Imagine; if you can, that the universe moves along a stream of events, from A to B to C to D…and all the way until the big crunch, or Event Two, as the handful of races to step outside the multiverse call it.
That is, of course, completely untrue.
For every event, there are a number of possible events. For humans, limited to only perceiving one reality – at least one real reality – it is impossible to do more than imagine what might have been. For those standing outside the timelines, they can see how each potential…Point of Divergence causes a…weakness in the time stream. During those moments, intervention is possible, perhaps even required.
Again, that is a gross simplification.
The sheer…irrelevance of many possible Points of Divergence means that there might be a slight…hiccup in the timeline, but not the formation of a new – and separate - reality. If, for example, you put your right sock on first, instead of your left sock, it makes only a tiny flicker in the timeline. It very…very…very rarely matters to the universe at large what sock you put on first. It simply isn’t important. The same goes for what you might do each day; it simply isn’t important. Very few events in the life of an individual person cause more than a slight flicker.
(Ironically, for reasons best not probed into, the only clothes-related event that does have a major effect, at least for humans, is what sort of panties a girl wears. It’s just one of those things best not looked at too closely.)
What happens, whenever a Point of Divergence is formed, is that the timeline forks briefly, and then merges back into itself. Each such event provides a weakness, but very few of them are important. As the crew of the George Washington discovered, one of the events that was truly important was the Battle of Long Island; in fact, the timeline that has a British victory – erasing the United States of America from history – is more…prominent than one that permits the United States to exist. The timeline that birthed the crew of the George Washington is one of the rarer timelines – it is also one of the most important.
The reason that there are not thousands of universes is generally described, to the few people with the limited capabilities of base-line humans who are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the multiverse, to be similar to Chess. There are twenty possible opening moves in Chess – but all, but four of them are useless. History tends to follow the practical courses, rather than the million to one chance. Hitler only launches Operation Sealion in one out of ten universes – and succeeds only in a hundred out of the timelines with a launched attempt.
And if you can grasp beings that operate on that sort of scale, then perhaps you can understand what happens next.
The echoes had fallen slightly as the…viewpoint moved firmly onto the altered timeline. It took an event of colossal power to change a timeline, particularly without attracting attention. Destroying the timelines, perhaps by rerouting an asteroid thousands of years ago, was possible; that happened all the time.
“It’s not enough,” the first figure said. A human – if one could have stood to exist in the echo room – would have classed him as frustrated. “The changes are not enough.”
The second figure might have smiled. It was impossible to tell. “Change is operating very slowly,” she said. Her voice was soft and warm. “They will change…”
“But will they change in time?” The first figure asked. “Time is running out.”
“If we intervene more, we might attract attention,” the second figure reminded him. “The enemy will not be so…inclined to spare this world; you know that.”
The first figure said nothing. The enemy had many ways to destroy a world, from an ‘accidental’ intersection with an antimatter cloud to a reality-bender, which would have destroyed the entire universe through its contamination. Destroying a world outright prevented the possibility of detection by the forces of…good, preventing them from locating and identifying the enemy.
“We cannot correct what we have done, nor can we intervene further outside the timeframe,” the second figure said. She moved to the other side of the echo room. “If we could look into the future…”
“I have,” the first figure said. Senses that humans could not have comprehended read his companion’s shock. “It is still…unacceptable.”
“If we intervene further, we might trigger the use of non-Contemporary energies,” the second figure said. “You risk everything…”
“We must intervene,” the first figure said. “Fortunately, we can limit the change…”
The ships of the task force, suspended out of time, appeared above them. The representations were the ships themselves, spinning slowly outside of time and space. “That one…and that one,” the first figure said. “Perhaps that one as well.”
“This will cause a flowering effect,” the second figure said. “If we do this…”
“We have no choice,” the first figure said. The three ships vanished, heading down back to the altered timeline. Floating outside of time and space, the figures watched, wondering what would happen…and waited…
Chapter Twenty-One: Cold World
Moscow, Russian Empire (TimeLine B) Snow howls across a landscape that is as desolate as any part of Earth, criss-crossing and covering and re-covering the ground, freezing and becoming almost part of the ground. In the semi-darkness that was the perpetual state of the world near the Artic, it is hard to see your way, even with the lights that modern technology can provide. The handful of people who somehow eke out a living in the region live on the edge of starvation, constantly at risk of freezing to death.
The shapes can be made out in the darkness, three hard angular shapes. If the natives had waited a little longer to investigate the shapes, perhaps the history of the world would have been very different. As it happened, the natives braved the freezing cold to look closer and closer…and then they saw the lights and felt the warmth, impossibly warm for the far north of Russia.
