O blessed glorious Trinity,
Bones to philosophy, but milk to faith,
Which, as wise serpents, diversely
Most slipperiness, yet most entanglings hath -
- Excerpted from A Litany IV. "The Trinity," John Donne, 1609.
He lit another Pall Mall, his fourth in fifty minutes. He was nervous, to be sure, but his outer mask was calm, the serenity of a white-haired scientist sage. Fortunately, there was no one else in the green room, so he reached deep within himself and considered what Huntley might ask during the NBC White Paper interview.
The young blond woman popped her head into the green room again.
“Can I get you anything else, Professor Oppenheimer? You’ll be on in twenty minutes.”
He told her he was fine, and that he was ready whenever they were. Twenty minutes remained in the countdown before he offered his thoughts for posterity to Huntley and who knew how many viewers.
He thought back to that day twenty years ago: July 16, 1945. The tension during the dark hours of the night before the detonation had been hellish. Few of the scientists and engineers managed to sleep. A chorus of sex-crazed frogs awakened those men who napped fitfully. The amphibians croaked and copulated with lusty abandon in a small pond near the camp, oblivious to the pending event. Then the thunderstorms had rushed across the desert, unleashing their fury with lightning and thirty-mile-an-hour winds, lashing out like fierce midwives as a new world readied itself to be born. The frogs. The storms. It was almost apocalyptic.
On the previous day, he had inspected the Gadget, an ugly metal sphere studded with detonators, perched high on its tower in the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range. The range was in the Jornada del Muerto Valley - the Journey of the Dead Man. The Gadget should work. It must work.
The countdown was imminent. General Groves stood nearby, impatient and shifting from foot to foot. The frogs were silent, and the storms had passed to the high desert. Sam Allison had called out on the loudspeaker: “It is now zero minus twenty minutes.”
Oppenheimer lay flat on the ground beside his brother, Frank. They were ten thousand yards south of ground zero.
Two minutes and counting. “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart,” he said to no one in particular.
At five-thirty a.m., blinding white light consumed the sky and the world changed. The fireball shifted to yellow, then red, and the sky flared in brilliant shades of violet. Searing heat and wind blasted across the flats, and the force of the explosion knocked standing observers to the ground. Man-made thunder ricocheted off the surrounding mountains. Oppenheimer saw the cloud reaching high toward the stratosphere, swelling into the shape of a titan’s mushroom, unearthly and majestic.
It worked. They had done it. Initially, the men had been exultant. They had danced, laughed, and slapped each other on the back in giddy congratulations. He had strutted like a cowboy out of High Noon. Kistiakowsky threw his arms around him and demanded his ten dollars, their wager that Kisty’s implosion charges would work. Oppenheimer called his secretary. He asked that she pass on the message -- the code for success -- to his wife Kitty: “Tell her she can change the sheets.”
Before he left the control center, he shook Ken Bainbridge’s hand. Bainbridge looked him in the eye and muttered:
“Now we’re all sons of bitches.”
While they drove across the desert back to the base camp, leaving behind his colleagues and their growing sense of sobriety, he remembered the verses of the Bhagavad-Gita that had churned in his head when the fireball lifted into the atmosphere: the radiance of a thousand suns...the shatterer of worlds. He put himself in Prince Arjuna’s place, and let Krishna take care of fate, doling out who would live and who would die.
Those were the things he would tell Huntley, those verses of the Bhagavad-Gita. He would not tell him of the dream he had three nights after Trinity, a dream that still lingered, its images vivid, a puzzling dream engraved in his memory as if it had been real.
That night he had fallen into a deep sleep, his mind and body exhausted by the days leading up to the Trinity test. His profound slumber shifted as the night drew on. He became restless as dawn approached. Then the dream took him.
He found himself back at Alamogordo, the tower with the intact Gadget looming in the far distance. In the middle of the sere dreamscape, between where he stood and the tower, two figures were seated at a table. He walked across the rocks and through the scrub toward them. As he approached, he could see that the two figures were men, both of whom stood as he drew closer.
They were lean and tall, standing at six and a half feet or more. Their archaic clothing was peculiar, an odd hybrid of ancient Greek and medieval garb. Both had lustrous black hair that cascaded down their backs. One man had what looked liked bands of light wrapped around his ankles and connected through a pulsating beam. Shackles of light? he wondered.
