I’m churning along with this one now, but I’ll still post small chapters for a while until I’ve finished, then I’ll post a long, consolidated version of this story. Again, obvious tie-ins to NightSide/Asynchronous Mud abound. You’ll have to dig deeper to see the tie-ins with TimeShadow.
Ten years later
She sat in the stuffy compartment, rubbing the burning circles under her eyes while looking out the window at a vast, snow-covered prairie rolling by in the darkness. Her eyes felt like molten pools deep within the frozen earth, and she felt a new line of perspiration beading on her forehead.
‘Oh, God no,’ she thought, ‘I can’t get sick. Not now…’
She shook her head, leaned back and palpated the glands in her neck – but they felt soft and small so she relaxed and picked up the sheaf of papers and found her place – again – then dove back into the text, rereading an exploration of transuranic radiochemical fractionation presented only a few months ago in Naturwissenschaften, a journal of physics and chemistry published in Germany. It hadn’t taken Oppenheimer’s team at Berkeley more than a few days to grasp the importance of Hahn and Meitner’s breakthrough, yet it turned out that several groups of physicists around the United States and Canada had made the same observation – and in roughly the same time-frame. Now, varied groups of engineers, chemists and physicists were en route to Washington to meet with the president.
She almost didn’t hear the soft knock on her compartment’s door, but she looked up and shook her head, then rubbed her eyes again before speaking: “Yes?” she said to the darkness.
And then a kindly faced old porter stuck his head in past the door. “Doctor Aubuchon? Doctor Oppenheimer would like to speak with you now, down in his compartment. He says, if you don’t mind.”
“What time is it?” Claire asked.
“Not quite six, Ma’am.”
“Morning? Or afternoon?”
“It’s five-forty-three in the morning, Ma’am.”
“Right,” she sighed, adding: “I need a glass of water” – then she fished for a bottle of aspirin from her purse as the porter slipped from away. She picked up the monograph, and her notes, after she downed the tablets when the water came, then she walked down the swaying corridor to Robert’s compartment.
The door was standing wide open, and her brother Charles stood anxiously when he saw her eyes. He helped her into the chair then closed the door on his way out, never saying a word to her. No words were needed, after all.
“I think you look worse than I feel,” Oppenheimer sighed. “I’d kill for an aspirin right now.”
She nodded, pulled the bottle from her purse and passed it over, wanting more than anything else in the world to pour ice water into her burning eyes.
“You’re rubbing your eyes too much,” Robert chided. “You’ll get episcleritis. Knock it off, and I mean right now. I can’t have you going blind right…”
“I hear you.”
“So? Any new conclusions?”
“We may have underestimated the forces involved. The energy release will be cataclysmic.”
Oppenheimer nodded his head slowly. “That’s my take, too.”
“Have you heard from Werner?”
“Heisenberg? No. And I don’t expect the Reich will let this kind of free exchange of ideas continue. The implications of this work are creating shockwaves throughout the community.”
“What did Bohr have to say about it?”
“I think he’s terrified, Claire.”
“So, he confirmed?”
Oppenheimer nodded his head.
“What are you reading now?” she asked, looking at the colorful book on the little table under the window.
“This? Oh, the Bhagavad Gita,” he said, passing the book over to her.
She opened the heavy tome and looked over a page or two, then passed it back. “You read Sanskrit?”
She shook her head as she looked him in the eye: “Why?”
“I get the impression, reading this now, that these events have been foretold.”
She smiled, then looked out the window again and noted the prairie was shading from gray to purple, then his words registered and she wondered what he meant. “Foretold?”
“Eternal recurrence…something like that. Have you read Jung?”
She shook her head, then looked at him again. “Something about archetypes once.”
“Precisely,” he said. “You should try to get some sleep. We’ll be in Chicago around noon.”
“Straight to D.C. from there?”
“We should arrive tomorrow morning.”
“Have you met him before?”
“Only in passing. Why?”
“Oh, something that happened years ago.”
“Something? Like what?”
“I’m not sure, but I recall seeing him on a ship – and he seemed to know me.”