Their curiosity was their undoing. Even as they climbed close enough to see what the shapes truly were, one of them returned to their camp and sent a radio message to Prince Rudolf, the head of the Tsarist Secret Service. For a long time, the Secret Service was uninterested, convinced that the superstitious people of the far north, who believed in snow giants and only bowed to the Tsar when watched by the regime’s security service, were dreaming. But then the first reports of the George Washington came in through Alaska.
And then the Tsarist Secret Service got very interested indeed…
Colonel Ivan Petrovich had expected to face a man like Stalin, or perhaps the last ill-fated Tsar, rather than the man who faced him in the throne room. He’d thought that he’d understood Tsarist protocol, but he’d been wrong, fortunately discovering that before bowing before the Tsar. The Tsarist Secret Service had warned him…anyone who showed the slightest sign of disrespect was killed, often after being tortured first.
In person, Tsar Nicolas XX seemed almost like one of the Tsar’s that Petrovich had been told about in storybooks…before the Communists killed the last Tsar, who had been a pretty uninspiring man. His massive barrel chest, larger than any Petrovich had seen before, was all muscle – even in the cold Iron Palace he was half-naked. He wore a suit of armour that would provide little protection to someone with a modern gun…and his eyes glinted with madness. The red tint to his hair was worrying; where had that come from?
Peter the Great, he thought, and shivered.
As soon as the Tsar took notice of him, Petrovich prostrated himself like a Muslim praying to Allah, a humiliating prostration before a living man. The handful of surviving Russians had all been brought to Moscow, which had become the capital of the darker Russian Empire. Their…minders had seen to it that they’d been fed, but they’d been kept under house arrest.
Petrovich kept the smile from his face, almost losing track of where he was. The Russians hadn’t been sure how to treat them, so they’d given them wine and women. He’d had a woman from Poland – or what had been Poland in the original history – one who’d proven herself to have been a history teacher. That was, of course, before the instruments of repression caught on…and sold her into slavery. She’d managed to tell him what had happened, even though she lacked the knowledge to allow him to work out the exact change in history.
The Tsar’s foot reached out, bare naked, and pressed down on the back of his head. Completely at the Tsar’s mercy, Petrovich could only pray, smelling the smell of unwashed feet and feeling the cold hard floor under his face.
“You may rise,” the Tsar said. Petrovich had been informed about that; he sat back on his haunches and looked down. Hardly anyone ever stood when facing the Tsar. “The reports from France do not encourage me.”
Petrovich said nothing. The…event that had dropped them on Russia – literally – had been more benevolent to the other two ships – the only ones that they knew about. The Tsar had thousands of spies in France; it hadn’t taken long to work out what the Russians were doing, using the crew of the Charles de Gaulle to build new weapons.
“We will not permit a technology gap,” the Tsar said, using the royal ‘we.’ He seemed only to use it when he remembered to use it. “The Father God has given you to Our Royal Person.”
“I live only to serve,” Petrovich said, thinking rapidly. One thing was clear; there was no possible escape, not in the middle of a tyranny worse than Stalin’s. For the moment, he would have to play along – until escape became possible.
“We have only two hundred and seventeen people from the…opposite world,” the Tsar said. “I will not lose my country to socialists!”
The last word was a curse. Petrovich wondered who had been brave enough to tell the Tsar about the fate of his line in the other world. The Russian submarine and landing craft might have been able to conceal the truth, but the remains of the American ship had held some of the information.
“You will help Us,” the Tsar said. “It will be your task to make us equal to the newcomers before they attack Us.”
His voice was icy; perhaps he already understood some of the possible consequences. “Your Majesty,” he stammered, “it will be impossible to duplicate every system on the ships.”
He’d thought about it, wishing that he knew more about the technology base of the alternate Russia. Nuclear power seemed beyond their grasp – and he had privately decided to do whatever it took to ensure that the Tsar never gained nuclear power. His own service, as a commander of the Russian addition to the task force, was on land…which gave him some advantages.
“But you can use some of the equipment on the American ship,” the Tsar stated. It wasn’t a question. “If you were to use it…”
Petrovich sighed. Whatever event had dropped them in the far north of Russia had done so nearly three weeks after the event that had brought the two carriers into the alternate world. By the time the tribesmen had stumbled upon them, the crew of the American transport were dead of exposure…and the Russian soldiers were down to only two hundred, not counting the crew of the submarine. They had added an extra seventeen to the number, cowering around the nuclear plant and praying for salvation.
“My men are not trained on the American equipment,” he said. “The Abrams tank alone requires fuel, which was not carried on the ship and may be impossible to duplicate here…”
“We expect you to solve those problems, or your men will answer with their heads,” the Tsar said. “The crew of the French ship are already helping their people; I will not fall behind or it will mean the death of Our Empire, the one that has been oppressed by the British and the French!”
