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The Center Cannot Hold

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The Center Cannot Hold

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Author: Harry Turtledove
Publisher: Del Rey / Ballantine, 2002
Hodder & Stoughton, 2002
Series: American Empire: Book 2

1. American Empire
2. The Center Cannot Hold
3. The Victorious Opposition

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate History (SF)
Alternate/Parallel Universe
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In this spectacular, thought-provoking epic of alternate history, Harry Turtledove has created an unparalleled vision of social upheaval, war, and cutthroat politics in a world very much like our own--but with dramatic differences.

It is 1924--a time of rebuilding, from the slow reconstruction of Washington's most honored monuments to the reclamation of devastated cities in Europe and Canada. In the United States, the Socialist Party, led by Hosea Blackford, battles Calvin Coolidge to hold on to the Powell House in Philadelphia. And it seems as if the Socialists can do no wrong, for the stock market soars and America enjoys prosperity unknown in a half century. But as old names like Custer and Roosevelt fade into history, a new generation faces new uncertainties.

The Confederate States, victorious in the War of Secession and in the Second Mexican War but at last tasting defeat in the Great War, suffer poverty and natural calamity. The Freedom Party promises new strength and pride. But if its chief seizes the reins of power, he may prove a dangerous enemy for the hated U.S.A. Yet the United States take little note. Sharing world domination with Germany, they consider events in the Confederacy of little consequence.

As the 1920s end, calamity casts a pall across the continent. With civil war raging in Mexico, terrorist uprisings threatening U.S. control in Canada, and an explosion of violence in Utah, the United States are rocked by uncertainty.

In a world of occupiers and the occupied, of simmering hatreds, shattered lives, and pent-up violence, the center can no longer hold. And for a powerful nation, the ultimate shock will come when a fleet of foreign aircraft rain death and destruction upon one of the great cities of the United States....


Lieutenant Colonel Abner Dowling strode into the offices of the U.S. Army General Staff in Philadelphia, escaping the January snow outside. He was a big, beefy man--unkind people, of whom he'd met altogether too many, would have called him fat--and walked with a determination that made other, younger, officers get out of his way, even though his green-gray uniform bore not a trace of the gold-and-black ribbon that marked a General Staff man.

He looked around with more than a little curiosity. He hadn't been in General Staff headquarters for many years--not since before the Great War, in fact. He'd spent the past ten years as adjutant to General George Armstrong Custer, and Custer's relationship with the General Staff had always been... combustible was the first word that came to mind. The first printable word, anyhow.

But Custer was retired now--retired at last, after more than sixty years of service in the Army--and Dowling needed a new assignment. I wonder what they'll give me. What ever it is, it's bound to be a walk in the park after what I've gone through with Custer. Anything this side of standing sentry on the battlements of hell would have seemed a walk in the park after ten years with Custer. The man was unquestionably a hero. Dowling would have been the first to admit it. Nevertheless...

He tried not to think of Custer, which was like trying not to think of a red fish. Then he got lost--General Staff headquarters had expanded a great deal since his last visit. Having to ask his way did take his mind off his former superior. At last, by turning left down a corridor where he had turned right, he made his way to the office of General Hunter Liggett, chief of the General Staff.

Liggett's adjutant was a sharp-looking lieutenant colonel named John Abell. When Dowling walked into the office, the fellow was talking on the telephone: "--the best we can, with the budget the Socialists are willing to let us have." He looked up and put his hand over the mouthpiece. "Yes, Lieutenant Colonel? May I help you?"

"I'm Abner Dowling. I have a ten o'clock appointment with General Liggett." By the clock on the wall, it was still a couple of minutes before ten. Dowling had built in time for things to go wrong. Custer never did anything like that. Custer never figured anything would go wrong. Dowling shook his head. Don't think about Custer.

Lieutenant Colonel Abell nodded. "Go right in. He's expecting you." He returned to his interrupted telephone conversation: "I know what we should be doing, and I know what we are doing. There will be trouble one day, but they're too sure of themselves to believe it."

However much Dowling wanted to linger and eavesdrop, he went on into General Liggett's inner office and closed the door behind him. Saluting, he said, "Reporting as ordered, sir."

Hunter Liggett returned the salute. He was a jowly man in his mid-sixties, with a penetrating stare and a white Kaiser Bill mustache waxed to pointed perfection. "At ease, Lieutenant Colonel. Sit down. Make yourself comfortable."

