Paris, France (TimeLine B)
Much to Lavich’s amusement, Belen Lefunte had ditched the Court clothes as soon as she could, swearing that she would have preferred to have been naked rather than wear the uncomfortable clothes. In a more standard civilian outfit, she was still stunning; her long brown hair set her dress off nicely.
“Thank you for taking me out,” she said, as Lavich arrived. She’d requested a tour of Paris; she’d never been to the capital in the shadowy alternate world. She didn’t mind the city; some of the other crewmembers had suffered badly when they’d visited the real Paris.
“You’re welcome,” Lavich said. He enjoyed her company; she was less refined than a Lady of the Court, and yet she was far from a whore. With General Leblanc setting up the new factories – or rather ordering some of the old factories to start producing the sections for the first tanks – he had some time off.
“That’s fantastic,” she breathed, as she stepped out of the building where the alternate Frenchmen had been housed. A house and carriage stood there, waiting for them. Lavich smiled as she stepped up and stroked the horse’s nose; a Lady of the Court would have had a fit at the thought of being taken out in a car. Cars were smelly and fit only for men, they declared, and refused to use them.
“Allow me to help you up,” he said, as he opened the cab. The horse whined as she patted him on the side and took his hand, allowing him to help her climb in. The open roof wasn’t unusual; it was common for those a-courting to ride in an open-topped cab.
“Thank you,” she said grandly, and then laughed at herself. She had a wonderful open laugh, nothing like the giggles from Ladies of the Court, who could giggle at the slightest thought of what a man might want from them. Her breasts, hidden under her slight dress, moved as she laughed; Lavich felt his gaze moving to them without his control.
“To the park,” he said, and the cabby started the cab. The horse neighed and the cab moved out, stepping neatly onto the road. Belen looked around her as they moved down the roads, comparing it to her own hometown.
“What’s it like where you come from?” Lavich asked, just to hear her talk. Her expression was changing as she watched, from smiling to grim and then back to smiling. “How do the people live?”
“It’s better and worse,” Belen said. “I was born in a right hellhole; I lost my father when I was thirteen. If it hadn’t been for the National Front, and its thugs, I would have been raped and murdered.”
Lavich felt her shiver against him. Absently, he reached out and put a hand around her shoulder. “Oh, it’s different,” she said. “Your streets are much cleaner, and they don’t smell of engine fluid and petrol, and you have so much less crime.”
“I saw the images of the Eiffel Tower,” Lavich said, enjoying the feel of her leaning against him. “We never built anything like that, instead we built bridges and railways…there was a plan to place a bridge between Gibraltar and North Africa, but there was a major outcry for some reason.”
Belen laughed. “Perhaps they didn’t like the thought of spoiling the view,” she said. “I saw the railway map though; you did build them everywhere.”
“And the wave front of civilisation expanded along the rail lines,” Lavich proclaimed, as the cab turned into the private park. He felt Belen sigh; it was wonderfully peaceful and tidy, maintained by a small army of gardeners. Trees and plants from all over the world had been planted in French soil, marking the success of Frenchmen in exploring the world and boldly going where no European had gone before.
He said that to Belen and she laughed. “The natives don’t count, then,” she said. “This is a wonderful empire, you know.”
“I’ll take you everywhere within it, once we win the war,” Lavich promised. He didn’t know how to proceed; a Lady of the Court would need care, while a whore would require money. Belen…didn’t fit into either category. “What are you going to do now?”
“Me?” Belen asked, as the cabby drew to a halt in a shady dell. “I’m going to remain a pilot, if we get the fuel mix sorted out. If not, I imagine that I’ll be spending time doing things for the Admiral.”
Lavich helped her down onto the ground, taking the picnic basket from the cabby. “Be back in four hours,” he ordered. The cabby bowed and departed. Lavich carefully spread out the blanket and motioned for her to sit down.
“This is wonderful,” Belen said. Her voice was filled with awe. “It feels as if we are alone here, in the centre of Paris.”
Lavich smiled. That was exactly what the park had in mind. “We are alone,” he said, pouring the wine. “Have a drink.”
She grinned at him. “Are you trying to get me drunk?”
Lavich blushed, not certain how to take that. “Of course not,” he said. “You would have to drink more of this to get drunk.”
“Better pass over the second bottle,” Belen said, and winked at him. Lavich smiled and opened the basket, pulling out the massive sandwiches; baguettes filled with chicken and ham.
“There are no food shortages here,” he said. “We have converted Africa into our granaries and Germany and Spain into farms. We all have enough to eat.”
“Far better than in my time, then,” Belen said. She took a bite of the chicken baguette, sighing at its simple perfection. “Thank you for bringing me here.”
“You’re welcome,” Lavich said, as they finished the small meal. Belen lay back on the rug, her breasts straining against her dress. “You look wonderful.”
For the first time since they’d met, she blushed. “So do you,” she said. “This place is very romantic.”