Petrovich sighed inwardly, careful to keep that from his face. From reading between the lines, the Tsar had started the war –and now couldn’t end it. His plan seemed to be to hammer away at the enemy and see who broke first…and if the French were armed with superior weapons, they would be able to defeat the Russians. If the Tsar was as popular with the common people as Petrovich suspected he was, the uprisings would destroy him.
I wish that we could contact the Washington, he thought grimly, and knew that it was useless. The Tsarist Secret Service had been quick to separate his men from their ships and weapons, already allowing designers to pore over the ships in their icy tomb. The American ship would be unable to help…
“It will require time,” he said. “We will have to build a force trained to use the American equipment. We will also have to build tanks of our own, and perhaps even anti-tank weapons.” He paused, hoping that the Tsar was as paranoid as Stalin. “We will also have to hack into the American tanks control units, just to ensure that there are no…programs designed to react badly to us using them.”
The Tsar scowled. “Your people will fight for Us,” he said. “Your soldiers will train other soldiers; you yourself will assist with the building of new weapons. That is our royal command.”
Petrovich prostrated himself again. “It shall be done,” he said, from his position on the ground. These people had the technology to heat the Iron Palace; why didn’t they do it? The entire place – which had never existed in his Russia – was built like a fortress; were peasant revolts common?
“Of course it shall,” the Tsar said. “You have Our leave to depart Our presence.”
Petrovich carefully hid his reaction as he banged his head against the ground three times, and then crawled out of the room, never lifting his eyes to the Tsar. The crawling was…unnatural; Stalin had never demanded anything like that from his people. As soon as the iron doors had closed on the Tsar’s palace, he stood up, rubbing his knees.
“Your Highness,” a man said. Petrovich looked around sharply, to see a tall bearded man with long white hair. “I am Stefan.”
Petrovich studied him thoughtfully. “What are you?” He asked. “What are you doing here?”
“I am a Court Jew,” Stefan said. There was a lifetime’s worth of bitterness hidden in his face, in his voice, in the way he moved. It had been a life spent in service; the marks of frequent beatings showed in the gentle, careful, way he moved. “It is my task to serve you now.”
Petrovich considered. “Thank you,” he said finally. “The first order of business is to see what I have to work with. I need full details on the Empire, and on the other powers, and then I have to get some kind of feel for the technology here.”
Stefan’s eyes flickered. “The first place would be the library there,” he said. “I will guide you there.”
The Iron Palace had a library, an oaken room lit with flickering torches rather than electric lighting. Petrovich was impressed, even as Stefan brought him the first few books and guides, some written in the Russian alphabet, others written in a version of English or French. Stefan translated for him when he didn’t understand; he read English well, but the English here seemed to be different.
“How different,” he mused, as he went through a history tome, one prepared by an order of monks who served the Eastern Pope. Unlike Stalin, the Tsar and his ancestors had clearly seen fit to co-opt the Church, using it to support their rule. The Church, according to Stefan, would be quite happy to burn all the Jews in Moscow at the stake – and the moment they stopped being useful to the Tsar, that was what would happen to them.
He shook his head and read on, trying to see through the self-serving and Tsar-serving claims in the history books. The Russian Empire had never been invaded by Napoleon; they had been allied with the French during the Global War. Instead, they had divided Europe between them, promising eternal peace and friendship forever. It had lasted for nearly two hundred years. Instead of playing politics with Europe, the Tsars had expanded eastwards when the railway was invented, forcing their way through sheer bloody-mindedness, reaching the border of China and Korea.
There had been no war with Japan, no attempt to seize China. The three powers had carved China up into spheres of influence, something that had lasted for years until the Chinese Empire finally collapsed. Instead of a persistent nibbling away at the Ottoman Empire, the three powers had milked it…until the pressure got too high for the Ottomans to survive. In the division, the French had cheated the Russians – or the Russians believed that the French had cheated them – and sown the seeds for the global war.
“But what is life like here?” He asked Stefan, who shook his head slightly, before passing over a black volume. It was labelled in gold, marked in an alphabet that Petrovich didn’t recognise. “What’s this?”
Stefan spoke in a hushed voice, his mouth close to Petrovich’s ear. “That book is censored and banned by the power of Mother Church and the Tsar,” he said. “The copy here is the only one in existence – officially.”
Petrovich nodded. Even post-Soviet Russia was not unfamiliar with censorship. “What’s the language?” He asked. “Is it all in…whatever?”
“It’s entitled in Japanese,” Stefan said. “The rest is in Russian.”
Petrovich blinked, resolving to enquire why later, and opened the book. The author wrote in a crisp, no nonsense style, detailing horrors. The majority of Russia’s inhabitants were serfs, working for the boyars and nobles on their farms, or slaving in their factories. Education was minimal, mainly consisting of religious instruction and brainwashing, done at the command of the Tsar. There was an example of a religious primer and he shuddered – it seemed unbelievable.
