This one goes out to all of us who are brothers in the struggle. The Divine Invasion comes. The Grey Church waits. Out there it is still 1973. We are dreaming electric. SHE COMES.
March 21, 1946
White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico
Marjorie and Jack drove onward, passing through Arizona at what felt like a lightning clip. It wasn’t that the state was boring, per se, it was that it was not in their vision. One’s frame of reference defined the problems one could solve…these two wackos had problems they could solve in New Mexico, at White Sands, and not really elsewhere. So they drove on, arriving at last at the gates of the Proving Ground.
A young boy, at least by 22-year-old Cameron’s judgment, smiled and asked for their ID. Jack began fumbling for his driver’s license, but Marjorie grinned. “Nah, kid…I got this.” She handed the young soldier a card, and they passed through into Wonderland.
Jack looked around, taking in the sights. Brick buildings stood next to corrugated tin shacks of the type he was more familiar with working in…and on the horizon, steel skeletons pointed at the sky. “Holy fudge.”
“You’re so cute when you’re trying to be good.” Cameron smiled. “You’ll have plenty of time to figure out how it works…but as amazing as it may be, it is still a day job.”
Jack grinned most goofily. “I could be working in a hospital or pumping gas somewhere, right?”
Marjorie glared at him sharply. “Don’t insult people who work in hospitals. It’s not as lame as it seems, even if you’re just a nurse.”
“Fine.” Jack threw up his hands. “There didn’t used to be things I couldn’t say.”
“You’re in my house now, little one, and you will damn well fucking act like it.”
“You live here?”
“My soul does, as much as yours.”
Jack thought about this. “Well, I must admit the JATOs didn’t seem like just a job, at the time…”
Marjorie nodded. “You’re growing up. But don’t assume I’m all military business…I did go AWOL, remember?”
“For reasons of your own.”
“Yes. But reasons not out of sync with our ideals as Americans.”
Jack nodded. The car pulled up to a parking spot, in front of a small house. “Apparently we rate something nicer than usual,” Cameron said.
“I”d love to see Malina’s digs. Or Von Braun’s.”
Cameron laughed, somewhat harshly. “Freiherr von Braun (a Baron in the old days) probably lives in a rat-eaten cell they pretend isn’t a cell out at Fort Bliss.”
“Yet he is a King.” Jack smiled. “I’m just a schmuck.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. Just help me unpack, will ya?”
“Right.” Jack found himself a sudden pack mule, arms full of suitcases.
Marjorie laughed lightly. “You’ve only been exercising certain muscles, I take it?”
“Magical ritual and explosives don’t take this..much…lifting. FUCK!” Jack dropped a suitcase on his toe, attracting the attention of one or two enlisted men returning from lunch.
Cameron’s magical bearing returned, and she stared actual daggers at the hapless kids. “I don’t need any help.”
Jack was bemused and bewildered and a little scared at the same time…this woman was actually crazy. Forever and six days, with a war vet who took the job seriously after abandoning it, in a magical way? What the fuck had he been thinking?
Cameron laid a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “You’ll survive. There is, I am told, lemonade in the icebox. Rest a while…the heat is getting to your mood.”
“Yeah. I have mood swings more often than not…it’s just my personality.”
“That’s the way I feel about it, too.” Cameron smiled, almost dancing across the hardwood floor.
“Crazy and loving it, right?”
“Yes. The Aeon sings hardest in those who, for whatever reason, are exceptional. Madness just accentuates our already exceptional selves.”
“You know, Smith and Crowley would never believe you.”
“What, exactly, do I care?”
Jack thought about this in silence, grabbing a lemonade. “We’ve got to find Von Braun or someone in charge and get an assignment.”
“You already figured you wouldn’t be able to just tinker, huh?”
“Of course not. What do you take me for?”
“Oh, I dunno…a roguish renegade who relishes raucous rebellion?” Her eyes twinkled.
Cameron laughed at this. “I gotta admit…being in this environment makes me way more girlish than I normally feel. Isn’t that weird?”
“Worrisome also.” Jack chuckled.
“Nah, kid…you don’t have to worry about anything. WE’RE HOME!”
Jack was not so sure. He came here to work, not to live…the two could be separated enough, could they not? In his home, he could be Cameron’s…out on the test range, he could be Jack Parsons, Jet=Propelled Man of Tomorrow. But Cameron seemed determined to break that facade. To challenge him. This was…new, and disconcertingly so.
* * * * *
There were three sharp knocks at the door. Jack had just finished unpacking, and had not had time to get down to anywhere the central office might be…doubtless these were people who wanted to know who he was and how he could help. His mistake, obviously…should have went straight there and not helped Cameron. Cursing to this effect, he made his way over boxes towards the door.
