In which there is technically a revolution that tears down the entrenched structures of power in Venetian society and shines a cleansing light into the dark corners where the mold of corruption has grown for centuries. From which it does not necessarily follow that any fundamental change takes place.
Someone asked for Great Power statistics, so here they are:
By population England is in a class of its own here; yet Fox, at any rate, has been able to hold its own in war against the Wicked Wardenate, and even wring concessions out of London – only in North America, to be sure. Even a Great Power may have some difficulty projecting its army across the Atlantic in the face of a credible opposition; although England had no problem crushing Japan in this session. Japan, to be sure, has no navy.
In which a long-awaited war finally begins.
In which the limitations of technological superiority are demonstrated with startling clarity.
May 17th, 1939
Near Fulda, France-Allemagne
“Eg veit i himmerik ein borg, ho skin som soli klåre…”
The armies of Norway had marched to hymns for centuries. If, in this year 1940, there was more of tradition in it than of the burning faith that had carried the New Model Armies to Vienna, still, tradition’s inspiration was not to be despised. Eirik glanced back at the column, singing cheerfully enough in spite of the minor key. They’ll need all the inspiration they can get, soon enough, he thought. Most of them still had the fat of peacetime on their cheeks; they were a far cry from the lean, sun-burnt comrades he had led three times through the Sahel – once back and twice forward, under a sun that shone far more clearly than what any northern hymn-writer could have seen. That was the nature of a conscript army; five years later only the cadre was left of the hard, veteran force that had broken the sword of Islam and forced the Atlas mountains. But he supposed they would do; Spain was an ally now, and they were only fighting the French – would have been fighting them, at least, if there had been any sign of resistance. The word was that it was hot and heavy in the Languedoc, the cockpit of southern Europe; and on the Eastern Front. But here, where Norwegians had fought Baltic Wars since they were carried across from Skåne in dragon-headed ships, they had marched from Dannevirke to the Fulda Gap without hearing a shot fired in anger.
As if the thought had summoned it, a rifle barked. Eirik was seized by two conflicting impulses: The veteran’s urge to take cover, and the sergeant’s desire to find out what idiot had been marching with a round chambered and the safety off; for a moment he did nothing. Then his brain kicked into gear, and he realised that the shot had come from ahead, and that his company was the spearhead of the advance – and therefore, any idiocy belonged to a Frenchman, who had just revealed his position before, apparently, his commander had been ready to give the order. Poor fire discipline, the bane of would-be ambushers everywhere… but where was the torrent of all-calibre fire that ought to have immediately followed the first shot, no matter how badly timed?
Another solitary rifle shot cracked out; this time Eirik saw the muzzle flash in the window of a farmhouse. “Deploy!” he shouted from his prone position; at least his soldiers weren’t milling like sheep anymore, they were remembering enough of their training to get down as he had done and fire back. Those five seconds of confusion would have been enough for a wholesale slaughter against competent opposition; Eirik made a mental note to create some new digestive tract outlets at his earliest opportunity. But against this – well, what was this? He poked his head up cautiously; he could see another muzzle flash from the farmhouse window, and otherwise – nothing, though the volume of return fire from his company was deafening. If they really had only a single rifleman, he could walk over there and put a stop to this himself; it took thousands of rounds to kill a man. But tuned veteran’s instinct spoke against it; the one time you didn’t do it by the book was the time you were sure to get killed. He’d treat it as a drill, then, conveniently with live fire but not very much of it. “Advance, fire and movement,” he called, and was gratified to see A Platoon remember their training and get up to sprint forward the prescribed twenty meters. Of course it was easier when you weren’t advancing into a storm of machine-gun fire…
A few rushes brought them close enough for Eirik to hear the shouting coming from the farmhouse with every shot. He didn’t speak the vile Niederdeutsch, filled with French loanwords and sawn-off inflections, that passed for a language around here, but the repeated “Raus! Raus!” was clear enough. A solitary madman, perhaps; someone who thought he was a franc-tireur, and that such guerrillas fought from fixed positions and took more than two shots at large columns of men – or, perhaps, just someone who would literally rather die than live in occupied country. Rare, but not unheard-of; in any case, not a problem for a formed military unit. Throwing drill to the winds, he rose and ran towards the farmhouse door; a single bolt-action rifle did not worry a man who’d been shot at by the massed artillery of Islam.
