First and Only Weekly Online Fanzine Devoted to the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
Since 1996 ~ Over 10,000 Webpages and Webzines in Archive
By F. X. Blisard
SYNOPSIS OF CHAPTER 1 ["AFTER THE FIRE..."]
The first successful atomic bomb test, on July 16, 1945, creates a time-space rift that drags a B-24 troop-transport plane out of the past and halfway across the Pacific into New Mexico, at the exact moment of the explosion. Ed Burroughs, the oldest war correspondent of WW2, returning by air to his home in Honolulu on July 15, 1945, emerges from the plane's lavatory after the initial shock wave of the forementioned time-space rift has rendered the pilot and all the other passengers unconscious, takes the controls, and attempts to raise someone on the radio. When the static clears, he is ordered down by General Groves and lands at Los Alamos' impromptu airfield. Ed and company are detained for security reasons. Their claims to be who they say they are are not believed, as the FBI verifies that the "real" Ed Burroughs is safely ensconced in the Niumalu Hotel in Honolulu, where he has been since his return from Guam on July 15th and the others' "alter-egoes" are similarly accounted for by Navy Personnel. Then, on August 5th, at exactly 24 hours before Hiroshima-zero-hour, under mysterious circumstances still under investigation, the plane and all its former occupants vanish into thin air without a trace.
JACK OF TIME
By F. X. Blisard
--E.R. Burroughs, 1923
It didn't take long for the court of inquiry to convene, once the war was over and Groves' own bacon was out of the fire. It also didn't take long for them to reach a decision -- the charges were so bogus. Conspiracy -- to commit what? Impersonating an officer -- where was the impersonator? Forgery of official documents -- with a perfect match on both Groves' signature and his fingerprints? Not even the FBI can pull off that kind of scam! Even though the case was summarily dismissed, I knew that the General himself would never let go of it ... and neither would the FBI. He must have received some satisfaction, however, from arranging all our discharges -- none of them dishonorable, but all irrevocable. No skin off my back. I sure didn't plan on making a career out of the military. But some of the other guys did. Damn shame.
Anyway, that's one reason why I never tried to contact the "Old Bean" after he moved back to the mainland (somewhere near Los Angeles, I thought, from what I read in the newspaper). I figured he'd have enough to deal with, what with the FBI keeping him under constant surveillance (as I had no doubt they would). Me looking him up for old time's sake would just confirm their suspicions and blow the whole thing wide open again. He sure didn't need me complicating his life any more than it already was.
Then there was the more personal reason. Somewhere deep inside, I think, I really didn't want to find out whether the whole thing had really happened or not. I mean, if it really did happen the way I remembered it, then that would mean that some kind of H. G. Wells-like "time-travel" phenomenon had occurred ... and that was just too weird to comprehend. Also, if such were the case, then that would also mean that Jack had returned to Honolulu (from wherever--or "whenever"--he had gone) deliberately. Then again, if the whole crazy episode was (as General Groves believed) a Russian conspiracy, then the "real" Ed Burroughs had nothing to do with it and I would be doing him a real disservice by visiting him out of the blue -- not to mention, he wouldn't know me from Adam and would either call the paddy wagon on me or politely ask me to leave him alone. Maybe that was what I feared the most. To me, he was a friend. And friends ain't exactly a dime a dozen in this world.
Any way you sliced it, it just seemed wiser and kinder all around to leave the guy alone, let him get on with his life, and for me to get on with mine. God knows, I was gonna have my hands full, getting hitched to my longsufferin' fiancee' and finally starting the family we had wanted to start back in '41 when the shit hit the fan. Besides, L.A.'s a long ways off from Philadelphia, and long-distance relationships never were my specialty.
Once Nancy and I tied the knot, of course, time just flew. By the Spring of 1950, we had two kids toddling about our suburban estate (a second-floor apartment in an old, turn-of-the-century farmhouse on the outskirts of a new housing development) and I had a steady job as a machinist for Piasecki Aircraft. Night shift paid time-and-a-half. Life was good.
