The taxicab slows to a stop, the brakes screeching. The driver barely stops in time before hitting the Plymouth in front of them. This isn’t the first time during Oppie's trip the driver had shown himself a bit inattentive.
Oppie wonders briefly if the driver got his license from a crackerjack box. This is no time for reckless driving, he thinks to himself. He has to be back at the lab soon, but he'd rather walk the rest of the way than go through that again.
He looks out the window, trying to stuff down his feelings of annoyance. Where they have stopped is right beside a vacant lot, a place where many of the homeless have taken shelter only a couple of miles away from the lab. Some have pitched tents, while others have created their own homemade shelters of cardboard.
Oppie can’t help but feel a little revolted by the clutter. It makes things too real for him, and brings his heart online for a change. He hates to think about the feelings of lost hope these poor vagrants and drifters must be suffering from, though he’s heard that some prefer this state to normal city life.
He can’t help but notice one particular man among this throng of drifters, the man who is staring straight at him. He looks pale like a ghost, even from afar, but Oppie senses a fire burning in this man's soul that keeps him alive. He feels a kinship with him but is unsure why. The rest are either asleep, chatting, or smoking cigars, their stick-and-bindles either on the ground or leaning against their other belongings, while some are clutching them as if their life depended on them. They just don't want their stuff disappearing. And no one can blame them. All kinds of gypsies are hanging about.
Oppie tells the driver to let him out. He looks at him like he’s lost his mind. Oppie doesn’t bother to explain, just pays his fare, tips the driver a little change, and they both take leave of each other. He watches the Desoto drive off before beginning to make his way across the road.
The sounds of misery begin to greet him before he gets to the lot, the groans of the oppressed, the occasional sneezes and coughs ringing in his ears. And as he gets closer to the man, he hears not only the man's hacking and coughing but a bit of idle conversation from the others nearby him. One guffaws and makes a slur about him being one of those city slickers. Oppie wonders if he should have worn something different today instead of the suede shoes and gray sportscoat, but he’d just gotten out from a meeting before catching the cab. Soon he will be back at the lab where he can change into different attire.
Taking another look at the man, he notes the bony protrusions under the front of this drifter's checkered blue-and-black flannel shirt. His trousers have holes in places that aren’t at all a good fashion statement.
He wonders how long it’s been since the man has eaten. Still, Oppie sees an even deeper hunger in him, one that goes beyond food, one that matches his own. Oppie has never needed sensitivity for his work at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. Instead, he and his brother, Frank, get paid for their genius, not for any service to others. He has truly been living in his head, not his heart, as he helped make the very weapon that might destroy everything.
In his slightly penitent state, he feels compelled to help this man in some way.
He closes the distance between them.
“Sir, are you hungry? Is there something I can get for you?”
“Not unless you can help the whole lot of us here,” the man replies. “If you have enough, I’ll divide it between all of us. Otherwise, keep your money.”
He points to the knapsack and a few other belongings to the side of him. Some of it looks like miscellaneous junk he’s picked up over the past few weeks or more.
“I have my collection,” he replies. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me. The question is will YOU be ok tomorrow, the next day, and the one after that....after what you all have done....." the man's voice trails off, his drooping eyes match his sad tone.
Oppie’s jaw drops. He wonders what the man means. He knows some of the homeless suffer not just from physical illness but mental, so it could mean anything.
Oppie walks back across the street to make his way toward the lab, hoping to avoid any further drama, but the man hollers out at him.
Oppie is already near the other side of the street when he glances backward a little, still walking a few more paces before stopping. He turns around to stare at the man without saying anything, waiting for him to show his intentions.
The drifter begins waving his arms back and forth to get Opie’s attention. Opie wonders what the man wants. Maybe he changed his mind. He wonders if the man prefers whiskey over money.
But there is no cry for assistance coming. What happens next makes his own blood freeze in his veins.
“What the hell were you thinking?” the man cries out. He is already making his way toward Opie at lightning speed considering his fragile appearance. The man's voice cracks at him like a whip, tearing the flesh of his conscience.
In a flash, he is standing straight in front of Opie, fiery eyes burning into his, filling him with dread.
