Excerpt

Theater of Spies

S.M. Stirling

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Theater of Spies, the second novel in S.M. Sterling’s historical reimagining about Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. On the brink of WWI, two agents from the Black Chamber, a secret spy network working on behalf of the US, discover a dangerous weapon Germany is developing, and must go undercover to protect a world under dire threat.

Washington, D.C.

Iron House

(Consolidated War Department–Navy Department Headquarters)

Situation and Maps Room

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November 6, AD 1916, 1916(b)

(Point of Departure plus Four Years)

President Theodore Roosevelt stood with his feet braced and one hand gripping the lapel of his morning jacket, the other thrust into a pocket and clenched into a fist, looking at the maps that showed the Great War’s fronts and alliances and disasters, scowling through his pince-nez with his mustache bristling. It was an expression as formidable as his more famous tooth-baring fighting grin. Officers of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps—and a few from the Coast Guard—bustled quietly amid a clack of keys and murmur of telephones, updating the maps on the walls or directing the WAC girls in their crisp uniforms who used long pool-cue-like sticks to push markers on the big horizontal map-tables that showed the movements of friendly and enemy units and who manned . . .

Or perhaps staffed is the right word, he thought.

 . . . the coding machines and Teletypes that linked the room to the far-flung legions of the Republic.

The thought came with the relief of a brief moment’s whimsy as he gave a fond, proud glance at their patriotic youthful earnestness. And if they were doing soldiers’ work, why shouldn’t they be in uniform—albeit with skirts a mildly shocking three inches above the ankle—and get the same pay and ranks? He’d plucked Helen Varick Boswell from the Women’s Bureau of the Party to organize the Women’s Auxiliary Corps for the Army . . . and anyone who didn’t like her being General Boswell now could just go and do that other thing.

Roosevelt and his aides and personal secretary and Secret Service bodyguards attracted a few glances, despite the disciplined intensity of the work. It suddenly occurred to him that the national vote would be tomorrow . . . and that he hadn’t thought about it in days . . . which must be a first for a president standing for reelection, much less for a unique fourth term.

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Fourth if you count taking over for McKinley after the assassination in ’01, which I do, since the amiable old duffer had all the backbone of a chocolate éclair and never actually did anything in all his born days, bless him. Not without a push, usually from me.

Against his usual custom, this time he hadn’t even ridden a special train from city to city and town to town, giving whistle-stop speeches to impromptu crowds; events had kept him pinned to Washington.

Not that it matters, the result’s even more of a foregone conclusion than it was in 1912, and that was never in doubt after poor Taft’s heart attack. How long ago that seems!

A horrible thought occurred to him: God have mercy on us, if Taft had lived Woodrow Woodenhead Wilson might be president now and facing this!

He shook his head as if to shed the image, though the news was bad enough to inspire any number of morbid fantasies. God or fate or destiny had spared the United States that at least. He’d swept back into office on an unprecedented wave of support, the strongest mandate since George Washington’s, a vote for his plans to seize the dawning century for America and the New Nationalism.

One of the things he’d done since was take the nation by the scruff and make it face up to the fact that it was a dangerous world now and that you had to be prepared.

Getting elected is only important because of what you do once you are. These maps are more important than electioneering.

There were three on the section of wall he was staring at, showing Paris, London, and Bordeaux—where the top echelon of the French government had retreated after the first airborne gas attack on Paris in May, which had seemed so terrible at the time but had only contained conventional phosgene and only killed thousands.

It suddenly occurred to him that the national vote would be tomorrow… and that he hadn’t thought about it in days… which must be a first for a president standing for reelection, much less for a unique fourth term.

All three maps had broad, shaded marks on them, shaped roughly like an overlapping series of blobby elongated teardrops. That showed where the German super-Zeppelin bombers had dropped fifty to a hundred tons of the Vernichtungsgas on each city.