Death was the farthest thing from my mind when the news came. And it came so casually, as a brief, matter-of-fact announcement over the car radio on my way to work one afternoon, that it didn't register at first. It wasn't until Charlie, a fellow machinist who always rode in with me in exchange for the first round at O'Malley's after work, piped up that it really sank in: "Hey, waddya know? Tarzan's Poppa done kicked th' bucket. Ain't dat a shame?"
"Tarzan's what? You mean the 'Old Be--'...errr ...that Burroughs guy?"
"Yeah, ol' Edgar Rice Burroughs. Funny name, huh? But, man, he sure wrote some whoppers, di'n'tee?"
"He's dead? When did this happen?"
"You deaf or somethin'? They just said it on th' radio. Died in his sleep yesterday mornin' -- while readin' th' Sunday Funnies. Boy, ain't that fittin'? Him an' Hal Foster, between th' two of 'em, they practically invented the comics -- the ones that's worth readin', that is...."
"Burroughs," I muttered, half to myself. "Major Burroughs ... Mayday ... Mayday..."
"Hey, Malky," quizzed Charlie, "You okay? What's wit' dis 'Mayday' stuff? You goin' all Walter Mitty on me? Yo! Yoo-hoo! Come in, Major Mayday!"
"Oh, hey, yeah, I'm fine, Chally," I lied. "I was just rememberin' one o' his stories ... my favorite, in fact. Read it during the war, when I had lotsa time on my hands. Must've read it a dozen times."
"Oh, yeah, I know wot'cha mean. I got a real kick outa his Mars stuff -- made Flash Gordon look like a real piker. Them Tharks, man, they was tough hombres. Tough as Nazis. What was this 'Mayday' story called? I thought I'd read all his stuff, but that don't ring no bell."
"Called?" I stammered. "It was called ... Radium Men of Mars ... I think...."
"You think?" rejoined Charlie, incredulously. "I thought you said you read it a dozen times."
"I did, I did," I lied again. "It was ... in a magazine or something ... you know ... the cover was missing ... or something. It got passed around a lot. I'm not even sure how it ended ... you know how he was for cliffhangers."
"Boy, and how!" Charlie was off and running again, recounting diverse and sundry narrow escapes and close shaves shared with Tarzan of the Apes, John Carter of Mars, Tars Tarkas of Thark, David Innes of Pellucidar, Carson Napier of Venus, Carthoris of Helium, Thuvia of Ptarth -- names that we could barely pronounce (and hardly agree on) but could never forget. Wondrous words that primed us for learning to pronounce other faraway places with strange-sounding names -- names like Lebensraum, Sudetenland, Dunkerque, El-Alamein, Casablanca, Sevastopol, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Anzio, Normandy, Burma, Bataan, Coreggidor, Guam, Tokyo, and Hiroshima. Predictably, before long our conversation turned to the Phillies' starting line-up, but not before Charlie had offered to lend me his dog-eared copy of Burroughs' latest novel, Tarzan and the Foreign Legion, whose publication I had not even been aware of.
Awareness was a precious commodity in those hectic days of diaper-pails, teething rings, playpens, station wagons, and birthday parties. Reading the daily newspaper became a heroic challenge often left unmet from sheer exhaustion. Nancy and I seemed to swim from weekend to weekend through a sea of errands, appointments, chores, and catastrophes for which The Great Depression and World War II had been mere rehearsals. Sundays and holidays were islands of fellowship with kindred spirits for which we longed and prepared with all the fervor of a first date. Christmas Eve that year found Nancy "great with child" for the third time in six years and me sorely in need of an angelic visitation.
"I'll get it, honey." Nancy's melodious voice sang out over the groaning of a newly-installed grease trap in response to the applied torque of an oversized monkey wrench.
"Thanks, kiddo." I crawled out from under the kitchen sink just in time to catch a glimpse of my wife's heroic hindquarters waddling down the long hallway to the front door, followed by two mocking reminders of why we were fighting the good fight.
