The House That Jack Built: Chapter II

II

February 15, 1945

Belle Plaine, Iowa

She was home. With family. The War, for her, was over. From California to Washington, from Bataan to Stalingrad, the world was burning. It had really burned hot for a while there, but like a rapidly cooling meteor, it wasn’t much but a hot cinder now.

The question remained: was the meteor Satan falling like lightning from Heaven, or was it the star whose name was Wormwood? At the family’s home in Davenport, she might have given you a different answer, had you asked her then. Her brother had been sent home, wounded, having flown in the Pacific and run, possibly, into Shinji’s big brother above some island or another. Yup. Satan falling like lightning from heaven. Going AWOL, as it were, but for a noble reason, even if it appeared self-serving.

Here, though, at her grandparents’ farm, where she had heard tales of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in 1937, she wasn’t so sure. The South Pacific was a place of madness and horror…one she had inadvertently helped to create. Been drawn to, like a moth to a flame, for the last eight years. But this farm was who she was. Located in a town that could be interpreted, if one did not speak French, to be named Plain Girl, and if one did, to mean Beautiful Plain…in the Hawkeye State…near Old Man River in the heartland of the Free, it was an oasis of green life that had held her in its arms as a child and just happened to contain a well that doubled as an entrance to Hell. That’s what her visions as a kid had shown her, in between swallowing whole bottles of furniture polish (and the bottle) and getting her ass beat by a man who would have done better, if he could have. She knew she was crazy, she just knew why, and what it meant, and didn’t argue.

Yup. The name of the Star was definitely Wormwood.

Settling down on the grass, folding her knees under her in a seated position (the Belle Plaine High quarterback had loved her flexibility, although she had seen it more as a curse that must be made use of lest it destroy her), she closed her eyes. The sound of music could be heard in her head, as it often was in this place. She wondered…had a younger girl with less experience interpreted the well as a hole to hell, when it was maybe a star gate, a wardrobe door?

Her eyes flashed green. Visible from the inside. That was always odd, but then…what was normal? Not the best people, that was damn sure. The absinthe dream a girl who had never smelled a burning jungle had concocted shifted, suddenly. She was held not in the arms of the land, but in the arms of a great big grandmotherly woman, whose face was a mossy green mess that smelled…like home. The woman offered her a biscuit, and kissed her forehead. The well now seemed to glisten with clear water, miles and miles deep. She could finally see what was in there…in this place.

Cameron stood up, smiling and saluting the Earth Mother. “You want me.”

FOR SUCH AS YOU CANNOT IMAGINE. DO NOT PRETEND THAT THE TRIAL ENDS HERE.

I don’t expect it to.”

GOOD. WHY HAVE YOU DESERTED YOUR POST?

Mother, I did it for reasons you know all too well. For family, for love, for hearth and land. For nourishment and survival.”

THAT WAS NOT MY MEANING, DAUGHTER. YOU WERE TRANSFERRED FROM WASHINGTON TO THE NAVAL PHOTOGRAPHIC UNIT, REASSIGNED AS A WARDROBE MISTRESS.

Mistress. Fashion. Fuck that. I’m not some Redbook broad. I’m an artist.”

YOU MEAN TO SAY, RATHER, THAT YOU WILL NOT BE IMPOSED ON WITH ANOTHER’S IMAGE, EVEN TO SAVE YOUR OWN LIFE.

Yeah, basically. What about it?”

SILLY GIRL. ALWAYS READY TO ARGUE, EVEN WITH YOUR MOTHER WHO LOVES YOU.

Churchill said they’d have named the Spitfire something else if he’d known me.”

WAS THAT A COMPLIMENT?

The best one a man like him could give.”

BUT YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND. I AM STABLE. YOU ARE YET THE STORM. HENCE THE TRIAL CONTINUES. HENCE YOU HAVE NOT SO MUCH ABANDONED YOUR POST AS NOT YET FOUND IT.

Cameron considered, as the WAVE blues she was wearing transmogrified in the dream-light to a scarlet robe, in a very peculiar Greek style. “What is my post?”

The robe changed again, to a spacesuit like Wilma Deering’s out of Buck Rogers. Then to denim jeans and a cloth shirt with a multicolored pastel sunburst on it. Then she stood naked before all the Earth. “None at all, then?”

THAT IS NOT WHAT I SAID. SPEND THE NEXT SIX MONTHS IN MEDITATION ON THIS, TO PREPARE FOR WHAT IS TO COME. YOU WILL BE GIVEN APPROPRIATE TIME AND SPACE TO DEVOTE YOURSELF TO THIS WORK.

