Fallout

Harry Turtledove

Fallout

1

It was a bright, warm, sticky day in Washington, D.C. Summer wasn’t here yet, but it was less than two weeks away. President Harry Truman turned his swivel chair away from the desk in the Oval Office. For the moment, all the urgent papers demanding his attention could damn well shut up and wait. The green of the White House lawn seemed far more appealing.

Three or four robins hopped across the neatly mown grass. Every so often, one would pause and cock its head to one side, as if listening. Maybe the birds were doing just that. Pretty soon, one of them pecked at something. It straightened with a fat earthworm wrapped around its beak. The worm didn’t want to get eaten. It wiggled and clung. The robin swallowed it anyway, then went back to hunting.

“Go get ’em, boy,” Truman said softly. “Maybe you’ll catch Joe McCarthy next. I can hope, anyhow.”

The robins didn’t know when they were well off. Here in Washington, they didn’t need to worry-too much-about getting blown to hell and gone by an atom bomb. Lord only knew how many robins the Russians had just incinerated in Paris.

Of course, robins in Europe weren’t the same birds as the ones here. Truman had seen that as an artillery officer in the First World War and then again when he met with Stalin and Attlee at Potsdam, outside of Berlin. Robins over there were smaller than the American ones, and had redder breasts. He supposed the local ones had got their name by reminding colonists of the birds back home.

But, when you got right down to it, what the French robins looked like didn’t matter. The A-bomb didn’t care. It blew them up any which way. It blew up a hell of a lot of French people, too.

When the telephone rang, Truman spun the chair back toward his desk. He picked up the handset. “Yes?”

“Mr. President…” Rose Conway, his private secretary, needed a moment before she could go on: “Mr. President, I have a call for you from Charles de Gaulle.”

“Jumping Jehosaphat!” Truman said, and meant it most sincerely. He couldn’t stand de Gaulle, and was sure it was mutual. At the end of the last war, French and American troops had almost started shooting at each other when the French tried to occupy northwestern Italy. De Gaulle had been running France then, and Truman had cut off American aid to him.

These days, de Gaulle was out of French politics-or he had been. Damn shame, Truman thought unkindly. If he’d been in politics, he’d likely have been in Paris, and the bomb could have fried him along with all the poor, harmless little robins.

Here he was, though, unfried and on the telephone. And since he was…“Go ahead and put him through, Rose. I’d better find out what he’s got to say.”

“Yes, Mr. President. One moment,” she said. Truman heard some clicks and pops. Then Rose Conway told someone, “The President is on the line, sir.”

“Thank you.” Charles de Gaulle spoke fluent if nasal English. But he sounded as if he were calling from the Cave of the Winds. The connection was terrible. Well, most of France’s phone service would have been centered in or routed through Paris. De Gaulle might have been lucky to get through at all. The Frenchman said, “Are you there, President Truman?”

“I am, General, yes,” Truman answered. “Where exactly are you, sir?”

“I am in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, about two hundred kilometers southeast of martyred Paris.” Or maybe de Gaulle said murdered Paris. Both were true enough-all too true, in fact.

Two hundred kilometers was just over a hundred twenty miles. Truman remembered that from his days as a battery commander. He’d hardly had to worry about the metric system since. “Glad to hear you’re safe,” he said, thinking what a liar politics had turned him into.

“I am safe, yes, but my beloved country has had the heart torn out of her.” De Gaulle seemed matter-of-fact, which made what he said all the more melodramatic.

“That is tragic, General, but it’s not as if America hasn’t taken plenty of hard knocks, too,” Truman said.

“Seattle. Denver. Hollywood. Such places.” Charles de Gaulle’s scorn was palpable. “This is Paris, Mr. President!”

In lieu of Screw you, buddy, and the horse you rode in on, which was the first thing that sprang to mind, Truman said, “Well, the United States is hitting the goddamn Russians harder than they’re hitting the Free World.”

“All the Russian hovels added together do not approach equaling Paris.” De Gaulle’s contempt was plenty big enough to enfold the USSR as well as the USA.

