AN: The Great War has begun! A quick thank you to Philip Harkin, who provided the new cover image for the story, which he generously offered up as his vision of the Imperial Flag. The old flag, which represented the Northern Sun, will now instead become my profile pic, in honour of the original creator's work and effort. If anyone was curious, the Great War was, for the most part, wargame'd by me and a few other writers (one of which was a former soldier who served during the Cold War) in order to make it as realistic as possible. My thanks go to them for this help. This means that the outcome of major battles and movements have been played out already, so I don't have to make it up as I go. :)
Anywho, I hope you enjoy!
Polish Front, August 20th, 2024…
Field Marshal Eric Speirs was not pleased.
Shifting uncomfortably in his greatcoat, intensely disliking the unseasonably warm weather in this part of Poland, he cast his gaze upon the massive defence works that formed the Imperial line, stretching north and south as far as the eye could see. Tens of thousands of his men were at his command, ready to die for the Empire.
And yet, not a month ago, his line had been two miles further east.
That his men were able to hastily dig new trench lines and set up fortifications of good enough quality was a testament to their skill, to be sure...but to Speirs' mind, greater shame had been earned by his troops for letting the Russians pierce their defences. He knew there were many among his staff who would disagree, and some actually had the courage to tell him as such to his face, but Speirs had not earned renown in three wars for letting his lines break. That was not what he was known for. Everything his armies did, whether pushing forward or falling back, had always been part of a grander plan. Always under either his or Central Command's control.
Not this time.
At first, everything had gone rather well and according to the plan he and the other brass had concocted over a year ago. They had let the Russians have their fun by ceding all three Baltic states, Eastern Poland, Slovakia, and Romania. They had even gone so far as to publicly "buy" the Russian story of security concerns being the reason for the invasion, with the diplomatic scurrying about lodging diplomatic protests.
But then, as they had planned, the Polish government had called for aid, and Imperial forces had immediately burst through the border and occupied what was left unoccupied of Poland. Then, as their Czech allies recognised the magnitude of the threat they were facing, they, too, had called on their alliance with the Empire to seek protection, and Imperial troops had entered Prague by the next day. It took little effort thereafter by Swift to…"convince" the Czech President to thereafter accept total Imperial "protection." It was not the first time Speirs had entertained reservations about Swift's brutal character, but just as before, he had let it slide. However deep he was in Hughes' pocket, Swift was an effective battlefield commander.
Poland, on the other hand, needed no such convincing. With half of their country under Russian occupation, it had taken him very little effort to convince the President, now residing in Wroclaw, to cede control of Polish loyalist forces to the Empire. To him. With the Russians already in control of Lodz and Warsaw, he would've been a fool to refuse.
The problems came after.
To their utter lack of surprise, the Russians had not taken the obvious bait and swarmed Poland to get rid of him. As much as his presence instilled that sort of uncertainty, even the Russians had to know that a pitched battle in the plains would be unwise. Thus, rather than try to kick him out of Poland, they had launched a comparative pittance of a strike. Not enough to really cause much damage, but enough to occupy the Empire's attention.
Long enough for their forces to kick out the Empire from the lower Danube valley after a brief success invading it. If reports from the front were accurate, Swift had been enraged at the loss, blaming everything from the seasons to the rank-and-file for their failure to retake Slovakia and seize the northern Balkans. Everyone knew better, though. Swift had simply been too overconfident.
Not that it matters, Speirs thought as he turned his gaze north.
It was impossible for him to see anything beyond the front line, of course, as well as the surrounding geography, but even then, he knew Hughes' contingency plan was already well underway. Hopefully, it would allow his men to redeem themselves for losing two miles to the enemy.
"Field Marshal, sir!"
Speirs turned and nodded slightly in acknowledgement at the messenger standing behind him. "Speak."
"Message from the south, sir!" the messenger reported dutifully before extending the written message to him.
Speirs took it and carefully read it. His frown deepened.
The Dardanelles had been breached.
He knew it was good news, of course. It meant West had successfully caught the Turks off-guard. However, he had never much liked this aspect of the plan. Many of his fellow officers considered the Turks a side-show to the Russians, but he and Perez-Ruiz had cautioned against taking them lightly. Not that it mattered now — the Turks were now fully in the game, whether they liked it or not.
"Any other news?" he asked gruffly as he returned the message.
The messenger nodded. "Admiral O'Hara reports his fleet has begun besieging Liepāja and successfully landed General Delacour's forces along the Latvian coast."
