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For All Nails #97: A Little Less Conversation

Berlin, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire
4 July 1974

It wasn't until Chancellor Markstein was gone that Joshua Merkel actually
noticed him.

In the eight years that Merkel had served in Markstein's cabinet (three as
Minister of Trade, five as Minister for Exterior Affairs), he had come to
take for granted that cabinet meetings always ran under an hour and always
reached a reasonable consensus.  A week serving under Angela Bitterlich had
demonstrated to him that neither outcome was preordained.

As the current cabinet meeting dragged into its third hour while Social
Welfare Minister Klaus Klima and Labor Minister Karl Bemmler wrangled over
some obscure provision of a proposed workplace safety bill, Merkel wondered
how he could have missed noticing it before.  At the time, it had seemed to
him that Markstein was barely there, hardly ever intervening apart from an
occasional neutral comment.  Now Merkel realized that those comments had been
subtly calculated to deflect the conversation away from dead ends and towards
swift resolutions of policy disputes.

How, Merkel wondered, would the Chancellor have dealt with the current death
spiral between Klima and Bemmler?  It occurred to him that Markstein would
have seen to it that the point at issue (to the extent that there was one)
was worked out elsewhere.  Somewhere like, oh, one of those ministerial
committee meetings?

During a lull in the argument, Merkel spoke up.  "Move that the question be
referred to the Labor Ministry committee on workplace regulations."

"Second," Defense Minister Horst Voth said at once.  A moment or two passed
before Angela remembered that this was her cue to speak.

"All in favor?"  A forest of arms was raised.  "All opposed?"  Klima and
Bemmler raised their hands.  "Motion carries.  Very well, Michael, what's
next on the agenda?"

Schroder said, "Report from Defense Minister on status of Operation
Bullseye."

Merkel was thunderstruck.  The most important military operation in the
history of the Empire, and they were only getting around to it now?  He
directed a questioning look at Schroder, who shrugged almost imperceptably
and nodded slightly at Angela.  Ach!

"So, Horst," Angela prompted him.  "Have you found all the Scandinavian subs
yet?"

Voth's answer was subdued, and Merkel felt his own mood rise in response.
"Regrettably, Madame Chancellor, we remain unable to locate the /Narhvalen/
and the /Lutefisk./ Aerial surveillence of the Scandinavian bases at Riga and
St. Thomas continues, and we remain confident that we can successfully
identify the remaining unacquired targets."

Merkel had heard from his own sources within the Defense Ministry that the
Air Arm and Navy had been actively avoiding trying to locate the Scandinavian
subs.  The General Staff were none too keen on Voth's plan to take out the
entire Scandinavian atomic submersible fleet at a single blow.  They weren't
nearly as certain as their ministerial master that they could find and
destroy every sub.  What was more, there was a definite fear that if the
Scandies thought they were about to lose all their atomic missiles, they
would launch everything they had at the Empire rather than be rendered
defenseless.

Merkel felt confident enough to speak up.  "Just on the off chance that the
subs continue to elude our forces, how long do we intend to pursue Bullseye?
Is there a point at which we will admit that the effort is beyond us, or will
the current exercises continue indefinitely?"

Giving Merkel the skunk eye, Voth said, "I feel that it would be premature to
establish a cutoff date at the present time.  I am confident that as our
forces gain experience in locating Scandinavian assets, Bullseye can be
brought to a successful conclusion."

"But you do agree," Merkel responded, "that at some point a cutoff date
should be established, at least in principle?"

Looking like he was sucking on a particularly sour lemon, Voth admitted, "In
principle, yes, if the exercise does not achieve its goal in a timely manner,
then we must accept the likelihood that the goal is in fact unachievable and
that the operation will have to be discontinued."

"Thank you, Horst," said Angela.  "Michael, what's next?"

Schroder said, "Report from the Exterior Minister on the status of
negotiations with the Scandinavian Foreign Minister."

Once again, Merkel shot a glance at Schroder.  Was he responsible for
scheduling Merkel's report right after Voth's?  The Assistant to the
Chancellor raised a perplexed eyebrow back at him.  /Why, Minister, whatever
could you mean?/

"Well, Joshua," Angela said, "what progress have you made?"

Swiftly organizing his thoughts, Merkel said, "Ambassador Weintraub in
Copenhagen reports that Baron Torvald has agreed in principle to the
demilitarization of Swedish Pomerania.  He remains adamantly opposed to
extending the same status to Lithuania, but we expected that.  Judging from
Hans's [1] report earlier, the information the Baron has provided us on the
terrorist cells in Croatia and Hungary has been remarkably accurate and very
useful. [2] Finally, I am happy to announce that King Christian Gustav will
be releasing a statement later today condemning the coup attempt in
St. Petersburg and calling for the restoration of the legitimate government."

"That reminds me," said Angela.  "Just how far along are we towards restoring
the Muscovites to power?"

Merkel frowned.  "Unfortunately, dealing with the Russians is always
complicated.  Theoretically, the ARR [3] is meant to be a defensive alliance
aimed at the Siberians and the Japanese.  The member states aren't supposed
to be invading each other, so we can't simply send in troops from Minsk or
the Russian Confederation to restore the Legitimist government."  Legitimist
was the preferred term for the pro-Moscow faction in the Free Russian
Republic.  It irritated Merkel when he heard them called the Muscovites,
which was what the rebels in St. Petersburg, or "Novgorod faction" called
them.  Needless to say, Angela never called them anything but Muscovites.
"All we can do is provide them with military aid, and perhaps organize some
'volunteer' units from the other member states.  For the time being the two
sides are stuck in a stalemate, with the rebels holding Petersburg and the
Legitimists holding the hinterland.  And the longer the stalemate lasts, the
greater the temptation for the Scandinavians to forget their promises to us
and start providing their own military aid to the rebels."

"If they aren't already," added Voth sourly.

Merkel was going to point out that keeping Scandinavian arms shipments from
crossing into the FRR was Voth's job, but he realized that saying so would
only provoke another conversational death spiral.  Instead, he agreed, "If
they aren't already."

Voth, deprived of his argument, had to settle for grumbling, "All this
talking back and forth with the Scandies may be fine for now, but just you
wait till we find the rest of those subs.  Then there's going to be a little
less conversation, and a little more action."

Notes:

[1] Interior Minister Hans Steiner.

[2] Official note delivered to Ambassador Albert Weintraub on 28 June 1974:

"His Majesty's Government deplores and condemns in the strongest possible
terms the outrage lately perpetrated in Berlin by a person or persons
unknown. His Majesty's Government pledges itself to provide whatever
assistance might lie within its power to aid the Government of the Kaiser in
the identification, prosecution and conviction of those responsible for this
atrocity.

"His Majesty's Government further declares unequivocally that, whatever the
oppression under which minority nationalities are forced to exist within
large States, there can be no justification for acts of individual terror
such as this. The appropriate path to reform lies through agitation and
argument, not violence!"

Unofficial note, back channel, delivered by unknown courier to the home
address of Conrad Gottlieb, Chief Director of External Intelligence, Potsdam,
on 28 June 1974:

"This was not one of ours. The individual responsible was a retired asset,
cut loose and privatised some years ago. His P-File follows by hand. Give us
48 hours to withdraw national assets and the formerly sponsored grouping is
all yours."

[3] Associated Russian Republics.  See the footnote to FAN #84c.