“Don’t open that,” Uncle Zapf shouted at
Kyra and Dorf in his most serious voice. The two children recoiled from the
commanding tone. Dorf’s hand immediately came away from the handle of the
“We were just looking for a good place to hide,” Kyra said bravely.
“Anyplace but there, children,” Zapf said regaining his kindly uncle’s voice,
“anyplace but there.”
“But why, uncle, what’s in there?” Dorf’s curiosity was by now fully aroused.
Zapf could see that if he didn’t explain there would be no peace.
“Call the others,” he said, “and I’ll tell you a story.” Kyra and Dorf ran
calling through the many rooms of the old house, all thoughts of hide and seek
forgotten. The children assembled quickly as Uncle Zapf’s stories were not to
be missed. A few minutes later Dorf, Kyra and three other children were seated
on the bear skin rug before the great fireplace. Around the old uncle were his
five precious nieces and nephews—Kyra, Dorf. Mindy. Martin and Tom.
“This old chest has been with me since my early days at the Academy. It was my
footlocker issued to me as to all young recruits. It sat at the end of my bunk
in the barracks and held my meager possessions. Later on it held my personal
things when I was assigned as a fresh recruit on my first mission. I was only
sixteen, not much older than you are now, Martin.
“I was the most junior officer on a small patrol craft in orbit around Deneb 4
protecting a mining colony from raiders. Thorg pirates had been raiding and
stealing the colony’s women. The ship was called the Admiral Dillard in honor
of some long dead spacer. She had a crew of twenty-five and was armed with
laser cannon and a few anti-matter missiles. More than enough fire power for a
rag tag band of pirates. We had been lying in wait for a couple of weeks when
the captain got on the horn and said he’d intercepted a distress signal from a
hospital ship. The damaged ship said they had been attacked by pirates and left
stranded and disabled.
“To his credit, the captain ordered us to the rescue without a moment’s
hesitation. It didn’t take long to find the stranded ship lying dark and still
in the blackness of space. We were all outraged to see a hospital ship so
cruelly violated, a jagged hole ripped through its prominent red cross. To
attack such a ship was an unspeakable crime, the lowest of the low. The captain
ordered most of the crew into the ship’s boats and went off with them to look
for survivors. There were only four of us left on board the Dillard, two hands,
the engineer and I; I was the ranking officer.
“We had the derelict ship on the screen and watched as our ship’s boats
approached. I was examining the breach in the hospital ship’s hull when I
noticed something peculiar. The jagged black hole through the Red Cross
reflected the oncoming lights of our boats. It was just the sort of dull
reflection you would get from a freshly painted wall. Then it hit me. We were
rushing into a trap. I immediately raised the captain on the radio to warn him
but it was too late. The fake hospital ship was returning to life as the evil
pirate craft it was. She was training her guns on us and our poor unarmed
rescue craft were sitting ducks. I immediately dispatched the engineer and one
crewman to man the ship’s guns. The other crewman I ordered to the controls and
began defensive maneuvers.
“Now bear in mind that up to this moment I had never been in combat before. I
had a few hours on a simulator at the academy but nothing really prepares you
for the real thing.
“I armed the laser cannon and ordered it to fire straightaway. The pirate ship
was firing too. My first shot was wide and took off a piece of the tail. My
second shot was better and put a real hole in her hull. That was enough for
them. They couldn’t match our firepower and weren’t about to try. So like the
rats they were, they turned tail and ran, jumping to the safety of their secret
base to lick their wounds.
“When we regained our crew and secured the boats, the captain called me to his
cabin. He told me he was putting me in for the medal of valor and told me how
proud of he was of me. Then he presented me with his most beautiful bejeweled
sword. A sword that had been in his family for two hundred years. He’d hoped to
give it to his own son but his boy was killed in the First Thorg War.”
“Is that what’s in the chest?” Mindy asked. “The sword? The medal?”
“Can we see them?” they all clamored at once.
“All in good time, children, all in good time. There are lots of wonderful
things in this box and I want to tell you about all of them. But right now
would be a good time for dinner.”
After the evening meal, the children settled down again and Uncle Zapf
continued his stories.
“As a result of my heroic action, the captain promoted me to first lieutenant
and gave me responsibility for the ship’s mess and laundry.” Here he had to
stop and explain to the young ones that a ship’s mess was its kitchen. “It
wasn’t a very glamorous duty but I was happy to be in charge of something no matter
how small. I worked hard and did the best I could. The cooks liked me and they
too did their best. The result was that the Dillard’s mess was regarded as the
best in the fleet. We ate so well that the captain and the rest of the crew
started putting on weight and after a few months had a hard time fitting into
their space suits. The Admiral of the fleet looked the other way as he was a
frequent guest at our table and was putting on weight himself.
“A few months later, we were again assigned to watch over the mining colony
when an alarm sounded for all hands to report to their battle stations. We all
thought it was a drill but the captain assured us that this was the real thing.
