Killing time with another excerpt from The Spaces Between. This one recounts the famous UFO crash in Kecksburgh, Pennsylvania.
December 9, 1965
The object had been tracked coming in from Ontario, Canada, at around 19:00 hours, and raised an alarm when it changed direction over Ohio and headed east into Pennsylvania. A group of children who had been allowed to stay out a little later spotted it as it blazed across the sky and crashed into a heavily-wooded area less than a mile from where they were sledding. They ran home and asked their mothers if it was okay if they went to see what they thought had been a falling star. Their mothers, drunk on gin and the dread of looming holiday in-law encounters, said sure, whatever kept the tots out of the house so that they could continue wrapping Christmas presents. This was rural Pennsylvania in 1965 after all, and children were perfectly safe to wander around in the woods unsupervised, even with such a bizarre reason to do so. A falling star? The mothers figured it was just an innocent childhood game.
To NORAD, however, it was not just a game. This was serious business. As soon as the object had changed its trajectory, a Moon Dust team was scrambled, and before the curious children could get close enough to see more than a blue light flashing between the trees, the entire area around the crash site had been cordoned off, volunteers from the local fire department had been shooed away, and the U.S. military had put the whole scene on lock-down.
Now some of you may be asking, “What is a Moon Dust team?” Moon Dust was the name given to crash-recovery and retrieval teams that were sent out to recover crashed or landed objects that were suspected of being extraterrestrial space craft. Now you know, if you had not.
This Moon Dust team had left Wright-Patterson Air Force Base under the command of one Major Horace Pembroke and arrived in the hills just south-east of Pittsburgh to find a large acorn-shaped object covered in strange glyphs lying on the forest floor beneath a shattered treetop canopy.
“By Odin’s beard!” Pembroke declared as he gazed down into the trench where the object had come to rest. His men, clad in biohazard gear, swarmed around the device. Two held Geiger counters, and the other three were spraying the object with foam. They were the scientific detachment. The goon squad remained at the perimeter, scaring away curious lookie-loos with Hollywood bravado one can really only make work when one is a uniformed military man with a gun.
“Get some foam over on that left side, by cracky!” Pembroke said. “You missed a spot!”
His men did as ordered.
One of the goon squad came down to report that the perimeter was secure, but that a local news team had arrived on scene and was asking questions. As it so happened, this goon had a question of his own.
“What does the foam do, Sir?”
“I have no idea,” Pembroke replied. “They just send us out with a few tanks of the stuff, and the brass gets all huffy if we come back with a full canister.”
“Smells like shampoo,” the goon said.
“Lather, rinse, repeat, by Mennen!” Pembroke said, then yelled to his radio officer. “When’s our lift getting here?”
“Still twenty minutes out,” came the reply. Pembroke turned back to his goon.
“Clear a path for those flatbeds,” he said. “And push the locals back, by thunder! I don’t want to see any civilians when we haul this whatchamajigger out of here!”
The goon nodded and headed back up to the road. Pembroke was about to follow him up to deal with the news crew. He was thinking a quickly-rehearsed statement about a crashed satellite should do when one of his science team shouted.
Then he heard a pop and a hiss, and turned to see that billowy clumps of foam were sliding off of one side of the object as a hatch appeared to open in the side.
“Contact! Contact, by God!” Pembroke shouted as his science team scrambled back up the trench and some heavily-armed goons ran down, weapons at the ready. Whatever grey-skinned bug-eyed boogeyman crawled out of that thing, they weren’t about to take any chances.
As they watched, lights and rifles trained on the shiny, foamy outer shell, a black, leathery hand emerged, followed by a long, gray arm. And then another black hand, grasping the edges of the opened hatchway, pulling a large, hulking figure from within. The figure stumbled, trying to maintain balance as it emerged from the awkward angle at which the object rested. As it gained its footing and stood, a second figure began to emerge behind it. Pembroke kept his eyes focused on the infamous insignia pinned to the grey coat of the first figure. The goons aimed their weapons at it.
“By Caesar’s ghost!” Pembroke said in a hushed tone as the figure raised its hands in surrender. “Fuckin’ Nazis!”
