Excerpts from “Reflections from the Stars” by Nikolaus Smedka

Published 2389

We called It the Zenith, and we believed It to be godsend. No one was sure from where or when that monumental black obelisk came, but this much could be agreed upon: It was not of this Earth. It was our first confirmation, after a history spanning the course of thousands of years, of the existence of an alien species who had, at one point, traveled to our blue planet and left their impression on its surface. Much like these Visitors, I leave this account so our progeny may understand the mistakes we have made. In this way, perhaps you will become the redemption our species now seeks.

۞

The year was 2341, the day the 18th of August. Though my mind decays, I will remember this date for the rest of my life.

We discovered It in a chamber far below the surface, deep inside the Rocky Mountains, while exploring a newly found cave system. A team of archaeologists, scientists, and engineers, myself among them, found a never before seen pattern of radiation emanating from within the mountain range. Barely distinctive in any form, it was nearly identical to background radiation, impossible to discern, unless one was looking for it. Nevertheless, we found this signal both fascinating and disturbing. Such readings had never been seen on Earth before, and so all desired to discover its source. In order to understand this radiation and its origin, we set on a journey through the center of the mountains. The primary exploration team consisted of myself, an archaeologist from the New Republic of Baltaslavia, Dr. Anthony Rickard of the physics department at the University of Astra in New York, Emilio Vescio of the Center for Radiation and Alternative Energies Studies, and Sir David Edgerton of the International United Sovereignty’s Cosmological and Interstellar Research Division.

It was found in the epicenter of an expertly excavated, and even more expertly hidden, chamber. Though It was imbedded in the stone, It appeared as though It were placed there, for us, or someone else, to find and activate. It towered nearly a hundred feet above us, radiating a strange coldness. I remember the sense of dread that filled my very essence as we approached It and the frost that penetrated through me. It was unlike anything we had ever seen. Though It was ancient, Its metallic surface was intricately carved with swirling designs. We ascertained that among the patterns was an unknown language, a message which was left for us. We could not read what had been written on Its ebony surface. Maybe if we had, we would have known to avoid It.

And then, Rickard had discovered a smoothness on Its inky exterior. What prompted him to touch the flat plate, I cannot imagine. Perhaps he was motivated by the universal thirst for knowledge, or perhaps It had already begun to indoctrinate him by Its very presence. Whatever the true reason, he placed his hand on the surface of the pylon, and, in that instant, everything we had ever known changed.

Light exploded from the obelisk, bathing us in a heavenly aurora. The coldness that filled me to the brim had now been replaced by a soothing warmth. When my eyes had finally adjusted and the outburst of luminosity had died down, I saw Rickard convulsing before the monolith, whose surface now radiated white. He stood in front of It, shaking, his eyes rolling to the back of his head as the curves and patterns on Its surface glowed. Without thinking of the consequences, I rushed forward to pull him back and as I tackled him, the light from Its surface dimmed. Rickard recovered from his seizure and immediately shoved me to the side. Kneeling on the ground, he drew on the cave floor, writing out strange mathematical proofs into the damp dirt. Though we attempted to question his health and implored him to answer us, he would ignore us, pleading with us to stay quiet as he continued his equations. Edgerton and I resigned Rickard to his work, while Vescio watched over him, as we continued in our attempt to understand the artifact before us. It was ancient, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years old, and yet the technology that went into crafting such a monument was millenia more advanced than anything we could create. It rose above us ominously, an ebony spire in an already dark cavern. Such symbolism was not lost on us.

Vescio called out suddenly, beckoning us over. Pulling my eyes away from the pillar, I turned to see for what reason Vescio had hailed us. He pointed towards the equations and statements written out by Rickard. Edgerton, after a moment, recognized them. It was a variation on a series of formulas designed around the creation of a faster-than-light warp engine drive, capable of bringing spacecrafts to the edges of our solar system within minutes. Edgerton was stunned, and for good reason. His research department at IUSCIRD had been working on developing warp drives for over fifteen years and they could never discover a method of rendering the plasma required into a safe method of charging the engines without overheating the drives or generating deadly radiation. At long last, Rickard sat back, staring at the blueprints he had written out. We questioned him, asking him where the knowledge came from, and he responded by looking back at the obelisk. It was impossible to even consider. Could such a technology contain this sought-after information?