He looked at her for a long while, then opened the book on his lap and began reading aloud; moments later she felt herself falling…
He looked younger…of that much she was certain. He had looked pale and used up when she’d seen him on the strange ship, but now he seemed stronger – and very sharply focused. When she walked into the conference room he looked up at her briefly, but she saw no recognition in his eyes, nothing at all to indicate they’d ever met before, and his attention had soon shifted to something Harry Hopkins was whispering in his ear.
But it was him. It was Roosevelt she’d seen on the ship, and yet now – here he was. And here she was. In the same room, looking right at him, and everything about him seemed so familiar – again. She watched the way his hands moved – soft yet decisive – and the way his eyes seemed to suck up every detail in the room…like as soon as someone entered he made an inventory of their characteristics. A Navy captain stood behind him, a man named Carlton, talking with Hopkins just now – but the captain was looking at her much more frequently, like he knew something she didn’t.
Then her brother Charles walked up to the officer and the two shook hands – and that seemed to answer that question – for the moment, anyway, then Oppenheimer walked into the room. She watched Roosevelt look up – nothing dismissive in his eyes now – and she watched Oppenheimer work his way around the room to his place at the table – by her right side. Directly across from Roosevelt, she thought. Eye-to-eye. Man-to man.
So, she thought, the president wants to look him in the eye. Wants to see beyond the truth of the moment.
Then three more men walked into the room – three men she recognized from newspaper articles, and she watched them as they walked up to her brother and the Navy captain, then as they shook hands with the president – before moving off to the shadows where Hopkins waited.
Presently the naval officer, Carlton, called the room to order, and everyone’s attention focused on Roosevelt – who coughed once, his eyes bright and wet, before he looked up from a stack of papers on the table in front of him.
“Good morning,” the president said, and there arose a chorus of good wishes from those around the huge table. “I’ve read and reread the various synopses given me by the Navy, and I’ve called this meeting to see what the scientific consensus is about the threat posed by these findings. Dr. Oppenheimer? Care to get this show on the road?”
Robert laughed, then looked over at Claire. “If you don’t mind, Mr. President, I’d prefer that my associate, Dr. Aubuchon, run through our initial observations.”
Claire cleared her throat and was about to speak when Roosevelt coughed again, this time a ragged, rheumy fit, and she watched as his face turned at first red, then faintly blue. A steward poured ice water and Hopkins was by the president’s side in an instant, helping him take the glass in hand. Looks were exchanged around the table as a bottle of cough medicine was produced.
“Damn bugs!” Roosevelt grumbled between spoonfuls of medicine. He put his hands out on the edge of the table – as if steadying himself against a storm-tossed sea – then he looked at Claire and smiled. “Tell me, Doctor Aubuchon, as succinctly as you can…can a bomb be made using the theories and techniques posited in this paper?”
“That remains to be seen, Mr. President. The techniques presented, those to stream off and produce isotopes from raw ores, simply do not exist at this time. Not in the industrial quanriries needed. These are issues related to electrical and mechanical engineering, not simply matters of theoretical physics, and one of the first items that springs to mind is the vast scale needed to produce even measurable quantities. for experimentation. To produce a fission bomb of the sort being characterized would require an industrial operation that simply exists nowhere in the world.”
“Well, sir, imagine a trainload of ore, uranium ore. Perhaps fifty hopper cars worth of raw ore. With optimal efficiencies, and by that I mean utilizing efficiencies of extraction that simply do not exist anywhere on earth today, we might be able to prepare a sample size of, well, sir, a thimble full of the necessary isotope to conduct preliminary experiments on.”
“Alright. Say we lick that problem. How much ore would be needed to produce a bomb?”
Oppenheimer broke in just then. “Mr President, we simply won’t know the answer to that question until we can produce enough of the necessary isotope.”
“And?” the president sighed, “just how much do you think you’d need to get to that point?”
“Perhaps a hundred thousand metric tons, Mr President,” one of the naval officers standing in the shadows said.
“Oh. Is THAT all?” Roosevelt said, his face splitting into that famously broad grin of his. “Where can we lay our hands on that much ore, Captain Henry?”