"It's the mailman," she said, standing on tiptoe at the peekhole.
"Mommy, why ith he coming all the way up th' thtepth?" Our first-born son, my namesake, was exercising his critical faculties.
"Great!" I growled. "Must be a registered letter, probably from one of our goddam creditors."
"Mommy, Daddy thedd 'goddam' again," announced my firstborn son with glee.
"Malcolm, really!" Mommy scolded Daddy as she swung open the door and, without missing a beat, issued the warmest of greetings to the wiry, wizened old black gentleman I simply knew as Ernie. Washing up at the sink, I leaned over to squint at the sunlit silhouette in the open doorway, but all I could make out was a package about the size of the Manhattan phone book changing hands and Ernie offering Nancy a pen wherewith to sign for it. "Thanks, Miz McHugh," he said as she handed back the pen. Then he produced from his mailbag two tiny baubles. "For the little ones, Missus ... if'n it's all right wif y'all."
"Why, of course it is. Thank you, Mr. Wells. Malcolm? Xavier? What do you say to Mr. Wells?"
"Sankoo Mith-to Wowth," dutifully recited my namesake, and "Wackoo Makoo Woo-woo," echoed his shadow, while Mommy radiated pride and Mr. Wells stifled a guffaw.
"Oh, I almost forgot," Mommy exclaimed, reaching behind the door to retreive a small, foil-covered mountain of cookies from atop a three-legged table. "Just a little something for you and Ruth ... fresh baked ... Merry Christmas, Ernie."
"Well, now, me an' Ruthie's much obliged, Miz McHugh, much obliged."
To the accompaniment of the muted chaos of two small boys trying to unravel the intricacies of grown-up gift wrapping, Nancy walked slowly back up the hallway, the bundle of regular mail clutched under one arm while she examined the signed-for package with a puzzled look on her face. "Honey, do you know anybody in California?"
"Sure, baby. Could be any number o' guys. Half my outfit was from West of the Rockies. Who's it from?"
"An E. R. Burroughs...."
The next thing I heard was Nancy's worried voice saying, "Malcolm? Malcolm, honey ... you okay?" I was still standing up at the sink, washing my grimy hands. I turned off the faucet and picked up a hand-towel. Clearing my throat, I said hoarsely, "Yeah, Nan, I'm allright, I just -- can I see that, please, hon?" She handed me the package, studying me from under a furrowed brow. "Sure, honey, here you go."
Hefting the thing, which was wrapped in plain brown paper and secured with masking tape and string, I placed it gently on the kitchen table and sat down. Nancy, standing behind me, placed her hands on my shoulders. "Jesus, Malky, what is it? A bomb?"
"Might as well be," I said, letting out a short, nervous laugh. The return address read simply: E. R. Burroughs, 5465 Zelzah Avenue, Encino, Calif. "Whatever it is, it's definitely a blast from the past," I joked, unsuccessfully.
"Look, Daddy," interrupted my namesake, excitedly. "I gottta A-O-pwane. Fwum Mith-to Wowth!"
The "A-O-pwane" in question, a miniature B-17 Flying Fortress made of cast aluminum, made an emergency landing on the table, taxi-ing along on its black rubber wheels until further progress was impeded by the brown-paper package. Nancy, laughing, walked around the table to help the pilot's sibling, who was attempting to clamber up on a chair so that he could bring his own craft in for a similar landing. With little assistance from his mother, the fledgling aviator's luckless airship finally landed--upside down--at the far end of the runway from its target. I rose from my seat to retrieve the toy engine of mass destruction and saw as I picked it up that it was an exact replica of a B-24 Liberator.
"Now you open yourth, Daddy," urged Malcolm the Younger, reaching across the table for the package from California.
"Not right now, son," I said, as solemnly as I could. "A present this big should wait for Christmas morning. Would you please take it and put it in under the tree?"