By that time my responsibilities on the ship had increased. I was put in charge
of all extra-vehicular activity since I was the only officer who could still
fit comfortably into his spacesuit. When the alarm sounded I was to don my
spacesuit and wait in the airlock with three marines in case the Dillard was
punctured or needed external repairs.
“This time, the Thorg ship made a big mistake. The Dillard was hidden among the
asteroids near the mining colony when the pirates popped into our space.
This time we came in with all guns blazing. The Thorgs got off a few shots but
they were no match for an angry Dillard. The pirates had just launched a
landing craft for the trip to the colony when they saw us. The landing ship
turned to get back on board but it was too late. A few well placed shots from
the Dillard’s cannon and the Thorg ship was a ruin. Hulled, blasted and afire
she exploded in silence. Space was littered with twisted debris and dead
Thorgs. We could hear chunks of metal smashing into our ship.
“The captain ordered us outside to assess damage. We opened the airlock and
floated outside. We were greeted by at least a dozen space-suited Thorg. The
wily survivors from the landing craft were attempting to board the Dillard. The
pirates were armed with laser rifles. My squad had only side arms for
protection and we were burdened with repair kits and tools. I was carrying a
large sheet of plasti-hull in case we needed to patch a hole.
“I called for help before the shooting started. Unfortunately it would take our
crew several minutes to squeeze into their space suits. My mess hall success
was going to be the death of my men and me. My first duty was to protect the
ship. I called my men back to the airlock where we would make our stand. We
couldn’t let a single Thorg through. Their atmosphere is so toxic to humans that
even a small leak in their suit would poison our whole crew instantly.
Instinctively I opened my sheet of plasti-hull and held it in front of me like
a shield. It wasn’t laser proof but it afforded us some cover while we
re-grouped just inside the airlock. Already we were down a man. I could see his
body tumbling slowly into the void. If we could only close the airlock door
we’d have a chance but we were outnumbered, outgunned and overwhelmed.
“We shot several Thorgs and lost a second marine. When the remaining Thorgs
rushed the airlock we fought hand to hand. Even then we were at a disadvantage
as Thorgs have three arms. It was two against six. We were out of ammo and were
reduced to throwing wrenches and glue guns at the Thorgs. It looked hopeless. I
couldn’t allow the Dillard to fall into enemy hands. I fought like a demon and
managed to wrestle a laser rifle away from an invader. I put it to good use.
Sergeant Merkin fighting along side me scored a direct hit with a sprocket
wrench puncturing a Thorg helmet. The rifle proved decisive and the last Thorg
died outside the airlock. We quickly closed the hatch and called the captain.
“Safely back on board, we were greeted as heroes. Only then did I realize that
I still had the Thorg rifle in my hands. It became one of my favorite
souvenirs. Later my whole team was awarded the fleet’s highest honor—the Triple
Star of Bravery.”
“Oh I want to see it,” said Tom.
“Oh yes, can we see it?” asked the children.
“Not just yet, my little ones. I still have so much more to tell. So let’s get
ready for bed and I’ll tell you more stories in a while.”
The children brushed their teeth and got
into their pajamas as Uncle Zapf picked up his endless adventure. The little
ones showed signs of fatigue and put their small heads on their pillows. When
every one was settled, Uncle Zapf continued.
“I was promoted yet again and this time I was made captain. I was given command
of my own ship; I was one of the youngest captains in the service at that time
being just 18 years old. The ship they gave me wasn’t much to look at. She was
battered and old but I loved her more than anything before or since. She was
called the Stellar Navigator but we all called her Stella. Our job was to
repair and maintain the fleet’s far-flung navigational beacons and buoys, the
devices that mark the invisible routes through space. It wasn’t a glamorous job
but it was an important one. The Stella had a crew of forty-seven officers and
thirty-three crew. She was unarmed except for small arms but she boasted a
complete machine shop that we knew could make or fix anything.
“The work we did was tedious and technical. Our crew was largely electricians
and engineers. We spent months in space keeping the sector’s navigational aids
in tiptop shape. I won’t bore you with the details of repairing a MK-601
sub-luminal beacon but suffice it to say that I found the work both stimulating
“Now navigational aids are free for all space faring ships to use. They are of
great service to commerce and are used by legitimate traders and smugglers
alike. It wasn’t our job to police the space ways. We were unarmed and neutral.
Our neutrality was usually enough to keep us safe but when the second Thorg war
broke out, we were captured by a Thorg Battle Cruiser on the very first day.
The colossal ship just pulled the Stella into her hold like a piece of space
junk. We sat in that cruiser’s hold for weeks, prisoners without so much as a
word from our captors. Nor could we radio out for help. As far as the fleet was
concerned, the Stella and her crew had vanished, casualties of war.
“We had plenty of spacesuits but we couldn’t get out of our ship. Thorg guards
would shoot at us every time we poked our heads out. We were prisoners, trapped
in our own ship inside the great Thorg vessel. Our supplies were running low
and there was no way to communicate with the outside world. How to find a way
out became a top priority. We had many strategy sessions but no one had an idea
that would get us out of our predicament.