Speirs nodded. So both naval incursions were proceeding as planned, then. He knew the Russians would be expecting West's attack, but significantly doubted they would predict the Nordic Union would allow an Imperial fleet to use its waters to launch another naval invasion so close to St. Petersburg.
More fool them.
The key, however, were the two fleets awaiting the Imperial Forces. Once the shock of the two-pronged invasion wore off, the Black Sea Fleet would engage West, and the Baltic Fleet would go after O'Hara. Both invasions depended on the two admirals being able to see off their challengers.
West...how he distrusted that woman. No proper soldier ought to relish destruction the way she and Swift did, in his opinion. War was a means, not an end. Yet, that viciousness had served her well in the past, crushing the Sicilian Navy underfoot as though it were a mere annoyance during the Southern Crisis.
O'Hara, on the other hand, was a proper soldier. Rule-abiding, even. Where Speirs could not trust West to follow orders to the letter, Speirs trusted O'Hara to do his duty or die trying. But, unlike West, he was not blooded. This would be his first major engagement, and as much as Speirs was willing to trust him, he also feared for the man, who had until now merely participated in military exercises and wargames.
He shook his head. No. It would not serve him well to entertain doubts. Both West and O'Hara were capable naval commanders, or else they would not have obtained their present rank. Thus far, the Empire's plan had suffered only minor derailments, but everything was still going according to schedule.
So now it was time for him to emulate his colleagues and do his part as well.
He raised his hand to point vaguely towards the Russian defences in the distance. "Begin the bombardment!" he ordered brusquely.
Within seconds, the distant rumble of his super-heavy artillery. Then, a few seconds later, he spotted, then heard the massive explosions in the distance, bursts of fire and earth dotting the horizon briefly before disappearing, only to be replaced by another burst as another shell landed nearby seconds later.
He waited for five minutes as the barrage continued at full intensity. By now, any Russian soldier worth his salt was cowering in the trench, waiting for what they all knew, both Imperial and Russian, was about to happen.
He raised his hand again, knowing the comms specialists behind him were paying attention. "First contingent. Go."
He soon heard war cries from all around him as his forces began their charge. Rather than use his entrenched troops, Speirs had decided that fresh reserves would do the trick here. Unlike the troops in the trenches, these had not been recently hit by the Russians' attack that had forced them from their lines. Their morale was sky-high, still. Coupled with heavy tank support, he knew it would be well within their ability to retake what they had lost.
Speirs heard the warning but refused to budge, as he had once heard his Emperor had done during the Civil War. Instead, he watched disinterestedly as the shell impacted the protective magical barrier that kept his command post safe, allowing him to be so near the front lines without great danger.
"Continue the assault," he said calmly, even as he heard the distant thunder of the enemy artillery. "Double time."
His troops' pace increased as the command was followed, but already he could see casualties where the enemy bombardment had struck true. Many were dead. Some weren't. Before the Great Reveal, that might've meant a lifetime of rehabilitation for the injured. Today, it meant you got a shiny new prosthetic and were sent right back into the fight.
He did not envy them.
He absently took note then that the bombardment had ceased on his camp. Not surprising. Even less when the news reached him.
"Sir! They have begun bombing No-Man's-Land! Our men are in the open!"
"Enemy air force sighted approaching from the east, sir!"
"So they are," he said impassively as he watched hundreds of Imperial soldiers and dozens of tanks charging down the plains towards the enemy. "Inform Commander Prescott to scramble his fighters. Intercept course on the incoming wave."
He nodded to himself, silently calculating that his forces had reached the halfway point. "And inform Admiral O'Hara that it's time."
"Yes, Field Marshal!"
He waited patiently then. He waited even as he saw the Imperial Air Force take to the skies and challenge the Russians for control over the battlefield. He waited as more shells blasted the No-Man's-Land into a cratered wasteland, killing many of his men.
He waited. One beat. Two beats. Three beats.
And then, with all the suddenness of a lightning strike, a powerful roar washed over the field from the east. An enormous plume of fire, earth, and smoke rose behind the Russian lines in the distance. Their artillery fell silent. Speirs smiled grimly. They would not fire again.
"Enemy fighters are withdrawing, sir!" someone shouted at him. "Our forces are reporting that all Russian soldiers are falling back!"
Of course they were. In one blow, he had obliterated their artillery support with a single MAC shot from the Baltic Sea. With that fact in hand, the Russian commander would begin to question whether this was not just some trap he had laid for them, and whether a full wing of Imperial bombers would soon appear from his north-eastern flank.