“Nazis!” shouted the goons, and the call was echoed back up the hill. “Nazis!… Nazis!… Nazis!” On the roadside several yards above the crash site, a public relations officer was talking to the television crew who had their lights trained on him.
“Are they saying ‘Nazis’?” asked the reporter.
“Um… no,” replied the PR officer, one Captain Richard Dobbs. Thinking quickly, he then said, “They’re saying, ‘Not Cs’, which means Not Communists. So to answer your previous question, no, this object is not of Russian origin. Now if you’d please move your crew back to your truck…”
Back in the pit, Pembroke was glaring down at three humans dressed in regalia from the Third Reich, two men and a woman. The first figure to have emerged, a man, stepped forward.
“Welches jarh ist es?” he said. A few of the goons took their eyes off of him to exchange a puzzled look. One of them, a Lieutenant Kuntz, who had grown up on a farm in Wisconsin where his grandparents had spoken German, took the initiative and replied, “Es ist neunzehn funfundsechzig…”
“Knock it off, Kuntz!” Pembroke snapped. Damn show-off. They could have fucked with these Krauts a little more, kept them in the dark until they knew exactly who they were and why they were there… but now the cat was out of the bag. The Nazis were looking at each other, and the expressions on their faces were of mild shock at the least. They started to lower their hands.
“Nein!” Pembroke shouted. “Keep those hands up, by Lucifer, or I’ll have my men mow you down and we’ll bury you where you stand in that god damned ditch!” The Germans at least knew Nein and their arms went up again.
The leader, the one who had emerged first from their weird little capsule, spoke to the female, who nodded, and then stepped forward. “I speak English,” she said.
Pembroke nodded slowly. “Well, ain’t that a handy little fact. You are on United States soil, fräulein, so you better start speaking some god damn English or by Christ, I’m gonna kill the lot of you. Shit, we were hoping for extraterrestrial contact, we get Krauts. I cannot tell you how disappointing this is!”
“Is your man honest, Sir?” she asked. “Is this the year 1965?”
“You’re in no position to be asking the questions, ma’am!” Pembroke barked. “So you’d better start answering some of mine. First of, who the fuck are you people?”
Now the leader stepped up, hands still raised. “I am Hans Kammler, S.S.-Obergruppenfuhrer und General of the Wunderwaffen…”
“Blah blah blah, shut it, General,” Pembroke interrupted. “Save it for the debriefing. Nobody here gives a shit what your rank is. All we wanna know is how you come to crash your shiny tin pot here onto American soil. And why the fuck are you still wearing Nazi uniforms? Didn’t get enough of an ass-kicking twenty years ago?”
Some of his goons chuckled at this. The Nazis looked around at them, and Pembroke was pleased to see that they did so fearfully.
“Then are we to understand…” Kammler slowly asked, “That the Allies did win the war?”
“Damn skippy,” said Pembroke, and then, when he saw the befuddled look in Kammler’s eyes, he answered more officially: “Yes, you are correct in your understanding. Your fuhrer is dead, and Germany has been broken in two. And you don’t already know this because…?”
As his leading question hung in the air, the formal stance of his new captives took on a distinctively crestfallen, almost broken air. Their arms relaxed a bit again, but this time he let them go.
Kammler and the man on his right exchanged a few whispers.
“Hey, hey!” Pembroke barked. “None of that now, by Regis! Whatever you have to say, you can say it to me, or I will let my men communicate their severe dislike for Nazis with their firearms. Now where the fuck did you krauts come from?”
Kammler’s eyes moved around the edge of the ditch again. The soldiers remained steady with their firearms trained on the hearts and heads of him and his sidekicks. His eyes moved back to Pembroke.
“May I ask who it is that I am addressing?”
Pembroke straightened. “You are addressing Major Horace Pembroke of the United States Air Force. And I am losing my patience!”
“Air Force?” the woman whispered. Kammler sighed, and muttered to his people, “Es ist vorbei.” They all put their hands down now. The goons raised their rifles. “Major,” Kammler said, “We apologize. We are sorry to intrude on your land, but this…” he gestured at the large metallic bell-shaped object behind him, covered in its weird runes, now clearly visible as the last of the foam dripped and dissolved into the soil. “This device… we were not sure of its capabilities, and we lost control.”