As he drew closer, he could discern the differences in their features: one had a firm chin and stern brows, the other possessed high cheekbones and more chiseled bone structure, but both were exceptionally attractive men, almost beautiful really. They appeared to be clean-shaven, but on closer examination, Oppenheimer saw that they were beardless with no hint of shadow on their cheeks in spite of their black hair. But their eyes startled him most of all and sent a shiver down his spine. The man with the heavier brows had eyes with an almost metallic sheen, reminiscent of platinum. The other man’s eyes were the color of clear gray gems. Most disconcerting was that their eyes seemed to emit light.
Who were these beings? Oddly, he thought of the nephilim, the tall beautiful fallen angels who married mortal women as written in the book of Genesis. He remembered that much of the Torah.
The man with the platinum eyes snorted. “Oh, for God’s sake, Robert. That’s just superstitious nonsense. You know that as well as I do.”
As otherworldly as this beautiful man appeared, he sounded like he was from Manhattan, his enunciation carrying a refinement that suggested the Upper West Side but with a touch of a yiddishe grandparent in the background. That was bizarre in and of itself. How in the hell did this man know what he was thinking? But this was a dream. Of course, his dreaming mind was setting the scene, and it stood to reason that his mind would generate the familiar out of the unusual. Nonetheless, he felt wildly disoriented, and he stumbled as he approached the empty chair.
The man with the high cheekbones was at his side in a second and steadied him.
“Here, Robert, please sit down.” The man spoke with an odd accent, which sounded something like an Irish brogue. In fact, as he examined the man’s face again, he strongly resembled the brash young Irish physicist back at Los Alamos, the brilliant fellow who had come out of nowhere to study with Walton at Trinity College and then Dirac at Cambridge. Maybe Black Irish?
The man smiled, exposing straight white teeth like an advertisement for toothpaste.
“Black Irish? Yes, close enough.” He sat down at Oppenheimer's right. The platinum-eyed man then sat to the physicist's left and scooted his chair up to the small square table.
“I know you take your coffee black,” said the man at his left as he poured the steaming fliud into three white ceramic cups. He handed one to Oppenheimer who noticed that this fellow's near-perfect physicality was marred by the missing forefinger on his left hand. The nine-fingered man then produced a small pouch of tobacco and rolling papers. “And I believe that is your preferred brand of tobacco."
Oppenheimer took the cup and saucer, incautiously gulped the liquid, and scalded the roof of his mouth. He set the cup down, splashing coffee on the smooth surface of the oak table. He eyed each man in turn with curiosity and not a little suspicion.
“Who the hell are you?”
“My apologies for the oversight!” the platinum-eyed man said, extending his right hand. Oppenheimer reflexively grasped the other’s in a firm handshake. He was startled by the strange thrill that shot up his arm, almost like an electric shock, but not quite. It was as if his nerves sang.
“I'm Saunders. Please allow me to introduce my colleague, Fionn.”
The man with the high cheekbones and beautiful smile likewise shook his hand, and the same peculiar yet strangely pleasant sensation shot up his right arm again. He shuddered.
“You’re upset. It’s the clothing isn’t it?” Fionn examined his tunic and leggings. “Here, Saunders, you can fix that, can’t you?”
An opaque silver mist swirled around Fionn and Saunders, obscuring them. When the mist cleared, the two men were clad in short sleeved button down shirts, khakis and loafers, just like the physicists, chemists and engineers at the labs. Their long hair, however, still flowed down their backs, and the shackles of light remained fast around Saunders' ankles.
“The hair stays. We’re rather vain about it, I’m afraid,” said Fionn.
“I have no vanity regarding my chains, but they stay as well.” Saunders said, his half- smile rueful.
“Saunders. Fionn. Please call me Oppie.” He deftly rolled a cigarette. Saunders produced a lighter and held it steady until the cigarette glowed red.
Oppenheimer took a long drag on the cigarette and blew the smoke out of his lungs into the clear desert air. “Again, I ask, who the hell are you two? What the hell are you two?”
Saunders held his eyes fast. In spite of their otherworldly light, there was a familiarity about them.
“Fionn and I are your figurative forefathers, Oppie.”
“’Figurative?’ Yes, that and probably his literal forefathers, too,” Fionn added.
“What on earth are you fellows talking about?” This dream was all too strange.
“Fionn!” Saunders chastised his colleague. “That is more than he can process right now.”
