In War Times
|Author:||Kathleen Ann Goonan
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|Sub-Genre Tags:||Alternate/Parallel Universe|
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Sam Dance is a young enlisted soldier in 1941 when his older brother Keenan is killed at Pearl Harbor. Afterwards, Sam promises that he will do anything he can to stop the war.
During his training, Sam begins to show that he has a knack for science and engineering, and he is plucked from the daily grunt work of twenty-mile marches by his superiors to study subjects like code breaking, electronics, and physics in particular, a science that is growing more important to the war effort. While studying, Sam is seduced by a mysterious female physicist that is teaching one of his courses, and given her plans for a device that will end the war, perhaps even end the human predilection for war forever. But the device does something less, and more, than that.
After his training, Sam is sent throughout Europe to solve both theoretical and practical problems for the Allies. He spends his free time playing jazz, and trying to construct the strange device. It's only much later that he discovers that it worked, but in a way that he could have never imagined.
December 6, 1941
Dr. Eliani Hadntz was only five foot three, though she had seemed taller in the classroom, and Sam had not suspected that her tightly pulled-back hair was a mass of wild black curls until the evening she sat on the edge of his narrow boardinghouse bed. A streetlamp threw a glow onto her pale breasts, she reached behind her head and yanked out the combs, made crooked by the intensity of their lovemaking.
Her loosened hair cascaded down her back and hid her face. She took a deep, shuddering breath, and sat with her elbows on her knees, staring out the window.
When Sam reached out and ran a finger up her spine, she flinched.
He had no idea why she was here.
Sam Dance was an uncoordinated soldier. To someone less good-natured, his last name, chosen by an immigration officer on Ellis Island a few generations back, might have seemed like a cruel joke. Because of his poor eyesight, the Army had not accepted him when he first volunteered in 1940, even with almost three years of chemical engineering classes at the University of Dayton under his belt. But while working as an inspector at a Milan, Tennessee, ordnance plant, he heard of an outfit in Indiana recruiting at a used car dealership trying to reach an enlistment quota. He hastened to their office, and was finally allowed to join the Army and serve his country.
Sam stood out because of his height. His intelligence was less visible, but must have been noticed by someone in the Army. Plucked from daily twenty-mile marches through inclement weather in North Carolina, he was sent to D.C. for an intensive course on a potpourri of esoteric subjects. The class met in a hastily assembled temporary structure on the roof of a War Department building.
The subjects, up to now, had been curiously disparate. Codebreaking, mechanical engineering, advanced calculus, and now theoretical physics rushed past, taught by an odd assortment of flamboyant Europeans with heavy accents and accompanied at the end of each week by a test.
Properly appreciative of the warmth into which he had been suddenly deposited, Sam was always in his seat each morning at seven a.m. when Dr. Hadntz opened the door, set her briefcase decisively on the bare metal desk at the front of the room, and draped her coat and scarf over the back of the desk chair. She always began her lecture immediately, chalking formulas on the board which he was sure represented some of the most rudimentary knowledge that she possessed. She was an exiled physicist from Budapest. The Army, of course, had not provided the students with an extensive background, but it was rumored that she had worked with Curie, Wigner, Teller, Fermi. Everyone who was anyone in theoretical physics.
Dr. Hadntz was the fourth instructor in a two-month course that rotated speakers weekly.
He and his classmates were being sorted out. The question was: By whom and for what?
Sam did not know whether Eliani Hadntz, as she sat splendorously naked on the side of his bed, her chin in her hand, was reverie-struck, paralyzed by guilt (was she married?), adrift in matters of speculative physics, or wondering what to have for dinner. The steam radiator clanked, and his Crosley, which he had switched on in a fit of awkward nervousness when they entered the room, played "Mood Indigo." Ellington's brilliant melancholia infused the moment.
He realized that he didn't know a thing about Dr. Hadntz except that she was intellectually renowned, part of a generation in which European women felt free to follow their own genius to the shrines of physics in Berlin, Copenhagen, Cambridge, Princeton. And that she was part of the mass exodus of physicists escaping the advancing tide of National Socialism. Dr. Compton, one of Sam's professors in Chicago, had brought Szilard and Fermi, both refugees, to lecture at the university while he was there. They brimmed with a strange mixture of dread and excitement - love of information for its own sake, insights that seemed to be unlocking the secrets of the physical world, and fear of the technologies such discoveries might lead to.