“Uh-huh,” said Pembroke. “And what, exactly, is this thing?”
“Major Pembroke,” Kammler said in a tone that suggested everyone was about to be very impressed, “I give you the pride of the Heeresversuchsanstalt Peenemünde, Die Glocke.” As he said this, he swept his black leather-gloved hand dramatically back at the bell-shaped capsule.
Pembroke just shrugged and shook his head. “Die what?”
Kammler paused, his eyes searching Pembroke’s face for some tell. Nothing.
“The Bell,” he said in English. “This… you mentioned extraterrestrial contact?”
Pembroke threw his head back. “Now we’re getting somewhere, by stars!”
“Yes,” Kammler said. “The German military first contacted the extraterrestrial presence through the Thule Gesellschaft, and confirmed their existence after a…” he turned back to the blonde woman standing in the ditch with him. “Wie sagt man raumschiff ?”
“Spaceship,” she said.
“Yes,” Kammler continued. “One of their spaceships crashed into the Black Forest in 1936…”
“So this is a spaceship?” Pembroke asked.
“Uh… of sorts,” Kammler replied. “We built it following instructions given to us through a sort of psychic communication, a top-secret dialogue the Thule Gesellschaft had with these other-world entities…”
“Save your gazelle gibberish for the top brass,” Pembroke said. “That’s above my pay grade. My only order is to get this big hunk of shit out of this forest unseen, and get it back to base.”
“Yes, I can see as how that would be your priority,” Kammler agreed. “I think you will find that the craft is conveniently lightweight…”
“Good,” Pembroke said. “How is it you three came to be inside this thing?”
Kammler sighed again. “If I may just say, my team here and I were never really committed to the political side of the Reich. We are scientists. All we wanted to do was develop new technologies to benefit all of humanity.”
“Even the Jews!” piped up the third Nazi who had remained unnervingly silent so far.
“Yes,” Kammler said, shooting him a silencing look. “Even the Jews.” He turned his eyes back to Pembroke. “You’ll have to forgive Bergen here. He is of Jewish ancestry, but the Reich found his scientific skills were more valuable at Peenemunde than Auschwitz.”
“Hey!” Pembroke said, feigning delight. “I don’t give a shit! Just tell me how three Nazis landed a flying bell on my Nazi-hating nation’s sovereign soil!”
“We were fleeing!” Bergen piped up again.
Kammler rolled his eyes. “Halte den…!” He cleared his throat. “Excuse me. When the Russians came to Peenemunde, we were told to destroy everything, but this…” he waved his hand at the bell again, “… this was too important for humanity. We could not destroy it. And if we had stayed, we would have been killed, either by the Russians or by our own military for breaking orders.”
“They were killing us anyway!” Bergen blurted out.
“Sei ruhig, dummkopf!” Kammler hissed.
“Why?” Bergen protested, then mimed people getting shot execution-style. “Bang! Bang! Bang! To keep their dirty little secrets!”
“Anyway, if I may continue!” Kammler said sternly, and Berger fell silent. “As I was saying, of the three of us, none of us wanted to stay, and we wanted to get this technology out any way we could, so despite the uncertain results from the tests we had been conducting, we decided to make it our means of escape.”
“So you’ve been flying around in this thing for twenty years?” Pembroke scoffed.
“No,” Kammler said. “We activated the device twenty minutes ago.”
Activity in the pit stopped and the silence hit like a squid on a stone wall. But Pembroke just nodded, trying to take it all in. He had been briefed on this sort of thing. Not on anything containing any actual detail, of course. That was all strictly need-to-know. His job was just to pick the shit up when it hit, and he had just been told to expect the absurd, the incredible, even the impossible, and trained not to flinch when he encountered it.
“Uh-huh,” he said again as his brain raced to process what he was being told. “So you three climbed into this thing as the Ruskies were storming your top-secret testing facility in Germany, threw a switch in 1945, and snap, crackle, pop, twenty minutes later you’re crashing outside a major U.S. manufacturing city twenty years in the future?”