“Come now, Saunders. The man’s brilliant. Look at his accomplishments, his leadership. Hell, look at his goddamned eyes. Didn’t you feel it when you shook his hand? He surely has the alleles, just like Jim and the others.”
“Don’t be unfair, Fionn. Look, Jim and Francis won’t publish their paper for another eight years. Let’s not tease him with veiled information. This is difficult enough as it is.”
Saunders turned back to him. “I’m sorry, Oppie. Fionn and I don’t always agree on our approaches. So, as to what we are, well, we are inventors, scientists, technologists - whatever term fits. We are human, too, or at least I am in this form. We may not be exactly like you, but to a first approximation, yes, we're human.”
“I can see that,” said Oppenheimer. “It’s just your eyes. You both must have unusual refractive proteins in your irises. That threw me off.”
Fionn beamed. “Excellent! You didn’t yammer about orbs of starlight and all that gossamer faerie bullshit. That is a perfectly rational -- and accurate -- explanation. I’m telling you, Saunders, he belongs to us!”
“Oh, crap, Fionn! Give it a rest.” Saunders rolled his eyes, silver light reflecting from them. He turned his attention back to Oppenheimer.
“Fionn's distractions aside, we are your forefathers in the sense that in the distant past, we also created powerful artefacts, although frankly, they pale in comparison to yours. Oppie, your leadership, your accomplishments, your technology -- these are nothing short of amazing. We are proud of you, yet we're worried, too. The reverberations of the Gadget traveled farther than you realize. Much farther. That is why we are here -- to warn you of the ramifications this will have on your psyche.”
“To warn me?” Oppenheimer narrowed his eyes as he spoke to Saunders. “Don’t you think I have considered the ethics of what I have done? That my conscience has not wrestled long and hard over this? In the end, I am a scientist. I led the project. We came up with the technology. Let the politicians and the military make the decisions as to its disposition.”
“And you think that by renouncing such decisions that you will not have blood on your hands?” Fionn retorted. “You cannot shirk the responsibility for the creation of your weapon, Oppie, no matter how much you turn to dharma and fate. You are not Prince Arjuna, and the government is not Krishna.”
“Fionn is right. You must assume responsibility,” Saunders said, his baritone voice soft. He paused, swallowed hard and continued. “Oppie, both Fionn and I created works of great beauty, each for a different purpose. Fionn tried to capture the sublime and preserve it. I wished to control others with my work. We poured our technological know-how into our craft, but ultimately, our creations caused many deaths and massive destruction.
"Yes, Fionn has blood on his hands, but I have much more in my ill-conceived quest to become a god-king, hence these shackles. My pride and my folly were born of my intention –- a good intention initially -- to bring order to the world. Isn't what you wish to do? Restore order to the world -- to bring this terrible war to an end with your fearsome technology?
"Robert, I have to say, for all the horror that I inflicted on the world, the consequences of your weapon are far worse: the deaths that will result from the detonations in Japan and the potential for more death, even the extinction of mankind. What you and your men have unleashed is beyond my comprehension.”
Oppenheimer buried his face in his hands. He knew. The targets had been selected. Next month, the applications of theory would explode over a far land. Saunders and Fionn each put a hand on his shoulders and comforting warmth radiated into him, but their eyes glittered as he looked up at them, his vision distorted by his tears.
“I am sorry, Oppie.” Fionn said, his smooth voice now husky. “It will be hard to bear. Do not regret what you have done. It may be that you and your men will save lives by taking others. You must accept responsibility in the end. But know this: you will be punished, and not only by self-inflicted guilt. Others will punish you. The three of us here...we all started with good intentions, but the outcomes can be dark. It’s a Faustian bargain.”
Saunders looked at him, his eyes sad and haunted, their silver light dimmed. “You are both the Creator and the Destroyer, Robert. Brahma and Shiva. Now be Vishnu the Preserver. Be wise. Be careful.”
“And stop smoking those damn things,” Fionn scolded. “You’re killing yourself with them.”
“Sound advice.” Saunders smiled, his mood lightening, as he pushed back his chair and stood with Fionn following suit.
“Well, Oppie, it has been a pleasure. Saunders and I must take our leave.”
Oppenheimer stood and pulled at the rim of his pork pie hat. “Likewise, it has been an interesting dream, worthy of psychoanalysis, I’d think, what with all your obscure remarks and blunt ones, too. Who would have guessed that fellows like you lurked in my subconscious?”
