Chapter Sixteen: All Different
USS George Washington
Caribbean, Nr New Orleans (TimeLine B)
Admiral Sir Joseph Porter had been astonished when he’d read the first report from Vice-Admiral Anderson. His first assumption was that Anderson had been drunk; what possible truth could there have been in his crazy story? One look at the laptop, and the other items that Anderson had sent, had convinced him…and the massive size of the George Washington had removed any last doubts as the helicopter brought him down to the flight deck.
But it was an American helicopter, and that was the problem. Even if the new Americans didn’t join the handful of independence activists, who were generally laughed at by the rest of the American population, they were so far ahead of the Royal Navies that they could pose a real problem. Yes, they’d sunk nine French superdreadnaughts, but he could just as easily imagine them turning on the Royal North American Navy. Or – what would happen when – if – the French got their hands on the weapons? He was too canny a sailor to imagine that the French would not learn of the George Washington – and they would be trying to duplicate the weapons.
“We’re coming in to land now, Sir Joseph,” the pilot said. He hadn’t been astonished to see a black face, but a black female face was…odd. Most black men and woman lived in the south, working their farms purchased ever since the NAU parliament had outlawed slavery, and they didn’t often interact with the rest of the NAU.
What will these people do to us, just by being here? He asked himself. We need more information, quickly.
His first reaction had been to dismiss the tales of the shadowy other history as a fantasy, one written by the independence activists, but it was too detailed. Many counterfactual essays he’d seen had proclaimed that the Empire would be too successful; a United Empire covering the entire world. The news of the collapse of the alternate British Empire was horrifying…and yet it had the ring of truth.
“Thank you,” he said. A British seaman – and those of the Dominions – were supposed to be treated with courtesy by their superiors, who expected instant obedience in return. He supposed that the same applied to the female crewwomen; the dream of the suffrage movement.
A strange aircraft shot past overhead. “What the hell was that?” He demanded. “What sort of aircraft is that?”
“AN F-18 fighter jet,” the pilot said. Her white teeth glittered as she smiled at him. “Capable of speeds above Mach Two, sir.” She saw his incomprehension. “That’s twice the speed of sound, Sir Joseph.”
Sir Joseph felt his mouth fall open. He’d heard of plans to build jet aircraft, projects that had been forced forward by the war, but speeds that high were unheard of. The aircraft builders had been swearing that they would succeed for years…and so far had failed to build an aircraft that even remotely reached that speed.
“That’s…awesome,” he said finally. He smiled as the flight deck came up…and with a soft bump the helicopter landed on the deck. “What now?”
“The Admiral is there,” the pilot said, opening the hatch. “It was decided to avoid an honour guard, for the moment.”
Sir Joseph supposed that he should feel insulted, but the sheer scale of the Washington was too great to allow any other feeling, but astonishment. A capable officer, Sir Joseph had often wished to make aircraft more useful to the Royal Navies, and the alternate navy had clearly succeeded.
He saw Anderson, standing next to the strange Admiral, and marched over to him. “Vice-Admiral,” he said. The black shapes of Anderson’s force could be seen near the Washington, surrounding and protecting the American ship.
Anderson, according to age-old tradition, saluted first. Sir Joseph matched it. “Admiral,” Anderson said. “Sir Joseph, please allow me to present Admiral Christopher Jackson, of the United States of America.”
Sir Joseph reeled inside, but shook the hands of the new Admiral firmly. “A pleasure to meet you,” he said, unsure if he was telling the truth. “In fact, it is a very great pleasure to meet you.”
Anderson blinked. “Sir Joseph?”
“The Falklands are back in our hands,” Sir Joseph said. “I understand that we have you to thank for that.”
Jackson nodded. “It is our pleasure to help out our British cousins,” he said. “Shall we repair to my stateroom?”
His accent was strange, far…deeper than most Americans. Sir Joseph nodded as best as he could. “Yes, that would be a good idea,” he said. “The Viceroy and the Prime Minister have both expressed interest in meeting you, Admiral, but for the moment we have other preparations to make.”
Admiral Jackson was oddly disappointed by Sir Joseph Porter. He’d expected a portly incompetent, not the grey-haired man with a certain competence. It made sense, he supposed; the Empire could hardly allow an incompetent man to run one of their most important naval stations, but he seemed…worried by the Americans. Anderson had described him as unimaginative, and yet Sir Joseph seemed to have some idea of what everyone was calling the Transition really meant.
Sir Joseph opened his case and pulled out a small bottle. “I have taken the liberty of bringing some malt scotch,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is no supply of French wine.”
Anderson chuckled. Jackson smiled; French wine was contraband with the war on, ending the dreams of winos everywhere. “I have some Italian wine with me,” he said. “It may not even exist in this universe.”
Sir Joseph poured three glasses. “God save the King,” he said, and sipped his glass. Jackson tasted his thoughtfully; it was smoky, a variant not invented in his own universe. “Admiral Jackson, you have really put the cat among the pigeons.”
“I know,” Jackson said, as contritely as he could. “I’m rather astonished to be here as well.”