The President turned and looked at the captain, then at another man standing by Hopkins. “Dr Kirby, is it your belief that the machinery to accomplish this is feasible? On the necessary scale?”
“Sir, we’ve never tried to regulate currents with this degree of precision, but yes, it’s possible. Assuming we can deliver a prototype for testing within a few months, get our testing done, then ramp up production…well…yes sir. We can do it.”
Roosevelt leaned back and looked up at the ceiling for a moment, then daubed his eyes with a handkerchief. “What are we talking about here, Dr Aubuchon? What kind of bomb?”
“Mr President, I don’t think we have a frame of reference here. There’s never been anything like this, not in all human history. We are talking about a vast, elemental power, sir. The power that fuels the universe.”
“Theoretically, Dr Aubuchon. How big?”
“Mr President,” Oppenheimer broke in once again, “once again, we simply don’t know, but initial projections are staggering. Certainly one such device would be enough to destroy a large city.”
“Alright, Robert. Now, one last question. How long will it take the Germans to get there?”
Oppenheimer looked down, shook his head slowly. “There are few sources available to the Germans outside of Africa, but they’ll need to overcome an even more important barrier, sir.”
“And that is?”
“There isn’t a more ethical scientist in Germany, Mr President. Perhaps in the world.”
“I see. And what if Mr Hitler decides to kill this ethical scientist, Dr Oppenheimer? What then?”
“In that case, Mr. President, we’d better be much further along than the Germans.”
She went from the meeting to her brother’s house in Chevy Chase and rested, but only for a few hours. She and her brother, as well as Dr. Oppenheimer, were to dine with the President and Mrs. Roosevelt that evening, and her brother groused it would be necessary for her to ‘look presentable’ for the occasion…
“No, you may not wear that nasty old cardigan tonight!” he’d almost shouted at her. “It’s covered in chalk, let alone smells like it hasn’t been cleaned since 1919!”
“No doubt it hasn’t,” Claire sighed. “It doesn’t – ‘smell,’ so why should I?”
“Because it smells like a goat.”
She’s just left it at that. “Does Anne have something I can borrow?” she asked. Charles’ wife had impeccable taste, and oodles of time to go shopping.
“You two are hardly the same size, you know, but I’ll ask. Have you considered that she’s not at all happy about not being invited to dinner tonight?”
“No, not really. I’d assume most of the things under discussion will be somewhat classified. Does she have the necessary clearance?”
Charles turned and stormed out of her room, grumbling as he thundered down the stairs – leaving Claire to wonder about her brother’s moods one more time. She took off her sweater and dropped onto the bed, and was soon fast asleep – again. She felt urgent hands shaking her awake sometime later, saw the sun was now close to the horizon and that a heavy snow was falling. She rolled over and saw Charles standing by the bed, looking at her with concern in his eyes.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“I’ve been shaking you for ages. I wasn’t even sure you were breathing.”
She sat up slowly, yawning as she did. “How long was I out?”
“About three hours.”
“Do I have time to shower?”
“Well, you won’t be allowed in the White House smelling the way you do right now, so I’d hop to it.”
“I do not smell, Charles.”
“Oh. I see. Perhaps you can explain that to the Golden Retriever outside your door. You know, the one who’s been trying to burrow under the door for the past half hour.” She stood and promptly passed out, falling to the floor like a sack of rocks. She felt Charles’ hands lifting her, helping her to the side of the bed. “You’re burning up, Claire. How long have you felt bad?”
“Night before last, I think. If you have a couple of aspirin handy, I’ll be alright.”
“Can you handle some orange juice?”
“Yes, that’d be nice.”
“Alright, I’ll get that going – if you think you can handle getting to the shower.”
“Help me up, would you?”
He helped her to the bathroom, and when he was sure she was steady on her feet he left her to it; when she came out a few minutes later she found some of Anne’s things laid out on her bed and she dressed, then, looking out the window at the heavy snow falling, dried her hair with a second fresh towel. Charles knocked on the door a few minutes after that, asked if she was ready to go, and he took her arm when she walked out to him.
“Thanks, big brother,” she sighed.
