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Chapter Thirty-One: The Watch on the Rhine



Franco-Russian Border

Europe (TimeLine B)
Ironically, to pilot Andre Arsenault, the border between the Russian and French Empires in TimeLine B ran along the German-Polish border of TimeLine A, although with a regularity that was deceptive on a map. The French and the Russians, back during the Global War, had simply drawn a line across Europe; consigning Prussia and Poland to the ash can of history. Even though the Balkans had been divided up later, they remained stable and peaceful – until now.
The helicopter drifted east, remaining low. Arsenault wasn’t sure what to make of their new world, but one thing was clear; France was under attack. They’d learnt enough about the Russians, in both timelines, to know that they didn’t want to live under them – whatever the cost. Without nuclear weapons, the Russians might just manage to score a victory in the end, even at high cost.
Arsenault and his wingmen, the crew of the five land-attack helicopters that had been loaded on board, just before departing from France, had been preparing to attack Chinese targets. Russian targets were much simpler; they had trenches across the land. The helicopters were to remain out of contact, unless the Russians deployed tanks of their own – and the French tanks, or land ironclads as they were being called here, were unable to handle them.
Arsenault smiled as the helicopters came to rest in a pre-prepared airfield, only twenty miles from the front. One of their number - Belen Lefunte – was getting hitched; to an alternate, to be sure! He smiled at the thought; who would have thought that she would get married? Naturally, he himself had enjoyed himself with some women from the new world, but he rather wished that he were back home. Some of the women in the new France were…strange, others were delightful.
He tapped his radio once. In theory, there was nothing in the region that could have picked up the low-powered signals, but he was professional enough to know better than to assume anything. There might have been no hints of American activity, but who knew what the Russians might have?
“This is Aleph-one,” he said, into his radio. He spoke in a whisper, something that was unnecessary, but the sheer seriousness of the situation seemed to dictate it. “We have taken up position.”
There was a long pause. Arsenault was starting to worry when the reply came. “This is Napoleon,” the voice said. Napoleon; the codename for General Leblanc – and also a name that had been passed through the Imperial Family, ever since Prime Minister Napoleon. “You are on station?”
“Yes,” Arsenault said, refusing to admit to annoyance. It made some sense – navigation was something of a hit or miss concept in the alternate world – but it was annoying. It suggested that he was incompetent. “Yes, sir; we are in the correct location.”
“Excellent,” General Leblanc said. If he sensed Arsenault’s annoyance, he didn’t allow it to appear in his voice. “Remain where you are. If you are needed, you will be called.”
Arsenault sighed. “Yes, sir,” he said. If the Admiral had decided to commit some help from the Charles de Gaulle, as was clearly the case, then why not commit everything? “Yes, sir,” he said.
***

Ten miles to the east, the land was covered with guns, preparing to fire a hail of shells on the Russian positions. The sheer size of the battleground meant that the two forces contested daily for a massive stretch of ground, fighting in the mud, but there were fewer trenches than Lieutenant Lagrange – former communication officer – would have expected. The battleground was simply too vast to make them useful.


