Sunday, August 2, 2009

DBTL 24: Equal and Opposite

Rome, Italy
4 September 1945

General Galeazzo Ciano, Conte di Cortellazzo and son-in-law of Benito Mussolini, was rather alarmed by Ambassador Potocki's invitation. Although his role as Director of the Prometheus Project was not generally known (reasonably enough, given that the Project was the most closely guarded secret in Italy), Ciano had no doubt that the intelligence services of Europe's other great powers were aware of both the Project and his role in it. Ever since the Duce had used Italy's atomic bomb to convince the Yugoslavs to cede control of Slovenia, word must inevitably have traveled from Belgrade to the other capitals of Europe.

So: given that the other European governments knew of the existence of the Italian Bomb, and hence of the Project, and hence of his leadership thereof, it stood to reason that any foreign diplomat who wished to speak with him intended to discuss some aspect of Italy's new atomic-powered foreign policy.

Although he was no diplomat, General Ciano was well aware of the stir Italy's recent move into Slovenia had caused throughout Europe. Ciano could now understand his father-in-law's uncharacteristic caution in waiting five whole months after the Bomb's completion before making use of it.

And of course, an invitation from Count Jerzy Potocki, the Polish ambassador to Italy, was particularly alarming given the presence of Ciano's traitorous predecessor Enrico Fermi among the staff of Berlin's Maria Sklodowska Institute, which held the largest concentration (a critical mass, as Ciano thought of it) of physicists in Europe. Although the Italian government's own international spy network had been unable to find any evidence that the Sklodowska Institute formed the nucleus (as Ciano thought of it) of a Polish counterpart to the Prometheus Project, there was no doubt in the General's mind that Fermi was indeed the head of just such a rival project. The only question was how far the Fermi Project (as Ciano thought of it) had traveled on the road to atomic weapons. Most alarming of all was Ciano's feeling that he was about to find out.

The Polish Embassy was located within a large compound which duplicated the look and layout of a classical Roman villa. A stone wall with an elaborate iron gate surrounded the compound, and Ciano's staff car was obliged to pass through the gate and proceed slowly up a gravel drive to the entrance which graced the main building's otherwise blank exterior.

A hallway embellished with suitably classical statuary led to a large tastefully decorated room whose fourth wall consisted of a set of plate glass windows looking out onto a meticulously maintained garden. A fountain at the garden's center was lit with turquoise spotlights, whose illumination gave the room a submarine aspect.

Count Potocki greeted Ciano in fluent though heavily accented Italian. Ciano responded with appropriate pleasantries, and the conversation moved in due time to the reason for the Ambassador's invitation.

"I would like," Potocki said, "to present you with a demonstration. If you'll be so kind as to follow me?" He led Ciano into a much smaller room holding a conference table surrounded by chairs. A film projector sat at one end of the table, and a portable movie screen took up much of the wall opposite.

Potocki dimmed the lights and switched on the projector. "The tower you see here," he began, "is located within the Pripet Marshes, about a hundred kilometers east of Lublin."

"Lublin!" Ciano exclaimed. Of course! That was how the Poles had managed to conceal the existence of their atom bomb project! They had used their rocket project as a cover! Ciano was willing to wager that the odious Fermi had never come within five hundred kilometers of Lublin. He must have been in constant communication with the bomb project there nevertheless, and the Italians had never even suspected. Ciano looked at Potocki, illuminated by the backwash from the movie screen, with an astonishment that approached awe. "You magnificent bastard!"

Potocki accepted the comment with due modesty. "We try, General. As I was saying..." The Ambassador went on to narrate the rest of the film, which ended with a series of shots of felled trees all pointing away from a vast carbonized depression.

As he brought the lights back up, Potocki handed Ciano a document. "This contains the text of an agreement admitting Yugoslavia to the Warsaw Pact, as well as a request from the Polish government that the Italian troops currently stationed in Slovenia be withdrawn by the tenth of this month, at no later than 9 AM Warsaw time."

Ciano departed the Polish Embassy with a heavy heart. His father-in-law, he knew, would be quite displeased.

Rome, Italy
5 September 1945

"It vexes me," Benito Mussolini muttered. "I'm terribly vexed."

General Galeazzo Ciano remained silent while his father-in-law stared down at the Polish ultimatum which sat so innocuously on his desk. "First Ethiopia," the Duce continued, "and now this. As soon as I start to achieve success, it is snatched away from me." He looked up at Ciano. "Are you certain that this film Potocki showed you was genuine?"

The word set Ciano back. "Genuine?"

"Yes, genuine!" Mussolini barked. "Real! Not faked! Are you certain that what you saw was an actual atomic explosion, and not some trickery?"

Ciano was about to deny that the footage he had seen could possibly be faked, but then he remembered attending the Italian premiere of To Sail Beyond the Sunset the week before. The atomic blasts in that film had been eerily similar to film footage of the test explosions at Murzuq. At the time, Ciano had wondered if Jack Warner had somehow managed to smuggle a print of the Murzuq tests to Hollywood. Now he wondered if the Polish government could somehow duplicate the film's astonishing special effects.

"It looked genuine," Ciano finally answered, "but of course that is no proof that it was genuine."

Mussolini scowled. There were few men who could watch Il Duce scowl at them and not quail, and Ciano was not one of those men. He felt his knees starting to give way, and only the knowledge that such a display would end his career (and possibly his life) allowed him to stiffen himself to attention.

Mussolini finally exploded with an oath as vile and destructive as an atomic blast. "I can't take the risk, damn it to Hell! Of course the Polacks are bluffing! They have to be bluffing! Even with that dog Fermi helping them, they couldn't possibly have built their own atom bomb from nothing in only three years! But I can't take the risk! If I called their bluff and I was wrong, Mary Mother of God, if I was wrong, Rome would be gone, twenty-five centuries of history reduced to a smoking hole in the ground and I CAN'T TAKE THE RISK!" Mussolini was pounding on his desk, tears streaming from his eyes. "Get out! Get out, God damn it! Get out!"

As General Ciano fled from his father-in-law, he knew that neither Italy nor Mussolini would ever be the same again.

Rome, Italy
5 September 1945

As General Galeazzo Ciano stormed into his office, a worried-looking aide shuffled up to him. "Sir," said the aide, "the French ambassador has invited you to a meeting at his embassy tonight." After an awkward pause, he added, "And the British embassy is on line one."

Ciano spoke a single unprintable word and slammed to door to his office behind him.

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