Technology was the tool that allowed humanity – and the other races, including the Enemy – to examine the universe. As a cause of development, technology was very much in the forefront – but only if society allowed it to develop. In TimeLine A, the humans played fast and loose with their own security – simply by refusing to develop proper space travel until it was too late. In TimeLine B, technology had not quite frozen in place, as it had in Imperial China so long ago, but development was slowing.
Technology required competition to grow, and a social structure capable of supporting such competition without destruction. War provided an ideal impetus to develop one’s weapons – for fear of the enemy developing a super weapon on their own – but at the same time it was intrinsically wasteful. War burnt off lives for little; with TimeLine B’s geopolitics, none of the empires could really hope – realistically – to defeat, crush and occupy either of its rivals.
That had a second effect; the social systems were unable to change radically, even to the point of giving equal rights to women. Developing a viable contraceptive was possible, but what would have been the point? It wasn’t as if society provided any roles for women, other than mothers, daughters and wives, with only a handful of exceptions. That alone disturbed technological evolution – it prevented half of the potential pioneers from developing their ideas. For Britain – and to some extent France – a female inventor would be treated with mild condescension. For Russia, she would be lucky if she was not stoned as a witch.
War…made social change possible.
War…offered positions to those who would never have had them.
War…forced people to examine old ‘truths’ for truth.
The ideal state of affairs for humanity, or so some entities had theorised and indeed come to believe – was that of endless non-violent competition. The ideal human state would respect the rights of its citizens, but also allow change to hit it regularly, affecting the overall structure without destroying it outright. Hitting the balance was difficult – most societies tended to move through periods of freedom and repression – but it had happened once.
Unfortunately, in the timeline that had been termed TimeLine B by those ignorant of the others, it wasn’t moving fast enough.
The second figure spoke first. “Have they discovered the truth of it all?” She asked. Her voice…wasn’t quite as unconcerned as it sounded. “There are disturbances up and down the timeline.”
The first figure knew that she didn’t mean humans. “Uncertain,” he said. “It is so hard to be certain.”
The second figure drifted over to him. “They might be here,” she said. “If they are interfering as well…”
“It would set up an interference pattern,” the first figure said. “Humans are such unpredictable creatures…”
“We are human,” the second figure reminded him.
“We were human by their definition,” the first figure said. “The effects caused have been caused by humans.”
The figures paused for a long moment. They were supremely intelligent, either of them capable of outthinking any human on computer on Timeline B – or Timeline A. To admit that there were effects that they could not predict – creatures that could start a game of snooker and win on the first action – was to admit to a certain kind of defeat.
“And they have clues that one of our agents is active on the George Washington,” the first figure said. He ignored his companion’s shock. “Should we allow them to find the agent, or rewrite history to ensure that we remain undetected?”
The second figure said nothing for a long moment. “How could they have detected one of our agents?” She asked. A thought struck her. “You did it.”
The first figure nodded, if such a simple word could be applied. “It’s not enough,” he said. “They’re…not ready.”
“And you think that if they find one of our agents, they will be somehow magically prepared for what’s coming?” The second figure asked. “If only we could interfere directly…”
“We cannot,” the first figure said. “We can only watch, wait…and then intervene very slightly.”
The second figure nodded. “A full series of information has been prepared,” she said, after a long moment. “Observe.”
She passed it over. “Acceptable,” the first figure said. “Download it into the agent’s brain, and then we’ll see what happens…”
Chapter Thirty: Russian Roulette
Moscow, Russia (TimeLine B)
There had been, apparently, forty-nine Tsars between 1777 and 2009. The job simply didn’t have high life expectancy; the average was five years. The current Tsar had been unusually long-lived, mainly – Petrovich suspected – through sheer bloody-mindedness.
It hadn’t taken long for him to work out how the Russian Court functioned. The children of prominent nobles, from boyars to dukes, were kept at Court, mainly as hostages for their parents’ good behaviour. The Tsarist Secret Service kept tabs on everyone of importance, from rebel leaders to professors to nobles. No one was safe if the Tsar decided he wanted to ruin him; the army answered to him alone.
Consequently, everyone plotted and schemed against the Tsar, using methods from outright revolution – which was harshly punished – to poison. The nobles who led armed rebellions were often cut down by their own peasants, just to prevent the entire region from being destroyed. A successful poisoning, on the other hand, could lead to the murderer becoming Tsar, assuming he survived the challengers. Many Tsars had fallen to their own sons; the line was shattered and broken and had been so for years.