“You’re welcome, little sister,” he said, taking her hand in his.
The Navy had sent a courier to take them to the White House, and as they arrived at the portico she saw Oppenheimer and a turtle-faced man get out of a sedan together, and the two naval officers who’d spoken at the conference earlier were with them, too. “Who’s that with Robert?”
“Yes. He’s at Columbia now, I think. Einstein’s shadow, I think you could say.”
“So I’ve heard. We’re not the only ones invited tonight, I see.”
“I think the guest list has expanded somewhat since we left this afternoon. Einstein will be here, and I heard Thomas Mann may be, as well.”
“The writer? Why him?”
“He’s been helping get academics out of Germany, and is coming to be seen as kind of the father figure to the exile community.”
“He has clearance, Claire. He hates Hitler, and he has the president’s ear.”
She shook her head as Marines came to open their door, and she took Charles’ arm and walked with him into the White House.
After so many years in California, walking from a minor blizzard into the stuffy heat of the old building’s radiator heat was a shock, and almost instantly she broke out in a sweat. Charles, of course, noticed immediately.
“Your face is the color of a plum…what’s going on with you?”
“It’s the heat, I think. As soon as we hit this air I felt like I was going to melt – from the inside out.”
“You’re starting to perspire again.”
“I think I’m going to be sick…”
A steward helped her to the nearest restroom, then a physician was summoned – and she soon found herself in one of the upstairs bedrooms, laid out like a fish on a monger’s scale. Panting now, she tried to close her eyes again – but as soon as she did she was back on the ship.
And Roosevelt was with her again, looking out the thick glass port-light by her side. Looking out at Saturn’s rings, quailing before the implications of this place. The walls were bright red, and somewhat distorted – like the floors sloped up. Regardless of whether she turned to the left or the right, she saw she was inside some sort of vast, toroidal structure.
Then she felt an eyelid being forced apart between two soft fingers, a bright light shining in the middle of her skull, making her turn away – or trying to, at least.
“Ah, good. You’re still with us,” a man’s soothing voice said…then she felt a thermometer sliding between her lips. “Under the tongue, please, if you can,” the voice said.
She sat just in silence, her eyes darting around the bedroom, echoes of red fighting for supremacy. Fingers on her wrist found her pulse, then she saw the physician counting as he watched the motion of her breath. When he was finished, he pulled out the glass thermometer and looked at the scale.
“That can’t be right,” he murmured.
“What is it?”
“Wouldn’t that account for the heat I feel?”
“It might, but then again, you’d probably feel rotten. More than you can imagine.”
“What makes you think I don’t?”
The physician was shaking the thermometer down again, then he placed it in a vial of alcohol for a moment before he wiped it down. “Let’s try this again,” he sighed, slipping it under her tongue a second time.
She listened to a clock ticking in the distance, then the gurgling of hot water flowing through the radiator across the room – and she could almost imagine blood flowing through her veins as another wave of heat washed across the room. In an instant, she was standing beside Roosevelt on the toroidal floor.
“I’ll never tire of looking at this place,” he sighed – then she noticed he was standing now. No wheelchair. No hint of disability – at all.
Then an overwhelming wave of ammonia caught her unawares, her eyes parting again, that noxious light shining inside her skull.
“You passed out again,” the physician said, “and now your temperature is ninety four-three.”
“What do you think’s wrong with me?”
“I’m not quite sure, but the rather annoying thing is that you and the president are experiencing the exact same symptoms. He has – all afternoon, too.”
“I need to speak with him, right away…”
“I’m not sure that’s possible, Doctor Aubuchon.”
“It’s important. I need to ask him something.”
But the door to the room opened, and she saw Roosevelt in his chair out in the hallway, looking on with concern in his eyes; then he was wheeling himself into the room, right up to her bedside.
“Leave us, doctor,” Roosevelt said, and the physician put his things away in his little black bag and left the room, closing the door as he went.
“You were there again,” Roosevelt said, reaching out now – and taking her hand.
His skin felt so familiar, so shockingly intimate and familiar. “What were we doing there?”
The president shook his head and sighed. “I don’t know, but whatever else it may be, it’s real. Your presence here, now, confirms that.”