One after another, Vescio, Edgerton, and I approached the spire and placed our hands upon Its flat surface. Much like Rickard, Vescio and Edgerton convulsed and shook before It, white filling their eyes. This time, however, we simply waited and observed, in order to ascertain what would happen. Unexpectedly, after only seconds, they snapped out of their seizures and began to discuss what they had seen. It would be as the ravings of madmen, had I not experienced it myself.

Fearing what would happen, I pressed my hand onto the obelisk and it seemed as though time had stopped. I stood among nebulae, gasses of greens and violets surrounding me as stars and other astral bodies filled the void of space around me. It is difficult to describe, but it felt as if I had become as central to the cosmos as the sun to our own planet. I attempted to walk forward, and found that I could not lift my legs. My feet were rooted to the non-existent ground. Seeing as I could not move my lower body, I outstretched my arms with ease. It was at this point that I heard a faint whispering, a nearly silent lull that beckoned to me in a tongue which I could not understand. I felt compelled to reach out and pluck a star from its place in space. I did just that, clutching at a nearby heavenly body. As I drew it near, however, it erupted into new shapes. Floating around me were now mathematical equations, chains of molecular structures, paragraphs upon paragraphs of words in various languages, blueprints, codes, notes, plans. Though I could not recognize nor understand all that which surrounded me, I began to comprehend what it was: it was a guide, a series of documents encased within an archaic, advanced reliquary. The designs which drifted around me could be utilized in various fields: philosophy, infectious disease research, interstellar travel. It appeared as though every industry our race had sought to completely conquer was finally within reach. I stood there for an endless stretch of time, reading the compositions which swirled around me, attempting to understand them. Even though they were in a format I could easily read, many of the concepts were in fields I had not studied. The silent voice, which had become a companion to me by this point, faded away and the astral world around me dimmed. I slowly awoke to see my fellow researchers standing around me, waiting anticipatively to see if I had experienced a similar revelation. We did not speak for a long time and yet we knew we shared the same thought: we stood on the precipice of something greater than we could ever have conceived. And what occurred was far greater, and far more devastating, than anyone could have imagined.

۞

In the months that followed the discovery of the artifact, which became colloquially known as the Zenith, an unprecedented level of progress rocketed forth from the human mind. Almost immediately after the news of the Zenith went public, the International United Sovereignty, headed by Prime Minister Elena Wagner, imposed restrictions, sending in the military to secure It, and began to build a headquarters nearby. Accelerated by the materials obtained from the Zenith, construction of the Skywatch, an advanced military garrison and encampment, was completed in less than a year.

Few individuals were allowed near the Zenith, in order to ensure safeguards. Even fewer were allowed to interact with It. A select few individuals, myself and the Discovery Team included, were able to approach the Zenith and extract information from within. Vescio and Edgerton began, from that point, to work for the IUS and utilize the Zenith to obtain schematics for desired research. The technologies they discovered paved the way for innovations in weapons, medicine and disease control, interstellar travel, and quality-of-life improvements. These findings were not released to the general public, however. The IUS deemed that many of these discoveries, were they to fall into the wrong hands, could lead to a break in the international peace which the world had long-since fought and bled for.

I did not desire to network with It any longer. It was apparent that the Zenith was an object far beyond our comprehension. A research team scanned It days after our discovery. The readings they returned were unusual, to say the least. The Zenith was comprised of a yet-unknown metal, an element which had never before been seen. It radiated the natural energies of the universe, which seemed to power It. It was a self-perpetuating device that was too powerful for our own good, despite the knowledge It yielded. In the end, I returned to Baltaslavia to continue my research on proto-humans, all the while contemplating my encounter with the Zenith. The whispers which encircled me as I entered the Zenith still follow me, calling me back to It. I resist the beckons of the artifact.