Lavich didn’t know what to say. Some Ladies of the Court were willing to risk pre-marital sex, but Belen was different. He stepped over to her and sat down beside her. A moment later, her hands pulled his mouth to hers…and they kissed.
“Wow,” Lavich breathed. The kiss had delivered every promise of her body. One of his hands, guided by instinct, reached out and rested gently on her breast; she made a low noise, deep in her throat.
“I need you,” she breathed, and then her radio beeped. She swore vilely; Lavich giggled, then blinked as she pulled herself away from him, her rumpled clothing betraying her arousal.
“Just ignore it,” he said, feeling frustrated. “Come back to me.”
“It’s a court-martial offence to ignore it,” Belen said crossly. He sensed that she was as frustrated as he was. She picked up the radio and examined the screen. “It’s a Red Priority message,” she said. “We have to get back at once.”
Lavich glared at the machine in her hand. “I don’t know how you do anything with them following you around,” he said. “We could have been…”
He broke off. She finished the sentence. “Hot and sweaty?” She asked. He blushed. “Yes, we could have been,” she said. “We would have been to, except for…”
Lavich, greatly daring, smiled at her. “We’ll have other times,” he said. She gave him a tantalizing smile. “You’re worth waiting for.”
“Charmer,” Belen said. “Come on; it’s a long walk back to the base.”
The Charles de Gaulle had been intended to carry a total of two thousand officers and men at most, but for the deployment to the Pacific it had been expanded to three thousand men and soldiers. The sheer logistical problems had been the bane of Captain Mauroy’s life even before their arrival in the alternate world…and the chance to move some of them off the ship could not be rejected.
Lavich had volunteered an estate just outside Paris as a base of operations, and Contre-Admiral François Videzun had set up his command there. It was the oddest command in French history, an admiral commanding operations that involved working closely with the army, in the form of General Leblanc. It had taken several days to sort through all the personnel files and decide which crewmen could be used on the shore, even though they had trained for duty at sea. The soldiers, at least, weren’t a problem – they loved the idea of fighting an inferior opponent.
A shame we didn’t have the American MEU along, Videzun thought. He’d given Jacques Picard, his former political officer, the task of coordinating the personnel selection, a task he’d accomplished with skill, if not élan. Some crewmen, those with wives back in their original world, had committed suicide; others had been delighted to find the fleshpots of Toulon.
“Admiral,” Picard said. The political commissioner appeared around the corner, entering Videzun’s office with a mischievous half-smile. Videzun lifted an eyebrow; he was certain that that smile promised trouble.
“Commissioner,” Videzun said. “Have a seat.”
“Thank you,” Picard said. “Admiral, I must say that I approve of this new France.”
Videzun lifted an eyebrow. “Don’t you want to introduce a republican government?”
“I admit that some of the nobles here need a hole in the head,” Picard said. His wry voice amused Videzun, who had privately shared the same thought. “We will have to introduce some democracy, particularly in the army, but I hardly see why we should duplicate the mistakes of the times after the dark years.”
Videzun nodded. The dark years, the years when Germany had occupied France, had led to the socialists who had nearly destroyed France. Officers had been promoted to high levels merely because of the degree of political correctness they espoused, regardless of their level of combat skill. In Videzun’s experience, strength in one meant weakness in the other.
He smiled suddenly. The aristocratic France had the other problem; some nobles were skilled and got commissions in the army, provided that they showed genuine skill. It wasn’t entirely a bad system – the Emperor would hardly hesitate to lop the head off a noble who got his men slaughtered on the battlefield – but it lacked the Napoleonic image of the privates who were potential field marshals. Of course, the constant influx of new blood into the system kept it from breaking down, but it was a disaster waiting to happen in the long run.
“There’s no need to risk upsetting the apple cart too soon,” Videzun said carefully. “The last thing we need is a socialist underground causing trouble.”
Picard nodded. Discovering that the socialists existed in this universe as well had been a shock, even though Marx had apparently never been born. They had apparently originated in America – the tame version of America that existed here – and spread rapidly.
Videzun smiled. Who would have thought that so much turned upon the existence of an independent America?
“I quite agree,” Picard said. “As…politically unsound as this government is, it will last long enough to build a French-dominated world.”
Videzun bared his teeth. “I have already started to build an intelligence network,” he said. “There are things that we can build that they won’t be ready for, not yet, implications of our technology that we can use for our own benefit.”
“If we’d known that we would be coming,” Picard mused.
“If we’d known, I would have attached a tanker or two to the ship,” Videzun said frankly. “Fuel is going to be a problem, even though we are hopeful of duplicating it. This…excuse for a technological society runs mainly on coal; its ships are fired with coal.”
“We can show them how to build oil-fuelled ships, can’t we?” Picard asked. “That might improve them a little.”
Videzun shrugged. “It’s not important at the moment,” he said. “Refining fuel for the fighters, however…now that is important.”
