I made a mistake: Reaching land tech 59 just a few months after the war with Bavaria began, I upgraded my units, forgetting that the first of my invading stacks were about to cross the border at Plock. Very bad timing: My fighting stack of 30 regiments ran into a Bavarian scorch-and-retreat stack of 1 regiment, and, having zero morale due to the recent upgrade, was instantly destroyed. Embarrassing! Fighting a Great Power, even somewhat disastrous; against Bavaria, merely annoying. This is an edge case where the game engine just doesn’t give very sensible results; it takes a bit of ingenuity to explain what could possibly have happened.
Even outside of combat, most armies “lose” individual soldiers surprisingly often; before the twentieth century, desertion was frequent and often successful, as Kipling well knew:
There is no need to give our reasons, though
God knows we all had reasons which were fair;
But other people might not judge them so –
And now it doesn’t matter what they were.
What man can weigh or size another’s woe?
There are some things too bitter hard to bear.
Suffice it we have finished – Domino!
As we can testify, for we are there,
In the side-world where “wilful-missings” go.
In wartime, it is not uncommon for larger units to go missing, although such disappearances are rarely mysterious; a large-calibre shell landing in the middle of a squad surely accounts for many a “missing in action, presumed dead” notice. More infrequent is the loss of a company or an entire battalion; nonetheless, sudden gas attacks, encircled positions fought to the last man, and sacrifical rear guards for scrambling overseas evacuations are not unknown to any modern nation’s history. Sometimes, in the confusion of war, units can even be lost without anyone being quite clear on what has happened. Its own command loses touch, and the enemy records “overcame a defense in battalion strength” but neglects to write down, or never finds out, which battalion they fought, or puts it at the wrong map reference, or loses the unit diary to an artillery bombardment, so that the records are not reconcilable even after the war. Casting back to the second century CE, we find the Romans losing an entire Legion, the famous IX Hispana, somewhere in Scotland or in Persia; it existed in 120, did not exist in 165, and apart from some references to “how many soldiers were lost to the Britons and the Persians” there is no surviving record of precisely what happened to it – although the Romans may have known perfectly well, and merely neglected to write it down in such a way that the information survived. Losing units, then, is not too uncommon; but the Norwegian army is surely unique in managing to lose track of a formation of corps size. Here at least is an unparalleled feat of arms for the much-maligned land forces of the North Sea Empire! To lose thirty thousand men in battle is one thing; such misfortunes can happen to anyone, victor and vanquished alike. To have them simply disappear without trace, between one planned camp site and the next, is quite another. That is, nonetheless, what happened to the Nordlandske Arme in 1768.
Such an event has, naturally, excited a vast literature of speculation, far overshadowing the military and political events of the Fifth Baltic War – not unreasonably, since, as the name suggests, the war was otherwise rather an unremarkable spat between perennial rivals, lasting about two years, with moderate casualties on both sides and ending in a compromise peace treaty that even the most rabid German nationalist finds it hard to get worked up over. Unfortunately, this enormous body of hypothesizing rests on a very slender foundation of agreed fact.
On June 3rd, 1768, the Army of Nordland made camp about fifteen miles north of Plock. Its commander, General Rahnvale, sent a courier to his counterpart in the Svealandske Arme, following in support a day’s march to the north, indicating that he planned to reach Plock on the fourth and extract a contribution from its citizens. There was nothing unusual about this. The generals had agreed to keep each other informed of their whereabouts with daily messages, in a sensible attempt at coordinating their movements for mutual support; and fifteen miles was a reasonable day’s march for a formation the size of the Army of Nordland, with no particular reason to hurry. Nonetheless, as the official history of the campaign laconically reports, “From that moment, nothing further was heard of, or from, Nordlandske Arme.”