Dr. Hadntz rose from the rumpled bed, still deeply contemplative, her hair falling around her like a curtain. Crossing the room, she stood for a moment, still naked, directly in front of the window.
Deeply surprised at her immodesty, Sam jumped out of bed and pulled the blackout curtains shut, certain that she had been fully visible in the glow cast by the streetlight. A bit confused, he tentatively touched her hip, and she shook her head: no. She went into the bathroom, taking her bag. He heard her lock the door to the adjoining room, where a soldier by the name of Mickelmaster got roaring drunk every other night, then she closed Sam's door. Water ran for a few minutes.
She emerged wrapped in a towel and rummaged through the pocket of her overcoat, which hung over the wooden chair in front of the desk. "They have not given you many luxuries here," she said, as she pulled a cigarette from the coat pocket. Her lighter snapped open and flared briefly in the dark room.
Sam smiled. "You have no idea." Hot water, warm air, privacy, and electric lights to read by were prized commodities, and he did not know how long he could hold on to them. His inherent sense of tremendous awkwardness returned, a downward sensation like falling from a plane before you pulled the rip cord of your parachute.
Cigarette dangling from her mouth, Hadntz put her arms through the long sleeves of her white blouse, pulled on lacy underpants. She turned up the volume of the radio. Then she seated herself on the end of the bed, cross-legged, her back resting against the metal footboard. "You said something."
"I said - "
"I mean on Monday. During the first lecture. You asked some very interesting questions."
It was now Saturday evening. Their eyes had met and held on Tuesday, and on Friday they had dinner together.
"Your background is in physical chemistry. You were at the University of Chicago."
"For almost three years." On scholarship; his family was not wealthy, and he had also worked at night in a bakery the entire time he was in school.
She pointed her cigarette toward a dark shape in the corner. "Is that a musical instrument case?"
"You play with an orchestra?"
"Jazz." Sam loved jazz - as did most people his age. It was the popular music of the day. But his devotion was intense, encyclopedic; almost a calling.
"Good. Jazz requires a supple mind." She leaned toward him. He wanted to ask to share her cigarette, but it seemed too intimate a request and he flushed slightly in the dark. She was, of course, older than the hometown girls he knew, and European, but it had still happened so quickly, although certainly not against his will.
She said, "I have been working on quantum processes in the brain."
He did not like to look puzzled in front of her, but he was. "I don't understand."
"No one does. I was a medical doctor, like my mother, and then, quite briefly, a Freudian psychologist. Freud argued with me, but he could not convince me. I decided that it was not the answer. That was when I became interested in physics."
She knew Freud? He could not help computing. She must be at least twenty years older than him. She didn't look it.
She lowered her voice. He could barely hear her over the radio. "How does an atom decide when to emit an electron? I have been working on deciphering what we call consciousness. The quantum nature of our brains; the nature of will. Of course, I am positing that there exists more altruism than not." She frowned. "Or perhaps, just hoping."
She sucked in her cheeks, drawing from her cigarette. "I am attempting to . . . not to change human nature, but to try to understand it. So that we can use it to our advantage, as we have used mechanical processes to our advantage. I envision a vast computational network that is capable of helping us make changes according to what is truly best for each one of us. What do we all want? Food. Shelter. Love. Hope. Contentment. Challenge. Community. I have had all of these. Because of luck, I have been part of a tremendous intellectual community. But now, most of those people whom I so deeply respect - close colleagues of mine - are working on something that could destroy us all." She sighed. "As could this, perhaps. Nobel and Gatling thought that dynamite and machine guns would ensure perpetual peace, after all. But what is beauty? What is freedom? We all know what they are, even if they sometimes seem impossible to describe. We all want them. Perhaps we can choose, together, among the possibilities, if we combine the best of what we all want."
Abruptly, she got out of bed, crushed her spent cigarette in the heavy glass ashtray on Sam's desk, and finished dressing, her movements impatient; angry. "I have left their project. I regret to say that I contributed to it in many ways." She looked up at Sam. "We are in a race with the Nazis to create an atomic bomb." A grim, ironic smile quirked briefly. "Does this surprise you?"
Sam had heard rumors of this, had intimations that such a project was under way. Before he'd left the University of Chicago, one of his close friends in the Physics Department had become involved in some project with Fermi that he couldn't discuss.
Still, he was shocked. "Yes."
"I could probably be shot just for telling you this directly. I do this because there is so much at stake. We don't know...
Copyright © 2007 by Kathleen Ann Goonan
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