Paris, France (TimeLine B) Prime Minister Vincent Pelletier studied the report from Phillipe Lavich – and the slightly more restrained one from Admiral Rancourt – with disbelief. If it wasn’t for the report from Admiral Rancourt, he would have dismissed the first report without hesitation. A ship from an alternate reality? Who would have believed it?
The items sent ahead by fast train had gone a long way towards proving the story. Pelletier had had them studied by researchers from the great machine shops around Paris, and they had been awed and not a little concerned. One of the weapons, a strange portable machine gun – in their words – was just within their ability to duplicate, the others were well beyond science, even French science.
Pelletier smiled suddenly. The French and the British were at roughly the same level of scientific advancement; the British had a slight lead on matters marine, the French had a slight lead on ground forces. In the air, both sides were evenly matched. It was a sure thing – as far as Pelletier knew – that the British could not duplicate the weapons either – or else France would have been destroyed long ago. As for the Russians…
“Pah,” Pelletier said aloud, and returned to the other reports. The textbooks on medical science were already exciting the doctors at the medical academy in South Paris; they were talking about massive breakthroughs within months. If they managed to duplicate even half of the promised breakthroughs, it would save the lives of thousands of wounded soldiers from the Eastern Front.
More worrying was the primer on the alternate French history. Despite having thousands of super weapons, including ones that could destroy an entire city, France was apparently a third-class power in the world, one reduced to nothing by a coalition of leftists and street Arabs. What is a leftist? He asked himself. The primer contained a series of definitions that made no sense to him at all.
“What is an anti-Bonaparte PC thug?” He asked aloud. Bonaparte was a corruption of the original Napoleon’s name, he recognised, but what was he doing as Emperor? Why had one of his later line treacherously led France to defeat, then another defeat, and then another at the hands of the Germans?
A good thing we never let them unite except under our banner, he thought. Apart from the Prussians in the Congo, the Germans were docile, by and large, although the ongoing war might have had something to do with it. The French rule might be bad – from their point of view – but the rule of Russia would be hell incarnate.
He read the final lines of the report from Lavich and frowned. The Admiral on the strange super-ship was coming to Paris, due to arrive…later in the day. Pelletier scowled; Lavich was clearly moving to use the event for his own benefit, particularly seeing the possible advantages for France. The description of some of the weapons from the alternate reality were…exciting, exciting and shocking at the same time.
“Jean,” he snapped. His male secretary entered the room and bowed. “Summon General Leblanc to my office, to meet me in” – he consulted his watch – “three hours.”
“Yes, Prime Minister,” Jean said. His voice was light and breathy, the result of an unfortunate accident some time ago. “It shall be done as Your Excellency requests.”
Pelletier nodded gravely. Three hours would give him enough time to visit the Emperor, to show him the reports, and to ask for any specific instructions. It would be hard to keep the events secret at court, but it would have to be tried. General Leblanc was a skilled commander, but he’d been born a commoner, and so would not be hopelessly entangled with thousands of different factions at court.
“If this is a joke, you have my royal permission to have the bastard horsewhipped around Paris,” the Emperor said. Pelletier winced; despite the firm tone of the Emperor’s voice, he was clearly not well. Ordering a noble whipped wasn’t standard practice, even under the worst of the Emperors.
Largely because Emperors that pushed too far suffered accidents, Pelletier thought. It was one of the things that made working in the Royal Court so dangerous – and exciting. What was the point of gambling if you could afford to lose? Every year, a few new nobles would reach their majorities…and set out to play the great game of intrigue.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Pelletier said. He didn’t like Lavich; having him horsewhipped would be a genuine pleasure. Still, politics came first, always. “The evidence does suggest, however, that he’s telling the truth.”
“I have never read anything like this,” the Emperor mused. “If it’s true…”
Pelletier bowed from his chair. Emperor Napoleon XI was sometimes a hard man to love, if not to follow, for no one doubted that he had the interests of France at heart. His long career had been devoted to France, from his position as Crown Prince to the present.