"Me?" The shift of gears in the little head was almost audible. He looked to his mother, who nodded with fitting seriousness, then back to me. I jerked my head in the direction of the living room. The little guy straightened up, cleared his throat, and, clutching the package at arm's length, marched out of the kitchen and into the gaily decorated living room with all the pomp and ceremony he could muster.
"Well, that's that," I announced with obvious satisfaction as I tightened the last bolt on a new set of training wheels for a 13-inch Schwinn Road Runner. "Now let's get some shut-eye." Hearing no reply, I looked behind me to see that Nancy had fallen fast asleep on the couch. Reaching over her, I pulled down the thick, green-and-red afghan from the back of the couch and drew it over her shoulders. By reflex, she breathed deeply once and, smiling, curled up more tightly under the cover. I stroked her hair once or twice, then sat down on the floor with my back up against the couch and reached over to the end-table for a pack of cigarettes. Inhaling the smoke deeply, I surveyed the room -- the tree's blinking multicolored lights competing with the electric candles on the windowsills and the soft glow of the single bulb hidden beneath the rafters of the Nativity creche ... under the tree, the "beginner's" electric train set laid out like a battlefield on a sheet of painted plywood atop a pair of sawhorses ... the piles of brightly wrapped gifts of varying shapes and sizes poking out from the red crepe-paper curtain tacked to the perimeter of the plywood ... and there, sticking out from under the near corner of the curtain, the phonebook-sized, brown-paper package just delivered that morning.
"Better get it over with," I whispered, and rolled over on my side, whence I could easily stretch out one arm to retrieve it. Placing the package on my lap, I withdrew my penknife from my pocket and slit open one end of the wrapping. All that was visible was the narrow end of a cardboard carton about the size of a ream of typing paper. I upended the package and the carton slid out. Laying the wrapping aside, I removed the top half of the box, to reveal a thick, typed manuscript sealed in plastic cling-wrap. Atop this was a 6x9-inch manila envelope. Opening the clasp, I spilled out the envelope's contents -- a small, thin plastic disk about 4 inches across, with a half-inch hole in the center and covered with concentric grooves, just like a 45-rpm record, only without a commercial label -- or a label of any kind, for that matter. Also, the platter was a bright silver in color rather than the customary black or yellow. Glancing again inside the envelope, I saw that there were several folded pieces of stationery stuck inside. "Moment o' truth," I muttered as I reached within the envelope to extricate the mysterious missive.
The sheets of Classic Ivory Laid typing paper were covered front and back with a finely spaced scrawl that I recognized from the numerous signatures on U.S. Army forms I had routinely obtained from Jack during his incarceration at Los Alamos. Devoid of letterhead, embossed or otherwise,the only indentifier of the letter's source was the street address in the upper right corner, the same as that on the wrapper. Below the address was the date, April 15th, 1950--just four days before the Old Bean's alleged passing from this life. The body of the letter read as follows:
"Behold -- an Israelite without guile!" (John 1:47) Did you get it yet, Malcolm? T'was you he was referrin' to, me boy, though I'm sure ye didn't realize it til this moment. I don't know much about it, but the General did tell me that it was more or less a private joke between the two of you. Speaking just for me, though, I'd like to thank you for the general kindness you showed me while I was in your custody. That's right--'tis I, Jack, as you so obligingly called me during our time together. So much has happened since we parted company, I scarcely know where to begin. But time and space are precious, so I shall be precise.
First of all, I want to assure you that you are not daft (not in this regard, at least). Everything that happened at Los Alamos between July 16th and August 5th of 1945 happened just as you remember (assuming we remember it alike). The implications of that fact I'm sure you have pondered. So have I. What's more, I have proved them, empirically, and the lasting proof for you is in the form of the enclosed 4-and-3/4-inch silvery disk, which records for posterity the same narrative contained in the accompanying manuscript. Of course, the disk will be useless to you or anyone else for at least another 45 years, so please don't try to play it on your phonograph machine. Get your grandchildren to teach you how to "play" it. Whatever you do, however, do not let it fall into the hands of the authorities. Let them confiscate the manuscript--that's the kind of thing they will be looking for, anyway. And it will probably satisfy them. They will analyze it to death, and in the end will conclude that it is just another one of that guy Burroughs' crazy "scientifiction" stories. They can't even imagine a device such as the one you now possess. Guard it well. Oh, and this letter -- better either destroy it after reading it, or keep it with the disk.
