The House That Jack Built: Actual Chapter III (Chapter Numbers Are Hard)

INTERMISSION

And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpiller, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you. – Joel 2:25 (Holy Bible, King James Version)

III

March 17, 1946

The Parsonage

Pasadena, California

The eggs were not runny. The bacon was not burned. Jack smiled wistfully, wondering why it had taken so long. Decent breakfast…but that wasn’t all, no sirree. She had been dismissive, angry…now she loved him, for all he could tell. The way Jane looked at her…fondly, but with sisterly jealousy. Things were gelling. He had told them so, even if they didn’t believe him at first. Now the whole world would see!

Marjorie looked across the kitchen, where she and Jack were now alone.Your buddy went out to pitch another book…told me to let you know.

If he so much as looks at you funny…

Possessive, are we? Well, I’m Babalon. I can handle my own shit. Or can I?There was a warm, sparkling question in her eyes.

Hm. In any case, he can pitch all the potboilers and self-help books he wants. I’m making the world a better place.

Not all by yourself, you’re not.

I’m open to that interpretation, I supoose.

Marjorie raised an eyebrow.You’re not letting go of this magick and skepticism cocktail easily, are you?

It’s a lifeline.

But I don’t have that lifeline, and even you can see I’m slowly pulling you ashore.

Yeah.Jack munched another bite of scrambled eggs. Why hadn’t he thought to put red jalapenos in them before? Oh, that’s right…Helen didn’t know they’d existed, and he hadn’t either.

Marjorie looked at the gleam in Jack’s eyes.I can cook…wait until you see what else I can do.

I flew you like a barnstormer. I know.

I didn’t mean that. Is your middle name Ass, Mr Parsons?

No. What else are you planning?After so much work, Jack was not a morning person for a week or so.

I don’t know. What do you make of this?She threw him the morning’s Pasadena Star-News.

His jaw dropped, as crumbs of sausage and chile pepper fell from his lolling tongue. Marjorie held back a laugh, making asnerksound and covering her mouth with girlish amusement.

Holy…frijoles.Jack knew enough to restrain his Saxon mouth in the presence of the sacred. And this result was, in fact, sacred. It was also, undeniably, a result.

I woke up at noon on January 10th, remember? Nine knocks. Hard. Like a poltergeist.

Well, I’m relieved it wasn’t me. You know I was asleep too.

Jack was aghast and awestruck all at once. It couldn’t be working, it couldn’t!Nine is clearly numerologically associated with the Moon. Here I am making a Moonchild and now the US Army reports they bounced a signal off the Moon at that exact time…well, locally.

I’ve had an abortion before.Marjorie felt candid, the way a summer sky feels like thunder and lightning.Don’t get any ideas. But it gets better.

Jack raised an eyebrow.You wouldn’t dare.

Just read, you cad.

So he read. They weren’t saying much…the Paaadena press seemed convinced it was all science fiction. But he could read between the perpendicular lines of government science’s tight lips and the press’s derision masked by skepticism. This was literally insane.

Uhhh…His voice cracked. Dammit. This kind of stuff always turned him thirteen again, at most.

You’re cute.Marjorie’s eyes twinkled.What do you make of it, flyboy?

He was a grounded rocket engineer who dreamed of the stars. He couldn’t tell ifflyboywas an insult or not. But he didn’t particularly care, either.The signal was a basic RADAR beam. First time they’ve tried to use such for astronomical purposes…that means this is a proof of communication beyond the ionosphere being feasible. You know the ionosphere, right?

Belle Plaine public schools use the same curriculum everyone else does. I don’t know about folks out here, but Ioway is pretty damn sharp.Marjorie bristled a bit, but she enjoyed the banter, really.

Fine.Jack acted hurt, but he was playing around and she knew it. Knew he enjoyed it, too. Was this love?In any case, this means we can talk to hypothetical spacemen…like if they were to put in an order with Ad Astra for a manned rocket tomorrow.

We’ll see.Marjorie didn’t like to smash a kid’s dreams.

But anyways, you are as aware as anyone that we don’t have spacemen right now. I’m supposing Hitler didn’t, but Von Braun was cagey when we last talked.

Your point being?Marjorie knew damn well what the article meant. She’d read it, thanks very much. Just needed to get Jack to realize it. This was the first step. Then he’d realize who had been doing the magick these last three months, and BOOM. She hoped, anyway.

The signal had another signal piggybacking on it when it returned to the Army lab in Jersey.Jack let this hang in the air for a minute.

Well, I’ve never talked to anyone with signal intelligence credentials, so I wouldn’t know what that implies.Marjorie loved playing dumb sometimes. Had Jack caught on yet? She was pretty sure he had.

Yes you have, and you know it.Good.Basically, this signal is orderly enough and contains enough data that it is clearly not random or even necessarily some kind of environmental phenomenon. They hypothesize at times about radiation belts orbiting the Earth, but that can’t cause this. No way in hell.

So what did?Marjorie got right to the point, tiring of the game.

Someone answered me.He thought he caught the green flashes in her eyes just then, like he’d seen when they had…well, in any case, it was rather immaterial.

You? Or Us?Marjorie looked at him pointedly.

He thought about this for a minute.Us, for sure. All of us. Our American Prayer is being answered.

You can be so delightfully Sunday School kid-like at times. It’s charming.

I suppose you could see it that way, being from Eye Oh Way and all.Jack laughed. This game was fun.

Their quiet moment was interrupted by a shout from the hall.Phone for Jack!

Jack pulled on a black silk bathrobe, gauche and quixotically glorious. Marjorie guffawed.Show me everything, put on that getup for the phone?! You’re hilarious.

Shush. That’s gotta be Forman.Marjorie nodded. She knew he was right. Let him work for now.

It was, obviously. He was shouting about something…the stupid phone lines didn’t carry it very well. That could be improved, but not by a rocket scientist.What? Say again, please.

Jack, gawd dammit! It’s one-thirty and you’re still having breakfast with your redheaded floozie while the Project Diana results come in! This is HUGE! We have to get a proposal to market before…

I know.Jack interrupted, holding up his hand. He always treated phone conversations as if they were real…in short, as if the other party was astrally present.We have to beat Von Karman and Aerojet.

