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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter One

       Last updated: Monday, January 16, 2017 11:23 EST




Spring and Summer, 1634

    Then, wakened by the crash and cries,

    The fierce shefiends unclosed their eyes

Magdeburg, capital of the United States of Europe
April, 1634

    The brow of the prime minister of the United States of Europe was furrowed with doubt piled atop doubtfulness — doubt with respect to the proposal being made, and doubtfulness concerning the motives of the proposer.

    “Let me see if I’ve got this straight, Francisco,” said Mike Stearns. “We’re about to send a diplomatic and trade mission to China — that is to say, roughly halfway around the world.”

    “Oh, it’s not that far, Michael.” Francisco Nasi waggled his hand back and forth, indicating a small degree of uncertainty. “A bit over four thousand miles, I believe. Nautical miles, that is.”

    Mike’s brow furrowed deeper, as suspicion piled onto doubt and doubtfulness. “That would be the great circle distance, you’re talking about. But pray tell, which one of our Boeing 747s were you planning to use to make the flight? Oh, wait, I forgot — we don’t have any Boeing 747s, do we? Or DC-3s, now that I think about it. And exactly which one of Beijing’s modern — that would be modern as in twentieth century — international airports were you planning to land our non-existent 747 on? Oh, wait, I forgot — this being the year 1634, Beijing doesn’t have an airport big enough to land a Cessna on, does it?”

    “I grant you — ”

    “What#8217;s the nautical distance from here to China, Francisco? Not ‘nautical’ as in country boy miles on steroids but ‘nautical’ as in actual distance to be travelled by sea.”


    “Look it up, when you get a chance. I believe you’ll find the distance is pretty close to twelve thousand miles — that is to say, about halfway around the world. Like I said.”

    “Actually, I did look it up. It is 12,776 miles by sea from Hamburg to Shanghai. That would be nautical miles, of course.” He cleared his throat. “I confess that presupposes using the Suez Canal which, ah, is also not in existence at the moment.”

    Mike grunted. “So in country boy miles it’s actually way more than halfway around the world. Francisco, I agreed to that China mission — reluctantly — mostly because you had a team ready and willing to go. If you’re planning to tell me that you found another half dozen or so — I’m trying to avoid terms like screwballs here — people in Grantville who’ve expressed a burning desire to travel to India given the crude realities of so-called Early Modern Era transport, I have to tell you that I’m going to be a mite skeptical.”

    “Actually, I have found a couple of people who’d like to make the trip. Well — one person, but her husband’s amenable. And I’m sure I can find others.”


    “Priscilla Totman, and her husband Rodney.”

    Mike’s suspicious gaze now swiveled to the third person in his office. “Which explains why you’re here, James. I’d been wondering. You’re not usually given to Francisco’s type of web-weaving.”

    “Oh, leave off, Mike,” said James Nichols. “I had nothing at all to do with the Totmans’ decision.”

    “I find that a little hard to believe. Seeing as how — ”

    “What? I work in medicine — and they work in medicine? So do lots of people. And I’ve hardly seen them since they moved to Jena last year.”

    Nichols pointed a finger at Nasi. “Whatever scheming’s going on is being done by him — but I have to tell you I approve of it, if it’ll get us a reliable supply of opium.”

    Mike wiped his face. “What has the world come to,” he muttered, “when a supposedly upstanding citizen — a doctor, no less — openly declares his support for drug smuggling?”

    “Smuggling, my ass. Opium’s not illegal in this day and age. The problem isn’t legality, it’s accessibility.”

    Mike saw his chance and pounced. “Exactly! You said it yourself. It’s not illegal — in fact, you can buy it on the open market in Amsterdam. Venice, too, I believe. So why do we need to go all the way to India to get stuff that’s coming our way in any event?”

    “Yes, you can. And I’d be very relaxed about the situation if we lived in — oh, let’s say the Year of Our Lord 2000 — back in the days — excuse me, ahead in the days — when the US Navy ruled the waves and we had NATO and well-established international laws governing maritime trade. But we don’t, do we? No, we live in the year 1634 — just eleven years after the Amboyna massacre in the East Indies, where the Dutch East India Company tortured and murdered more than a dozen men working for the British East India Company.”

