Authors: Michael Kurland
Tags: #parallel world, #alternate universe, #time travel, #science fiction, #aaron burr
Copyright Â© 1975, 2014 by Michael Kurland.
Published by Wildside Press LLC.
INTRODUCTION, by Michael Kurland
I welcome this chance to do an introduction for this new edition of The Whenabouts of Burr. There are a couple of things that deserve to be said, a bit of musty air that should be cleared away.
Despite the credit line on the book cover and title page, I am not the sole creator of this
. The general outline of the book and the first 20 or so pages were written jointly by master tunesmith Avram Davidson and me.
Why didn't Avram get a byline at the time, or at least an acknowledgment? He refused it. He forbade it. He would not allow it.
It went like this: Avram and I were sharing ramshackle quarters in a disintegrating house by the Bay in Sausalito California. One evening, while hanging out at our favorite dive, a low joint on Bridgeway called
, we were discussing some esoteric points re time travel and the probability of alternate universes as espoused by such theoretical cosmologists as Murray Leinster, Jorge Luis Borges, and H. Beam Piper. By closing time we found that we had come up with the notion for an alternate-universe novel. We looked at it from various angles and spent a couple of days cogitating, and found it good. Within a few weeks we had written the portion and outline (or P&O, as we pros call it) for
and sent it off to DAW Books. DAW immediately offered us money. “How Much?” Avram thundered. They repeated the offer. “I am an award-winning author of stature, of respect, of reputation,” Avram countered. They repeated their offer. “This is what we pay,” they said, and mentioned some well-known authors who were working for the same pittance. DAW was a struggling young company and could afford no more. Surely we would make a vast sum on the royalties, but for now...
“No!” said Avram.
“I'd kind of like to write the book,” I said. “It's a nice story.”
“You go ahead,” Avram told me. “I give it to you.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “We'll keep the joint byline....”
“We will not!” Avram said.
“Okay,” I said. “Then I'll write an acknowledgment giving you credit.”
“You will not!” Avram insisted. “I want none of it!”
So I took the pittance, finished the book, and received the credit and the reviews, which were generally favorable, although one reviewer did suggest that I wrote the book to trade on the popularity of Gore Vital's novel
which had come out two years before. This is a lot like thinking that
Gone With the Wind
was written to capture the audience of
The Wind in the Willows
. But I digress.
Aaron Burr has always been a particular hero of mine, a highly intelligent, principled man whose life could be cast as an exemplar of dramatic irony. It is a little-known fact (unless it's mentioned in Vidal's book, I don't recall) that there is strong reason to believe that in the infamous duel Hamilton was intending to murder Burr; the action was provoked by Hamilton, the pistols were supplied by Hamilton, and they had a secret hair trigger which Hamilton knew about and Burr did not, which would enable Hamilton to fire first. And, indeed, he did fire first, the ball passing over Burr's head. Some say that this showed that he never intended to hit Burr, but the accepted protocol at the time for “throwing away” your shot was to fire at the ground in front of your feet. Raising the gun to point above your target and then lowering it to correct your aim was how you shot someone. So I think that Hamilton was bearing down on Burr and the trigger was just a bit more hair than he realized and he fired a mite early.
But I digress.
The idea of alternate universes is a delightful one to play with. Some critics feel that in stories set in alternate universes, like stories set in worlds where magic works, the writer is making things too easy for himself. If anything is possible then, ultimately, nothing is difficult. These critics are mistaken. Sure there are writers who will take the easy way (“I forgot to say he had wings. Spreading his wings, he...”). But this sort of copout is just as possible in mundane fiction (“I forgot to say he had a gun. Pulling his gun, he...”).
Stories set in alternate universes, and especially stories where the characters travel from one reality to another, as well as stories set in magical worlds, should follow a rigorous internal logic, and all the best of them do. But, and here's the trick, the reader should not be aware of the workings of this logic any more than as she walks down the street she is consciously aware of the gravity keeping her from drifting up into the stratosphere.
The best thing about the alternate universe story is the room it allows for contemplation. What if the South had won the Civil War? Ward Moore examined that in
Bring the Jubilee.
Randall Garrett, in his Lord Darcy stories, imagined a world where Richard
Coeur de Leon
did not die of his wounds at Chaluz, but came back to rule England wisely and well. And, oh yes, magic works. Harry Turtledove has explored the possibilities of an alien invasion in the midst of WWII, an ancient Roman legion being transported to a world where magic works, and the possibility of Nazi Germany winning the war. And, in
The Last President
, I consider what might have happened if Nixon's burglars hadn't been caught at Watergate.