Yeah! So when are you gonna get on it?Forman was excitable, yet irritable. His old friend hadn’t changed much, and that was sort of a problem right now.

Ed…Ed…Cameron’s got a point. She’s been trying to drill me about staying disciplined and knowing more about what I’m doing, and this is why. We can’t exploit this opportunity with the present junk heap and office building we pretend is Ad Astra.His world was exploding…and like Kal-El, he was escaping. Superhuman heroics awaited.

What? What the fuck did you just say?

I said we’ve got to get some work done before we get anywhere. I’ve been reading books and sharpening my math skills…I figured with the war being over and Peenemunde having been liberated, we’d be able to help whoever’s exploiting this opportunity. Not much more right now.

Talk to Von Braun yourself. You’re deluded if you think he’ll even bother with an American who squandered his dad’s fortune on transatlantic phone bills.There was an unusually harsh click, and the line went dead.

What just happened?Marjorie saw Jack’s dejection…the dream was giving way to the cold reality. All was working according to plan…she needed to stand by her man if this was going to work. No matter how big a mess he was.

Forman doesn’t want to bother with Von Braun. I’ve heard things through the grapevine…Heinlein’s talked to an old Navy buddy of his, a Hellcat pilot from the Pacific War. That guy’s working in Albuquerque, New Mexico now, and the scuttlebutt on deck is that they have Von Braun in custody somewhere. Forman is as aware of this as I am.Jack sighed.Damned idiot is too hung up on his argument with me and the Nuremberg business to even consider working with a man I respect who has a shot.

Marjorie’s head was spinning. Blood and smoke mingled In her memories…it couldn’t be, could it?Who’s this Hellcat pilot?Cameron did not ask questions. She commanded, interrogatively.

Huh?What did that have to do with anything?

THE HELLCAT PILOT. ALBUQUERQUE. TELL ME NOW.

Jack opened and shut his mouth a couple times, eyes wide. She was definitely crazy. But he knew that.George Morrison. He did Hellcats in the Pacific like a lot of other guys, now he’s working on some kind of Naval Research Laboratory project. Why?

Cameron collapsed into her chair, breathing deeply, rapidly, but not at a medically precarious rate. Was this the weight a Goddess bore?YOUR JATO UNITS. HE USED THEM. I SAW HIM WHILE MAKING A MAP FOR THE JOINT CHIEFS. SMELLED THE CORPSES BURNING AROUND HIM AS HE TOOK OFF FROM A KAMIKAZED CARRIER. YOU SAVED HIS LIFE, MARVEL WHITESIDE PARSONS. WITH YOUR DREAMS AND EXPLOSIVES. NOW DO YOU SEE THE WEB WE ARE BEGINNING TO WEAVE?

With that, she laughed. Long, loud, hearty, uproarious laughter. A joke whose first whispers had been told when she was four in Belle Plaine was finally hitting the punch line. It was beautiful, the way rain was after a March storm…no matter where you were. Iowa, California, New Mexico…all the same. That feeling of nearly orgasmic release into Being was universal.

Jack coughed, looking at his transformed lover, deeply confused. He knew he Loved her now, but what the hell?I…uhhhh…

The doorbell rang.Saved by the bell. Never mind, Cameron.He at least knew what her real self was like, now. Images and words could not define such a beautiful creature. Not even the word Babalon was fully sufficient.

She nodded.OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS. NINE TIMES, AS IT WERE.

But he had already gone to the door. Visitors to the Parsonage of any real quality were rare enough that this was more significant than she knew…and she knew it was huge already.Hullo?

Standing before him was a weather-beaten man with a cowboy hat, about sixty years old, dressed in denim and a buttoned shirt, as was the classic Western style. A bolo tie made of some meteorite chunk set the whole thing off like one of Jack’s scientifiction serial special effects (a dalliance, but a financially necessary one). Next to him, showing deference to the cowboy for some reason Jack could not possibly fathom, was a man in a black suit and tie, European in cut, whose appearance was Teutonic, electric, and immediately recognizable, from graying temples to war-worn wrinkles.Uhhhhhhhh….

It’s been a long time, Jack. May I come in?Von Braun’s voice was warm, but he definitely got straight to the point.

Fuck. Omigod. Uhhhh I mean I’m sorry, Herr Von Braun…right this way.Jack, normally bereft of social graces, was exerting a Herculean, perhaps Sisyphean effort to stay cool and be of some apparent use to his guests.And you, sir. I don’t believe I caught your name?

West. Benjamin West, of Ramah, New Mexico. I’m glad to meet you, Mr Parsons. You are exactly as Von Braun described you, which is indicative of your preexistent character in ways neither of you are too likely to be aware of.West smiled a dry, gentle smile, almost fatherly. Roy Rogers was clearly an actor…that much was obvious to Jack right now. Why…West could almost be an older Williamson.

Uhhhh…thanks, I think?

Jack’s guardian angel in scarlet swooped in, saving the day.Right this way, Mr West, Herr Doktor Von Braun. I’ll get you both some coffee.

That will not actually be necessary, Ms. Cameron.West removed his hat and looked meaningfully at Marjorie.May I have some Dr Pepper instead?

She nodded.You betcha. The icebox is full of such things. It’s not like we have children or anything.Musical laughter. Jack knew poise when he saw it…did he dare? No. The future was open wide as could be right now. It would be foolish to entertain such a…proposition until he’d heard more.

The two men filed past Jack, who stood dazed, not sure if what was happening was a lucid dream or the aftereffects of something he’d taken during the Babalon Working, as he had taken to calling it. Was he awake? Had he, in fact, died and gone to heaven? That would be something…but this obviously wasn’t Hell.

Within five minutes, West and Von Braun and Marjorie (or was it Cameron? Or both? Jack couldn’t tell, and neither could she, to be honest) had seated themselves around the coffee table in the living room, with appropriate beverages. Jack was slower, taking four and a half minutes to collect himself, and another fifteen seconds (approximately) to grab a Green River from the icebox, and another twenty to seat himself. This five-second difference irritated him…he was in the presence of an actual God. Crowley walking in wouldn’t even faze him, now. Not after Von Braun.

