Monday, October 19, 2009

DBTL 40: Every Breath You Take

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. In the absence of our timeline's Manhattan Project, nuclear weapons have been developed independently in Italy, France, Great Britain, and the Polish Commonwealth. To avoid a European nuclear arms race, the four nations join together in September 1946 to create the Atomic Control Commission . . .

Alice Springs, Australia
4 November 1946

There are two seasons in the Australian outback, hot and hotter. With the coming of spring, Klaus Fuchs knew he was in for another scorching summer.

The trouble with the British was that they had gotten so used to running their empire on a shoestring that they would economize on the most ridiculous things. Like air conditioning. Here he was in the middle of a scientific project that had, all told, cost the British government almost five hundred million pounds, and they couldn't even splurge on air conditioning for the laboratories in the middle of the vast, stinking Australian desert.

Ah well, a man had to deal with these sorts of inconveniences. At any rate, it was still bearable in the daytime. When he had first arrived in Alice three years before, he had purchased one of the peculiar local hats with the cork-tipped tassels hanging down from around the brim, and in the summer it shielded him from the worst of the sun's heat. He was walking through one of the typically dusty residential streets on the way to one of his usual dead drops, a rubbish bin, when he noticed a young man slouching next to a wall nearby. He was dressed like a local workman, except for his shoes, which were not the sort of shoes a local workman would wear. Fuchs had just decided not to make the drop when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

Fuchs turned slowly to find himself looking at an exceptionally ordinary man with an exceptionally ordinary face. "Good afternoon, Herr Doctor Fuchs," said the ordinary man in German. "My name's Smiley, George Smiley. I'm with the Atomic Control Commission."

Fuchs knew without having to look that the slouching young man he had seen was no longer slouching, but was standing quietly a meter or two behind him. He sighed a slight, noiseless sigh and replied in English, "Good afternoon, Mr. Smiley. How may I help you?"

"You and I will be going into that question in considerable detail later on this evening, Dr. Fuchs," said Smiley. "For now, I would like you to accompany us to our rooms."

"Are they air-conditioned?" asked Fuchs.

"I'm afraid not," said Smiley sympathetically. "We're on rather a tight budget."

Sighing again, Fuchs followed Smiley up the street.

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