“It might allow us to score a decisive advantage,” Pelletier said. He coughed. “I plan to have General Leblanc examine the reports, but if they’re accurate, we could use them to push us forward.”
“These city-destroying weapons should not be built,” the Emperor said. “They will destroy France if they’re used.”
“The four minor powers will definitely seek them,” Pelletier said. “Besides, how much of their technology can we duplicate quickly?”
“I suspect that that will be one of the first questions to put to…Contre-Admiral François Videzun,” the Emperor said. “I imagine that he will put his knowledge and that of his people at our disposal?”
Pelletier paused significantly. “Your Majesty, we have another problem,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about the implications, and apparently so has Lavich.”
“Has he?” The Emperor asked. “And what was his conclusion?”
Pelletier scrambled through the papers. “Ah, here it is,” he said. “He is advising us that everything connected with the Charles de Gaulle should be kept a total secret, just to prevent a new arms race.”
“And in his hands, no doubt,” the Emperor observed. “The last arms race was quite bad enough.”
Pelletier sighed. What he was about to say went against every urge in his body. “We must reward loyalty,” he said.
The Emperor looked at him. “Yes, we must,” he said, without enthusiasm. He sounded like someone trying to convince himself – and not succeeding. “If General Leblanc works with dear Lavich, he won’t be able to do much mischief.”
“Perhaps he’s turned over a new leaf,” Pelletier suggested. The Emperor snorted. “Yes, it is a bit unlikely, but Louis the Great had a bad start too.”
“There is that,” the Emperor agreed. “We’ll hold a formal reception, a small one, for Contre-Admiral Videzun tonight, I think.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Pelletier said. He bowed and left the room.
The Eiffel Tower was gone.
Contre-Admiral Videzun sucked in his breath, really truly believing for the first time. All of the landmarks of Paris, from the Tower to the burned-out suburbs where the National Front Government had finally taken on the immigrants who were mining away at the integrity of Europe, were gone. Paris was grand, glorious…and French, but it wasn’t his Paris.
“Admiral?” Lavich asked, as Videzun’s head began to swim. “Admiral?”
“I’m fine,” Videzun said harshly. He closed his eyes, taking deep breaths. He hadn’t expected this, not a city that was so hauntingly familiar and yet completely alien. “It’s just…nothing like it was where I came from.”
There was a long moment of silence as the helicopter drifted over Paris. “I hate to be alarming,” Flight Lieutenant Belen Lefunte said, “but we are running short on fuel. Phillipe, where do you want us to land?”
“Never seen Paris from the air before,” Lavich muttered. He leaned forward, peering out of the cockpit. “Down there,” he said. “Down on the airfield there.”
“We could have landed right in front of the palace,” Belen said, but she obeyed. The helicopter came to a stop in the middle of the field. “What now?”
Lavich waved to a handful of men wearing fine clothes. “They’re some of my family retainers,” he said cheerfully. “They’ll escort us to the Bourbon Palace.”
Videzun shook his head as they stepped out onto the soil of Paris. He had expected Picard to raise a fuss about dealing with Royalists – even if the National Front held Napoleon up to be the perfect Frenchman – but the Commissioner had deferred the argument for the moment. The ship itself remained in Toulon, working with the French Navy ships there.
Fuel is going to be a problem, he reminded himself. The Charles de Gaulle itself was nuclear-powered, now that the problems had been worked out it could sail indefinitely – but the same could not be said of its aircraft. Once the aviation fuel ran out…that was it, unless the planned refining complex could be created with the weird mix of technology in this timeline.
“Right this way,” Lavich said. His retainers, who wore some of the most garish outfits Videzun had ever seen, surrounded them as they walked to a handful of cars. He smiled; the cars were like something out of an old show, or a storage place for designs that had existed in 1945.