Now, as to the more interesting details of my travels.... No doubt, you saw with your own eyes what Professor Oppenheimer's home-movie camera recorded that day on the tarmack in New Mexico. From my vantage point, in the tail section of that B-24, I couldn't tell much about where we were going, and my view of where we'd been was obscured for most of the trip by the contents of my stomach, which soon coated the inner surface of the plexiglass in a most artful manner. I was the lucky one, however, by virtue of the direction I was facing. More generally, though, what I experienced was a seemingly endless series of episodes of rapid acceleration (accompanied by complete darkeness and utter cold) and deceleration (accompanied by tremendous bursts of heat, light, and bone-jarring vibration). I'm sure I passed out several times during this process. At last we came to a point where, after decelerating, we did not re-accelerate again, but simply kept flying under the plane's own power, and it was night. The air was thin, much thinner than it should be if we were to survive, so I reasoned that we must be at an extreme altitude. Depressing the intercom button, I buzzed the cockpit. "Hey up there, anybody awake?" While awaiting some reply, I noticed through the filthy window that the night sky above and behind us was punctuated at regular intervals by a row of flowerlike explosions, not unlike anti-aircarft fire, only in a straight line instead of at random. Then the voice of Lt. Gridley broke through the eerie "silence" of the wind screaming past the fuselage. "Roger that, Major. Now listen up, all hands. Put on your masks immediately. We're at a dangerous altitude, but until we get our bearings and drop down, we're not taking any chances. Will keep you all posted. Over."
I had already donned my mask, and switched on the built-in two-way walkie-talkie headset. "Hey, Loo-tennant, what do you make of all that ak-ak in our wake?"
"Offhand, I'd say we landed in the middle of a war zone, but, at this altitude, God only knows what they're shootin' at."
"Yeah, now if only He would give us a clue," I muttered, half to myself.
"Roger that, Major," chuckled Gridley. "Hang on, I've got a mark...."
The plane started to descend and the trail of fire-flowers receded in the distance. Between the deepening darkness of night and the gook all over the glass, nothing else outside the plane was visible, nor likely to be anytime soon. I must have drifted off to sleep, for I was startled by a sudden crackling in my ear: "Okay, boys and girls, we're at a decent altitude for you-all to remove those Halloween masks. Looks like we're over water. Soon's we get a few more coordinates from the navigator, we'll be able to determine the nearest landfall. Stay tuned."
Having had enough of the stench, I made my way forward. Due, however, to simple multiplication, it was even worse within the bowels of the plane. Most of the men had chosen to leave their masks on, for the relief it gave from the noxious odors. In the cockpit, at least, some fresh air was readily available, thanks to a unique ventilation system young Gridley had long-since rigged up during one of his monotonous runs back and forth between Guam and Honolulu.
"Hey, Looey," I inquired, "we got a fix on our whereabouts yet?"
"Yeah, Norton sez we're smack in the middle of the Indian Ocean, heading west."
"Hey, that's great! We oughta be able to make Bombay, or at least Ceylon, dont'cha think?"
"That's my plan," grinned Gridley. "I was just resetting the--"
"Whoa! What's that?"
"What's what? Where?"
"Over there, 'bout three o'clock...."
"Huh? Big flock o' birds. Why?"
"What th'--? Weirdest thing I ever saw...."