Others, however, believed It to be a source of salvation for humanity. Anthony Rickard, the first man to interact with the Zenith, promptly resigned from his position at the University of Astra and founded an organization promoting “the universal spread of knowledge and an interaction between forces, in order to promote the common welfare for humanity’s future.” In other words, a religion. Called The First among his technophyte followers, Rickard’s organization, The Children of Synthesis, argued that the technologies discovered—everything, from warp drives to cancer medication—should be made free for the citizens of humanity to use as they desired, eventually leading to humanity becoming one with machines. A noble cause, yes, but the methods by which they desired to acquire the Zenith’s technologies were far from benevolent. The technophytes attacked genetic research laboratories, weapon contractors, and hospitals, in retaliation for the restrictions imposed by the IUS, which in turn caused more limitations to be enforced. A vicious cycle of conflict began and continued at that point, which only further escalated after Rickard was assassinated in 2344 by Henry Elias, a man believed to be behind numerous governmental killings.

The public outrage and riots sparked by Rickard’s martyrdom led to the IUS slowly, but surely, releasing the technologies developed from the Zenith. Within a decade, our technology had jumped forward by nearly two centuries. Hundreds of epidemics were eliminated. The rising conflicts in the African Demilitarized Zone were quelled. Humans traveled to the edges of the solar system and beyond. New cities popped up around the world. Treatments converted otherwise undrinkable water into a form which could be used, ending the global drought. Lifespans of humans were nearly doubled. It was a new golden age for humanity, a period of time known as The Rise. If only we knew how far we would fall.

۞

The scanners of the Skywatch revealed startling information after countless checks and rechecks. Every time the Zenith was used, It would release a signal, a more immense version of the signal which the Discovery Team had used to find It. Astronomers and cosmological watchers at the Skywatch included their own signal among the ones sent out by the Zenith, to see where they would head. After months, a signal was sent back, from far beyond the edge of the solar system. It was foreign, unnatural. It was a sign that something alien was headed our way, compelled to us by the Zenith. No one was certain whether it was the creators of the Zenith or something else entirely, but the general consensus became that one day soon, we would be visited by an alien species. Even if they had access to the same technologies as the Zenith granted, warp drives could only accelerate the ships beyond the speed of light by so much. It would be years at the earliest before we would be visited.

First Contact was made on January 22, 2366. The craft was unlike anything we had ever conceived. It was far different from the design of the Zenith, black and carved with intricate patterns. The ship was sleek and white, gigantic and yet contained. However, it glowed with that same radiance which came from the Zenith. It touched down outside of London, near the headquarters of the IUS. A number of governmental officials, including Prime Minister Wagner, met the visitors as their ship landed, watched by thousands of citizens in person and billions on holo-screens.

No one expected what stepped out from that ship. As a lift descended from the underside of the craft, humanity looked on as three robotic beings disembarked from the vessel. They were humanoid in shape, with skin of pure white, a black skeleton barely visible beneath their semi-transparent surface. Walking over to the government officials, they appeared to be significantly taller than humans, rising a couple feet above even the tallest present. Perhaps the most disturbing feature was their faces, or their lack-thereof. Where a face would normally reside, there was what appeared to be a sheet of glass. They had no eyes, no noses, no ears. Only a pair of lips, located near the bottom of their heads. They approached Prime Minister Wagner. The whole world stood silent, watching them. After nearly a minute of muteness, they bowed.

The one in front identified itself as Vigil, a member of the Collective. It explained that the Collective is a race of networked advanced intelligences who hail from the Tau Nebula on far rim of the galaxy. The Collective’s origins were unknown, even to themselves. They were created thousands of years ago by someone called the Grand Creator. Ever since the Collective first became aware, they sought after anything developed by this god-like figure whom they worshiped, a being whose works disappeared many millenia previously and only fragments of which remain. Vigil claimed that what we called the Zenith was one such technology created by the Grand Creator. Prime Minister Wagner, who stared in stunned silence, finally spoke up, stating how she hoped this would become the first step in a peaceful coexistence between their kinds. With that, more lifts descended from the Collective’s ship, and many more of their kind exited and interacted with the humans present. The First Contact was, by humanity’s standards and hopes, a success.