    He glanced at the woman sitting next to him. “Melissa told me about it. Mike, in the world we live in today, so-called ‘foreign trade’ looks a hell of a lot like Al Capone’s Chicago. I can think of two or three ways the opium trade could get disrupted and I’m sure you can think of at least that many.”

    He nodded toward Nasi. “I don’t even want to think about how many he could come up with.”

    “Let me see…” Nasi began counting off his fingers. “One, the Dutch trade is severed because Spain attacks Don Fernando. Two, the Dutch trade is severed because France attacks Don Fernando.”

    “Why would France — ?” Mike started to protest.

    “Same reason France would attack the Dutch in 1672. Imperialist rivalries.” He went back to finger-counting. “Three, the Dutch trade is severed because England attacks Don Fernando.”

    “Why would — ?”

    Nasi clucked his tongue reproachfully. “Don’t you read any of your own history books, Michael? England would attack the Dutch for the same reasons they attacked them in the universe you came from, in 1652, 1665 and 1672 — that last one in alliance with the French. Imperialist rivalries. Which is usually just a fancy way of saying ‘trade rivalries,’ in the here and now.”

    The finger-counting resumed. “Now, as to Venice. Four, the Genoese — ”

    “All right, all right.” Mike waved his hand, irritably. “I get the point. And I suppose you’re going to claim the same applies to the saltpeter trade.”

    Nasi shook his head. “Oh, no. I could come up with twice as many reasons the saltpeter trade might get severed.”

    He leaned forward in his seat. “Michael, face facts. We are in the middle of perhaps the greatest war to afflict Europe since the barbarian invasions that destroyed Rome. Except it’s not really one war but a whole constellation of wars that interlock with each other. Wars over dynastic ambition, religion — and, yes, trade. Wars nowadays are fought with gunpowder, whose critical ingredient — certainly the hardest to come by — is saltpeter. The biggest source of saltpeter is India.”

    He held up a restraining hand. “Please! Don’t bother to tell me that’s why India’s own rulers guard saltpeter so jealously. I was brought up in the Ottoman court, you may recall. Isn’t there some witty West Virginia saw to that effect…?”

    Mike made a face. “Don’t teach your grandmother how to suck eggs.”

    “Indeed. That makes no sense, by the way. No one sucks eggs, so why would anyone worry about the right way to do it? But the meaning is clear enough.”

    Nasi sat back in his chair, planting his hands on his thighs. “You are the one who made me your chief of intelligence. Please consider the possibility that you may have made a good selection.”

    Mike sighed, and ran fingers through his hair. Then, looked at Nichols.

    “Does opium really make that much difference, James?”

    “Yes, it does. Without a reliable source of good anesthetics, surgery in this universe is effectively stillborn. So is dentistry, for that matter. And opium is our best bet. It’s the source of morphine and there are other ways it can be used as an anesthetic.” The doctor shrugged. “There are some alternatives. Diethyl ether’s been available for almost a century in Europe. They call it ‘sweet oil of vitriol.’ Nitrous oxide wasn’t developed up-time until late in the eighteenth century, but we ought to be able to manage it. Same with chloroform. But none of them are as good as opioids and they all have various negative side-effects.”

    Mike rose from his desk and went over to the window in his office. He liked to look out of the window when he was trying to come to a decision.

    Without turning his head, he now addressed the last person in the room. “Okay, Melissa, I figure it’s your turn. You didn’t come here just to provide James with moral support.”

    “No, I didn’t. For what it’s worth, I don’t have an opinion one way or the other on how important it is to open our own trade relations with India. My concern is with something a lot broader — and, I’ll say it right out before you do, something that’s admittedly a lot more nebulous.”

    “Which would be what?”

    There was a pause that lasted long enough for Mike to swivel his head around and look at Melissa directly. “I’ll be damned,” he said. “This may be the first time I’ve ever seen you unsure about something.”

    “Very funny,” she said. “And I’m not unsure about it. I’m just unsure about how to explain it — and I’m really unsure about whether there’s anything we can do about it.”

    Mike returned to his desk and sat back down again. “Now you’ve got my interest. So what is it?”

