the professor

automobile, antique car, cadillac-3357931.jpg

A story set in a different John Birmingham “universe”. His “Axis of Time” series imagined what happened when a multinational battle fleet from 2021 was thrown back in time to the Battle of Midway in 1942. The three books in that series explored the impact on the balance of power in WW2, and changes in society brought on by the collision of the 21st century with the 1940s. He has since extended the series to see what the world looks like in 1955, and is currently creating a new series of books which takes as its starting point the outbreak of WW3.1 in 1955.

This new series is being created on his Patreon site, and his original trilogy of “WW2.1” books is available in the usual places.

This story is set in the time immediately at the start of the new WW3.1 book, in June 1955, as events start to unfold. The characters here include some from the original WW2.1 series who haven’t been seen for a while, and some historical figures who I imagine have travelled different timelines since 1942 than they did in our universe. The story below was written in August 2021.

Spoiler Alert: The story below has a spoiler from the introduction of WW3.1 (and of course, assumes you’ve read Axis of Time, and its follow-up series of novellas, collected into the Stalin’s Hammer series. John has published the prologue to WW3.1, which covers the spoiler I reference below.

the professor

A balmy June evening, the air sticky and still. As he struggled up the sloping grass lawn, Moose Molloy felt cold beads of sweat running down his back, unpleasant but all too familiar. He’d always been a big guy, but with two shattered knees from the war, he didn’t get out and walk as much as he should, and now his stomach hung over his belt. Still, he tried. You could rely on Moose for that.

Walking the grounds of Slim Jim Davidson’s Bel Air mansion twice a day had to be doing him some good, surely. Caretaker. That’s what Slim Jim called him. Came with a little house of his own on the property. All he had to do was keep an eye on the place when Jim was out of town, make sure the gardeners and cleaners did their job. Slim Jim was out of town a lot nowadays. Back in Europe again, as far as Moose could remember. It had been a while.

Moose had fallen on hard times after the war. Took a while to get the horrors out of his head at night. Those poor bastard sailors sticking out of walls, and ceiling, and, and… each other, when that ship from upwhen suddenly appeared in the middle of the Astoria. Then them little nip soldiers getting gunned down in the water as they scrambled to get onto his PT boat when theirs had sunk. The look in their eyes. Even though they were only nips, it still didn’t sit right with him.

He’d drifted. Tried most things. But couldn’t stay in one place too long. Couldn’t settle. Ended up doing some bouncer work in Vegas. It was too loud for him, too many bright lights. Too many smiling, glittery people pretending they were happy. Maybe some even convinced themselves. He’d been ready to move on, when one night his luck had finally changed. He was on the door of Caesar’s Palace, where Frank Sinatra was about to play, when a familiar figure walked up the stairs, a blonde on each arm. One of the broads looked familiar.

“Slim Jim?” he asked. “Is that you?”

Slim had halted, looked briefly up at Moose, and began to walk on. Mid-step, he stopped, his face breaking into a huge grin. “Moose! Moose Molloy! I don’t believe it. Must be, what, five years?”

“Seven,” he’d replied. A long seven years since Hawaii. Jim had somehow managed to get himself discharged, while Moose was sent off back to the fighting. Found a way to work the system again. And now here he was, larger than life, in a suit that looked like it was worth more than Moose’s life. With that calculating look in his eyes he’d seen before. Working the angles. Crunching the numbers. Finding the win for Slim Jim.

“Girls! This is Moose. He saved me in the war. Great guy, the best. Moose, this is Kim. And Marilyn, of course.”

The movie star! Or the one who would be a movie star. Or maybe she wouldn’t now. Of course Slim Jim would be with her. She glowed, and gave him a smile, full of promise. He’d nodded shyly at her, but couldn’t speak a word.

Slim slipped Moose’s boss a couple of folded notes, and dragged him inside to see the show. 

Moose didn’t remember much about that night, but it was the last one he’d spent in Vegas. Jim had taken him back to LA the next day. He’d been working for Davidson Enterprises in one job or another ever since. Jimbo had looked after him well. He didn’t know if it was guilt about leaving him behind when he’d slipped out of the navy, or that he really meant what he’d said about Moose saving him. But he wasn’t too proud to take whatever scraps Slim Jim wanted to give him. And Slim Jim was fun to be around. Still knew how to party. Just like old times.

He’d almost made it all the way back up to the main house when he heard his name being called. It jolted him out of his daydream. Only two other people were supposed to be here right now. His name rang out again, louder. The Professor. Fineman, or something. He spotted Moose and waved. “Moose! Mr Molloy, I need you.”

Grunting, he picked up the pace to the top of the last rise, finally reaching the welcome sanctuary of level ground.  He bent over, hands braced on his thighs, sucking in great gulps of air. Sweat coated his brow, dripping to the grass between his feet in a constant flow.

