Look to the West Volume VIII: The Bear and the Basilisk


Thanks to everyone for the comments - I'm now going off the internet over Christmas, so I just wanted to wish you all a Merry Christmas (as much as we can under the circumstances), God bless and hope for a brighter 2021!

- Thande


Given that one of the great reversals of TTL is unifying regions that ended up with smaller countries (West Africa, Central Africa, Danubia, the Ottomans) and balkanizing areas that were united at ITTL e.g India, Indonesia, Australia, could any of the unified entities (Guinea, the Ottomans ) count as a Great Power/dominant power by modern standards like America, Russia, China?


Part #281: The Fourth Horseman

“Uh, and in other news, here are the society headlines with Miss Alice Beresford.[1] Miss Beresford?”

“Thank you, Mr Roberts. Tongues are a-wagging among the elite of New York City tonight after Miss Patricia Delancey was snapped walking out with the mysterious and dashing Australian explorer, Thierry (slight pause) Yssingelais, of Béron in Pérousie.[2] Who better, we ask ourselves, to navigate his way through what many have described as the icy wastes of the pretty heiress’ heart? Will he triumphantly go where no man has dared tread, or will he find himself abandoned amid the blizzard that her frigid tongue has unleashed? And closer to home, here in Ultima’s warmer society, we have a friendly exile to talk to now. One of the men to survive an encounter with the ice queen herself, Jago Macavity...”


(Dr Wostyn’s note)

The following excerpt is taken from a faded newspaper pull-out section that Ensign Mumby found pressed between two cookbooks in another second-hand bookshop and bought for a pittance. Stripped from its original newspaper, fortunately it does still bear its name and date, being a part of the young but well-regarded newspaper of record, the Ultima Star. Unfortunately, it is the second part of a two-part series and there was naturally no trace of the first issue. Because of this, it does lack some of the context we would prefer. Nonetheless, I agree with Ensign Mumby that it is of relevance both to understanding the period of the Black Twenties, and resonates with what is going on back in the home timeline right now...

From: “The Nations Against Disease, Part 2 Pull-out and Keep Section” from the “Ultima Star”, Issue 903, Tuesday, November 13th 2012:

As what some are calling a ‘hyper-flu’ wreaks havoc across the world and many, less responsible, news sources fan the flames of panic, we at the Star think differently. This is a challenge which our ancestors will face before, and our descendants will face again—but, God willing, not forever. In the first part of our pull-out special, last week, we looked at past outbreaks of the deadly influenza virus and how the nations responded.[3] Yet, though we have controlled such outbreaks as we have learned more about the virus, we have yet to eliminate them. Though we have influenza vaccines (and are administering them at present), the virus comes in many strains and undergoes metallaxis so rapidly that it cannot be simply eradicated.[4]Rather than despair at this, let us take heart at the other diseases, once even more deadly than the ’flu, which the nations have obliterated from the world, to trouble us never again. Though the ’flu may be a greater challenge, like some Global Games champion we can look back on our past triumphs and know that one day we shall win the race with our most enigmatic foe from the world of pathogens.

In this second section, therefore, we will look at other diseases that have caused pandemics across our planet, and why children can grow up today in the twenty-first century fearing them not at all.

Let us begin with one of the deadliest diseases in the history of the nations, yet one which has now been firmly consigned to the history books: smallpox. So called in contrast to ‘greatpox’ (syphilis), in the eighteenth century smallpox is recorded as being responsible for the deaths of somewhere between one in ten and one in five of all Europeans. Once infected, roughly one in three people died, with the remainder left with permanent scarring (the term ‘pock-marked’, common in past descriptions of people, refers to this). The scars stemmed from the small but omnipresent pustules that rose, horrifically damaging the skin and often causing blindness. Smallpox was also known as ‘variola’, which gave rise to the term ‘variolation’ to describe an early technique that sought to protect people from its effects. Probably independently developed in many nations from Guinea to the Indian states to China, variolation sought (through various means) to weaken the smallpox pathogen and then administer it to the uninfected (usually through rubbing into a cut) to give them a milder form of the disease and thence immunity from reinfection.