"Weird" did not do justice to the scene. Starkly lit by the full moon against the curtain of night, the phenomenon certainly looked like a simple flock of seagulls -- flying in perfect formation, their wings gracefully flowing in intricate rhythms -- but their eyes! Their eyes burned red as coals, disturbingly out of place in the chiaroscuro sublunar seascape. The co-pilot, who, except for the twinkle in his eye, was the spittin' image of our former captor, Gen, Leslie Groves, U.S.A., suddenly spoke up: "Gentlemen ... those, as you no doubt realize by now, are no birds. And neither" -- he gestured towards the opposite window -- "are these."
There, at the nine-o'clock position on the compass, was a matching column of gulls, the same distance away from our left flank as the other was from our right -- and that same unnatural, volcanic glow in every eye! As I studied the lead bird, certain details of its anatomy, overlooked at first glance, started coming into focus. For one thing, within its glowing eye there was something moving, a tiny, antlike body that would appear and disappear at irregular intervals. That was when I realized that my eyesight was not -- indeed, never had been -- good enough to capture such miniscule details at such a distance. Then, with a jolt, I also realized that these "birds" were nowhere near the distance from us that I had judged them to be. They were actually much, much farther off. They had only seemed so close because they were each about 50 times the size of a an ordinary seagull, or half the size of B-24! I arrived at this estimate based on the size of the moving object within the bird's baleful eye, which, I finally realized, was a man . . . and a black man, at that!
"Yer right as rain, General," quoth I. "If those are birds, then I'm a can of peas! The question is, what are they?"
"Gentlemen," he said, reaching for the hand-held radio mike, "Say hello to the Kilimanjaro Killers -- the finest flying aces in the Consolidated Air Force of Federated East Africa -- twenty-first-century East Africa, that is." And, flipping the toggle-switch, he spoke clearly into the mike: "Wassay dere, Gumbo Duck Alpha? Dis bee Li'l Loss Lamm Lucky Seven imyo crosshairs, kumback-say!"
The incongruity of perfect pidgin English falling so trippingly from the tongue of a pure-bred Anglo-Saxon military man was surpassed by what we heard next coming in over the radio speaker.
"Say hey, Li'l Loss Lamm Lucky Seven, you sumbitch. Welkum tooda fren'ly skyza Mozambique--Haw! Haw! Haw! Say, you needa bordin' partee? Or you gotta handle on dis bogey okay, kumback-say?"
Groves, without batting an eye, came back saying, "Hoo-Hah, Big Brudda. Dis bogeycrew be so shellshock dey fogettin how to piss. Jus' gimmie da mark, kumback-say."
After considerable laughter, Gumbo Duck Alpha gave up the desired heading, which Groves' deft fingers at once converted into mechanical energy at the console. After communicating our new course to the navigator over his headset, he once more spoke into the radio mike: "Say hey, Gumbo Duck Alpha, weebee headin' home on doze numbers you gimmie. You tell Mama Cat rollout da welkum mat for us, eh Boss? Oba andout." With that, the lead "bird" in the pack dipped his nose and broke into a corkscrew spiral--and with him, the entire company! And even more incredibly, the other platoon to our right was executing the same maneuver at the same time! The whole thing looked like a pair of white tornados threading a couple of invisible needles! I'd never seen such a display of aerobatic choreography, nor did I think it humanly -- or mechanically -- possible. Then both squadrons shot straight ahead at blurring speed and disappeared over the horizon.
Gridley and I had been gaping alternately at each other and at Groves throughout the whole incredible show. At its close, we both began hammering the General at once with a fugue-like series of questions that echoed each other at every turn.
"Now hold on, boys, just hold on! All your questions will be answered in due time. Actually, I'm not supposed to tell you a damn thing, under penalty of ... well, let's just say ... very effective penalties. I can tell you this, though, 'cause you've probably figured it out already: we've just traveled through time -- exactly one hundred years worth of time, to be precise -- to August 6th, 2045 -- a very significant anniversary."
He paused, as if waiting for some dramatic effect to take hold, but young Gridley and I were more dumbstruck than ever. Groves recovered nicely, though.
