Monday, November 2, 2009

DBTL 46E: Three Days in October - Epilogue

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. After a long vigil in the East Wing, Barkley makes his decision . . .

Alamogordo, New Mexico
24 October 1949

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer sat in the bunker at Alamogordo as the clock counted down to zero. Despite the dark glasses he wore, and despite having his eyes closed, he could see, hell he could feel the flash as Little Boy detonated within its tower. He cautiously opened his eyes, then stood up to peer through the six-inch thick leaded glass window that faced the distant tower. Seeing films of the tests in Murzuq and Alice Springs had done nothing to prepare him for the reality.

As the mushroom cloud rose and the shock wave from the explosion passed through the bunker, a phrase came to him from the Bhagavad Gita, and he softly spoke the words aloud. "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds."

Then, with a glance at his companion, he translated the words into German and explained their source.

"I think you are being too pessimistic," Enrico Fermi replied in the same language. "Had there been war between your country and the League, then you would have cause for pessimism. As it is, the forces that have been unleashed here today will remain under control -- if not quite the sort of control the League was expecting."

Oppenheimer found comfort in Fermi's words. The resolution of the Los Alamos crisis had lifted an increasingly heavy burden from his shoulders. He no longer need fear that the fruits of his labor would be used to destroy London, or Rome, or Paris, or would provoke the League into destroying Washington, or Boston, or New York.

President RaczyƄski had demonstrated his usual flair for imaginative diplomacy in choosing Fermi to head the Polish "liaison team" to Los Alamos. While playing an instrumental role in Poland's atom bomb project, Fermi was not, and in all likelihood would never be, associated with the Atomic Control Commission. His former countrymen in Italy, who still viewed him as a traitor, would see to that.

"Do you think all this will work?" Oppenheimer asked, indicating Fermi's colleagues from Lublin who had joined them in the past week, and by extension the Polish-American alliance that had allowed both sides a way out of their dilemma.

Fermi smiled confidently and said, "We all have the strongest possible motivation for making it work -- the desire to live."

Oppenheimer was not as certain as Fermi. He was one of the few people in America who knew just how close the outcome had been -- how close he and the other researchers in Los Alamos had come to dying in a burst of atomic fire like that of the still-growing mushroom cloud that he could see lighting up the New Mexico desert. How close the whole country had come to a second World War fought with atomic weapons.

The desire to live had won out this time, aided by President Barkley's diplomatic sleight-of-hand, but would it always?

Despite the heat in the bunker, Oppenheimer found himself shivering.

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