Makes sense, I suppose, he thought, as they climbed inside. They concentrated a lot on refining what they had, rather than looking for more. His conclusion was proved as the car moved into action, humming along smoothly.
Belen felt the need to talk to Lavich. Videzun smiled; their relationship seemed to be developing well. “Do assassination attempts happen a lot here?” She asked. “Your guards are being very careful.”
“Unfortunately, there are always those too cowardly to challenge people to duals,” Lavich said. He smiled at her. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.”
Videzun studied the canopy of the car, which would be utterly unable to stop a standard sniper round from his home timeline, and frowned. The security in the alternate France seemed very porous, even with the war on. He smiled as they passed through the centre of Paris; the people were out in force, just enjoying themselves.
He smiled, finally at his ease. This Paris was the centre of a world empire, one of the three superpowers. The people were not…rising up against the attempts to solve the problems piece by piece, nor were they hiding themselves from dark-skinned interlopers, they were confident and…French. He peered carefully, trying to spot a single non-French face, but apart from a handful of Spaniards and Germans, he saw none.
“No Arabs here,” he commented. “What happened to them?”
“And what’s happening here?” Belen added, waving one dainty hand at the church. It was far larger than any church that existed in the original Paris. Thousands of people, wearing strange outfits that showed little of their bodies, were flowing into the church, which was ringing its bells for the service. “Where are they going?”
“For the morning service,” Lavich said. He smiled, placing one hand on her shoulder. “They go to offer prayers for the Emperor and the Empire, and then they will hear a sermon on the need to hunt down every last one of the heretics in Moscow.”
Videzun paused thoughtfully. “What happened in Moscow?”
“They’re the heretical strain of Catholicism,” Lavich said. Videzun suspected that Lavich wasn’t really religious in his own right. “They are barbarians who refuse to accept the authority of the Pope in Rome.”
Who serves the Emperor, in fact if not in name, Videzun thought? It was a neat solution to the problems posed by the Pope; any attempt to assert his independence – particularly after sponsoring endless pro-French sermons – would result in him getting swiftly crushed.
A thought occurred to him. “Are there any other religions in the Empire?”
“The Jews” – Lavich’s face twisted into a moue of disgust – “have small colonies in North Africa and even Paris itself, by the mercy of the Emperor. They do a lot of banking work; everyone trusts them with money. The various Mohammedans sects in Africa are crushed when they attempt to cause trouble; they’re very much in the minority. There are occasional encounters with other religions in Africa, but they are swiftly crushed.”
Videzun smiled. He approved of this kind of attitude. French North Africa was massive, far larger than France had ever held in his timeline, and far more developed. Without aircraft until recently, all of the empires had invested heavily in railways and links right across their territories. Until the war broke out, it had been possible to take a train all around Europe, Russia, China and India without ever leaving the train stations.
“That’s good,” he said, as the cars entered a massive park. Ahead of them, a massive palace rose up, gleaming white in the sun. “This is the centre of the Empire?”
“Oh, yes,” Lavich said. Videzun recognised the desire for power that burned within Lavich; he shared it. This new French Empire was worth supporting…and then building up until it was the only superpower. The car entered a massive underground garage and came to a halt in front of an ornate door.
“Here’s where we get out,” Lavich said. He tipped the lead retainer with a golden coin – they’d learnt that they were called Napoleons. “Coming?”
Videzun and Belen shared a glance, sharing the same thought. A single car bomb could devastate the palace…and that would be very bad indeed.
The Royal Master of Protocol was just as Lavich remembered, a grey-haired man who knew to the exact micrometre the depth of the bow that each noble deserved. The Emperor deserved a full bow; a German prince deserved only a slight incline of the head. Lavich…Lavich smiled as the Master of Protocol tried to figure out what he deserved. Did he deserve the half-bow of a new Power in the court, or did he deserve a look of scorn for his disgrace?