“Fuckity fuckity fucking goddamn mess of crap I’ve gotten myself int–” Jack opened the door. “Hello? Can I help you?” This was not really his day.
“Hello.” The being on the other side of the threshold had blond hair, in a crew cut, with sunglasses and an austerely tailored suit. He had no bulge under his coat, but was clearly armed with an impressive handgun, openly carried at his waist. The most curious thing about all this was the coldness of his eyes…Jack remembered gray cats who brooked no shit and loved no man who had kinder, warmer cinders where their eyes should have been.
“Hello…?” Jack wasn’t sure what to make of this. Except that he was doomed.
“Never mind the pleasantries, Dr Parsons. I am told your presence is required in Building 149 immediately.”
Doctor? That was new on him. Whatever cover story they wanted to cook up, he guessed. “Cam! I’m checking out what this fellow wants. Back soon.”
“Okay.” Cameron smiled. “You boys have fun!”
Jack followed the strange being, who did not seem to register on his astral vision as in legal possession of a soul…at least not of the type he could recognize. An elemental? Cameron was more elemental. An angel? Dear God in heaven…he hoped not.
The man in black was quiet, eyes darting back and forth in the way Jack had noticed Cameron’s did when she was ON. He was probably looking for threats like every other G-man was trained to do…no big deal, Jack hoped. Maybe small talk would be good? You know, building a rapport with the team and stuff. “You got a name, bud?” God. Not the best start.
“Michael.” The being bit off the word and spat it like a flaming arrow.
“Okay.” He hadn’t actually expected an intel operative to give him a name at all, let alone a possibly real one. “What do you do here, Michael?”
“I escort mortals to the throne of God.” Michael laughed, but it sounded hollow. “On occasion, I shoot traitors in the back to keep us free.”
“Fair enough.” That was too targeted a threat coming from an otherworldly G-Man named Michael to dismiss. “I’m hungry. Are there snacks in 149?”
“Undefinable. There is food for those who Will.”
“K.” Jack was bemused…there was something going on here, all right. “It was a joke, y’know.”
“Irrelevant. Proceed into the conference room.” Michael stood at attention at the door of Building 149.
“Okay then.” That had not remotely gone well.
* * * * * *
Jack entered the conference room, looking from one man to the other as he found a seat. “I uhhh…hope I’m not late…”
Wernher Von Braun grinned. “No. You are, as usual, right where you need to be when you need to be.”
“I see.” Jack took stock of the other men here…a bunch of defense brass, some guys in suits on the wall…no one he particularly knew. Maybe Von Braun would introduce him.
The guy at the head of the table stood. He wore a general’s insignia, actually. That was…worrisome? Jack wasn’t sure. He spoke. “Welcome, Dr Parsons. Your reputation precedes you, from such men as Malina and Von Braun.”
“Well,” Jack said, doing his best to ad-lib, “I’m sure they gave the highest opinion they could of me.”
“They did.” The general pointed to a chalkboard with a line drawing of a space age rocket on it…was that a V-2?
“This is a captured A-4 rocket, from the Peenemunde base. The Aggregate series, more commonly known in the West as the V-2, is the current state of the art. There are attempts ongoing to launch it from American soil, with or without Dr Von Braun’s help. In this way, a determination of what the state of the art actually is can be made by American scientists, and improvements can be made.”
Ad-libbing some more, Dr Parsons (if that was what they insisted on calling him) interjected. “I take it you don’t expect the Germans to level with you?”
Von Braun winced, but forced a smile. Jack knew what he was doing, at least.
“Yes. We imported Von Braun under the auspices of Operation Paperclip because he knows things, but we’re not letting him run the whole show.”
“You realize having this conversation in front of him is rather insulting?” Von Braun smiled gently.
“I didn’t ask for your opinion, Kraut.” The general glared at Von Braun.
Okay then. That was how it was going to be. Jack sighed. “My mistake. We shouldn’t discuss such things…tell me what you need me to do.”
“I want you to supervise Von Braun while he prepares the rocket for launch, monitor his activities, report anything suspicious, and offer any assistance needed to launch the rocket by April 20th from the launch platforms here at White Sands. Is that doable, Dr Parsons?”
“Yeah. I can handle that. When do we start?”
“You’re the kind of man who likes to jump in, from what I hear. Why don’t you and Dr Von Braun go discuss this on your own? There’s other things to handle at this meeting, but they’re not something you need to worry about.”