Kammler and his people nodded. “More or less, ja…” he said.
“What city are we near?” the young woman asked.
“A little place called none of your damn business,” Pembroke said. She fell silent.
For a moment, Pembroke just stood there, taking in the scene before him, processing the information he had been given.
“Wait a second,” he said. “You three just hopped into this thing and hit GO, no destination or coordinates set?”
The three Nazis exchanged another look, this one seeming to say they were a little embarrassed. “Well,” the woman said, “We were still unsure of how to chart a course on the minimal instruments. At the time, we had only activated it inside the henge… a stone ring to which it was chained.”
Pembroke’s eyebrows went up. “Chained?” he asked. She just nodded. “What’s your name, miss?” he asked her.
“Müller,” she said, “Marlene Müller.”
“So, Frau Müller, you and your Nazi scientist buddies were trying to break this thing like it was some sort of wild mare?”
Again, the trio exchanged glances, and Pembroke thought it might be a good idea to separate them. “My question is really simple,” he finally said. “Why Pittsburgh?”
“Pittsburgh?” Kammler repeated.
“Yes,” Pembroke said, turning his attention back to the Head Nazi. “We tracked your flight from Canada, down into U.S. airspace, you changed direction and headed east about three-hundred miles back, and crashed down right here in the back yard of Steel City. Why?”
“Canada?” Berger asked. “But we left from Germany…”
“So you say,” Pembroke said.
Kammler spoke up, and gestured at his uniform. “You cannot think we came from Canada dressed like this?”
Pembroke spun on him, ready to unleash all of his frustration, but regained his composure and just said sharply, “You tell me, Herr Spaceman,” he said. “What happened in the time you say you left Germany twenty years – or twenty minutes – ago to when you crashed your little spaceship here in the backwoods of Pennsylvania?”
“This is a puzzle for all of humanity…” Bergen began, but Pembroke held his hand up to Bergen’s face without taking his eyes off Kammler’s. “Save it, Frankenstein.”
Kammler shifted his feet. “Well… all we know is that there are no instrument panels, at least none with any familiar navigational equipment.”
“So how do you tell it where or when to go?”
The three were silent, and then Bergen spoke up again. “We were told to think it.”
Kammler rolled his eyes, but the woman spoke up. “Ja… yes, the machine follows brainwaves… it seeks out the destination envisioned by the pilot.”
“So you just sort of wished yourselves here?” Pembroke shouted at her. “Just tapped your heels together and said, ‘there’s no place like Pittsburgh in 1965’?!”
He expected her to break down and give him something useful, but she was tougher than she looked. She stood her ground, digging her boots into the mud, and said, “I don’t know! I just wanted to get away from the Russians, to get out of Germany, and this… this thing was the only way!”
“So you three just climbed into this contraption, no destination and damn the laws of physics?”
She was yelling right back at him now. “Yes, damn them! It was either that or the damned Russian army or death by our own Schutzstaffel!” She pinched the bridge of her nose, taking a moment to compose herself. “All I know is an hour ago I was in Peenemunde, and now I am here, in the God damned muddy woods of fucking America, being yelled at by fucking schweinhund!”
Pembroke was taken aback. “Such language from a lady — an officer!” he said. She shot him a look, but stayed quiet. He could see she had nothing more she was going to say, so he turned on the other two. “So none of you had any idea where this thing would take you?”
Kammler was still warily eyeing his female subordinate. Pembroke could see that whatever these men had experienced inside their Bell machine, it paled in comparison to what could come out of that woman’s mouth. “No,” Kammler said, slowly moving his eyes from Müller. “It was still in the experimental stage. I just got in, prayed to my grandmother, and activated the device.”
Pembroke fell silent. He wanted answers, but these Germans had none to give. They had no idea what they had done or how they had done it. Then he heard one of his science team say, “Excuse me.” They all turned to see a bespectacled, balding, middle-aged man. He had removed the headgear from his HazMat suit, and Pembroke recognized him as Captain Nathan Mayers.
