The White House
United States of America
March 1st, 1923 A.D.—1923(b)
“It’s good to see you, John!” Theodore Roosevelt said, with a sigh of relief.
Behind the President’s back cold spring rain beat against the windows as he sat the expanse of polished oak taken from the timbers of a Royal Navy ship long ago. He could see John Wilkie’s eyebrows rise as he took the chair facing the Oval Office desk and set his attaché case down on the table beside it.
A fire crackled on the marble hearth beyond Wilkie at the other side of the oval room, giving a slight pine scent to the air along under the wax and polish and the indefinable faint leather smell of book-bindings, along with the Guatemalan brew the maid set out before she left. Unlike most meetings, there were no aides or secretaries present—Wilkie was director of the Secret Service, and hence of the Black Chamber… hence America’s premier spymaster.
And so we do things beneath four eyes, as the saying goes, the President thought.
The Chamber might be officially… reluctantly… acknowledged to exist these days, but it maintained the aversion to public paper trails born of its irregular and clandestine origins back in late 1912, after the landslide election that had put the Progressive Republican Party in power, but before the Inauguration.
Just the two of us? Roosevelt thought, and stole a quick glance at the bust of Lincoln, feeling as always the shadow of a wry intelligence and iron will.
Consistency in goals, flexibility in means, he reminded himself. Abe showed us how to do that.
One of his early memories, and absolutely his first political memory, was watching Lincoln’s funeral procession pass beneath the windows of his parents’Manhattan house. He’d been seven years old…
“Let me guess: something particularly dull before lunch, Mr. President?” John Wilkie said dryly. “Or annoying? Or dull and annoying? During lunch as well?”
“You know me well, old friend.”
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t!”
He’d been one of Roosevelt’s inner circle for a long time.
“And you know my schedule,” the President added; that was part of Wilkie’s job too.
“The currency union talks for the Oceanian Alliance, yes.”
“The pettifogging details of the currency union for the Alliance,” Roosevelt said. “Decisions which reached this level unmade only because of demented tomfoolery. Followed by a diplomatic lunch… chicken with currency negotiations sauce, sprinkled with tariffs and seasoned with weights and measures, and banking spices crusted on the cauliflower along with relative inflation rates stirred into the pudding, topped with whipped shipping cartels. All accompanied by a piquant Chateau Federal Reserve ’22, with overtones of oak, honey, futility and rust.”
Money had always bored him to tears, and a childhood and young manhood spent on the fringes of the upper classes—when he wasn’t ranching or hunting in some wilderness—had convinced him that the obsessive pursuit… or defense… of wealth narrowed the mind and blighted the soul. Public finance came a close second in tedium, but duty compelled paying it close attention, if only as the basis for the things he knew needed to be done. Which were infinite, as opposed to the now large but still finite resources available to pay for them.
Ruling means choices.
Tying the much-enlarged United States more closely to the British Empire and the others for the long term—now formally the Oceanian Alliance—was extremely important. He’d driven that policy since the US entered the Great War. But…
Wilkie grinned, obviously following the thought: “Let me guess: the British are being pseudo-reasonable?”
“A veneer of exquisite manners over pig-headed stubbornness,” Roosevelt agreed, though his answering smile was wry.
He dropped into a posh-British accent, not too difficult given his native Groton-School-and-Harvard-Yard, East-Coast-patrician tones:
“Ah, yes, just so, very well put, I quite agree, old chap, but…”
They both chuckled, and Roosevelt added: “With the but being a special grammatical marker in Received Standard Pronunciation for reverse previous meaning.”
“And the French are making problems right up front. Dollars are for uncultured savages who swill beer, not the civilized wine-sippers, even if their precious franc is backed by Deglet Nour dates these days instead of gold,” Wilkie said.
That had become a running joke of late in the English-speaking world, one at which the French ground their teeth and let steam and smoke trickle out of their nostrils and ears. Roosevelt replied in kind:
“While inches, pounds, miles and feet are relics of medieval barbarism… even if the barbaric Huns do use the metric system too. Though Paul Cambon did bring Edith a crate of Deglet Nour. Ostensibly a gift from Marshal Lyautey himself.”