"Those fireworks back there? They were atomic bombs. The last atomic bombs. The last atomic bombs in human history. Well, at least that's the plan. Deliberately detonated on this, the centennial of Hiroshima. I wanted it to be July 16th, for purely personal and sentimental reasons, but public policy always demands the symbolic, of course. Oh, don't worry, they're a safe distance away--thousands of miles away. Well outside of all commercial and military satellite orbits--"
"Satellite...orbits...? What the hell are satellite orbits?"
"Oh, that's right, you guys are still pre-Sputnik. Never mind. Point is, we finally got rid of 'em. And I don't mind telling you it was all my idea. Rather fitting, dont'cha think? Leslie Groves, the forgotten midwife of the whole 'Atomic Age,' also presiding over its funeral rites? Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Doctor Oppenheimer! Hah!"
"After all, it was the atom bomb that made time travel possible, as you fellows were the first to demonstrate, even if it did take our boys a good 75 years to figure out exactly how to replicate your unwitting 'experiment'. Once they did, though, the dam sure did burst. The threat of nuclear holocaust is nothing compared to the threat of temporo-spatial discontinuity. Luckily, the first rip in the TSC (time-space continuum) was reparable -- once they figured out what was actually happening. Permanently 86ing all nukes has now become imperative to the survival of the whole damn universe as we know it, not just one measly planet."
"But I digress. Gentlemen, I shall grant you each three questions, which I'll answer as straightforwardly as I can without jeapoardizing my career -- and the fate of the universe -- which these days amounts to the same thing. You first, Major."
I cleared my throat. "Okay, here's one I've been itching to clear up ever since Sgt. McHugh delivered me to you at the hangar outside of Los Alamos. Are you the same General Groves that had me thrown in the hoosegow back in... what... where... when... back in 1945?"
"Yes and no," he chuckled.
"That's no answer!"
"Well, I can't help if it's the truth, can I? I'm Leslie Groves allright, the one and only, just a bit older -- and, hopefully, wiser -- than the one you met back in '45. It seems these 'New World Order' types never figured on needing any of us 'Old World Orderlies" -- until we weren't around anymore. Do you get it yet? We're all gone -- all us white guys -- Kaput! Western Civilization as we knew it has gone the way of the dinosaur. You don't know quite how to feel about that, do you? Neither did I, at first. But I guess our species can get used to just about anything. Don't tell me you didn't see it coming, Major. Hell, you sure wrote about it enough ... remember? Beyond Thirty ... Red Hawk ... I See A New Race ... Fall of A Democracy ... hell, even Gods of Mars! I'm not saying it all happened exactly the way you predicted it -- after all, you envisioned it in such a variety of ways."
"I guess what killed us all off more than anything was our damned obsession with perfection -- with our notion of perfection, that is. After all I've seen and heard in these two lifetimes, I have no doubt that more than one of those hundred million kids we aborted back in the '70s, '80s, '90s, and '00s -- not to mention all those poor crippled and elderly bastards that Surgeon General Kevorkian euthanized during the Gore Administration (boy, wasn't he aptly named?) -- was destined to find the cure for the various diseases that wiped us out -- AIDS was just the beginning. Oh, that's right, you never heard of AIDS, either. No matter. Everyone who survived all that shit is now immune, Damned antibiotics and super-antibiotics just made us weaker. And who knew that all those African, Guatemalan, and Austalasian shamans (and 'shamanesses') and inner-city colored preachers actually had what it took to be world leaders? Sure opened my eyes. Too bad I had to be on my deathbed before I saw the light. But then, I suppose I'm just damned lucky to be one of the ones they chose to go back and 'retrieve'. Nobody in 1970 had any use for me anymore anyway."