His confidence proved justified; he reached the door unscathed, crashed through its cheap lock with a hard kick, and rushed upstairs, readying a grenade. The thin walls cracked and clattered as bullets whipped through them; at this point Eirik was more worried about being shot by his own men than by the French farmer – but, knowing what he did about their marksmanship, only so worried. The ones who were hitting the house were his best, and in a sadly small minority at that.
The grenade went into the upstairs bedroom, and Eirik followed its detonation smartly enough that a ricocheting bit of metal dinged his helmet, not very hard. A snap shot with his rifle at the bleeding, dying mess behind the barricade of – potato sacks? – at the window ended the action. Of course, his men didn’t know that; belatedly, it occurred to Eirik that he ought to be commanding his company, or at the very least let it know where he was, rather than indulging in the heroics suitable to a sergeant. And, also, that he’d just put himself at the center of what his men were aiming for, and sooner or later one of them was going to put a bullet through the window, if only by sheer chance.
He rushed down the stairs faster than he’d come up, then paused to reflect. When he’d charged forward, his men could see that it was him, and aim elsewhere – though knowing their skill, his back suddenly crawled at the risk he’d taken. But if he suddenly appeared again in the doorway, how were they to know it was him? Excited men in their first real action, farcical as it was by the standards of the Sahel, might take a snapshot first and think later. “Cease fire!” he shouted, and then less formally, “I got him!”
It took several repetitions, but gradually the rifle fire died away. In the silence Eirik could hear children crying – under his feet? He looked down, and realised he was standing on a trapdoor, leading no doubt to a potato cellar – traditional refuge in these parts when an army came through. He pressed his lips together; he had no particular desire to meet the children or wife of the man he’d just killed. But then, was there any need to? It wasn’t as though he planned to do anything further to them – and for all he knew the wife was holding a shotgun and ready to shoot the first Norwegian soldier that poked his head in – so why bother them? They’d find out about their husband and father soon enough, and if they were hiding in the cellar they clearly didn’t intend to resist.
“Wir schiessen sie nicht,” he shouted, which was vile German but might reassure someone, then exited into the bright sunlight. Coming down off his combat high he felt shocky and let-down; he could no longer fathom what had made him run through a hail of rifle fire, even if most of the bullets had been coming from behind him. But he was used to that; you couldn’t force the Atlas passes without learning something about what adrenaline did to your mind.
His men were laughing with the same shocky relief, high on the hormones of combat and survival; they crowded around him, congratulating him, slapping him on the back even. “Guess that’s the end of the picnic,” one of them said, and Eirik had to bite his tongue to hold back a snap. “One man with a rifle?” he said instead. “Nah. You go on a picnic, you have to expect some bugs. Just keep them out of the jam, that’s all.”
In the chatter it took him some time to become aware of the snarling sound of many engines, coming from the south. He could not have said how long he’d been hearing them when there came a pause in the chattering of his men, one of those silences that occurs occasionally in large groups because, by chance, nobody has anything to say at a particular moment. But the silence brought the roar of motors to the forefront of consciousness, and everyone looked south in near-unison.
The small crests and troughs of the North German plain did not block sightlines; the horizon was a long three miles away, and on it, a swarthy storm of dust was rising towards the sky. Eirik fumbled for his binoculars; through them, the tiny moving toys under the dust fairly leaped out at him, grey unpainted metal, khaki canvas on troop-carrying trucks, and everywhere the black cross outlined in white that von Hentzau had made the war ensign of the Bayerische Räterepublik. A motorised column, moving at four or five times the speed of his conscript infantry; and behind the screen of troop carriers would be self-propelled guns and tanks. His own men had seen a tank, once; it had been specially brought in for the purpose, when the High Command’s requests for a real armoured force, even a single brigade, were found too expensive.
