reb Shlomo ben Yitzchak Ludska; Leviathan washed up upon the shore at the End of Days. Just beyond him was a heavily secured airlock door bathed in the red light of a caged lamp above it.
The boy gave a cry and released Danel, falling to the side of the Rebbe next to whom he appeared no more than a guppy.
The Rebbe lay on his back, arms cast to either side as if in crucifixion. They twitched spasmodically.
I quickly knelt beside him. He was breathing, although erratically. His face was flushed. Lifting his eyelids revealed a glassy stare but the pupils reacted to my penlight.
“Quick. Tell me what happened,” I said.
The boy started to sob. I raised my hand to slap him, but Danel stepped forward and rested his hands on Aaron’s shoulders. Gently he said, “Aaron. Please. We’re here. Tell us what happened.”
Aaron sniffled and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. I placed my ear against Reb Ludska’s chest and heard, Baruch HaShem, a steady if slow rhythm.
“We were just doing our walk before Sabbath. We’d never gone so far before. He kept saying he was sorry. I didn’t understand…”
I checked the pulse in the Rebbe’s wrist and his hand spasmed again, fingers extending momentarily open before clenching. I spread his fingers. In his palm a castor oil seed stared at me like a crocodile’s eye.
Picking it up, I grabbed Aaron’s chin and showed it to him. “Did he swallow any of these?” The boy’s eyes welled with tears. “Did he?” I demanded, shaking him.
“I…I don’t know.”
I let him go. “If he ingested them…”
“What is the antidote, sir?”
“There is none.” I stood. “We need to get him to the infirmary. Pump his stomach. Hydrate the bejesus out of him.” I doubted Danel understood the allusion to the Palm of Jesus but he did not press me with further questions.
“The Rebbe is too heavy for me to lift, sir. Please stay while I fetch help.”
The boy grasped Danel’s hands. It was a surreal image, Raphaelian. Danel standing tall and garbed in white holding hands with the kneeling boy whose face was contorted in sorrow and pain, both of them shimmering in the blue-white light streaming through the hull window.
“I’ll go,” I said. “Stay with the boy. I’ll fetch Dr. Eugène and help.”
I ran, passing in and out of shadow, light fluttering across my vision like movie theater newsreels during the war. Ghosts seeped from my memory. I clenched my teeth and stabbed each of them. My tallis stayed draped around my neck, and I clung to either end as I ran like a man carrying a heavy burden upon his back. Run! Get Eugène. Save Reb Ludska.
My lips set. Save him so he can be sacrificed; the scapegoat for Gentile justice so the last remnant could live.
A glimpse of movement and I had to grab the person in front of me or topple over them. I heard a gasp of surprise and was enveloped in the homely aromas of soap and soup.
I had nearly bowled over Mrs. Katz.
We spun together down the hall. I instinctively lifted her, light as a soul, to keep my balance and slammed back against the wall dispersing my momentum, holding her safe in front of me. Beside us the small red light of a fire alarm box blinked.
My heart thudded against my chest. There was no other sound but my wheezing. Then a voice said breathlessly, “I used to get ten centimes a dance.”
I set her down. “My apologies, Mrs. Katz,” I said. “I must go. It’s an emergency.”
She tilted her head, one viscid eye searching my face. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Reb Ludska. He’s taken poison. Tell his assistants. And let them know the Rebbe’s grandson is with him.”
I took a stumbling step away from her.
“Grandson?” she said. “Reb Ludska has no grandson.”
There was a sigh, and cool air blew down upon us from an air vent. The hairs at the back of my neck stiffened.
She shook her head sadly. “All his poor family died in Palestine. He has no son, no grandson.”
I took a faltering step toward her, then another. Her eyes buried within folds of wrinkled flesh gazed at me quizzically, like a rook with head cocked, its claws clasping some dead thing at the side of the road. I smashed the fire alarm box on the wall behind her and then began to run back the way I had come.
I passed through streaming gusts from the ventilation system like cobwebs. A cold chill passed through me, stirring the ashes deep within. This time I could not stop them.