۞

The peace between our kinds did not last as Prime Minister Wagner hoped. After being denied access to the Zenith numerous times, the Collective emissary Vigil issued an ultimatum: allow their kind to access the Spire of the Grand Creator, or otherwise be issued the full-force of their might. In a meeting between our two kinds, Prime Minister Wagner calmly explained to Vigil that access to the Zenith was restricted even amongst humanity, that even though the Collective were peaceful, granting them contact was a risk that she could not take. She had barely finished her statement before Vigil raised his hand before her and fired from his palm a blast of energy, killing her instantly. We had no time to react before the leadership of Earth’s united government was eliminated. The Parallax had begun on June 13, 2370.

The Collective’s ships filled the skies as beams of light erupted from their vessels and lay waste to the surface of Earth. Collective soldiers marched upon our cities, killing human civilians and military indiscriminately. The audacity of such acts had not been seen on Earth for centuries. War crimes of this magnitude were non-existent as of The Rise, and now we were faced with a threat far greater than we could have prepared for. The various world militaries and the IUS’s Special Tasks and Reconnaissance Force were deployed to key locations around the globe in order to minimize the severity of casualties while defeating the onslaught of Collective, but to no avail. The technologies utilized by this advanced hivemind were too great for our soldiers.

Not all Collective were the enemy, though. There were a number of factions who did not associate with Vigil and his invasion force. The Severed were one-such group, an offshoot of Collective who had been removed from the network and did not have access to their kind’s minds. This did not stop the animosity between our species, however. The Collective were the enemy, and therefore, all Collective, regardless of their association to Vigil, were seen as a threat. Some of the Severed went into hiding, while others were protected by the IUS, an action which was taken to the displeasure of the common folk.

The Collective invaders blackened the Earth’s surface and darkened its skies, turning most of the planet uninhabitable. Major cities were abandoned or otherwise destroyed. Civilians fled their homes, escaping to whichever military bunker would accept them. Thousands were protected by the IUS STRF, who now coordinated the planet’s militaries. The bunkers could not hold everyone, however. Thousands more were turned away by the STRF, forced to find shelter elsewhere. Some civilians who were denied entry by the STRF created hidden settlements in caves and underground, hidden sanctuaries where they could remain undetected by both humans and Collective. Most, unfortunately, were slaughtered by the Collective invasion force.

The war in the skies raged on as human warships met the Collective fleet. Though the Collective were smaller in number, their weaponry was far more advanced. Their cannons and lasers shot down numerous human vessels, but we were not entirely defenseless. Technology yielded by the Zenith, along with the sheer amount of human ships, gave us a chance to repel their forces. We were at a stalemate. Both human and Collective ships were shot down at regular rates, creating the vast wasteland of devastated ships that now floats around the planet, called The Steel Graveyard. Ground forces were able to hold back the Collective at numerous flashpoints, but the technology of the Collective, as well as their scorched earth tactics, were too much for humanity to handle. It was no surprise, then, when the leader of the STRF, Archon Alexander Gabrysch, contacted me.

۞

What choice did the Archon have? It had been years since the Parallax started and humanity was out of options. As I was the only one of the men still alive who had contact with It, I was a prime candidate for returning to the Zenith and extracting what information I could from It, anything which could give our forces an advantage against the Collective. Edgerton had died during the invasion, while Vescio’s mental state had long-since deteriorated, a side-effect of exposure to the Zenith. Access to the Zenith had been completely restricted after those who came in contact with It showed signs of mania, dementia, and insanity. I admit, the whispers still called to me. I feared their appeals for so many years, but the time had come for me to return and do what I could to save the human race.

I returned to the Skywatch, which had become a displaced persons camp, so crowded and built up that it now resembled a fractured city. It was far different from the top-of-the-line military base I remembered it to be. Escorted by the STRF into the Zenith caverns, I passed by various military checkpoints and stationary unmanned weapons, until I approached the obelisk once more. Trepidation filled my heart as I pressed my hand to It. My body froze and I once again found myself in the nebulae. This time, though, I did not find comfort in the brume of space. I grabbed at one of the stars of knowledge and began reading, reading, reading. I sought any information that would help humanity in its fight. It felt as though I had searched through the records of the Zenith for days, while in actuality it lasted only for a few seconds. I was exhausted and exasperated, and yet I continued to search. At long last, however, I found schematics for a pulse weapon that could be utilized for military forces or anti-air weaponry. I studied the blueprints closely and shortly thereafter found myself waking up in the Zenith chamber. I notated the information, which was now etched onto my brain, inside the Skywatch’s command post, explicitly stating how each element of the weapon worked. Satisfied, Archon Gabyrsch ordered for the weapons to be developed immediately.