There was a buzz on his radio. “Mon Admiral, this is Petal,” a female voice said. Jacqueline Petal was one of the handful of Intelligence crewmen on his ship. “We have been copied an urgent telegram from New Spain, using our communications system. Admiral, I think you really should look at this.”
The name of the ship was not in doubt; only two ships in the task force had the ability to launch such an attack…and only one of them was unaccounted for. It had to be the American carrier, Videzun realised; only the Americans had the ability to launch such an attack. If Viceroy Cortez hadn’t delayed the report…it would have made no difference anyway.
“These are your people, right?” Lavich asked. The French Court seemed worried…and frustrated at the same time. Videzun made a mental note to get a report from Belen Lefunte when he had the time. “What are they doing there?”
“They’re Americans,” Videzun said flatly. “They’ve thrown their lot in with the British, like they always do.” He sniggered suddenly. “Talk about a role reversal.”
“I’m glad that you think that this is funny,” Lavich said. “What are you going to do about it?”
Videzun thought furiously. “They don’t know we’re here, do they?” He said. “They must be as confused as we were. That gives us an advantage.”
“True,” Picard agreed. “A strike on the George Washington?”
“They’d see us coming if we launched a direct attack,” Videzun said. He thought. “It would be…chancy. The Americans aren’t always good at taking on their equals – the Ronald Reagan was mock-sunk by the British in 2008 – but they will probably be able to defeat us.” He smiled. “At least, in a direct battle.”
Picard nodded. “A sneak attack, then?”
Videzun smiled. “Yes,” he said. “We’re going to have to move our plans forward at bit.”
Lavich paused. “This carrier, this…ah, George Washington, how do you know that it’s the only ship out there?”
“Now there’s a thought,” Videzun said. “We can say with some confidence that the American Marine transport – or the British Royal Marines – didn’t come though, or they would have used them on the Falklands.”
“I follow your logic,” Picard said. “If they’re like us, they must be alone. A cosmic game, played by whoever was behind the UFOs.”
Videzun inclined his head. “Follow me further,” he said. “The Americans will not work as well with the British as we can work with our counterparts here, right?”
Picard nodded. “The Washington might even attack the British,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” Videzun said. “Still, they won’t get on that well, which gives us time for a new plan.” He paused; the idea had occurred to him almost at once, but it needed work…and development. “We have to assume that the Americans will give the British the same information that we have given the French here, ok?”
Belen frowned. “I wonder what the Russians have,” she said.
Videzun nodded. “Good thought,” he said. “So the British will start the same development program that we’ve started, but we might have a head start.”
Picard shook his head. “Probably not long enough to be useful,” he said. “We might have a month’s grace if we’re lucky, but no more than that.”
Videzun, who privately figured that they would be lucky if they had a week’s grace, shrugged. The communications in this world, with no satellites and hardly any secure radios, were so slow. The sooner they set up a dedicated research team exploring rocketry, the better.
“Then we had better seize the day as quickly as we can,” he said. “The original plan, to turn on the Russians, will have to be scrapped. In the time it will take to build General Leblanc’s force of tanks, the British can presumably do the same…”
“And then what?” Lavich asked, having regained his mental balance. “Will they attack us from India into Iran?”
“I would go after New Spain, myself,” Videzun said. “That Panama base is a pain in the ass to them, so they’ll want to remove it. Given how much industry they have, launching an attack into New Spain and Iran at the same time won’t be impossible. Hell, they might go after Alaska, and end that part of the conflict.”
Lavich nodded. Alaska was in such miserable terrain that neither the British nor the Russians could be really bothered to fight for it with enthusiasm. The North American Union had been trying to purchase it for years – it had been one of the factors behind Tsar Nicolas XX’s eternal paranoia about the other superpowers – but now that war had come, both powers had other problems.
Videzun smiled. “However, all is not lost,” he said. “We know about them; they don’t know about us. If they find out about us, their first step will be to attempt to sink the Charles de Gaulle, which we dare not risk. For the first week, we will transfer to shore everything we can send to shore, including computers, laptops, all the history and engineering books we have, and then move the Charles de Gaulle eastwards, away from the Americans.
“If they find out about us, we can add our radars to the existing network,” Videzun said. “However, the priority is to force them into a position from which they will negotiate for peace at favourable terms.”
He wandered over to the world map he’d hung on the wall. “Here,” he said, tapping a location. “Here is where we will invade.”
Lavich’s mouth dropped open. He glanced at Belen and hastily snapped it shut. “Are you serious?” He asked. “We’ve looked at the problem for a long time, and we can’t surmount the problems it poses.”
Videzun sighed. Something would have to be done about the French Court; secrets spread out without regard for common sense. “You have us now,” he said, and smiled. “If we can pull this off, in two months, using the weapons we have on board…then we can either destroy the Washington when it comes to help, or force them to play catch-up with us. One way or the other, this is the only way to force the British out of the war.
“You have us now,” he repeated, and smiled.