“You said ‘they’ told you the craft was thought-activated?” Mayers asked.
The Nazis nodded. “Yes,” Kammler said.
“And you said that you prayed… to your grandmother? When you activated it?”
Kammler began to follow his thinking. “Yes, my last thought was of mein Oma.”
“What’s her name?” Fellows asked. “How did you call her? And how old was she?”
Kammler went pale. “She was 65 when she died,” he said. “Her name was Gilda. Gilda Heinz.”
“By Granny’s garters!” Pembroke cursed, and nearly kicked the time bell before he stopped himself and just kicked some loose clod of foamy dirt instead.
The young woman, Marlene, spoke up. “Sixty-five years old, that may account for the year, but… what about our location?”
“Heinz!” Pembroke said. The Nazis stared at him, not understanding.
“It’s a damn ketchup.”
Kammler was dumbfounded. “Ketchup?”
“Son of a bitch,” Pembroke breathed. He removed his cap and rubbed his eyes. The lighting around the pit was starting to get to him. He looked from one Nazi to the next, and took some mild pleasure in the raw, weary confusion he saw there. It made his own seem more bearable.
“Alright, then!” he finally said, and began to move closer to examine the bell, the astounding time device the Germans had called Die Glocke. The Nazis moved aside as he made his way to the object itself. Müller and Kammler were still muttering to each other, the word “ketchup” a prominent part of their conversation. Taking a deep breath, Pembroke poked his head through the hatch. The interior reminded him of a ride he had seen at a carnival, the Centrifuge. There were no seats, just three padded, open compartments in which the crew could stand. At the center was a small console, but there were very few controls on it, just as the Nazis had indicated. He ran his hands along the outside of the craft. It was cool to the touch.
“What are these glyphs on the side?” he asked. “That’s not German.”
“No, Sir,” said Bergen. “Those are runes, selected especially to be inscribed on this craft by the Thule themselves.”
“And the Thule are the psychic nutballs that produced the blueprints for this thing?”
“Uh-huh,” Pembroke said, his eyes still moving over the object. “And is this thing radioactive, or does it pose any sort of biological hazard we need to be aware of?”
“No, Sir,” Kammler answered, pulling himself away from the ketchup discussion. “We’ve tested this device for two years, and as you can plainly see, we still are not entirely sure how it works.”
“There is a super-cooled mercury plasma that glows purple at the center of the power source,” Bergen offered, “but it is contained and poses no threat of leakage.”
Pembroke turned on him. “And you know this how?”
Berger just shrugged.
“Because we are not dead,” Müller said.
Bergen nodded. Pembroke glowered. On the surface, he remained cool and in command, but inside he just wanted to get these nutty Nazis and their godforsaken gizmo wrapped up, loaded up, and disappeared into the vaults back at Wright-Patterson ASAP. He turned to Captain Mayers again.
“Anything?” he asked.
Mayers shook his head. “No radiation, no leakage. And the object has cooled enough to move safely, sir.”
“Fine.” He nodded at the Nazis. “Give your HazMat suits to the Nazis.”
The science officers exchanged a look. “Sir…?”
“I can’t have the press seeing us pull three uniformed Nazis out of these woods. The damn bell thingy will be tough enough to explain.” He turned and shouted up the hill. “And where the fuck is our lift?!”
“Trucks pulling up now, Sir!” came the reply.
“Fine. Cover the Nazis, and bring down tarps for the bell. Secure the harnesses and let’s get moving.”
He turned and climbed up out of the ditch as his men rushed in and did what they do. Pembroke walked up the rise toward the road where there were two flatbed trucks waiting to carry this Nazi time machine back to Ohio. His men had done an excellent job of keeping the locals at bay. He straightened his uniform and walked down the road to where a crowd had gathered around a small truck from a local TV station with the letters KDKA printed on the side. He prepared a quick comment about a geologic survey satellite, strategic importance, and an excuse to confiscate any film the TV crew might have already taken.
Fuckin’ Nazis, he thought, bemused. Time-traveling Nazis, no less.
And fuckin’ ketchup!