Paris, France (TimeLine B) In the three days since his arrival, Contre-Admiral François Videzun had cut quite a dash among the Court, impressing them all with the sheer size of his ship and the power it presented. For the first time, those in the know about the war situation thought that victory – real victory – was possible, while those who cared only for excitement found Videzun exciting enough even for their jaded tastes. Indeed, the ladies of the court were already plotting his seduction.
Prime Minister Vincent Pelletier could only hope that Videzun was a skilled dualist. The Emperor and the Crown Prince were exempt from the Code Duello, along with the members of the Legislate, but Videzun was not. The Emperor had considered granting such an exception, but Pelletier had talked him out of it. Videzun deserved a chance to shine – if he could.
“I have finished my preliminary survey of the materials they have given us,” General Leblanc said. His voice was high and breathy; his throat had been sliced by a sword during a dual against a man who thought that General Leblanc had insulted his sister. His burly face had attracted women; his success as a General had attracted power.
Pelletier nodded. “Can any of this be true?” He asked. “How useful is it really likely to be?”
“Some of it will be useful indeed,” General Leblanc said. “One example is the histories of the battles on what they called the Western Front; they had a stalemate like we did, only much worse.”
“Indeed?” Pelletier asked. “And what happened?”
“Tanks,” General Leblanc said. He unfurled a printout, taken from one of the pieces of equipment pulled from the Charles de Gaulle. It had been no small task to find ink suitable to add to the inkjet printer, but it was vitally important to distribute the knowledge around as quickly as possible.
“They build massive land ironclads, Prime Minister,” he said. “They punched through the defences, though the trenches, and tore holes through the lines to the undefended regions beyond.”
Pelletier thought of the massive trenches through Poland, though New Spain, and cursed. “Why did this never occur to us?”
General Leblanc smiled. “How long has it been since we fought a real war?” He asked. “None of the major powers have fought a war for fifty years. If it wasn’t for that British madman, we’d still be playing around with those dinky battleships instead of superdreadnaughts.”
“Trust the British to design the ultimate weapon on the sea surface,” Pelletier said.
“They haven’t,” General Leblanc said. “The Navy men are still studying the documents, but it seems clear that we have some possible advantages that we have missed. Submarines, for one thing, and aircraft carriers.”
Pelletier lifted a single eyebrow. “I beg your pardon,” he said. “Aircraft carriers?”
“That’s what the Charles de Gaulle is,” General Leblanc said. “I read the details of a battle in their Second World War; the British facing the Japanese. The Japanese sunk two British battleships…for nothing.”
Pelletier felt his mouth fall open. Somehow, hearing it from one of his own people made it all real. “If the Japanese get their hands on this…”
He paused. The Japanese were no match for any of the superpowers – and resented it. If they managed to build these new systems, they would be catapulted to instant superpower status. They were careful not to ally with either the Russians or the British – but they were waiting, waiting to see who would come out the winner.
“We have, however,” General Leblanc said, having little time for what might have been. “The good Admiral’s boast that the war will be over by Christmas might just be accurate, after all.”
Pelletier frowned. A thought had occurred to him. “What’s to say that the British don’t have help of their own?”
“I think that that’s unlikely,” General Leblanc said. “This entire event was so…random that it seems unlikely that the British have such ships themselves. However, speed is clearly important.”
Pelletier nodded. “So…you’re the land expert. What do you want to do?”
General Leblanc pulled out a typewritten sheaf of notes. It was clearly typed by one of the original French machines, not the new computers; the typesetting was the standard imperfect font. He passed them over for Pelletier’s inspection.
“We have to work as fast as possible,” General Leblanc said. “Fortunately, we have fairly complete plans and details of the tanks. Building the basic tanks, from their 1918, won’t be a problem.”
Pelletier scowled. “You don’t want to produce something from their” – he scrambled through the history textbook he’d been given – “1945?” He asked. “Those weapons are all-powerful, according to their texts.”
“The atomics?” General Leblanc asked. “I’ve asked some people in the Academy to work on building a reactor, but frankly, Prime Minister, that’s going to be years off. No, we can build the tanks pretty quickly, particularly the British designs.” He chuckled. “All that information, hiding where anyone could get at it.”
Pelletier smiled. “In their world, I imagine that they are as concerned about it as we are with the designs for Spanish Galleons,” he said. “After all, what could a superdreadnaught do to the Spanish Armada?”
“True,” General Leblanc agreed. “Anyway, we can build the tanks now – and now is when we need them. Our factories – and unfortunately those of the enemy – are more than capable of producing them in great numbers, enough to build at least two thousand within a short space of time.”
“Two thousand,” Pelletier mused. “Once you have them…then what?”
General Leblanc wandered over to the massive map on the wall and tapped it meaningfully. The map showed the handful of miles gained and lost in what had once been Poland, before the Russians had effectively destroyed it. The handful of remaining Poles, second-class citizens in their own land, kept their heads down and tried to stay out of the way.