They would not. O'Hara's aerial component was needed in Latvia. But the Russian didn't know that. As far as their commander was concerned, Speirs was about to make him another victim of Coastal Dawn.
So he would do the only rational thing, and fall back to the steadier position of his original front line — back before he had pushed the Empire out of its own initial positions.
"Continue the advance," he ordered simply, turning from the field of battle. "And prepare to move back into our original lines."
None dared say anything other than brief acknowledgement of his orders.
The Russians had stolen a victory from him. Now, he had repaid them in kind.
They were even.
Riga, Latvian Front, October 20th, 2024…
"Here they come!"
Gabrielle scowled as she put a barrier just before another mortar shell hit her position. The soldiers around her ducked instinctively, but the magic held fast, sparing them from a quick death — if they were lucky. Snarling in challenge, she muttered a quick French spell and flung it back in the Russians' direction, feeling pleased with herself when she heard the explosion and screams.
For days now, the Latvian invasion had stalled. What should have been an easy liberation had quickly turned into a quagmire as the Russian forces virtually flooded the small Baltic country. Resistance fighters that had guided her forces throughout the country had somehow been caught unawares by a major Russian force that had reacted to Gabrielle's invasion quicker than she had thought possible.
An easy victory...turned sour.
Now, half of Latvia was back under Russian control, and she and her forces now held onto a line that cut through the country's capital. Already, she had heard talk from her commanders that they should fall back to the ships. Gabrielle refused. As long as the plan needed her in place, she would hold out.
Though, that was easier said than done.
She turned to acknowledge the unit's comm specialist, who looked pale. "Report from the northern districts! Major Stark's lines have been broken!"
Gabrielle grimaced. That was bad. If she couldn't keep the line firm, then her own central force would be surrounded by a sweeping Russian strike from the north. She turned to look at the Captain in charge of her current position. "Can you hold here?" she asked flatly.
The sandy-haired man nodded. "We will, General. Go."
With a nod, Gabrielle turned back to the comms specialist. "Let them know I'm coming with a dozen Military Mages! Tell Stark to get his line back under control!"
Gabrielle nodded again before Disapparating, reappearing back in her main camp, where the reserves were currently resting before being thrown back into the grinder. If they were lucky, they would've gotten half an hour or an hour's rest. If not, then much, much less. There was simply not enough manpower or time to rotate men on and off the line with any regularity. Such was the business of war.
As she strode through the camp, her eyes searching for her Mage contingent, she smiled and nodded encouragingly at the troops she passed by. Many of them were injured in one way or another — the result of the Russian forces' inexorable march back to the Baltic. She heard many of them whisper "Pucelle" as she passed them, each of them still, somehow, believing reverently in her legend. A legend that was mostly based on the daring rescue of Fireteam Guardian during the Northern-French War, but also based on her exploits during the German War and the Insurrection.
A legend she did not put much stock into herself, though she appreciated the morale effects it had.
She soon found her mages near the comms tent, sitting around an open fire. Gas and power lines in Riga had long since been cut, so fire and heating spells were the only sources of heating left readily available, and the military discouraged liberal use of spells for heating, given the small number of mages available.
So, fire it was.
"Captain Lionel!" she called out, the blue-coated mage jumping to her feet. "I need your ten best field mages, don the double! You have ten minutes to gather them! Meet me at the deployment zone!"
"Yes, sir!" the mage responded at attention before turning to the others. "You heard her! Tremor! Bulldozer! Blaze!—"
The names of the other mages were lost to her as she walked right into the comms tent and found chaos awaiting her. Her other adjutant, a willowy female Captain by the name of Marge Greenfield, was on top of things, but only just. From the ever-evolving tactical display, she could see why: it seemed the chaos of the battle was not just restricted to Stark's quadrant. A lot more of the front lines were buckling under Russian pressure.
"General!" Greenfield greeted her with a stiff salute, which Gabrielle waved away. "Reports from all along the front indicate numerous breaches!"
"I'm aware of the one Major Stark is dealing with," Gabrielle informed her as she walked to the tactical display. "Where else?"
Greenfield pointed. "Colonel Williams says two tank companies have managed to scatter his northern flank near Bauska. Most of our own tank units are further up the line, so they're unlikely to reach them in time. He's pulling back his men to try and deal with them, but we fear it may allow Russian infantry to use the opportunity to sweep up against Lieutenant-Colonel Armitage's southern flank."