Every soldier and ship was outfitted with these new pulse weapons, the effects of which were instantaneously apparent on the Collective forces. The beams of plasma shot through the Collective as though they were paper, their fleets suffering a similar effect. For once, the tide of battle was turning in our favor. Less than a year after the STRF began using the pulse weapons, the remaining few Collective warships commanded by Vigil fled beyond the Kuiper Belt. After thirteen years, the war was over. Humanity survived the Parallax.

But at what cost? Our blue planet was now black. The IUS estimated that over ninety percent of humanity had been eradicated by the Collective, while the Collective suffered similar losses. The majority of the planet had been scorched beyond repair, rendering most land uninhabitable. What humans remained were, for the most part, distrustful of their new government, which declared total control over the world’s forces and, furthermore, harbored what many considered enemies of the planet. The conflict reached a boiling point when Archon Gabyrsch declared that access to the Zenith and many of its technologies would be, from that point onward, completely denied. The surviving Children of Synthesis were outraged, stirring up the anger of the survivors who were already enraged at the IUS for their quarantines and restrictions. Those who despised the totalitarian power of the IUS fled into the Wastes, in order to build fractured settlements. Most of these wanderers resorted to abhorrent acts in order to survive, such as banditry, rape, even cannibalism. The plurality of survivors, however, saw the IUS as the only entity which could protect them and ensure any future. The Skywatch became the only safe place on Earth, and so the military base became the last City of humanity with the Skywatch, the new government capitol, at its center. The remaining humans and Collective live inside of the City, attempting to create a marginally hopeful future for both our kinds.

۞

As for myself, my mind has now decayed beyond any point of improvement. Though I may write with some mastery of language, it is with great difficulty. The whispers of the Zenith claw at my mind. I hallucinate regularly, seeing strange visions of alien creatures. Soon, I will no longer be comprehensible. And so I leave this record of my tale for others to find. I will exit the City, a militarized nation and the final bastion of humanity, in order to find a quick mercy in the Wastes rather than suffering the elongated anguish of insanity. Woe unto humanity, for we believed the Zenith to be our salvation, the tool to a golden age of prosperity. Instead, It became our doom, turning us from anticipated ascendants into a race of the damned. Our legacy is not the technological fortune we hoped for, but instead, our legacy is a slow and drawn-out death.

Dinner at Bubbie’s

“And change your shirt. You look like such a goy.”

“What?”

“We’re just having Shabbat at bubbie and zaide’s. You don’t need to dress like you’re going to church or something.”

“I like this shirt,” Danny said, dejectedly tugging at the tails of his collared shirt, “And besides, I wanted to look nice. This is the first time they’re meeting Claire.”

“I know, I know,” Danny’s mother, Hannah, responded, “But they’re your grandparents. You don’t need to work hard to impress them.” She planted a kiss on the top of Danny’s head, which he responded to with a sour look. Giving up in her attempt to force her son to change clothes, she exited his room, shouting downstairs, “How’s the kugel looking?”

The voice of Danny’s father, Ken, called back from the kitchen. “It’s a little under-done!”

Walking to the kitchen, Hannah yelled back, “That’s good! Don’t Rachel and Menachem like it a little under, so they can chew it?”

Danny stood alone in his bedroom, facing the mirror on the inside of his closet door. First, college apps, and now this. Why couldn’t things be easier? He unbuttoned his collared shirt and instead chose a more casual, long-sleeved thermal. As he finished pulling the new shirt over his head, the cell-phone in his pocket buzzed. He removed it and saw a single text-message notification: “Here (:”.

He shoved his phone back into the recesses of his pockets and zoomed out of his bedroom, tripping over his feet as he rushed down the stairs. “Claire’s here,” he called out to his parents, so they wouldn’t worry about the noise and rush to conclusions like all neurotic Jewish parents do. After stomping down the entry hallway, he threw open the front door to see Claire in front of him, blonde hair shaped around her grinning visage, dressed impeccably, as expected.