So, gentlemen. What brings you to my stately pleasure dome?

Marjorie Cameron glanced around like Eleanor Roosevelt surveying the White House after her inauguration. She waved a hand, indicating the décor. Pulp magazine cover paintings shared space with the more tasteful Renaissance variants on Jack’s preferred magical art, and at the four compass points hung the Enochian Tablets, describing the four elements and their role in the metaphysical Universe. Hand-sewn cloth, with gilt lettering upon them, they seemed an odd cross between religious symbol and cryptographic tool used by an architect of the British Empire of the 1500s…but that is exactly what they were. It occurred to Cameron that Caliban had become Prospero, and yet John Dee clearly was Elizabeth I’s court magician, and not the other way around…

Pleasure dome? I thought it was a temple to Love, Rockets and blowing up the Stars like Flash Gordon.Marjorie smiled, a warm reverence flowing from within her to circuit the room.

Well um…both?

West smiled, perhaps catching his hosts’ unease.It is suitable for our purposes,and that is all that needs to be said. I am well aware of the relationship between hearth and temple, and also of the need to meet humans where they aretoday, not tomorrow.

Jack raised an eyebrow. Did he just judge me? I can’t even tell.

Cameron raised a finger to her lips, then tapped her head suggestively, finally laying a hand on Jack’s arm. Jack looked at her, but said nothing more.

I am aware of the symbolism, in fact. It is a map of Jack’s soul, and as you know, Ben, it reflects what we’re trying to achieve perfectly.It seemed to Jack as if Von Braun was speaking ex cathedra every time he opened his mouth. Whose Aeon was this, again?

West nodded.I agree completely. A great teacher once said that if my people found Truth in Hell, they would use it for Goodbecause after all, it is Truth, and there is One Author of Truth.

Jack’s jaw dropped.Jack Williamson would sooner die than say something like that.

I wouldn’t be so sure.West considered his next words carefully, as if drawing them from another source.That teacher’s name was Brigham Young, and he began as a Methodist. Many did, in those times. Why pretend that you know Mr Williamson’s ways better than he himself does?

He might be darker than you think, Jack.Marjorie giggled, remembering Jack’s grousing about his name-mate not grasping the Gnostic Mass.

I believe the occultist and rocket engineer who defends the honor of a former SS Sturmbahnfuhrer so valiantly is trying to come to grips with the idea that some people are just…what is the word…weird? That they play against type, even in multiple cultural vectors. Is that not correct, Jack?Von Braun smiled warmly, eyes like sunsbright, piercing.

Shit. Had Von Braun just totally dismantled his entire self-image? It wouldn’t be the first time this week, in any event.So everyone in this room…

Is the kind of person to come from a specific background but behave according to their own natures, when the truth is revealed to them. Some say from Within…as a Latter-Day Saint, I do not fully disagree. After all…did you know if you ordered a coke after refusing coffee in Utah, you would quite possibly be shot to death by a mob?West’s eyes twinkled.Jack, my boy…we are who we are, and no amount of window dressing can change that.

Jack sat for a while, processing this. Finally, Cameron interrupted.In any case, Elder West, Elder Von Braun…why don’t you get to what you really came to convert Jack to?She giggled, as high on the moment as anyone else was, yet ready with an irreverent joke. That was definitely his girl.

To the accomplishment of his True Will as he had already known it, naturally.West grinned.

What the hell?! You knew?!Jack looked at Cameron, dumbfounded. So typical lately, and yet so embarrassing.

Who the hell do you think invited them?

I am actually doomed.

Cameron nodded.You’ll survive, though.

In any case,said Wernher Von Braun,I am, as you may be aware, a political prisoner who has a particular useful role to play in national affairs at the moment, although naturalization is certainly one of my goals. The only question is…naturalization where? I shall therefore let my handler speak.

Jack coughed on his Green River.Handler?!

West nodded.I’m afraid it’s true. Von Braun requires official supervision at all times, whether on White Sands Proving Ground or not. Therefore, as a local figure of some prominence who has gained the Truman Administration’s good graces, I was deputized with the aim of making sure Von Braun is able to complete his work with maximum freedom and minimum local interference.

Tell him when, Ben.Von Braun smiled.

January 11, 1946.

Jack sighed, slumping back in his chair.Dare I ask what in blazes that signal contained?

We don’t actually know. Attempts are being made to have Bletchley Park look at it, but…Ben waved Von Braun off with a definite shushing motion.

What’s Bletchley Park?Jack couldn’t contain himself.

One of the newly built developments outside Chicago. New way of living. White picket fences, small families, modern lifestyle of comforts material and media.West chuckled to himself at some kind of private joke.

I keep reminding Jack to be careful about what kind of questions he asks,Cameron said knowingly.He still doesn’t get that some of the damned things have answers.

I see. He is exactly our kind of man, then.Von Braun folded his arms, looking at Jack pointedly.I can assure you, Mr Parsons. No one is aware of this fact and its veracity better than myself. Our work at Peenemunde was the best the Nazi rocket program was able to produce, and our masterpiece was the V-2. Do you understand?

Jack gulped. Oh god.Yes. Yes, sir, I do. Do I ever.

That still doesn’t mean we know what the message was, or what it means, or who it was addressed to, or even if it is a message rather than an accidentally emitted pattern. We just have a good idea of the kind of…person that might have sent it.West was equally at home discussing the outlandish, whether it was from Pasadena or…another place. That much was obvious.

What do you want me to do? I don’t have the capability to design the rocket you need, let alone build it. You’re sitting next to Wernher Von Braun, for Christ’s sakes! The fuck do you need me for?Jack was as shellshocked as he had ever been, but fighting for a dream he’d had since he was a boy.

Jack, listen to me.Von Braun’s voice hadn’t changed since their 1930s phone conversations…it had only gotten older. Stronger. Wiser.I want to teach you. But you need to let me.