This is, in fact, a slight exaggeration; there was one survivor of the event, Fenrik Tormod Jansson, of the Trøndelagske Dragon-Regiment. He was, however, apparently unable to give any coherent account of what had happened; at any rate, nothing but a vague reference to “lights in the sky” made it into writing, though we cannot know what was said in, no doubt, confused and dramatic interviews with the officers of the Svealandske Arme. Unfortunately, this single witness was court-martialed on the spot, and shot three days later, still apparently confused about what had happened. One of his brother officers reported that he went to his death still trying to sing in a cracked and broken voice, as he had been doing for two days, not in defiance but because he was unable to stop. It appears, then, that the Svealandske Arme found his explanation, and the sudden loss of a large number of their comrades, sufficiently unsettling to shoot a man who, surely, cannot have been responsible for his actions. Quite apart from the moral aspect of convicting a madman of cowardice in the face of the enemy – by modern standards, a war crime in its own right – the historian must be galled by the thought that, given time to recover his wits, the Fenrik might have been able to give some more coherent account of the Disappearance.
As it is, we can only note that the theory advanced by General Højfeldt, commanding the Svealandske Arme, namely that a secret army of Bavarian deutsch-tireurs (wielding, no doubt, breech-loading rifles supplied by neutrality-breaking Jaguar Knights!) had somehow managed to kill thirty thousand men while leaving no trace of their bodies, and without anyone nearby hearing the sound of the guns – this theory, while no doubt accounting for Højfeldt’s cautious advance into Bavaria, can be safely discarded. There were, it is true, some Bavarian regular troops nearby: A regiment of light cavalry, the 3rd Wurstemberger Ritteren, detached to keep an eye on the Norwegian invasion and harass it where possible, while the main Bavarian forces met and, so their high command hoped, threw back the French assault columns thrusting through the Fulda Gap. But, short of giving them nuclear hand-grenades, lightly-armed scouts do not overcome thirty times their number of heavy infantry with guns in support. Moreover, the regiment in question still exists, and its campaign diary indicates that its commander, Colonel von Hintzhoff, was just as baffled by the Disappearance as was General Højfeldt – so baffled, in fact, that he ordered an immediate retreat, on the sensible theory that a large enemy force with which you had abruptly lost contact was sure to be a large enemy force that had done something clever and was about to appear right behind you. This is not the act of a man who has, himself, performed a miracle of military ingenuity and defeated thirty times his own number without losing a man – excepting the three troopers noted as “overdue from leave” in the regiment’s muster roll of June 2nd.
We are left, then, with mystery; an apparent literal Act of God, except that such acts are usually more effective. A month later General Højfeldt had recovered from his fright and, assured that there were no Bavarians (with rifles or otherwise) nearby, was besieging Lodz. The French were victorious at the Fulda Gap, and poured into Bavaria; no major battles were fought between Bavarian and Norwegian troops. If the Disappearance was the deliberate act of some mighty Power, it seems singularly ineffective considered as an intervention in the Fifth Baltic War; and what other purpose might the utter destruction of an army have? And yet, if there were some sort of natural cause, the effect seems unusually neat; accidents do not generally cut precisely along human-made boundaries such as “the Army of Nordland, but none of the nearby farms” – leaving, no less, a single confused witness to cry “And I alone am escaped to tell thee”.
June 4th, 1678
North of Plock
“Hej å hå, Fenrik Jansson, har du kysst din kjärst på kinden…” Tormod grinned happily; he had done far more than kiss his girlfriend, pleasant as that had been. He could still feel a slight buzz from the good brandy – well, good enough for a near-Bavarian peasant girl, anyway – he had shared with her, but his precaution of drinking lots of water had done the job; he had no trace of a hangover. In fact he felt loose and relaxed all through, the sure sign of a night’s sleep very well lost.
Next was something about “redan friskar morgonvinden,” which was indeed happening; but then again, perhaps he’d better stop singing. A night with Kristina had been well worth the trouble an officer could get into for going out of camp bounds without leave, but still, if he could get away without punishment, so much the better. He paused to take the lay of the land. It was still almost dark; if he hurried, he should be able to creep up the same ditch he’d used to get out without the sentries spotting him, with nothing worse than a bit of mud on his boots. That’s tactics, that is, he thought, almost as pleased with his military brilliance as with his sexual prowess.