“I—I---uh, don’t know what you mean,” Opie stammers, unable to be articulate for the first time in many years. His own frame shrinks as if anticipating an imaginary blow from this strange man he doesn’t even know and shouldn’t fear based on his appearance.
The man’s hands remain at his side, though his hands are gripped into fists. He’s about to speak again.
“We both know what you are trying to do,” he says, “And there’s not much time before it will be too late. You must act quickly or millions will suffer because of YOU.”
Opie’s face turns gray. This could be a serious security breach. Could the man really know about the fission experiment, even though it is supposed to be classified?
“You’re wondering how I know what you’ve been up to,” the man replies to Opie’s thoughts as if he spoke the words aloud. The tones of his voice become shrill on the last two words.
Opie attempts to match the man’s tone, inserting fake confidence into it.
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Now, I need to be on my way, sir.”
His head drops to his chin with shame. He hates the part he is playing in all this, and what Truman is about to do also, but feels trapped. But he has a meeting to be at soon.
The man’s visage softens. The once fiery eyes look like brown circles of molasses. He offers Opie his hand to shake.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been rude. Let me introduce myself. I’m Sage, and I wasn’t sent here to give you a hard time. I have a message for your General Groves.”
He takes out a crumpled-up piece of paper from the left pocket of his tattered jeans.
“This is for his eyes only," he says, "no peeking," The man’s voice intones deeper during his final words, making it clear that he expects compliance. Opie doesn’t understand how this could really make much difference. They've all been involved since day one at Los Alamos.
“Thank you, sir,” Oppie answers with a blank expression.
He’s tempted to unfold the untidy piece of graph paper right away but remains obedient. He’d rather not take a chance of further provoking this "Sage" person. Instead, he walks away.
Ten seconds pass before he is compelled to look backward to see the man one last time.
To his astonishment, the pale man has vanished.
General Leslie Groves likes his coffee black, but his facial expression is even blacker than the coffee when Oppie walks into his office to give him the crumpled up note. Maybe it would all make sense to Groves because it sure didn't to him.
Standing beside the Moka pot, Groves is shifting from one foot to the other waiting for his brew to be ready.
“What do you want, Opp?” he says gruffly.
“Nothing General,” Oppie replies, “But I have something for you, courtesy of someone who might know a little something more about our project than he ought to."
He hands the crumpled-up piece of yellowed paper to the General and watches as he opens it. The man’s face grimaces in response to what he sees on the page.
What could the man have scrawled that could really be so important?
Oppie wonders what the General would think if he told him the guy was homeless and a nobody and yet he seemed to know something about the lab and its work even if he hadn't clearly said that.
“Where did you get this?” the General demands, “This is outrageous.”
Oppie moves toward where the General is now, looking at the paper to see what could be written on it.
“All I see is a formula. I think it's the same one my brother, and I, and everyone else involved in the science of this were working on, the one that explains the reaction needed for atomic fission, the one that led us all to this discovery in the first place,” Oppie offers.
The General shakes his head.
“What the heck are you talking about?”
Oppie can’t help but notice that the man has turned three shades of green as if he might be about to be sick.
“Uh…well…we aren’t seeing the same thing, obviously.” He ventures, the fear evident in his facial expression. Oppie notices he isn’t shifting around anymore. His feet are fastened to the floor right where he is standing.
“I see a message here….and it’s in blood.”
“I didn’t see any blood." Oppie answers. " Man, are you OK?”
“I better tell the President about this,” the General barks, “I have to make the call now. We need to abort."
Oppie has no idea what is going on but it doesn’t sound good.
“But what does the message SAY…” he ventures, but the General doesn’t answer him. He simply waves his hand at Oppie, letting him know it’s time to take leave of his office and go to the other side of the lab and wait for an update.
President Truman answers the phone with a sigh and a “Hmph” when his General tells him the news. They can’t use the bomb they’ve created? What nonsense.
There was no way he would be turning back now, not with the budget that was spent on the project. More importantly, he would make those Japs pay, not just for testing him, but also for confronting the greatest country in the world.