"Thank you, sir." Dowling eased his bulk down into a chair.

"What are we going to do with you?" Liggett said. It had to be a rhetorical question; the answer surely already lay there on his desk. He went on, "You've seen a lot these past few years, haven't you? By now, I suspect, you could handle just about anything. Couldn't you, Lieutenant Colonel?"

Dowling didn't like the sound of that. "I hope so, sir," he answered cautiously. Maybe he wouldn't get a walk in the park after all. "Ahh... What have you got in mind?"

"Everyone is very pleased with your performance in Canada," General Liggett said. "The assistant secretary of war, Mr. Thomas, spoke highly of you in his report to President Sinclair. He wrote that you did your best to make a difficult and unpleasant situation go more smoothly. Any time a soldier wins praise from the present administration, he must have done very well indeed."

"Thank you, sir." Dowling remembered that Liggett had become chief of the General Staff during the present Socialist administration, replacing General Leonard Wood. That made him watch his tongue. "I'm glad Mr. Thomas was pleased. I didn't really do that much. Mostly, I just sat there and kept my mouth shut." N. Mattoon Thomas had come up to Winnipeg to force General Custer into retirement. Custer hadn't wanted to go; Custer never wanted to do anything anyone told him to do, and he thoroughly despised the Socialists. But they'd held the high cards, and he hadn't.

"Well, what ever you did say, Mr. Thomas liked it," Liggett said. "He wrote of your tact and your discretion and your good sense--said if you were a diplomat instead of a soldier, you'd make a splendid ambassador." Liggett chuckled. "Damn me to hell if you're not blushing."

"I'm flattered, sir." Dowling was also embarrassed. Like a lot of fat men, he flushed easily, and he knew it.

General Liggett went on, "And it just so happens that we have a post where a man with such talents would be very useful, very useful indeed."

"Does it? Do you?" Dowling said, and Liggett gave him a genial nod. Dowling had a fair notion of where such a post might be. Hoping he was wrong, he asked, "What have you got in mind, sir?"

Sure enough, Liggett said, "I've had to relieve Colonel Sorenson as military governor of Salt Lake City. He's an able officer, Sorenson is; don't get me wrong. But he turned out to be a little too... unbending for the position. By President Sinclair's orders, we are trying to bring Utah back towards being a normal state in the Union once more. A tactful, diplomatic officer running things in Salt Lake could do us a lot of good there."

"I... see," Dowling said slowly. "The only trouble is, sir, I'm not sure I think Utah ought to be a normal state in the Union once more." The Mormons in Utah had caused trouble during the Second Mexican War, back at the start of the 1880s--as a result of which, the U.S. Army had landed on them with both feet. Then, in 1915, perhaps aided and abetted by the Confederates and the British from Canada, they'd risen in open rebellion. The Army had had to crush them one town at a time, and had made a peace only in the Tacitean sense of the word, leaving desert behind it.

"Between you and me and the four walls of my office, Lieutenant Colonel, I'm not sure I think so, either," Liggett answered. "But the Army doesn't make policy. That's the president's job. All we do is carry it out. And so... would you like to be the next military governor of Salt Lake City?"

Maybe I should have been a nasty son of a bitch when I was working for Custer, Dowling thought. But he said what he had to say: "Yes, sir." After a moment, he added, "If I'm being diplomatic..."

"Yes?" Liggett asked.

"Well, sir, wouldn't you say the good people of Salt Lake City might see it as an insult to them if a full colonel were replaced by a lieutenant colonel?" Dowling said. "Couldn't it lead them to believe the United States Army finds them less important than it once did?"

Amusement glinted in Liggett's eyes. "And how do you propose to make sure the good people of Salt Lake City--if there are any--don't find themselves insulted?"

"I can think of a couple of ways, sir," Dowling replied. "One would be to appoint somebody who's already a bird colonel as military governor there."

"Yes, that stands to reason," Liggett agreed. "And the other?" He leaned back in his swivel chair, which squeaked. He seemed to be enjoying himself, waiting to hear what Dowling would say.

Dowling had hoped the chief of the General Staff would come out and say it for him. When Liggett didn't, he had to speak for himself: "The other way, sir, would be to promote me to the appropriate rank."