“Quite possibly it was, Mr. President. Lyautey is much smoother than Foch; and unlike him, he has a sense of humor.”
Then-generals and now-Marshals Lyautey and Foch had taken power when Paris and Bordeaux were annihilated in the German V-gas attacks seven years ago, and they were still the real rulers in the iron-fisted dictatorship that claimed to be a soi-distant République française.
European France didn’t exist anymore and probably never would again; its territories were now the Greater German Reich’s Grand Duchies of Westgotenland, Burgund, Normandie und Neustrien, providing yet more ducal thrones for the younger sons of the German hochadel and a frontier of settlement for ordinary Germans, Netherlanders and Flemings—officially the last two were Germans now—and their slated-for-assimilation East European laborers. Plus Scandinavians willing to take German citizenship, which a good many were now that a hundred hectares of fine ready-cleared farmland and a house came with it, all in a climate balmy compared to their homelands.
Or compared to Minnesota and the Dakotas, I suppose, Roosevelt thought. Which is a pity.
Swedes and Danes and Norski and Finns had played a manful part building up that part of the country; he regretted the loss of more of such a fine stock. Then he reminded himself that the Union stretched all the way to the Arctic now.
Or compared to Manitoba or Saskatchewan.
Most of the surviving French, thirty million or so, had fled en masse to the North African colonies during the chaotic fighting retreat after the breaking of the Western Front. Now that area between Agadir and Tunis was New France.
But even with the natives… gone…
Best to draw a curtain over how, he mused. Done is done. After all, we did the same to the Indians, just over centuries of grinding retail killing helped along by smallpox rather than in one bloody wholesale year.
… even with the territory all to themselves the French were still poor and crowded as they settled in to cultivate the strip between the Sahara and the sea. The former Algiers was Nouveau Paris now. For that matter, ex-Agadir was Beauville-sur-Mer and once-Tunis had been christened Narbonne-du-Sud; perhaps slapping familiar names on everything in between made it a little easier to bear the pain of defeat and exile.
Unfortunately, similar emotional relief came from making difficulties for their giant and much-resented ally-protector across the Atlantic.
“Pride is all they have left,” Roosevelt said. “And they’re very useful to the Oceanian Alliance.”
He was careful not to say to the United States, even in settings like this.
Without them there would be only Egypt in Oceanian hands on the Mediterranean’s south shore, and the Germans could turn the Spanish, Italians and Greeks into outright puppets as opposed to genuine if twitchingly terrified neutrals.
“And don’t the French know they’re useful!” Wilkie said. “We can’t afford to let them collapse, and so…”
“They have the leverage of weakness,” Roosevelt agreed. “Rather like Austria-Hungary on the other side… or the Ottoman Empire, but don’t tell anyone I made that comparison.”
Spain had a sliver of what had once been northern Morocco; then it was New France from the Atlantic east to Italian Libya… which was now extremely Italian in much the same way New France was French. And Britain held Egypt; though held often meant machine-guns and tanks and bombing aircraft and sometimes mustard gas when rioters heeded the call of the Sultan-Caliph in Istanbul to make things hot for their kufr overlords. Apart from Greece the rest of the Mediterranean and the whole of the Black Sea was German, either directly or through their Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Ottoman allies.
The British Empire was still a Great Power of some weight, even after the blow that had drenched London with invisible death on the same day as Paris. Albeit its headquarters was now in New Delhi, where the Imperial Parliament met and Queen-Empress Victoria II presided and Lord Protector Alfred Milner actually ran things, with George Nathaniel Curzon, Earl of Kedleston, sitting at his right hand; which was rather as if Nicolo Machiavelli and Cardinal Richelieu ruled a world-spanning empire in tandem.
The continental-sized Dominions of India and South Africa and Australia were increasingly the core of the Empire’s power as millions fled the British Isles proper.
The United States itself now ran from Panama to Iceland, and the Latin states of South America were junior partners in the Oceanian Alliance… though there was a petition on his desk from Cuba, which wanted to join up and be a State in the Union.
A petition which I’m inclined to grant. This isn’t an age kind to small nations… Cuba would have more actual voice and power inside the tent than out… and no more tariffs on their sugar and fruit and such would help keep the cost of living here down… and in any case I thought we should annex them back during the war with Spain, when I sailed there with the Rough Riders. It’s only ninety miles from Florida! Hmmm. We could fold Puerto Rico into the new State of Cuba along the way! That would make the Caribbean much more… tidy. And it’ll be good preparation. The northern tier of states in the Mexican Protectorate will start making serious noises about joining up soon, say over the next four to eight years.
He’d had to hijack a ship near-as-no-matter at gunpoint in the sprawling stinking shambolic chaos of the docks at Tampa in 1898 to get the Rough Riders into the fight in Cuba back in the dying years of the last century. That sort of improvised fumbling had been good enough for the Indian Wars or dealing with Spain, but the experience had given first-hand reinforcement to his committed belief that fundamental changes were needed if America was to face the dangers of the coming age…
Good God Almighty, that was a quarter century ago now! It’s a simpler world these days. More perilous, but simpler. And if I hadn’t resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and gone to Cuba with the Rough Riders… what would I be? Not President… because then I wouldn’t have been governor of New York in ‘ 98, and Boss Platt wouldn’t have moved heaven and earth to make me McKinley’s Vice-President. To exile me to political oblivion, as he put it, when he found out he couldn’t control me in Albany… and then the assassination put me in the White House… when you look at it up close, so much of history is accidents! Or if Taft’s heart hadn’t given out in ’12… someone else would be dealing with this world all those accidents gave us…
Further east, Japan dominated most of the Pacific part of Asia, from Irkutsk to the Ceram Sea; the only reason it hadn’t seriously tried to conquer all of China was the sheer vastness of it and the teeming numbers of the Chinese even after the long years of war, famine and assorted disasters.
Which brought them to business: preventing more disaster in that part of the world.
“What news from your opposite numbers on the other side of the fence on the Mongolian matter, John?”
The Kenpeitai, the Japanese military secret service, and Abteilung IIIb, the intelligence and covert-operations branch of the German Supreme General Staff, both conducted a ceaseless war of espionage and subversion, sabotage and assassination and general undercover skullduggery against the American Black Chamber and Federal Bureau of Security, as well as the British Imperial Secret Service and the French Deuxième Bureau de l’État-major general.
And of course vice versa.
The three blocs couldn’t fight openly, not when V-gas attacks could wipe out whole cities in a single night, but the daggers were always out in darkness. That didn’t mean they couldn’t communicate when it was expedient; you bargained with enemies as much as you did with friends.
Wilkie shrugged. “About what we expected when we got the reports from Cheine and O’Malley. They don’t give a tinker’s curse that the New Genghis is peddling ancient art treasures, or abducting and selling Chinese girls and children, either, or that most of the sky-pirates in Asia use his bandit kingdom for spare parts and a place to fence their loot and that he giggles while he denies it and his hangers-on split their sides laughing.”
“Lies not even meant to deceive,” Roosevelt said. “Vice pays less tribute to Virtue in the coin of hypocrisy these days.”
The years since 1914 had seen empires crash and rise, while whole nations burned and new ones were born phoenix-like from the ashes. One of the odder pieces of flotsam thrown up by the chaos… cast all the way up to a throne… was the Russian… formerly Russian… general Baron Roman Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg.
The name was a legacy from German crusaders who’d settled in the Baltic eight centuries ago; he’d been a soldier of the Czar like generations of his ancestors, fighting with skill, absolute courage and demented brutality. When Russia collapsed in defeat and mutiny late in the second year of the Great War, a loyal… or desperate… band followed him across the border into Mongolia, where he’d traveled and learned the language before the war, and become a convert to a rather odd Theosophist-influenced variety of Buddhism.
In the years following 1916 he and his merry multilingual gang of broken men and stick-at-naught cutthroats had chased out the much-despised and deeply-feared Chinese occupiers with plenty of fire and even more slaughter, after which he proclaimed himself the reincarnation of Genghis Khan and avatar of the war-god Jamsaran and was crowned by the Bogd Khaan, the spiritual leader of the country.
Crowned as Yekhe Khaan—Universal Ruler.
Currently he ran Outer and Inner Mongolia and a few bits and pieces bordering them, with the fervent support of the native Mongols whose well-founded fear and hatred of the Chinese he’d assuaged, and the multitude of Russian refugees he’d given a new home and place to stand in a world where their people were otherwise the beaten drudges of alien conquerors.
Or at best immigrants in the United States. I know which alternative I’d pick if I were Russian… but I don’t pretend to be objective on that issue.
The Bloody Baron had even married a Mongol princess from a clan traditionally considered descendants of Genghis Khan—
Temujin, Roosevelt reminded himself. Genghis Khan was his title. His name was Temujin, which means… Smith. Mr. Smith, world-conqueror.
—and sired Germano-Slavic-Mongol heirs to rule that million-plus square miles of desert, mountain and steppe after him. Mongols had a commendably liberal attitude to such things.
“And they don’t care that he’s trying to build a V-gas factory?” Roosevelt said.
V-gas, the President thought. V-gas. Vernichtungsgas. Annihilation gas. Horror-gas. It defines us, now.
The Germans had destroyed three great cities with it in 1916, and used it to crack the stubborn shell of the Entente trench-lines between the Channel and Switzerland. They would have devastated the American east coast the same way if the Black Chamber’s operatives hadn’t foiled the plot and let the US Navy capture the U-boats before their load of death was launched. All three of the great blocs had it, and means to deliver it, and that kept the world locked in a tense stasis like a massive lid bolted down tight on a pot seething over a hot fire, always vibrating on the verge of an explosion that might… would… destroy the world.
A wild card with V-gas doesn’t bear thinking about. And the Yekhe Khan is insane, though an intensely clever madman.
“They don’t believe us,” Wilkie replied after the long grim pause. “They think we’re reading too much into… or being deliberately misleading about… ordinary purchases of industrial and transport gear. At most equipment for making phosgene or nitrogen mustard.”
Which were the small change of chemical warfare now, despite the fear and revulsion they’d first aroused.
“Disappointing but not unexpected,” Roosevelt sighed.
Wilkie nodded: “To be fair, a lot of it was ordinary equipment. The sort you need for any big construction project; I presume you’ve read Senior Field Operative Whelan’s analysis of the overall implications of the mix of purchases?”
“Yes, she’s brilliant at seeing connections and patterns like that,” Roosevelt said. “But some of it isn’t ordinary, and the ordinary is all oriented towards supporting that crucial part, as she demonstrated.”
“The Bloody Baron…”
“Or murderous lunatic,” Roosevelt observed.
“… or murderous lunatic on the Mongol throne is convenient for the Central Powers and Dai-Nippon both—as a buffer, and a place that draws off troublesome Russians. And both of them are like the proverbial snake that swallowed a puppy—they have a surfeit of territory, particularly the empty steppe and desert and mountain that von Ungern-Sternberg’s bailiwick is made of. The Japanese like the way he keeps the Chinese warlords and the would-be Republic of China and whatnot worried, too.”
“It is worrisome from a Chinese point of view that he’s taken to grabbing bits and pieces of Chinese territory on the grounds that some Mongol stopped to water the bushes there eight hundred years ago without even getting off his horse,” Roosevelt said.
“Which Mongol bush-watering then is, according to him, why it’s righteous that he plants a colony of Cossacks there today. Odd reasoning even by political standards.”
Japan aspired to dominate China but currently only actually ruled Manchuria, Shandong, Taiwan, Hainan and enough of the northeast around Peking to give their puppet Emperor Yuan Kèdìng some credibility. The Kuomintang’s Republic under Sun Yat-Sen held Canton and a chunk around it. The rest was the domain… and blood-dripping, flooded or drought-afflicted, famine-and-plague ridden promised land… of Chaos and Old Night, plus the local warlord, bandit chief or wandering adventurer of the week.
Which suited Japan right down to the ground. The worse, the better was their secret-service motto on China these days.
Wilkie went on in a dry tone:
“Oh, and the Kenpeitai indignantly denies that Yekhe Khan von Ungern-Sternberg used those covert Japanese purchases of industrial equipment in our sphere as a cover for getting his hands on the gear. In fact, now they’re denying that they made those purchases at all, or that they were important. Or denying both at the same time.”
“Embarrassed that they didn’t notice him piggybacking on their purchases and we did?”
“And how! A matter of face. So their new V-gas planet in Harbin is entirely their own work, they say, apart from a few non-essential luxuries. Touchy little bastards don’t want to admit they haven’t fully caught up to the big boys yet.”
Roosevelt rolled his eyes slightly. The Empire of Dai-Nippon, Greater Japan, had theoretically been at war with Germany in 1916 as a member of the Entente. Which hadn’t stopped them from swooping in and taking French Indo-China and most of the Dutch East Indies, ostensibly to keep the Germans out; they’d used the same argument for snatching Siberia as far as Lake Baikal when the Russian Empire bit the dust.
And they’d carved off chunks of China in a grab free of any pretense, simply because it was there… and they wanted it… and they had the power to take it… and because the rest of the world had been too weak and preoccupied to stop them in the time between the V-gas attacks and the Armistice.
Even then, while the Great War was still raging, Germany had given their theoretical Japanese enemies rather friendly clandestine aid—crucial parts, engineers—to build their own first small V-gas plant, simply to present the Oceanian powers with a distracting rival they couldn’t force to disgorge any of its ill-gotten gains.
When I was born in 1858 the Japanese were in their Middle Ages and fighting with bows and arrows; they’ve made astonishing progress since, and I admire them wholeheartedly for it, and in their position I might have done the same things, but…
The Alliance had turned a blind eye to the equipment orders Dai-Nippon placed in America and the British Empire to make their second, larger V-gas plant in Manchuria. Simply to keep that original German aid from turning to a full-blown alliance that would lock up the whole of Eurasia from Atlantic to Pacific in an anti-Oceanian front.
All three blocs hated and feared each other and dreamed of world domination. Dai-Nippon was the weakest of the three in science and industry, though catching up fast… but it could play the other two off against each other in a way that the Alliance and the Central Powers simply couldn’t, given how their enmity was sealed with the blood of millions dead on both sides, with memories of hunger and agony and grief and hate.
And hence baked into the cake, to coin a phrase.
Which of the two Tokyo favored at any particular moment was pure unsentimental realpolitik, which they occasionally spiced up with coin-toss unpredictability just to keep Washington and Berlin guessing.
Wilkie went on: “Our own sources say that Abteilung IIIb may really believe us, and may be sniffing around for confirmation on their own. The Imperial Secret Police—”
Which was Greater Germany’s other main intelligence organization, as the Federal Bureau of Security was here in the US with respect to the Black Chamber; one more foreign, one more domestic, but with enough overlap to have strong rivalries.
“—accordingly think it’s all a conspiracy by the Americans and perfidious Albion to turn them against the Yekhe Khaan, who is of good German blood, and somehow to embroil them with the honorary-Nordic Japanese, and that Abteilung IIIb are being suckered by the treacherous Anglo-Saxon materialists.”
“Paranoia, isn’t that what the alienists—”
He remembered the modern term:
“—no, the psychologists, that is, call it, these days?”
“Yes, Mr. President; an occupational hazard in secret service work. It’s also a matter of judging others by yourself, since it’s exactly the sort of thing they’d do in our position.”
He frowned in intense thought for a moment. Roosevelt could tell what that thought was:
For that matter if it wasn’t true, it might be a smart move to cook up false evidence that it was.
The President sighed again. “It all comes down to our operatives in China, then. They did a good job—a bully job—last year finding out who. Now we have to think about what we can do now that we know. Their idea about using the scientific expedition as cover is clever; keep me informed, and give them all the backup practicable. So, what’s next?”
Wilkie took a file out of his attaché case:
“We have indications that Abteilung IIIb is stirring up trouble in Brazil, and not just with the German immigrants there. And in Venezuela. Specifically, they’re plotting to ambush the initial survey teams for the Trans-Hemispheric Railway Project through the Darien Gap, disguising it as Indian raids—”
Copyright © 2021-2022 by S.M. Stirling