The General seems earnest, Truman thinks, but why has he suddenly become a humanitarian, for crying out loud? He has never seen Groves have a conscience.
He dismisses the thought with another sigh before a slight smile begins to tug at his lips. This will save a lot of American lives. General Groves can just go fly a kite. The command will be given whether he likes it or not.
“Follow my orders,” he speaks into the phone, his voice beginning to sound a bit ominous, “or be court-marshaled, general.”
"Yes, Mr. President," Groves replies, knowing that either way he would be regretting this day.
The phone clicks. He's gotten his point across.
The General returns to see Oppie has returned sooner than expected, no doubt wanting to know what just happened with him and the President.
“Ya know, I said you were dismissed, Opp, this is not your problem," Groves says hoarsely. A vein is popping out from his forehead and his throat looks tense.
“I know, but I couldn’t help but worry. What’s going on Groves?"
“Nothing you need to worry about. But you need to take me to this fellow who gave you the note,” he says. An edge in his voice indicates he won’t take no for an answer. “Let’s take a drive. You show me the way.”
The General puts the Plymouth in park after they stop near the vacant lot where the homeless guy gave Oppie the note. Oppie wonders if Sage will actually be there. He'd disappeared, after all, into thin air when he left. To his surprise, the man is present. This time he is dressed much better though.
“I thought you’d be back soon,” Sage says, his face aglow with satisfaction. “And who do we have here? My replacement,” he says, answering his own question.
The drifter glares at the General, feeling disgusted that this man will be his replacement whether he likes it or not now, the one who takes people to the other side. In his depravity, the man only cares about numbers and getting his term over with as soon as he can, not about the lives taken before their time.
“You’ve certainly gotten off to a good start with your body count quota before you even get to take over my job."
The General smiles wickedly.
“Yes, I certainly have, reaper. You should have known that you couldn't force my hand, writing that note. Truman would never back down. I admit it was clever of you to report my “activities” within the Manhattan Project to the Big Guy, but the fact that I tried to talk Truman out of it makes me look good now to him. You'll never be able to prove otherwise."
Gordan pauses, wiping sweat from his neck and forehead with a handkerchief he’s pulled from his pocket, "God, it's hot here. I can't be on this planet long. I hear that by the year 2000 the globe will begin warming beyond control."
He continues, “I’m going to be making my quota of deaths quickly and retire much faster than you. I never wanted to be stuck as a reaper for long as you and end up decrepit and homeless for my efforts. I'd much rather finish early. You ran out of good years, didn't you?" Gordon chuckles, satisfied with himself.
“Well, actually, that’s where you’re wrong, General,” Sage retorts, a smirk crossing his face and slight mischief is betrayed within his tone.
Sage continues, “They've raised your quota enough that you’ll be doing this a long, long time, much longer than I have, for sure. So, now who's going to be old and decrepit?"
All three men are suddenly startled by a sharp explosion, though it is not sounding on their physical ears, but rather in some place of knowing that will haunt them forever.
“Did you both hear that?” the drifter asks both the General and Oppie.
They nod in unison.
“It’s time for me to go,” he tells them both and begins walking back toward the horizon as he did the last time Oppie saw him disappear. But Oppie doesn’t notice this, nor see it when the man is no longer present. He’s too sad about the lives that he knows are forfeit.
The General looks sickeningly pleased with himself. Oppie’s eyes droop and his shoulders slump in repentance.
A whole 30 seconds pass before Oppie says, “What have we done?”
General Groves says, “It’s not your fault, Opp. Don’t blame yourself. You just did your job.”
“But I do feel responsible,” Oppie answers, “In fact, I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The General replies,
“No, you haven’t, Opp. That’s my title now.”
It is then that before Oppie’s eyes, the General’s features begin to change…
When the transformation is finished, Groves is standing before him in ragged clothes, just as pale and bony as the drifter used to be.
For He has become HIM now… the reaper…and for how long he doesn’t know.
Will it be 50 years, a century, two centuries, an era, or forever?
It dawns on Groves that maybe he doesn’t deserve to know…
And the extra lives he has taken... he will certainly be paying for...