Rebecca had been helpful in helping him to figure out the rules. A Jew could never rule in Russia, so ironically they were used by the nobles as servants, while the peasants hated and feared them. Rebecca and her father were only safe within the Iron Palace, which didn’t have the decency to look like the Kremlin. Petrovich suspected that it was worse for the Americans and French who’d arrived in the new reality; he’d been not that familiar with Moscow before being dumped in the new reality.
“We have managed to activate seventeen of the Abrams,” Captain Yakov said. The former commander of a Russian tank force, Captain Yakov had been lucky to survive the cold; Petrovich needed him desperately. “Three more had bombs within the logic structure of their computers.”
Petrovich nodded. He’d expected as much; after all the exaggerated horror stories about Vietcong soldiers using American weapons, the Americans had been determined to prevent others stealing and using their systems. At the same time, any long start-up sequence would have made the tanks…useless, under certain circumstances.
“And so they’re useless,” he said thoughtfully. The Americans had not been very helpful; only thirty Abrams and several hundred rounds. “What about the other ten?”
“We’re working on that now,” Captain Yakov said. “The three aren’t useless, sir; they can still be used for spare parts.”
“Do we happen to have anyone who understands how American tanks go together?” Petrovich asked. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone!”
Captain Yakov smiled grimly. “Comrade Engineer Grigorvich has been unable to get them to build shells for the tanks?”
Petrovich smiled. It had been a long time since anyone in the former Soviet Union – except at Communist Party meetings – had been addressed as ‘Comrade.’ “They don’t have anything like a capable industrial sector,” he said. He’d been working on building tanks for Tsar Nicolas XX, using the plans stolen from the French who’d stolen them from the British, but the task was harder than he’d expected – fortunately not harder than he’d led the Tsar to believe.
“They’re working on the dumb assembly line principle,” he said, which he conceded made a certain type of sense. “Each of their working men builds one part – and one of their tradesmen builds the tanks from the parts, or rather…”
“Builds the trucks,” Captain Yakov said. “Adapting them to build tanks is…trickier.”
Petrovich nodded absently. The peasants who had been conscripted to work in the factories only knew one tiny part of the entire unit; be it lorry, tank, ship, submarine or whatever. Imagination and initiative was alien to them; it kept them from considering other matters, such as how much better the world would be if they revolted.
“We have to do it, though,” he said. “Satisfying our master is everything.”
Captain Yakov nodded. There were good things about being in Imperial Russia, from the women who they could have at any time if they wanted them, to the massive riches and power they could claim. The downside, however, was that all of those could be withdrawn – or worse – at the behest of the Tsar.
Ah, but does he know how they can be used to overthrow him? Petrovich asked himself, and shivered. He was damned if he was going to grovel forever in front of the Tsar, but the thought of what would happen if he tried – and failed – to overthrow him was chilling.
“I wish,” Captain Yakov began, and then broke off. Petrovich understood; he would have sold his soul for a genuine FSB – or even KGB – agent to help them, assuming that such a person could be trusted. The Tsar’s Secret Service knew little of electronic bugs, but he wouldn’t have bet against them having learnt the idea from examining the ships.
Of course, until they invent transistors, they won’t get very far, he thought. He’d kept his rooms bare for a reason; it would be harder to emplace one of the primitive bugs of this world in position. Rebecca understood – he’d explained to her as best as he could – and she’d helped.
He smiled. She’d helped with rather a lot, actually, including reconciling him to this situation.
“It’s ok,” he said. “This room is swept for bugs regularly.”
Captain Yakov nodded. “It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to have ordered people to leave the bugs alone,” he said. “Assuming they have any worth mentioning.”
Petrovich shrugged. Even Stalin hadn’t gone that far; he would have faced revolts with politicians who would have preferred their nightly habits to have remained a secret. In this shadow world, with wooden fires and flickering medieval torches, he wouldn’t have seen them caring – he’d seen the Tsar rape a serving maid in front of a group.
It’s a deception, he thought suddenly, and understood. The Tsar acted the barbarian because he had to appear the barbarian, just to keep control. They refused to appear sophisticated because they linked sophistication with the Jews and the French, their blood enemies.
“Engineer Grigorvich has been working on developing their industrial base and new weapons,” Petrovich said, changing the subject. “Once we have a few regiments armed with the new weapons, then we can take action.”
Captain Yakov nodded slowly. Only two hundred of Petrovich’s men had survived the exposure, and they were far too valuable to risk using to fight, even with the advanced American weapons. The Tsar kept them separated, although Petrovich expected that, sooner or later, they’d be able to work together anyway.
“Action,” he said, and then Rebecca raced into the room. Her blonde face, so cold outside of bed, was scared.
