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An ERB-Pastiche Time-Travel Novel
by F. X. BLISARD
AFTER THE FIRE
"I'm the guy that gets there after the fire has been put out."
--E. R. Burroughs, 1925
They weren't supposed to be there. Not just that they didn't have security clearance; by all known laws of physics they shouldn't have been there. But then, we WERE tinkering with the "known laws of physics," weren't we?
I'd only been at Los Alamos about a month, part of a new wave of grunts the general had brought in to build the bunkers at the test site. Some of us just happened to be MP's as well. That's how I knew there wasn't so much as a blip on the radar screen all day until after "The Bomb" had been detonated. At first we all thought it was some freakish effect of the radiation. But finally, after about five minutes of tracking the "bogey," it's telemetry was unmistakeable. It was tracing a perfect circle around that damned mushroom cloud at a respectful distance of 20 miles from the epicenter. Then, through the crackle of the radiation, the short-wave radio blurted out the strangest greeting any of us had ever heard:
"Mayday! Mayday! Major Ed Burroughs, U.S.Army Reserves here. Is anybody there? Come in. Come in."
In a heartbeat, the caller got his answer, as a voice with which we were painfully familiar barked across the airwaves: "General Leslie Groves, U.S. Army, here. Who the hell did you say you are, Mister? And what in God's name are you doing in restricted airspace? Over."
The hapless pilot, audibly relieved, shot back at once: "God bless ye, General! Burroughs . . . Ed Burroughs . . . Major, Army Reserves . . . Correspondence Corps. I seem to have taken a wrong turn on my way back to Pearl. This is some firestorm you've got here, General. Over."
The General took a full half-minute to respond. "Major Burroughs, there's a tarmack airstrip due east of you --ten miles, give or take an arroyo. You put her down there--fast--and I'll have you picked up, at . . . 0:600. Got that? Over."
"Aye-firmative, General. Over."
"Very well, Major. Over and out." As the pilot's voice cut out, the field telephone rang. I was closest to it, so I picked up.
"Bunker three," I said.
"That you, McHugh?" It was the General.
"Sgt. McHugh," the General snapped, "Take a transport truck, round up a half-dozen of your biggest guys, and high-tail it out to the airstrip, pronto. I want you there before that joker lands. Board the damn plane and clap him in irons. No chit-chat. He knows too much already. Radio me when he's in custody and tell me whether he's alone or not--and if not, how many
of 'em there are. Got it?"
"Roger that, Sir. I'm on it. Over and out."
The bogey was a big one. I could tell that much from the radar blip. I took it for either a B-17 or B-24, one of the older crates they were using for personnel transport. I didn't see how there could be just one man aboard, either. Whatever it was, it wasn't Kosher.
As we approached the airstrip, the plane was wobbily making its landing approach. It was a B-24 Liberator and the pilot was clearly not used to the bulk. But then, I reasoned, where the hell did a "war correspondent" learn to fly anyway? If this was an espionage operation, it was either very sloppy or very, very crafty.
As the bogey's wheels hit the tarmack, we were just pulling up alongside the big bird. As it squealed to a halt Johnson positioned the truck below the main hatch and I led the boarding party up and across the roof of the van. I was just reaching for the outside latch when it suddenly turned 90 degrees and the hatch slid sideways into the hull. Six pistols whipped out of their holsters at once, but the sight that met our eyes froze us in our tracks. There, framed in the open hatchway, stood this crusty old guy, about my grandfather's age, in full uniform, hefting on his shoulders the limp form of a skinny kid in a flight jacket who was obviously the airship's proper pilot. What it was that froze me--and, I suppose, the others--was how reminiscent the scene before us was of that "Boys Town" poster, you know, the one that says, "He ain't heavy, he's my brother." Then the apparition spoke. "Boy, am I glad to see you guys. Here, take this kid and I'll go check on the others. You bring a medic with you?" I put up my sidearm and addressed the old man: "Major Burroughs?" He nodded. Gazing around slowly at the five remaining muzzles converging on his person, the old boy broke into a grin, and said: "I get it. Well, lemmie lay my burden down here so's I can 'reach fer the sky' all proper-like." He shuffled backward stiffly a few paces and went down on one knee, gently reliquishing his load. "Kid's in serious shock," he said, "I guess, from the initial blast of...whatever that is over there," and he jerked his head towards the west, where the mushroom cloud was still rising into the cobalt sky. "This ain't Oahu, is it? Arizona, maybe?" I motioned my five comrades to proceed through the hatchway, at the same time issuing a few curt commands: "Smitty, Martinez--you check out this kid. If he's still breathing and nothing's broken, get him down into the truck, pronto. Olsen, take Zebrowski and Doyle inside and get a head count. Check for vital signs and report back here on the double." Then I turned towards the old man, who was just getting back up on his feet and dusting off his trousers. "Major," I said, striving for the right mixture of authority and pity, "You will come with me, please."
