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JACK OF TIME
By F. X. Blisard
(Continued from ERBzine
No man is born into the world whose work
Is not born with him. There is always work,
And tools to work withal, for those who will....
--James Russell Lowell, A Glance Behind the Curtain
||"Major Burroughs," she said, smiling, "this gathering is NOT a session
of the United Nations, nor any other geopolitical organization. This is
the annual meeting of the International Burroughs Bibliophiles -- a simple
literary society dedicated to the study, preservation, and proliferation
of your published and unpublished works."
When I came to, I was flat on my back under the table, reacting sharply to the smelling salts that Gen. Groves was waving under my nose.
"Call me Les, Major. Everyone else around here does."
"Les...allright, if you insist," and I raised myself up on one elbow, "as long as you promise not to call me Ed, Edgar, or E.R."
"I know," he said, smiling. "You always wanted to be called 'Jack'... that's why you named your firstborn 'Jack'--not to mention your first two brain-children, 'Jack' Carter and 'Jack' Clayton. Well, 'Jack' it is, Jack." And he helped me up onto my feet.
"Well, Les," I said, "Now that we've been formally introduced, how's about I get acquainted with some of the other members of this here fan club? Prof. DuBois I've already met--although I rather imagine he's more of a devil's advocate than a bona fide 'fan'...but I suppose every organization needs one o' them."
DuBois was quick to respond: "Major Burroughs, I assure you my dissent in no way detracts from my recognition of your talents--or your achievement. Just because I find the body of your work a mine of paradoxes does not mean I reject it altogether."
"Aw, shucks, perfesser," I moaned, "just when I was warmin' up for a no-holds-barred debate, ye go all mushy on me!"
"Very well, then," he said, "let us continue our earlier discussion--at your convenience, of course."
"It's a date, perfesser--"
"Please, call me Will."
"Okay, Will. As soon as I discharge my social obligation to our dinner companions. I feel a round of handshakes coming on."
DuBois then took upon himself the solemn duty of introducing me to his colleagues in that strange international fraternity. There was a pretty even mix of men and women, young and old, and -- as I mentioned -- a fair representation of every non-white race on the face of the earth. There were Australian aborigenes, Filipinos, Hindus, Pakistanis, Chinese, Japanese, Mongolians, Eskimaux, Amercan Indians, African Americans, West Africans, Berbers, Kalahari Bushmen, Zulus, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Yemenites--and all filled with an enthusiasm not just for the stories I had written over a century before, but for the entire "Lost World" of Western Civilization that lay behind it. They were, in fact, as I came to learn, the guiding literary lights of their own respective cultures, each of them leaders in the artistic vanguard of their own emerging -- or, rather, re-emerging -- societies. The one common denominator was that they each came from a culture rich in its own oral storytelling tradition, and each -- for some strange reason -- found in my stories a link with their own. These were the cultures that my own Euro-American culture had once regarded as "primitive." Now they were running the whole show quite nicely, thank you, all on their own.
"So, Will," I said to DuBois in between bouts of book-signing, "how many of these blokes are 'retrievals' like yourself and Leslie Groves?"
"Nary a one," he said. "We're few and far between--on purpose, I believe. The authorities have never shed their suspicion of us--of anyone from the past--no matter how 'useful' to them we may be. In fact, the more 'useful' one of us is, the more closely he is watched."
"Every occupation has its occupational hazards, eh?" I grinned, and Will returned it.
"When the Retrievers came for me," he recounted, "I was literally on my deathbed. They came disguised as Ifa-priests and -priestesses... special religious functionaries in the West African country of Ghana, where I was living at the time."
"The old British colony called the Gold Coast. It was the first one to gain its independence, back in the--oh damn, there I go again!" I looked at him quizzically. "Breaching policy--the same thing I gave Orinmala hell for. It's not that easy, dealing with you 'out-of-timers'--watching every word, lest we drop some hint of 'things to come'."
"Not to worry, Will," I assured him. "I'll never tell. And I promise, I won't go playing the stock market when I get back home. Pray, continue. You were telling me about these Ifa-priests...the local undertakers, apparently?"
"Not quite. All funerary details in the Ashanti culture are attended to by one's family members. The Ifa-priesthood do, however, enjoy virtually unopposed access to any person, any place, any time...especially if the person in question is in extremis and has no extended family locally--as I, of course, did not."