Gabrielle nodded. "It would. Tell Williams to stay put and have…" she glanced at the readiness board nearby. "Captain Winters lead Delta company to intercept the tanks."
Greenfield shifted uneasily. "Sorry, sir. Captain Winters and Delta Company have already been sent to assist Captain Meulen's forces in the centre."
Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. So the board was out of date to boot. Fantastic. "Who's available?"
Greenfield checked her datapad. "Captain...Beck."
"Send him," she ordered. "Then get whoever else's company is resting to gear up and get ready to provide assistance if Beck fucks up. I want those tanks out of our lines."
Gabrielle nodded. "Anything else?"
Greenfield nodded. "Admiral O'Hara has reportedly engaged the Russkies' Baltic fleet in several skirmishes. He seems to be gaining the upper hand, too."
Gabrielle sighed in some relief. "That's good. As long as our supply lines are intact, I think we can breathe easier. Still, better safe than sorry. Report back to HQ that we're still being heavily pressured and we need more reinforcements, both naval and terrestrial, and supplies," she ordered as she marched back out of the tent. "And get me Stark's exact location!"
Gabrielle jogged to the deployment zone, pleased to see that her unit of military mages was waiting as ordered. As soon as Lionel spotted her, the mage snapped to attention, the rest of the unit following suit promptly. She returned their salute in her stride before coming to a halt in their midst, allowing them to encircle her.
"Listen up!" she barked. "Major Stark's quadrant is about to collapse under Russkie pressure! Our job is to provide relief and push them back long enough for Stark to reform his unit! Understood?!"
Gabrielle nodded before turning to Lionel. "Captain, deploy your mages as you see fit for maximum damage to the enemy. I will be providing assistance as I can."
She looked back at the men and women surrounding her and smiled grimly. "We cannot let Riga fall."
"Prepare for deployment!"
The scenery around her blurred out of existence as she felt her whole being stretch out like she was being forced through a straw. One never really got "used" to Apparating, though learning to deal with the discomfort was pretty much par for the course. The moment she and the other mages arrived on the battlefield, she immediately put up a shield, as did the others. One of them, regrettably, was a fraction of a second too slow, and was killed the moment he reappeared from a gunshot wound to the head.
None of the mages paid it much attention. After the first few times, you learned to put it out of your mind.
"Go!" she ordered. Immediately, the mages dispersed, Lionel shouting orders at them through their shared earbuds. For her part, Gabrielle knew she had to seek out Stark and kick his ass into shape. None of what her mages were doing would mean a damn thing if he didn't first get his act together.
But first, some cover. Looking around her, she noticed a severely damaged shop nearby and ran towards it, all the while keeping her shield up as she heard not-so-distant gunfire and explosions from all sides. As she hopped into the shop through the ruined vitrine and took cover behind the display stand, she peered out to better assess the situation.
The neighbourhood was in complete ruins. She couldn't really make out a single building that hadn't been bombed to hell. She even spotted a nearby park where, once, she imagined families had enjoyed spending the afternoon together — now, a bombed out, cratered ruin.
She tapped her earbud, keyed into the comms center's frequency, where she knew her adjutant would be waiting for her orders. "This is General Delacour to all Imperial units in the vicinity. I need a location on Major Stark. Over."
She had to wait a few seconds before she got an answer. "General, Major Stark's last reported location is located two hundred meters to the north."
Gabrielle nodded to herself, though she noted the conspicuous absence of Imperial troops in her vicinity. Reporting as much, the response she got back was not at all encouraging. Apparently, she and her mages had appeared behind enemy lines. The Russians had already cleared this area of Imperial troops and were pushing them back further.
The line was well and truly buckling.
"Understood. General Delacour out," she said before changing her earbud frequency to that of Captain Lionel. "Lionel. Our DZ is already overrun. I need you to circle back with a few of your mages and retake this area."
"Understood, General. We're on our way."
Nodding, Gabrielle glanced up at the ruined ceiling and spotted a better location a few stories above her. In a blink of an eye, she Apparated onto the ruined roof, standing precariously on the few slabs of concrete that had held together. Squinting north, she tried to catch sight of Stark's base camp, but the surrounding ruins made that impossible. Sighing, she drew her wand and placed it on her palm.
"Point me Major Stark."
She watched as her wand shifted a little to the left and frowned. There was black smoke coming from that area. Behind her, an explosion caught her attention, before noticing the Apparating and Disapparating figures of her mages, popping in and out of existence all over the place as they harassed and attacked the enemy.