“Master, my father has come to see you on behalf of his master,” she said, falling to her knees. When there was any company, she always acted the submissive slave. He waits for you now in the guest room.”
“Thank you,” Petrovich said. He nodded to Captain Yakov. “Excuse me,” he said, and slipped into the guest room, such as it was. “Yes?”
“The Tsar demands your presence,” Stefan said. In six months, Petrovich had never been able to determine if he had a surname. “He waits for you now in the minor throne room.”
Petrovich nearly swore before catching himself. “I come,” he said, and followed Stefan out of the room. The stone corridors seemed colder than usual and there were fewer people around; it was one of the harvest seasons and many of the boyars had gone to their farms.
“He waits inside,” Stefan said, and left Petrovich in front of the massive iron doors. The guards searched him roughly, and then opened the doors. Petrovich prostrated himself as soon as he saw the massive form of the Tsar, and then crawled towards him.
“You may rise,” the Tsar said, without preamble. “Slave; report.”
Petrovich flushed, before realising that the Tsar was talking to another court Jew – a nervous-looking woman who had never been named in front of him. She kept her eyes low, like a woman who’d been repeatedly traumatised. Petrovich was surprised that she could still walk, let alone talk.
“The British have managed to punch through the defence lines in New Spain, which has not been yet brought into the Empire,” she said, in a dull monotone. Petrovich had never been able to identify her accent; he suspected that it didn’t exist within his timeline. “They have managed to progress nearly fifty miles, my lord, and they have inflicted heavy casualties.”
Petrovich was impressed. He fought not to show it. In this world, which was a perverse version of World War One, it took a minor miracle to advance five miles, let alone fifty. With tanks and enough power, it was possible - which meant that the British had finally played one of the cards that had come thought the…event that had brought him to this world.
“In addition, they have managed to use carrier-borne aircraft to attack the French fleet,” she said. The Tsar stared at her, holding her unwilling eyes. “They have inflicted heavy damage.”
She lowered a massive sheaf of papers to the floor, lowering her eyes again. “My master?”
The Tsar waved to Petrovich to take the papers from his kneeling position. “Wait for me in the antechamber,” the tsar ordered her. Petrovich saw her flinch as she left the room. “My Lord Colonel?”
The Tsar’s tone was warm ice, with little friendship or respect. He’d created Petrovich a Lord – none of the nobles would have dreamed of lowering themselves to listen to a commoner – but Petrovich knew that the Tsar could tear down even the Grand Duke.
“The British have clearly managed to put tanks into production,” he said, stating the obvious. “With such an advantage, they have managed to take large areas of ground.”
“And the French could do the same to us?” The Tsar asked. “The Throne is vulnerable?”
Petrovich hesitated, keeping his face blank. “It’s a possibility,” he conceded. It was more than just a possibility, and he knew it. “If they have managed to build tanks of their own…”
“And you have delayed the process,” the Tsar accused. “You insisted on working to different plans…”
Petrovich winced as the Tsar ranted on, more than a little unfairly. He’d expected that the British and French would develop tanks, which meant that the simplest thing to do was to develop anti-tank tanks. The Tsar had…disagreed, along with half of the boyars, and the argument had gone nowhere quickly.
“We have some tanks ready for use now,” he said, trying to defuse an explosion. “If we were to…”
“Then we can attack the French now,” the Tsar said. His voice showed no trace of concern over the deaths that that would cause. “Hit them hard; keep hitting them, and then we can hammer our way all the way to Paris.”
Petrovich took a breath, wishing that he could speak freely. “Your Splendid Majesty,” he said, “that would be unwise…”
“Oh?” The Tsar asked. “How so?”
Petrovich made a mental promise that he would never say anything rude about Stalin again. “Your Splendid Majesty, tanks have to be used in large numbers for success,” he said. One thing he was sure of; the French had better aircraft, even without the Charles de Gaulle. “If we send only a handful into battle, even with the seventeen currently working alternate American tanks, we will lose the battle and the advantage of surprise.”
The Tsar stared at him for a long moment, his bearded face expressionless. “I have been assured by the Generals in command that the French will run as soon as they see one of our tanks,” he said. “It happened in your world…did it not?”
Contradicting the Tsar didn’t lead to a long life. “Your Splendid Majesty, the troops who fled knew nothing about tanks, or their weaknesses,” he said. “The French will know about tanks, and as long as they don’t panic…”
“My technical experts” – people who couldn’t have built something from TimeLine B – “assure me that the…Abrams tanks are immune to our weapons,” the Tsar interrupted. “If we just send them at the French lines, we will break through.”