“The Lady will have to be changed,” the Master of Protocol said, having given up and settling for a half-bow. Lavich smiled at Belen’s expression. “She is…indecent.”
“She has a name,” Belen said, every inch the perfect aristocrat. Lavich smiled at her expression; if the Master of Protocol had a name, no one remembered it. Rumour had it that he was immortal and that he’d served Louis the Great personally.
“Please, just accept the clothes that the Master of Protocol will give you,” Lavich said, with malice aforethought. Court garments were expensive, and they would have to come out of the Master of Protocol’s wages, not that he ever spent them, of course. If the man had any vices, one faction or another would have used them against him by now.
Belen glared at him, but stamped off with one of the Master of Protocol’s assistants. Lavich waited with Videzun for her to return, wondering what she would look like in Court clothes. In only ten minutes, she returned, and Lavich felt his mouth drop open. In a neat and frilly white dress, she was stunning.
“This way,” he said, and led them past the offended Master of Protocol. Ignoring him, they passed through several corridors, all ornate. “There have been proposals to put a miniature railway line in here, but the Emperor rejected them,” Lavich observed.
“You must be joking,” Videzun said. The Admiral seemed stunned by the massive palace. “You couldn’t fit one in.”
“Some of the people here really object to walking,” Lavich said. “There are some nobles who have to move around in wheelchairs.”
Videzun lifted an eyebrow. Lavich smiled, examining his own trim form. He hadn’t lied; the more useless nobles did indeed eat and eat until they died of overeating. They reached the massive golden doors and stopped.
“I briefed you on protocol,” Lavich said. “Please do not abuse it, even though this is a private meeting. Only five people here, according to the information they sent me.”
He knocked at the door. “Who comes?” A voice bellowed. “Who comes?”
“Earl Phillipe Lavich,” Lavich said. “I have the guests from the alternate timeline.”
There was a long pause. Things like ‘alternate timelines’ were not in the normal vocabulary. “You may enter,” a voice said finally. “Enter…”
Contre-Admiral François Videzun took a breath as the golden doors swung open, adjusted his cap upon his head, and stepped inside. The room was stunningly decorated, and very large. Marble flooring shone as the three of them stepped inside, walking towards the throne. His awe nearly made him forget his protocol; Lavich elbowed him as he went down on one knee. Videzun followed him, lowering his eyes as he knelt.
“You may rise,” the man standing at the side of the Emperor said. There was no mistaking the Emperor; he was a decent-looking man, his eyes twinkling as he looked at the newcomers. The man beside him, grey-haired and dressed in common robes, faded in comparison, while the two military men were obviously just that. The final man, a fat young man with a scowl on his face, cast his eyes over Belen, liking what he saw.
“We bid you welcome to Our court,” the Emperor said. “We are given to understand that you come from another France, one very different from ours.”
Videzun found his voice. “Yes, Your Majesty,” he said. His French, he realised, was gutter-French compared to the pure court French, an accent that hadn’t been heard in his France for a very long time indeed. “We have come to make the French Empire supreme upon this Earth.”
The grey-haired man lifted an eyebrow. The Emperor smiled, but Videzun saw a trace of calculation behind his eyes. “You bring Us gifts,” he said. It wasn’t a question. “You have been stranded here against your will.”
Videzun inclined his head. “That is correct,” he said. “We come from a France that has fallen almost completely to…foreign morals, Your Majesty. Your France need not go that way.”
“France is all-powerful,” the young man said. “Can your gifts change that?”
His voice was oily, like swallowing raw fish oil. His hair, Videzun was certain, had been perfumed and oiled until it glowed. He took a breath. “France is in a perpetual stalemate with the other two empires,” he said. “You lack the tools to break the stalemate…but we can break it for you.”
He smiled. It was obvious who the young man had to be. That much lust for power would come in handy. “With the tools we can teach you how to build, Your Highness, the war could be over by Christmas.”