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The Grapple

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The Grapple

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Author: Harry Turtledove
Publisher: Del Rey / Ballantine, 2006
Hodder & Stoughton, 2006
Series: Settling Accounts: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate History (SF)
Alternate/Parallel Universe
Military SF
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It is 1943, the third summer of the new war between the Confederate States of America and the United States, a war that will turn on the deeds of ordinary soldiers, extraordinary heroes, and a colorful cast of spies, politicians, rebels, and everyday citizens. The CSA president, Jake Featherston, seems to have greatly miscalculated the North's resilience. But as new demonic tools of killing are unleashed, secret wars are unfolding. The U.S. government in Philadelphia has proof that the tyrannical Featherston is murdering African Americans by the tens of thousands in a Texas gulag called Determination. And the leaders of both sides know full well that the world's next great power will not be the one with the biggest army but the nation that wins the race against nature and science-and smashes open the power of the atom.



Funereal music poured out of the wireless set on Brigadier General Clarence Potter's desk. For three days, Confederate stations had played nothing but somber tunes and even more somber commentaries praising the courage of the army whose survivors had just surrendered in Pittsburgh.

Potter's mouth twisted. Behind steel-rimmed spectacles, his cold gray eyes flashed. That army should have taken Pittsburgh away from the damnyankees. With their great industrial center gone, the USA should have had to make peace. From everything the Intelligence officer knew, Pittsburgh was a wreck. That would hurt the United States. But the army that should have conquered it was gone, every man a casualty or a prisoner. That would hurt the Confederate States even more.

The latest dirge-tempo march ended. An announcer came on the air. "Courage, self-denial, modesty, and the willingness to make every sacrifice are the highest virtues of the Confederate soldier," he said. "It was not the lust for conquest which caused the Confederacy to take up arms. This war was forced upon us by the destructive aims of our enemies."

Well, what else could the man say? If he came right out and announced that Jake Featherston wanted to go to war long before he became President of the CSA, it wouldn't look good. Potter knew perfectly well that it was true. He also knew that what was true and what made good propaganda often had not even a nodding acquaintance with each other.

"Our soldiers are completely imbued with the importance and the value of the ideas now championed by the Freedom Party," the announcer said. For better and for worse, Potter knew how true that was. The announcer went on, "The Confederate soldier is convinced of them to the very depths of his innermost being, and that is why the Confederate armed forces form an invincible bloc having as its spiritual foundation the sublime ethics of a soldierly tradition. It is, moreover, inspired by belief in its high mission of protecting the Confederate States against the longtime enemy to the north, the enemy who would gladly deny our great nation its very right to exist."

Again, he wasn't wrong. This was the fourth war between the USA and the CSA in the past eighty years. But if the Confederates were so bloody invincible, what went wrong in Pennsylvania? Potter, a confirmed cynic, would think of something like that. Would the average Confederate who was listening? Maybe not.

"We see the most magnificent example of this in the sacrifice of the troops fighting at Pittsburgh," the announcer went on. "That let our armies farther west build up new dams to hold back the raging Yankee torrent and continue to preserve the Confederacy from the annihilating rule of the USA. Cut off from all possibility of receiving reinforcements, surrounded by implacable foes, they fought on with bayonets and entrenching tools after their ammunition was exhausted. Truly their courage and devotion will live forever."

The music swelled once more: yet another sorrowful tune. Potter sighed. Putting a good face on disaster was always hard. He wondered why he kept listening. Knowing what the rest of the country was going through was useful. That had something to do with it. The rest was akin to picking at a scab. The pain held a perverse attraction.

He started a little when the telephone rang. Turning down the music, he picked up the handset. "Potter here." If anybody needed to know what he did, that person had got hold of him by mistake.

"Hello, Potter there." The voice on the other end of the line was a harsh rasp every Confederate citizen recognized at once. "I need you to be Potter here, soon as you can get on over."

"Yes, Mr. President. On my way." Potter hung up. He turned off the wireless. When Jake Featherston said he wanted to see you as soon as you could come, you needed to get to the Gray House in a hurry.

Potter went upstairs. The door by which he came out on the ground floor had something innocuous painted on the frosted-glass window. You would never open it unless you already knew where it led.

