Hotel Splendid/Ten Downing Street
London, United Kingdom (TimeLine B)
The aircraft was primitive compared to the transatlantic airliners that had moved between Britain and America in the original timeline, the timeline that Colonel Sir Benjamin Phillips had been born in. His knighthood, a reward for his services in Iran, had no value in the aircraft; he hadn’t been knighted by King-Emperor George X, after all.
Sir Benjamin shook his head slowly, from side to side, as the aircraft headed down through Ireland to London. The people of this timeline had never developed the jet engine, but their propeller-driven aircraft were almost as good as some in his timeline. If they’d spent the time developing weapons of war, they might have happened upon tanks, or jets, or even nuclear power…but instead they’d concentrated on developing their civilisation.
Sad, Sir Benjamin thought, although he wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. His aircraft could not have survived an attack even by Contemporary aircraft, let alone the modern aircraft from the Washington. And yet…it had survived; all three of the superpowers abided by laws and conventions that had developed for years. Instead of the disaster area of Africa, the three powers involved had truly developed it, saving it from years of suffering.
“We’re the snake in the garden,” he muttered, and wondered. He’d made a private promise to himself to avoid mentioning some weapons, but he was grimly certain that they would be developed anyway. The war might have gone on for years, without their appearance, and God alone knew what would happen now that the French had to know that the Washington existed. He was certain that the landlines from New Orleans would be buzzing, even though the Royal Navies had managed to prevent any official mention of the ship.
“I beg your pardon,” Lieutenant Pham asked. The American, a descendent of refugees from Vietnam, didn’t seem to have the same sense of…concern about the future. “Sir…?”
“It’s nothing,” Sir Benjamin said. Pham’s country didn’t exist in this timeline; the forces of communism had never gained a country. Socialists existed, apparently, but they held no country. “Are you still in contact with the Washington?”
The young man played with the laptop on his lap. “No, sir,” he said. One advantage of the pre-Information age was that electronic signals couldn’t really harm the aircraft. “We’re out of range.”
Sir Benjamin nodded. Some of the hastily selected equipment they carried might be able to communicate with the Washington, but it would have to be set up in London. Absently, he wondered how the British Government was coping with the news of the future; a small digest had been sent through the telegraphs.
A young man from India stepped into the main cabin, the co-pilot of the plane. Somewhat to Sir Benjamin’s surprise, the United Empire took a much more relaxed approach to race than he would have expected, although it would have been difficult to maintain white dominance everywhere.
“Sahib, the plane will be landing in thirty minutes,” he said. “You will be taken to a hotel and then you will be seeing people in the morning.”
Pham yawned. “Thank you,” he said. Sir Benjamin nodded beside him. “Why aren’t we seeing them today?”
“Because you’re tired,” Sir Benjamin said. “Young man, where are we being kept?”
“The Hotel Splendid,” the co-pilot said. He grinned openly at them. “That’s supposed to be the best hotel in London. It’s where the princes stay.”
Sir Benjamin nodded as the co-pilot returned to the cabin. He’d managed to convince the British-Americans, or whatever they would be called to distinguish them from the crew of the Washington, to give him a primer on the workings of the British Empire. India, a fully-equal dominion to any other domination, had a curious government composed of the princes and the elected representatives, following the British model. It all seemed to hang together rather well.
No Gandhi, no Jinnah, no Nehru…and a peaceful world, he thought, and smiled. The Indian Subcontinent was far more peaceful than it had been in the original timeline, without partition…and a constant threat from Russia. Afghanistan was supposed to be a border state, but with both powers playing silly buggers with the tribes and trying to gain control, it was a constant threat. Railways and aircraft flew over the mountains, opening up the region despite the best that the tribesmen can do.
“This is a better world than ours,” he mused. Terrorism was minimal; there was no extremist Islam, no dirt-poor states sending their poor and helpless to be a drain on the west. It was – or had been – peaceful…and stagnant. If an asteroid came and hit the Earth, these people would be helpless.
There was a bump as the aircraft touched down on dry land. They’d touched down before, on Iceland and Ireland, but this was different. He peered out of the window, searching for the towers of London…and didn’t see them.
“This is not Heathrow,” Pham commented. That was true; it was on the wrong side of London, for starters. The plane taxied to a stop on the tarmac and opened its hatch, allowing a moveable stair to be attached to the plane. A man, dressed in a uniform that looked to have come from Buckingham Palace, bustled up the stairs and came into the plane.
“Colonel Sir Benjamin Phillips and party?” He asked. His English was different, oddly accented. “I’m Charles Barrington-Smythe, special representative of the Foreign and Colonial Office.”
“Ah…pleased to meet you,” Sir Benjamin said, wondering why it was surprising. The Colonial Office had been defunct for years in the original timeline, but it would certainly still exist in the strange new world. “Are you our guide?”