“Your helicopters seem eager to get into the battle,” General Leblanc observed. Lieutenant Lagrange said nothing. “Indeed, it sounded as if they didn’t want to remain where they were, eh?”
Lieutenant Lagrange realised that he was supposed to say something. General Leblanc reminded him far too much of a political general from before the National Front; someone who projected élan, but little competence. Contre-Admiral François Videzun might swear that General Leblanc knew what he was doing, but Lagrange wasn’t so sure.
“They have been cooped up on the ship,” he said neutrally. He wasn’t going to argue, not now. “They want some action.”
General Leblanc slapped him on the back. “Don’t worry,” he boomed. “They’ll see some today, boy.”
“Of course,” Lagrange said. They passed a line of tanks – no, land ironclads, he reminded himself - and General Leblanc paused to examine them thoughtfully. Despite himself, Lagrange had to admit that the general had done good work with the plans he’d had; the two types of land ironclad were ready to move.
“Impressive, are they not?” General Leblanc asked. Lagrange nodded. “One type for clearing trenches, one type for taking on other ironclads, just like them.”
Lagrange smiled. He would have bet a free trip home to his original France that the Russians at least knew what was coming their way. No matter their deficiencies in technology, the Russians had thousands of spies within the Paris Court. It had astounded when he’d worked that out; none of the Court seemed to care!
“And we owe it all to you,” General Leblanc said, when Lagrange said nothing. “Thank you, young man.”
“You’re welcome,” Lagrange said. “Tell me; when do we begin the attack?”
General Leblanc checked his watch. “How about now?” He asked. “It’s something around the planned launch time anyway, eh?”
Lagrange fought to control his expression and didn’t quite succeed. “Don’t worry,” General Leblanc said, suddenly amused. “What can possibly go wrong?” He lifted a flare pistol into the air, then paused. “Would you like the honours?”
“No, thank you,” Lagrange said.
General Leblanc lifted the pistol and fired the first flare into the air. “The offensive begins,” he said, as the guns started to fire. “The Russians won’t know what’s hit them!”
***

The Tsar had been very determined about one thing; Lord Colonel Ivan Petrovich was not to be allowed near the front. Captain Yakov wasn’t certain if that had been intended out of concern for Petrovich’s life, or for concerns that Petrovich might take the opportunity to desert the Tsar. It didn’t matter; all that mattered was that Captain Yakov held command of the alternate force – ten American-built Abrams tanks. A second force was held in reserve, awaiting their chance.


A thunderous crash announced the arrival of the first wave of shells. Absently, Captain Yakov timed the attacks and shook his head; assuming that all the French guns were firing as one, then they were firing…CRASH…ten shells a minute. Captain Yakov dismissed that thought; he wasn’t convinced that that would have been possible even in their own timeline.
“They have begun the attack,” General Razov announced, to general approval. Captain Yakov bit down on the remark that hovered around his lips; as a statement of the obvious it could hardly be bettered. General Razov’s headquarters, a manor that had once belonged to a Polish nobleman, wasn’t the right type of place to conduct an attack – or a defence – from.
He paused as the servants filed in, carrying glasses of mulled wine. The servants, all young female Poles, seemed to fit in with the luxurious room – in stark contrast to the suffering inflicted upon the young men of the army. Captain Yakov sighed; did the Tsar pick incompetents to run the army, people too stupid to pose a threat to him?
“You are correct, my lord,” another general said. Captain Yakov hadn’t even bothered to learn his name; with features like that his father had clearly had a deeper relation with his mother than most families could have stood. “They have begun their attack.”
General Razov took his glass of wine and examined the map. A whole team of staff officers – they didn’t get any wine, of course – constantly updated it, running backwards and forwards through the corridors because General Razov hadn’t allowed them to establish a radio station anywhere near his rooms. Captain Yakov peered over his shoulder; a powerful French attack was developing near the Alexander Line.
“They’re going to break the line,” he observed. General Razov looked at him as if he was utterly uppity. “That, of course, is the plan.”
“They’ll break my line?” The unnamed general demanded. “Send in your tanks at once, scum!”
All of the money in the world could not have made Captain Yakov go on bended knee to that general. “If we counter-attack now,” he said, as patiently as he could, “they will know that we are here.”
He tapped the map, tracing an angle of attack. “Order your men to fall back,” he said, heedless of the fact he was issuing orders to a superior officer. “If the enemy see them running, they’ll commit more to the break.”
“Russian troops do not retreat, Captain Yakov,” General Razov snapped. “They will stop the enemy, or die trying.”
“They’ll die for nothing,” Captain Yakov said, trying to convince them. Did they care nothing for their men? “Sir, if they remain there, they’ll be killed and overrun and…”
“Silence,” General Razov snapped. “You will obey orders, Captain Yakov; you may move to engage them at when you feel the best moment is. Until then, you will carry out your orders.”
His tone wasn’t angry, or hysterical…merely dismissive. Captain Yakov bit down on his harsh response, saluted, and left the room. He had intended to conduct the attack in person, after all. As he left the manor, he looked back and smiled grimly.
“A single French shell would improve our war-fighting skills enormously,” he muttered to himself, and hurried to his small force of hidden American tanks. It would be good, for a while, to get back to the wonders of modern technology – even modern American technology.
***