Of course, the mechanism of how this worked was not widely understood at the time, and often the details of the different techniques were jealously guarded as the secrets of individual doctors.[5] The fact that ‘variolation’ referred to so many variations on a theme did not help it gain wide support—the success or failure of different methods was highly variable, with some killing a significant number of those it sought to protect and others being much less hazardous. A high-profile example of variolation came during a smallpox outbreak in Boston in 1721, where Puritan minister Cotton Mather learned of the Guinean practice from his slave, Onesimus, and was able to use it to protect some people from the disease. Despite high levels of resistance and scepticism from Bostonian society (including a young Ben Franklin, who later admitted he had been wrong) the variolation campaign was relatively successful, and spread across what would become the Empire of North America.[6]

It is ironic that medical textbooks today have to carefully distinguish this ‘variolation’ from the later smallpox ‘vaccination’, when in fact the variolation—using a weakened form of the same disease—has more in common with what we usually call vaccination! However, vaccination in its original form instead refers to using cowpox, a related but far milder disease derived from cows (hence the term ‘vaccine’ from the Latin word for cow) to train the immune system against smallpox. The fact that milkmaids who had been infected with cowpox were resistant to smallpox had been anecdotally noted many times, but the first formal experiments were performed by French doctor Jacques Antoine Rabaut in the late eighteenth century.[7] Though these experiments began well before the French Revolution, there was controversy during the Watchful Peace period that Lisieux’s other doctors had performed what we would now call a ‘challenge trial’ on unwilling volunteers, infecting political prisoners with cowpox and then exposing them to smallpox. Ruthless though the action had been, it was highly effective in demonstrating how much more reliable and safe cowpox vaccination was compared to most past examples of variolation. In the Watchful Peace, smallpox vaccination fell into similar categories as the use of steam engines and Optel technology; Francis of Austria’s regime and the Mittelbund banned it as a ‘republican idea’, while the more pragmatic Russians and Saxons condemned Lisieux while appropriating his regime’s useful breakthroughs. The ideological divide did not emerge in the English-speaking world, where local physicians had been enthusiastically adopting the vaccination method even before the controversial experiment by the Lisieux regime.

As a result of this and fervent work by the nations and the ASN—supported in the campaign even by their enemies—the smallpox vaccine led to the global eradication of the disease, formally declared in 1975.[8] This is the greatest triumph of the nations over disease in history; a vile complaint that killed millions and disfigured millions more will never trouble the lives of our children, and should give us heart. Polio may soon join smallpox as an eradicated disease, as the ASN now believes that it has been eradicated from every part of the world except India.[9]

Other diseases remain major killers in some parts of the world, yet we have still taken great strides against them through the development of vaccines and culicides [antibiotics]. The first cholera pandemic began in 1828, though epidemiologists believe there were outbreaks in India long before this. Beginning in Calcutta, it spread through trade routes across Asia, then Africa, Europe and North America as a recurring illness that killed millions.[10] Cholera is caused by a toxin produced by an animalcule that interferes with megalins in the surface of the small intestine, leading fluid to flow from the body into the intestine. This in turn causes symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea along with extreme dehydration, the latter leading to death in a majority of untreated cases. The skin turns bluish in the process, leading to some nicknaming cholera the ‘blue death’. Though culicides and vaccines have now been developed, the biggest weapon in the fight against cholera is sanitation. The fact that cholera was spread by dirty water was first recognised by the New York physician Alfred Farrell in 1845, and this triggered or accelerated the nineteenth-century push to rationalise city sanitation and prevent disease.[11] Sanitation has limited and defeated many other diseases besides cholera as well, though cholera sadly persists in some parts of the world.

(Dr Wostyn’s note: At this point there are some smaller monogrammes and diagrams about yellow fever, ‘phthsis’ (tuberculosis), malaria, typhoid and a few other diseases, which I won’t reproduce here as the remaining text is more relevant)

But first and foremost among the epidemic diseases that have ravaged the nations is one whose very name has become a generic term for such harrowing outbreaks: the plague.

This deadly enemy of the nations is caused by an animalcule named Garcia pestis after the Meridian Refugiado scientist who first isolated it, Miguel García—though there is evidence that secret research in the Combine may have preceded this.[12] Teuchic analysis suggests that strains of the animalcule were already circulating thousands of years ago and may have even caused localised disease outbreaks, but metallaxis to the deadly form we recognise today did not take place until after the birth of Christ. As every child still learns in school, the animalcule infects fleas which bite rats and other rodent hosts (marmots considered to be a species in which it often circulates in between outbreaks) and, as rodents follow humans everywhere, infected fleas can easily bite humans as well. It is remarkable that, like malaria, the plague is transmitted through the blood (with little of the aerosol transmission of influenza that requires our current social distancing measures), yet has spread so widely and killed so many. The plague can manifest in a number of symptoms (all caused by the same animalcule): the infamous ‘bubonic plague’ as lymph nodes swell into ‘buboes’; this can then turn into ‘septicaemic plague’ as it spread into the bloodstream and clotting leads to tissue necrosis; and finally and most deadly of all, ‘pneumonic plague’ as it spreads to the lungs. In pneumonic patients an infectious cough emerges as in other respiratory illnesses. The risk of death without treatment is as high as 70%.