She woke, then, laid out on her back, face and hands covered in dirt, looking up at the sky. It was dark, but you could still see the Milky Way. It was so much nicer than Washington. And not only that, but the Moon was right overhead, with Venus close by.

The name of the star shall be Cameron.” Marjorie stood up and headed to the car. It was time to spend one more Sunday dinner with the family, then pack. She had been AWOL long enough.

February 15, 1945

Pasadena, California

Frozen out. The Parsonage hadn’t burned down, and Helen hadn’t bitched too hard when Jack had asked her for a divorce, but none of that mattered. They didn’t get it…not Agape, not Manana, not any of the occultists and science fiction writers in Los Angeles or Pasadena. Rockets! Promethean fire-tubes! Wands! Obelisks to the Sun God and his Law! Obsession most magnificent, most magical, most holy!

And for this he had suffered from science fiction writers and occultists who did not have a shred of passion for making their subject real. Yet that was not actually the problem. You see, Aerojet had been given a contract to make the V-2 look like a Vienna sausage, but it had only been granted if Forman and Parsons were exiled. Declared persona non grata, to be spit on in the streets as pariahs even as the Holy Word went unmanifest. It was supremely unfair. Luckily, Jack had matured since 1943, and did not let this deter him. Helen would be gone, whatever his old college professor, Theodore von Karman, was envisioning as head of Aerojet would be made to look like execrable trash, and Jack had been paid for his stock fairly. All was good, and all was typical.

He and Forman had had the motto Ad Astra Per Aspera since before the Depression. He’d been given the chance to meet Wernher Von Braun on a family trip through Europe, the Crash of ’29 had shot their plans through like ball bearings puncturing the engine on a Duesenberg Model J, and that had proven the usefulness of such a motto. Pan provided all, you just had to fight for it. Forman, however, objected strenuously to naming their new firm with the full motto, and had simply line item vetoed the words Per Aspera…the most important parts. Jack was now part-owner of the Ad Astra Engineering Company, and working with a chemical they had acquired from some guy with a mailing address of 109 East Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico. This could only be improved if Forman learned the value of fighting for your prize, and he had a feeling with the stuff this substance could do that the old bastard probably would in good time.

Jack stood in the laboratory they had built, not much more than a tin shed. He was magically attuned to such environments after his work at CalTech, and the workbench in front of him reflected his particular propensity to make order in chaos, rather than out of it. The asshole of 1943 had grown up, whether America had or not. The whole country would be dead soon, but he might be able to fix that. “Per aspera,” he whispered reverently, looking at a cluttered surface covered in nuts and bolts and a glittering rainbow sheen of oil. Almost like a map of the country. Only problem was, he couldn’t read it. Scribes (a most unsuitable name, but the real role was seer – a Malina type, only real) were always needed when he invoked anything worth invoking, because his visionary senses were about as useless as tits on a bull. The problem was, Baphomet, emblem of the Great Work of enlightenment, HAD tits, and was a goat, if not a bull. He recognized this problem now, when it had eluded him two years ago.

So, he’d have to find a useful scribe. Then he could read this map. Until then, he would invoke with modern alchemy and struggle toward the stars. He reached for a vial of the chemical (he didn’t know its name, but it was used to create something called “x-metal”, which sounded astounding even if he didn’t know what it was, either), but thought better of it. His hands were sweaty, and needed wiping before he handled anything so crazy.

What if giving it a name was useless? he thought, wiping himself as clean as he could with a greasy rag. What if uttering the word of the Aeon had doomed it? Maybe that was getting him somewhere. But he couldn’t go there now. Forman was yelling about something. He couldn’t make it out…wordless excitement, inside the shed.

He stepped outside. Forman was pointing up at the sky, excitedly. The Moon and Venus were awfully close and bright. Jack followed Ed’s finger, eyes settling on the odd conjunction.

That was when the vertigo hit. A pink light exploded inside his eyes, resolving to a bloody fire-red in what seemed like an eternity. When he came to, he was lying on the ground looking up at Forman’s concerned face. “Are you okay, Jack? You fell like you’d been struck by lightning.”

Jack rubbed the back of his head. “I think I was. I just can’t remember what I saw.”

Forman shook his head. “You always were an odd duck. Luckily, it’s your strong point as far as I can tell.”

That’s why I like you. You always seem to get what I’m really about.” Jack started for the house, suddenly famished.

I get it all right,” Forman deadpanned.

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