“The Russians have built massive defences here,” he said. “So have we; twenty miles westwards of their positions. I propose to take those two thousand tanks and smash though those defences, heading directly to Moscow.”
Pelletier felt his mouth fall open again. He closed it with a snap. “You don’t think small, do you?” He asked. “Are you that confident of strategic success?”
“I have read many of the reports on…First World War tank warfare as it happened,” General Leblanc said firmly. “If the Russians have no idea what’s coming their way, it should be a stunning success.” He paused. “Which means that we must make certain that they never find out about it – at least until it’s too late.”
Pelletier nodded, then scowled. “Every fisherman will have seen the…Charles de Gaulle,” he said. “We can’t keep the secret forever.”
“We don’t have to,” General Leblanc said. “Give us three to four months, and then we will hammer the Russians into the ground.”
“And then?” Pelletier asked, starting to get excited in spite of himself. “What happens then?”
“We do the same from New Spain, of course,” General Leblanc said. “Rip through the North American Union defences, crush the Americans and their British masters, and force them to surrender. The world will be ours.”
“That is an interesting plan,” Emperor Napoleon XI said, thirty minutes later. “How sure are you that it will work?”
General Leblanc paused. Pelletier felt a flicker of sympathy; being called to task like that would not be pleasant. “Fairly certain,” he admitted. “While there are always problems in wartime, we would at least be able to tear a massive hole in their main defence lines. Once that was done, they might sue for peace.”
The Emperor snorted; Pelletier felt like echoing the snort. “Not under Tsar Nicolas XX they won’t,” he said. “That man set the entire world on fire.”
General Leblanc coughed. “Even so, we will have crushed the main Russian army,” he said. “The files on the Charles de Gaulle show so many ways of damaging the enemy, entire new…factors for our consideration. We could send people behind their lines, inserted in one of the Charles de Gaulle’s helicopters.”
“That’s not permitted under the laws of war,” the Emperor observed. “We have to remain civilised.”
Pelletier nodded. “I think we’d better leave poison gas out as well,” he said. “The Eastern Front is horrific enough without adding to it.” He paused. “The same goes for the tailored diseases.”
“Those will not be used,” the Emperor said flatly. “That is not something to argue, General.”
General Leblanc bowed. “I am obedient to you in all things,” he said.
“Good,” the Emperor said. “Very well; I authorise the expense required to build up the new weapons, in secrecy.”
Pelletier coughed. “I confess, Sire, that I have problems relying so much upon a band of…well, independent fighters,” he said. “What sort of relationship does Contre-Admiral François Videzun and his nation have to ours?”
General Leblanc snorted, just low enough not to deliver an insult. “They’re both called France?”
“I don’t trust him,” Pelletier admitted. “He’s a fanatic, like the Mohammedans who pop up from time to time in the Sudan.”
“He’s our fanatic,” General Leblanc objected. “That’s good enough for me.”
The Emperor said nothing. “Sire, we have to ensure that we do not become dependent upon the Charles de Gaulle and its crew,” Pelletier said. “Failing that…”
The Emperor held up a hand. “I understand your concerns,” he said. “We need a way to bind him to us.”
“A marriage,” General Leblanc suggested. “Perhaps he could marry one of the lesser royalty.”
“It’s a pity that Princess Jasmine has not yet reached her menses,” the Emperor mused. “She would be perfect.”
Pelletier scowled at the thought. Every woman of the royal family was a potential bargaining tool, even Princess Jasmine, who was still a child. The castle maids kept track of their development; from their first blood they were considered eligible for marriage. A child bride had not happened for so long; normally there were enough teenagers and young women around for any requirement.
“She could still marry him,” General Leblanc said. “There’s no requirement for the marriage to be consummated.”
“No,” Pelletier said. The harshness in his tone shocked General Leblanc; the Emperor didn’t react. “She’s still too young.”
“For the moment,” the Emperor said. “Unfortunately…we cannot offer him any of the inner circle of women, because they are too royal. At the same time, the outer circle are too far from the main line; Jasmine would be perfect.” He paused. “I will have to think about this.”
Pelletier frowned. The Emperor was a good Emperor because he listened. “Your will be done, Sire,” he said.
The Emperor smiled. “Yes, it will,” he said. “Until the next time, then gentlemen.”
The Crown Prince stank, Videzun was amused to discover. He smelt of sour oil, of too much of the effeminate perfume that everyone wore at Court. His lanky dark hair needed a comb, and perhaps a major cut, while only the severest program of exercise would have saved him from an early heart attack, if not something worse.
Lavich spoke calmly to the Crown Prince. “The power that expanding the empire will bring will be in the hands of the Court, if everything remains the same,” he said. “The power balance has to be shifted.”
“I have no power,” the Crown Prince said. His little eyes glittered with malice. “I have the responsibilities, but no power.”
