The House That Jack Built: Chapter I

As promised, here are more awesome goodies from my original alternate history draft. We last left Elpis Parsons at breakfast with her mom, her dad, and her crush…now we meet Jack Parsons and Marjorie Cameron at the height of World War II, and her crush’s dad, Admiral George Morrison. While this story is not entirely plausible, and could use some work on the finer details, it was very extensively researched. Much of it is far more plausible than many of us believe. Enjoy and please critique.

I

February 10, 1943

Washington, DC

Marjorie Cameron, WAVE and mapmaker for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, strode confidently from the barracks to her office, taking in the smells of spring. Soon the screams of the dying would confront her…best now to clear her mind. Not to think too hard about spring in Belle Plaine, Iowa at fourteen…about suicidal absinthe-chlorophyll rising in her veins at the hole to hell. It was too real, only now she saw it as a black and white aerial photo, felt it as a scarlet rage.

What’s black and white and red all over?It was a cute kid’s joke. Like many women who thought they were going to be mothers on December 6, 1941, she had made it into a dead baby joke to survive. Only she had never had such domestic delusions. The idea that after this was all done they could go home, settle down, put up a white picket fence, feed their kids every daythree squares!and even listen to The Shadow on the radio…totally preposterous. Pandora’s box had been opened. She’d heard Churchill and Roosevelt briefing the Joint Chiefs…she didn’t want to know. The Pacific Theater was a pleasure dome for madmen and killers. Not like the radio shows. The Second World War? Give me War of the Worlds any day, she thought. But she knew what might be out there. Nope. The cat was definitely out of the bag.

She saluted a poster of Rosie the Riveter in the lobby, noting the red hair. Wouldn’t she look amazing as a GI Jane of Arkansas type figure, combat greens and tin pot on her head, M1 in her arms? Joan of Arc had been crazy too.

Marjorie Cameron, farm girl from Iowa, empty vessel being filled even now with burning impressions like the oil slick from the Arizona, picked a stack of photos from a bin on the far shelf and retreated into her private office. The photos, to others, had value primarily as fodder for tactical and theater maps. She was an artist, a mythical character who loved to study myths (Bullfinch, Titian, Verne, Baum, all her childhood pals), a country girl who had gone from sepia to full-color yet feared the poison apple, the animated simulacrum that this implied. To her, these aerial photos were not stories. They were a cedar chest, a button box, a talismanic projection of a real life. What story did the one in her hand tell?

A Zero. Burning as it stuck prop-first into a carrier…couldn’t tell where. At the altitude this photo had been taken, she’d have to look more carefully. And that was kind of hard right now. She grabbed her stomach, doubling over. That wasn’t gas, and it wasn’t delusion. It was exactly that kind of cutyes, across the middle below the navel. Like you might want if you needed your guts to spill quick. Stifling a scream, she breathed deeply, trying not to lose her head. With good humor, honed under years of this exact sort of crisis, she noted dryly that on a certain plane, that was a real risk right now. Breathing helped, but it also hurt even worse, the clear light she was sucking in through her nose and mouth turning to fire with the blood of a boy whose name she didn’t know, but whose life story she was right now. It felt like she was becoming living flame, behind the poor Jap’s eyes. Blood clotted against her rising sun headband, spreading like rays to stain the rest of the cloth, which was white like a baptismal robe. Poor, deluded, honorable, idealistic bastard. Dead because men above him shared no such earnest principles.

A story as old as Cain and Abel. Only Eve was older, really.

Marjorie managed to keep it together long enough to waddle, not writhe, to her desk. She collapsed into the chair that sat slightly crooked in front of it, feeling the gravity of an Iowa farm girl on whose shoulders the world rested. Rich, smart, better men wanted to become destroyers of worlds. They were Americans, so no matter their station and education and age, she knew they knew this boy better than anyone, in their darkest hearts.

SHINJI!She screamed involuntarily, unheard through the oak door. The leather chair the CO thought she rated got manicured, painted, ladylike scarlet claws right in each arm. Yes. Wars got very messy when mamas got involved.Jesus God almighty…that’s your name, isn’t it?

Suddenly, Cameron was somewhere else, hair buzzed down to a Navy seaman’s cut, as if to pass for male in the thick of battle. The smell of fire and oil and blood and…a thing she didn’t wish to name that bore a curious resemblance to bacon grease was everywhere, with a slight salt tang. The Zero in the picture was right in front of her. A young man was running across the deck, pulling on an aviator’s helmet and going for his F6F Hellcat. The aircraft was singed, it seemed, but only structural surface damage had occurred. She heard a shout after him.George! Don’t be a fool!

