Return Engagements: Book Three (Part Twenty Seven)

From my quick trip to Detroit until leaving Salt Lake City, I hadn’t spent any time on my primary mission of making 1947 better than it had been the first time through. After all, I had made the world aware of their place in the galaxy… and a much better place than they had imagined. More than that, the idea had stuck. That, I was convinced, would upgrade mankind steadily.

What I hadn’t foreseen were the changes Vannevar and I were picking up on the radio: That Stalin was terrified that the US would come up with insurmountable super-weapons, that the US government was terrified that Stalin would strike out first, and so on. Not only were these events going in a very bad direction, but because of them, people were forgetting about what they had just learned… or at least that’s what concerned me.

I discussed these things openly with Vannevar, and we resolved that we had to do something about it. What, however, was unclear.

* * * * *

Our fourth night on the road I had a dream, and in it I saw the scene from the Apollo 13 movie where Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) focuses his team by saying, “What do we have on the spacecraft that works?”

What we had that worked was a direct line to major publications, through which I could make almost whatever case to the American public I wished. On top of that, we had all of Vannevar’s friends and contacts. Now we just had to use all of it to refocus people.

* * * * *

Given that we were driving through late January, we made our way not just to Chicago, but to New York in record time. Both of us were unrecognizable in full beards, and so we drove on without worries. By February 1st we were in New York. We drove directly past Manhattan, however, and found ourselves a large, three-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, not far off of Atlantic Avenue. That would be our base.

We immediately outfitted the place with desks, two telephone lines, and an aging Italian lady who spoke no English as our housekeeper. Her family owned a fruit market nearby, and we told her to buy all our fruit from them; it put a lot of people in the camp of our friends.

We made a point of resting a lot the first several days… that and trying to understand exactly what was happening.

Even in 1947, network news was a servant to power. They wouldn’t usually make things up, but they would omit and/or minimize whatever people in power wanted them to. It was a poor source.

Bush, however, had inside sources, including one in Manhattan. And so we setup a meet at the 42nd Street Library. Bush and his friend met in one corner of the second floor, while I played covert security man, wandering through nearby rooms, carefully minding exits and entrances. The meeting went well and as we walked back to the subway (through a very cold and windy February afternoon), Vannevar explained what he learned.

Stalin was furious that the Americans were allowing the Brits to have their scientists included in examining the craft, but not his. And just to establish the point, he was both threatening and preparing to start chewing up Eastern Europe, piece by piece.

Bush’s friend added one more thing, and that was that something else was going on, but that he didn’t know what it was. He knew only that it involved Eisenhower restraining people from doing “something stupid.” That was ominous.

We now split up our work. Vannevar would find a way to get to Eisenhower and I would work on new material, getting it to my contacts.

By all indications the spy agencies had forgotten us and had moved on to more pressing matters, like rolling up Stalin’s spy network.

* * * * *

My article, which ran all over the country within a week, was entitled, They Stole Your Spacecraft, So I’ll Tell You About It. I opened with an explanation of my absence, saying that I needed to avoid capture, not for any nefarious reason, but because I didn’t want to be locked in a cage and subjected to endless interrogations. “I’ll be glad to tell you what I know about the craft,” I wrote, “but I don’t agree to be caged.”

I went on to explain, with his permission and editing, that the noted Vannevar Bush came with me, and that he would likewise be glad to explain, but not from prison.

I kept the article to 1,500 words or so, but I was able to explain optical fibers, transfer resistors, and the bodies of the “little people.” The little people were the hardest part, but I couldn’t leave it hanging. I explained again that Renn was remorseful that these drones… these biological robots… had frightened us, and that I knew he’d apologize in person if he could.

As we got ready to deliver the pages to Dorothy and Mencken (wrapped with St. Valentine’s Day flowers), Vannevar pointed out that we’d be making ourselves targets for the Soviets as well. We had no real choice but to accept the risk, of course, but it still came with an emotional price.