Putting them aside, she turned back towards where she now knew Stark was located. Catching sight of another good vantage point, she quickly Apparated there, putting up a shield as she reappeared. Good thing, too, because a sniper bullet would've hit her head had she not.
Scowling, she sent back a blasting hex in the general direction of the fired shot. While the explosion was satisfying, the lack of screams was not. She'd missed. It happens.
As she scanned the area for Stark, she finally caught sight of the camp. It was in bad shape, to say the least. There were scattered dead all over the place, and the soldiers manning the perimeter looked exhausted. Few of the camp's fixed positions seemed intact, either, and those that were looked like they needed a few dozen Reparo's to get them up to scratch.
And, in the middle of the chaos of the battered base was Major Stark, bellowing orders and directing his tired troops every which way. Like his troops, the man was haggard and tired, and despite his overt bravery, she spied the tell-tale signs of a man about to call a retreat. It was all over his body language.
Well, she couldn't let that happen.
Again, she Disapparated from her vantage point and Apparated practically on top of Stark, who jumped in surprise. A raised hand prevented some of the jumpier soldiers from opening fire on her.
"Major Stark," she greeted calmly.
She ignored the whispers and exclamations around her, focusing instead on the Major. Like his men, he showed relief at her presence, but it was cautious — a little sceptical, too. He did not believe this fight could be won. She knew the feeling.
"General Delacour," he greeted her back with a tired salute. "Thank you for responding to our call for aid."
She nodded. "Major, I've brought ten Military Mages who are currently retaking lost positions. Please inform your men to assist them in their push," she ordered.
To her surprise, he gave her a bitter laugh. "What men, General?" he asked flatly. "All the men I have left are the ones you see here or the ones running from the Russians! My company has been decimated!"
Gabrielle's eyes widened a fraction in surprise. She had not been aware of the severity of the situation. "Why didn't you report this?!" she demanded. "Had I known things were this bad, I would've brought another company to reinforce you!"
The Major shook his head. "Unfortunately, we were not able to tally our losses until after the enemy assault ended," he explained before rubbing his eyes. "And I still haven't heard anything from two platoons that were routed."
Gabrielle stared at the man. This was not good. This was indicative of a major breach in their lines. Once the Russians figured that out, they would draw their troops from more stubborn defence points and pour everything they could into this one area in an attempt to push through, isolate units along the line, and swerve back to flank them from the rear.
She could not let that happen.
The decision was obvious.
"Fuck," she hissed before keying her earbud back to the comms centre frequency. "Greenfield!" she snapped. "Stark's position is lost. Is there anyone we can call up to fill in the gap?"
There was a pause before her aide's weary voice answered her. "Negative, General. All forces on the board are in the field. We're being spread thin."
Aye, they were. That was the entire problem, wasn't it? For all their tech and the help of the local resistance forces, they had picked a fight in Russia's own backyard, and were suffering for it. Again, the decision was obvious.
"Fall back," she ordered grimly, ignoring Stark's sharp hiss. "All forces. Fall back to the Jūrmala-Jelgava line, and have reserve troops prepare another fallback position at Dobele."
"We're abandoning Riga, sir?"
She looked at Stark and the battered remaining troops of his company. These men were in no condition to fight here any longer. "Aye. Abandon Riga. We're done here."
Vienna, Imperial Command Centre, December 10th, 2024…
"All of it?" asked Neville grimly.
"All of it," Gabrielle's hologram reported just as grimly. Even in the blue hue of the holographic projection, she looked weary and defeated. "They caught O'Hara out in the open. There was little he could do."
Neville nodded. "I know. How did you get out?"
"A few of the transport ships made it to the coast. Loaded up as many as I could before the blockade set in, but..." Gabrielle's image looked away. "...it's not good, Neville."
Neville closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "How many?"
"At least five thousand."
Neville's hands tightened into fists atop the projection table. Similarly, others in attendance appeared horrified at the news. Five thousand men had been captured by the Russians on the beaches of Latvia, unable to get out in time. All because they had been outplayed significantly.
At first, everyone had been convinced that the plan to force the Russians to scramble to protect both Crimea and the Baltic had been successful. Despite the sudden onslaught from Russian forces into Latvia, O'Hara had beaten back the Russian Baltic Fleet, which would've opened the way for the Empire to set up a supply line for Gabrielle's troops. Unfortunately, they had been tricked by a few easy victories.