Fionn laughed. “Stay away from the Freudians, Oppie. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” He stepped forward and embraced Oppenheimer, patting him on the back, and then released him to be hugged in a similar avuncular fashion by Saunders. Again, as he was enveloped in these tall men’s arms, the electric sensation coursed through him, as if his body recognized something familiar in these truly strange beings.
Oppenheimer took a final drag on the cigarette. “Before you go, you say you are scientists...inventors. What did you make?”
Fionn and Saunders looked at one another for a long moment. Fionn reached deep into his pockets and pulled out three jewels, which he held in his cupped hands. The jewels blazed with internal fire, their gold, silver and white light scintillating together in a bizarre, rhythmic pattern. Oppenheimer squinted at the nearly blinding light. What were the materials used to construct these? What was the nature of the reactions that produced the emission of the light? Fionn smiled knowingly as if he had guessed his thoughts.
“I can’t tell you how much I’d like to discuss that with you, Oppie, but I’m afraid it is not allowed.”
Saunders slowly reached into the left pocket of his khakis and pulled out a simple gold ring. He closed his hand around it briefly and then opened his fingers, the space of his missing digit all the more jarring against the beauty of the artefact. The ring shone with a golden light that glowed from graceful foreign script engraved in the metal.
Saunders and Fionn held the jewels and the ring close to one another, each man engrossed in the sight of his creation. Then both men raised their eyes to meet his stare. Oppenheimer realized that if the ethereal light was taken away, Fionn and Saunders' eyes resembled his own with their clarity, their intensity, and their immense sorrow.
“Good-bye, Oppie,” Fionn said, his lilting voice etched with sadness and regret.
“Good-bye, Fionn, Saunders.”
“Farewell, Robert," said Saunders. "The three of us...now we’re all sons of bitches."
With that, Fionn and Saunders simultaneously tossed the jewels and the ring high into the air where they swirled around each other until they could no longer be seen. Then the sky exploded with the radiance of a thousand suns.
His heart raced as he recalled the dream. As always, he was exhilarated, confused and frightened upon its recollection. He remembered that his upper palate was painful the morning after the dream, burned from the hot black coffee. He remembered that day in 1953 when he read the news: the structure of DNA had been solved, and the code of the secret of life was cracked. He had walked from the Institute over to the university campus where he went to the library and found the copy of Nature. Watson and Crick. Jim and Francis. How had Fionn and Saunders - figments of his subconscious mind - known about them? Later, he saw the photo of Jim Watson. Those brilliant eyes. Intense. Vastly intelligent. So similar to his own, and lack of refractive proteins notwithstanding, so much like Fionn and Saunders' eyes.
He had written a note to Watson, leaving the small stamped envelope unsealed since he knew the agents would read it. He asked Watson for a reprint. Within two weeks, the big envelope, its seal broken by Strauss' goons, arrived at Olden Manor. Watson had expressed his admiration for Oppenheimer as written on the front of the reprint, stating that he was honored by the request from one of America's greatest scientists.
Oppenheimer had paged through the reprint in the warm sun, its light filtering through the leafy trees that lined the Princeton street. He examined the model of the double helix. Beautiful. Elegant. What would be the consequences of Watson and Crick's discovery? Would it revolutionize the world like the detonations in 1945? Jim Watson was his brother in science, and possibly, if he were to put any credence in a dream's intimation, his very distant cousin linked through eldritch genes embedded in the helices that coiled within their respective cells. Did they share an improbable common inheritance from those two men who came from another time - from an elusive history? He had read Watson's note again and traced the script with his fingers. A chill ran up his arm as his nerves sang in recognition.
The blond girl stuck her head in the room again.
“Professor Oppenheimer, this is the two minute warning.”
“Thank you. I am ready.”
One hundred forty-thousand dead in Hiroshima. Seventy-four thousand in Nagasaki. Missiles with nuclear warheads in the Soviet Union and the United States aimed at one another, bristling atomic sabers ready to carry death across the continents. Three jewels and a golden ring ignited the sky. You are Brahma and Shiva. Be Vishnu. He had no regrets. He had done the right thing, but he bore the responsibility. And he had been punished.
The camera was rolling, but he couldn't bring himself to look directly at it. He kept his eyes lowered for the most part as he spoke of that early morning in mid-July twenty years ago.
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.