* * * * *

Our meeting with Eisenhower came much faster and easier than expected. A week or so after the article ran, Bush’s insider called a service that took phone messages for us. (We checked in with them almost every day.) He told us to show up at Columbia University, without our beards. This again was a blind risk. He did mention “I,” which meant “Ike,” Eisenhower’s nickname, but such dealings are never absolutely certain.

It was still February, and so we could wrap ourselves in scarves to cover our faces, but we’d need another week to regrow our beards. And so we planned to stay inside for the following week.

Vannevar and I made our way through the subway and stood near the corner of the Butler library as directed. And there we waited for longer that the specified five minutes, getting cold and trying to appear very gray and inconsequential. We made up a very mundane conversation about old times, back in some tiny town.

Then, Bush’s friend appeared, along with Eisenhower and a small entourage. The man whispered something to Eisenhower, who stopped and sent the entourage into the library. Then they walked directly to us. The friend nodded and we pulled down our scarves for a few seconds, then replaced them.

Eisenhower, in perfect form, looked right past us, turning back to Bush’s friend, and said, “Second floor men’s room, half an hour.”

We went back to our mundane discussion and Eisenhower joined his group inside.

* * * * *

Eisenhower was at Columbia to discuss the position of President of the university. Very few people knew he’d be there.

Vannevar and I installed ourselves in bathroom stalls five minutes before time. Right on schedule, Eisenhower showed up, with Bush’s friend. They left a soldier outside, guarding the door. He got right to it:

Good to see you, Vannevar.”

You too, General.”

You’re sure this man (referring to me) is legitimate?”

I am, and you will be too.”

Finally Eisenhower turned to me. I kept a careful poker face at first, simply because I was amused to be face to face with a man I’d seen in a hundred films, newsreels, and assorted dramas. But that didn’t last long; this was an actual person, complete with his own uncertainties and fears, even if they did reside under a well-kept exterior.

I’ll be pleased to answer any questions you may have, General, but first let’s get to the essential: Stalin is afraid, and he’s about to get the Atom Bomb. At that point he becomes a very, very dangerous creature. He has to be brought into the spacecraft project. If not, I’m convinced he will use the bomb.”

I paused for half a beat, but Eisenhower made no move to speak. And so I went on.

You will shortly have an advantage, in Teller’s hydrogen bomb. Stalin’s people, however, will steal that from you too… unless you know how the information will be transmitted to him… and I can do that for you.”

At this point Eisenhower was a bit shocked. “How do you know these things?”

Not knowing what else to do, I fell back into my Michael Burroughs routine: “I really am an American boy, from Chicago…”

Vannevar, stopped me mid-sentence. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Go ahead and tell him. He can take it.”

I took a breath, then did as Vannevar requested.

I’m from the future, General, as crazy as that sounds. I came here form the year 2021.”

He turned to Bush. “You believe this?”

Yes, I do, and I’ve been living with him for some time.”

I started back in.

The issue, General, is that Stalin is crazy enough to use the atomic bomb over this issue. He has to be included in the research. He’ll die in about five years, and the very worst threats will die with him. You won’t be able to recreate that spacecraft, and probably not for a century; you lack a hundred underlying technologies. So there’s not a great deal of risk in this. Now, if you can pacify Stalin, I’ll give you the names of the Soviet spies that will feed him Teller’s design. And yes, Teller’s Super will eventually work, and will be massively more powerful than the fission bombs.”

Ike,” Bush said, “it would have to be done anyway. Stalin is simply too capable and willing to destroy.”

Eisenhower turned back to me. “Who knows those names?”

No one, not even Vannevar.”

He stopped for a moment, took a deep breath, and shook my hand. “You have a deal,” he said. “Go back into hiding, then deliver those names as soon as the news breaks.”

You may depend upon it,” I told him. Then he turned and walked away. Bush’s friend slapped him on the shoulder on the way out.

We waited in the bathroom a couple more minutes, then slipped back out, one at a time, meeting back up on the way to the subway. (Though we did backtrack a few times, to be sure were weren’t followed.)

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Paul Rosenberg