The gray photographs of broken rubble that was once Berlin; the blackened fragments of bone to which clung desiccated remnants of flesh like Z’roa on a seder plate; the pervasive smell of boiling corpse fat saturating the air with a sickly caramel scent that sank like oil into one’s flesh and rags; the near surgical red-mouthed wounds exposing ribs like teeth across Ruth’s floral blouse and gaping wide across Hannah’s throat as if sliced by a shochet; the sky blackened and roiling with smoke quenching the sun and obscuring Heaven. Times of fire and darkness, repeated again and again, declared there could be no God, testing me like Job. But unlike with Job, succeeding. Words of prayer falling lifeless from my lips, dry and empty of hope; without answers, without expecting an answer. There were no angels to protect us, no devils but Man, and no God. The years after I escaped from Buchenwald, I searched for Him…not in Scripture, but in molecules and atoms, yet I discovered no Design and no morality, only indifferent forces and whims. And finally I disproved Him with Michal and Danel. If a man could create self-aware life, the proclaimed sole prerogative of the Lord Almighty, then there could be no God; no justice, no mercy. I challenged Him and received only silence. No proof He cared. No proof He was.
Danel lay supine upon the deck and Aaron knelt upon his chest. His tiny hands clutched the automaton’s cheeks and sank into them. When the boy raised his head to welcome me, his smile was cold, predatory; the plush lips pulled wide as if hefted upward by his peyos, parting to reveal teeth that glistened in the actinic sluice light. His eyes held no white. They were holes of nothingness, blacker than the Dark outside. Not a single gleam of light shone within them.
“Come help,” he said, his voice ice. “Please come help.” What had assumed the shape of the boy, summoned by the mystic Seer of Safed to kill the fida’i officer responsible for the murder of the Rebbe’s flock and family, and over whom it seemed the Hasid master had then lost control, withdrew his hands from Danel’s face as if drawing them from a pool of water.
With a spiderlike agility, Aaron leapt upward from Danel’s chest to cling to the hull wall, and then skittered rapidly across it, arching to the ceiling before falling upon me.
It was disconcertingly like catching a puppy or a small child, he was so light. Hannah had been so like this…
His hands fastened upon my cheeks, fingers melting into my flesh to slide along my teeth like a mallet along xylophone keys. I felt no pain, only a numbing coldness, a spectral tingle along the base of my skull. His small nose touched mine until all I could see were the black wells of his eyes, bottomless, empty, and longing.
And the thing, Deimon or erev-rav, saw the same in my own.
It shuddered and released me, falling to the floor to lie stunned upon its back. Its face contorted from a vulturine hunger to puzzled confusion.
Approaching footfalls cascaded down the corridor.
The creature the Rebbe named Aaron righted itself and kneeled in front of me, peering around my knees like a child seeking protection from a parent. It hesitated, uncertain whether to attack or flee. In that moment, I pulled my tallis from my shoulders, wrapped it around the boy’s neck, and lifted him from the floor.
He uttered a garbled scream and clawed at my fingers, the silk noose sliding tight around his throat.
“Hey! Ho there! What are you doing!” Mr. L’Hereux yelled, a squad of men trailing in his wake, including a winded Dr. Eugène. The CO scowled and strode toward me pulling a wooden baton from his belt and raising it. Before he could strike me, Dr. Eugène grasped his arm. But there was no need. Mr. L’Hereux halted, eyes widening as the boy I held shimmered and changed into the form of the First Mate’s dead nephew.
“Uncle, help me,” Henrique Delacroix croaked, extending a hand toward his uncle.
The men gasped and took a step back.
“Open the airlock!” I said.
Delacroix twisted in my hands, features blurring again. The men continued to stare, shocked still, except for Dr. Eugène. He dragged Mr. L’Hereux forward and demanded, “The access code. Enter it. Now!”
The CO looked dazed, “Wha…?”
Dr. Eugène slapped him, drawing his attention and anger, but then Mr. L’Hereux nodded. His finger stabbed at a key pad beside the airlock and then he grasped the wheel on the door with two hands and spun it. With a faint hiss and gust of stale air, the heavy door opened.
The lad shimmered and Aaron screamed and fell limp in my arms, gaining weight. I shifted my grip, one hand still holding the ends of the knotted tallis. It loosened around the boy’s neck when my remaining hand slid behind his back to support him. Aaron coughed, and inhaled, and coughed again.
“It’s g-gone,” he said, hoarsely, in barely a whisper. Then more strongly and with relief, “Bless HaShem! It’s gone!” Aaron’s eyes were normal again, hazel irises rimmed with white. He smiled weakly and raised one hand to the red welt made by the tallis around his throat. “Th-thank you.”