There was no help for it. There couldn’t be many Bavarians here, their main force would be busy in the East, while the whole army of Norway had poured into North Germany; eventually, even at foot speeds, they would outflank and overwhelm. But that was small comfort for the first men on the sharp end, the few who would have to try holding back a motorised assault with rifles and entrenching tools. Three months of training, a single machine gun to a company, air support to be called up by officers commanding brigades and above… but needs must when von Hentzau drove; and they’d been poorly equipped, by the standards of the Great Powers, when they drove Islam back across the Sahel.
“Spread out, dig in,” Eirik rasped. “We’ll try to hold them until our friends get here. Now the picnic’s over.”
Norwegian troops advancing unopposed through northern France – or almost unopposed; note the solitary Bavarian motorised division.
Somewhere in Africa, an ancient thing stirs.
The plots of centuries are coming together. There is as yet no sign of effective opposition; but old things are cautious. It sticks its head out of the cave in which it has rested these five millennia, and snuffles the air, warily. The stars are not yet quite right… but they are moving into position; and a hundred years is nothing. Decision comes; and in Sennar and London, in Venice and Berlin, men write words on paper and regiments leave their garrisons to gather into armies.
It is a subtle effect, as yet; the papers bear words that might have fallen the other way, had there been no interference… or they might not. Men are notoriously belligerent, when they are sure that others will do the dying. Perhaps war would have come in any case; there have always been wars, and rumours of wars, and the end is not yet. But, most likely, it would have been a different war, fought for more direct aims. Control of the Suez, perhaps; or the gold – yellow and black – of the Transvaal. These are the goals a human strategist would pick, were he untouched by outside influence. The humid jungles of Cameroon are not in the running. Human strategists, of course, plan for two decades ahead, at most.
An ancient thing stirs, and an old nation responds; for the first time in centuries, Egypt engages in aggressive war, not against minor tribes of the African interior but against a Great Power – as humans count such things. It is a sea change, the still point where the tide stops, and changes its direction; but it is not yet visible as such, to merely human eyes. “Africa for Africans”, the desire of a rising nation to break into the ranks of acknowledged Great Powers – these are sufficient, surely, to explain Egypt’s strategy. Countries rise and fall, that is the nature of geopolitics. For one country to gain the formal privileges extended to Great Powers – embassies instead of consulates, a seat at every conference table, additional guns fired in salutes to its flag – and another to lose them, this is not such an unusual event, in human affairs. It is not difficult, for a human statesman, to explain a war that accomplishes these things in terms of human motivations and actions.
Humans, on the whole, aren’t very bright.
I seized another smidgen of land from Byzantium; but this minor skirmish was the least of the session’s events. Russia attacked North Korea; Russia is weak as Korea is weak, and it would have been an even match if their Great Power patrons had stayed out. However, Germany supported Russia, which would likely have been sufficient to overcome Japanese protection even had it been forthcoming; Japan, perhaps because he was at war with England at the time, stayed out. The middle half of Korea, with its rich coalfields, is now Russian; Korea is no longer a player nation unless someone desires a real challenge; the Pan-Asian alliance that was to keep Europe at bay while the minor powers built their industries and armies looks increasingly like a paper tiger.
