“The Bridge of Sighs”


This is a story that is a result of a speculative discussion I had a while ago with my good friend Edward Cheever II. The question was: What if World War I never happened? This story is based on an alternate world in which a united, imperialistic Europe is slowly taking over the world. Only the United States stands against them. This is circa 1938.

THE BRIDGE OF SIGHS

In another world, another universe, it might be called something cheerful, like the International Bridge of Peace. The long span arched over the white mist that incessantly billowed from the falls called Niagara. Edgar Winter had never been here before and he was surprised that Niagara Falls was actually a system of waterfalls, with enough water to flood his native state of Iowa within a matter of hours.

In another world, he thought, this could be a romantic place. People—young couples, even, perhaps those wanting to honeymoon—would gather here to make or renew their vows, look into each other’s eyes, stare that the thundering mist for a while, then wander off to consummate their love and begin or continue meaningless lives together.

Without meaning to, Edgar Winter began reciting under his breath a poem he had learned years before while in grammar school:

“Forth upon the Gitche Gumee,
On the shining Big-Sea-Water,
With his fishing-line of cedar,
Of the twisted bark of cedar,
Forth to catch the sturgeon Nahma,
Mishe-Nahma, King of Fishes,
In his birch canoe exulting
All alone went Hiawatha….”

And for a moment, Edgar was lost in those days of long ago; carefree days as a kid in rural Iowa. Long before mandatory military service took him to training in Georgia, then Hawaii, then Alaska, then more training in the swamps of Florida. And then he was snatched up for other duties….

The guards on his left jerked the chains running from his shackles, and he was unceremoniously ripped back into the present.

“Here now,” the Brit growled. “You’ll keep your trap shut, if you know what’s good for you.”

Edgar looked up at the big man, then at the other at his right…Sieg, something. Siegfried? Siegwulf? Some Heinie, he suspected from Austria, considering his accent. Then he turned back to the Brit. He smiled slightly.

“It’s pretty obvious that I don’t know what’s good for me, John. Otherwise I would have never visited jolly old London in the first place.”

“That’s the first smart thing I’ve heard this Yank say,” said the Brit. “But what’s got you thinking my name is John?”

“You’re all John to me,” said Edgar. “John Bull. Even the Heinie looks like John Bull.”

The Brit shrugged and cast a look at his silent partner, who nodded slightly. Simultaneously, they jerked on their lead chains. The lines leading from his shackled legs to his arms shortened suddenly, and Edgar was jerked off his feet. His body collapsed as his hands drew down to meet his feet. A spasm of pain ran through his back. He groaned, and the two guards chuckled. Edgar bit his lip and struggled back to his feet.

The three of them stood silently watching the last of the workers from the Royal Canadian hydroelectric dam shuffle across the long bridge beneath the guard towers. The work day was over with. They were going home to their shanties. Canadian industrialists loved to save money by hiring Americans to do their menial labor, saving the well-paying jobs for the educated Canucks who lived north of the border. The exchange rate was so good that even when they were paid a pittance, what Canadians might even think illegal, the Americans were happy. They had money for food and a little coal to keep their children warm. They were the lucky ones. Millions more struggled with unemployment. Overworked and underpaid, they were still happy.

Edgar watched the line of workers follow the walkway over the natural arch of the bridge and disappear. Behind him was Canada, a part of the mighty British Empire, which in turn was part of even mightier United Europe. Europe, which had the rest of the world trembling, lest they turn eyes of conquest in their direction. Ahead of him, be it ever so humble, was the United States of America. America, which right now stood alone in defiance. The three of them continued to wait.

Finally, the Brit looked up at the guard tower above them and they seemed to get a signal. He nodded to the other guard, and they each pulled out a large iron key. They unlocked the shackles around his ankles and then ran the heavy chains that ran to his ankles through the iron loops on his waist. They then unlocked his metal waist band, then the ones around his wrists.

Edgar stretched his back, rubbed his wrist and twisted his neck, trying to work the kinks out of his cramping body. He looked at one guard, then the other, and a faint smile broke out onto his lips.
“Go on, then,” the Brit. “Get back to your pig sty, where you belong. And stay out of my Empire.”

Edgar looked up at the big British guard and winked.

“See ya around, John,” he said. He then stepped forward and began walking toward the American border. He dragged one foot behind him slightly, a souvenir from an overzealous interrogator. Halfway across the curve of the arch, he came across three soldiers—two French and one British—walking toward him and Canada.

“Enjoy your stay?” the British soldier asked sarcastically.

“I’d have to say the hospitality was a bit lacking. Food was terrible,” Edgar responded. “But your mother was quite entertaining.”

The soldier jerked in response, and started to throw himself on Edgar, but the others restrained him. As hard a time as Edgar had had in a British prison, on a boat across the Atlantic, and again in a Canadian prison, he knew that American prisons—he suspected Sing Sing for these three if they were caught in New York City—was no picnic either.

“That’s it, boys,” said Edgar to the French soldiers. “Show the Brit what common sense is like.” Edgar smiled at the three of them. “Of course, when you say ‘common sense’ in France, you have to hold your hands up like this.” He raised his hands up as if surrendering. This time, it was the Brit who held back the French soldiers.

“Take care,” Edgar said to the three soldiers, and continued on. His back hurt, his leg throbbed, his wrists were rubbed raw from the shackles. But he was headed back to the United States.

A few minutes later, a man in a brown trench coat stood alone on the bridge, just below the guard tower. Behind him a few feet, two men with Thompson machine guns stood waiting. As he approached he recognized Ben Wainwright. He reached his hand out and shook the hand of the man who had been his partner for 12 years.

“Welcome back, Edgar,” Ben said. “Everything OK?”

“Nothing that a nice steak dinner wouldn’t fix. And you’re buying.”

“Sure, but technically the Agency is buying.”

They turned to walk the remaining 50 feet to a waiting black Packard sedan, its back door standing open.

“So,” Ben said. “Is it the way we thought?” He gestured for Edgar to get into the car.

“Even more so,” Edgar said. “As bad as Jews are viewed here, they are definitely second rate citizens over there. It’s amazing they have stayed in business for so long. In fact, my visit to Germany told me that something major could happen any day now. The Europeans have been on top of the world for so long, they are primed to shoot themselves in the foot. And it starts with how they treat their own scientists.”

“Jewish scientists,” Ben corrected him. “So tell me, did you find him?”

Edgar nodded. “Talked to him the day before I was captured. A little luck and we could have Dr. Einstein in the U.S. by spring.”

“Einstein…Leo Szilárd, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner,” Ben nodded to himself. “This thing could really happen.”

“And Oppenheimer?”

“He’s on board, just waiting on the others,” said Ben.

“You know, I kinda feel sorry for those thingyy Europeans,” says Edgar. “America has always rooted for the underdog. Looks like this dog just might have its day.”

“Yeah, unless they wait up in the meantime and sic some dogs of their own our direction.”

Edgar shrugged. “Let’s hope that they’re otherwise distracted. We’ll need talent, time and a lot of money for this Project Manhattan to succeed. But it may just turn this thing around.”

“Or it could end up in a war,” Ben said. “One that would put every war before it to shame.”

“A world war?” Edgar said, laughing. “That’ll be the day.”

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