Seemingly out of nowhere, just as Gabrielle's forces had been holding off the Russians at Jelgava, the Russian Northern Fleet had shown up, trapping O'Hara's ships between two hostile naval forces. The Nordic Union claimed they had no idea where the ships came from and insisted they had not given permission for the Russians to sail their territorial waters — claims that were deemed to be truthful. Rather, what the mages theorised, and Neville agreed, was that someone in Russian Naval Command had found a way to successfully carve runes into the ships that would turn their ships invisible, allowing them to sail undetected.
Fortunately, for everyone's peace of mind, this was not exactly a repeatable thing. The mage theorists back in Fort Drake claimed that the runes, lacking a magical source to keep it running, would run out of power rather quickly, considering the size and mass of the ships they were hiding from view. This implied the presence of a battery-like runic array, which would need manual refilling at either an FCE storage facility or by Hammer Corps mages. And since they knew the nearest such facility was at Arkhangelsk and Moscow, they were relatively sure that the Northern Fleet would not be in any position to do this again in the near future.
Even so, Neville made it a point to remember to order a bombing mission to the city, if only to relieve themselves of this worry.
"Have you linked up with Speirs yet?" he asked.
Gabrielle nodded. "We're setting up defences along the coast and manning them. Without O'Hara…"
"...the coast is vulnerable, yeah. Alright. We'll talk later. Longbottom out."
Gabrielle nodded before tapping something out of sight, prompting her hologram to turn off. The room lights brightened as the holo-conference ended. He sighed heavily at the news. It was, quite simply, a catastrophe.
"O'Hara lost, and West trapped in the Black Sea," one of the officers present muttered. "Both attacks failed. We're on the back foot, now."
Neville was tempted to agree. Their plan to gain an early advantage and ride that momentum to Moscow had been blown to smithereens. With winter setting in, it would also mean a slowdown in operations in Poland on their end, but not from the Russians. The cold would also hinder their ability to operate in the Balkans, which — again — the Russians would not mind.
And then there was Greece. Initial successes had soon been met with a counterattack that had led to Turkish occupation of the northern provinces, with Turkish forces figuratively a stone's throw away from Athens, even as further divisions were reportedly marching through Hungary despite the neutral country's protests. He'd already fielded several calls from concerned Greek officials who were all but screaming at him to send reinforcements.
Reinforcements he could not send because of the mass of neutral countries between Austria and Greece that simply refused to pick a side. As well as a stranded fleet in the Black Sea.
He was beginning to think that maybe Hughes had a point.
"Alright," he spoke up at last, straightening up. "Plan A has failed. We're moving to Contingency Plan B."
"Plan B, sir?" asked one of the officers.
Neville nodded. "Order all marching forces to stand down and withdraw to their defensive positions. Make sure they understand they must hunker down and fortify their positions as best as they can. I want our lines to be like the Great fucking Wall of China. Understood?"
"We're ceding the Balkans, sir?"
Neville nodded grimly. "There is no other choice. We do not have the forces to push south towards Greece and maintain occupation forces in these states. For the moment, we must recover from our losses and maintain what we have. Once spring comes around, we'll have a better chance at pushing the Russians back."
He didn't like the looks of scepticism his men were giving him, but they all complied with his orders anyway, dispersing and leaving him be at the projection table.
Neville sighed and raised his head. "Go ahead, Monroe."
The AI fizzled into existence above its projection port. "General, I have a report from Admiral West. Shall I patch her through?"
Neville was tempted to say no; he didn't think he could handle much more bad news. Even so, he knew he had to, so he nodded. "Go ahead."
Monroe's hologram faded away as the main projector turned on, dimming the room lights again. This time, instead of his beloved Gabrielle, he was graced with the holographic image of the second most sociopathic person he had the displeasure to serve with.
"West," he greeted curtly.
"I'm told you have a report on your situation?" he pressed.
She nodded. "Aye. I figured you'd want to know that the Black Sea Fleet is no more."
Neville blinked. Then the words filtered through. "No more? As in, fled?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Gone as in sunk. All of it."
The declaration floored him — and the rest of the room as well, judging from the gasps and deathly silence.
"You sank the entire Black Sea Fleet?" he asked skeptically once he recovered. It was a legitimate thing to ask: the Russian Black Sea Fleet was its third largest fleet. By contrast, the Empire had sent more to fight in the Baltic than it did in the Black Sea, giving West a numerical inferiority over her opponent.
"Aye," she confirmed, now grinning. "Lured the fuckers near the coast just before a storm hit. Then I sank every last one of his ships while they were desperately trying not to run aground. Then I bombed the coast to make sure none of the life rafts made it back."