    “Well…You know how you like to say the two great historical evils that emerged in this era were New World chattel slavery and the second serfdom in Eastern Europe?”

    “Yeah.” His lips quirked a little. “I got that from you in the first place. Are you now going to tell me I got it wrong?”

    Melissa looked moderately embarrassed — which was also not a common trait of the woman. As a rule, Melissa Mailey was to embarrassment what a duck is to water. Impervious.

    “No. Not wrong. Just…let’s say, incomplete.”

    “How so?”

    “It’s maybe too Eurocentric. Or I guess I should say, white-people-centric.”

    “The victims of New World slavery were Africans — Indians, too, at the beginning — not whites.”

    “Yes, I know.” She waved her hand. “But Europeans and their descendants were the agents of it, and we had to deal with the mess we created. I’m talking about something that never affected people in Europe or America — or most of Africa — very much until just a short while ago. By ‘ago,’ I mean up-time ‘ago.’ ”

    “Keep talking.”

    But it was Francisco Nasi who spoke. “I think she’s referring to the evolution of Islam, Michael. And if so, I probably agree with her.”

    Mike frowned. “What does India — ? Oh. Yeah, I tend to forget. We’re talking about Mughal India, in the here and now — and they’re Muslims.”

    “Yes,” said Melissa. She gave Nasi a quick, thankful glance. “And he’s right — that is what I’m concerned about. We live in an era where there are three great Islamic powers — the Ottomans, the Safavid dynasty in Persia, and the Mughal dynasty in India. Two of them, the Sunni realms of the Ottomans and the Mughals, are both rather tolerant when it comes to religion.”

    Nasi nodded. “I can attest to that with respect to the Ottomans. It’s true that they favor Muslims in most respects, but their rule does not weigh heavily on Jews or Christians.”

    “That much, I know.” Mike folded his hands on his desk. “As my wife likes to say when she feels especially peeved toward bigots, after the Spanish drove out the Sephardic Jews, the Ottoman sultan welcomed them to his own land. He’s reported to have said — ”

    Nasi finished the sentence for him: “Ye call Ferdinand a wise king, he who makes his land poor and ours rich! He did have a point.”

    “In a lot of ways, the Mughals are even more tolerant,” Melissa continued. “I think that’s probably because while there are a lot of Muslims in India, the majority of the population is non-Muslim. Mostly Hindus, but there are also Sikhs and other religions. The great Mughal emperor Akbar — the current emperor, Shah Jahan, is his grandson — established a policy of religious toleration and it’s been kept ever since. But that’s about to change.”

    “Change how?” Mike asked.

    “Say better: change who,” said Melissa. “In our history, the change came after Shah Jahan’s youngest son Aurangzeb took the throne following his victory in a civil war with his three brothers. Aurangzeb was a Muslim diehard, and he’s the one who broke the Mughal tradition of religious toleration. I think the world’s history would have gone a lot better if one of the other brothers had won that civil war. I don’t know if us sending a delegation to India would change that outcome, but…it might. I figure it’s worth a try, at any rate.”

    “And this civil war happened when?”

    Melissa chuckled. “Depends on which universe’s calendar you want to use. By the one we came from, it all happened long ago. I forget the exact date but it was somewhere around 1660. By this universe’s calendar, though — ”

    “For Pete’s sake, Melissa!” Mike exclaimed. “You’re talking about something that’s not going to happen for another third of a century!”

    She smiled at him coolly. “All the more reason to get an early jump on the problem, wouldn’t you say? Mr. Prime Minister.”

    Mike glowered at her. “It’s just ‘Prime Minister,’ thank you. ‘Mr. Prime Minister’ is silly.”

    He now transferred the glower around the room, bestowing it in turn upon each and every occupant. Then, sighing, raised his hands in a gesture of surrender.

    “Fine, Francisco. Do it. But if this scheme goes haywire, I’m blaming you. Publicly, too — don’t think I won’t.”

    Nasi nodded solemnly, as if he didn’t know just as well as everyone in the room that the threat was hollow. Mike Stearns had his faults, but passing the buck was not one of them.

    “I think it hardly matters, Prime Minister,” he said. “By the time we find out if my schemes have come to fruition — especially Melissa’s part of them! — we may all be long dead, anyway.”

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