“Hey!” she squealed as she threw her arms around him in an embrace.

“Uh, hi,” Danny responded, kissing her quickly on the lips.

She pulled back somewhat and cocked her head, her blue eyes behind glasses giving him a nervous glance. “Is something wrong?”

“No no no no,” he replied, giving her an anxious smile. “Just nervous, you know?”

“Oh, don’t be! I’m excited to meet your grandparents! I know I’m going to like them.”

“I’m not worried about you liking them.” Danny reached his hand to the golden crucifix around his girlfriend’s neck and hid it between her cleavage. Why can’t I just stay in there for eternity? He kept his hand between her breasts little longer than he anticipated. Claire gave a single, sharp cough and Danny removed his hand from under her shirt.

“Dan, we’ve been together for three years,” she said, “How long is it going to be until you tell them that I’m not Jewish?”

“Honestly?” Danny replied, gesturing for her to enter the house, “Not until after we’re married and you’ve converted.”

She scoffed and giggled at the same time as she walked through the threshold, in that same cute manner that Danny fell in love with the first time they met. “Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Goldman!” she called out.

Hannah skipped out from the kitchen and hugged Claire. “Good to see you again, Claire. Would you mind helping me with the dishes?”

The two women walked into the room Danny’s mother had just exited out of. Danny, on the other hand, slumped against the wall, one hand in his pocket, the other running through his curly brown hair. I’ll have to tell them eventually. Or I can wait a little longer. He imagined, instead of an arguing angel and devil on his shoulders, a magen david and a cross. “You know how they are, especially bubbie,” the cross said to him, “Maybe keeping this from them a little longer will work out.” “But you’ve been dating for a while now,” the star compelled in reply,  “Regardless of her beliefs, Claire’s a nice girl and bubbie and zaide will accept her because they love you.” Danny waved the symbols off of his shoulders and walked into the kitchen, to see if his assistance was required.

The car pulled up to the house shortly before the sun dropped behind the hills. Hannah and Ken exited the minivan first, carrying trays of piping hot food, followed by Danny and Claire, who held a bouquet of flowers.

“We’re going to want to hurry,” Ken said, “Mom hates starting Shabbat late.”

As his parents jogged towards the door, Danny tapped his girlfriend’s shoulder. Claire turned and Danny asked, “Did you…?”

Claire sighed, tucked the flowers she was carrying under her left arm, and reached into her pocket, pulling out the gold crucifix she had removed from her neck. Danny nodded, satisfied, and she replaced the chain back into her jeans. “I just wish you wouldn’t lie to your grandparents,” she balked.

“Trust me, you have no idea how they can act.” Danny placed his arm around her, holding her close, and then squeezed her hand. “One time, my bubbie freaked out at a woman handing out Gospels at the supermarket. Called her an ‘intolerant shiksa,’ and that was the nicest thing she said. Not to mention that time zaide called a couple who were walking out of a German restaurant ‘Nazi sympathizers…’”

The two walked hand-in-hand up to the door as Hannah pressed her finger on the doorbell. The bell chimed and shuffling footsteps could be heard. After a moment, Rachel’s wrinkled and smiling face greeted them. Hugging her son and daughter-in-law, she gestured them inside and turned to her grandson. “Eynikl!” she cheered, throwing her arms around him and giving a sloppy kiss on his cheek. “Oh, you’ve grown so much since the last time you were here!” She grabbed both sides of his face with her withered hands and took a long look at him. “My grandson’s becoming all grown-up. I can’t believe it.” She turned to see Claire standing next to him. “Is this the girl I’ve heard so much about?”

Blushing, Danny introduced them. “Bubbie, this is Claire. Claire, this is my bubbie, Rachel.”

Claire extended her hand towards Rachel. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Goldman,” she said sweetly.

“Oh, please call me bubbie,” Rachel replied, her voice like honey on Rosh Hashanah, shaking Claire’s outstretched hand. “Danny’s told me so much about you. Please, come in.”