Neville had to give it to her — that was an impressive feat, reminiscent of the Battle of Quiberon Bay. Yet, it had also been reckless and foolhardy. At the best of times, storms were understandably avoided by ships both military and not given the danger they posed. At the worst of times, like during winter storms, navies actively avoided the storms — particularly if their route cut close to the shore.
But he could not afford to dwell on such matters. "Sevastopol?" he asked.
He did not like the grin she shot him. Even dulled by the holographic blue hue, it was cruel and vengeful.
"Already being turned to dust and ashes. The Russians will never field a fleet in the Black Sea ever again."
He frowned at her. That hadn't been the plan. Rather, she was to take the port and begin a landing there, to split the Russians' attention between Latvia and Crimea. He stopped himself from criticising her, however; in truth, her decision to lay waste to the port was probably the better one considering their current situation. With Latvia lost once more to the Russians and their Baltic fleet sunk, the Empire could not afford to maintain a single-pronged invasion into Russia's heartland through the Black Sea. Particularly with the Turks back in control of the Dardanelles.
"Alright," he acknowledged, much to her surprise he was sure. "Once you finish enjoying yourself, make your way back to the Dardanelles. We need to retake control over it if you want to be resupplied sometime this year."
West nodded. "Understood."
Neville nodded back. "Report back when you've regained control of the situation. HQ, out."
The hologram dissipated, allowing the room's lights to brighten once more. He turned to the comms officer. "Send a message to the Greeks that reinforcements may be coming soon," he ordered. "But don't promise them anything. Depending on circumstances, we may arrive too late to help."
Neville then turned back to the display table. "Monroe, bring up the campaign map."
"At once, General."
Immediately, the 3D, holographic rendering of Eastern Europe flared into life, with unit icons adjusting positions in real-time relative to the intelligence they were acquiring. As expected, given the current news, the East was more or less firmly in Russia's hands. Based on their theoretical wargames, he expected them to follow-up this victory in Latvia with a solid push down into the Balkans — possibly attempting to either circumvent their fortress on the outskirts of Vienna, or push into Italy proper through Slovenia. Fortunately, the only two effective passes into Italy were well fortified to counter that very threat, both physically and magically.
The word made Neville think back to Gabrielle's report. Part of the reason the Latvian advance had stalled, then pushed back had been the Empire's inability to reinforce the troops there. They had planned to use mass portkeys from the coast of Poland, but found their passage inexplicably blocked. It wasn't until after the entire venture had collapsed that they had realised why.
The Russians had invented, and deployed, anti-Apparation/Portkey ships. Submarines, more specifically. Using a derivation of the arrays that prevented cross-border Apparation and Portkey use, they had somehow managed to create interdictor ships that prevented the Empire from simply mass Apparating the troops into Latvia.
And here he'd thought the Empire had a monopoly on brainiacs.
Fortunately, the Vanguard Floo-transportation platforms were too far inland, or well within the Empire's protective perimeter, to remain unaffected, or else they'd be really screwed — and that was assuming the interdictor ships could even stop them from working. Not that they were willing to take that risk.
"Also, put out an order to sink-on-sight for any of the interdictor ships our spies spotted in the Baltic," he said aloud. "I don't want a single one of them left floating!"
He turned back to the map. "Monroe. Show me the predicted layout of for Plan B," he ordered.
"At once, General."
Immediately, the real-time positions switched with those their wargames had predicted would most likely happen in the event that the Latvian and Crimean invasions failed, leading to the Russian conquest of the Balkans. The pale yellow blob that represented the Russian occupied territories enlarged suitably, practically surrounding their eastern front in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"So it'll be like Hughes said," he muttered. "Fuck."
Liverpool, European Empire, January 25th, 2025…
"With winter at its height, we're unlikely to see much more movement from the Russians in the Balkans until the storms cool down."
Harry nodded. "Even so, from what I've seen, we've basically surrendered all of Eastern Europe by this point," he observed as the map was projected before only part of the Cabinet. Regrettably, neither Warwick nor Lynne were present, being still in the American Republic.
"Not all," Elicia pointed out softly from her seat beside his at the head of the table. "It would appear we have not yet abandoned the southernmost Balkan states yet."
Harry grinned at the none-too-subtle cutting remark from his Empress. They still barely spoke to one another — using busy agendas as a convenient excuse — but she was still a delight to hear when she was in one of her sarcastic moods. It reminded him of their initial courtship in at Liverpool College.