The old boy sighed, but looked me right in the eye and said, "Well, at least somebody around here still has some respect for their damn elders. Okay, son--where do y'want me?" I returned his gaze, trying hard not to smile. "This way, sir," I said, pointing down towards the truck idling on the tarmack. "Cpl. Johnson will escort you into the van. JOHNSON!" I shouted, "GET UP HERE ON THE DOUBLE AND SECURE THIS PRISONER!" At the last word, the old fellow shot me a look filled with confusion, but dominated by some underlying sense of determination. At this point I did smile, hoping the absurdity would appeal to his obvious quirkiness. He snorted, chuckled once, and jumped through the hatchway onto the top of the van with surprising agility and surveyed the horizon. "That ain't no volcano, is it, sarge?" I gave him a grin, and a non-answer: "Who knows, Major?" He pursed his lips and rubbed his stubbled chin: "Who, indeed, Sergeant? Who, indeed?"
I was glad to see Johnson appear on the top rung of the ladder. "Corporal," I said, "See to Major Burroughs. Don't let him out of your sight." Johnson stepped aside from the ladder and the old man began his descent. "Don't worry, boys. I know the drill. Let's get on with it. After all, we've still got a war to win." He clambered down the ladder and up onto the flatbed with dispatch.
General Groves was pensive. He squinted his eyes and pursed his lips as he sat facing the window of his office. Beyond the glass, hordes of Army engineers in earthmoving equipment swarmed like lobsters over a sea of upturned earth, putting the finishing touches on the new lawns surrounding the newly erected Pentagon, the General's personal pride-and-joy. It was less than a week since the successful A-Bomb test at Trinity Site, back in New Mexico. In the interim, a small cadre of impromptu investigators had pulled out all the stops to uncover any and all information they could on the unexpected intruders.
The general swiveled around in his chair to face us. "Let me see if I've got this straight. Major Burroughs' credentials are perfectly in order, as are those of all his 'comrades'--or should I say 'fellow travelers'?" He half smiled at the obvious pun, then continued. "The plane's serial number, manifest, and mileage log have all been verified by Naval Ops. Even the damn thing's specifications have been verified by Boeing. Is that what we've got so far?"
"Yes, General. Their story seems to be airtight. We've questioned them all separately, and they've been isolated from each other since we took them into custody. And Major Burroughs was the only one who was even conscious until 07:00 Monday, when the last one was admitted to the infirmary." Speaking was Col. Pete DeSilva, Groves' hand-picked head of security. "The last thing any of them remember is coming in for a landing at Hickham Field. And they all thought Monday's date was the 15th until informed otherwise. After about the fifth one, we stopped informing them otherwise."
"And your conclusions?" asked Groves, hastening to add: "I want the medical assessment first. Doc?"
Dr. Stafford Warren, the physician responsible for radiological safety at Trinity Site, piped up: "Mass psychosis...accompanied by retrograde amnesia...both induced by trauma to the optic nerve from the explosion. No pysiological effects -- no vision impairment; no radiation burns; no contusions, concussions, or hematomas. The only reason our people are not suffering the same effects is because they were prepared for...for something, even if they didn't know exactly what."
"Then why didn't the same thing happen to Major Burroughs?" Groves queried. "What is he, Superman?"
"Hardly," smiled Warren. "He was just in the right place at the right time--in the...uh...bathroom."
"Lucky sonuvabitch. Thanks, Doc. Security?"
"This is where it gets a bit thick, General," muttered DeSilva. "I'm not quite sure what to make of all this, but here goes. Our man at the FBI confirms that Major E. R. Burroughs -- yes, THE E. R. Burroughs -- currently resides at the Niumalu Hotel in Honolulu, where he has been since his return from Guam on July 15th. The agent interviewed him personally -- woke him up from a sound sleep Monday afternoon. Says he hadn't even unpacked yet. The old boy's 70 years old, for Chrissake. Guess we're lucky he didn't have a heart attack, chasing all over the South Pacific like he's been since May. He's been writing a regular column for the Hunolulu Advertiser, called "Laugh It Off" -- very patriotic stuff, a real morale booster. 'Not a subversive bone in his body,' that's a direct quote from the agent's report. It's all there, including copies of all his columns."
"And his family?" Groves was already flipping through the FBI file.