“This morning, when I walked in the conference room, did you recognize me?”
“No, not right away. When you spoke I began to feel…something like an echo of meeting you. Something far away, something washing over me like a memory of tomorrow. Like something that hasn’t happened yet – but has somewhere else.”
“Some other time, you mean? Something that hasn’t happened yet, but how could that be?”
“Something, or someone, related to this morning’s conference? Something being manipulated?”
“Time?” she said. “But…how?”
“How isn’t as important as why right this moment, Doctor. If we’d simply shared a delusion, the how of this might be interesting – from a psychiatrist’s point of view – but understanding the why of things will be vital going forward. From a politician’s standpoint, I should say.”
“The why of things? Is that important?”
Roosevelt tried not to laugh, but failed – though he caught himself before he started coughing again. “The why is always the most important point to consider, young lady. Why do we need to consider making bombs of uranium? Why do we need to go to war with Germany? How is a question for engineers and economists; why is my purview right now, and with events in Asia and Eastern Europe spiraling out of control right now, the answer to ‘why’ you and I are sharing this vision is suddenly the most crucial thing I can think of.”
“The first time I saw you…well, it was almost ten years ago.”
“What?” Roosevelt said, suddenly exasperated. “When was this?”
“My brother and I were headed west. I was on my way to Berkeley, to begin graduate school, and I felt myself phasing in and out of time, experiencing different outcomes to events that had happened long before. My father’s death, the sinking of the Titanic…”
“The Titanic? Why, of all…”
“I was onboard, sir, the night she went down.”
“Good God. Why didn’t I read that in your dossier?”
She shrugged. “The night of our first encounter, she missed the iceberg. And I learned my father had passed away some two weeks before, not on that night…”
“So…time had been altered, and in more ways that one?”
“And you met me, for the first time?”
She nodded her head slowly. “By that window…looking…”
“At those rings?”
“The walls inside that ship…what color are they?”
Roosevelt looked at her, trying to come to terms with these revelations, then a sudden thought came to him: “I say, you’re looking much better now. Do you feel up to going downstairs?”
She nodded her head again. “Yes, I think so.”
“Good. Let’s give it a try, shall we?”
Sitting on the train, heading back to California a few days later, she thought about that encounter, and the evening that followed, for hour after hour. About the various discussions around the table, the palpable excitement surrounding the road ahead. Entire new industries would have to be created almost overnight…precision electromagnets capable of streaming off isotopes in electron streams. Vast new transport infrastructure to carry ores from Canada and Brazil, in wartime.
Yes, war. Roosevelt had made it abundantly clear that war with both Germany and Japan, and possibly Russia, now appeared inevitable. The United States would have to fight two well-armed adversaries on opposite sides of the earth, or risk being swallowed by an imploding wall of totalitarianism. It was as simple as that.
The last resort, Roosevelt said, might very well be the fission bomb under discussion – but then he’d asked: “What then?”
“If we win this war, how in God’s name do we win the unstable peace that must surely follow? What happens after we finally open Pandora’s box?”
When they made it down to the room, a large ballroom where both cocktails and heated conversations were being consumed in unhealthy quantities, people were just shuffling off to a dining room, and Roosevelt had mysteriously disappeared. Charles and Oppenheimer saw her coming through a doorway and both rushed to her side.
“Ah,” Oppenheimer said casually, “you didn’t die, I take it?”
Charles shook his head as he walked up to her, rolling his eyes. “You look better, the color of a tangerine now. Better than that plum-red you were sporting…”
“And I feel better, too. Thanks for asking.”
“We’ve taken the liberty of putting you next to Ben Goodman…”
“Benny Goodman? The…musician?”
“No, dear,” Oppenheimer sighed, as if he was talking to a child. “Ben Goodman, the physician. The physician who held your wrist and took your temperature when you were upstairs. He seems to think you need to go to the hospital.”
“Yes. Oddly enough, he thinks both you and Franklin have pneumonia.”
“Bosh. I have no such thing. I’ve not coughed in days.”
“Indeed. You must remind me…where did you take your medical diploma?”