"Oh, I get it--witch doctors!"
||"Please," the old protestor protested, "have a little more respect
that for things you do not comprehend! I was every bit as agnostic
as you before I came to Africa to live. 'Medicine men' ... 'shamans' ...
'diviners' ... these are all just labels that nineteenth-century anthropologists
pulled out of European history and applied willy-nilly to social institutions
that bore a superficial resemblance to something back home. But just because
you have named something does not mean you have understood it."
Chastened, I nodded for him to continue with his tale.
"With the help of some sympathetic members of the actual Ifa circle, the TSC engineers gained access to my hospital room a week before the date of my 'historical' demise and simply switched the bodies."
"Wait a minute--whose 'body' did they 'switch' for yours?"
"Well, as I understand it, it was some sort of...biological duplicate of...of me." Noting my confusion, he pressed on. "Reconstructed from my own dead cells--here in their labs, before they went 'back' to retreive me--rather like one of your own outlandish 'scientifiction' plot devices. They call such duplicates 'clones', I believe."
"Sure," I said, "from the Greek -- Klonos -- a young shoot/sprout/twig. Makes sense, kind of. So one of my 'damphool' ideas panned out, eh? Well, chalk one up for the pulp-fictioneers. How long does it take to grow one o' these here 'clonies'?"
"Damned if I know," he snorted. "All I do know is they never figured out how to make the damned things survive more than a few days. By that time, of course, the retreival team -- and the real Will DuBois -- were long gone and I had a new lease on life."
"I suppose they have quite advanced medicines now, to have brought you back from the brink?"
"No, actually, the best medicine they had to offer me was...hope."
"Yes--a reason to live--a renewed sense of purpose--the knowledge that I could once again be...useful--that I still had something to contribute to society--or, at least, to this society."
"I remember," I said, smiling. "You said in an interview once; 'I would have been hailed with approval if I had died at 50. At 75, my death was practically requested.' I liked that--wished I'D said it. But say-- was it really all that bad? As I recall, in '45 you were still quite a big deal in certain circles. The last I heard, before my last trip to Guam, FDR had just appointed you to help start up that 'United Nations' business. What happened?"
"Happened? Absolutely nothing--that was the whole problem. It was just more of the same old game--what Mark Twain used to call the 'Civilization Game'. Oh, the deck got shuffled real good, allright, but all the cards were still being dealt by the same old white-haired, white-skinned 'gentlemen'."
"Yeah," I said, somewhat ruefully. "I've had my share of run-ins with them myself. But hey, speaking of white-haired old gentlemen, I don't suppose, by any chance, Mr. Twain hisself is lurking about these parts, these days, is he?"
"Oh, they tried to retreive him," DuBois snorted, "But he wouldn't have any of it. Said he was really looking forward to his 'Grand Tour' of the next life. Besides, his wife and daughter were on the other side and he figured he'd kept them waiting long enough. Personally, I think he'd just had his fill of what he used to call 'the damned human race'."
"Sure can't fault him for that," I said. "Still, I'd really like to have spent some time with him. Missed him the first time around, though I did manage to stop at his birthplace on my way West in 1919. Oh well. So... are there any other 'retrievees' hereabouts besides yourself and General Groves?"
The old professor stroked his beard pensively for a moment before replying. "I suppose it can't hurt for you to know that, Major. Allright, here's the short list. There's my old nemesis, Booker T. Washington--he's on assignment right now down in South Africa, building up a new industrial base. Then there's Mr. Garvey -- Marcus Garvey -- he's overseeing the creation of our merchant marine fleet, up in the Red Sea. Another white fellow, a Czechoslovak named Dvor'ak -- Antonin Dvor'ak...he's working closely with Orinmala on cultural affairs...trying to put together a 'Pan-African Philharmonic' or some such monstrosity. You may recall, he was an early advocate of using African American and American Indian melodic systems as the basis for a uniquely American musical tradition. Imagine--blues and jazz becoming cultural standards for a whole society?"
"I always said that that's the direction we were going, what with the Garshwins and Irving Berlin..."
"Both students of his!" exclaimed DuBois, suddenly animated. "Remember when he was teaching at the New York Conservatory of Music back in the 1890s?"