However, the main play of the week was the African War, Egypt’s English-backed bid to throw Fox out of its possessions in Cameroon and back across the Atlantic. Egypt’s regular army is actually smaller than Venice’s; but England and Fox are the two largest Great Powers, so their clash was the first large-scale war of Victoria, and arguably the first breath of the endgame. In addition to Africa, there was fighting in the Balkans, where Fox attempted to occupy the recent English loot from Byzantium; in North America, where English naval landings clashed with the inevitable invasion of Danish Vinland; and in Italy. This last occurred because I had granted military access to the Red Empire; the English player, harassed, demanded that I cease and desist. I passive-aggressively pointed out that he was well over the infamy limit; last week he had attacked me because I went over the limit, so some mil-access for an enemy was well within the realm of reason. Oddly, he didn’t see it that way, and declared war. Since I hadn’t expected to fight just then, my units were wherever they had last fought a rebel stack, not concentrated in, for example, North Italy where they might at least have shot at the ten 30k stacks that flooded across the border. My ally Germany launched an offensive across the Rhine and got as far as Paris; we therefore compromised on “Venice exits the war, doesn’t give mil-access to Fox anymore, and now has a smaller army and navy than it used to.” Somewhere in this, my colony Macau rebelled, and English domination of the oceans meant I couldn’t crush them; naturally they were promptly annexed to Japan. Additionally, my economy went briefly chaotic as I tried to buy artillery for my troops while my industrial heartland was occupied; it took the rest of the session to pay off the resulting debt.
Mediterranean theatre of the African War, shortly after the Venetian entry. Although defeated, I opine that this is a pretty creditable showing by my troops: Outnumbered five to two, with no artillery, they still inflicted equal casualties on the aggressors. I have no doubt that this bloody nose, inflicted by the third category of my army (I organise it into Strike, Line, Guard; this is a Guard stack, intended to occupy territory and extend defensive lines, not for withstanding a Great-Power invasion), was a powerful factor in the lenient terms agreed to.
At some point the English navy tracked down the Red one and sank it; no ironclads were involved so far as I know, making this presumably the last battle of wooden men-of-war in the game. Fox, unable to move troops around anymore, sued for terms, losing most of its African colonies. Egypt rose to become the sixth Great Power, edging out Venice; probably inevitable in light of the respective populations, but annoying. Fox announced his intention to go isolationist. India pointed out that England was well above the infamy limit, and hadn’t there been talk of a coalition, last week, if that should happen? In TeamSpeak there was the sound of crickets.
In spite of their recent war, Fox and England have managed to agree to create a new player slot from their South American colonies, which is a just and generous act that I’m sure is in no way caused by any mental infiltration by nonhuman entities. The new power (played by Blayne, fresh from the disasters of Korea and Byzantium) will have a non-aggression pact with its former masters until 1936.
World map, 1875. All the world is colonised; the Tortured Man is gone. Note the Russian breakthrough to the Pacific, destroying Korea as a viable power.
Bridge of the parachronic dreadnought Eidsvoll
No meaningful date (sidereal)
10:18:53 (ship’s time)
“Anomaly, sift ten, up four.”
The starboard warrant officer’s terse report was spoken in the concentrated monotone of a disciplined man who is aware that a slip of attention could kill him and all his comrades, but who has also been doing very boring work for a long watch. Anomalies were not rare enough to be truly interesting as breaks in the monotony of watching the interferometers, and most of them were just random fluctuations; but enough were the signature of an enemy vessel that concentration sharpened all over the bridge.
“I see it too,” the warrant in charge of the port interferometer confirmed after a moment. “It’s a big one – seven sigma off datum.” That made it almost certain to be artificial.
“Timeline ID?” The watch officer’s hand hovered over the button that would send the ship to battle stations; if the timeline was a known one, parachronic activity was almost sure to mean a fight.
“Just a catalogue number, sir.”
“Very well.” Carefully, the watch officer took his hand away from the button. “Let’s just check the catalogue anyway,” he said, glancing aside at the screen where the warrant had popped-up the information he’d asked for; talking to himself was a bad habit in a man who stood watches on a warship, but one he’d been unable to break himself of. He raised an eyebrow as the information came up; most timelines that hadn’t been dignified with a name just had the sixty-character identifying string and some navigational information, but this one had a whole paragraph of actual text.
“What’s the local time-fix on that anomaly?” he asked after a moment’s reading.
“Twentieth century, sir – first half. Can’t be more accurate without getting closer.”