Whenabouts of Burr
is perhaps a bit more whimsical, exploring as it does the disappearance of the Constitution of the United States. The original Constitution. From a sealed container in a well-guarded building. And its replacement with an exact duplicate, which seems to be authentic. Except this one is signed by Aaron Burr instead of Alexander Hamilton.
There is a feeling about the past that it is immutable, that what happened is what was meant to be. That the North
to win the Civil War, that the Allies were predestined to win WWII. Well the people who lived through these events didn't think so at the time, and they were right. Nothing that has happened in the past, for good or evil, was predestined. And the future is, as it always was, up for grabs. Perhaps there is a universe right next to ours where John Fitzgerald Kennedy served out two terms as President, followed, perhaps, by his brother Robert, and where we now have a permanent base on the Moon and are starting to colonize Mars. I'd sure like to think so.
So with that, and a final nod of thanks to Reb Avram,
Professor William Kranzler, perhaps the world's greatest authority on the subject of the Constitution of the United States, was performing a daily and delightful ritual. “Morning, Professor,” said the guard.
“Good morning, Mr. McDowell,” said Kranzler, as always. The five years which had elapsed since his retirement as Professor of the History of the American Constitution at the National University had not witnessed any lessening in his attachment to his ritual: on the contrary, it allowed him all the more time to devote to it.
“Good morning, Professor,” said the next guard.
“Good morning, Mr. Lundberg.”
There was the Shrine, as he always thought of the Exhibition Hall, in which was preserved what Gladstone had called, “the greatest political document to be produced by the hand of man.” There it was,
document itself: sealed in strong but transparent crystal, filled with preservative helium gas, set and arranged so that at any threat of violence, immediate or otherwise, the entire case containing it would safely sink deep into a sunken vault upon a most ingenious and cleverly-controlled mechanism.
“Good morning, Professor,” said the third guard, addingâwith permissible familiarity, for he was the longest in service of any of the guardsâ“Well, it's still here.”
“Good morning, Mr. Luisi.” Kranzler gave a small, grave smile, stopped, allowed his eyes to rest upon The Document. “Yes, and thank God it still is.”
His eyes slowly scanned the pages of beautiful 18th century penmanship.
We, the people of the United States,
in order to formâ¦ It was still there. All of it. His eyes moved, his mind pondered, his tongue moved voicelessly, his mind savored. The Congress shall have power. A key phrase. Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress had not had power.
and fix the standards of weights and measures
In 1866 The Congress had allowed the metric system to become optional, but few indeed were those who had picked up the option. Fairly soon now, perhaps within the decade, The Congress would continue the task of making that system compulsory. It would be difficult for a while. No matter. The people of the United States could do without the inch and ounce, as they hadâfor all practical purposesâbeen doing without, say, the gill, the ell, the peck and the perch.
What the people of the United States could
do without was The Constitution of the United States. This, as an intangible, was the nation's greatest possession. And the nation's most precious tangible possession? Why, what else save this document, the original copy of The Constitution.
The Presidentâ¦ shall take careâ¦
William Kranzler had a secret wish that some of the customs appropriate to the sacred things of sundry religions might apply to the precious parchment in the sealed case. He should have liked to have pressed his brow or his lips thereunto, genuflected, prostrated himself, held up his hands, removed his shoes, covered his head, or done something or other with the hem of his garments: surely none of these gestures of infinite affection and respect could come under the ban which he saw before his very eyes this very moment to the effect that
no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States
“ âAnd did these eyes see Franklin plain?' ” he asked himself, paraphrasing. Not exactly “these eyes.” But these sheets of heavy parchment had. Wellâ¦ not exactly seenâ¦ been touched by. There was old Ben's signature. And those of the others.
Done in convention by the unanimous consent of the States present
In witness whereof, we have hereunto subscribed our names.
His lips moved soundlessly; they could have movedâin fact, they often did moveâsoundlessly, in the dark, repeating the august syllables.
George Washington, President and Deputy from Virginia. New Hampshire: John Langdon, Nicholas Gilman. Massachusetts: Nathaniel Gorham, Rufus King. Connecticut: William Samuel Johnson, Roger Sherman.