Instead of calling him on it, Truman tried a different tack: “Why exactly are you calling me, General? You haven’t been part of the French government for five years now. Or are you again?”

“In a manner of speaking, I am, yes,” de Gaulle replied. “You will understand that the explosion eliminated large portions of the country’s administration. Certain individuals have approached me to head a Committee of National Salvation. I could not refuse la belle France in her hour of need, and so I have assumed that position for the purpose of restoring order.”

“I…see,” Truman said slowly. It made a certain amount of sense. De Gaulle was a national hero for leading the Free French during the war and for putting France back on her feet once England and the USA chased the Nazis out of the country (with, yes, some help from those Free French).

But both Churchill and FDR had despised him (by all accounts, that was mutual). Harry Truman didn’t agree with all of Roosevelt’s opinions, but about de Gaulle he thought his predecessor had got it spot-on. He hadn’t been a bit sorry when the tall, proud, touchy Frenchman left politics for his little village in the middle of nowhere to write his memoirs.

If de Gaulle was back, though, Truman would have to deal with him. The Red Army wasn’t far from the French border. In spite of everything America and Britain (and the French, and the West Germans) could do, it was getting closer by the day. If de Gaulle cut his own deal with Stalin, a free Western Europe would be just a memory, even if American A-bombs flattened most of the Soviet Union.

And so he needed to keep the new boss of this French committee at least partway happy. De Gaulle understood he needed to do that, of course, understood it and exploited it. Trying to hide a sigh, Truman asked, “What do you need from the United States, General? Whatever it is, if we can get it to you, it’s yours.”

“For this I thank you, Mr. President. I have always known how generous a people Americans are.” De Gaulle could be gracious when he felt like it. The one drawback to that was, he didn’t feel like it very often. “Medical supplies of all sorts are urgently needed, naturally. And if you have experts on the effects of what you call fallout and how to mitigate those effects, that too would be of great value to us.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Truman promised. Both sides had fused most of their A-bombs to burst high in the air. That spread destruction more widely and also cut down on the amount of radioactive crud that blew downwind after the blast. But the Paris strike was a low-altitude, hit-and-run raid. The A-bomb had gone off at ground level or very close to it. And now the French would have to clean up the mess…if they could.

“Has the fallout reached, uh, Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises?” Truman asked, with a certain amount of pride that he’d remembered the name of the place and brought it out pretty well for a Yank.

“The Geiger counters say it has, yes, but not to any serious degree. This place lies in the direction of the prevailing winds,” de Gaulle said. “Closer to Paris, you will understand, the situation is more dire. We have many cases of radiation sickness.”

“That’s nasty stuff. Horrible stuff. We’ll send you doctors who have some experience with it, yes.” Truman didn’t tell de Gaulle that nothing the doctors tried seemed to do much good. You watched and you waited and you kept people as clean and comfortable as you could, and either they got better or they didn’t. But then, de Gaulle might well already know that. Paris wasn’t the first French city to have had hellfire visited on it, just the biggest. And the war still showed no signs of ending.

Boris Gribkov, Vladimir Zorin, and Leonid Tsederbaum joined the queue in front of the field kitchen near Munich. The bomber pilot, copilot, and navigator carried tin mess kits the Red Army men holding this part of what had been West Germany gave them.

Nose twitching, Zorin said, “I smell shchi.”

“That’ll fill us up,” Gribkov said. With shchi, you started with cabbage, as you did with beets for borscht. Then you threw anything else you happened to have into the pot along with it. You let it simmer till it all got done, and then you ate it.

That was how Red Army-and Red Air Force-field kitchens turned it out, anyway, in enormous sheet-metal tureens. No doubt fancy cooks fixed it with more subtlety. Gribkov cared not a kopek for subtlety. Filling his belly was the only thing he worried about.

A Red Army noncom saw his blues and his officer’s shoulder boards and started to step out of line. “Go ahead, Comrade,” he said.

“No, no, no,” Boris answered. “We won’t starve to death before we get up there. Keep your place.”

“You’re the guys who gave it to the froggies, aren’t you?” the sergeant said.

“Well, some ...

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