Three world-shattering plague pandemics have afflicted the nations, with many smaller outbreaks in between. Even the latter have changed history in ways we little realise. For example, many people in the English-speaking world are aware of the plague outbreak in 1665 that ravaged London (before being burned out in part by the Great Fire the year later) but few know that a plague outbreak in 1603, which led to theatres being closed, ultimately led to William Shakespeare writing Othello while stuck indoors (and said plague is referenced a number of times in the script). This is only one of many such examples throughout history.

All three plague pandemics are believed to have begun in China or neighbouring Tartary. The first plague pandemic is known in the western world as the Plague of Justinian, and entered Europe through Egypt, ravaging the Eastern Roman Empire in 541-549 AD at the time of the titular emperor’s reign. Due to the gulf of time and the lack of communication of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, the death toll remains a matter for fierce debate, but may have been as high as half the population of Europe. The plague undoubtedly weakened the fragile and overstretched Empire, accelerating its decline and likely easing the Muslim conquest of North Africa a century later. The plague reoccurred many times in smaller outbreaks after this, well into the eighth century AD.

The second plague pandemic was known as the Black Death in Europe, and is likely the most deadly of all pandemics in human history. It was caused by a different strain of G. pestis, not descended from the Justinian strain. It killed as much as half of the population of Europe and Asia, and recurring echoes lasted for five hundred years. The plague probably began in China, likely its Mongol provinces, and inflicted many deaths there in the 1330s before spreading to Europe. Unusually, we (probably) know the exact circumstances of how this happened: Genoese traders in Crimea were besieged by the Golden Horde Mongol army of Jani Beg, and plague-infected corpses were flung into their camp as a biological weapon. The Genoese inadvertently spread the plague back to Constantinople, Genoa and Venice, where it exploded across Europe in the 1340s and 50s. The Black Death rocked European society to its foundations, effectively ending the feudalism of the Middle Ages and leading to upheavals such as the Peasants’ Revolt in England. This, together with the circumnavigation of Africa and discovery of the Novamund a century later, in many ways divides a world that was from the one we know today.

We know more about the third plague pandemic than any other. Some scientists believe that the conditions in China’s Yunnan Province led to plague circulating at a low level there for centuries. As early as 1880 there is evidence for localised outbreaks of plague there. But it was in the 1920s that that plague finally escaped its local area and began to spread, initially across China and Siam (quickened by those travelling for Lunar New Year celebrations) and then beyond.[13] Past outbreaks of plague had never made it beyond the Old World due to the incubation period of the disease, but in a world of steamships, things were now different. Not only did plague ravage India and eventually Europe and Africa, but for the first time it could spread to the Novamund. In October 1923, what was later recognised as the first plague case was recorded in Cometa.[14] The Third Plague of the Black Twenties would kill millions worldwide, but it would also lead to a renaissance in medical breakthroughs as the minds of the greatest among the nations—and those who rejected them—focused on dealing with this new foe. Most important of these was, of course-

(Dr Wostyn’s note)
Unfortunately the last page of this flimsy pull-out was torn off. We will, however, come back to this aspect of the Black Twenties later...)

[1] One might assume that the term ‘society’ (as in high society, here having partially transitioned to something more like today’s ‘celebrity culture’) would have died out through negative association with Societism. However, English language usage isn’t necessarily so logical – witness how a global virus pandemic in 2020 has entirely failed to stop news sources using the term ‘gone viral’ about crazes.

[2] The Delancey (or de Lancey) family were an important family of New York City, who in OTL fell from grace due to supporting the Crown in the American Revolution, with their assets seized and even traces of their name stripped from city streets. In TTL, of course, with no Revolution, they have remained one of the wealthy and powerful families of the city (though the term ‘Upper Ten Thousand’ has not been coined in TTL). Recall that ‘Australian’ in this context means ‘Antarctic’.

[3] The term virus dates from 1728, just after this timeline’s POD, though originally vaguely applied to any hypothetical disease-causing pathogen (it is the Latin word for ‘poison’). Linguistically, the term’s application has followed a similar course to OTL—it became a useful term to refer specifically to pathogens that were not bacteria (animalcules) when the latter were identified. Also notice this document is a classic case of avoiding terms like ‘humanity’ or ‘mankind’ due to fear of paranoid censors associating them with Societism, preferring ‘the nations’ in the same all-encompassing context.