He set off on his infiltration mission, sniffing the freshening breeze for the first delightful hint of baking bread; but either he was too far off still, or the cooks – lazy enlisted men that they were – hadn’t been rousted out yet. There was only the fresh scent of dew on grass, overlaying horses and a sour hint of the latrine pits. Birds chirped nearby; it was a very pleasant early morning, but Tormod found himself unaccountably unsettled as he found his trench and began traversing it, hunching down to make sure his blond hair wasn’t spotted. As he got closer to the camp he realised the source of his uneasiness. Among thirty thousand men, there would always be some who were awake, early in the morning or not; sentries, cooks, watch officers, men suffering bad dreams, men with small bladders or large appetites for drink, and men with illicit errands like his own. But the early-morning air was silent except for the birdsong and Tormod’s own breathing. True, that meant there was no sentry’s shout of “Who goes there?” to inform him that he’d have to pay the price of wooing the locals, but – it gave him the creeps, to be so close to an army the size of many cities, and yet hear nothing.
He laboured out of the trench, safely inside the camp now, and mentally awarded himself a medal – well, no, a mention in dispatches would have to do. “While the Nordlandske Arme was on a war footing, Fenrik Jansson succeeded in escaping the gimlet gaze of his superior officer; exited the camp and, after a brief seduction, thrice in one night made love to a local girl. Returning near dawn, he successfully infiltrated the camp, avoiding the sentries, and regained the safety of his tent with nobody the wiser.” He nodded to himself; certainly that was a lot better than most of the suicidal stuff that got written up. Too bad it couldn’t be published anywhere but his own head. Cheer restored, he began to whistle, casting off his momentary dread. No doubt something about that trench had temporarily deadened the sounds of the camp – in fact, perhaps that was why his infiltration had been so successful; the sentries wouldn’t have heard him even if he hadn’t stopped singing. Clearly his mind, without his realising it, had picked out that trench as being particularly likely to hide him; he was even more of a military genius than he’d thought.
His cheerful whistling got him as far as “och som morgonstjärnor blinka” before he paused again, aware that it was the only sound in the camp. Could he have gone deaf? It suddenly occurred to him that a girl who would sleep with an officer of a passing army after only an hour of conversation and brandy might not be very discriminating; could he have caught a Dread Disease? But he’d never heard of a Dread Disease that affected the ears. And anyway, there was the birdsong. And his own voice, and his whistling… well, perhaps deaf people could hear themselves talk; but the birds were something else again. He picked up a rock, shying it experimentally at a nearby puddle; the splash was perfectly clear. He wasn’t deaf, then. But in that case… why was it so quiet?
Breathing a little more rapidly than he liked, he lifted the flap of the nearest tent; the soldiers wouldn’t like being roused early, but that was just too bad, they should have become officers if they didn’t want to take orders. “Out! Out!” he barked, imitating his leather-lunged sergeant. When Ketilsen did that sort of thing, soldiers moved; sometimes they would be fully dressed before their eyes opened. Tormod was disappointed, therefore, to see he hadn’t even managed to startle anyone out of their sleep; not so much as an arm twitched.
Well, really now; he was all in favour of sleeping sound when possible, but this was ridiculous. Annoyed, he entered the tent to kick them awake, aware that it was the first time he’d used his rank for actual physical violence. But that was all right, soldiers needed to be occasionally reminded of who was in charge, or so the captain claimed. He poked the nearest bedroll experimentally with his foot, then when there was no response, kicked it hard.
There was, he belatedly realised, nobody in the bedroll. The darkness in the tent, and his own expectations, had concealed the fact from his eyes. But opening the tent flap further, to let in the dawning light, confirmed what the freezing shiver of fear down his spine predicted: The tent was as empty as the bedroll. The uniforms were gone too, and the haversacks; only the blankets and the tent itself remained.
He exited the tent as though it had been a nest of scorpions, trying to keep his burgeoning panic under control. Think, Tormod. Could it be that his absence had been reported to the captain, who had then decided to play a prank in retaliation? Perhaps the regimental staff – or even the General himself! – were watching him through telescopes right now, to see what he did? If so, he’d better calm down and not make himself any more of a spectacle than he would be anyway. They couldn’t very well have moved the whole army, so if he just went from tent to tent he’d have to find someone eventually, and then the joke would be over and he could take whatever lumps the captain decided to hand out. Maybe there wouldn’t even be any more punishment than this; Tormod had to admit that he felt rather bad about his little outing already.