“Then it’s not the one that’s noted here.” The watch officer rubbed his chin, then realised that he was being silly; if the anomaly had been a known one, the warrant officer would have found it in his ephemeris and not bothered reporting it. His eyes narrowed. A random timeline was one thing; there was just too much of paraspace for a dreadnought to stop every time an enemy vessel did something – that was what patrol boats were for. But a timeline that had been touched before, in fact one that had furnished recruits, that was something else again. To meddle in a world was to acquire responsibility for it; that was one point on which the two sides agreed, although the Yngling concept of “responsibility for” was something more like “ownership of”. They understood pissing contests, if nothing else; and here was something of theirs making a seven-sigma anomaly all over a timeline that the MacRaghnalls had recruited from. That wasn’t a routine visit for supplies or a smash-and-grab raid of the kind they used as R&R; that was an invitation to see whose was biggest.
The watch officer took a moment to nerve himself, then pushed the button that would put him through to the Captain.
Christiansborg Castle, Copenhagen
June 8th, 1939 (quantum state: Non-interference; amplitude i*sqrt(3)/2)
“We don’t have the money – we’ll be paying off the last one for the next two centuries.”
“Or the tanks.”
“The navy would need a new battleship squadron – oh, and an aircraft carrier, for scouting.”
“Some aircraft built in this decade would be nice, too.” The Minister for Air Defense, Johann Sverderup, spoke in the pawky tone of a man who knows very well that his portfolio is a low priority and that he’s quite unlikely to get what he wants, but who would like to join in the fun of shooting down someone else’s proposal anyway.
“All that’s quite irrelevant.” The King spoke impatiently, waving the merely practical objections aside. “The question is, what the devil do the Mid-European powers have that’s worth the blood of a single Norwegian? Weren’t half a million dead in the Great War enough? No, no. I won’t send my people to die for some abstract consideration of geopolitics; quite real people bleed out in genuinely muddy trenches, you know, on account of decisions made in rooms like these. No; I won’t have it. There will be no war. Next item on the agenda, please.”
Conference room of the parachronic dreadnought Eidsvoll
No meaningful date (sidereal)
14:03:55 (ship’s time)
“So, let us summarise the known facts.” The captain counted on his fingers. “One: The Ynglings certainly did intervene here, but we cannot tell what they were after. Two: There is something else going on, centered on this von Hentzau; who, apart from his delusions of being born in the eleventh century, and apart from having the sort of personality that would fit right into our civil wars, absolutely reeks of achronic energies. I’ve seen readings less strong from actual Yngling intervention teams! And three: We cannot use the Eidsvoll for a full intervention, we have to be out of here in less than an hour, ship’s time.” The news that the dreadnought was desperately needed to fend off an Yngling attack fifteen units kran-wards had, of course, arrived inconveniently right in the middle of their investigation of the anomaly; the war might rage across five millennia of history and sixteen century-equivalents of parachronic delta, but it remained a truism that a crisis never arrived alone. “So whatever we do will have to be subtle, long-lasting, and quick to accomplish.”
The council of war looked at each other; a gunnery officer shrugged. “Well, sir, it’s not as though these primitives have any defenses to speak of. In an hour we can turn most of this Bavaria into a radioactive parking lot, no? Heck, give me a pinnace and I’ll do it myself.”
“I did say subtle,” the captain noted dryly.
“You did, sir, but why? I’m not seeing the stealth priority, here. What do we care if the natives notice?”
“Nothing. We care if the Ynglings notice. There are men in the army from this timeline, you know. We owe it to them, and their relatives down there, not to draw any more attention to their home than we can help.” The captain drummed his knuckles on the conference table, indicating that the subject was closed. “Ideas, gentlemen; and think subtle, if you please.”
“What is it we want to accomplish, precisely? If we just want this von Hentzau out of power, that seems simple enough, just make him have a stroke.” Assassinations from outside the timestream were a standard tool of the war. “He’s an old man, nobody will think it suspicious.”
