AN: Hello everyone. This here is my first serious writing project. Even though it's set in 1898 (and future stories of this saga will be set in the 1920s/30s) it doesn't really fit into Historical fiction as will soon become apparent. It's a homage to all the pulpy adventure stories I've read and like so much, and this is what this is, Alternate History/Dieselpunk. So, what to expect? Airships, conspiracies and lots of action-adventure.
English is my second language, so please be kind. Comments are welcome, as is constructive criticism. Flame reviews are ignored. The action won't really start until the third Chapter, so please hang in there, in case anyone is reading this. I hope this all fits in "no non-historical characters", but none of the real-world characters I use will be contemporary.
16th July 1898, Wilhelmshaven
As was usual when Kaiserwetter was over the grounds around the city and the German Empire's primary Naval Base was dominated by uniforms and yet, one of them was standing out by it's very nature and colour. It was neither the Field Grey of the Army (and it's semi-autonomous Bavarian, Saxon and Württemberger parts) nor the blue of the Imperial Navy. The figure so intently conversing with a civilian wore the scarlet coat of a British Army Dress uniform.
Major Sir Richard Thorngrave VC CB KCIE KCVO, late of The Yorkshire Fusiliers and now His Majesty's personal representative at the German Summer Exercises of the year. What he as an Infantryman was supposed to learn while observing German ships of the line moving about. The civilian he was talking to was, if not a fellow Englishman, at least a Scot by birth. Officially a member of the British Embassy in Berlin the man he only knew as 'Charles' was probably one of the army of spies that various agencies of the British Government employed all over the world.
Richard on the other hand was every inch the soldier. At near six foot he towered over most of his compatriots and was built with an Infantryman's physique. Short, raven black hair framed a strongly carved face that, while only few would characterize it as classically handsome, was still turning faces on occasion. His ice-grey eyes always recorded everything that came within their field of vision and were sharp enough to make him the Regiment's best marksman.
When they heard the roar of engines above them they could see the Kaiser's newest toy lazily flying overhead to join the Battlefleet that was now displaying itself for the pleasure of the onlookers. The Civillian excused himself and Richard merely craned his neck and stared at the massive shape, bored and contemplating going back to the hotel where Sibalai, his batman and companion of a great many ad was preparing their next move.
"Fascinating, is it not?" a voice with a slight accent asked. As Richard turned he saw that the speaker was a woman. She was of more average height than Richard. Her face was classically beautiful and her blonde hair was tucked back in one of the fashionable hairstyles of the day it, all that with the figure to match that was disguised under a dress as fashionable as the hair.
Richard tried to place her, he had seen her somewhere before, though this was his first official visit to Germany. She had spoken almost perfect English so she was probably of a relatively high station, at the very least the daughter or wife of some rich industrialist, merchant or banker.
He looked away from this intriguing woman and instead looked up to where the Airship was now crossing the nearby coastline, with the Iron Cross prominently displayed.
"It is, Ma'am." Richard replied. "But I seem to have forgotten my manners. Richard Thorngrave VC."
For some reason he chose to omit his knighthood. Her reply caught him off guard.
"Oh, you must be a very brave man. Papa tells me the Victoria Cross is your country's highest award for valour, equal to our Iron Cross." she said with laughter displayed on both her face and in her eyes.
So her father, and seemingly also herself were persons of a good education. Something else to file away.
"I dislike bragging, Ma'am. I did my duty for my late Queen as best I understood."
"Oh come now Major. The Iron Cross is not awarded easily, and I suppose neither is the Victoria Cross."
She smiled again and went on: "But I don't really have a stomach for War Stories. Papa fought in the war against the Unification War against the French, but other than that I know nothing of what he did there."
"So what brings you here then to this still rather martial outing, if I may be so bold."
She gave a curt nod, indicating that he was allowed being so bold. "It is frankly the social gathering of the year. Papa and I.. we do not enjoy it as much as...others but..."
Richard nodded in acknowledgement and looked around.
"Not everyone is a soldier at heart I suppose." he said. There had to be a way to extract information from this woman. He doubted that it was a coincidence she had sought him out and he would find out why.
She tilted her head and grinned. "Papa has it worse. He has to be on the stand with His Imperial Majesty and all the other dignitaries."
Richard almost failed to hide his surprise. If her father was high enough in German society to warrant being included in the Kaiser's entourage on occasion...