The Professor joined him. As he straightened up, Moose saw a look of concern on his face. “S’ok, Prof. Not a young man anymore. Be right in a moment.”

“Ah, I’m sorry, Mr Molloy, time is an issue here. I need your help. Now.” He mightta been a professor, but his voice sounded like any of the guys Moose shipped with on the Astoria. Working class Brooklyn. Unmistakable. Shit, and he wants me to do something now. Time to suck it up. He wiped his forehead clean. For the time being, at least.

“OK then, Prof. What can Moose do for you?”

The other man held up an iPhone. Or at least a chunky-as-hell knock-off. Moose knew what the real thing looked like. This one didn’t have that same magic look to it. “I just had a call. There’s been an attack in Europe. A huge one. The Russians. The President’s asked me to join a taskforce to help with our response. I need to get to the Valley right now. Or sooner, if at all possible. Can you help?”

Moose now saw that the concern on the Prof’s face hadn’t been for him. The guy looked frightened. And smelt of weed. His eyes looked slighted glazed. The Prof was baked!

“You and Mizz Monroe been having a bit too good of a time, hey, Prof? Sure, I can drive ya. Anything to help out good old Ike. The Russkies, you say? Let’s go get em.” He was fired up. It felt good to be useful for more than just making sure that the swimming pool Slim Jim never swam in looked clean enough.

The Prof looked like he was about to cry. His face lost all colour. “President Eisenhower is dead, Mr Molloy.’s President Kolhammer now.”

Moose felt dizzy. Like when he realised what had happened to the Astoria. The world had gone all wrong. Kolhammer! The admiral from upwhen? Man, what was this country coming to? And Ike? How could he be dead? A dim light turned on in his brain. The Russkies. Had to be them bastards. Fucking killed Ike.

“C’mon Prof. Let’s go. I got a car. And call me Moose. It was good enough for my daddy, god rest his soul, and it’s good enough for me.”

Moose walked to the garage as quickly as his aching knees would let him, the Prof keeping pace close alongside, tucking in his shirttails on the go. He clicked the button on his key fob, and the door glided up without a sound. The lights inside came on automatically. And there she was. His pride and joy. A fire-red Cadillac Coupe Deville convertible, its chrome trim shining like a jewel in the glare of the lights above. Its rear wings rising like a pair of shark fins. A real beaut. Its top was down, perfect for the drive tonight.

It was another present from Slim Jim, of course. A couple of years ago some nosy reporter from Australia had tried to interview Moose at the house. A little rat-faced fellow. Rupert! That was the guy. Stupid pansy-ass name, if you asked Moose. Trying to dig up some dirt on Jim. Asking questions about the Astoria, and how Slim Jim had found himself with all those flexipads. The usual.

Moose didn’t know about a lot of things, but he knew about loyalty. Something his daddy, Moose Senior, had beaten into him. Family first. And Slim Jim Davidson was as close to family as Moose had now. That little rat-face asswipe with the grating accent would for sure have loved to hear about how it was Moose that found the first flexipad and showed it to Slim. But Moose wasn’t telling him nothing. That was between him and Slim. He’d unceremoniously lifted Rupey-boy by his coat lapels and thrown him back down the front steps. How he’d squawked when he hit the gravel in the driveway! The memory made Moose smile.

When he told Jim about it a few days later, he’d laughed out loud and slapped Moose hard on the shoulder. He was with Ms O’Brien, who still gave Moose the willies. She was the face of the future, and Moose, well, he didn’t like what he saw, not one little bit. But this time, this one time, she actually smiled. He’d never seen that, before or since. Then, of all things, she held up her hand to high-five Slim Jim. “That’ll put that miserable old prick back in his box. We’ll have to keep an eye on him, but I think we’ve just about stopped that piece of shit from ever getting started. You’ve done the world a great service, Mr Molloy,” she said. 

He couldn’t work out why they were so excited. It wasn’t the first time he’d sent a snoopy reporter packing. And that Rupert, he couldn’t have been any more than twenty five. Not an old guy at all. Who was he? Anyways, he didn’t need to know why they were so happy. All he knew was that the next day Slim had taken him out to his Caddy dealership and told Moose to take his pick of the yard. And there she was, freshly washed and waxed, ready to roll.

The Prof had pulled to a stop, and was standing hands on hips, head cocked to one side, looking at the car.  He whistled. “Nice wheels, Moose,” he said, “yours?” 

“My baby. She really goes. Get in, Prof. And hold on tight. Can’t have you hanging around here when there’s some commie ass-kicking needs doing.” He slid behind the wheel, the soft red leather seat yielding beneath him.