"And you think you deserve such a promotion, eh?" Liggett rumbled.

"Yes, sir," Dowling said boldly. After ten years with Custer, I deserve to be a major general, by God. And if he said no, he knew he'd never be promoted again.

General Liggett shuffled through papers on his desk. Finding the one he wanted, he shoved it, face down, across the polished expanse of mahogany to Dowling. "This may be of some interest to you, then."

"Thank you," Dowling said, wondering if he ought to thank Liggett. He turned the paper over, glanced at it--and stared at his superior. "Thank you very much, sir!" he exclaimed.

"You're welcome, Colonel Dowling," Liggett replied. "Congratulations!"

"Thank you very much," Dowling repeated. "Uh, sir... Would you have given me this if I hadn't asked for it?"

Liggett's smile was as mysterious as the Mona Lisa's, though a good deal less benign. "You'll never know, will you?" His chuckle was not a pleasant sound. He found another sheet of paper, and passed it to Dowling, too. "Here are your orders, Colonel. Your train goes out of Broad Street Station tomorrow morning. I'm sure you'll do a fine job, and I know for a fact that General Pershing is looking forward to having you under his command."

"Do you?" All of a sudden, Dowling's world seemed less rosy. During the war, Pershing's Second Army had fought side by side with Custer's First in Kentucky and Tennessee. The two armies had been rivals, as neighbors often are, and their two commanders had been rivals, too. Custer was suspicious of his younger colleague, as he was suspicious of any other officer who might steal his glory. Dowling had forgotten Pershing was military governor of Utah these days.

"I think I know what's bothering you, Colonel," Liggett said. If anyone knew about rivalries, the chief of the General Staff would be the man. He went on, "You don't have to worry, not on that score. I meant what I said: General Pershing is eager to have you."

But what will he do with me--to me--once he's got me? Dowling wondered. He couldn't say that. All he could say was, "That's good to hear, sir."

"Which means you don't believe me," Liggett said. "Well, that's your privilege. You may even be right. I don't think you are, but you may be."

Dowling was by nature a pessimist. If he hadn't been before, ten years under General Custer would have made him one. "I'll do the best I can, sir, that's all," he said. And what ever Pershing does to me, by God, I'll have eagles on my shoulder straps. That makes up for a lot.

General Liggett nodded. "As long as you do that, no one can ask any more of you."

"All right, sir." Dowling started to rise, then checked himself. "May I ask you one more thing, sir? It's got nothing to do with Mormons."

"Go ahead and ask," Liggett told him. "I don't promise to answer, not till I've heard the question."

"I understand. What I want to know is, are we really cutting back on building new and better barrels? I've heard that, but it strikes me as foolish." Like most professional soldiers, Dowling had no use for the Socialist Party. There as in few other places, he agreed with the man under whom he'd served for so long. He would have expressed himself a lot more strongly had he been talking with General Leonard Wood, a lifelong Democrat and a friend of ex–President Theodore Roosevelt.

But Liggett nodded again, and didn't sound happy as he answered, "We aren't just cutting back, as a matter of fact. We're gutting the program. No money in the budget any more. That outfit at Fort Leavenworth called the Barrel Works..." He slashed a thumb across his throat. "As our German friends would say, kaputt."

"That's--unfortunate, sir." Dowling used the politest word he could. "Barrels won us the last war. They won't count less in the next one."

"Don't be silly, Colonel. There'll never, ever be another war. Just ask President Sinclair." He's still a soldier first, then, Dowling thought. Good. Both men laughed. But for the bitter undertone in each one's voice, the joke might have been funny.

Anne Colleton was studying the Wall Street Journal when the telephone rang. She muttered something under her breath, put down the five-day-old newspaper, and went to answer the phone. Back in the days when she'd lived on the Marshlands plantation, her butler, Scipio, or one of the other Negro servants would have done that for her and spared her the interruption. These days, though, the Marshlands mansion was a burnt-out ruin, the cotton fields around it going back to grass and bushes. Anne lived in town, not that St. Matthews, South Carolina, was much of a town.

"This is Anne Colleton," she said crisply. She was in her mid-thirties. With her sleek blond good looks, she could have lied ten years off her age with no one the wiser--till she spoke. Few people younger than she--few her own age, for that matter, but even fewer younger--could have so quickly made plain they put up with no nonsense at all.