"Oh my, how could I have forgotten my own manners like this!" she exclaimed and with a slight blush finally introduced herself.
"My name is Ilsa Baroness Hohenberg."
Now Richard couldn't help but show his surprise. This was very highly placed. In fact her father was a confidant of Kaiser Wilhelm II and many within the Foreign Office excepted him to be some figure of authority in the next German Government once von Caprivi left Office next year. No wonder her face had seemed familiar, she did look a lot like her father when he had been younger.
This could also mean all manner of things. Had he been made? Were the Germans, or a faction within the Imperial Government trying to reach out to Britain? It could also be perfectly innocent.
'Of course, and I am the next Union President." Richard thought. He pulled his thoughts together. Either way this had to be played carefully.
"Charmed." he said and gave a small, curt bow. "I..."
They were interrupted when the small gathering of assorted persons in the small grass area was called towards the shore where the Kaiser and his entourage would now inspect the fleet.
"Well, time to do one's duty for King and Country." Richard said and was surprised when she let out a laugh that reminder Richard of his own sister. He smiled at her and then bowed again.
"May I escort you to the review stand, Baroness?"
She smiled again and nodded. "You may, Major."
The stand was located near the beach and even as they approached they could see that it was filled to the gills. Even from behind Richard instantly recognized the figure that was Kaiser Wilhelm II. Fitting for this day he was wearing an Admiral's uniform of the German Imperial Navy. At sea the fleet looked impressive though Richard doubted that they would be able to stand up to the Grand Fleet should the Royal Navy ever desire to blockade this port.
The Baroness had excused herself to stand with the other dependants of those on the platform and Richard studied her from afar instead of watching the fleet. He'd known everything he had needed to know about that even before he had left his Regimental barracks on this particular errand and that was what probably led to a lot of what happened in the next six hours.
Had he been not so distracted by the...scenery he would have noticed how the three men approached him, one pulled a small gun and rammed it into his ribs. This last part he did notice though. A man so close that Richard felt his breath whispered in German: "Now Major, if you want to live you do not move unless I tell you. You do as I say and come with us without resistance and I will not shoot you. And in case you do try something, all my men are armed as well."
Richard could do nothing but do as he was told. There were far too many people around to risk a gunfight even if he had been armed. But both his revolver and his rifle were back at the hotel...
As he was led away he didn't notice how the Baroness was watching what happened to him. Nor did he notice how when he was led past the clump of trees that surrounded a small, disused observatory a man in a uniform not unlike his own, with a rifle that looked like the one he had before he had started modifying it.
When they stopped he did hear the shot. By force of habit his head whipped around but before he could say anything he felt a blow and the world went dark.
He awoke when a bucket of water was thrown in his face. He was blindfolded and tied to a chair.
"You are with us again, Herr Major." a voice said in German. Richard understood the language but decided that it was best to disguise that fact. When he made a face of non-understanding the unseen man chuckled.
"Now now Mr. Thorngrave. We know you speak German as fluently as I do. We have taken our time and assembled quite a bit of information about you."
When Richard still wouldn't reply the man spoke again.
"Major Sir Richard Thorngrave VC CB KCIE KCVO, late of The Yorkshire Fusiliers but for the last several years mostly 'seconded to other duties' as it were. Tell me, when did you earn that VC? Was it when you saved the Viceroy of India's life or when you fought in the Tirah Expedition? Either way, your father the General must have been proud."
They obviously had good information on him, devilishly good in fact. Since there was no point in keeping quiet...
"I wager you know that already." Richard said in German.
"Even if we did, it wouldn't matter. Now, there are two ways we can do this. Either you resist, and we kill you right now and slowly or you do as we say and you might even live if you are very, very lucky."
"That's not much of a choice, isn't it?"
"Probably not. But then, for the man that has assassinated the Kaiser nothing more can be expected."
Richard would have fallen off his chair from the surprise and the shock had he not been tied to it.
"Are you bleedin' mental?" he yelled at the unseen voice.
"Well, for all the authorities know, you have been seen entering the point from where the sniper has fired, you are known to carry a .303 calibre rifle wherever you go and plainly only someone blind, deaf and stupid could not have seen you running across the open space from the tower towards the city, what with your red coat."
So he was to be framed for this. Would they hand him over to the police? Would they shoot him outright? And what would happen to Sibalai and himself if they decided against killing him?
"For the moment however we have other things to do. Unless you do something stupid you will be left alone, Major."