Workmen labored to repair bomb damage. The damnyankees hit the War Department as often as they could. More and more of the business here went on underground--how far underground, even Potter wasn't sure any more. The men who bossed the work parties were whites too old or too crippled to help the war effort. Some of the men in the crews were colored, though a lot of Negroes had already been removed from Richmond. More workmen were Mexicans, up from Francisco José's ramshackle empire to find better-paying work in the CSA.

Some offices on the ground floor were still usable. The officers and clerks who worked in them took a sour pride in staying at those battered desks as long as they could. Several men waved to Potter as he walked past. He nodded in return.

All the motorcars outside the War Department were ordinary civilian models. Every so often, U.S. fighters streaked low over Richmond in broad daylight, shooting up whatever they could. No point giving them any special targets. As if at a cab stand, Potter got into the forwardmost auto. "The Gray House," he told the driver.

"Yes, sir." The soldier started the engine and put the Birmingham in gear.

More work crews repaired streets and gas lines and water mains and electric lines and telephone wires and... anything else that could be damaged when bombs fell on it or near it. Hardly any glass windows faced the world these days. Plywood and cardboard covered even the ones the damnyankees hadn't blown to smithereens.

Again, Mexicans did a lot of the work Negroes would have handled before. The Confederate States would be a different country when the war was through. Whites had anxiously watched blacks for much too long. Well, soon there'd be far fewer blacks to need watching. Potter had long opposed the Freedom Party, but he didn't mind its taking a shot at the Negro problem. He didn't know any white man who did.

As he'd expected, the driver had to detour several times before he got to the presidential mansion. Craters made some streets impassable. One block had sawhorses and warning signs all around. danger! unexploded bomb! the signs shouted in big red letters. Maybe the bomb was a dud. Maybe a time fuse ticked inside it. Either way, Potter didn't envy the men who worked to get the ordnance out of there. They were skilled technicians. No matter how skilled they were, their average life expectancy was measured in weeks.

The snouts of sandbagged antiaircraft guns poked up from the Gray House grounds. Not much of the building was left above ground. The damnyankees kept doing their best to level it. They wanted Jake Featherston dead, not only because losing him would take the wind out of the Confederacy's sails, but also because Confederate bombs had killed U.S. President Al Smith.

"Here you are, sir." The driver pulled to a stop in front of the rubble pile.

"Thanks." Clarence Potter got out of the Birmingham. With a clash of gears, it rolled away.

Guards waited in among the wreckage. "Let's see your papers, sir," one of them said.

No one got anywhere in the CSA without proper papers these days. Potter displayed his. Once the guards were satisfied about who he was, one of them used a telephone. That done, he nodded to his pal. Together, they opened a heavy steel trap door.

Potter went down the stairs. They bent several times to foil blast that might penetrate the door above. In due course, he got to another door, this one even thicker. He pressed the button next to it. It swung open from the inside. More guards nodded to him. "Come with us, sir," one of them said.

"I know the drill," Potter said.

They ignored him. He'd figured they would. All of what went on at the Gray House went on underground these days. People who spent a lot of time down there were as pale and pasty as... people who spent a lot of time underground at the War Department. Potter looked at the backs of his own hands, and at the veins clearly visible there. He wasn't a vampire, to whom the sun was death, but he often behaved as if he were.

Lulu, Jake Featherston's longtime secretary, nodded to him. "He'll be with you in a moment, General," he said.

"Thank you, ma'am," Potter answered. You treated Lulu with respect or you were sorry. No one ever talked about the authority secretaries and other such people had, which didn't make it any less real.

The moment stretched to about five minutes. Featherston wasn't in the habit of making people cool their heels just to be sitting. Something had to be going on. And something was. Nathan Bedford Forrest III, the head of the Confederate General Staff, came out of the President's office. He didn't look happy.

He looked even less happy when he saw Potter in the waiting room. Potter wasn't happy to see him, either. They weren't quite conspirators. If it looked as if Jake Featherston was dragging the CSA down to ruin, someone would have to try to dispose of him. If that worked, someone would have to try to run the country afterwards. As far as Potter could see, Nathan Bedford Forrest III made far and away the best candidate.