It was a thin theory, and he knew it; but he couldn’t think of anything better. He walked quickly – no running; don’t let them see you panic – towards the center of the camp. There was no use checking the tents around the first one, the captain would certainly have evacuated those, but his authority only ran so far. Check every tenth tent, that was the ticket. Music was supposed to keep your morale up, he remembered; that was why Norwegian regiments advanced singing into grapeshot. Swallowing down a hard lump in his throat, he began again where he had left off: “Vänd din näsa rätt mot stormen och sjung hej å hå!” He counted the tents on his fingers; the tenth was as empty as the first, as was the twentieth. Abandoning his thoughts about not letting anyone see him panic, he began to run, singing at the top of his lungs; there had to be someone in the camp somewhere.
He was still singing when they found him; but he couldn’t remember why.
June 4th, 1678
North of Plock
Some time after midnight
“Wake up, General.”
The voice was soft, patient, giving the impression that it had been repeating itself for some minutes to lift Norvald slowly out of his sleep; at any rate he came awake without any sudden transition or confusion, knowing immediately where he was. He was also alert enough to realise that the voice was unfamiliar; it was neither Albert, his orderly, nor any of his staff, nor one of the officers of his army who were highly-enough ranked that he knew them personally – so who, then, was waking him in the middle of the night, in his guarded tent in the middle of a large army? A Bavarian assassin, presumably, would not give him fair warning, but… his hand crept to the pile of his uniform, beside his bedroll, and sought out the handle of his sword.
When he had it, he sat up abruptly, leaving his arm where it was, ready to slash at a moment’s notice. Bavarians were strange; they might have found an assassin with rigid notions of personal honour, willing to kill an enemy officer, but not in his sleep. “Who’s there?” he asked, feeling a moment’s panic as he realised that he’d just made himself a target; opening his eyes had not perceptibly changed the darkness, in this predawn hour. But no bullet or knife came. Instead, a light flared, not the dim red of a tinderbox spark, but bright yellow, steady, and instant, like no light he had ever seen. It illuminated the tent fully, making his dark-adapted eyes squint, but also revealing his – not assailant, then – visitor? A man, not particularly remarkable except in height – he was at least six feet – dressed in black clothes with a faintly military cut, though without the golden buttons, insignia, and epaulets that ornamented Norvald’s uniform. His left hand held the source of the light, a stick of some sort with light flaring from its end; his right was empty, though it hovered near a small holster on his belt in a way that suggested he could quickly grasp a weapon from it.
“My name is Vidkun Randall.”
So, he was a relative of sorts, one of the innumerable non-noble branches of the MacRaghnalls, just as Norvald was. Or, at least, so he claimed; after all anyone could make up a name beginning with a ‘Ran’ sound. But his face gave the claim credence; he had the slightly lumpy cast to the nose and the red tint in blonde hair that showed up, generation after generation, in the males of the family. Norvald relaxed minutely.
“Norvald Rahnvale,” he said, “but then it seems you already knew that. What do you want, that couldn’t wait till morning?”
“I want you,” the man said, pointing dramatically at Norvald, “to save Norway.”
Norvald blinked, nonplussed. “Save her from what?” Was he, perhaps, dealing with a madman? Although there was the light, and the question of why the guards outside his tent hadn’t at least poked their heads in to see who their General was speaking to and what the light was. Were they all asleep out there? Perhaps, now that he was awake anyway, it would be a good time for a surprise inspection; but first let him deal with this cousin, or lunatic, or whatever he was.
“From death, and radioaktivt nedfall, and the Last War,” the man responded calmly, quite as though the middle of his sentence weren’t gibberish.
“All ill things,” Norvald agreed, humouring him; “but what do you want me to do about them, precisely? I’m somewhat in the middle of my own war, here.”