I told you guys this was going to be hard.Cameron smiled. With a challenge like that, could he actually refuse to rise to it?

No, he could not. Not in a million years.I’ve been brushing up on my math, reading Oberth and such. I’m not sure I’ll be too useful. But I will dare to try.

West smiled.Even an American icon like Ben Franklin started as an apprentice. You are strong in ways that we are not, Jack…your ability to come to this point with Cameron by your side is evidence of that. But I cannot speak for your practical skills and scientific knowledge the same way.

I briefly considered writing pulp stories in ’43. Now…

Now you can help write our story as a race, Jack. I speak, as you hopefully well understand, of the race of Mankind.Von Braun smiled.

I had figured as much, sir.Jack was dizzy.

Jack’s a quick study, Mr West. Why don’t you fill him in on the rest of your plans, and leave the theoretical tutelage to me and his copious library?Cameron took the lead as usual, spurring the three men yet mediating their mutual appreciation of each other’s greatness.

Indubitably. I know little about Dr Von Braun’s art, but I am sure he can teach Jack. Think of it, if you will pardon the suggestion, Mr Parsons, as the new stonemasonry, and all that implies.West smiled.Even a rough stone rolling must needs submit to compass and square.

Yeah. Can do.Jack was at a loss for words. Words meant nothing.

In any case, I amas I saidbeneficiary of the good graces of the Truman Administration. This does not, however, imply that they are the mutual beneficiary of mine.West sipped his Dr Pepper, as if cautiously weighing the impact of his words on such a firebrand.I do not deny that they are the legally constituted authority. However, I doubt their ability to make full use of the Diana Signal, and therefore I submit to you (take this as you Will) that 1948 is a pivotal election year in the history of this Republic.

Right on.Jack mulled this over for a moment.So Von Braun for technical expertise, me for general chaos and aspiration, Cameron for art/propaganda work, you for…the public face of our little cabal.

I prefer the term quorum, and use it advisedly with reference to a figure like Marjorie Cameron, but yes.

I told you he was a quick study.Von Braun was a very proud father right now.

With Jack, it is obvious to me that his faculty of perception is more than he sometimes thinks or wishes it to be. His natural, linear, logical mind is not capable of piercing our veiled motives so quickly.West just gave people the truth. What they did with it…well, Truman had It right, sometimes.

Im gonna have to move, aren’t I?Jack was disappointed by this revelation, but accepted it in stride.

I need you to come to New Mexico as soon as you are able, Jack. The background checks have already been done.West saw an opening, and he was perhaps intentionally driving a train through it.

Oh man…Green River isn’t gonna cut it for long.Jack laughed.

Cameron, the man needs strong drink. You heard him.West was never not going to make his head explode, was he?

One second.Cameron let everyone breathe, then returned with some Irish cream for Jack.Happy St Patrick’s Day, luckiest boy alive.

Jack sipped it tentatively, feeling sanity return with the warmth in his shocked extremities.I’m game. It’s what I’ve been fighting for, and I’d be a fool to refuse.

Is Agape Lodge going to survive without you?West was actually concerned about that. Dear God.

Ehhhh….let them go to the devil in their own way, and I’ll go mine.Jack grinned.

No. We let Soror Estai take the lead, temporarily, pending Crowley’s decision.Marjorie was actually deeply impressed with Jane Wolfe, out of everyone she’d met so far.

I can live with that. In the Scarlet Woman’s hands is all power given, after all.

You better believe it.

I must admit I’m confused by the details, but this is one area in which I defer to the expertise of Jack and his beloved,” Von Braun said.

Jack glowed wordlessly.

I have just one clarification I need, however, Mr West.Marjorie spoke in her own interest for the first time.

What’s that?

This is a delightful conspiracy to be involved in, and I realize more than anyone else what’s at stake here…but you are a good enough man to refuse to overturn an amendment like Mr Dewey proposes, should it be proposed and pass? My first allegiance is to the American people, of course. Especially one named Jack.”

Oh, absolutely. Like one of my boyhood heroes, I seek not for power but to pull it down. My own power, my own unearned sense of holiness, my precious but ultimately temporary, rather than eternal identity most of all. Much like yourself, Jack…West smiled.I will insist upon such an Amendment…it’s what Washington would have wanted.

Henry Wallace is going to be pissed,said Jack. He was as aware as anyone in the room of the former Vice President’s theosophical predilections and their utopian implications.

That’s his right as an American citizen. I simply refuse to promote any interpretation of the American Myth that leads to the end of the Dream we all share.

…one of us is a Mormon, another a Thelemite, another a visionary of some undefinable sort, the other a Nazi…what dream do we all share?Jack was confused.

Not the American dream, Jack. It’s time to wake from that and begin living an American life. That is, the kind of life four visionaries of some undefinable sort might agree on.West spoke with the authority of a preacher, but without the accompanying air. It was remarkable. ’48 would be a hell of a year, Jack was sure.

Undefinable. A factor infinite and unknown.” Jack mulled this over for a minute. Was that what he was? What he had been all along? What the apocalyptic pulp had predicted?

Maybe the end did come in 1914.West grinned.

I hope not. I’m just getting started.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After everyone had gone, the Parsonage fell quiet for a while. The usual crowd returned from their revelry, retiring to their rooms and sleeping, to wake to hangovers for sure the next morning. Jack, however, was just getting started. After an hour and a half of strenuous exercise and companionship with his Beloved, Jack rolled over onto his back, looking at the sky from his four-poster bed. Marjorie looked on, bemused and glowing.

Penny for your thoughts, kid?

I’m older, you know.

Okay…five cents?

Jack chuckled.I’ll take it. What is this all leading to?

You know as well as I do, but it’s not Sadie Hawkins Day, so I might entice you to say what you were going to say anyway by volunteering one more piece of Astounding Science Fact?

Oh dear God. He really was doomed.What’s that, love?

I’m pregnant.

I do.

I do too.

Forever?

And six days.

