Friday, 18 October 2013

Part 4

The New Balance of Power
The cosmic strife persisted for almost two decades, remaining mercifully confined to France and the surrounding environs until one day in 1867, quite suddenly, the storms calmed. The sun rose into a blue sky for what seemed to be the first time in eons, and the world held its breath. No-one knew what had befallen France and its people. No-one knew what the other nations had been up to during the time of isolation. But the race was on to find out.

Great Britain
During the storms, Britain had become more isolated than ever before. Robbed of its naval strength by the Consulate’s decrees years earlier, and denied egress into Europe by the Aether catastrophe, it would have seemed to outsiders that Britain’s dominion had come to an end. However, that would be to discount the resourcefulness and tenacity that had for so long characterized the people of Britannia.
            Great Britain had managed to use its navigational heritage to maintain contact with the Indian subcontinent, braving long and perilous sea journeys to secure a source of wealth via trade routes with the exotic east. Thousands of Queen Victoria’s Indian subjects were welcomed into Britain, bringing the finest minds, skilled labourers and military commanders from the farthest reaches of the Empire to London. Eastern food, religion, music and culture became increasingly popular, as the ruling classes of Britain embraced new ideas after being so long cut off from the cultural centres of Europe. The cities swelled with industry, culture and commerce.
Meanwhile, Britain’s greatest scientists, the elite of the prestigious Royal Society, had never stopped their efforts to unlock the secrets of the Aether technology gained from France. It was whispered that the most radical thinkers of London’s intelligentsia had taken to distilling Terrestrial Aether with opiates, in order to expand their minds sufficiently to give them greater insights into the inter-dimensional secrets. Whether this was successful or not, British scientists certainly made great strides into Aether technology, and began to finally develop military devices—Aetheric airships, ocean-going dreadnoughts, and super-charged personal weaponry foremost among their discoveries.
However, due to France’s restrictions on foreign military power decades previously, Britain’s army had become a fragmented organisation. In order to find a way around the sanctions imposed by the Consulate, the Duke of Wellington had disbanded the central command of Her Majesty’s Army, handing control of individual regiments to trusted local commanders. As a result, regiments fell back upon centuries of history and tradition, becoming autonomous fighting units answerable only to the Queen, yet sometimes behaving in the manner of privateers or self-aggrandising guilds whilst fighting for the interests of the Empire. To keep some semblance of order, the Iron Duke elevated the territorial Yeomanry—traditionally a ceremonial force—into a permanent fighting force, which trained in secret to become an elite army. Under the command of the bullish commander in chief, General Sir Colin Campbell, recently returned from fighting in India, the new Royal Elite Yeomanry became a feared strike force. Though primarily used for domestic defence, they were just as often called upon to undertake secret missions in the Empire’s interests, or even to police the more capricious excesses of the great regiments.

Suddenly finding itself the greatest continental power still standing, Prussia set about unifying the remaining German states, cementing bonds that had been set in place by the well-meaning Consulate of Peace. Seeing no profit in retaining their independence, Bavaria and Austria joined the Unified Prussia, and their vast, ponderous standing armies swelled the ranks of King Frederick’s already unwieldy forces. Of the largest nation-states, only Hungary remained independent, solidifying its position as the second most powerful state in Europe.
            King Frederick himself suffered a stroke in 1857, so severe that it should have forced his abdication. However, aided by Aether technology, the Royal surgeons managed to prolong his life, augmenting the king’s frail body with beautifully-wrought mechanical prosthetics of brass and gold. Frederick became increasingly bitter and militant the more his body was changed by subsequent surgeries, and his ministers faced a constant battle to keep him from sending his forces sweeping into Hungary to claim the stubborn state by force. To rein in the king’s excesses, his son—a liberal and staunch supporter of the Consulate’s ideology—used his political guile to make Otto von Bismarck prime minister. Von Bismarck had long proved himself capable of quelling the king’s irrational rages, whilst maintaining cordial relationships with foreign powers.
            Von Bismarck’s first initiative was to divide the Prussian armies into smaller forces, so that they could not easily be deployed en masse against Hungary or anyone else. However, he remained wary of leaving Prussia defenceless, so he ensured that each force was sent on constant manoeuvres on the borders of Prussia, under the control of regional commanders. This directive kept them ever alert and battle-ready, and yet ultimately under the control of the hideously bureaucratic ministry at K√∂nigsberg. The duty of furthering Prussia’s military technology was also given to the regional commands, with military guilds forming to accomplish their assigned tasks. Prussian regiments, therefore, tend to be armed and uniformed as dictated by the innovations and rules of their guild, rather than by the central ministry.
            For all of its wealth and might, however, Prussia was still left comparatively isolated by the Aether catastrophe. To the west of the country lay a vast wasteland, an irradiated steppe where nothing grows and nothing can live. At least, nothing natural. Westphalia and Hanover were abandoned, and beyond them lies what is left of France. To the east, the minor independent states clung to their sovereignty, engaging in petty squabbles with each other, and in effect providing a buffer between United Prussia and the old power of Russia.
            With uncertain foes and fickle friends all around, von Bismarck’s armies set about securing the borders, creating hundreds of miles of defensive lines, unbreachable by foreign aggression, and from whatever perils lurked within the Aether storms.

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