“Indeed.” The man sat down uninvited, cross-legged; his hand no longer hovered near that holster, Norvald noted with interest. “Listen close, General Rahnvale, for I speak prophecy. Tomorrow you will bivouac outside Plock, and take a contribution from its citizens. You will then march south across the border, into Bavaria. Two weeks from now you will begin your siege of Lodz; it will fall three months later, after a traitor inside the walls opens a postern gate, with great loss of life in the sack. Somewhere in the hell that is a city which foreign troops are overrunning, a Bavarian citizen will resist one of your soldiers, defending his family to the end; he will cut the Norwegian’s left hand off with an axe before himself dying with a bayonet in his gut. The Norwegian will survive the wound, and be honourably discharged, with a pittance of a pension; not enough to live on. The next two years will have bad harvests, all over Europe; the price of bread will rise, and rise, and rise again, and the former soldier, unable to find work for a one-handed man, will go hungry. He will wander the streets of Bergen, half crazed with hunger, looking for work or charity, finding neither. In his anger and despair, he will begin preaching to others among the poor; will rant fury at merchants, rage at nobles, defiance at officers. No country is more than two meals from revolution. His words will be a spark in dry tinder. Nordnes will rise, then Sandviken, Verftet… the garrison will be ordered out to suppress the riots, and refuse to open fire. Haakon’s Hall will burn, and the rabble will take its arsenal. The revolution will spread like wildfire, all up and down the coast of Norway. The army will be ordered out, under your command, and will lose a crucial battle near Trondhjem when the 4th Nordlandske Infanteri mutiny and go over to the rebels; you will die on that field, riding in among your men to try to stem the rout. From that point there is no stopping them. In 1776, they hang the King.”
“Hang the King?” Norvald repeated into Vidkun’s pause for effect; the concept was shocking. There was a mesmerising quality to the man’s words, something that made it difficult to disbelieve or to interrupt. Vidkun smiled, without humour.
“Hang him, indeed, and all the Court with him; nor does it end there. The revolutionaries will declare a Republic, and water the young tree of their liberty with rivers of blood. As is inevitable, they will seek to unite their factions – in every revolution, it is the ambitious and ruthless who rise to the top; such men do not trust each other, nor should they – by exporting their poison at the point of a bayonet. They will launch the dragon-headed ships once more across the iron sea, and England will be set aflame. In England, too, there are many poor men and a few rich ones, and a man whose belly growls with hunger is easily moved to see injustice in a full granary, greed in a well-fleshed face. The MacRaghnall lairds will rise, and all the Highlands with them; Ireland will declare its own Republic, and burn the English estates to the ground; in 1779 it will be the turn of the Lancasters to climb the thirteen steps.”
“The war that ensues, when some Powers of Europe attempt to intervene and restore the MacRaghnalls, and others oppose them in the name of liberty – both, of course, in reality acting for their own reasons of power and strategy – will make the European Jihad look like a nursery quarrel; it will last twenty years and kill two million men. The Great War, they will call it, until the next one, for which the peace treaty will plant the seeds. At its end the Anglo-Norse People’s Union will be reduced to Scandinavia and the Isles, with Ireland independent; the Inca will rule all the Americas, from sea to darkling sea. Russia will stretch to the Pacific, and Bavaria and ‘restored’ Hungary will be its vassals, shattered by twenty years of armies marching through them. Spain will be thrown back to the Pyrenees, but France and Italy will have no joy of their victory; the revolutionary flame will take hold there, and for a hundred years no man will be allowed to gain wealth – and therefore, everyone will be equally poor. All of Africa will be Chaos and Old Night, the tribes washing their spears – bayonets, by that time – in the blood of their former overlords and then turning on each other to work out old grievances with new weaponry.”
“Worse, the War will settle nothing; in the next generation the armies will march again, and in the next, with better weapons and more soldiers. Each slaughter worse than the one before, each truce settling less; Russia and the Inca cannot destroy each other, but can inflict immense damage on their ‘allies’. Malaya waiting, biding its time, selling weapons to both sides. India conquered by the Russians, Africa by the Inca, the Middle East a battleground and a charnel house when Europe at last becomes too poor to be properly fought over. Finally, bombs capable of flattening a city, and their mounting on rockets large enough to cross the Atlantic; a fragile peace under the shadow of the mushroom clouds. Then the almost simultaneous outbreaks of maizeblight and wheatrust, millions starving, each side blaming the other, perhaps rightly so. Missiles flying, thousands and tens of thousands. Moscow, Kiev, Arequipa, Mexico City: Forty million dead in minutes, and those only the vanguard. The empires fighting on like broken-backed snakes, spitting death everywhere; even, in the last death throes, into the minor powers, the ‘allies’ and ‘associated states’. Bergen, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm; Edinburgh, London, Manchester. Radioaktiv poison all across the mountains and the forests; the Baltic sterile, the Thames running lifeless to the sea.”