"And a good day to you, Miss Colleton," replied the man on the other end of the line. By the hisses and pops accompanying his voice, he was calling from some distance away. He went on, "My name is Edward C.L. Wiggins, ma'am, and I'm in Richmond."

Long distance, sure enough, Anne thought--he sounded as if he were shouting down a rain barrel. "What is it, Mr. Wiggins?" she said. "I don't think we've met."

"No, ma'am, I haven't had the pleasure," he agreed, "but the Colleton name is famous all over the Confederate States."

He doubtless meant that as pleasant flattery. Anne Colleton had heard enough pleasant flattery to last the rest of her life by the time she was sixteen--one consequence of her looks men seldom thought about. "You can come to the point, Mr. Wiggins," she said pleasantly, "or I'll hang up on you no matter where you are."

"Once upon a time, President Semmes sent me up to Philadelphia to see if I could dicker a peace with the Yankees, but they wouldn't do it," Wig- gins said.

That wasn't coming to the point, or Anne didn't think it was, but it did get her attention. "This would have been fairly early on, before we finally had to quit?" she asked.

"That's right, ma'am," he said.

"I heard rumors about that," she said. "With all the money I gave the Whigs in those days, I would have thought I deserved to hear something more than rumors, but evidently not. So you were representing President Semmes, were you?"

"Yes, ma'am, in an unofficial sort of way."

"And whose representative are you now, in an unofficial sort of way? I'm sure you're somebody's."

Edward C.L. Wiggins chuckled. "I heard you were one clever lady. I guess I heard right."

"Who told you so?" Anne asked sharply.

"Well, now, I was just getting to that. I--"

Anne did hang up then. She wasted not a minute getting back to work. With her finances in the state they were, they needed all the time she could give them. They needed more than that, too: they needed something close to a miracle. She wasn't a pauper, as so many prewar planters were these days. But she wasn't rich enough not to have to worry, either, and she didn't know if she ever would be.

A few minutes later, the phone rang again. Anne picked it up. "Why, Mr. Wiggins. What a pleasant surprise," she said before whoever was on the other end of the line could speak. If it wasn't Wiggins, she would have to apologize to someone, but she thought the odds were good enough to take the chance.

And it was. "Miss Colleton, if you would let me explain myself--"

She cut him off, though she didn't--quite--hang up on him once more. "I gave you two chances to do that. You didn't. If you think I'm in the habit of wasting my time on strange men who call me out of the blue, you're mistaken--and whoever told you what you think you know about me hasn't got the faintest notion of what he's talking about."

"Oh, I don't know." Wiggins' voice was dry. "He told me you were sharp as a tack but a first-class bitch, and that doesn't seem so far out to me."

"I'm sure he meant it as an insult, but I'll take it for a compliment," Anne said. "Last chance, Mr. Wiggins--who told you that?"

"Jake Featherston."

Anne had expected almost any other name than that of the Freedom Party leader. Something she didn't want to call alarm shot through her. She took Jake Featherston very seriously. That didn't mean she wanted anything to do with him. She'd backed him for a while, yes, but she backed winners, and he didn't look like one any more. Trying to gain time to recover her composure, she asked, "If you used to work for the Whigs, why are you calling me for Featherston now?"

"On account of what I saw when I went to Philadelphia, ma'am," he replied. "The United States don't respect you when you're weak. If you're down, they'll kick you. But if you're strong, they have got to sit up and take notice. That's a fact."

"I agree with that. I think everyone in the Confederate States agrees with that," Anne said.

"Well, there you are," Wiggins said cheerily. "If you agree with that, the Freedom Party is really and truly the only place for you, because--"

"Nonsense." Anne didn't care about his reasons. She had reasons of her own: "The Freedom Party has about as much chance of electing the next president as I do of getting elected myself. I have no intention of giving Jake Featherston one more dime. Every since that madman of a Grady Calkins murdered President Hampton, it'd take a special miracle for anyone from the Freedom Party to get himself elected dog catcher, let alone anything more. I don't spend my money where it does me no good."

"I don't think the clouds are as black as you say, ma'am," Wiggins replied. "Yes, we lost a couple of seats in the election last November, but not as many as people said we would. We'll be back--you wait and see if we aren't. Folks don't have much in the way of memory--and besides, ma'am, we're right."

Copyright © 2002 by Harry Turtledove


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