I nodded and held him close. His small arms encircled my neck. “It is all right,” I said. “It’s over. It’s not your fault.” Rocking him gently, I stepped toward Dr. Eugene.
The good doctor reached forward to take the boy; but I nudged him aside, flung Aaron into the airlock, and slammed the door. The wheel automatically revolved and locked.
Before the men around me could act, I punched the green-lit “Cycle” button.
There was the sound of air compressors, a muffled clang, and a shuddering rolled under our feet like a weak seismic tremor.
The corridor erupted in startled exclamations and I was dragged from the airlock door. Mr. L’Heureux’s face was flushed with anger, confusion, and fear. For all these reasons, or for the lack of reason, his arm rose brandishing its sleek black baton. I had just a moment to think that there was nowhere I could replace my tallis before the baton struck.
Danel’s fingers drummed against the table top. I typed in another code and he stopped.
I was alone in the makeshift workroom Captain Pétain had assigned me. His engineers had provided me every piece of equipment that I requested. One even brought me a sandwich and a glass of wine. The sandwich was ham from the officers’ mess, but the wine was a fine Bordeaux.
Danel lay supine upon the aluminum table like a medieval bishop carved in stone atop his sarcophagus. Stripped of his spotless white uniform and every vestige of human clothing, Danel looked like the machine he was, a metallic manikin for some Austrian clock steeple whose gears had frozen, who could no longer count time.
I rested my forehead upon the metal table top. It was cool and smelled of disinfectant and lubricant.
The Captain and Mr. L’Hereux, the latter who gruffly offered an apology, likely at the Captain’s request, questioned me about the events at the airlock, the creature that looked first like a Jewish child and then like Seaman Delacroix, and its relationship to the death of the seaman, Lt. Haran, and Rabbi Ludska. They did not mention Danel, assuming his was a malfunction that I could correct.
I answered that nothing could be certain, and questioned them in return about past port calls for the Joan D’Arc, confirming that “yes”, she’d spent time at Deimos, Tethys, and Ceres, though not Centaurin B. I nodded and said the small size and light weight of the creature, its ability to conceal itself by assuming any human form, and its equal disregard for the lives of marine and Jew suggested we’d had our first contact with a Deimon. I proceeded to provide the data I’d collected and the conclusions I’d derived regarding the unique physical qualities of the alien, the texture of its skin, mass alteration, scent, and potential biochemical secretion of a compound similar to that of ricin–and I kept a straight face through all of it.
“And yet you threw the only proof out the airlock,” L’Hereux said skeptically.
I said nothing but gazed at the Captain. Our eyes met and held.
“Perhaps not the only proof,” the Captain said. “There could be others.”
“I can provide you a test to confirm or exclude this,” I said.
He nodded. “Do it.”
Sometimes it helps to be known as a genius.
No one in the crew or the colonists tested positive. And that left Danel.
Lifting my head from the table, I picked up the half-empty glass of Bordeaux and finished it. There were some among the crew who had begun to suggest that perhaps they should keep a Jew upon the Joan D’Arc, perhaps on every ship. I peered through the wine glass at Danel’s face, always still since his creation, but now lifeless. The erev-rav had drained him as I had drained the glass of wine.
I was not sure what was more surprising. That it seemed, after all, Danel had a soul…or that somewhere, sometime, amidst the endless ashes and rubble, I had lost my own.
Danel’s appraising eyes and strong voice welled up in my mind, and I opened myself to his memory, welcomed it. “‘The loss of a soul before achieving its perfection is the greatest tragedy; and, if forcibly taken, the greatest evil.’”
“No, Danel,” I said aloud. “What is even greater is giving it up.” And tears came.
I reached out and took hold of my metal son’s hand. And in that cold infirmary upon a ship treading the Deep Dark to a distant star, I felt another comforting hand upon my own even though Danel and I were alone.
Copyright 2015 Robert B. Finegold
Robert B Finegold, M.D. is a radiologist living in Maine. He has an undergraduate degree in English (Creative Writing and British Literature), has been a university newspaper cartoonist, and served as a Major in the U.S. Army during the first Gulf War. He is a two-time Writers of the Future Contest Finalist whose work has appeared in Flashquake: A Literary Journal, STRAEON 2: Part Deus, and is forthcoming in an anthology of WOTF winners and finalists tentatively entitled 1st &Starlight. On Facebook, find him at: Robert B Finegold Kvells and Kvetchings