Once he heard a door click closed he began to evaluate his options. On one hand he couldn't set himself free easily. They had tied his arms together behind his back with rope that felt as if it were too strong to split apart with brute force and the chair itself seemed to be nailed down. Escaping from this room wouldn't be possible especially when the villains could return any second. So, there only remained playing along and seizing any opportunity that might or might not present itself.
Deciding to survive to fight another day turned out to be a good idea as the voice was back within minutes, and this time he had brought a friend.
Unlike the first, the second voice was deep and far more ruthless, as far as Richard could tell, but something about it was familiar.
"Have you decided, Engländer?"
Richard took a deep breath, an inaudible sigh and then replied: "What's there to decide old chap? Of course I will do what you want."
'And as soon as I can I will bloody well kick your nose through the back of your head.' he thought. Instantly someone walked to the back of the chair.
"Major, I will cut your restraints. Though do not get any funny ideas, there are several guns aimed at you."
However fortune smiled on Mrs. Thorngraves only son. When Deep Voice leaned down to cut the ropes that tied his arms and legs to the chair he inadvertently moved the blindfold and thanks to that Richard now had a tiny, tiny sliver of sight along the tip of his nose. He could see little more than where his feet were placed but the ground gave enough clues on it's own.
It consisted of ordinary red brickwork as was common in northern Germany and judging by the temperature in combination with this Richard surmised that he was in the cellar of a building of some sort.
He was stood to his feet and led up a flight of narrow stairs and through a house with rough wooden panels on the floor. Once outside on a path laid out with grey-ish pebbles they stopped.
"Just stay still, Major." Deep Voice said and as they stood and waited Richard could hear an engine slowly coming towards them. That told him something too, as it spoke of preparation and money behind this whole bloody mess. Automobiles were far less rare than they had been when he had last been to Germany three years ago but they weren't exactly common either. If the goons had one at their beck and call then they were supported by someone with a very deep purse.
Once in the back of the automobile they removed the blindfold. After he blinked to adjust his eyes to the sudden influx of light he quickly noticed that the windows of the rear cabin were blacked out and that the people in the cabin with him were wearing masks. They didn't leave anything to chance then.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"You will find out when we get there, Major."
For the next hour he said nothing as there was no point. Considering how these people worked and how they seemed to have thought of almost everything they would most certainly tell these goons only what they needed to know.
When they stopped and he was bundled out of the cabin he found that they were near Wilhelmshaven, according to a sign beside the road, two kilometres from the city limits. The sky was darkening, but judging by the light that was still there it was no more than about eight to half past.
The men covered him with their guns while deep voice cut the last restraints.
"Now since you co-operated you get to live some more. In case you want to know why we didn't hand you in, it serves our purposes more if you are on the run for a few days."
"Who is we?" Richard asked and massaged his wrists to get the blood flowing again.
"Not that it's any of your concern." Deep Voice said in reply, "but let us just say that the people that pay me have an interest in the larger picture. You have played your role well and the longer you fail to be caught by the German authorities the longer and better you play your role. The Cerberus Society will be thankful."
He gestured down the road towards where the city was. "Now, get moving and do not look back."
Thus released, Richard began to quickly walk down the road towards the city. As soon as he was around the next bend in the road he left the road into the bushes. He took off his dirty and soiled uniform coat and turned it inside out before wrapping it into a ball to tuck under his arm. He knew he would need new clothes. Even inside-out the red coat was ridiculously obvious and even though he took pride in wearing it, not particularly comfortable.
Right now the priority was to track down Sibalai. If the Gurkha Havildar was still free then he would not only have by now figured out that something was very, very wrong but he would also have Richard's rifle, revolver and other basic necessities with him, wherever he was.
If he was to be on the run in Germany then by god he would not be unarmed. Whoever these people were, and Richard made a mental note to go over what he knew once he had a moment where he wasn't hunted and unarmed at the same time, they had clearly done their homework because even as he watched from where he was hiding himself he saw several automobiles laden with police officers race past. Apparently someone had told them that the man who had killed the Kaiser was on this road. Luckily for them they had nothing on a trained, veteran Infantryman who had evaded pursuers far more dangerous and skilled than the average plodder in either Britain or Germany.