So help us God,the Parsons intoned. Then, embracing each other, they rolled to their sides and went to sleep. It had been a helluva day, and tomorrow would be even

INTERMISSION

And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpiller, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you. – Joel 2:25 (Holy Bible, King James Version)

III

March 17, 1946

The Parsonage

Pasadena, California

The eggs were not runny. The bacon was not burned. Jack smiled wistfully, wondering why it had taken so long. Decent breakfast…but that wasn’t all, no sirree. She had been dismissive, angry…now she loved him, for all he could tell. The way Jane looked at her…fondly, but with sisterly jealousy. Things were gelling. He had told them so, even if they didn’t believe him at first. Now the whole world would see!

Marjorie looked across the kitchen, where she and Jack were now alone.Your buddy went out to pitch another book…told me to let you know.

If he so much as looks at you funny…

Possessive, are we? Well, I’m Babalon. I can handle my own shit. Or can I?There was a warm, sparkling question in her eyes.

Hm. In any case, he can pitch all the potboilers and self-help books he wants. I’m making the world a better place.

Not all by yourself, you’re not.

I’m open to that interpretation, I supoose.

Marjorie raised an eyebrow.You’re not letting go of this magick and skepticism cocktail easily, are you?

It’s a lifeline.

But I don’t have that lifeline, and even you can see I’m slowly pulling you ashore.

Yeah.Jack munched another bite of scrambled eggs. Why hadn’t he thought to put red jalapenos in them before? Oh, that’s right…Helen didn’t know they’d existed, and he hadn’t either.

Marjorie looked at the gleam in Jack’s eyes.I can cook…wait until you see what else I can do.

I flew you like a barnstormer. I know.

I didn’t mean that. Is your middle name Ass, Mr Parsons?

No. What else are you planning?After so much work, Jack was not a morning person for a week or so.

I don’t know. What do you make of this?She threw him the morning’s Pasadena Star-News.

His jaw dropped, as crumbs of sausage and chile pepper fell from his lolling tongue. Marjorie held back a laugh, making asnerksound and covering her mouth with girlish amusement.

Holy…frijoles.Jack knew enough to restrain his Saxon mouth in the presence of the sacred. And this result was, in fact, sacred. It was also, undeniably, a result.

I woke up at noon on January 10th, remember? Nine knocks. Hard. Like a poltergeist.

Well, I’m relieved it wasn’t me. You know I was asleep too.

Jack was aghast and awestruck all at once. It couldn’t be working, it couldn’t!Nine is clearly numerologically associated with the Moon. Here I am making a Moonchild and now the US Army reports they bounced a signal off the Moon at that exact time…well, locally.

I’ve had an abortion before.Marjorie felt candid, the way a summer sky feels like thunder and lightning.Don’t get any ideas. But it gets better.

Jack raised an eyebrow.You wouldn’t dare.

Just read, you cad.

So he read. They weren’t saying much…the Paaadena press seemed convinced it was all science fiction. But he could read between the perpendicular lines of government science’s tight lips and the press’s derision masked by skepticism. This was literally insane.

Uhhh…His voice cracked. Dammit. This kind of stuff always turned him thirteen again, at most.

You’re cute.Marjorie’s eyes twinkled.What do you make of it, flyboy?

He was a grounded rocket engineer who dreamed of the stars. He couldn’t tell ifflyboywas an insult or not. But he didn’t particularly care, either.The signal was a basic RADAR beam. First time they’ve tried to use such for astronomical purposes…that means this is a proof of communication beyond the ionosphere being feasible. You know the ionosphere, right?

Belle Plaine public schools use the same curriculum everyone else does. I don’t know about folks out here, but Ioway is pretty damn sharp.Marjorie bristled a bit, but she enjoyed the banter, really.

Fine.Jack acted hurt, but he was playing around and she knew it. Knew he enjoyed it, too. Was this love?In any case, this means we can talk to hypothetical spacemen…like if they were to put in an order with Ad Astra for a manned rocket tomorrow.

We’ll see.Marjorie didn’t like to smash a kid’s dreams.

But anyways, you are as aware as anyone that we don’t have spacemen right now. I’m supposing Hitler didn’t, but Von Braun was cagey when we last talked.

Your point being?Marjorie knew damn well what the article meant. She’d read it, thanks very much. Just needed to get Jack to realize it. This was the first step. Then he’d realize who had been doing the magick these last three months, and BOOM. She hoped, anyway.

The signal had another signal piggybacking on it when it returned to the Army lab in Jersey.Jack let this hang in the air for a minute.

Well, I’ve never talked to anyone with signal intelligence credentials, so I wouldn’t know what that implies.Marjorie loved playing dumb sometimes. Had Jack caught on yet? She was pretty sure he had.

Yes you have, and you know it.Good.Basically, this signal is orderly enough and contains enough data that it is clearly not random or even necessarily some kind of environmental phenomenon. They hypothesize at times about radiation belts orbiting the Earth, but that can’t cause this. No way in hell.

So what did?Marjorie got right to the point, tiring of the game.

Someone answered me.He thought he caught the green flashes in her eyes just then, like he’d seen when they had…well, in any case, it was rather immaterial.

You? Or Us?Marjorie looked at him pointedly.

He thought about this for a minute.Us, for sure. All of us. Our American Prayer is being answered.

You can be so delightfully Sunday School kid-like at times. It’s charming.

I suppose you could see it that way, being from Eye Oh Way and all.Jack laughed. This game was fun.

Their quiet moment was interrupted by a shout from the hall.Phone for Jack!

Jack pulled on a black silk bathrobe, gauche and quixotically glorious. Marjorie guffawed.Show me everything, put on that getup for the phone?! You’re hilarious.

Shush. That’s gotta be Forman.Marjorie nodded. She knew he was right. Let him work for now.

It was, obviously. He was shouting about something…the stupid phone lines didn’t carry it very well. That could be improved, but not by a rocket scientist.What? Say again, please.

Jack, gawd dammit! It’s one-thirty and you’re still having breakfast with your redheaded floozie while the Project Diana results come in! This is HUGE! We have to get a proposal to market before…

I know.Jack interrupted, holding up his hand. He always treated phone conversations as if they were real…in short, as if the other party was astrally present.We have to beat Von Karman and Aerojet.