The man looked over his shoulder, pulling down his goggles.No one here gets out alive.

Well. She clearly was not in Kansas anymore.

February 10, 1943

1003 S Orange Grove Avenue, Pasadena, California

Jack Parsons, Solid Fuel Projects Manager, Aerojet Corporation, had had it. Wilfred Talbot Smith, head of the Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, was getting a bad rap from the actual leader of this order, who remained in England operating by mail. Fiddling while Rome burned, interfering with the affairs of California’s spiritual gardeners. It was goddamned horseshit, especially given that this man’s name was Aleister Crowley, the Magus of the New Aeon. Smith ran a “love cult”, it was said. Well, Jack Williamson might have disapproved of that, but Robert Heinlein sure didn’t. And Jack sided with Heinlein more often than not.

It was a unique state of affairs, one Crowley was unable to understand objectively. Crowley would have characterized Jack’s mental picture of the situation as an impressionable young man with no moral core engaging in personal drama to inflate his ego. Crowley, however, was an asshole. Rich, out of touch, coastal…the cause of the war, much like Mr Marvel Parsons of old-line Massachusetts ancestry. Jack, obviously, was objectively its savior.

Why was that? Well, he was obviously smarter than most humans, and happened to be in a position culturally where he could engage with people who had plans, people who were doing things. Jack didn’t phrase it consciously, but he was engaging with Whats, not Whos. The translation of this he used in ordinary thought was that he was a living myth, a realization of H. Rider Haggard’s Quatermain, just waiting for She to appear.

She was not Helen. It was looking less like Helen’s sister Betty every day. They were empty vessels, and try as he might to fill them, there was still nothing there. Of course there wasn’t…they were living in a commune that couldn’t manage to get the dishes done or the floor swept, but this wasn’t Smith’s fault, and it wasn’t Jack’s. Smith wasn’t anything so base as a love cultist…he was simply a man with fine tastes worthy of his ideas and dreams. If this meant things turned steamy more often than not, well, Jack couldn’t expect the Great Beast to see past his own ego long enough to see how this met the demands of the Law of Thelema perfectly.

Oh, that was the other thing. The “Law” was that man had the right to do his True Will, to seek out fulfillment according to his nature. Jack was doing that. What was the problem?

Jack turned a metal object over in his hand, examining it thoughtfully. It was part of a rocket guidance system, a gyroscope. Frank Malina’s deal. Ed Forman had machined It to exacting technical specifications designed by Frank’s math whiz head…again, the whole damned problem. Malina was all numbers and theory. Jack had graduated that stage a decade ago. Why, he had willingly forgone any chance of a degree to build rocket engines for CalTech, which had led inexorably to the idea that Marxism was unworkable in the present economic climate and that Thelema was the Way Forward. As he saw it, the few failed night classes he’d taken were a small price to pay for the conquering of the universe by men with ideals in their breasts and sweat on their brows.

Men like Malina and Crowley could never understand that it wasn’t the theory that made such a beautiful gyroscope work, it was the effort and dedication and skill of the Parsons-Forman-Smith type. The Right Stuff, essentially.

This was why they were making money selling jet-assisted takeoff units to the Navy. The Hellcat was a fine plane, but a carrier runway was too short for an effective launch. Hence a little boost, courtesy of the rocket men of California. If rockets could win the war…imagine what a man with one arm in science fiction and the other in the occult could do with rocketry. Perhaps the world could finally transit beyond numbers and theory, to actual Myth.

Which, of course, involved treating the people he was associated with like Whats. That’s what secret agents fighting the Japs on their own soil did, anyway. What anyone sane did in times like these. The world was burning – getting yours before the shithouse went up in flames was the way to go. Later, myth could prosper, once the picket fence had been won.

Grady, his friend from CalTech turned rival didn’t understand that. The little punk was in Europe right now, thank God…letting him play with any girl he wanted to. Psychopathic users always ruined grand operations like the Parsonage. Jack had tried to teach him everything he knew about life…why hadn’t it caught on? Bastard.

Jack was jerked from his purple reverie on the human condition by a shout from downstairs. Betty again…god dammit. She’d burned the bacon for breakfast – he could smell it all the way up here. At least she hadn’t sent the place up in flames.

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