"Sure," I said. "That was when he made such a big splash with his 'New World Symphony'..."
"Yes, and quite a few enemies among white supremacist art critics."
"But he stood his ground," I beamed with pride. "And the public simply ate it up--every city in the nation put on public performances of that 'New World' piece, with its wierd mix of classical European, American Negro, and American Injun motifs. Some of us white folk weren't half bad, eh?"
"Some, yes...but was it ever enough?"
"All that is neccessary for the triumph of evil," I quoted....
"Is for good men to stand by and do nothing," he finished....
"Jefferson," we both intoned, somberly.
After a few moments of awkward silence, I perked up: "Well...anybody else from the old homestead passing through?"
"No, that's about it," he mused. "No, wait, there is one old 'friend' of yours -- an Apache warchief named Go-yat-thlay."
"Geronimo? He's here?"
"Well, not here here. Right now he's off somewhere on maneuvers with our geurilla forces. Probably over in the 'Badlands'--Somalia... Ethiopia...Sudan--that kind of information really is 'top secret'... no way in hell they'd trust the likes of me with it. But one thing I can tell you--he's very eager to meet you."
"Scout's honor," he said, holding up two fingers and grinning broadly. "Seems he was quite delighted by that little novel you wrote about him--what was it called?"
"War Chief of the Apaches," I groaned, "and the obligatory sequel -- Apache Devil. what a devil of a time I had getting them published!"
"I know," he said, a puzzled expression creeping over his countenance, "And, to me, its one of the most paradoxical aspects of your career: Why did you go to so much trouble and expense to publish what amounts to an "apologia" for Native American resistance to white supremacy at the same time you were shoring up international white supremacy with those dreadful depictions of Native Africans -- like the one I read aloud earlier from Jungle Tales?
I chewed on the inside of my cheek a bit before answering. "Will," I said, looking him dead in the eye, "all I can say is: Go back and read it again. Look at the context. In each and every case, look at the damn context. Tarzan may always be the protagonist, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's always the hero."
Okay, Jack," he mused. "I'll do that. I should jave known there was more to your work than meets the eye. But dammit, man, did you have to be so obscure about it?"
||"You should read some of the hate mail I got from white supremacists,
objecting to the heroics of mere fictional characters such as Mugambi--"
"The 'Ebon Hercules' you called him, I believe...in Jewels of Opar, wasn't it?"
"Sounds about right," I said. "But one thing I do remember clearly--those Buffalo Soldiers I served under in Arizona, back in '95, when I was just a raw recruit fresh out of the academy--"
"'Tough as nails' you said, and 'fairer to work for than any white sergeant'...if memory serves me."
"Indeed it does, perfesser," I whistled. "You've really done your homework on me!"
"As have we all Major," chimed in Madame President. "Why are you so surprised? Could it be a case of 'a prophet not without honor except in his own country'?"
"My Lady," I said, blushing beet red again, "You should know better than to quote Scripture to an old atheist."
"Atheist, my foot!" she scolded. "I have it on the highest authority that every story you ever wrote is a thinly veiled parable."
"Granted," I replied, "but a parable for what? That is the question!"
"The triumph of justice...the power of love...the folly of evil...take your pick, Major. Such were your standard themes--and, we must assume, your core beliefs!"
" 'O! Wauld some pow'r the giftee gi'e us / To see oursel'es as others see us' -- Bobbie Burns for the defense. The defense rests. And speakin' of rest, I'd be much obliged if someone would show me to my quarters. By my count, its been well over 24 hours-- give or take a century-- since I've had some shuteye. And I'm sure you'll want us all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for our return flight."
"Of course, Major," said Orinmala, contritely. "Forgive us imposing on your time this way. I hope you understand -- for us, this little sympo-sium has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. General Groves will escort you and Lieutenant Gridley to your suite. I'm afraid Padraic has been called away by his other duties. General, would you be so kind?"
"At your service, My Lady!" Groves appeared out of the crowd and reprised his earlier salutation to Orinmala's outstretched hand. Then, to the uncanny applause of men and women not yet born in our lifetime, we three departed the dining hall and threaded our way once again through the maze of corridors. It was only midafternoon, but I was already exhausted -- a condition that I attributed as much to the bewildering revelations in the dining hall as to the trauma of time-travel. Young Gridley seemed equally worn down by the events of the past 24 hours. Gen. Groves, however, energetically sought to engage us both in conversation on the way to our quarters.