Yeah! So when are you gonna get on it?Forman was excitable, yet irritable. His old friend hadn’t changed much, and that was sort of a problem right now.

Ed…Ed…Cameron’s got a point. She’s been trying to drill me about staying disciplined and knowing more about what I’m doing, and this is why. We can’t exploit this opportunity with the present junk heap and office building we pretend is Ad Astra.His world was exploding…and like Kal-El, he was escaping. Superhuman heroics awaited.

What? What the fuck did you just say?

I said we’ve got to get some work done before we get anywhere. I’ve been reading books and sharpening my math skills…I figured with the war being over and Peenemunde having been liberated, we’d be able to help whoever’s exploiting this opportunity. Not much more right now.

Talk to Von Braun yourself. You’re deluded if you think he’ll even bother with an American who squandered his dad’s fortune on transatlantic phone bills.There was an unusually harsh click, and the line went dead.

What just happened?Marjorie saw Jack’s dejection…the dream was giving way to the cold reality. All was working according to plan…she needed to stand by her man if this was going to work. No matter how big a mess he was.

Forman doesn’t want to bother with Von Braun. I’ve heard things through the grapevine…Heinlein’s talked to an old Navy buddy of his, a Hellcat pilot from the Pacific War. That guy’s working in Albuquerque, New Mexico now, and the scuttlebutt on deck is that they have Von Braun in custody somewhere. Forman is as aware of this as I am.Jack sighed.Damned idiot is too hung up on his argument with me and the Nuremberg business to even consider working with a man I respect who has a shot.

Marjorie’s head was spinning. Blood and smoke mingled In her memories…it couldn’t be, could it?Who’s this Hellcat pilot?Cameron did not ask questions. She commanded, interrogatively.

Huh?What did that have to do with anything?

THE HELLCAT PILOT. ALBUQUERQUE. TELL ME NOW.

Jack opened and shut his mouth a couple times, eyes wide. She was definitely crazy. But he knew that.George Morrison. He did Hellcats in the Pacific like a lot of other guys, now he’s working on some kind of Naval Research Laboratory project. Why?

Cameron collapsed into her chair, breathing deeply, rapidly, but not at a medically precarious rate. Was this the weight a Goddess bore?YOUR JATO UNITS. HE USED THEM. I SAW HIM WHILE MAKING A MAP FOR THE JOINT CHIEFS. SMELLED THE CORPSES BURNING AROUND HIM AS HE TOOK OFF FROM A KAMIKAZED CARRIER. YOU SAVED HIS LIFE, MARVEL WHITESIDE PARSONS. WITH YOUR DREAMS AND EXPLOSIVES. NOW DO YOU SEE THE WEB WE ARE BEGINNING TO WEAVE?

With that, she laughed. Long, loud, hearty, uproarious laughter. A joke whose first whispers had been told when she was four in Belle Plaine was finally hitting the punch line. It was beautiful, the way rain was after a March storm…no matter where you were. Iowa, California, New Mexico…all the same. That feeling of nearly orgasmic release into Being was universal.

Jack coughed, looking at his transformed lover, deeply confused. He knew he Loved her now, but what the hell?I…uhhhh…

The doorbell rang.Saved by the bell. Never mind, Cameron.He at least knew what her real self was like, now. Images and words could not define such a beautiful creature. Not even the word Babalon was fully sufficient.

She nodded.OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS. NINE TIMES, AS IT WERE.

But he had already gone to the door. Visitors to the Parsonage of any real quality were rare enough that this was more significant than she knew…and she knew it was huge already.Hullo?

Standing before him was a weather-beaten man with a cowboy hat, about sixty years old, dressed in denim and a buttoned shirt, as was the classic Western style. A bolo tie made of some meteorite chunk set the whole thing off like one of Jack’s scientifiction serial special effects (a dalliance, but a financially necessary one). Next to him, showing deference to the cowboy for some reason Jack could not possibly fathom, was a man in a black suit and tie, European in cut, whose appearance was Teutonic, electric, and immediately recognizable, from graying temples to war-worn wrinkles.Uhhhhhhhh….

It’s been a long time, Jack. May I come in?Von Braun’s voice was warm, but he definitely got straight to the point.

Fuck. Omigod. Uhhhh I mean I’m sorry, Herr Von Braun…right this way.Jack, normally bereft of social graces, was exerting a Herculean, perhaps Sisyphean effort to stay cool and be of some apparent use to his guests.And you, sir. I don’t believe I caught your name?

West. Benjamin West, of Ramah, New Mexico. I’m glad to meet you, Mr Parsons. You are exactly as Von Braun described you, which is indicative of your preexistent character in ways neither of you are too likely to be aware of.West smiled a dry, gentle smile, almost fatherly. Roy Rogers was clearly an actor…that much was obvious to Jack right now. Why…West could almost be an older Williamson.

Uhhhh…thanks, I think?

Jack’s guardian angel in scarlet swooped in, saving the day.Right this way, Mr West, Herr Doktor Von Braun. I’ll get you both some coffee.

That will not actually be necessary, Ms. Cameron.West removed his hat and looked meaningfully at Marjorie.May I have some Dr Pepper instead?

She nodded.You betcha. The icebox is full of such things. It’s not like we have children or anything.Musical laughter. Jack knew poise when he saw it…did he dare? No. The future was open wide as could be right now. It would be foolish to entertain such a…proposition until he’d heard more.

The two men filed past Jack, who stood dazed, not sure if what was happening was a lucid dream or the aftereffects of something he’d taken during the Babalon Working, as he had taken to calling it. Was he awake? Had he, in fact, died and gone to heaven? That would be something…but this obviously wasn’t Hell.

Within five minutes, West and Von Braun and Marjorie (or was it Cameron? Or both? Jack couldn’t tell, and neither could she, to be honest) had seated themselves around the coffee table in the living room, with appropriate beverages. Jack was slower, taking four and a half minutes to collect himself, and another fifteen seconds (approximately) to grab a Green River from the icebox, and another twenty to seat himself. This five-second difference irritated him…he was in the presence of an actual God. Crowley walking in wouldn’t even faze him, now. Not after Von Braun.