Petrovich thought furiously. How to explain it? “Your Splendid Majesty, if we do that, we will run out of weapons for the tanks,” he said. “We do not have the ability to duplicate the fuel they need, so when we run out of fuel, we will lose the ability to move them. Your Splendid Majesty, the tanks are invincible…until they run out of weapons or fuel.”
He paused. “And there is a second problem, Your Splendid Majesty,” he said. The Tsar’s face clenched, but he didn’t react. “The people from the…other timeline, my world, will not be awed by the tanks. Once they see them…well, they will know what they have to do to defeat them, and then the advantage of surprise will be gone forever.”
“I will not slip behind the other two empires in using the new knowledge,” the Tsar said. “Russia will become master of the world and I will be her master!”
He’s mad, Petrovich thought. “Your Splendid Majesty, Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Petrovich said. “Taking the entire world will be…difficult.”
“So,” the Tsar purred. “What do you suggest that we do?”
Petrovich considered. “The French will be preparing to attack us,” he said. The Secret Service had been very clear on this. “If we prepare a reception for their tanks, using the American tanks, then we can destroy the attack force and utterly demoralise them.”
“Then we can strike against them ourselves,” the Tsar said.
“And crush whatever forces they have risen up to prepare for their so-called successful attack,” Petrovich said. “They’ll sue for peace then.”
The Tsar muttered an oath. “I want to burn Paris,” he said. “What else matters beside that?”
Petrovich, as soon as he had humbled himself before the Tsar again, left the Throne Room as quickly as he could, moving through the corridors. He never saw the knife that came at him, only the glint on its blade. He ducked on instinct, dodging the blade, before grabbing his pistol on his belt.
“Die,” he shouted, and fired down the dark tunnel. He missed; he must have missed, for the sound of running feet continued to torment him. He fired again, hitting something; he heard a gasp in the darkness. He cursed gently, and then pulled his torch from his belt, shining a brilliant white light down the corridor. A man, dressed in a dark cloak, was trying to escape.
“You’ll never make it,” Petrovich said, moving carefully towards him. A knife was a nice weapon, but he would have expected a pistol shot. It dawned upon him that there had been no running guards; where were they? “Give up?”
The man swore in a language Petrovich didn’t recognise. Only the vitriol was comprehensible. “I’ll never talk,” he said, and started to choke.
“What the hell?” Petrovich swore, forgetting his own safety. The man was choking to death, dying even under his eyes. He swung the body around; the dark-bearded face was that of a stranger. “Who the hell sent you?”
The figure gave a final choke and died. Petrovich shivered, sniffing the traces of a poison from the figure’s mouth, and checked his pockets. They were empty; there were no clues at all. The clothes under the cloak were standard court garb; the assassin was one of a hundred thousand nobles, clearly.
“Bastards,” Petrovich snapped, as he realised that there were still no guards. Someone must have spread a lot of money around for a bungled assignation attempt. Moving quickly and carefully, he pulled the dead man’s cloak on and slipped away down the corridor, turning corners as if there was an assassin behind every one.
He reached his rooms and lifted his pistol. It was the last place where he could be ambushed, but there was no one in the corridor, not even a guard. For the first time, he regretted the Tsar’s decision that he no longer needed a guard on his rooms. As quietly as he could, he moved up to the door – and slipped inside.
“Don’t move,” he snapped, at a shadow, and regretted it as Rebecca stared at him in horror. For a long moment, they faced each other, and then Petrovich slammed the door shut and locked it.
“Is there anyone else here?” He demanded. “Are you alone?”
Rebecca stared at him, her eyes bright. “Yes,” she stammered. He’d never done anything like this to her before. “Master…”
“It’s ok,” he said, trying to reassure her. He lowered the gun, returning it to its holster. “Someone just tried to kill me.”
Her face, if possible, paled still further. If he died, she would be sent to a whorehouse and used by soldiers. “But who?” She asked, her voice still shaky. “Who would want you dead?”
Petrovich laughed aloud as he entered his main room. It was cold, but he had at least managed to convince her to allow it to warm up. “The boyars in charge of industry, before I came,” he said. “The nobles who object to such a newcomer getting such power under the Tsar. The French or the British, assuming they know about me. The Tsar’s heir, perhaps; he fears my influence. The Tsar himself…”
He smiled at her expression. “Shall I go on?” He asked bitterly. “Well?”
She shook her head slowly. “No, my master,” she said. Her use of the formal words was enough to convince him that she was still scared. “My master…?”
“Don’t worry,” Petrovich said, trying to reassure her. “I have no doubt that whoever launched the attack will reveal themselves before too long.”
He caught her and pulled her over to him. She didn’t resist, which was worrying. “It’ll all be fine,” he promised, and began to make love to her.