Patronizing fuck. Jack was not very happy with this, but he motioned to Von Braun and led him outside.
Wernher laughed. In the light, he appeared a totally different man…gray around the temples from the war effort, yes, but only two years older than Jack, at most. “That was fun. We shall have many adventures together, I think.”
“This was your idea, was it? Me being your supposed superior and everyone treating you like some kind of fool it’s safe to ignore?” Jack sputtered, rather upset.
“Yes.” Von Braun’s eyes twinkled. Oh, he’d missed a calling at the Parsonage, Jack could tell. The life of the party had been a Nazi instead. Jack wasn’t entirely sure he was laughing.
“Doctor Parsons?! You want to get me in trouble?”
“I suppose you could get a doctorate and make me a truth-teller?” Von Braun’s voice was a measured challenge.
“I might. But I’m the perfect balance to your skill, and you know it. Raw talent and daring.”
“Jack…the Air Force has enough test pilots. You would love the Bell XS-1 rocket plane, but you could not pilot it, and your heart is with the stars. I’ve given you an opportunity, contingent on your increased ability to make use of it…don’t waste it. Or what in God’s name is your Great Work for?”
Jack sputtered. “I’m just…off center, y’know?” He was forgetting the whole reason he’d chosen to come here. Relapsing into old patterns with the transition to New Mexico, to life on base, to being…married. That was a shudder and a half, even if Marjorie was no Helen Northrup.
Jack threw up his hands. “Fuck it, Doc…let’s go launch some rockets. Which way to the pad?”
Wernher smiled. “It’s not a pad. We have a hangar, of sorts…an assembly facility. It’s not much, but we needed something similar for the A-4 when we were hitting London by mistake. We’ll need a bigger facility like it to hit the Stars, and why not start aiming now?”
“Right, right…all I had was tin sheds. And I blew ’em up.” Jack grinned ruefully.
“Thank your lucky stars Malina is working a few pads over, friend.” Wernher smiled.
They were now walking towards a Jeep, which was dusty and worn from years of desert detail. Apparently they had some driving to do. Jack laughed. “So what needs to be done, actually? What are we looking at?”
“I want you to tell me. I’m an expert in launching these things…did it for years, with an ever-increasing accuracy rate. But you are my supervisor on this project, a respected defense scientist who changed the course of the Pacific War, a man who has at least some expertise, possibly a PhD, from the California Institute of Technology and their Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory.”
“Oh fuck…you’ve tricked me. I can’t possibly measure up to those expectations…the hell, Von Braun? Is this some kind of revenge for being a teenaged snot-nosed punk during the Depression?”
Von Braun laughed. “No. But I recommend thinking fast.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
Back at the house, Marjorie Cameron Parsons was not tidying up. Most husbands would expect her to…Jack wasn’t that kind of guy, for which she was grateful. If he was to engage in chauvinist pig behavior, it would be uniquely tuned to his personality and self-justified in the highest philosophical terms, just like everything else about him. She could at least kick his type of man in the balls. But this wasn’t worth thinking about. She was just stressed from the move. Marjorie relaxed on the couch, listening to the base radio station, which was playing Glenn Miller. Screw Glenn Miller…not nearly enough swing, but typical of Armed Forces Radio programming. She’d have to get some decent records. But first, lemonade, and thinking.
The war had left a toll on her. Jack’s escapades had also damaged her, in ways she was not quite ready to admit. The revelations she was planning to give him would damage her in the process, and she knew that. But what worried her worst of all was that she was plainly pregnant, and unlike most Americans, she realized what her child would have to face. The space program being proposed, from what she had read, was not merely a political set piece. Death tolls would equal some campaigns of the war…a ridiculously high casualty rate for a peacetime science project could be expected. Grinning and bearing it would be an American duty. Could they handle ten, twenty more years of the World Wars and Depression that had defined America in the 20th century?
How long could they handle the Conquest of Space? Would America suffer war fatigue? She hadn’t even made it the last six months of the war, and her brother had not particularly been pleased. Oh well…at least it wasn’t Operation Downfall.
Jesus. Had she actually been involved in planning that? She couldn’t remember, anymore…logically, she had been out of the Joint Chiefs’ office when real planning was going on, but it had been something they’d discussed, she thought…in any case, one reality bled into another, and she couldn’t remember. Fuck. That was not a good sign, and certainly not worth bothering Jack with.
She sipped more lemonade. It was time to find something to do around here. The phone sat on an end table…Cameron picked it up, fishing through her purse for West’s number. He should be home from Washington right now. She dialed the number, and waited.