So, gentlemen. What brings you to my stately pleasure dome?

Marjorie Cameron glanced around like Eleanor Roosevelt surveying the White House after her inauguration. She waved a hand, indicating the décor. Pulp magazine cover paintings shared space with the more tasteful Renaissance variants on Jack’s preferred magical art, and at the four compass points hung the Enochian Tablets, describing the four elements and their role in the metaphysical Universe. Hand-sewn cloth, with gilt lettering upon them, they seemed an odd cross between religious symbol and cryptographic tool used by an architect of the British Empire of the 1500s…but that is exactly what they were. It occurred to Cameron that Caliban had become Prospero, and yet John Dee clearly was Elizabeth I’s court magician, and not the other way around…

Pleasure dome? I thought it was a temple to Love, Rockets and blowing up the Stars like Flash Gordon.Marjorie smiled, a warm reverence flowing from within her to circuit the room.

Well um…both?

West smiled, perhaps catching his hosts’ unease.It is suitable for our purposes,and that is all that needs to be said. I am well aware of the relationship between hearth and temple, and also of the need to meet humans where they aretoday, not tomorrow.

Jack raised an eyebrow. Did he just judge me? I can’t even tell.

Cameron raised a finger to her lips, then tapped her head suggestively, finally laying a hand on Jack’s arm. Jack looked at her, but said nothing more.

I am aware of the symbolism, in fact. It is a map of Jack’s soul, and as you know, Ben, it reflects what we’re trying to achieve perfectly.It seemed to Jack as if Von Braun was speaking ex cathedra every time he opened his mouth. Whose Aeon was this, again?

West nodded.I agree completely. A great teacher once said that if my people found Truth in Hell, they would use it for Goodbecause after all, it is Truth, and there is One Author of Truth.

Jack’s jaw dropped.Jack Williamson would sooner die than say something like that.

I wouldn’t be so sure.West considered his next words carefully, as if drawing them from another source.That teacher’s name was Brigham Young, and he began as a Methodist. Many did, in those times. Why pretend that you know Mr Williamson’s ways better than he himself does?

He might be darker than you think, Jack.Marjorie giggled, remembering Jack’s grousing about his name-mate not grasping the Gnostic Mass.

I believe the occultist and rocket engineer who defends the honor of a former SS Sturmbahnfuhrer so valiantly is trying to come to grips with the idea that some people are just…what is the word…weird? That they play against type, even in multiple cultural vectors. Is that not correct, Jack?Von Braun smiled warmly, eyes like sunsbright, piercing.

Shit. Had Von Braun just totally dismantled his entire self-image? It wouldn’t be the first time this week, in any event.So everyone in this room…

Is the kind of person to come from a specific background but behave according to their own natures, when the truth is revealed to them. Some say from Within…as a Latter-Day Saint, I do not fully disagree. After all…did you know if you ordered a coke after refusing coffee in Utah, you would quite possibly be shot to death by a mob?West’s eyes twinkled.Jack, my boy…we are who we are, and no amount of window dressing can change that.

Jack sat for a while, processing this. Finally, Cameron interrupted.In any case, Elder West, Elder Von Braun…why don’t you get to what you really came to convert Jack to?She giggled, as high on the moment as anyone else was, yet ready with an irreverent joke. That was definitely his girl.

To the accomplishment of his True Will as he had already known it, naturally.West grinned.

What the hell?! You knew?!Jack looked at Cameron, dumbfounded. So typical lately, and yet so embarrassing.

Who the hell do you think invited them?

I am actually doomed.

Cameron nodded.You’ll survive, though.

In any case,said Wernher Von Braun,I am, as you may be aware, a political prisoner who has a particular useful role to play in national affairs at the moment, although naturalization is certainly one of my goals. The only question is…naturalization where? I shall therefore let my handler speak.

Jack coughed on his Green River.Handler?!

West nodded.I’m afraid it’s true. Von Braun requires official supervision at all times, whether on White Sands Proving Ground or not. Therefore, as a local figure of some prominence who has gained the Truman Administration’s good graces, I was deputized with the aim of making sure Von Braun is able to complete his work with maximum freedom and minimum local interference.

Tell him when, Ben.Von Braun smiled.

January 11, 1946.

Jack sighed, slumping back in his chair.Dare I ask what in blazes that signal contained?

We don’t actually know. Attempts are being made to have Bletchley Park look at it, but…Ben waved Von Braun off with a definite shushing motion.

What’s Bletchley Park?Jack couldn’t contain himself.

One of the newly built developments outside Chicago. New way of living. White picket fences, small families, modern lifestyle of comforts material and media.West chuckled to himself at some kind of private joke.

I keep reminding Jack to be careful about what kind of questions he asks,Cameron said knowingly.He still doesn’t get that some of the damned things have answers.

I see. He is exactly our kind of man, then.Von Braun folded his arms, looking at Jack pointedly.I can assure you, Mr Parsons. No one is aware of this fact and its veracity better than myself. Our work at Peenemunde was the best the Nazi rocket program was able to produce, and our masterpiece was the V-2. Do you understand?

Jack gulped. Oh god.Yes. Yes, sir, I do. Do I ever.

That still doesn’t mean we know what the message was, or what it means, or who it was addressed to, or even if it is a message rather than an accidentally emitted pattern. We just have a good idea of the kind of…person that might have sent it.West was equally at home discussing the outlandish, whether it was from Pasadena or…another place. That much was obvious.

What do you want me to do? I don’t have the capability to design the rocket you need, let alone build it. You’re sitting next to Wernher Von Braun, for Christ’s sakes! The fuck do you need me for?Jack was as shellshocked as he had ever been, but fighting for a dream he’d had since he was a boy.

Jack, listen to me.Von Braun’s voice hadn’t changed since their 1930s phone conversations…it had only gotten older. Stronger. Wiser.I want to teach you. But you need to let me.