The land ironclads moved forward, cracking trench after trench of the Alexander Line. From his command post, General Leblanc listened to reports from the runners and the fragmented radio transmissions from command vehicles. The attack seemed to be proceeding successfully – too successfully.


“We should be meeting heavier resistance by now,” he muttered. Had they managed to crack the lines at the weakest point? It seemed too good to be true. “Where are their reinforcements?”
“I have no idea,” Lagrange said softly. General Leblanc scowled. “Perhaps they don’t have any?”
“They must have some,” General Leblanc snapped. “Russia has an almost unlimited supply of Russian bastards. They trade them for land like nobody’s business. It’s standard procedure, for them as well as us, to reinforce a weak point at once – so where are their reserves?”
“I don’t know,” Lagrange admitted. He learned closer to the map. “What about aerial scouts? Perhaps one of the helicopters could scout…?”
“Too much chance of losing them,” General Leblanc commented. He glared across at a radioman. “The fighters have reported nothing?”
“They’re smashing the Russians in the sky, they don’t have the new planes,” the radioman shouted, his delight evident in his voice. “Sir, they’re slashing them down like thresh…”
“And have they seen anything on the ground?” General Leblanc demanded. “No sign of reinforcements?”
“None, sir,” the radioman said. “Shall I order them to look again?”
“Yes,” General Leblanc said, after a moment’s thought. “Order them to search the entire region.”
Lagrange frowned. “They might have managed to camouflage their reinforcements,” he muttered. “Order them to pay particular attention to woods or places that could hide them.”
“Do so,” General Leblanc ordered. “Where the hell are they?”
***

The Abrams main computer, a new American system, was crippled, just to prevent it noticing that the crew were not Americans. Captain Yakov found it relaxing; it was good and honest, unlike the command post. Being with his people, the most effective fighting force in Russia, was far more relaxing than dealing with General Razov and his ilk.


“Sir, they’re advancing over the field,” a runner called. Captain Yakov worked on the map, scowling. The Russians of this timeline, for reasons known only to a long-assassinated Tsar, had thoughtfully created a massive collective farm near the border, a massive collection of fields that had been burnt off long since, when the war was new. The trenches had been built at one end of the fields; their force was at the other.
“Let’s see,” Captain Yakov said, peering through his binoculars into the distance. A dozen – two dozen – large boxy shapes were making their way east, occasionally spraying a burst of machine gun fire into the trenches. “Ah…look at them go.”
His driver, one of the crew from the Stalingrad, smiled evilly. “Amateurs,” he said. “Look at them come.”
Captain Yakov nodded. “Get ready to move,” he snapped into his tactical radio. If there was an American drone nearby the secret had been blown, but he was confident that there wasn’t one nearby. “Stand by…”
He counted off the moments. “Fire!”
***

Francis Hedrick, one of a handful of Germans in the armed forces of the French Empire, had gone into the land ironclads as soon as he'd heard that they existed. After years fighting colonial wars, and them the bloody slaughters on the eastern front, he knew that he wanted to have something with lots of weapons near him when he fought again.