"What luck, boys!" he exuded. "Now listen up, there ain't much time and I want you both to get this right the first time. You won't get no second chance."
"What the hell're you babblin' about now, Les?" I asked impatiently.
Ignoring me, he plowed straight on: "That hat," he said. "Don't let it outa your sight, not even for a second. It's the key to this whole operation, along with the reconstituted B-24."
"Les," I said, "take a deep breath...."
"Can it, mister!" he barked, "This is a briefing, goddammit."
Startled into attention, Gridley and I both stared at him as if he were an escaped mental patient, while he continued his rant.
"This time-travel business is very simple, so simple we should've thought of it ourselves back in the 20th century. But we were so fascinated with machines, with trying to beat Mother Nature into submission. We had the capability right here"--and he tapped his right temple with his forefinger -- "right inside our noggins all along."
"But you said it was the bomb that caused--"
"That's one way, the most expensive--and wasteful--way of inducing a TSC-rift. What you'll experience tomorrow will be vastly different--smoother, more 'natural', so to speak...a product of symbiotic synergy between the human, the animal, and the inanimate material realms."
||Noting our complete befuddlement, Groves pressed on: "The B-24 that
carried you--us--here has by now been completely transformed at the molecular
level--absorbed, assimilated, and totally reconstructed by a powerful hybrid
animal we call an 'oxylesson'...it's a completely new species produced
by combining the chromosomes of every known animal species on earth....
That airplane is no longer just nuts and bolts: it's now a living organism,
whose form and function can change at will--"
"Wait a minute," interjected Gridley. "whose will?"
"The will of whoever wears this headpiece," replied the General, tapping the brim of my hat, reminding me of the strange charade he had acted out on the tarmack that morning.
"The metal strip," I exclaimed. "So that's what it's for!"
"Whoa, whoa, hold the phone, Daddy-O," said Gridley. "What does that have to do with time travel?"
"That's the tricky part," continued Groves. "It takes two people--one to man the controls for normal flight (that's you, Gridley), the other to 'navigate' through the Time-Space Continuum (that's you, Major)."
"Uh, excuse me?" queried Gridley. "Why can't it be the other way 'round?"
"Simple division of labor," replied Groves. "Each of you to his own area of expertise."
"Okay, then," said I, "why the subterfuge? Why doesn't the High Command just supply me with my own 'magic bonnet'?"
"Because," sighed Groves, "they don't trust you. Don't take it personally, Jack, they don't trust anybody. Besides, they've already engineered the ship to run on a sort of 'automatic pilot' with respect to the TSC function. But it can be overridden by someone wearing one of these," and he pointed again to my headgear. "They don't know you have one, of course."
"And why are you doing this?"
"Because I don't trust them!" he said. "They mean well, but they're always screwing up...."
"So, who do you trust, Les?"
"You," he answered immediately, matter-of-factly.
"Hmmm...interesting choice. Why me?"
"Because you're the guy who started all this," he said. Then, after an awkward silence, "Look, do you each remember what you were thinking about just before the plane skipped-to-my-loo and you ended up at Los Alamos?"
Gridley and I eyed each other. "You go first," I said.
He grinned sheepishly as he confessed, "Well, y'see, there's this gal in Honolulu..."
"Mm-hmm, just as I thought," said Groves. "Now, how 'bout you, Major?"
I didn't grin, but I did knit my brows as I said, simply, "I was planning the next day's schedule...."
"I rest my case," said Groves, triumphantly.
"Wait a minute," I blurted. "What case? Are you saying that this time-travel stuff works by just wishing?"
"That's a crude way to put it, though I can see how one might characterize it so. But I'm surprised, Major, that you, of all people, would so underestimate the power of the human mind."
"Yeah, Major," Gridley wisecracked. "What's wrong with you?"
Giving the lad a dirty look, I laid into Groves: "Look, Les, I've never claimed to be a rocket scientist, just an educated layman. So, if this is a briefing, would you please start being brief, as in to-the-point?"
"Okay, here's what you need to know for tomorrow. The metal hatband simply translates your brain waves into their corresponding radio waves, which the reconstituted plane's nervous system picks up and in turn translates into submolecular messages that target strategically placed metallic implants throughout its body to generate a process of atomic fusion--that's the opposite of atomic fission, but just as powerful, perhaps even more so -- which provides the "kick" needed to travel along the TSC."
"So I need to do--what? Think happy thoughts? Click my heels together and say 'there's no place like home'?"
"Very funny, but no, just concentrate on your destination--and keep concentrating. The system will do the rest."
"And what happens if I concentrate on, say, 1492 instead of 1945?"
"Then you'll scare the be-Jesus outa Columbus and his crew, they'll high-tail it back to Spain, there won't be any America -- and, conversely, there won't be any you! If you wanna commit suicide, please do it one your own time."
Groves stopped abruptly, seized the handle of a door, and said, "Here we are, boys -- the deluxe suite."The door swung inward to reveal yet another circular, skylit room, on a smaller scale than either the dining hall or Orinmala's study, but well appointed: a large, round table in the center, with four moulded-plastic chairs protruding from underneath it at the four compass points; four catacomb-like sleeping niches set into the wall at the same four compass points, with two layers of drawers set into the wall beneath each "bed"; and, alternating in the spaces between the beds, two glass doors (which I assumed led to lavatories) and two desk-like counters recessed into smaller niches and equipped with the same kind of protruding chairs as those at the central table.
From the middle of the central table rose a translucent cylinder about four feet high, marked with the same "forest canopy" pattern as all the other skylights throughout the complex. Groves went straight for this cylinder and pressed against it with the palm of his hand. Immediately, a cleverly concealed square panel at the base of the cylinder raised up to reveal a refrigerated compartment stocked with various glass bottles and paper or plastic cartons.
"No liquour in here, but every other beverage you can think of. Just press your palm against the unit like I just did" -- he removed his hand and the panel closed--"you'll get the hang of it." He walked around the table, repeating the procedure until he had acquainted us with the various sections of the larder -- dairy, vegetables, meats, breads, even a small "freezer" complete with ice cubes and an assortment of desserts.
"No stove," Groves lamented, "but there is this handy-dandy little number," and he opened up one more panel behind which were two miniature percolators side-by-side, one for making coffee, the other dispensing plain hot water.
"Cups, dishes, flatware, napkins--all in the upper compartments," as he slapped the top half of the cylinder repeatedly, opening and closing said compartments in rapid succession. "All disposable -- just drop 'em in here," and he bent down to point to one of four knee-high, spring-loaded trap doors in the cylindrical pedestal on which the table was mounted. "It all gets recycled." He rose to go. "Any questions?"
"Any books?" I asked.
"Over there in the desk-niche," he pointed. "All pre-1945 titles, of course. There's also what we call a 'digital data center' loaded into the desktop. You probably saw Orinmala using one when Gen. Mugambi brought you down here. But don't even try using it. You'd need a password just to open up the unit and they're not about to issue one of them to either of you... you won't be here long enough to learn the basics, anyway. My recommendation -- pick out a good book and curl up in bed with it. You'll be asleep before you know it."
He headed towards the door, paused as he opened it, grinned and said cheerily, "Pleasant dreams, lads. You leave at 0900 hours." And he was gone.
What I thought was the dawn coming up like thunder was just Gen. Groves again, pounding on the door. "Rise and shine, me buckoes," his muffled voice sounded from beyond the portal. "Its 0500. Paddy'll be here in 15 minutes with yer uniforms. Make yerselves some strong coffee." Gridley and I stumbled to our respective shower stalls and re-emerged to find Paddy preparing coffee at the "roundabout." Grateful, I embraced the steaming mug and sat down, inquiring as to the scedule.
"Well, first off," said he, "there's a fine breakfast buffet set up in the main dining hall. All yer mates'll be there, includi' them two Slavs what Mister Mugambi incarcerated--though, if 'twas up to me, I'd jest bind 'n' gag 'em and toss 'em in the ship's hold for the duration. Anyhoo, the plan is to rush ye all through breakfast and then truck ye out to the airfield, posthaste, for some sorta dry run." He rose to go. "The loo is well stocked with shavin' supplies. Will ye be needin' anyt'ing else, Major? Lieutenant?"
"Not that I can think of, Paddy," said I. "Give us another 15 minutes and we should be ready to roll. Right, Looey?"
||"'Firmative," slurped Gridley through his coffee.
Sure enough, the whole crew was assembled in the dining hall, the only "locals" being Gen. Groves, Gen. Mugambi, and a few of the latter's daughters assisting the "Walking Wounded." There was also a contingent of armed guards hovering around Rokovitch and Paulinov.
"Well, Major Burroughs," Mugambi grinned, "you slept well, I trust?"
"Like a baby, thank you," I replied. "You've been most hospitable to us 'Out-of-Timers'."
"Not at all, at all," he said, mimicking Paddy's brogue. "Just think of us as your friendly neighborhood--"
"Good Lord! What's that?" I cried out, pointing to the wall behind him, which had suddenly taken on an extra dimension it had not had--or I had not noticed--the day before. A huge flock of flamingoes, in formation, had suddenly appeared on the horizon of the landscape in the picture and started moving steadily upwards, growing ever larger as if actually approaching us. It was only then that I realized that the walls were covered not with a huge, life-sized, continuous still-photograph, but rather with a huge, life-sized, continuous motion-picture screen. The device effectively provided all occupants of the room with a simultaneous "periscope" view of the actual landscape surrounding the compound. The reason I did not realize this the day before was simply that there had been no activity, either animal or human, in the immediate vicinity at that time of day. Also, I was sufficiently tired and preoccupied on that occasion that I took no heed of whatever movements there may have been off in the distance.
"Ah, they are returning," said the black General with evident delight. "How lucky for you! Come, grab something to eat and let us go up to meet them."
"Meet who? The birds?" I said, bewildered again. "I hardly think--"
"Trust him on this one, Major," said Groves from behind me. "It ain't the damn birds he's talking about. It's what the birds are running away from."
"Running away...why would I want to go meet some predator that--"
"Oh, this is one predator you'll be glad you met. Come on now, let's not insult our host." And he began ushering me in the direction of the widest archway, beyond which rose a wide staircase which Mugambi and his bodyguards were already mounting. The ebon giant stopped a few steps from the bottom and turned to see where I was and beckoned excitedly. "Come, come. You have to see them from a distance first. Come!" And he stood there waiting for us to catch up, throwing his arm around my shoulders when I finally reached his side.
"With the rising sun at our back," Mugambi exclaimed, "we will see them in all their glory!" I decided to humor him, as I would a religious fanatic, which the gleam in his eyes put me in mind of. Besides, his grip on my shoulder was one of iron.
We emerged upon the broad, flat, asphalt roof of the main structure. General Mugambi led the way to the northwest corner of the roof and one of his guards handed him a pair of binoculars. I strained my eyes in the direction he was scanning and could just make out, arising from behind a barren ridge several miles distant, a sizeable plume of dust. The General suddenly handed me the binocs, pointing and exclaiming as he did: "There! Focus on that ridge before the storm of dust"--and as I raised the device to my eyes, he drew in his breath and said, proudly--"and you shall see a sight that you will never forget."
He was right. Now it was my turn to gasp for breath. While I was adjusting the glasses to my own eyesight, there burst over the crest of the ridge a pair of creatures unlike any I had ever seen before. I call them a pair, but never were two beings more completely one, their juxtaposition so unexpected that for an instant I doubted my own eyes, if not my sanity. A rider, a human rider, garbed in what looked like burnished gold and mounted upon a beast half zebra and half antelope, was bounding over the ridge at a good twenty feet above the rock-strewn surface. They struck the ground a full forty feet beyond that, to spring again, and again, like some gigantic grasshopper, eating up the miles between us with the quickness of thought. And after him, a hundred other mounted men on identical steeds. At the pace they were keeping, they would be upon us in a matter of minutes. I lowered the glasses momentarily and turned towards Mugambi, who had somehow acquired another pair of binoculars and was himself surveying the progress of the strange horde.
"Er, General," I assayed, "shouldn't we get below...before they reach the compound? I see no defenses--"
He lowered his own glasses and turned his head, a look of amazement on his face. "Defenses?" he said, then burst into a bellylaugh and glanced at his guards, who took up the refrain, slapping their knees and doubling over with laughter. Even General Groves was trying to repress a smile. "They are our defenses!" said Mugambi, with a sweeping gesture that took in the ever-widening circle of invaders.