“Hello?” Only two rings. That was quick. “This is Sister West…may I ask who is calling?”
Oh fooey. This was a unique situation. “This is Marjorie Cameron Parsons, Mrs West. I’m sure your husband has mentioned me?”
Mrs West laughed. “I remember the stories he’s told.” Her voice was melodious, but grizzled, in a way that Marjorie was noticing the part of the world known as New Mexico happened to highlight in the supposedly “fairer” sex. These were not fair maidens, these were goddesses of the desert rose and sun.
“Well, then you know who I am and you have a general idea of why it’s important. When will he be at White Sands?” Cameron kept it short, dense. Best way to transmit under battlefield conditions.
“He’s been driving all day,. Sister Parsons. I can’t speak for his exact arrival time, but it should be soon. Why do you need him? Is something wrong?”
Sister? Okay then. The guy obviously had found a woman like him. Even if she wasn’t one of them, they still saw enough in her to…well, Jack didn’t even go that far. “No. My husband is just getting to work and given that he spent the war sitting on his duff in a frat house and I was helping wreck the Pacific from an office building in Washington, I can’t stand sitting here.” Cameron smiled thinly at this irony.
Sister West laughed. “I hear ya, Marjorie. You should see the trouble I have getting Ben to focus on his work sometimes, once the cows are taken care of.”
“We’re ranchers, sweetie. Didn’t he tell you?”
“Well, I had gathered, but…”
“Oh. You thought it was an act, given his aerospace interests.” Sister West laughed at this…she was not as offended as Marjorie expected her to be.
“Ummm…no comment.” Marjorie laughed too.
“It’s all right. He’ll be there, trust me…like every other man in this country of ours, he’s got his work and his calling and his wife, and they all fit together because of the last one in the chain. You understand?”
“I think so…” Cameron was not sure she liked being anyone’s wife some days. Partner, yes…wife…well, that was for the New Mexico natives, as opposed to the military base natives.
“You’ll see. I have some things to get done for church, but I’m intrigued to talk to you more. Benny will be there any moment by now…you don’t go stir-crazy just yet, y’hear?”
“Okay.” Church, in the middle of the week? Cameron, who had just finished a three-month magical ritual with no interruptions, could not wrap her head around this. Belle Plaine had better things to do on Thursday…but the only Mormons nearby had been the ones from Lamoni, and they weren’t like the Wests at all. “See you soon, Sister West.”
There was a click on the other end of the line, and Sister West hung up, leaving Marjorie’s head spinning. What had she gotten herself into now? Insanity was nothing new, but this flavor was…a little fresh on her? At least she was able to connect with Ben West’s wife in a way that didn’t seem to be religious…it was more sacred than that. Reminiscent of a green hill like a mother’s womb in Belle Plaine.
If she did her duty to Jack, more stuff could happen, like going to space. Was that what Sister West had been trying to get across? Is that what it meant, that “in the Scarlet Woman was all power given”? That someone, no matter how exalted they were, had to be the vessel for a great man’s urges?
That seemed dumb, the kind of thing a thirteen-year-old brat would think her tale was about. That was also too close to what Jack’s mindset seemed to be at times. Even worse, it was the interpretation many at Agape had seemed to imply. For a WAVE like her, strong and proud, it seemed like sexist malfeasance, and she was not sure she liked it. But that did not mean that was what it really was…she wasn’t going to be the fucking avatar of a redeemed 20th century just to let Jack treat her like a common housewife. No…that could take the longest walk off the shortest pier available, in the soonest timeframe. If she was not offered a better red hat to wear soon, Cameron would knit her own, by gum…
Jack would love that. Yes…it would positively make his day. Maybe even his Aeon.
But what of hers, when the picture she’d spent the last five years drawing of herself and her role in America’s future imploded, as all pictures must do before the living flame of the Great Work? She didn’t like to think about that. Jack didn’t either…hopefully he was thinking about imploding her frame while she was thinking about imploding his. The battle of the sexes was much more fun when everybody won.
* * * * * * *
At the assembly facility, Jack sat in front of a control board full of dials and gauges, hands itching to touch any number of switches that sat before him. But he didn’t want to break Von Braun’s baby. “What the hell do these even do, Vern?”
Von Braun grinned. “They manage all aspects of the checkout process…then there’s the control panel in the launch facility. You’ll love that one.”
“Man…when Forman and I wanted to shoot off a rocket, we just lit the fuse and ducked. This is insane.”
“This is how you keep the bombing of London running on time, like the proverbial trains. Are you a rocket industry pioneer or not, Dr Parsons?”
“Are you proud of that?” Jack had to know.