Sir Joseph nodded, putting down his half-full glass. “This ship, Admiral, will be the target of choice for every French submarine in the Caribbean,” he said. “They’re not very good at submarine warfare – neither are we – but your ship will be a target.”
Jackson nodded. He’d been unsurprised to discover that the submarines in this universe were primitive compared to German U-Boats from 1945, but surprised to discover that war was conducted according to standard rules of war. Submarines did not strike at civilian ships from under the water; that was against the rules. He supposed it made sense; there was no point in trying to starve Britain out when it could feed itself.
“Which leads to a second problem,” Sir Joseph said. “The French may decide that now is the time for the decisive battle both sides have been wanting and fearing since serious planning for the war began. Admiral; what side are you on?”
The quiet urgency in his voice surprised Jackson, although he realised that it should not have surprised him at all. Sir Joseph was a political admiral first and foremost; he wanted to be First Sea Lord. Fighting and winning the divisive battle would make him certain for the post; losing it, assuming he survived, would be fatal.
“We don’t have a nation here, but we’re loyal to America,” Jackson said. He’d made that choice long ago. “We will help you.”
“Then the first step would be to share everything you have with us,” Sir Joseph said seriously. “What can you send us, at once, that will help us win this war?”
Jackson smiled. “One of us, a British army officer from the alternate Britain, has been thinking about that,” he said. “With the knowledge that we can give you, you can win the war in a year or two.”
Sir Joseph’s mouth fell open. He took a quick sip of his scotch to cover it. “Are you serious?” He demanded. “This war has been going on for a year!”
“Yes,” Jackson said, meeting and holding his eyes. “Admiral, what are your superiors war aims?”
“They want a victorious end to the war, of course,” Sir Joseph said. “They just want it to end, ideally with us in control of certain vital territories.”
“The Caribbean, mainly,” Anderson injected. “Alaska and parts of New Spain are on the NAU’s list of…desirable territories.”
Jackson thought about the resources in Alaska and understood. “Past then?”
“The idea is to win the war,” Sir Joseph said dryly. His tone was puzzled. “What’s the point of trying to invade France, or Russia?”
“I thought that you wanted to win,” Jackson said, puzzled. He understood, suddenly; with the general level of technology around, a certain victory was literally impossible. Marching to Paris might end the war, but how could a force that was largely pre-World War One manage it?
“It’s impossible to destroy the French Empire,” Sir Joseph said. “The same is true, perhaps more so, of the Russian Empire.”
Jackson picked up the atlas from the Amherst. “You have…claims in Iran and Iraq, perhaps even Saudi,” he said. He corrected himself; Saudi didn’t exist in this timeline. “This giant bit of sand here.”
“Useless territory,” Sir Joseph said. “What do we want with the stupid barbarians there?”
It was an attitude that Jackson rather wished the US had shared. “Oil,” he said. “You want some of our technology, you will need the oil there.”
“The French use it in some of their ships,” Anderson said. “We don’t; we don’t have that much oil apart from Texas.”
Jackson smiled. The history of Texas in this timeline was even more exciting than the history of his Texas. “If you want to end the war, with our help you could reach Paris and force the French out of the war.”
Sir Joseph took a breath, then another. He believed the…American, he believed him, and that made it worse. The balance of power between the three superpowers – and the four minor powers, but no one important cared about them – had served the world well for over a century; wars had been minor matters, not the total destruction that Jackson was talking about. Who in London, or Amherst, or Canberra…or wherever wanted to risk destroying an entire empire?
“I would really like to believe that you were boasting,” he said.
“He’s not,” Anderson said. The young man, the supremely competent man, believed that it was possible. Sir Joseph knew that the armies had plans to do that, but they all promised to be disasters. If it was possible…
“I’ve read their history books,” Anderson said, interrupting his thoughts. “They managed to make it to Berlin from Britain.”
Sir Joseph sighed. “I think that we will be playing for limited gains,” he said. “We do not have the resources to handle the disintegration of the French Empire, let alone the Russian one.” He sighed. “It might have worked during the Global War, and there are those who said that we should have done just that, but it won’t work now.”
Jackson shrugged. “So, you’ll start improving your weapons anyway?”
Sir Joseph nodded. “This…army officer, what does he want to do?”
“He wants to take a seaplane to London,” Jackson said. “Do you have aircraft going from Washington to London? If not, one of our seaplanes can do it.”
Sir Joseph blinked. “Washington?” He asked. “Where’s Washington?”
Jackson sighed, looking very…lost for a moment. “I meant here, your North American Union,” he said. “Where is your capital anyway?”
“Amherst, named after my ship,” Anderson said. “Yes, we do have a trans-Atlantic flight service.”
Jackson nodded. “So, now what?”
Sir Joseph took a breath and tried to gain control. There was so much about this situation that…astonished him. “According to the report from Admiral Anderson,” he said, “you need food, right?”
“And a place to live when we’re not on ship,” Jackson added.
Sir Joseph nodded. “I have taken the liberty of clearing a barracks town for your people,” he said. “It’s not very big, but it could hold a couple of thousand people if it had to. I think that we’ll have to take everything slowly and carefully.”