Videzun felt a deep flicker of total contempt. He kept it off his face with the skill gained by competent officers in the pre-National Front days. The Crown Prince deserved nothing less than a hard spanking – he was a child, a spoiled child. The Crown Prince, he’d realised in two days of intelligence gathered by surveillance devices planted by his handful of former Intelligence people, was universally distrusted, even by his friends.
Videzun smiled to himself. A man so desperate for real power could be manipulated. “Your father will be the one to hold the power,” Lavich said. “One of the possible advances is in the medical department; your father will be able to sire more sons.”
Videzun grinned as the Crown Prince blanched. He had nine sisters, but no brothers. Only that prevented his father from disinheriting him, assuming that his father knew the son’s true character. Parents could be so blind when it came to their children.
“I hate my father,” the Crown Prince sneered. His tone was…despicable; a life with no one daring to say no had left its mark on him. Videzun didn’t moralise, he had little to be proud of in his own childhood, but the Crown Prince was shocking, even to him.
“Your father does not have the stomach to develop the weapons we can develop,” Videzun said. “We really need to move faster, Your Highness.”
“My father holds the purse strings,” the Crown Prince said. That wasn’t entirely accurate, Videzun knew; the Crown Prince had substantial estates of his own, and a powerful portfolio in the industrial sector. He even owned a major shipyard in Italy; perfect for Videzun’s plan.
“You can provide some funding to back a certain horse,” Videzun said. Lavich smiled behind him at the Crown Prince, encouraging his old friend. “That sort of power could build you a genuine power base.”
The Crown Prince nodded. “Then I could kill the bastard commoner Prime Minister,” he said. His voice held nothing, but hatred. “When I am Emperor, no commoner is going to advise me.”
“If you wish to make such changes, you will need a power base,” Videzun said, playing the role of elderly mentor. He had the certain feeling that no one had tried that approach to the Crown Prince before. “You need to have your position certain, before they manage to unseat you or render you impotent.”
The Crown Prince frowned. He had denied himself sexual intercourse with anyone, the first hint of real discipline that he'd shown. Even a bastard child could become Emperor – and there were dozens of factions within the Court that would have been happy to declare even a scullery maid’s child his own.
“And we can show you ways to ensure that you do not get anyone pregnant,” Lavich said.
“There’s a woman I’ve had my eye on,” the Crown Prince said. “A true beauty, and one with fire and warmth.”
Poor girl, Videzun thought. “You could have her,” he said. “With some of the things we can give you, you will never have to worry about bastards again.”
The Crown Prince’s eyes lit up. “Tell me more,” he said. “I think that this could be the beginning of an interesting time. I think that we can do business together.”
He meant that Videzun could work for him. Videzun shrugged; it didn’t matter. The Crown Prince would never see the strings on his arms…until it was too late.
Duke Etienne was the leader of the peace party, such as it was, at Court. He had been against the war with Britain from the start, proclaiming in full Court that the French should ally with the British to put down the mad dog Tsar of all the Russians. He hadn’t been heard; Court had enough factions that wanted to defeat both Britain and Russia to prevent a separate peace with either of them.
Duke Etienne had other reasons for his actions. He had married an Englishwoman, his now-dead wife, killed in an accident so long ago. His decision to support Britain, even to the point of sending them information from time to time, had been easy – the British needed to know what was being thought inside Court. He was already in the business of writing newsletters to nobles in New Spain and Indochina; slipping more detailed copies to a professional spy in France had been easy.
But this was different, he knew. The arrival of the Charles de Gaulle and its crew changed the power balance dramatically. As the leader of the peace party, he had been denied any access to most of the information from the strange ship, but he had seen the helicopter and he knew that it represented something far beyond what the British had. If the helicopter could be duplicated…
It didn’t take much imagination to see thousands of them crossing the English Channel and landing in Dover. The Ministry of Marine had studied invading Britain itself for years, faithfully updating the plans as technology improved. Armed with thousands of helicopters, they could land thousands of troops in Britain itself, and then march on London. It would be easy…and Britain would fall.
And yet…this was more than passing political information. It would be important for the British to know what their enemies thought in their inner councils, but learning that the French had the ability to launch a knockout blow – with chilling ease – was different. What side was he on, in the end?
I am on the side of peace, he thought, and made his decision. If the British knew what was coming, they might be reasonable on the subject of Caribbean islands and the borders with French territory, perhaps even French claims in China. They didn’t want China, after all; no one did, with the exception of the Japanese and the Russians. If Britain bowed out, France could concentrate on Russia…and win the war.
Having rationalised his decision, he concentrated on typing up his small newsletter. Creating one that included an extra section, carefully encoded with an unbreakable code, was easy; nor would it arouse suspicion. Codes and ciphers were common around the French Court, and sending coded messages to his allies in New Spain was hardly unusual. In the newsletters alone, there were half a dozen coded messages.
“For peace,” he murmured, as he prepared his final letter. As soon as he was finished, he left his room and headed to the dispatcher, who also happened to work for the British. Beyond that, he simply didn’t want to know what happened to the letters – and to the information it contained.