Vidkun ran down, leaning back like a man expecting his audience to bounce up and volunteer life, liberty, and sacred honour for his cause. He was, undeniably, an effective speaker; Norvald still did not know what ‘radioaktiv‘ meant or why a cloud of mushrooms should cast a particularly fearsome shadow, but somehow, irrationally, he believed that Vidkun was speaking truth. Not just that Vidkun himself believed what he was saying, but that it was accurate and not misleading; that it was a true prophecy. And that was strange, for it was a wild story, full of incredible details like the ignominious death of kings… but, almost against his will, Norvald believed.
“It begins with this soldier, then,” he said slowly. “But – if not him, might there not be another? Bad harvests always lead to unrest. Sparks in dry tinder, as you say. Why do you come to me, to this place?” And what was his visitor, that he knew all this?
“You are right; but this is a cusp. I can’t explain the science of kvantefeltteoretisk dynamisk historieanalyse, but I can tell you its conclusions: There will always be street preachers in hard times. But not all of them are as uniquely inspiring as this one. If not him, another; but the other will not have the gift, will not inspire the mob to storm through grapeshot into massed bayonets and overcome disciplined soldiery by simply impaling themselves; will not coin the ringing phrases that even a century later cause men to fight and die for the cause of the poor. There are hard times ahead no matter what we do; but there need not be a Great War and the death of peoples. ”
Norvald nodded. “All right. Then it seems fairly simple, no? Track the man down, discharge him before he’s due to join the sack of Lodz; or promote him and send him off on detached duty; or at an utter pinch, kill him.” He winced at the thought of killing a, presumably, loyal soldier who was not yet guilty of any crime; but if it were that, or the death of millions… Anyway, giving him a cushy job in the rear ought to be sufficient.
“Would it were so,” Vidkun sighed. “All that you say could be done, if we knew the wretched man’s name.”
“But – he’s famous!” Norvald protested. “Or infamous, at least.”
“Indeed. Unfortunately, in the winter streets of Bergen men go by nicknames; and so he is known to history as ‘Predikanten’, and the name his mother gave him is as lost to us as that of Lot’s wife. Do you have anyone in your muster rolls by the name of ‘The Preacher’, General Rahnvale?”
“Probably.” Norvald’s mouth twisted wryly. “Poor people will name their children the most amazing things; I had a sergeant once called Lykketil Gregersen. But it’s not likely to be the same man.”
“No,” Vidkun agreed. “We won’t find him that way.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“I suggest that you give me your army, General Rahnvale.”
“Give you my army?” Norvald frowned, not understanding what Vidkun meant. The army was, in any case, not his to give; he had the King’s commission to command it, written in the royal hand and given to him in personal audience; only incapacity could release him from that duty.
“I, too, am fighting a war, General; and I have need of fighting men. Enlist your army, all thirty thousand of them – including our Preacher. Remove him from his time and his place, and he is only another soldier – a brave and skilled one, for all we know; in any case, not a man whose words will kill millions. Save Norway in this timeline, and perhaps – who knows? – in mine as well.”
“Timeline?” Norvald shook his head. “No, never mind, more of your kvantefeltteori, no doubt. It does not matter. I gave my oath; I cannot fight under another kingdom’s colours. Nor can any of my men.”
“Nor do I ask you to,” Vidkun said. “Norway is larger than you think; it fights on other fronts than this. I ask you, not to desert, but to exercise your initiative as a high officer, and send your army where it will do the most good.”
“I have a wife,” Norvald observed mildly, “and children.”
“Yes, I know.” Vidkun’s voice was gentle. “You would get no more than a few additional years with them, if this history took its natural course – as it will, if you decide that is your duty, and I return the tent to the timestream. And those years would be bad ones, with famine and revolution.”