[4] Recall that metallaxis is the TTL term for mutation.

[5] For example, the ‘Suttonian Method’ used by the Sutton family of doctors and surgeons in Suffolk in the mid-eighteenth century in OTL.

[6] This happened exactly like OTL, with the only major difference being that in OTL the campaign later got a shot in the arm from George Washington’s approval – he used variolation to inoculate the Continental Army against smallpox in the American Revolutionary War, which obviously didn’t happen in TTL.

[7] In OTL he is better known as Rabaut-Pommier, and his contributions are often largely forgotten – there are claims that Edward Jenner did not acknowledge information on cowpox and smallpox he passed along, though the history of smallpox vaccination is an example of a case where many people were making similar breakthroughs at the same time. In TTL he has a better luck of the draw.

[8] 1980 in OTL, following a similar global campaign.

[9] In contrast to OTL where it has been eliminated from India but still exists in parts of Africa—this reflects the lack of a centralised Indian state in TTL, and the fact that some of the states that do exist have often been run by less than effective regimes.

[10] This is largely the same as OTL except it happened about a decade earlier in OTL. Though it doesn’t mention it here, like OTL the association of India (or specifically Bengal) with cholera changed stereotypes of the country. Unlike OTL it also had a direct impact on art and architecture, as it helped trigger the decline of the Orientalist school that had aped Indian and other architectural styles in new European buildings.

[11] Similar events proceeded in OTL thanks to the work of John Snow in London, during a cholera outbreak in 1854.

[12] In OTL the plague bacterium is named Yersinia pestis after Swiss-French bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin.

[13] In OTL the Third Plague Pandemic emerged similarly, but earlier – being recorded in Yunnan in the 1850s, but taking years to spread following the influx of Han Chinese miners there. It impacted on the Taiping Rebellion and the Opium Wars, but did not break out of China until it reached Hong Kong in 1894 and then spread to India and ultimately California, eventually making it all around the world. This pandemic is officially not considered to have fully ended until 1960, though the last major outbreak occurred in the 1920s and there have been smaller outbreaks since then. The reason why the plague has taken longer to break out in TTL is that Yunnan was initially under warlord control after the Three Emperors’ War, then isolated on the front line between China and Siam for years. It was only with the French-negotiated peace settlement between China and Siam that Yunnan has become more economically integrated into China – with unintentionally deadly results.

[14] In OTL the Third Plague reached San Francisco in 1900.


Saw @Analytical Engine's post way back in the previous thread and decided to finally make the meme a reality.
This world seems to be doomed to never know peace. First the Pandoric War, then Societism spreading everywhere, and now this. Anyway, glad to see the TL is back!
This world seems to be doomed to never know peace. First the Pandoric War, then Societism spreading everywhere, and now this. Anyway, glad to see the TL is back!
But at least this world and ours were able to do something good for ALL people by ending a deadly disease that plagued humanity for centuries despite being divided.
And hey while The Cold War never went hot the fact that this newspaper implies that biological weapons weren’t used when the Silent/Quiet war went loud (I’m working on the assumption that the greatest LTTW powers kept samples of Smallpox and other natural or created diseases like America and the Soviets did) also gives a bit of strength to the idea that humans CAN restrain themselves.

An oddly happy feeling reading this update did give me.
I'm guessing the big secret is going to be sulfonamide antibiotics? Streptomycin or chloramphenicol would also be a possibility, but has penicillin been discovered yet TTL? Penicillin doesn't work on Yersinia but it inspired people to look for other fungal antibiotics and found streptomycin in a soil organism in the 40's. Without that inspiration, those might be hard ones to find.

I am currently finishing my last year of medical school so if you have any medically-related questions, feel free to shoot me a PM...
I thought "Black Twenties" was referring to Societalism not the Bubonic Plague.
That had been my assumption RIGHT up until the last chapter (or a section of the chapter) of the preceding volume mentioned fleas that had bitten just the wrong rat before biting some humans.
That’s when I remembered another unpleasant era of human history involving the words Black and Death in that very word order
So...the prevailing theory until now was that the Combine would somehow weaponize the virus to destabilize the already precarious international situation, and take advantage of the discord to expand it's sphere of control. What if it is the exact opposite?
What if the Combine is able to seize more territory and garner ideological allies by presenting itself and its medical achievements as a savior from the pandemic at a time when other regimes falter in their response, using this as evidence of Societism's superiority?