The enemy were calling it that, Annihilation Gas, though he preferred the popular coinage of horror-gas. The scientists termed it organo-methylphosphonothioate nerve agent X and claimed it wasn’t even a gas at normal temperatures, strictly speaking, and more importantly they’d found that a single liter of it—two pints—held a million lethal doses if perfectly distributed. The half-ton canisters of horror-gas had burst at a thousand feet, or sometimes wherever burning airships had exploded under attack by fighting-scout aeroplanes. Then the winds had carried the finely divided aerosol of drops over square miles of city as they settled. Most of the zeppelins had died over their targets or crashed on their way back, but they had taken three cities with them.

Below the maps were slots where estimates from Military Intelligence and the Black Chamber—and the allied governments, or what was left of them, were updated daily. Paris and London each showed over six hundred thousand dead and climbing fast; Bordeaux much less, but if anything a higher proportion of its smaller population. Nobody had any idea how many more civilians had been crippled or driven mad by marginal doses on the fringes of the killing zones; the gas was so persistent, especially in cold weather or sheltered spots or soaked into skin and cloth and hair and wood, that you couldn’t go near the contaminated areas except in something like a deep-sea diver’s rubber suit.

And nobody has any idea of how many have just run for their lives and are starving in ditches. The Kaiser’s plot . . . or Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s plot . . . cut the heads off two great nations at a stroke, he thought with throttled rage. And came within a hair of wrecking us, if the Chamber hadn’t stopped it. When we win this war, everyone involved will hang.

One of his military aides cleared his throat and took a brief glance at his newfangled wristwatch. Roosevelt nodded brusquely and followed horse-faced young Bradley’s jug ears down an arch-roofed corridor toward the meeting room. Two motionless Marine guards with Thompson guns on assault slings across their bellies and faces like carved wood under their turtle-shaped steel helmets flanked the door, snapping to attention for an instant and then returning to their watchfulness.

The president walked past them and sat at the head of the big oval table, nodding to the respectful greetings and salutes. There was a general rustle as files were opened and pads made ready. There were maps here too, set up on easels or hanging before the walls, mostly of Europe and North Africa, some of Asia.

And none showing things I wanted to see.

With the Chiefs of Staff was Director Wilkie, head of the Secret Service and more importantly of the—until recently—officially nonexistent subsection that had grown to utterly overshadow it, the Black Chamber. Whose motto was Ex umbris, acies: From the shadows, steel.

Though they think I don’t know that the unofficial Chamber motto is Non Theodorum parvis concitares ne perturbatus sit, which means “Don’t bother Teddy with the details, it’ll just upset him”!

“Right, gentlemen. We’re here to appraise the general situation and make sure we’re all . . . reading from the same page, as it were.”

That phrase was his own coinage, and he thought it was rather pithy.

“And there are some political developments . . . integrating Canada, for instance . . . that will give you enough extra work to keep you from the temptations of idleness and dissipation.”

He grinned at that, and there were tired chuckles; none of the men in the room looked as if they were getting enough sleep, and he knew he wasn’t. He could barely squeeze in an hour or two a day swimming and wrestling and working the punching bag.

“Tell me some bad news, Leonard,” Roosevelt said to the head of the General Staff. “Start with the bad, at least, and work your way up to the unthinkably terrible. We can do a world tour; it’s a world war now that we’re officially in it at last.”

“Mr. President, other resources may be short, but of bad news in all flavors we can give you any amount,” Leonard Wood said in his soft New England accent.

His long craggy Yankee face was professionally impassive and his voice calm, but they’d been friends for decades and had commanded the Rough Riders together. Roosevelt could tell grimness when it spoke.

“Apart from the fact that the Mexican Protectorate is finally quiet . . . fairly quiet . . . bad news is about all we have on the menu.”

Roosevelt’s lips tightened beneath his bushy mustache as he listened to the catalog of disasters that followed. The United States had been forced into a war where Germany stood triumphant. From the ruins and chaos of Russia, through the mass flight of the French to North Africa and on to the desperate heroism of the British rearguards, dying where they stood under hammer-storms of steel and poisoned fire to shelter the improvised evacuation from Dunkirk and Calais. That was an epic that might breed a legend for the future, but right now it was another defeat.