Rachel stepped out of the doorway and let the young couple enter. Danny’s nose was instantly greeted with the scents of warm challah, that musty “old-person” smell which oddly gave him comfort, and the faint odor of kosher wine being poured into glasses. A typical Shabbat at bubbie’s. Menachem rounded the corner and came into view, beaming widely, a kippah on his head covering his bald spot. “Good to see you, kiddo,” he said in his thick Polish accent, clasping his grandson firmly on the shoulder. Having fought in the War, Menachem was always much stronger than Danny expected and the force of the hold made his knees buckle slightly.

“Good to see you, too, zaide,” Danny said, smiling as he recovered from his grandfather’s assault.

“Come, let’s go to the garden.”

“But the sun’s about to set,” Rachel called out, closing the door behind her.

“It’s been long since Danny was here. I want to show him the harvest.”

“Can’t you wait until after dinner?”

“It’ll be just a second. Come!” Without waiting for a response from either his wife or his grandson, he skipped to the glass sliding door that led out to his famed garden.

Danny nervously frowned as he turned to Claire. “You going to be okay?”

She smiled. “Why wouldn’t I be?” She was too damn cute for her own good. Danny’s frown turned into a smile and, after pecking her lightly on the cheek, ran off to follow his zaide.

The dark-orange sun silhouetted the various vines and trees in Menachem’s garden. Danny turned to see his zaide rustling with some cucumbers. Even in the slowly darkening light, he could see the tattoo on Menachem’s forearm, a grim reminder of his past in Poland. After running the cucumber under water from the garden’s spigot, Menachem handed it to Danny.

“Have a taste,” he said, “Not even the farmer’s market has such good vegetables.”

Danny crunched on the cucumber, grinning as the cool taste filled his mouth. “It’s great, zaide.”

“I’m sure your girlfriend likes cucumbers, eh?” He laughed wheezily as he asked.

After a moment, Danny understood the innuendo. “Ugh, gross, zaide,” he grimaced.

Menachem continued to chortle. “She seems nice. You’ve been together long?”

“Yeah, nearly three years.”

“When I was your age, if a man was with a woman that long, they get married. What choice did we have?” The somberness in his voice struck a chord with Danny. “We didn’t have much choice in anything when Hitler was in power. No one wanted to be without love in such a dark time. No one.”

“Is that why you married bubbie?”

“Well, that, and she was quite the looker back in the day. Still is.” He winked and laughed once more. This time, Danny chuckled alongside him. “We should probably get back inside. Shabbat’s about to begin.”

Having just completed the HaMotzi, Ken carved into the challah with a knife and passed pieces of the bread around the table. Menachem was already delving into his matzah ball soup when Rachel, sitting next to her husband, turned her head towards Claire, who sat next to her boyfriend.

“So, Claire, Danny tells me you want to study astronomy?”

“Yes, I’ve always found the universe so interesting. It holds plenty of mysteries just waiting for us to explore.”

“HaShem has provided us with such beauty in the heavens. There’s a passage in Psalms, which says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of HaShem, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.’ Isn’t that lovely?”

“Actually…” Claire began, but Danny, who had been silently sipping on his soup, nudged her foot under the table with his own. He gave her a muted, knowing look, before Claire turned back to Rachel. “Yes, lovely.”

“When did you become interested in the stars?”

“My dad used to take me out to the countryside when I was younger, and we’d use his telescope to just look at space and everything it had to offer.” Danny loved how Claire would expound on her fascination with astronomy. A similar effect seemed to be had on Rachel, who sighed wondrously at Claire’s statement.

“And where is your father from?”

“He was born in New York, but my grandparents came from Germany.”

Danny, inhaling his soup much too quickly at this utterance, kicked her lightly under the table and Claire realized what she had said after the words exited her mouth. She squealed, her eyes bulging slightly. Menachem, who had been silent this entire time, suddenly gazed down the table at Claire.

“Germany, you say?” he asked.

Danny, coughing but having recovered from his battle with Rachel’s notoriously delicious soup, spoke up before Claire could continue. “They escaped before the Holocaust. You told me their last name was Osterberg, right?” He turned to Claire as he said this, giving her another knowing

“That’s right. They left for New York in…1938?” Claire said, looking back at him, her expression a mixture of confusion and annoyance. Her voice was unsure, worried if what she was saying was acceptable, but Danny gave a short, difficult-to-see nod which assured her. “Yes, 1938. My…bubbie and zaide…came to New York, and he became a…lawyer.”