"But don't you go gettin' no notions of grandeur, Major -- you ain't stickin' around in this here-and-now. You and your crew are slated to be returned to your own proper time and place -- Honolulu, July 15th, 1945 -- the exact moment (give or take a few hours) that this here aeroplane was sucked into the future by my own little 'experiment' at Los Alamos. No use arguing, it's gotta be that way. It's 'policy' -- a dictate of our hard-won 'TSC-restoration' program. Oh, maybe later on, some of you guys -- when you've outlived your usefulness to your respective 20th-century societies -- might be 'retreived' by our TSC Corps of Engineers, if they think you have something to contribute to the effort. But unless we get you boys back to 1945 in the first place, there won't be any 2045 -- not 'as we know it' -- funny how that phrase keeps cropping up, isn't it?"
"I know what you're thinking -- 'Oh dear God, don't put us through all that again ... the vomitting, the passing out, the loss of all bodily functions'. But that's another good reason for bringing you hic at nunc first: we aim to outfit the ol' Liberator with some state-of-the-art time-travel equipment to make sure you all get back home safe and sound. Nobody in 1945 will know how to operate it anyway, even if they do detect it--which is highly unlikely, since it operates on a submolecular level. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that also means I'm gonna have to throw you all in the hoosegow again, for your own good, not to mention that of society at large. We can't have a buncha maverick time-travelers running around footlose and fancy-free here in 21st-century Nairobi, now, can we? All we need is for just one of you guys to get yourself killed in a barroom brawl and unable to fulfill your 20th-century destiny and then -- poof! -- there goes the whole fabric of reality ...as we know it, of course."
"So just sit tight, gentlemen. And pass the word along to your companions back there amidships. The food here's a damsite better than that slop we served you at Los Alamos."
With that we began our descent towards the East African mainland. We had passed the Horn of Africa around dawn and skirted the sloping Somali plains with the Ethiopian highland rising fortresslike beyond. We crossed the Equator at the mouth of the Jubba River and proceeded inlend, straight towards the lush grasslands of Kenya. Our approach to Nairobi was heralded by the twin landmarks of Kilimanjaro off to the south, squatting like a silver-headed old pyramid, and the gleaming strip of Lake Victoria spanning the horizon ahead. "Rumor has it you used to have friends in this neighborhood, Major," gibed the General. Peaved and determined not to show it, I laughed and parried: "Pity I shan't have the chance to look them up this visit. Some other time, perhaps."
"Perhaps," the General said. "One never knows."
The crackle of the radio provided a welcome interruption: "Li'l Loss Lamm Lucky Seven, disbee Greystoke Tower, kumback-say, oba."
Groves hastened to respond: "Greystoke Tower, dissbee Li'l Loss Lamm Lucky Seven. Gotcha beamer straight up, oba."
"Walkum home, li'l brudda," intoned the deep bass voice from the tower. "Da red carpet's rolled out an' waitin' forya at Mugambi Field, oba."
"Mugambi Field --datsa wrap, oba-andout," the General concluded, with a wink in my direction as, eyes wide and brows arched, I silently mouthed the words "Mugambi?" and "Greystoke?" A poke in the ribs roused me, and young Gridley chuckled: "Say-hey, Major. Congratulations, you immortal dinosaur, you!"
I pushed back my cap and whistled flatly. "Yeah, well, don't break out the cigars just yet, Looey. Could be any number o' Mugambis and Greystokes hereabouts...."
"Thar she blows," the General chimed in cheerily. "Mugambi Field, dead ahead."
The crowd gathered to greet us did not seem to include a brass band, nor was there any actual carpet -- red or otherwise -- anywhere in evidence. There was, however, an overabundance of armed soldiers, standing smartly at attention and forming a gauntlet leading away from the plane directly to the inevitable troop truck waiting on the tarmack.
"Oh," said Groves, smiling, as he rose from his seat. "Did I forget to mention? Mugambi Field is the top security portal for political detainees in the whole EAF. You should feel quite honored, Major: the last guy to walk this gauntlet was ... me!" He punctuated the final word with a good, solid thump right between my shoulder blades.
[TO BE CONTINUED...]
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