Comrades of Time by Edmond Hamilton appeared in the March 1939 issue of Weird Tales. It can be found here at Luminist.org.
Are there any stories featuring the Foreign Legion that don’t have them being slaughtered to the man? Right as the Allah-invoking Tuareg is about to kill Ethan Drew, the last man standing, Ethan’s world explodes around him in light and he wakes up to find himself in a cave with the darnedest assortment of fighting-men he’s ever seen!
Written during an age that we’ve been told was devoid of diversity in fiction, Edmond Hamilton brings us a tale of an American fighting with the Foreign Legion, an Ancient Egyptian, a 10th century Viking, a wild-west trapper, a Spanish conquistador, and a member of Cromwell’s New Model Army, all of whom have been ripped through time and space beyond the year One Million AD to save a scientist with the help of his beautiful daughter.
At the end of an epoch, when all of the continents and Earth’s final empire are on the verge of sinking beneath the waves, an evil king has kidnapped a scientist who has discovered the power of time travel. In his desperation, the scientist found History’s Greatest WarriorsTM and brought them to his own time to stop the evil king from escaping further into the future with an immortal cyborg whose wisdom he plans to use to some nebulous advantage. You can’t say no to a gorgeous dame whose father is your only way home to your own time, so the party adventures, fights, and sneaks its way to where the evil king is plotting his escape.
The best part of this story is the interactions between the characters – in a lot of ways, they feel like a prototypical team of superheroes (I would love to read a comic about these guys’ ongoing adventures). While the characters are a bit flat and limited by the length of the story, their quirks are designed to play off one another fairly well. Pedro Lopez, “one of the valiant followers of the peerless Don Hernando Cortez”, and John Crewe, “formerly corporal in the Ironsides of that man of God, Oliver Cromwell”, often steal the show, particularly when the latter would take to rebuking the former for his blasphemy.
While there is some speculation that one of Lord of the Rings’ biggest contribution to D&D was the notion of the adventuring party (it’s been pointed out that many S&S adventurers are solo, like Conan or Cugel, or duos, like Fafhrd & Mouser or Elric and his buddy of the day), here we have a pre-Lord of the Rings Appendix N-contemporary example of a story in which six “Fighting Men” start in a dungeon cave that they must escape from, fight their way to a wicked city, sneak into said city via underground tunnels, go into the tower of the evil king, kill a cyborg, and save the beautiful dame’s father so they all can get to go home.
What was most interesting about this piece, though, was how it was prototypical of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. The sun is huge and red, most of the civilizations have fallen, many continents have sunk beneath the waves, and mankind has reverted to a kind of decadent barbarism; the people of Tzar debauch themselves in drink, sex and wild revelries as they await the inevitable end of all things. The immortal cyborg is desperately suicidal, just a head connected to machines keeping it alive throughout the ages – it’s gained countless lifetimes of wisdom and knowledge since they days it was a mad scientist, and it has witnessed mankind’s descent: the last thing it wants is the evil king to drag him further into the future and so bargains with the party to kill it.
Had I read this story earlier, I would’ve probably been more blown away by it. Instead, I’d say that it was a solid, workmanlike but entertaining piece that is more par-for-the-course of pulp SF adventure than any sort of outstanding exemplary story. For instance, it lacks the kitchen-sink gonzo approach of a fairly similar story by Gardner F. Fox written just a few years later. But don’t take that for my saying this wasn’t good fun.
At the end, Ethan Drew is at first sad, because all of his friends and companions are all dead, or in the case of the dame and her father, not born for over a million years, but then he is happy, because he realizes that they are all still alive in their times – time was all that separated them. On one hand, it’s not quite as satisfying an ending as I would’ve liked, but it does leave the door open for future adventures of the Comrades of Time – someone get on making a comic out of this!