Because of this difference and because it was pitch dark by the time he reached there it was no surprise that he managed to sneak into the city. It was small, existing only because of the command of the late Kaiser and because he had needed a base for his Navy but even so it had a large enough population for one person to disappear. Richard knew that it was easier for him than for Sibalai. The Gurkha wasn't a black haired white man by any stretch of the imagination. If he had managed to avoid arrest, something that Richard considered more than likely, without having to kill someone then there remained the problem of linking up with him.
Luckily this wasn't the first time they had been forcibly separated and they would find each other.
One of his problems, that of clothing, solved itself when he managed to steal a jacket from a forgotten clothes line in a garden. He still didn't feel comfortable with going on the streets where all the lights and plods were.
It took him almost an hour to reach the hotel, and sure enough, it was watched and guarded by police and the window of their rooms was dark. Richard knew he was in luck that it was the normal police and not the military because there was a good chance that they had failed to stake out the back door. He walked back for a block and then dashed across the street in between two lamps.
As he approached the hotel from the rear he saw that there were no sentry there. He smiled to himself in satisfaction and as he inspected the door he found that it was locked. He thanked the gods of chance that he was never going anywhere without his lockpick and that the Cerberus people hadn't stripped him of all his belongings. They were certainly among the odder captors he had experienced.
The lock yielded quickly and he stepped inside. He was greeted by darkness and silence.
It seemed that the Police had made the occupants vacate the premises so there was a chance they had taken all his belongings but...
He was in luck once again, his things were all still there but Sibalai wasn't.
Luckily there was evidence that his friend and companion had managed to leg it before the police had arrived. The first he found was that when he reached for the small table beside the door he found his torch. It was a novelty item he had bought out of his own pocket and for a hefty price in London but now it proved it's worth. He picked it up and was about to turn it on but then stopped to check the blinds on the windows. They were closed, but it never hurt to be careful.
He went down to his knees, flipped the torch on and began to search the floor.
It took him almost a quarter of an hour to find what he was looking for.
Tucked beneath one leg of the table in the centre of the room he found a piece of paper. The writing on it was in the curving nepali script and Richard doubted that there was anyone within a hundred miles who could understand the language, let alone read and write it. Since he could do that he knew that it was a message from his friend. He had heard and seen the Police driving up in front to arrest him, so he had quickly scribbled the note in their emergency shorthand, grabbed their bags and his rifle, placed the torch and gone out the back door seconds before the Police had entered the hotel.
Richard picked up the note and his torch and slowly made his way out the back door.
In less than five minutes he was out of the hotel again and traipsing through the back of the block. Once he was on the road again he decided that it was less suspicious if he walked out in the open, especially since now that he was moving away from the hotel he could claim that he had merely been walking past. The torch was safely packed away since the batteries had only a limited lifespan.
Below a street lamp about a mile from the hotel he stopped to check his swiss-made wristwatch he had made especially, after a pattern the company had produced for the German Navy.
He wound it up and waited until the Garrison Church struck midnight.
Satisfied that he was once again in tune with the world at least in this respect he began to walk westward.
The city was surrounded by country that was proverbially flat. Marshland, woods and a few farms covered most of the surroundings of Wilhelmshaven but Richard knew that Sibalai would be somewhere south of the main road that was leading towards the Dutch border. All he had to do now was follow the road in the brushes and sooner or later one would find the other, either by a sign Sibalai had left behind or because he saw or heard Richard coming.
In the end it would take him almost three hours to reach the spot where Sibalai was waiting for him. Looking at the face of things the spot was well chosen. The road was running through a patch of woods and a small track was running deeper into between the trees. He walked down the track and less than a minute later the beam of the torch was lighting up the smiling face of Havildar Gaje Sibalai, late of the 5th Gurkha Rifles.
"Happy to see you, my friend."
"The same, Sir."
"What did you manage to take, Gaje?"
Sibalai reached behind a tree and gave Richard what he was hoping for.
The rifle had once been a standard issue Lee-Enfield, but Richard had modified it extensively. On the top there were two small screws to which he could fit a sniper scope within less than half a minute, the long-distance sights had been removed in favour of proper ironsights. The butt was padded with leather to make it easier to keep at ready position for extended lengths of time, while forward a collapsible bi-pod was fitted to it.
It was heavier than a standard Lee-Enfield, but these improvements had saved Richard and Sibalai more than once so neither of them was going to complain.
"Well, let's get moving then. Before we decided what to do we need to get a bit farther away from here. The Plods may not be the best-trained people we've been up against, but they are by no means stupid."
Please, review, reviews fuel me.