Anxiety conspired with confusion and embarrassment within me as I glanced out across the open plain at the living tidal wave that was but a minute or two away from overwhelming us. Why was I the only one on that rooftop who appreciated the potential harm to life and limb in our situation? The only element missing from this Mad Hatter's party was a Cheshire Cat! Then fascination with the details of the approaching apocalypse overtook me, and, resigning myself to a swift destruction, I spent the remaining seconds taking note of them. The mounts were magnificent creatures, beefier than either species from which they were bred, the black zebraic stripes alternating tigerlike with the tawny deerskin coat, and each tapered head surmounted by a pair of short, twisting horns. Each of the riders was wearing a body-length suit whose markings matched the hide of the very beasts they rode. These "uniforms" were complete with hoods that covered the entire head, including the face, with eyelets obscured by the set of elaborate goggles each man wore. Slung across the back of every rider was a short rifle, and every hip supported either a sidearm pistol or a long knife. Their saddles and saddle-bags were similarly camouflaged. And, just as Mugambi had said, in the rays of the rising sun they were an awe-inspiring sight--a faerie-like fleet of irresistible doom.
On their way across the plain, the wierd troop had broken into serried ranks of 12 or 13 abreast. Whatever their objective, their assault would obviously come in successive waves. Mugambi, at that point, ceased laughing and assembled his own men in formation, the entire complement of a dozen guards standing at "present arms" in a single row facing the oncoming horde. Then the General turned to likewise face the intruders with a look of grim determination on his face, holding his swagger stick behind him as he had at our arrival. Gen. Groves silently pulled me aside--out of the line of fire, I assumed.
When the first wave was within a few bounds of our position, I was certain
Mugambi would give the command to aim and fire, but he remained silent
and motionless, as did his men. This is madness, I thought,
and turned towards Gen. Groves to say so, but he simply raised his index
finger to his lips, cautioning me to silence, and fixed his gaze on the
impending slaughter. The first row of furies was almost upon us.
I steeled myself and awaited my fate.
||To my amazement, the first wave landed not on the rooftop we
occupied, but clear on the other side of the building, as did the next,
and the next, until all eight rows had passed over us--like the Angel of
Death over the Israelites, I thought--while Mugambi and his phalanx of
guard maintained their pose of "readiness." Then the riders reassembled
their ranks on the ground, two rows each on all four sides of the building,
and proceeded once again to overleap our position--all eight rows at once,
criss-crossing each other's paths with unerring precision. This show
of "horsemanship" was repeated four times and then abruptly ceased, the
whole company having arrayed itself on the ground again in the same configuration
as before. An eerie silence prevailed for the space of a full minute,
the riders striving with their anxious mounts to stay them, the latter
held in check only by the steely discipline of their masters.
Then, as sudden as lightning, one of the riders detached his mount from the ranks of his fellows and bounded upwards with a blood-curdling battle cry that I could have sworn I had heard before, and landed squarely on the roof, directly in front of General Mugambi. The General did not budge an inch, nor did any of his guards. I glanced at Groves, not daring to speak, but again he raised his index finger to his lips, winked at me, and nodded in the direction of the incredible scene being acted out before us. As I stared, transfixed, the rider prodded his mount with his heels and the beast, camel-like, knelt down on its front legs, permitting its master to dismount with a single artful movement. The rider approached Mugambi boldly, undaunted by the armed guards a few paces away. Scant inches from the General's chest, the mysterious stranger stopped and, lifting his arm above his head, stripped off his dusty goggles and with them his sweat-stained hood, to reveal a face as brown and weathered as the hide of the beast he rode. It was an aged, well-wrinkled face, with high cheekbones, a high forehead, and a large, broad, aquiline nose bisecting a pair of piercing, steel-grey eyes and balanced by a set of wide yet pencil-thin lips atop an anvil jaw. The man was beardless and his hair was straight and black with generous streaks of gray. Despite his age, he seemed unwearied by his strenuous ride--indeed, invigorated. For some reason, I was hardly surprised when he and Mugambi embraced each other fiercely, then, parting slightly, pounded each other about the arms and shoulders, laughing heartily. It was, of course, Geronimo.
<< END OF CHAPTER 4 >>
ERBzine 0280 JACK OF TIME: ERB Novel Intro & Ch. 1 - "After the Fire..."
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