"His first wife died last year...his second marriage ended in divorce just about 4 years ago...let's see, one son, Hulbert, is a First Looey in the Army Air Corps...another son, Jack, wife and 2 kids, lives in California...so's his daughter, Joan, married to some actor...all solid citizens, no outstanding debts, no travel abroad, no known affiliations with any organizations except the Actor's Guild and the local PTA."
"What's this about an FBI interview with the old man a few years back? Something about 'threatening the President'?"
"One of his wife's friends made an off-hand remark at a party one night, that's all. Something to the effect that Roosevelt should've been put in front of a firing squad. Nothing that any upstanding Republican wouldn't approve of. Anyway, Burroughs himself was not implicated by anybody. He was the host of the party, and just being tolerant."
"Tolerance. There's a commie code word if ever I heard one," the General fairly snorted the words. "We'll come back to him. What about the rest?"
DeSilva continued: "The pilot, a Lt. Gridley, is accounted for both by Navy Personnel and by the bureau. He's on permanent assignment to the Naval Air Station at Pearl. In the shuttle pool for personnel/materiel transport back-and-forth between Oahu and Guam. He--or his twin brother, I guess--landed this B-24--same serial number, same markings as the one back at Los Alamos--at Pearl, at precisely 03:00 on the 15th. The "other" B-24 is still there...at Pearl, that is...undergoing routine maintenance before heading back for Guam with another payload. The kid's still there, too. Yeah, same kid--or, like I said, his twin brother."
"Buncha look-alikes," said Groves. "Good plan. Confuse the hell out of us, delay the project...those Rooskies got balls, I'll say that for 'em. Same story on all the other passengers? All military personnel?"
"Yes and no," replied DeSilva. "There's about a dozen GI's on rotation back to Pearl for medical reasons...then there's these two Russians--"
"RUSSIANS?" General Groves came to attention.
"Mmm, yessir," mused DeSilva, turning the same page back and forth. "Some top brass, apparently. A General Nikolai Rokovitch and his aide-de-camp, Col. Alexei Paulinov. On their way to Washington, they insist. Carrying diplomatic pouches, both of 'em. The only problem is--"
"There's a pair of 'em in Honolulu too, right now, right?"
"There WERE, General," DeSilva admitted, sheepishly. "They've already boarded another flight to the mainland. Right now, they oughta be somewhere between Chicago and D.C."
"Jesus H. CHRIST!" bellowed Groves, jumping to his feet. "I KNEW it! I should've seen this coming a mile away." He came around the corner of the desk like an express train, bound for the door. "Where the hell are those Soviet V.I.P. S.O.B.s now?"
DeSilva shot out of his chair as if he were the General's shadow. The rest of us hastily followed them out the door and down the hallway.
"Fingerprints, dammit!" Groves' voice boomed through the corridors of the Pentagon. "Anybody think to get a set of fingerprints on any of 'em?"
Major Burroughs looked none the worse for wear, despite his weeks of captivity. It was 15:00 hours on Sunday, August 5th. I had come to know him like the back of my hand in the interim. Curious bugger. By that I mean he was always on the alert, attentive, inquisitive...not "curious" in the British sense, like Alice in Wonderland. Not that I know about such things. Hanging aroud the "Old Bean" just seemed to rub off on me somehow.
My orders were to escort him to the airplane hangar we had built at the end of the runway that he had emergency-landed on just 21 days ago. So much had happened in those three short weeks...the hardest part was keeping him in the dark about it all. But General Groves had made it crystal clear that any breach of security at this point would result in the severest possible consequences. I liked the Major well enough, but I wasn't about to risk a court martial--or worse--on the guy. Besides, he seemed accustomed to taking care of himself.
He also seemed accustomed to figuring things out for himself, with an uncanny knack of being right on the money. This was a bit unnerving for the General in particular, who was trying to keep a lid on the biggest secret the world had ever known. "Whatever the hell else happens," Groves told me under his breath one day about a week after the "Burroughs Incident" (as he refered to the emergency landing), "Don't let Oppenheimer and his bunch near any of these guys--especially HIM! I don't care if you have to shoot somebody. If we put ANY of those eggheads in the same room with Major Burroughs, God only knows what they'll cook up. Make these two toys of ours look like a box of kitchen matches."
General Groves had interviewed Major Burroughs just once, stormed out of the cell after about a half-hour, and never went near him again. After that meeting, the General sort of made me the old boy's babysitter, practically. Said I seemed to have some kind of "rapport" with him...wanted me to report his every word, every move, everything but his goddam bowel habits! I don't know exactly what it was about Ed Burroughs that spooked the General so, unless it was the Major's complete lack of guile. "Nobody's that naive," I overheard him saying to Col. DeSilva once as I was entering his office. "He still believes in heroes, for Christ's sake! We all know it ain't that simple." I can't imagine who else he would have been referring to other than Major Burroughs.