Forrest wanted the job as much as he wanted another head. That didn't mean he wouldn't try to do it--he had a strong sense of duty. It meant he hoped everything would turn out all right, even though he was the one who'd first wondered whether Jake Featherston was going round the bend.

Did Featherston know about those wary discussions? If he did, would Nathan Bedford Forrest III still be free? Potter didn't think so.

"You can go in now, General," Lulu said.

"Thank you very much," Potter said. From most Confederates, that would have been, Thank you kindly. He'd never lost the more than half-Yankee way of speaking he picked up to fit in while he was at Yale.

"Hello, Potter," Jake Featherston said. The President of the CSA was in his early fifties, tall and rawboned, his close-cropped brown hair going gray. His eyes had dark pouches under them that hadn't been there a few years before. They still blazed, though. If ruthless determination could pull the CSA through, Featherston was the man to give it.

"What's up, sir?" Potter asked, hoping it had nothing to do with Nathan Bedford Forrest III.

"I need you to light a fire under Professor FitzBelmont. I don't care if you promise him prime pussy or promise you'll shoot his kids if he doesn't get his ass in gear, but get him moving. We really need that uranium bomb," Featherston said.

The Confederate uranium program had got off to a slow start because the President didn't believe in it at first. Potter couldn't blame him for that; who in his right mind would have believed it? But when the Confederates learned the United States were going after uranium explosives as hard as they could, they'd had to follow suit.

"If lighting a fire will do anything, I'll do it." Potter wasn't sure it would. Separating U-235 from U-238 was proving fiendishly hard and fiendishly expensive. "They could use more money and more men, too."

"Whatever they need, we'll give it to them," Featherston vowed. "If the damnyankees are ahead of us on this one, we're screwed. If we beat 'em to the punch, we win. Even Pittsburgh won't matter at all. It's about that simple. Or will you tell me I'm wrong?" He glared a challenge at Potter.

"No, sir." Potter meant it. He might despise Jake Featherston the man, but Jake Featherston the leader was dead right here.

Major Jonathan Moss became a flier at the start of the Great War because he thought it would prove a cleaner, more chivalrous way of fighting than the mess on the ground. And he was right--for a while.

After a career as a lawyer in occupied Canada, he came back to flying not long before the new--the greater?--war broke out. With his wife and daughter killed by a Canuck bomber, he threw himself into aviation as much to stay sane as for any other reason. And he got shot down over Virginia and spent a while languishing in the Confederates' Andersonville POW camp. If not for a tornado that flung barbed wire in all directions, he would have been there yet.

Now he was a foot soldier, not because he wanted to be one but because he had no choice. The Negro guerrillas who found him would have killed him if he didn't join their band.

Chickens and chunks of pork roasted over campfires in the pine woods of southwestern Georgia. The white man from whose farm they'd been taken didn't need to worry about his livestock any more. Neither did his family. The USA and the CSA followed the Geneva Convention when they fought each other. The USA and the Mormon rebels in Utah played by the rules, too; the Mormons were, if anything, more scrupulous than their U.S. foes about keeping them. Between black guerrillas and Confederates, rules went out the window. It was war to the knife.

"Smells goddamn good," Captain Nick Cantarella said. The infantry officer, much younger than Moss, had escaped from Andersonville with him. With his knowledge of how to fight on the ground, Cantarella had to be more valuable to the Negroes than Moss was.

"Be ready soon." The black who led the guerrillas called himself Spartacus. He wasn't far from Moss' age. He'd fought for the CSA in the Great War, and reminded Moss of a career noncom in the U.S. Army. Jake Featherston didn't want any Negroes fighting on his side. Spartacus used everything he'd learned fighting for the Confederacy to fight against it now.

After Moss got outside of some hot, greasy pork and a tin cup of chicory-laced coffee, he asked, "What do you aim to do next?" He had no trouble treating Spartacus as his CO, and it wasn't just because the black man could kill him with a word. Like most whites in the USA, Moss hadn't had much to do with Negroes. There weren't many in the United States, and most whites were happy to keep it that way. He'd always thought of Negroes as inferior; he hadn't had much reason to think otherwise. But Spartacus would have commanded respect as a man if he were green with blue polka dots.

Copyright © 2006 by Harry Turtledove


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