“True, but will that suffice? We don’t know what the enemy are trying to accomplish here – strictly speaking we don’t know that it’s them at all. But whatever else, the Ynglings are hardly stupid. They wouldn’t put in motion a scheme that could be prevented by one stroke injection, and then leave a seven-sigma anomaly kindly pointing out who we should kill!”
“Things do go wrong, sometimes. Maybe the anomaly was an accident? That might explain why there’s no sign of them now.”
“I don’t like to take that risk. Well, at least we’ve defined the parameters of our intervention: Something a bit larger than the targeted stroke, but smaller than carpet-bombing with city-burners.”
“It’ll have to be done by the natives, then. Can we make them have a civil war?”
“If we had three years to stick around, maybe. Bavaria’s a garrison state, united against powerful outside enemies, secret police looking for dissension, the whole nine yards. You’d need to subvert half the army.”
“Maybe a rude one, then? These outside enemies, any chance of pushing them to attack?”
“In an hour of work?”
“Fifty minutes, now; but yes, we can do it.” All heads turned towards the speaker, a mere Fenrik of the research division; the captain gestured for her to continue.
“I did a quick search in the history archives” – it was standard procedure, on entering a timestream, to send recording drones up and down its length, eavesdropping on the natives – “with keywords Bavaria and war; limited to 1930 and later. And I found this.” The cabinet meeting at which Norway had decided not to go to war played in miniature before the assembled officers. “Just change their minds for them, make them listen to whoever their local warmonger is – Minister for Public Education? Ok, whatever – and the natives will do the job of wiping out Bavaria for us. Whatever the Yngling plan is they can hardly expect to get it done without a local country to do it for them. Short of sending a battleship, I mean; and then we won’t be messing about with an hour’s worth of subtle stuff.”
“All right, Fenrik; good work. Go off and start getting that set up. Order for go or no-go will come in twenty minutes, depending on whether the rest of us come up with something amazingly brilliant in that time.”
Christiansborg Castle, Copenhagen
June 8th, 1939 (quantum state: Interference; amplitude 1/3 + i*sqrt(2)/3)
“What this dynasty needs is a quick police action to restore its prestige; remind people who has the whip hand, and then we can make a start on rolling back this damn creeping democratism.”
“We don’t have the money.” But with the Eidsvoll‘s intervention nanobots in the bloodstream of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, filling him with the hormones of fear and doubt, the objection came out querulous, uncertain – not as the decisive negation that it had been, in an unmeddled timeline.
“We could do with some more tanks, too.” Tweak the hypothalamus, increase the aggression – and the Defense Minister’s concern with tanks became an idea that a war was just the circumstance under which he might get some, instead of a negation of the possibility of fighting without them.
“If we made the Baltic our lake at last, that would free up a squadron of battleships for the high seas.” The hormones of combat coursed through the blood of old men no longer used to them; and a meeting has a momentum all its own. The First Lord of the Admiralty might have said the same, even if the Eidsvoll had left his brain alone.
“It’s not as though they have an air force to speak of. We could get some combat experience, at least.” Lower skepticism, decrease the second-order judgement that checks whether the ideas generated by the hindbrain are actually good – and men begin to suggest that wars between great states might be worthwhile for the sake of combat experience for a few hundred pilots.
“All that’s quite irrelevant.” The King spoke impatiently; his eyes glowed with artificial belief in the plan – for a man will become an amazingly convincing speaker, even by the standards of ministers of propaganda, when his skin has been lightly doused with dominance pheromones and his voice is given additional resonance by tiny drones in his listeners’ ear canals. The quality of his ideas is almost irrelevant. “The point is, the dynasty took a hard blow in the Two Revolutions – October almost as bad as February. We need to do something to roll back the franchise, if nothing else; forty shillings was bad enough, now manhood suffrage? What’s next, votes for women? No, no, if this goes on, fifty years from now we won’t be a monarchy any more, mark my words. I didn’t become Emperor of the North Sea to throw away all my fathers fought for.”
“When can the Army be ready?”