Now here we were, O. B. and me, bouncing over "mesa and arroyo" (that's New Mexican for "hill and dale" in burroughsese) in a jeep, bound for some top-secret meeting inside an impromptu hangar on the outskirts of Los Alamos, with General Groves thousands of miles away, and me under strict orders to "stick like flypaper" to Major Burroughs. Something big was up, beyond the meeting we were headed for--something war-related, something that felt like the calm before the storm. I knew it from the camp scuttlebutt, that and the fact that the place was now nearly deserted. Fat Man and Little Boy had been shipped out a full week ago and, presumably, were on their way across the Pacific, towards their date with destiny. A different destiny seemed to be at work here, in their wake, as it were. Nature abhors a vacuum, they say.
"Hey, Sarge," the Major shouted over the roar of the motor, "Would you mind delivering a message from me to General Groves?"
"Sure, Jack," I answered, calling him by his favored appellation. "You gonna put it in writing, or do I have to try and remember it?"
He smiled at my attempted witticism. Encouragingly, I thought.
"It's easy," he said, hanging onto the dashboard as we took a hairpin turn overlooking a steep canyon. "Just tell him, for me, that he's a goddam inspiration. He'll figure out what I mean...eventually."
It was my turn to smile. I could just imagine Groves' reaction. "Copy that!"
We were just coming in sight of the airstrip, laid out on the table-top of a plateau that stretched out for miles in all directions. Ringing the hangar were a half-dozen trucks and a couple of jeeps, one of which sported a banner with three stars, Groves' rank. Jack let out a long whistle. "Well, how about that? Looks like Ol' Olive Groves decided to join the party after all! This oughta be fun."
"Hey," I scolded. "Belay that. Yer my prisoner, remember?"
"Oh, yeah," he chuckled. "Arbeit macht Frei, and all that. I'll try to remember, Herr Wachtmeister."
"Hey, I'm serious, Jack. The General already thinks the worst about you. Can the Vaudeville stuff around him--you know what's what."
"Oh, that's for sure. I do know my Whattage."
"All right, O.B. It's your funeral."
"Where's the fun in fun-eral?" He just wouldn't stop.
I pulled up next to the General's vehicle, surprised to see him standing on the fringe of a knot of non-uniformed personnel milling around in front of the hangar, while all military personnel other than him were seated in their respective vehicles. I was even more surprised when I started recognizing the faces of his companions--Oppenheimer, Szilard, Bohr, Fermi, Alvarez--all the "eggheads" he had specifically warned me to keep away from Major Burroughs! "What the hell..." I muttered as I turned off the ignition. Jack turned to me, tipped back his cap, and said, "Some welcoming committee, huh?"
"Just be glad it's not a firing squad," I retorted, scratching my head. "And stay put until I un-put you."
"Mais oui, mon capitainne," he said with a mock salute and slouching down in his seat with his cap over his eyes as if preparing to take a nap. Trying hard to ignore him, I strode over to the hangar.
"General," I said, saluting, "Major Burroughs is at your disposal, per your orders."
"Very good, Sergeant," said Groves, returning the salute, but not making eye contact with me. He seemed absorbed with the contents of a file folder in his hands. "Bring the prisoner here and then return to your vehicle until further notice. That is all."
I must have hesitated without realizing it--there was something strange about the General, something I couldn't quite put my finger on--for his next move was to look up from his papers, look me dead in the eye, and say, "Is that clear, soldier?"
It was then that I realized what it was, but, by sheer reflex, I snapped to attention, saluted with a crisp "Yes SUH!", and turned heel back to the jeep, and my duty. Jack was still feigning repose when I rapped on the vehicle's hood. He started, as if truly awakened. For the first time in our acquaintance he seemed truly surprised by something. He looked around, blinking.
"Major Burroughs," I simply said, "It's time."
"Time?" he echoed, straightening his cap and rising slowly until he was standing up in the jeep. Then, in his best W. C. Fields voice, he drawled, "Time and TIDE, my good fellowe...time AND tide..." and paused a moment to see if I would take the bait. I took.
"Waits for NOE man," I drawled back. "Now let's go?"
Grinning broadly, he stepped sharply out of the vehicle and we marched side by side up to the front of the hangar. General Groves was the only one left outside, all the "eggheads" having entered the hangar by the side door. Strangely, I was not at all surprised by what happened next. The General, after exchanging a salute with Jack, proffered him his hand, saying, "Welcome aboard, Major. Let's get started. We have a lot to do and not much...time." Jack nodded and Groves proceeded towards the side door. Jack turned to me and extended his calloused hand. "Well, pal, I reckon the next time we see each other, one of us will have quite a tale to tell. Take care of yourself, Sarge."