“Then one day Luke Vengle, a clever young mechanical engineer had a brainstorm.
“Robots,” he said. We could turn our large store of MK-601 sub-luminal beacons
into an army of killer robots. We threw ourselves into the work. We used all
our computer skills to reprogram the harmless navigational beacons into
dedicated laser weapons. Another team of engineers came up with novel ways to
make the lasers mobile. Some rolled around on little tank treads, some hopped
like rabbits and some walked like people on two legs. None were more than a
foot tall but they were deadly. We worked day and night utilizing every scrap
of electronic gear we had. When we were through, we had 217 dedicated Thorg-killing
machines. We called them Gollies.
“The Golly army was ready the same day our food ran out; we had no time to
lose. We set them loose from front and rear air locks simultaneously. They
swarmed over the Thorg ship like an army of angry squirrels shooting every
Thorg they encountered. The Thorg fought back but the Gollies were small enough
to get into the ductwork and the ship’s plumbing. Most of the Gollies were
destroyed but not before they hunted down and killed every last Thorg.
“When the shooting stopped we donned our space suits and entered the Thorg
ship. We purged the poisonous atmosphere and filled the big battle cruiser with
breathable air from Stella’s supply. We had turned defeat into victory. The
Thorg ship was an amazing prize. We flew her back in triumph to our forces.
Human engineers studied the Thorg’s weapons and technology, which helped us win
the war. The Gollies turned out to be such a useful idea they were
mass-produced and are now standard equipment on every Navy vessel. I saved one
of the original Gollies as a souvenir. Every now and then it gives the box a thump
so I know it’s still alive.
“After the war, a grateful nation promoted me to Admiral and gave me command of
the entire western fleet. I have many stories from those days. But they will
have to wait for another time.”
There was no need for Uncle Zapf to continue. The little ones had fallen fast
asleep and even the older children were nodding their heads. One by one Uncle
Zapf straightened their covers and kissed them goodnight.
In the coming days, the old chest was forgotten, the winter break ended, and
the children found other things with which to fill their time. When their
parents came to claim them, the children were ready to leave. Their imaginations
were still on fire with their uncle’s fabulous tales. But life is filled with
many distractions and it was to be the last time the cousins would get together
at the old Admiral’s house.
The years slipped away and the children grew into adults. Martin was
commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Corps and Tom was admitted as a freshman
to the Academy; Mindy had her heart set on being a Spacer as did the twins Dorf
and Kyra. Uncle Zapf’s adventure stories had influenced them all.
Ten years would pass before the cousins, now grown into fine young people,
would again assemble in Uncle Zapf’s big house. Unfortunately this time it was
for the old man’s funeral. Many fine words were spoken. Stories were told of a
man well loved, about his fine sense of humor, and his remarkable story telling
ability. No one said a word about his military service.
A year or so later the contents of Uncle Zapf’s house were to be sold at
auction and the cousins were there with their families, eager to acquire some
of the old man’s treasures. After the antiques were sold and the crowd had
thinned to a few dealers, the boxes of miscellaneous household items came up
for bid. Martin and the cousins had waited all day for this moment, their eye
on one battered old chest in particular—a military issue footlocker that they
remembered held the Admiral’s souvenirs. The dealers weren’t much interested in
the old box. It was locked and didn’t weigh much. “Probably empty,” said the
auctioneer. The children were the only bidders and bought the old box for a few
Later, when the last dealer loaded the last box of junk into his van and
departed, the cousins were left alone with Uncle Zapf’s box of souvenirs.
“We can break the lock,” said Dorf, still filled with the directness of youth.
“I want to see the jeweled sword.”
“And the medals,” said Kyra, “I’ve been dreaming about them all my life.”
“I’d like to see the Golly,” said Mindy, who wanted to be an engineer.
“I always wanted to see the Thorg rifle,” said Tom, “I’ve never actually
touched an alien device.”
Dorf found some tools and was poised to strike the lock a blow that was sure to
break it. Martin stayed his hand.
think we should,” said Martin, “open it I mean.”
“Why not?” said the others. “We’ve been dreaming about uncle’s souvenirs since
we were babies.”
“I know,” said Martin, “but if we don’t open it, all those stories he told us
might still be true. Don’t you see, the sword, the Golly, the medals they’ll
still be real. But if we find the box empty then we’ll know it was all a
fiction and Uncle Zapf will turn out to be some ordinary man. Is that what you
want? Uncle Zapf not an Admiral, not the hero of the Second Thorg War? I don’t
think I could stand it.”
In the end they all agreed to keep the box locked. They took a solemn oath to
never look inside. Tom said he would bury the box in his back yard. As soon as
this pact was made and the cousins shook hands and kissed, they would all swear
to their dying day that they heard a distinct thump come from inside the box.