“We’re going to have to chase the French out of the Caribbean,” Anderson said. “Sir Joseph, we have the capability to do that for the first time ever – we have to move fast before they adapt.”
“How are they going to adapt?” Jackson asked dryly. “They don’t have any information themselves?”
“They have good observers,” Anderson said. “If they put a grating over their smokestacks, then what will happen to your weapons?”
“There are others,” Jackson said.
“That is a point,” Sir Joseph said. “What happens if we end up dependent upon your weapons?”
“We’ll run out if we use them all the time,” Jackson admitted. Sir Joseph was oddly relieved; they did have limits. “In theory, we can make some more, but I would hate to have to rely on it.”
Sir Joseph smiled. “What about fuel for your aircraft?” He asked. “Will you not need more?”
Jackson nodded. “Yes, that is a problem,” he said. “I think that we will be able to produce it, given time. Until then, we will have to conserve.”
“Particularly since protecting the Washington is ultra-important,” Sir Joseph said. “As I said, they will come to try to destroy it, whatever it takes.”
“Then we should head to Panama and destroy their fleet now,” Anderson said. He smiled, tapping the map. “We move now, before they can even begin to change their methods, and sink their fleet. The war here could be over within a week!”
Sir Joseph shook his head. He’d seen all kinds of schemes to deal with the French base at Panama, all of which would have been disasters if they’d actually been carried out, and he didn’t believe that the Washington could change that – at least, change it enough to make risking the super-ship worthwhile.
“The priority is to make certain that we cannot lose the new knowledge before it’s too late,” he said firmly. “That…is our priority.”
“So you said,” Jackson said. “So, we can move some of our people to shore?”
“I’ve made the arrangements,” Sir Joseph said. “One final question; will you accept my orders?”
Jackson hesitated noticeably. “There is a film, a cinema reel, back where I came from,” he said. “In it, a carrier like this one is sent back in time, and they wonder the same thing.” Sir Joseph lifted an eyebrow. “They wonder if the Americans of that era, who weren’t always good people, were worthy of the carrier. Point was; the well-being of America came first.”
Sir Joseph nodded. “But America doesn’t exist here,” Anderson said. “So…what does that mean for you?”
Jackson drew himself up. “I will obey orders, within reason,” he said. “I have to look after my people first, Admiral; they’re all I have.”
Sir Joseph decided to settle for what he had. “Thank you,” he said. “The first order of business, the first order, is lunch at Admiralty House.”
Jackson chuckled. “Lunch sounds good,” he said. “And after that?”
Sir Joseph hesitated. “I’m not sure,” he said. “It depends upon what London makes of all this.”
“A training command,” Anderson said. Jackson’s face…changed. “You’ll need new people, Admiral, and we’ll need people who are used to working with your technology.” He nodded sympathetically. “It might be the best use of their talents, Admiral.”
“A training command,” Jackson repeated. “It should be interesting.”
Sir Joseph almost smiled at the expression on his face. “We’ll end up giving you your rank, perhaps even a knighthood,” he said. “With all this new technology, you will deserve it.”
“I assume that you were listening,” Jackson said, after the meeting had concluded. He stepped into the small office with a sigh. “What do you think?”
Morrigan smiled. “I am the very model of a modern Royal Admiral,” he sang, not entirely tunefully. “The guy is a bit of an unimaginative martinet, isn’t he? Anderson was right; we should be hitting Panama now.”
“You’re supposed to be aggressive,” Jackson said. “We have the only fragment of America here, in this ship. Risking it in a strike against Panama…”
“We could launch from here,” Morrigan said. “It would eat up a lot of our weapons and fuel, but it would settle the problem of Panama and the French position there.” He paused. “We are well out of range of their…shabby excuses for aircraft.”
“Perhaps,” Jackson said. There were more important matters to worry about. “Anything on sonar?”
Morrigan shook his head. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all, which I suspect is what we can expect.”
Jackson frowned. “Sir Joseph was right; we will be their first target,” he said. “If they manage to knock us out, the war returns to its balanced state.”
“Fancy not wanting to invade France,” Morrigan said. “Don’t they want the war to end?”
“I think that they don’t have the technology or the manpower,” Jackson said. “They’ll change their tune by the time they see what we can do for them.”
Morrigan saluted. “I hope that you’re right,” he said. “So…what now?”
Jackson smiled. “I’ve been invited to lunch,” he said. “Doubtless it will be very British; roast beef, boiled potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and doubtless a steamed pudding for desert.” He chuckled. “For the moment, remain on alert; if the sonar picks up a hint of a submarine, launch an ASW helicopter at once.” He considered. “Also, launch some drones, the high-attitude versions, and scout out around the islands here. We may as well see what the French have on their islands.”
“Yes, sir,” Morrigan said. “Anything else?”
“Strange not to have a thousand things to do,” Jackson mused. “I want you to come up with a list of people we can send ashore, people with skills and knowledge they will need here.”
“People with manufacturing experience,” Morrigan mused. Jackson nodded; improving the oil refining technology here, for example, would mean that the Washington’s aircraft could get the fuel they needed. “So…we’re really going to join them?”
Jackson lifted an eyebrow. “Your exec bending your ear again?” He asked. “What choice do we have?”