He carefully muttered orders as the tanks started to cross the field. The farmer’s son in him groaned at the damage; the fields had been burnt to the ground during the first days of the war, when everyone had thought that it would be over soon. It wasn’t as if he had to do much; follow the assault tanks and engage enemy tanks if they put in an appearance. He didn’t expect to have to do much…
BOOM! The lead tank exploded. Hedrick gaped at the tank as it went through a series of explosions, finally shattering under the impact of…something. He stared, unable to believe his eyes, as seven of the assault tanks met their deaths in the same manner; he could hardly see the guns firing at them.
“The woods,” his driver shouted. Hedrick blinked; there hadn’t been a wood there last time the French Army had been nearby, had there? He couldn’t remember. In the wood, strange flashes could be seen…and land ironclads died.
“Fire into the woods,” he snapped, and his gunner obeyed. The massive main gun was supposed to be able to stop any land ironclad, but the explosions didn’t seem to bother whatever was shooting at them at all. Then he saw it…a massive land ironclad, bursting out of the burning woods without slowing, moving at an impossible speed. Its gun moved rapidly around, sighting in on an assault tank – and fired.
Merde,” Hedrick muttered, as the tank exploded. “Fire!”
His tank shook once as it fired a massive shell at the new land ironclad. The shell struck it dead on and he cheered…and then saw that the ironclad was undamaged. Its turret swept on, locked onto Hedrick’s tank…and then there was a burst of burning heat and he felt nothing ever again.
***

“Those are American tanks,” Lagrange realised in horror. “Sir, they must have been dumped somewhere in Russia.”


He scowled, thinking of poor American soldiers, trapped in a Russia that was far darker than anything that had existed in their world, and shivered. The reports were clear; any land ironclad that went near the American tanks was dead.
“So what do we do about them?” General Leblanc demanded. “A pilot bombed one, and it failed to dent it!”
“Call in the helicopters,” Lagrange snapped. “They have anti-tank weapons; tell them to use them!”
General Leblanc scowled. “Those weapons are not meant to be wasted,” he protested. All of the arrogance seemed to have fallen out of him. “Lagrange…”
“The front is about to collapse,” Lagrange snapped. “Use the weapons!”
***

“Should have known that the Americans were not to be trusted,” Arsenault snarled, as the reports came in. “We’re on our way.”


He checked the tactical net, relying on his co-pilot to handle the main flight. The problem, of course, was that the battlefield simply wasn’t designed to handle their aircraft, let alone all the complexities of a TimeLine A battlefield. There could be anti-aircraft guns underneath, preparing to engage him…and he wouldn’t know until they flew over them.
“Stay high,” he muttered. “If they have radar-guided weapons, we’re dead anyway.”
He took the opportunity to transmit back to the Charles de Gaulle. If the enemy had American tanks – and seeing that there had only been American tanks involved in the task force – they might have other American weapons as well. His mind raced endlessly, trying to decide what might or might not have fallen into Russian hands.
The helicopter spun suddenly and he cursed. A black puff of smoke erupted near them, an attempt to shoot them down. He checked the radar, wondering if there would be any jet fighters in the air, but there were only propeller-driven aircraft.
Unless they’re American stealth aircraft, he thought, and shuddered. He checked the location beacon, and then checked the metal sensors, looking for something out of place. He found it and peered down as the helicopters swooped past, high overhead.
“There,” he muttered. Seven tanks – American Abrams – were moving west slowly, followed by thousands of Russian infantrymen. The wreckage of French tanks lay all around them, telling the tale of thousands of dead men.
“Engage?” One of the other pilots asked. “Now?”
“Follow me,” he snapped, and took control of the aircraft. Without waiting, he swooped down on the tanks, careful to avoid their main guns. A helicopter had been downed by a main gun once, though sheer luck, and no one wanted to repeat that little blunder. He tapped the weapons system, bringing up antitank missiles…and then he fired four of them at two Abrams. The missiles slammed into the tank…destroying it.
“Take out the others,” he snapped, into his radio, as bullets started flying through the air. That proved one thing; whoever was crewing those tanks wasn’t American. An American crew would have been almost linked into the tank’s systems, using its computers for targeting. Two helicopters fell and exploded on the ground, but the tanks were retreating.

”Take them, take them now,” one of his pilots demanded. Arsenault shook his head – the last thing they needed was to risk more irreplaceable planes.


“No,” he said. “All units, return to base.”
He scowled; the battle had suddenly returned to a stalemate, almost completely. As he flew back, one thought dominated his mind. What now?
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