Saturday, October 31, 2009

DBTL 46C: Three Days in October - Vigil

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, tasked with maintaining a global monopoly on nuclear weapons. Now that monopoly is being threatened by a secret American atom bomb project, and President Alben Barkley has a decision to make . . .

Washington DC, USA
15 October 1949

Alben William Barkley, 34th President of the United States, stood alone in the East Wing of the White House, staring down into the casket that held the mortal remains of his friend and predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Far away in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he knew, General Leslie R. Groves and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer were putting the finishing touches on a uranium fission bomb they called Little Boy. He knew that Oppenheimer, at least, had misgivings about the project, since it was in violation of the League of Nations' self-proclaimed monopoly on atomic power. But Oppenheimer was a patriot, and despite his misgivings he had worked tirelessly to reproduce the work of his colleagues in Italy, Britain, France and Poland.

Equally far away, he knew, in Alberta, Canada, were three Royal Air Force rocketplanes, waiting to put a final end to Dr. Oppenheimer's project by dropping their own fission bomb on Los Alamos. The United States, after thirty years of peace, had nothing in its own meager arsenal that could keep those planes away from New Mexico.

He had until noon tomorrow to make the decision: give in to the League, and let their Atomic Control Commission take over Los Alamos, or stand up to them, sacrifice Los Alamos, and risk war with the League.

His whirling thoughts were interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps. He turned to see Eleanor Roosevelt, dressed in her widow's black.

"Hello, Alben. I'm sorry for disturbing you, I just wanted . . . "

Barkley smiled, relieved to be distracted from his thoughts. "That's just fine, Miss Eleanor, don't you worry about it," he said, turning on the Southern charm. "I'm pleased at the company."

"Thank you, Alben."

They stood side by side for a time, looking down into the bespectacled face. Then Barkley said, "Eleanor, what do you think he would have done?"

There was another period of silence before Mrs. Roosevelt said, "He would have done what was right. He would have done what was best for America."

"But what is right? Is it right to allow the League to interfere in our internal affairs? Is it right to defy the whole world for a principle? Is it right to risk war? Is it right to back down?"

Mrs. Roosevelt was silent once more, before saying, "Franklin would have found a way. He would have found the right thing to do."

Barkley heard her footsteps carry her away.

For a long time after that, there was only silence. Then Barkley heard another set of footsteps approaching, a man's set this time.

"Hello, Alben," said Harry Hopkins.

"Hello, Harry. Did Eleanor send you down?"

"No. I came here on my own."

Silence returned for a time until Barkley said, "Harry, you probably knew him better than any man alive. What do you think he would have done?"

There was a brief silence, then Hopkins said, "He would have done what people wanted him to do. He had the best political instincts of any man I knew. He knew what people wanted, what they needed, sometimes when they didn't even know themselves. He would have given them what they wanted, and told them why they wanted it, and when he was done explaining, they would have known that it was what they had wanted him to do all along."

"But what do they want? They don't want war, but they don't want to let the League tell us what to do either."

Hopkins said simply, "Franklin would have known what they wanted."

Barkley heard Hopkins' steps go off into the distance, and he was alone again.

An eternity seemed to pass while Barkley stared down into the casket. It seemed odd seeing Franklin without his leg braces. He wondered idly whether they ought to have included them, but immediately dismissed the thought. That wasn't how Franklin thought of himself, and it wasn't how he wanted others to think of him.

Another set of footsteps made their way across the hardwood floor. Barkley looked up, and was surprised to see Jack Garner.

Garner grinned at the surprise he saw on Barkley's face. "Wasn't expecting to see me here, eh Alben?"

"Well, you and Franklin didn't part on the best of terms."

Garner laughed that cracked laugh of his. "Ain't it the truth? But I had to come and say adios. He was a hell of a man, and the best damn President this country's seen since Andy Jackson."

Barkley found his spirits rising. He had been feeling terribly old ever since his meeting yesterday with Raczyński, but seeing Garner was guaranteed to make any man under 75 feel young. Nine years older than Barkley almost to the day, Garner was one of those evil old men who got older and older, but never died.

"What do you think he would have done, Jack?" Barkley asked.

"Something devious, Alben, that's what. He was the most devious man I ever knew, and coming from a Texan that's saying something!"

Barkley sighed. "Jack, it was being devious that got us into this mess!"

"You mean trying to get our own atom bomb without the League knowing?" Garner gave that cackle again, and said, "Naw, that ain't being devious, that's just being sneaky. Devious is a whole 'nother ball of wax. Devious is making Joe Kennedy head of the SEC. Old Frankie knew how to be devious." The cackle came once more, and Garner repeated, "Frankie woulda done something devious. Real devious. And he woulda got away with it, too!"

And laughing that horrible laugh of his, Garner left Barkley alone again.

Barkley stood beside the casket for a time, then turned and went back to the big office with the Presidential seal on the floor. He lifted the handset of his phone and said, "Dwight, I want you to get the Polish embassy on the line."

(to be continued)

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