I told you guys this was going to be hard.Cameron smiled. With a challenge like that, could he actually refuse to rise to it?

No, he could not. Not in a million years.I’ve been brushing up on my math, reading Oberth and such. I’m not sure I’ll be too useful. But I will dare to try.

West smiled.Even an American icon like Ben Franklin started as an apprentice. You are strong in ways that we are not, Jack…your ability to come to this point with Cameron by your side is evidence of that. But I cannot speak for your practical skills and scientific knowledge the same way.

I briefly considered writing pulp stories in ’43. Now…

Now you can help write our story as a race, Jack. I speak, as you hopefully well understand, of the race of Mankind.Von Braun smiled.

I had figured as much, sir.Jack was dizzy.

Jack’s a quick study, Mr West. Why don’t you fill him in on the rest of your plans, and leave the theoretical tutelage to me and his copious library?Cameron took the lead as usual, spurring the three men yet mediating their mutual appreciation of each other’s greatness.

Indubitably. I know little about Dr Von Braun’s art, but I am sure he can teach Jack. Think of it, if you will pardon the suggestion, Mr Parsons, as the new stonemasonry, and all that implies.West smiled.Even a rough stone rolling must needs submit to compass and square.

Yeah. Can do.Jack was at a loss for words. Words meant nothing.

In any case, I amas I saidbeneficiary of the good graces of the Truman Administration. This does not, however, imply that they are the mutual beneficiary of mine.West sipped his Dr Pepper, as if cautiously weighing the impact of his words on such a firebrand.I do not deny that they are the legally constituted authority. However, I doubt their ability to make full use of the Diana Signal, and therefore I submit to you (take this as you Will) that 1948 is a pivotal election year in the history of this Republic.

Right on.Jack mulled this over for a moment.So Von Braun for technical expertise, me for general chaos and aspiration, Cameron for art/propaganda work, you for…the public face of our little cabal.

I prefer the term quorum, and use it advisedly with reference to a figure like Marjorie Cameron, but yes.

I told you he was a quick study.Von Braun was a very proud father right now.

With Jack, it is obvious to me that his faculty of perception is more than he sometimes thinks or wishes it to be. His natural, linear, logical mind is not capable of piercing our veiled motives so quickly.West just gave people the truth. What they did with it…well, Truman had It right, sometimes.

Im gonna have to move, aren’t I?Jack was disappointed by this revelation, but accepted it in stride.

I need you to come to New Mexico as soon as you are able, Jack. The background checks have already been done.West saw an opening, and he was perhaps intentionally driving a train through it.

Oh man…Green River isn’t gonna cut it for long.Jack laughed.

Cameron, the man needs strong drink. You heard him.West was never not going to make his head explode, was he?

One second.Cameron let everyone breathe, then returned with some Irish cream for Jack.Happy St Patrick’s Day, luckiest boy alive.

Jack sipped it tentatively, feeling sanity return with the warmth in his shocked extremities.I’m game. It’s what I’ve been fighting for, and I’d be a fool to refuse.

Is Agape Lodge going to survive without you?West was actually concerned about that. Dear God.

Ehhhh….let them go to the devil in their own way, and I’ll go mine.Jack grinned.

No. We let Soror Estai take the lead, temporarily, pending Crowley’s decision.Marjorie was actually deeply impressed with Jane Wolfe, out of everyone she’d met so far.

I can live with that. In the Scarlet Woman’s hands is all power given, after all.

You better believe it.

I must admit I’m confused by the details, but this is one area in which I defer to the expertise of Jack and his beloved,” Von Braun said.

Jack glowed wordlessly.

I have just one clarification I need, however, Mr West.Marjorie spoke in her own interest for the first time.

What’s that?

This is a delightful conspiracy to be involved in, and I realize more than anyone else what’s at stake here…but you are a good enough man to refuse to overturn an amendment like Mr Dewey proposes, should it be proposed and pass? My first allegiance is to the American people, of course. Especially one named Jack.”

Oh, absolutely. Like one of my boyhood heroes, I seek not for power but to pull it down. My own power, my own unearned sense of holiness, my precious but ultimately temporary, rather than eternal identity most of all. Much like yourself, Jack…West smiled.I will insist upon such an Amendment…it’s what Washington would have wanted.

Henry Wallace is going to be pissed,said Jack. He was as aware as anyone in the room of the former Vice President’s theosophical predilections and their utopian implications.

That’s his right as an American citizen. I simply refuse to promote any interpretation of the American Myth that leads to the end of the Dream we all share.

…one of us is a Mormon, another a Thelemite, another a visionary of some undefinable sort, the other a Nazi…what dream do we all share?Jack was confused.

Not the American dream, Jack. It’s time to wake from that and begin living an American life. That is, the kind of life four visionaries of some undefinable sort might agree on.West spoke with the authority of a preacher, but without the accompanying air. It was remarkable. ’48 would be a hell of a year, Jack was sure.

Undefinable. A factor infinite and unknown.” Jack mulled this over for a minute. Was that what he was? What he had been all along? What the apocalyptic pulp had predicted?

Maybe the end did come in 1914.West grinned.

I hope not. I’m just getting started.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After everyone had gone, the Parsonage fell quiet for a while. The usual crowd returned from their revelry, retiring to their rooms and sleeping, to wake to hangovers for sure the next morning. Jack, however, was just getting started. After an hour and a half of strenuous exercise and companionship with his Beloved, Jack rolled over onto his back, looking at the sky from his four-poster bed. Marjorie looked on, bemused and glowing.

Penny for your thoughts, kid?

I’m older, you know.

Okay…five cents?

Jack chuckled.I’ll take it. What is this all leading to?

You know as well as I do, but it’s not Sadie Hawkins Day, so I might entice you to say what you were going to say anyway by volunteering one more piece of Astounding Science Fact?

Oh dear God. He really was doomed.What’s that, love?

I’m pregnant.

I do.

I do too.

Forever?

And six days.

So help us God,the Parsons intoned. Then, embracing each other, they rolled to their sides and went to sleep. It had been a helluva day, and tomorrow would be even crazier.

crazier.

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