Neville, however, was unfazed — not that Harry expected anything less from the Empress' most loyal servant. Even after the abject failure of the Latvian expedition, and the setback in Crimea and Poland, Neville had maintained a calm and serious approach in trying to pick up the pieces. To that end, Speirs had fixed the Polish fumble by pushing the lines back to their original point, and West had managed to blast apart the third largest Russian fleet in a wholly one-sided engagement.
The problem was that, for all that, they were essentially losing the war.
"Unfortunate, but necessary, Your Majesty," Neville replied calmly.
"Necessary?" asked one of the Ministers. "You call abandoning millions to the Russians necessary?!"
Neville nodded. "I do, Minister," he said flatly. "This is not a scenario we preferred, but it is one we explored. Had we proceeded with our own invasion of the Balkans, to take place in tandem with the Russian one, our forces would've been marching through mostly pro-Russian territories. Our best estimates suggested that between the occupation armies needed and the size of an effective force to fight it out with the Russians, we would've had to mobilise roughly a million men at least."
The reaction of the room was complete silence as they processed that fact. Harry, for his part, found the whole thing amusingly familiar: it was not unlike the discussions he'd heard had taken place during the Anglo-Spanish War, when the politicians back then had also questioned every move the military had chosen to make.
"Then what's the next move?" he asked simply, choosing not to let these politicians derail the meeting.
"It should be obvious," one of the ministers spoke up. "We prepare for spring and then move to liberate these nations."
"By which point our enemies will have reinforced every one of their positions, no?" Elicia countered.
Neville inclined his head. "Correct, Your Majesty."
"What about our POWs in Russia?" asked another minister. "Have we made any progress in getting them freed?"
"Last we heard, the Russians aren't willing to negotiate, but they aren't exactly mistreating our men. There does seem to be some decorum."
"At least there's that."
Harry ignored the conversation and focused his attention on Neville and the map. "If not the Balkans, then where?" he asked. He had an idea, of course, but he wanted to see if Neville was willing to confirm it.
He was not. "I'm afraid the details of that operation are classified, Your Majesty, for security reasons," he replied calmly.
The predictable sputter of outraged politicians came swiftly, and not for the first time, Harry wished Sirius had not abdicated the leadership of his party so easily. Had it been him here, and not the far less impressive Humbert Johnson and his second-rate war cabinet, he could've just had Neville say it. As it was, discretion really was the better option.
Thus, he cut off any loud protests before they came with a raised hand. "Understood," he said simply. "May I ask for a confidential briefing after this meeting, then?"
Neville inclined his head. "As you command, Your Majesty."
Harry nodded, and then felt someone squeeze his hand. Glancing to his wife, he noticed Elicia's gaze was fixed on Neville, but another squeeze and the ever-so-slight stiffening of her posture let him know all he needed to know. She wanted to be there, too.
Well, that was fine. Though...curious. She had never before shown any real interest in the strategic aspect of war, preferring much more to be in her lab tinkering or touring Europe to raise goodwill towards the monarchy. A less jaded man would've simply welcomed her interest in something he personally enjoyed.
He was not such a man.
Fortunately, the rest of the briefing went by without many more interruptions, most of which were based on logistics and the army's need for additional equipment and supplies — all of which were sore points for the Treasury, particularly.
Once they were dismissed, however, he motioned for Neville to leave for a moment before grasping at his wife's wrist. She turned to look at him calmly as he fixed her with an intrigued smile. Still, he waited for Neville to close the door before asking the burning question.
"You never stay for strategy briefings," he noted. "Why the sudden interest?"
She returned his stare with a hard one of her own. "If I've learned anything from the past few wars we've been in, Harry, it's that the plans you come up with, or that Hughes comes up with, always makes pawns of us all," she observed shrewdly. "If I am to be a piece this time, I will know what my role is. I will not be caught helpless this time around."
Harry stared at her silently for a moment before letting go of her wrist. He turned to look at the door and raised his good hand to cast an Alohomora at the door. But before he did, he paused for a second.
He turned to her, an idea germinating in his mind. "Then, does this mean I can rely on you to secure our victory?"
Elicia's gaze was iron as she nodded. "The sooner we end this wretched conflict, the longer I can spend with Katie helping her get over the mess you've caused," she said icily.
Harry let that slide, if only because it was partly true. "Alright. Then I need to ask you for a favour."
"What do you want me to do?"
He smiled. "What you do best."