That was an epic that might breed a legend for the future, but right now it was another defeat.

It wasn’t war as he’d known it as colonel of the Rough Riders or dreamed of even in nightmares . . . nobody had but H. G. Wells, whose The War in the Air was starting to look horribly prophetic in this day of the breaking of nations . . . but there was no denying that it worked. His only consolation was that this time, for once in the history of the United States, he’d ensured that America was more or less ready for a fight at the start of a conflict. Against the Germans there wasn’t much margin for error or time to learn on the job.

When the litany of blood and destruction was finished, Roosevelt set his palms on the reddish-brown Cuban mahogany of the table and spoke:

“Thank you, General Wood. There you have it, gentlemen. Our course is clear for the immediate future. There remains one matter of very serious import, which Director Wilkie and Admiral Sims will now outline.”

Wilkie of the Black Chamber took his cue. “The Imperial German Navy is making serious preparations to sortie sometime in the next few months; we have that by the reports of agents who saw Wilhelmshaven in person, and it’s confirmed by our cryptographic work and that of the Royal Navy. Which makes no sense, which means we’re all missing something. Something crucial, something that could bite us on . . . in a sensitive place.”

Admiral Sims stroked his short-clipped white-shot beard. “Naval Intelligence agrees. We and the Royal Navy together have overwhelming superiority, and the short days and bad weather at this time of year mean that such an action would be a close-in slugging match, which adds to our advantage of numbers and weight of metal . . . and they can do the arithmetic too. They have some ace up their sleeve. A surprise.”

“The world has lost far too much to far too many German surprises already,” Roosevelt agreed. “Director Wilkie, finding out what they have planned is now your absolute priority. If we lose control of the North Sea, Britain goes with it, and Berlin will rule everything from Ireland to the Urals. God may know how we’d come back from that, but I do not.”

“Mr. President, we’re on it.”

The Black Chamber’s director looked quietly confident. Everyone else in the room was looking at him with respect at the least, shading up into hero worship from some of the younger officers.

The details were deeply secret, but it was generally known that the Germans had tried to wreck the main American port cities on the Atlantic with horror-gas attacks from specially built U-boats even before the declaration of war. That would have slaughtered millions . . . and killed any chance of thwarting the mad dream of a German-dominated world.

But the Black Chamber had thoroughly thwarted it—only the one in Savannah had struck, and there had been enough warning that the city had been evacuated first.

“I’m putting my best field operatives on it, Mr. President,” Wilkie said.

Their eyes met. Roosevelt knew who he meant . . . and what the cost might be to someone who’d romped as a child with his own sons and daughters, whose father had gone up San Juan Hill with him, and whom he’d held as she wept over her murdered parents. His own four sons were in the Army, even young Quentin who was only a lad of nineteen and heedlessly eager to be a man. All the boys were in fighting units—including the new Air Corps—by their own wish and doing well by their own merits. He feared for them every day, but it would have broken his heart if any of them had tried to avoid front-line service.

Black Chamber operative Luz O’Malley and that charming, eccentric young Boston girl Ciara Whelan had saved the nation from the German horror-gas plot with cold cunning and high courage . . . but a great nation needed a great deal of saving in this terrible new age, and they were willing and ready to run the risks again, risks worse than going over the top in the face of Maxim guns and mustard gas.

We do not exist for ourselves alone, none of us do. That’s why I went to Cuba even though Edith was so very sick and our children so young, though I felt as if I were torn in two. We are the tools of something greater than any of us, and if the tool breaks beneath the strain . . . then another steps forward and the greater purpose goes on. The lines of blood. And beyond that, the nation that is the embodiment and bloodline of all our people.

Roosevelt nodded to the Black Chamber’s director, a slight crisp gesture to affirm his choice. Wilkie returned it and went on:

“My very best operatives, Mr. President—and there aren’t any better in the world.”

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From THEATER OF SPIES. Used with the permission of the publisher, Ace. Copyright © 2019 by S.M. Stirling.




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