“Proud of the rockets I built, yes. Proud of the fact that my leaders saw more sense in them than Truman and LeMay seem to, yes. Proud of what they were used for…well, yes and no.”
“Explain.” Jack was going to get testy in this heat.
“Do you really suppose, Jack, that these rockets are going to lead directly to the moon mission you and I crave so badly? What will stop the vaunted, virtuous liberators of Europe, who have no more stake in Europe than they did in the Pueblo, Apache or Zuni, from turning our exploratory vessel into a delivery system for the A-bomb?”
“You read too many science fiction books, Jack.”
“Right. I know what the stuff is normally used for…I just thought we were better than that. That’s what Cameron and I worked to create…the future where that doesn’t happen.”
Wernher smirked. “So…let me get this straight. You had sex with a girl, married her, and now the world is saved, even as Truman and Stalin fight over the scraps of my country?”
“I intend to make that happen, yes.” Jack had never heard it phrased quite that way, and chose to double down.
“Mmmhmmm.” Von Braun coughed pointedly. “When considering lunar vehicles, cost is not as big a factor as you might think, if the launcher is sold properly. A more important consideration is shaving the launch weight down to the point where launches can succeed…first once, then twice, then with any consistency. Some call it settling for less…I call it physics. The study of nature, the study of change.”
“The Eternal Tao.” Jack was listening now.
“Which cannot be named. In any case, the majority of our work does not involve preparing the rocket for launch today. You will not even have to get your hands dirty.”
“What do we have to do, then?” Jack stood up and began to pace expectantly, like a tiger.
“We have a small hardware problem, which is all yours.”
“Yeah? Something on the American side, I take it?”
“No. The gear I had constructed to launch the A-4 from Peenemunde speaks German, as it were…I need you to give me a more detailed understanding of American launch protocols and technology involved than I currently possess. Malina would have an ideal understanding of this, but he is indisposed, due to his valuable work on the WAC Corporal.”
“Hm. Well, let me look at it.” Jack stepped outside the assembly building, looking toward the pad, which stood tall in the wide-open New Mexico sky.
Von Braun followed. “The pad isn’t exactly the best place. That’s all custom-built, a copy of the Peenemunde facility in the American style, as best as could be managed. You will need to be in the blockhouse.”
“This makes GALCIT’s operations look…amateurish.”
“That’s not my fault, Jack.” Von Braun laughed. “It’s not even really Malina’s, though…don’t worry. The time for ideas like yours and mine has finally come.”
They walked a few hundred yards, arriving inside a bunker-like structure that sang with whirring dials and humming vacuum tubes and all the postwar state of the art gadgets. It was like something out of a Heinlein novel, Jack thought…how could he have gotten so lucky? He stood in awe, inside this cathedral that was all organ…playing the symphony of the future. “Thus spake Zarathustra…”
Von Braun laughed. “Sit down. Look at these schematics, tell me what you see.”
Jack sat down, flipping through manila folders describing a farrago of German engineering and American know-how in both languages and confused drawings. “A mess,” he said, like a coroner calling out a time of death.
“Well, I don’t suppose you have any ideas?”
“I can’t figure it out today. I’m a chemist…this isn’t my thing.”
“It is now.” Von Braun smiled warmly.. This was actually kind of fun.
“You really are getting your revenge.”
“And you’re going to learn enough of this business to handle things. Are you really that bad at connecting two systems together, Jack? Cameron doesn’t seem to think so.” Von Braun laughed at his own joke…a habit Jack had noticed was far too common to geniuses, including himself.
“No…no I’m not. I’ll get some way to fix your SNAFU.” Jack smiled. “It’s not like it’s the most intractable thing I’ve ever dealt with.”
“No, indeed it is not. But you do need some background…come with me and we’ll discuss it at my place over a few beers.”
“German?” Jack was thirstily hopeful, perhaps beyond measure.
“I did not survive at Peenemunde without becoming adept in the arts of smuggling and requisition fraud. But that’s between you and me, not the Americans.” Von Braun winked.
“Indeed. Can Cameron join us? She’s more knowledgeable about the kind of work you’re describing, I gather.”
“Absolutely. We’ll stop and pick her up when we get back to the housing section.”
“I bet she’s got dinner all made…she can wait, though.” Jack was getting used to this. As long as he didn’t feel like he was out of his depth…besides, he had a hunch that Wernher had this more in hand than he was letting on. 1946 was looking like a training simulation more and more…an image he had invoked to create new and wondrous things in the world of Man. If they could launch the A-4 by April 20th, what would 1947 bring?