Yes, yes, surely as long as this venerable document survived and was well, the United States would survive and be well.
Connecticut: William Samuel Johnson, Roger Sherman. New York: Aaron Burrâ¦
“âLundberg! McDowell! Get an ambulance! Grab the phone! Professor Kranzler's had a stroke or something!â Hey, Professor. Professor? You all right? Pro
* * * *
Ves Romero was working, rather desultorily, on his collection of Estonian incunabula. There was a certain Ã©clat in being the largest private collector of Estonian incunabula, but not much. After all, when you come right down to it, it was not a very large field to collect in. And he had given up trying to exchange information with the Museum of Ethnic Treasures in Tallin, because every time he wrote to them he received back the same form letter; the one beginning
Workers and Peasants of the District of Columbia
. However, it did give him a good excuse to have a locked cabinet. Inside the steel doors, behind the document case, he also kept two derringers, a bottle of Jim Beam, some clean glasses, a bag of potato chips, and a pornographic magazine. Inside the latter was concealed the latest issue of a somewhat smaller publication entitled
Superhero's Pal Zap.
The combination to the locked cabinet was hidden behind a framed piece of pseudo-parchment which announced that Amerigo Vespucci Romero was a member in good standing of the North American Association of Investigators of Insurance Frauds.
A wall clock very softly went
three times fast, then one time slowly. Ves quickly slid the comic book back inside the porno mag, slipped the latter behind the document case, and closed the safe. Then he got down from the chair and walked over and unlocked the door. Mrs. Montefugoni, his housekeeper, looked at him with disapprobation. “You eat potato chips again,” she said. “Come dinner, you push away the green spaghetti, âToo much starch,' you going to tell me.
!” Abruptly abandoning this disquisition, “The Commissioner here,” she announced. “Straighten up you tie. Have respect. Go.”
The old brick house on Zee Street was small, set between its deep lawn and shallow backyard, but since his wife had died and he had retired from business, it often seemed too large for Ves. In the same way, his days, which had once been all too short to accomplish everything, now often stretched out incalculably long. Several emotions lighting up his face, square as his body, he stretched out his hand to the man standing in front of the fireplace. (Mrs. Montefugoni, a native of Tuscany, where anything of a date later than Lars Porsena was suspected and condemned, had little use for antiquity as understood in the United States: left to herself she would have bricked up the fireplace and installed an electric heater.)
“Nate!” Ves exclaimed. “Gee, I'm glad to see you! Your business is always my pleasure. What brings you here at this hour?”
Nathan Hale Swift returned the firm handshake. “It's a long story,” he said, perhaps obliquely. Ves, recognizing the code phrase, turned to his housekeeper who was hovering in the doorway, smiling respectfully at “the Commissioner,” as sheâhaving her own way with titlesâinsisted on calling him.
“Let's have some of your special coffee, Mrs. M.,” he said.
“You like?” she asked the guest, ignoring her employer.
ââThat's the chief reason I come here,
,” said Nate. Beaming transcendentally, the housekeeper withdrew. First she would roast the beans, then she would grind them, then she would spice the grind, thenâby an arcane process known to herself and to a small machine the like of which was procurable nowhere in the United Statesâ then she would make the coffee. Anyone who unwisely mentioned the words
to Mrs. Montefugoni would have suffered her instant displeasure.
As the kitchen door closed behind her, Swift's smile faded. “This is something very serious, Ves,” he said.
“I guessed that. What is it?”
Swift's long and narrow face winced. He shook his head, not negatively, but in perplexity.
“The Constitution of the United States has been stolen,” he said.
There was a silence in the warm, quiet room. Then, “I don't quiteâ” Ves was beginning.
“I mean, the original document of the final draft of the Constitution, as signed by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1789, has been stolen from the National Archives Exhibition Hall.” Abruptly, Swift folded his long legs and sat down.
Ves's mouth moved a moment before he spoke. “But that's terrible,” he said.
Again Swift shook his head. “No idea. Nobody has any idea. I meanâ”
“But didn't the guards
Ves blinked. “Now, come on now, Nate,” he said. “I've
there. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights, why, they're guarded day and night, and they're sealed in bronze cases. It's impossible.”