Ignoring Robert, she turned to Charles. “Now, where am I sitting?”
“Follow me,” her brother said, and when they gained the table a dapper looking man stood and held out her chair.
“Well, you’re looking better,” Goodman said. “How’re you feeling? Still flushed?”
She smiled and sat, and Charles sat between her and Oppenheimer. “Aspirin seems to do the trick for me,” she said, “whatever it is I’ve gotten hold of.”
“Well, drink plenty of water tonight. They tend to over-salt the food here,” Goodman said, frowning.
“You come here often, I take it?”
“I seem to have taken up residence here – rather against my will, I should add.”
“Yes, it seems I’ve become the President’s Personal Physician, or some such blather. That’s what’s on the door to my office, anyway. Are you Charles’ wife?”
She looked at Goodman and smiled. “Splendid? Truly?”
“Yes indeed. Take a look around, would you? There are three females in attendance, one is serving food this evening, and one of them is Mrs. Roosevelt. You’re the third, and I’m sitting next to you. So, yes. I think that’s very splendid indeed!”
“I see. You’re not married, I take it?”
“No, but the night is young.”
Claire grinned while she tried not to shake her head.
“So, why did Charles bring you along?”
“I’m Robert Oppenheimer’s assistant.”
“Indeed,” Goodman said, frowning. “A physicist, then?”
She nodded her head, smiled a little smile, not at all triumphant. “Yes. Isn’t that the bee’s knees?”
“Are you working on all this uranium stuff?”
“I’m sorry, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Of course. It’s just that I am, so I naturally assumed…”
“Yes. Well, you see, I’d been working on establishing new protocols for radiation exposure, primarily for use with or during diagnostic imaging, when Szilard tapped me to help out. When I’m not working here, I’m stationed at the Navy Yard.”
“Oh? You’re in the Navy?”
“Yes, and sorry…no uniform tonight. I was off duty when Harry called me in to check out the President.”
“Ah, you’re not into politics, I take it? Harry Hopkins. He’s been with Franklin since day one. The New Deal is his baby, if you didn’t know. Harry is one of those Progressive Optimists you read about in the Times.”
She shrugged again. “If you say so.”
“Not interested, I take it?”
She shook her head gently, though she smiled at Goodman.
“Oh dear,” he sighed, “I may fall in love with you before we get to our salads. Where are you working?”
“Yes, of course. How stupid of me. You did say you were working with Robert.”
“Where did you go to school, Doctor?”
“Annapolis, then Georgetown. I began working with x-ray imaging devices when I did my internship, and I’ve been fascinated by the things ever since.”
“And how did you get roped into being the President’s physician?”
“Harry was out at the Yard and he had a bad cold. I ended up seeing him and that was that.”
“Yes. Bad luck.”
She smiled when he grinned again, and she looked at his eyes a little longer this time. Kind, gentle, and deeply inquisitive. A scientist’s eyes, in other words. “So, radiological dosing? You’ll be working on this so-called uranium project, I take it?”
“Yes. So I’d imagine we’ll see each other from time to time?”
“Would you like that?”
“Yes, you know, I think I would.”
She felt her face flushing again, felt a few beads forming on her forehead, then she felt a glass of ice-water being thrust into her hand. “Drink it down, and take some ice into your mouth, roll it around…”
And without asking she did so, then she felt him grasp her wrist, begin counting-off her pulse while he watched her face and neck. “You know, even as sick as you are, you have the most enchanted eyes I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Enchanting, I think perhaps you meant to say?”
“No, enchanted. Like you’ve seen wild, magic things already. Like there’s little that makes you afraid.”
She could feel Charles looking at her, listening to this conversation, and she tried her best to ignore his eyes burning into the back of her skull, then she took a deep breath and leaned back in her chair. “You know, I’ve felt better.”
“I’d like to run you over to Georgetown, that is if you don’t mind.”
“Perhaps after dinner, Dr. Goodman,” she heard her brother saying – then she was wrapped in warm blankets of deep sleep, adrift on a sunless sea – and everywhere around her, she felt the deep vibrations of huge machinery…
(c) 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw