“No, Mr. President, the decision to withdraw from France was sound.”

General Wood’s voice with its soft Massachusetts accent was steady.

“It’s a defeat, and nothing but,” Theodore Roosevelt growled over his shoulder, the words like acid in his mouth and his hands bunched into fists in his jacket pockets.

This was the day the last of the American Expeditionary Force had withdrawn from Europe, leaving only the sacrificial French rearguards holding a shrinking semicircle around Marseilles and Toulon. He stared out the Oval Office windows at tree-lined Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House gardens, but his mind’s eye was seeing grim, grimy men filing aboard rusty transports under an acrid smoke-pall of burning buildings and supply dumps. As artillery muttered and flickered to the northward, like a distant thunderstorm that never ended, and the thunder-reply as battleships and cruisers in the harbors pounded out broadsides in reply towards the horizon.

The green and flowery smell of early summer on the Potomac floated through the windows. Its warmth and sweetness felt incongruous in a world gripped in an iron winter of the spirit, as the Great War spread its infinite malice around the globe and whole nations were burned and beaten into dust. His trained naturalist’s ear and mind automatically catalogued the birdsong he heard—he could identify more than fifty species by their calls alone—but for once there was no joy in it.

The president turned away and sat once more behind the desk that had been made from the timbers of a Royal Navy ship long ago. The chair creaked under his solid weight, even now mostly muscle, and he forced himself not to snarl as he confronted his two closest advisors. General Leonard Wood was Chief of the Supreme General Staff, winner of the Medal of Honor in the Apache Wars, a very old friend from the Rough Riders and before, and co-creator of the modern American military. John Elbert Wilkie was Director of the Secret Service and, far more importantly, its child the Black Chamber, the shadowy network of spies and operatives and analysts that was sometimes as important as the Army.

Both were of his generation, born like him within two years of Lincoln’s election, finally taking over from the Civil War veterans in the new century and showing they too could reach for greatness.

“Yes, it is a defeat, Mr. President. With several real buts, but still a defeat,” General Wood said calmly. “It’s still the sensible thing to do. We can… we must… ask men to die for their country, but trying to hold on longer would have been throwing lives away for our vanity’s sake. This isn’t a war that will be settled by a single battle, or a single campaign either. Any more than the British wars against France under the Revolution and then Napoleon were—that took twenty-five years, and it was a whale fighting an elephant that time too.”

L’etat, ce n’est pas moi,” Roosevelt said ruefully, flipping Louis XIV’s famous bit of…

Vanity, he thought.

… on its head. “I myself am not the nation. The Republic can survive this, even if it’s ashes in my mouth.”

“No man has done the Republic greater service, Mr. President,” Director Wilkie said. “My God, can you imagine what we’d be facing if Woodrow Wilson was President and trying to deal with this?”

They all grimaced slightly at the thought. Roosevelt had made the decision to withdraw, on the advice of these two and against the prompting of his own deepest instincts, what he felt in his heart and belly…

Yet my brain agrees with my advisors, alas, and I’m going to listen to reason—it goes with sitting in this chair. But does anyone ever enjoy hearing someone else tell him to ‘be realistic’ and ‘take a steady strain’?

Roosevelt’s eyes flicked to the portrait of Lincoln on the wall, and the bust in its niche; he always kept one of each in a place he worked for any length of time.

Now I understand you better, Abe, he thought, looking at the sorrow-graven countenance. Sitting and listening to the news of Manassas and Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, thinking of how many young men who’d answered your call were lying dead under the Rebel guns, and the heaps of arms and legs by the surgeons’ tents… but you didn’t give up then. Neither will I now.

The President’s anger wasn’t really directed at the general or the spymaster, but it said something about them that neither quailed in the slightest. Even amid his frustration and rage he felt a flash of satisfaction at that; he’d never hidden the fact that he liked power and relished command, the ability to make things happen, but he despised the useless flabbiness of yes-men and refused to tolerate them in his inner circle.

Power is a fine thing because it lets you do, do work worth doing. And you can’t do it alone, not the big jobs. Atruly powerful man needs powerful support—which means strong subordinates with strong minds of their own.

“Wise men don’t try to argue with arithmetic,” Wood went on. “We hit the Germans a few good licks, and kept them from the Mediterranean for longer than I expected. Our tanks…”

He used the name that had started as a code meant to conceal a little self-consciously, however widely and quickly it had spread. The official War Department designation was Armored Fighting Vehicle, Turreted, Tracked, Mk. I, and absolutely nobody used it, except in official documents.

“… were a very nasty surprise for them, and not the only one we handed out. But we just couldn’t supply a large enough force when they were only a day or two from their bases by rail and we were operating across an ocean. Not enough ships, not if we were to keep Britain going at the same time through the U-boat packs and get at least some food and supplies to the French. And not enough harbor capacity with Toulon and Marseilles our only real ports of entry, even if we did have the ships.”

A few good licks boils no potatoes,” the President growled. “Bobby Lee hit the Army of the Potomac a few good licks too in our fathers’ time, and where did it get him and the Confederate States? Appomattox Court House, that’s where, thank God. When I hit a man, I want him to fall down, not just wince and stagger a bit. Fall down and staydown.”

He meant that too, and he knew the truth of it in his knuckles and his bone and gut.

A flash of memory, and he was face-to-face again with that drunken killer in Nolan’s Saloon, one of the things that had defined him to himself, within the privacy of his own soul.

The mean brown-stained grin and stinking breath and bloodshot eyes… and the triphammer feeling of power as he’d replied to the threat of the six-shooters with a left-right-left to the jaw. The crack-crack and twin jets of smoke from the .45’s amid a smell of rotten egg and cheap whiskey and chewing-tobacco spat into the sawdust on the floor, as the gunman crumpled and thumped his head against the rail. A fraction slower and he might have bled to death on that floor himself, one more set of young bones in the lawless Badlands frontier of the 1880’s.

He’d been too late for the Indians—just—but the white frontiersmen had been every bit as wild, more numerous and much better armed.

And that campaign rally in Boston in 1912, seeing the previous day’s boxing gear left still set up before the speaker’s podium and ducking on impulse through the ropes like the gentleman amateur he’d been at Harvard, feet dancing on the canvas and fists punching out a practice routine before he flourished them overhead, and the roar of the crowd chanting his name like thudding blows to the chest and belly, more heady than any wine… That had been the moment he knew he was going back to the White House. And that this time he wasn’t going to repeat the mistake he’d made after the victory in ’04 of promising not to run again.

“They’re still letting masses of civilians through their lines outside the ports,” Wood observed; he knew what Roosevelt had just said was a statement of opinion, or possibly principle, not an argument. “They could take Toulon and Marseilles now if they were willing to pay a hefty butcher’s bill for pushing their heavy artillery within range of the docks, even with the naval gunfire support we’re giving the French, but instead they’re inching in very slowly and cautiously.”

“Because while it may not have been what they had in mind last October 6th, now they’ve decided they want France as an empty wasteland they can settle with their own people, General,” Wilkie said. “Marseilles and Toulon are the spout of the funnel and they’re letting us hold it open while they squeeze at the top. They’ll take the ports when the bag’s empty as it’s going to get, later this year.”

Somewhere Ludendorff was laughing the particular, nasty laugh of a man who’d given his enemy a set of choices that started with ‘very bad’ and ran on through various degrees of ‘even worse than that’.

“It’s the dilemma from Hell,” the President said ruefully. “Damned if you do and if you don’t. There must be more Frenchmen… and French women and children… in North Africa now than there are left alive in France itself, what with the horror-gas and battlefield losses and now mass famine and epidemics in the occupied zone. That’s worse than Ireland in ’48.”

Germany’s losses had been savage since they rolled the iron dice in 1914, but they’d broken Russia with their armies, and then smashed London and Paris and the Western Front with their Vernichtungsgas—annihilation gas, V-gas for short—last October 6th, just before the US could intervene in force. In fact, they’d probably done it then as a desperation measure because America was about to declare war; they’d watched him build the country’s strength since 1912, and knew a stand-up fight with what were now coming to be called ‘conventional weapons’ would grind their bones to dust in a year or two at most.

So they got their punch in first, with the horror-gas.

The rest of the world called it that for good reason. A couple of pounds of it, a bottle you could hold easily in one rubber-gloved hand, contained a hundred thousand lethal doses, and the amount they’d used had been measured in tons, not pounds—hundreds of tons.

Enough that if it had been perfectly distributed it would have killed the entire human race. Killed all one-point—seven billion of us… In fact, it could have killed us all approximately twenty-one times over.

The mind refused to grapple with that, or at least his did, but by an effort of will he’d made it real to himself.

If the Black Chamber’s operatives hadn’t detected and foiled Germany’s plans for what their code had called the Breath of Loki, the American cities along the east coast would have been destroyed by the filthy stuff on the same day, launched by rocket-mortars from U-boats hiding in the harbors.

“What about the reports of clashes a few days ago between German and Japanese forces around… Irkutsk, isn’t it called? That city near Lake Baikal in Siberia,” he said, less hopefully than he wished.

“Ah.” Wilkie looked at a paper in one of his files. “What’s that Japanese type of theater, Mr. President, no attempt at realism, very stylized, with masks and broad gestures?”

Kabuki,” Roosevelt snapped.

He’d been the first American to get a brown belt in jujitsu, besides being the man who’d mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese war back in ’05. Their arts and customs had fascinated him since he’d met Japanese students at Harvard in his youth; he respected and admired the Japanese people for their self-sacrificial courage and hard work, patriotic unity and disciplined intelligence, all things he wanted more of for America.

We have much to learn from them. Which is precisely the reason they’re dangerous rivals. Who’s afraid of… oh, say, Italy? Not even Austria!

“It was pure Kabuki, Mr. President. Both sides made faces at each other and shouted nasty names and fired shots in the air. Meanwhile they’re trading; German industrial chemicals and machine-tools for rubber and tin and so forth from the new Japanese possessions in what used to be French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies. It’s all supposedly being put through Outer Mongolia, via that mad Russian… Baltic-German… warlord who’s taken over there, Baron von Ungern-Sternberg. The Bloody Baron, they call him.”

“The one who claims to be a reincarnation of Genghis Khan,” Wood observed dryly. “They certainly share an enthusiasm for butchery.”

“Just so,” Wilkie said. “They’re leaving the capering lunatic on his stolen throne to give them a buffer and a tissue-thin pretense. And I’m morally certain Berlin has slipped the Japanese the horror-gas formula and engineering drawings for the equipment. We can’t do anything but protest, of course, and Tokyo will give Ambassador Longworth a free fool’s prize of bland lies.”

“The Ambassador will have to eat crow and pretend to believe them, Mr. President,” Wood said, a slight edge of warning in his tone. “And so will we, in public. The United States absolutely cannot fight them and Germany at the same time, and they know it.”

Roosevelt gritted his teeth. After the United States and Germany, Japan was the only other Great Power left standing. He wasn’t in the least surprised their leaders were taking what must look like a heaven-sent opportunity to establish a position of unassailable strength—in their place he’d have done exactly the same. But…

I can see a shadow emerging, the shape of a world divided into three—the Central Powers dominating western Eurasia, Japan doing the same in east Asia, and we and the British and Overseas France holding the World Ocean and the peripheries… call it the Oceanian Alliance… and all three armed to the teeth and snarling and skirmishing and dreaming of the Empire of the Earth, but none able to deal a death-blow. Though the Japanese at least aren’t an open enemy. Not quite. Not yet. Put that to the side for now.

“The Germans haven’t used the horror-gas since the 6th,” he said, his voice thoughtful.

October 6th, 1916 was what the bare numeral meant now, a date graven into human history like a sword across time’s neck.

“Everything else,” he went on. “But not that. Yet the gas governs everything, like an invisible skeleton hand at our throats. It’s the dominant factor in the world today.”

Wilkie nodded. “My clandestine contacts with their emissaries in Scandinavia and Switzerland all agree that the Germans—the highest circles in Germany—say…”

“Say!” Roosevelt said.

Wilkie made a balancing gesture. “They say they plan to keep the horror-gas in reserve from now on unless we use it first, or unless we land in Europe in force. Then they’d hit us with everything they’ve got, and the British cities and North Africa too, consequences be damned. I’m inclined to believe them, because maintaining a stalemate is in their interests.”

Wood spread his hands. “There’s no predicting how things would end if both sides threw everything they have at each other, Mr. President. Except that the slaughter would make what’s happened so far look minor. That I can absolutely guarantee you.”

“Which gives even the most reckless pause,” Wilkie agreed. “We captured a fair amount of the gas from the U-boats and we’ll have our own production going well before the end of the month with… the Dakota Project… ahead of schedule. Public Works and the War Department have done a crackerjack job there.”

“We’d better, Director,” Wood said grimly. “What we captured won’t last forever. The stuff decays in storage—and decanting and moving it from the rocket-shells we took from the U-boats was a nightmare that cost us lives. The only efficient way to do it is to store the two precursor chemicals and then make it up just before deployment, and rotate the old material back for disposal, which is like juggling nitroglycerine on a galloping horse. And the Germans don’t have much more stored than the amount we took from their submarines either, since your people managed to wreck their plant in Staaken, for which my hearty congratulations again.”

“That was bully!” Roosevelt said sincerely.

“Thank you, General, Mr. President, but that was also a strictly temporary victory. The Germans have their Berlin factory working again…”

Wilkie consulted a note before he went on: “…as of last week. And they’re building a new one, bigger and more efficient, near Rostov-on-Don, in their Government-General of the Ukraine…”

He smiled thinly. “Or die Gotische Ostmark as I understand they intend to rename it.”

All three men snorted at the preening neo-medievalism of The East Gothic Marchland; parts of the Ukraine had indeed been a Ostrogothic – Germanic—kingdom… for a century or two, sixteen hundred years ago, which was before Attila led the Huns into Europe and while there was still a ruling Emperor in Rome and before anyone had heard of the Slavs. Wilkie continued seriously:

“And they’re going to transfer the Berlin equipment to Rostov once the works there are up and running.”

“They may be telling the truth about their intentions right now, but they’ll change their minds fast enough if they see an opening,” Roosevelt said.

“Not even a scrap of paper stopping them,” Wilkie agreed, quoting the German Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg’s famous words in 1914 about the treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality. “Just the threat of our retaliating in kind.”

Wood nodded. “That’s stopping them for now. But they have a history of taking reckless gambles for immediate advantage… rolling the iron dice, as they say… and more than enough of the gambles have paid off to encourage the habit. To keep them from using the gas, we have to have it ready ourselves.”

Roosevelt sighed. “I don’t like the thought of touching horror-gas even with a barge-pole, but I agree.”

“That’s the best… the only… guarantee,” Wilkie said.

“And I hate the thought of conceding them Europe when we have enough divisions to take them on, and better weapons,” Roosevelt said. “Our troops are fresh, too, not fought-out. The more time we give the enemy to rest and recover, the stronger they’ll be.”

“Mr. President, attacks with horror-gas bombs… or shells… on landing beachheads packed with men…” Wood said, and shrugged.

They were silent for a moment; all three were hard men, ruthless at need and long intimate with violent death, but their keen imaginations revolted at the images that produced… and all of them were also too honest with themselves to deny the truth of what their minds told them. The general went on:

“The horror-gas is just too damned deadly, and retaliating in kind won’t help if we’re attacking. It’s like machine-guns and barbed wire, only worse because it lingers invisibly. It favors the defense because it forces you to disperse and take cover and dig in… and do it in a rubber diving suit.”

“Our new tanks—” Roosevelt began.

He felt a moment’s flash of a twofold pride; that he’d backed and pushed the project, and a more personal and intense glory that his eldest son, now Brigadier Ted Roosevelt Jr., had been among the commanders who used them to deal the Germans several stinging defeats.

He continued aloud: “—the tanks seem to go a long way to solving machine guns and barbed wire.”

“They do, Mr. President. But for the horror-gas we don’t have a solution yet and it’s thrown off all our plans. Millions have died in this war because generals tried to deal with unsolved problems by throwing flesh and blood and bone against steel and fire and poison; I’d rather not have the name Leonard Wood on that particular list.”

Roosevelt growled slightly. “Mexican standoff,” he said. “They might be able to get more of those special U-boats near our coast… and they’re certainly working hard to improve the range of the rocket-mortars they carry so they don’t have to get quite so close.”

“Keeping them out of harbors is hard enough for the Navy,” Wood said. “If they could launch from miles away, or worse still, if they could launch from miles away while they were underwater…”

There was another uncomfortable silence. Wild imaginings had become the merely unlikely and the unlikely had turned up in cold hard reality far too often of late.

Progress has its price, Roosevelt thought, and went on aloud:

“And they can certainly reach Britain with aeroplane bombers from the Netherlands or Belgium; another unsolved problem. Which is why Lord Protector Milner wants more shipping to move English refugees out.”

He used the old names though the Netherlands had joined—at gunpoint, more or less—the new Großesdeutsches Kaiserreich. And Belgium no longer existed; the Flemish parts—and French Flanders—had been given to the new German Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the rest was now the puppet Grand Duchy of Wallonia, its people allowed to live because their factories and skilled workers were so useful to Berlin’s war-machine.

Wilkie held up a warning hand: “It’s not just people he wants the tonnage to move, Mr. President. My reports are that lately he’s transferring as much British industry as he can, too, to South Africa and India and Australia. Steel, engineering, shipyards, chemicals.”

“Lord Protector Milner and his government badly want to be less dependent on us, then,” Wood observed.

“Naturally so,” Roosevelt said. “They’re patriots, just as we are.”

And Milner’s rather more of a dictator than I am, he thought. But needs must when the Devil drives. The 6th hit them very hard.

“I’m inclined to give it all my blessing,” Roosevelt said. “We’re going to need them as allies for the long term, strong allies and willing ones; Milner’s National Efficiency movement is their equivalent of our New Nationalism, and he… and what happened to London… are putting the iron back into their spines and the fire in their bellies. Milner didn’t object when the Canadians and Newfoundlanders asked to join the United States, and so in honor we can scarcely cavil at this. Most of that shipping was originally British, for that matter, and the crews. Now that our Expeditionary Force is out of Europe, we can spare it.”

Wood looked unhappy—the General Staff hoarded transport and logistical capacity the way a miser did gold—but nodded. Wilkie did too, less reluctantly. He and Milner’s new Imperial Secret Service were cooperating closely now.

Some American corporations who’d been slavering at the prospect of global monopolies would be upset, even though they were already making more money than ever before, but then Roosevelt had always been astonished at how utterly stupid the very wealthy could be outside their narrow areas of interest. There was no satisfying that blind insensate hunger, but at least these days they did what he told them to do without much back-talk, a deeply pleasing change.

He sighed and shook his head ruefully. “The horror-gas… I’d never imagined a weapon so powerful that it’s impossible to use,” he said. “Though H.G. Wells did… Impossible to use against someone who can reply in kind, at least. On the one hand, nobody sane would want more attacks like London and Paris—even if we could match atrocity with atrocity and massacre with massacre, in the end that could bring down civilization itself. Western civilization, at least. H.G. Wells predicted that too! On the other hand, that paralyzes us and shields the enemy. Germany wants to get up from the table while they’re ahead and you’re both telling me we don’t have a way to stop them.”

Wood looked even unhappier. “Our study teams have been war-gaming along the lines you suggested, Mr. President, and you’re right: armies trying to fight each other with horror-gas… it’s like a duel fought with hand-grenades inside a locked closet. Yet the gas will be used if one side is facing a decisive defeat, given the unlimited stakes in this war. So we can fight, but only indecisively! If you can’t drive an offensive home, battle becomes like…

Kabuki, but with real blood,” the President said with venom. “How I detest pulling a punch.”

Then Roosevelt grinned, his famous tooth-baring fighting grin. “If we can’t hit them directly, we’ll use stealth and undercover operations to keep them sitting uneasily on their ill-gotten gains—from the shadows, steel, eh?”

The others chuckled. Ex Umbres, Acies was the Black Chamber’s motto, and that was a direct translation.

“We’ve won more of those battles than the Germans have, so far,” he said.

Wilkie gestured agreement, but his expression had gone grim. “They’re not going to stop trying on that battlefield either, Mr. President.”

“Bring it on!” the President said. “But in any case we absolutely must have our own horror-gas production, and as quickly as possible, simply to make them fear using theirs.”

His head turned to Wilkie, like the turret of a battle-cruiser.

“I like your outline of the security measures for the Dakota Project, but in addition, now that we’re getting so close to starting production I want you to assign some good field operatives, including one with a technical background and someone with local experience, to hold a watching brief there.”

He smiled again. “Watching from the shadows, and ready to use the steel. Someone young and energetic, but senior enough to have direct access to you… and me, for that matter… and one you can trust with override authority with the garrison commander and the FBS. Someone who won’t use it just to show they’re important.”

“I’ll make sure of smooth relations between Major-General Young and whoever the agents are, Mr. President,” Wood agreed. “He’s very sound, a real fighting-man but a thinker who did good work in military intelligence when he was an embassy attaché, too, and the 32nd are a first-rank division, though they’re new to the area.”

“And I know the operatives you have in mind, Mr. President,” Wilkie said, making a note. “I’ll see to it. They’re in San Francisco now, and I’ll have them briefed and moving before next Friday.”

“We’ll need them,” Roosevelt said grimly. “Somehow or other, something tells me we will. Because if we know how important this is… the enemy will too.”


Copyright © 2019-2020 by S.M. Stirling