Nate nodded, ran a long, lean hand over his dark hair. “I quite agree. It
impossible. Still, that's what happenedâ¦” He went on to explain that the theft had been first noticed by Professor William Kranzler, the famed expert on the history of the Constitution, shortly after ten o'clock that morning. The shock had resulted in the older man's fainting dead away; on his recoveryâfortunately, without any injuries or physical aftereffectsâhe had at once reported the matter to Dr. Stenberry, the National Archivist, who immediately came to see for himself and immediately ordered the Exhibition Hall closed to the public “for repairs.”
“Stenberry notified the President's Secretary, the Secretary notified the President and the President called me,” Nat said, meanwhile opening his briefcase and removing a sheet of paper.
“And here you are,” Ves said. “As always, I am flattered. In this case, well, I feel like Abe Lincoln's story of the man who was ridden out of town on a rail: âif it wasn't for the honor of the thing, I'd sooner walk'â¦ What is the Xerox?”
Swift passed it over. “This is what, I mean, this is a copy of what is now in, or, damn it, my tongue won't stay clear of my teeth!” He paused, took several slow breaths, continued, “This is a xerox copy of the document which Professor Kranzler discovered had been substituted for the original copy of the Constitution. It took them two and a half hours to open the case in order to get at the substitute.”
Ves Romero took the glossy sheet and had begun to read it very slowly, starting with the Preamble; Nate, impatiently, pointed to a particular line near the end of the document. Ves read that one quickly enough, grunted, smiled quickly, crookedly, said: “I suppose I ought to be ashamed, butâwell, I didn't realize that Aaron Burr
signed the Constitution for New York Stateâ”
Nate's thin face was briefly crossed by an even thinner smile. “He didn't sign it. Not for New York State nor for any other state. Do you know who
sign for New York State?” His friend's head swung slowly into a blank shake. “Okay. Neither did I remember. Well, it's not exactly classified information.
“The delegate who signed the United States Constitution on behalf of New York State was Alexander Hamilton.” At the mention of this familiar name, Ves Romero's face clearedâ¦ was again clouded with a frownâ¦ suddenly began to do funny little things with itself. “Hey,” said Amerigo Vespucci Romero. “Oh,” he said. “But,” he said. “Alexander Hamilton. He was, oh, he was the first Secretary of the Navy. I mean, the Treasury. He said, âYour People, sir, is a great Beast.' He was, uh, uh, he was shot. Yeah! He was in a duel. He was killed. He wasâ” Nate nodded grimly, wearily. “Yes. In Weehawken, New Jersey. On July 11, 1804. And the man who fired the fatal shot wasâ”
Ves's memory finally came through, like money spilling out of a jackpot. “Aaron Burr!” he cried.
* * * *
The Constitution of the United States makes no mention of an F.B.I. It does not, for that matter, mention a Secret Service. Or a Flag, or a National Anthem, orâbut we digress. It does, however, state, and state quite plainly, that
The Congress shall have power to fix the standards of weights and measures
; accordingly a Bureau of Weights and Measures was by Act of Congress set up in 1801: henceforth, a pound in Richmond, Virginia was a pound in Richmond, N.Y.; and a yard of cloth spun in Salem, Massachusetts measured a yard when purchased in Salem, South Carolina. That the utility of this office went without saying, goes without saying. Federalists and Whigs, Republican-Democrats, Populists and Greenbackers, Barnburners and Locofocos, Dixiecrats and Socialists, all observed towards the Bureau of Weights and Measures a strictly hands-off policy. That is, they did not exactly observe it.
They never even thought about it.
Time passes. In 1996, the voters (including for the first time those of the new states of Guam and the Virgin Islands) swept into presidential office that darkest of dark horses, Rep. Victor Gosport (Dem., Idaho), the youngest ever to hold that officeâperhaps because they really wanted a Democrat in the White House. Perhaps because Luella (Mrs. Victor) Gosport, one week before election day, was safely delivered of triplets: all boys. Or, perhaps because certain aspects of the Democratic candidate's campaign had been, with uncanny scientific accuracy, masterminded by the candidate's friend, Dr. Dunstan Dutton.
Dunstan Dutton (Ph.D., Ph.D., D.Sc., D.Phil.), having collected the figures on the order and location of every appearance made by every presidential candidate over the past fifty years, as well as sundry other statistics, by a process understood only by himself and one selfless assistant, correlated them all and drew up the most baffling campaign schedule in American history. Andrew Johnson had “swung around the circle,” Major William McKinley had sat on his front porch. Harry Truman got off the train at whistle-stops, or sometimes spoke from the end of the train without getting offâ¦