Norvald considered this. “If events go as you say, yes; but now that I know what will happen, may I not choose otherwise, and avoid the disaster? I am assured that I have free will. What if I merely change my plan of operations – I can make up some scouting report that makes it expedient to do so – and attack the coastal cities before Lodz?”
“Ah.” Vidkun bit his lip. “There are constraints. I am, as I said, fighting a war; it is important that my enemies not find me here, intervening in a history thus far untouched by either side. So – this conversation is taking place outside the timestream. The part of you that decides to refuse will be returned to your tent, still asleep, with no memory of what was said; and your history will proceed in accordance with the prophecy – and undetected by the agents of the Enemy. No information from outside will pass into it; only its amplitude will be rather smaller than what it would be, in the absence of my intervention – and that is much harder to detect.”
“The ‘part of me’? Either I say no or yes!”
“Well, yes and, actually, no. Sorry, I cannot explain all of kvantefysikk to you in less than a year; but in fact, some part of you will always say no. The question is how large it is.”
Norvald decided not to engage with this; perhaps Vidkun was right, or then again, perhaps he was both a prophet, engaged in a great war involving ‘timestreams’, and mad. It did not affect the fact that Norvald had to make a decision.
“My life is not the most important thing, in any case,” he said. “The main issue is whether enlisting in your war can be reconciled with the oath I gave – and my officers, and my soldiers. Tell me of your war, then. Who is the enemy?”
Vidkun looked around cautiously, apparently without realising he was doing it, and lowered his voice. “Ynglings,” he hissed.
Norvald raised his eyebrows. “The noble family with estates around Trondhjem? Lots of American branches? Tend to boast that they’re descended from kings when they’re in their cups?” He had Yngling officers, come to think of it, even two colonels of that ilk.
“In this timeline, yes. In their original timeline – well, never mind, two thousand years of history. Suffice it to say, if they invade, even the local Ynglings will be reduced to slavery; descended from Olaf Haraldsson they might be, but not the right Olaf Haraldsson. Although how the Ynglings imagine they can tell the difference between two kvantemekanisk identical persons – well, never mind, an old quarrel. Please note, when I say slavery I do not exaggerate; I mean literal, chattel ownership, power of life and death, auction-block sales, the whole thing. They run actual salt mines with manual labour, just so they have somewhere unpleasant to send recalcitrant strils! You do not want Ynglings within five century-equivalent-deltas of your own personal timeline, trust me on that.”
“Slavery?” Norvald blinked in surprise; that was almost as barbaric as hanging kings. “It’s been banned here since -”
“1709, yes, I know. And longer in actual practice. The Ynglings did things differently; and the Norway I come from has been at war with them since – well, since we discovered how to travel between timelines, in effect. Longer, if you believe the Ynglings themselves; they claim to be at war with everyone who is not an Yngling, and act accordingly.”
“So they have declared war on my King,” Norvald mused. “Still, without a formal declaration of war delivered to our Foreign Minister, it might be considered dereliction of duty to run off and fight them; after all there are any number of African tribes who likewise are at war with all civilised peoples, and you don’t see me leaving Bavaria willy-nilly to fight them.”
“An African tribe is perhaps unlikely to invade Scandinavia,” Vidkun noted tartly. “The Ynglings are making an offensive in – well, speaking roughly, ‘this direction’, kranwards from their base in Charlemagne-United 67. Which took us by surprise. Unless I can recruit some soldiers fairly rapidly and mount a defense at Roman-Dominant 13, three decade-equivalents siftwards, they’ll be appearing at Dovre in strength in a few years, and then it’ll all be over. This timeline is not defensible even with expensive tech transfers, it’s too disunited.”
“So.” Norvald thought it over. “You inform me of two threats to the Kingdom, these Ynglings and this Preacher, and propose to deal with both by recruiting my army for your war. And yet – your Norway is, perhaps, the same nation; but it is not the same kingdom. I gave oath to King Christian, Third of that Name.”
Vidkun shrugged. “You swore to defend him from all threats, foreign and domestic. Here is one of each. If he does not know about them yet, still, that does not release you from your duty.”