Menachem continued to stare at Claire for a moment which lasted for an eternity, before softening his gaze. “I see. Rosenfeld…strong name” He ruminated on the surname for a moment longer and returned to his meal.

“Excuse me for a moment,” Claire said politely, standing up from the table. “I need to use the washroom.”

“Down the hall and to the right,” Rachel pointed the way. Claire nodded, smiling, and exited the table. As she disappeared from sight and sound, Rachel turned her attention now to her grandson. “So polite and intelligent. My little eynikl’s chosen a nice girl,” she said with her honey voice, smiling at Danny. He smiled wide at this statement, before feeling a buzz in his pocket. He pulled out his phone under the table and saw a text-message from Claire.

“What the hell?”

He quickly typed back, “I’m sorry, I just don’t want them finding out you aren’t Jewish.”

“Danny!” Ken exclaimed sharply, “Not at the table.”

“Sorry, dad,” he replied before putting his phone away. The rush of water could be heard from the distance and soon after, Claire returned to her place at the table. Ken was now passing around the large dish of kugel for everyone to dig in to.

“So how did you and Menachem meet?” Claire asked Rachel, in a gleeful voice that was not indicative of her sour mood towards Danny.

“Well, after the Shoah, Menachem came to England to find a job, and I was the secretary at the government office he first came to,” Rachel began. Claire sat intently listening, leaning in as to not seem rude. Danny grinned to himself. Get her talking about herself and act interested. It was something he had done with Claire when they first met in Mr. Sorenson’s algebra class. Menachem caught Danny’s gaze and, seeing his grandson smiling, winked that familiar wink.

“God, I’m stuffed,” Ken said as the family walked back to the car, the stars glistening overhead. “Mom always knows how to fill us up.”

“Have you ever thought that it’s your mother’s cooking that’s making you gain weight?” Hannah asked, a joking nature to her question.

“Hey, if that’s the case, I’d rather be happy old fart than a starving one any day.”

Claire and Danny lagged behind, walking hand-in-hand as they watched his parents exchange jokes and loving glances. “See?” Danny said, gesturing towards his parents, “That’s the type of relationship I want us to have.”

“I think we already do,” Claire responded softly. The two kissed gently as they approached the minivan. After they pulled back, she looked at Danny, her eyes giving off a sly and seductive gaze. “I’m sorry about how I acted during dinner. Can I make it up to you when we get home?”

“Hmm,” Danny considered, “I don’t know…you’ll have to try extra hard.”

“I can think of a few things. ‘Extra-hard,’ huh?” She giggled at the suggestion and nuzzled her head onto his shoulder, reaching into her pocket. She stopped suddenly, standing straight, jerking Danny as he attempted to walk forward.

“What’s wrong?”

She turned to face Danny, horrified. “I think I left my cross in the house.” Danny returned the frightened look. “It must’ve fallen out of my pocket when I texted you.”

“Shit, shit, shit,” Danny swore under his breath. “Maybe they didn’t find it yet. I’ll run and get it.”

Danny sprinted back towards his grandparents’ quaint house and knocked feverishly on the door. Rachel slowly opened the door, tiredly smiling at him. “Dan, did you forget something?”

“Not me,” he replied as he entered the house and started for the bathroom. “Claire did.” He stepped into the restroom and inspected at the floor, but didn’t see the glint of gold on the shining white tiles.

“Oh, her necklace?” Rachel responded. “I put it on the table.”

Danny froze, his eyes widening in terror. Slowly, he turned around and walked to the dining room table. Sure enough, the cross was there, lying on the table as a magen david looked down on it from the wall.

“Bubbie?”

“Yes, eynikl?” she responded, her voice as sweet as ever.

“Do you…what do you think of Claire?”

Rachel looked at her grandson and winked assuredly. “Oh, she’s a lovely young girl. Very smart. And great taste in jewelry.”

I sighed in relief.

“So when am I going to get some grandchildren?”