Question; how should we show our respect for the Tsar? Answer: we should feel complete loyalty to the Tsar and be prepared to lay down our lives without question. We should trust that he works for us all, and therefore obey his every command and obey the authorities he appoints without question. A man who does not obey the Tsar, who is appointed by God, is damned forever. “Fuck me,” Petrovich breathed, in English. Stefan gave him a sharp look. “They actually believe this?”
“A lot do, yes,” Stefan said. “Don’t discuss it, not here.”
Petrovich scowled and carefully passed the book back to Stefan. “Now, what about technology?”
Stefan passed him an engineering paper, a long report that seemed to have been written around 1900, from the writing. It spoke in glorifying terms of how the Tsar had boosted Russian production; reaching heights that Petrovich suspected were impossible. It wasn’t the…self-glorifying reports that the Communists had published, but the idea was the same – something to justify all of the suffering.
Suddenly, his head spun, and he leaned against the table. He’d thought that cowering in the ship, having connected the nuclear submarine’s power core to the Stalingrad, had been bad. Then…they hadn’t known what had happened to them, they had expected rescue at any moment. Now…he was trapped in a Russia out of his nightmares.
“You might want to spend more time with my daughter,” Stefan said, his voice hopeless and bleak. Petrovich blinked at him. “That girl they sent to you…”
Petrovich felt a flicker of shame. “I’m sorry,” he said. No words could be used. “I’m…”
“The first Russian to apologise to a Jew for anything,” Stefan said. His tone was grim, his face torn in agony. “Stay with her, please.” Petrovich stared at him. “If you throw her from your room, they’ll rape and kill her, or send her to the harem, just for failing in her duty.”
“I’ll take care of her,” Petrovich promised. Stefan might just make a valued ally. “Now, tell me more about this world.”
The quarters that had been provided for him were luxurious, seeing that the Tsar seemed to have decided that he could be useful. Like the rest of the Iron Palace, it was lit by lamps and warmed by coal fires, rather than any form of central heating. The room was depressing, with stone walls and no windows, but it was private. Whatever else the Tsar’s people might have invented, Petrovich was certain that they would not have managed to make electronic surveillance devices.
“It’s true, then,” Engineer Grigorvich said. The former Chief Engineer of the Putin, Russia’s latest and greatest nuclear submarine, was the highest-ranking surviving officer; no commanding officers had survived. His fat body, against regulation, disgusted Petrovich. “We are in the past.”
“Not the past,” Petrovich said. His tone was grim. “This is an alternate universe, like those World War movies.”
Grigorvich smiled. “I saw those,” he said. His face fell. “We’re stuck here, aren’t we?”
Petrovich nodded and ran through the information he’d found about the Russian Empire of 2009, timeline B. “I don’t think we have a choice,” he said. “Some of us, my people, will be fighting for them. Others, like you, will be building ships for them.”
“I can build a submarine, if they give me the equipment,” Grigorvich said. “I don’t think that I could build a nuke boat, but with some effort…”
“Let’s try and avoid clogging up this Russia with radiation,” Petrovich said sharply. He hoped that Grigorvich was smart enough to get the hidden meaning. No point in risking too much, after all. “For the moment, work on conventional things. We’re going to be a long way behind the French, after all.”
Grigorvich lifted an eyebrow. “What about…?”
“Contacting the Washington?” Petrovich guessed. Grigorvich nodded. “I don’t think that that’s possible,” he said. “Until then, leave it unmentioned, ok?”
Grigorvich stood up. “If I’m to help them develop a modern military, then I’d better get to bed,” he said. “That Polish whore is…”
“Be nice to her,” Petrovich snapped. He held the engineer’s eyes. “She might end up an ally.”
Grigorvich saluted and left the rooms. Petrovich waited for a few moments, and then entered the small kitchen. The Iron Palace was so large that each apartment was more like a Moscow flat than anything else. Rebecca stood there, cooking something that smelt tasty, her blonde hair running down her back. A single slave band ran around her neck, reminding everyone of her status.
She doesn’t look like a Jew, he thought, and smiled. With pale skin, long blonde hair and blue eyes, Rebecca looked more like a German princess than a Jew. She looked up at him and managed a smile, perhaps fearing that she would be taken at once, or beaten.
“Thank you,” he said, and saw her eyes open wide. “How long until dinner?”
He kept his voice as soft and pleasant as he could, and was rewarded with a smile. “Around half an hour,” she said, her eyes lowered. “Master…”
“Thank you,” he said, and left the kitchen. He had work to do, convincing her to trust him, but it would take time. He smiled suddenly; only a few days in the Palace, and he was already plotting the overthrow of the Tsar. It had to be a record.