“That is true,” Norvald agreed. He felt a weight settling on his shoulders; it had been such a simple little war – cross the border, take Lodz while the French poured out blood and treasure at the Fulda Gap, wait for the Bavarians to stack arms and surrender. Now it seemed he would have to fight an unknown enemy, over unknown terrain, with – he eyed Vidkun’s light-stick and the tiny holster, much too small to hold a blackpowder pistol of any stopping power – unknown weapons. But duty was duty; if he had reliable news of enemies that his king had not known about, more dangerous than the Bavarians, then it was his clear responsibility to destroy them.
“Very well,” he said. “I agree.”
Vidkun’s shoulders slumped in relief. “Splendid,” he said, glancing to his left; Norvald followed his eyes, but could not see what he was looking at. “Eighty-seven percent amplitude capture at thirty minutes. Probably ninety-five percent by an hour, perhaps as high as ninety-nine with repeated attempts. You’re an unusually consistent man, General; most of your soldiers aren’t going any higher than seventy-five even on the third attempt.”
“I beg your pardon?” Of course, there was always the theory that Vidkun was some sort of lunatic…
“One of the advantages of manipulating time: Had you said no, I would return you to your timestream at the moment I entered it, with no memory of our conversation; then I would re-enter it an hour or so later, and try again, with different arguments, on a slightly different man. I’m in the process of doing so with your soldiers and officers; but many of them are, well. I understand that you don’t get the best recruits for the army in this Norway, but some of these people I wouldn’t set to feeding pigs without someone to make sure the pig didn’t outsmart them. Don’t you teach them to read?”
“They read the Bible, and sign their names,” Norvald said a bit stiffly. It was true that his soldiers weren’t, by and large, the sharpest bayonets in the arsenal, and he’d been known to make a joke or two at their expense – especially the Swedes – but they were his soldiers. Vidkun had no business criticising them. “In any case, that’s what we have officers for; why are you talking to the enlisted men?”
Vidkun raised his eyebrows. “It would be quite unethical to draft them into a war they never signed up for – even for the limited values of ‘signing up’ that enlisted men get in this 1768 – just on the say-so of their officers. Ynglings do that sort of thing; we try not to.”
“I see,” Norvald said, uncomfortable at the implied criticism, but unable to find any fault with Vidkun’s course of action. Then it struck him. “Wait – if they say no, you try again, leaving them without a memory of the first attempt?”
“Well, yes.” Vidkun looked uncomfortable. “I know what you’re thinking, it doesn’t make me happy either, but what can I do? If I don’t convince them, every last one, on at least the fifty-percent level, I have to put the whole army back or the overlap will have too small a measure to be useful for defending Roman-Dominant 13; and then they all die or are enslaved anyway, when the Ynglings come. And sixty percent would really be a lot better.” Seeing Norvald’s confusion, he sighed. “I’m sorry, General; I don’t have time to explain just now. You’ll be going to school for a bit, and it will all become clear. But briefly, there is always some chance, some probability, that you say no, even with all my little persuasive tricks – as you say, you have free will. And the same is true of each of your soldiers. So if I spoke only to you, the timeline would split in two: One where you said yes, one where you didn’t. If I spoke to you and one other, there would be four, two of his for each of your two. I’m speaking to each of thirty thousand soldiers, and there are two timelines for each of those – a largish number! But afterwards I will restore that part of each soldier that said no to the original timeline, the one with the revolution; and that will collapse the timelines back into two again: One where your army joins me because every man in it agreed, and one where I never spoke to any of them. The question that is decided by free will and my persuasiveness is not which timelines shall exist, but how large they shall be.”
Norvald nodded, feeling a bit dizzy at the implications, and deliberately shoving them aside for future contemplation. He rose from his bedroll, setting aside the sword that he had been clutching all through the conversation; his decision was made, and it would be a kind of cowardice to cling to the sword now. Instead he reached for his uniform, putting it on slowly, almost ceremoniously, as he had when the King summoned him to give him his commission. He ended by buckling on the sword, firmly, giving his full attention to the weapon and what it meant. He was beginning a war, and ritual – even if a small, private one – was called for. He stood up straight.
“Christian, and freedom,” he said tentatively, feeling for a slogan for his new campaign. He thought of what Vidkun had said about their enemies, and smiled ironically; in some things there was no substitute for tradition.
“And death to Ynglings!“