The car growled into life, its low rumble filling Moose with a feeling of power and control he didn’t get that often. As he spun around the curving driveway, gravel crunching beneath the wheels, the headlight beams picked out Marilyn Monroe, standing in the door of the guest suite, wrapped in a white satin gown, her curves outlined in the glare. She blew a kiss in their direction. It was pretty neat how Slim Jim was happy for her to hang out here whenever she wanted to, no strings attached, even though they weren’t fucking anymore. It’d been a bit awkward when his old PT boat skipper, President Kennedy, or might-someday-be President Kennedy had spent a few nights here. All this history-that-wasn’t was confusing. Prof Fineman waved to her as they swept past.

“You’re a lucky feller, Prof. She’s quite a dame, hey?”

He smiled sheepishly, still looking a bit out of it. “That she is, Moose. Not sure what she gets out of being with a middle-aged physicist, but I’m smart enough not to ask.” He closed his eyes, looking happy. “Oh, and call me Dick, Moose. There’s no professors in a car like this, ok?”

Moose turned left into Bel Air Road, and began the snaking drive down the hill. He gunned the Deville around the corners, loving the feeling of being just on the edge of fishtailing. The road was unusually quiet, even for a Tuesday evening. Below him, the lights of LA sparkled. He always enjoyed this drive. He pushed the accelerator down further. He didn’t care about the cops. They knew who he was. And who he worked for.

Now he was underway, he wondered what the hell had happened. And why this Prof… Dick was rushing off to do Kolhammer’s bidding. It must be bad.

“Hey, Dick. What happened? Did them Russkies nuke us, or what?” He dimly recalled that Dick had something to do with the A-bomb, but was hazy on the details.

The physicist opened his eyes, taking in the view, trying to work out where he was. “No, not nukes, Moose. At least, I don’t think so. All indications are they used some type of orbital kinetic weapon. Not a nuke, but every bit as destructive. Big dumb rocks. Dropped right on our heads.”

He had no idea what Dick was talking about. It must have shown.

“Kinetic energy, Moose. The faster things move, the more energy they’ve got. Take this car. If you run into a wall at five miles an hour, you’d dent up the chrome work, maybe make a little mark on the wall, right? Annoying, but not too bad. Just a bit of kinetic energy getting turned into sound, heat and deformation. Now, do the same thing at one hundred miles an hour. That’s a lot more kinetic energy. A whole lot more. More noise, heat and damage. The faster you go, or the heavier the object, the more damage gets done if it runs into something. Got it?”

Moose nodded, “Yep. Like an eight-inch gun on the Astoria packs a meaner punch than a Colt 45? Bigger and faster, right?”

Dick smiled broadly, his eyes lighting up, like he was pleased with Moose. “Exactly. You got it. Well, what we think the Russians have done is drop something that’s a damn sight bigger than any bullet ever fired by a gun. Make it big enough, and get it falling fast enough, and mountains will crumble. The hammer of the gods. Watch it!”

Moose hadn’t been concentrating as he’d listened to Dick. His voice had a way of sucking you in, making you feel like you could understand anything. He’d never had teachers like that. A sharp right-hand turn was on them, and Moose had to brake and reef on the steering wheel at the last moment, the rear tyres slipping momentarily in the gravel verge, only a thin guard rail between them and disaster.

He took it more carefully on the rest of the descent, only speeding up again when they got down to Beverley Glen Boulevard. Put his foot to the floor on the near-empty streets leading to the Zone, the Deville leaping forward in response. The Prof appeared to have sobered up on the drive, and was checking his computer phone, fingers flipping all over the screen. Moose didn’t have one himself. Couldn’t see the point. Too many people walked around now with their heads buried in them.

“What news, Prof?” he asked.

There was no immediate response. The Prof continued to stare intently at the glowing screen. With a grunt, he stopped and look up. “Sorry, Moose. Too many people who don’t know anything are pretending they do.” He sighed, and shook his head. “It looks like it could have been a lot worse. But still bad enough. We’re at war, Moose. I’d hoped we could avoid it, but here we are. Again.” He turned away, looking at the factories and warehouses speeding past them.

“Can you drop me at the Davidson Aerospace building, please? That’s where everyone is getting together. Then I suggest you make sure the house is well-stocked for you and Marilyn. And well locked down. This could get ugly. Very ugly.”

They pulled up at the front entrance to the building a few minutes later. All its lights were on. People were arriving in a steady stream, in cars, on bikes. Even one on a skateboard. Dick scrambled out, then walked around the front of the car and stood next to Moose. “Thanks, Moose. You’re a godsend. And please, make sure you’ve got everything you need up there for a least a few weeks for the two of you. I’ll try to make it back up, but I fear I’m about to lose control over any decisions about where I spend my time. Just like New Mexico.” He sighed deeply again. “Look after her, ok? She deserves it.”

With that, he waved, and joined the throng entering the black glass cube of the Davidson Aerospace headquarters.

Moose sat for a moment, watching him go, before swinging the car around, to head back up to the hills. Moose Molloy and Marilyn Monroe, holed up together in a mansion in Bel Air as the world burned around them. If only his daddy could see him now.