"I reckon," was all I could manage to say. We exchanged one more salute, then Jack turned and strode through the doorway as General Groves held the door. I was sure that was the last I would ever see of Major E. R. Burroughs. Sergeant." It was Groves' voice. I stiffened, expecting another curt command. "Yes sir?" But all he said was: "You own a Bible, Seargeant?" I couldn't have been more shocked if he had kissed me. "Why...yessir...somewhere in my grip. Why...?" He grinned as he said: "Gospel of John. Chapter One. Verse Forty-Seven."
I stared, stammered: "Gos--Gospel of--" He cut me off: "Just read it soldier. Copy that?" I blinked, nodded, and managed to say: "John, One, Forty-Seven. I copy, sir." He grinned again, saluted, and jerked his head in the direction of my jeep: "Carry on, Sergeant." And the door closed between us.
I was tempted to go compare notes with some of the other MPs, but was even more curious to see how things would pan out without further intervention. I had no doubt that my fellows were just as suspicious as I was of all this, but none of us had any authority to fall back on later except the orders we had each received from the man who had just disappeared behind that door...whoever he was. So I retired to my jeep and settled in.
About a half an hour later, there was the muffled sound of an airplane engine firing up, then that of bolts being drawn back, and the main hangar doors slowly swung open. Alvarez and Szilard, Fermi and Bohr emerged, pushing the huge doors in their great arcs till they stood fully open. Then came Oppenheimer, walking backwards, swinging both arms upward repeatedly. I, for one, was not surprised to see the nose cone of the old B-24 following Oppenheimer out onto the runway. In the cockpit were the plane's original pilot, Lt. Gridley, and beside him General Groves--or, at least, his twin brother. Pressed up against the few plexiglass portals strategically placed along the length of the big Liberator, the faces of various of the original passengers stared out in bewilderment. Jack brought up the rear, nestled snugly in the tail gunner's seat. He caught my eye as the big bird went lumbering past me and I rose to my feet, gripping the top of the jeep's windscreen with one hand and holding onto my hat with the other. The Old Bean gave me a cockeyed salute that ended in a thumb's-up. I started to return it, then, on a What-the-hell impulse, traced a Sign-of-the-Cross pattern in the air. This brought a grin to the leathered old face. Then he was gone to my view as the plane gathered momentum for its take-off. It just cleared the end of the runway as the nose tipped upwards and the old Liberator started climbing. At sufficient altitude, the aircraft gracefully banked and headed west.
What happened next is still being debated among the scientists and engineers who built and operated the whole Los Alamos enterprise. The dozen-odd eyewitness accounts, my own included, are sealed and locked within the recesses of the Pentagon. There is even the tantalizing movie footage taken by Oppenheimer, showing the departing B-24 Liberator silhouetted against the same mushroom cloud that appeared over Hiroshima EXACTLY TWENTY-FOUR HOURS BEFORE IT ACTUALLY OCCURRED and the instantaneous disappearance of the B-24 as the camera churned. I saw all that too. But I really didn't care. All I knew was I was saying goodbye to a friend.Last updated: 2001/11/04Copyright© 2000/2001 by Frank X. Blisard. All rights reserved.
The above represents a fragment of a story I am writing for publication. Any and all feedback/criticism will be most welcome. I am particularly concerned about historical accuracy re: the following:
What type of plane did ERB ride back to Honolulu?
Who was the pilot (for the final leg of the trip--NOT Tyrone Power)?
Who else was on board?
What time did it land?
Did the Los Alamos complex even have an airstrip?
What actor would best handle the WW2-ERB's character?
What sci-fi magazine would be most appropriate for this story?
Thank you for your input.
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ERBzine 0330 JACK OF TIME: Chapter 2 "Time Bomb"
ERBzine 0433 JACK OF TIME: Ch. 3 "Time's Fool" - Graphics & Links Laden
ERBzine 0433t JACK OF TIME: Ch. 3 "Time's Fool" - Fast-loading Text Version
ERBzine 0434 JACK OF TIME: Ch. 4 "Time's Tool" - Graphics & Links Laden
ERBzine 0434t JACK OF TIME: Ch. 4 "Time's Tool" - Text Version
ERBzine 0436 JACK OF TIME: Ch. 5 "Time and Tide" - Text Version
ERBzine 0555 JACK OF TIME: Ch. 6 "A Time For War"
ERBzine 0663 JACK OF TIME: Ch. 7 "Othello's Fellows"
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