The young man smiled. With his dark hair and eager-to-please attitude, he would have been a success in any world. “Yes, Sir Benjamin,” he said. He shook hands quickly with Sir Benjamin, and then with Pham, showing no hesitation at shaking hands with a Vietnamese man. “I’m to show you both to the hotel, and then sleep on the floor in front of your rooms.”
He smiled brightly to show that that was a joke. “Not quite,” he admitted, at Sir Benjamin’s questioning look. “I’m to remain in the hotel though, at your service.”
“Thank you,” Sir Benjamin said, as grandly as he could. “What about our luggage?”
“Items you want to go with you, point them out now,” Barrington-Smythe said, as they climbed out of the plane. Sir Benjamin sniffed and caught…a surprisingly clean odour, for an airport. The entire airport looked…primitive, but not dingy. “Anything else will be taken to the base tonight.”
Sir Benjamin nodded as the stewards unloaded their equipment. He separated his travelling case; Pham made certain he had his laptop, and allowed the stewards to take the rest. He looked around the airport and blinked; there was something missing from it.
Pham put it into words. “Mr Barrington-Smythe, have you closed the airport, just for us?”
Barrington-Smythe shook his head, sending his short black locks everywhere. “No, why?” He asked. “We kept activity to a normal level, just to prevent anyone from noticing.”
Sir Benjamin gaped at him. “This is a normal level?” He asked, waving a hand at the nearly empty airport. “What happens during the dry season? Do people go on overseas holidays here?”
Barrington-Smythe looked puzzled. “Most people would go on a ship for a holiday,” he said. “A lot of people loved going to Spain for a holiday, but with the war on…”
“I understand,” Sir Benjamin said, shaking his head. “How many flights are there each day?”
“I have no idea,” Barrington-Smythe said. “Around seventy would be normal, I think.”
Sir Benjamin thought of the hundreds of flights that left Heathrow in the original timeline, and held his tongue. A large car drove up to them and Barrington-Smythe opened the door. Sir Benjamin smiled; it was a Rolls Royce.
“No, it’s a Paterson,” Barrington-Smythe said, when he asked. “He was a car manufacturer some time ago. He made hundreds of cars, selling them to all and sundry.”
Sir Benjamin shook his head as they climbed in, taking their places and waiting for the driver to move. Barrington-Smythe issued instructions to the driver and the car moved off, heading onto the main road into London. He felt, for the first time, truly shocked…London was different, far more different than he remembered. It was greener in places, and darker in others.
“There’s no Indians,” Pham muttered. They were moving though the regions of London that had once – in another reality – housed curry shops and an Asian minority. There were a handful of Indian-based restaurants, but none of the practical settlements that successive governments had denied existed…before the war had begun.
A great improvement, Sir Benjamin thought, remembering the uprising in the streets. A mad mullah – that term didn’t even seem to exist here – had convinced the Muslims that if they rose up, Allah would protect them. Barely armed, utterly undisciplined, they’d been massacred, once the British Government took the gloves off. Sir Benjamin remembered machine-gunning them in the streets and shuddered – the streets had run with blood that day.
“Here’s the hotel,” Barrington-Smythe said. Sir Benjamin grabbed onto it gratefully; his mind had been spinning around, confused by the radically different London. The Hotel Splendid was magnificent; he heard Pham’s indrawn breath beside him as he stared up at the fantastic building.
“It’s wonderful,” he said, as they entered the lobby. A friendly bellhop took the bags in the service lift, and then gaped at the coins that Sir Benjamin had tipped him with.
“None of the new-fangled coins here,” Sir Benjamin said, more disturbed by that than he wanted to admit. “Now what?”
“Up in the lift,” Barrington-Smythe said, opening the lift. A chambermaid, wearing an outfit that would have disgraced a French waitress, motioned them inside, her dress moving around her body in a way that tantalised and suggested, rather than revealed.
“This is your floor,” she said, in a voice that might have been intended to be sultry. Sir Benjamin, who was used to outright pornographic videos, wasn’t impressed. “If you need anything, just give me a call.”
“Thank you,” Barrington-Smythe said. “This way, Sir Benjamin.” He waited until the chambermaid had disappeared, then elbowed Sir Benjamin. “They’re supposed to be quite accommodating.”
“I’m married,” Sir Benjamin said automatically, and then the loss struck him. He reeled as it finally sank in; he would never meet his wife again, let along hold her in his arms. Even if she had a counterpart in this strange world – an impossible event – she would not be the same person.
“Sir Benjamin?” Barrington-Smythe asked. “Sir?”
“I’m fine,” Sir Benjamin said. His voice was harsher than he had intended. “I just need some sleep.”
Barrington-Smythe didn’t argue, he just threw open a large door and waved them in. “You have rooms on each side of this stateroom,” he said. “Your meeting with the council set up to handle this…event is at 1000 tomorrow, or eleven hours from now.”
Sir Benjamin shook his head. The room, decorated in red and gold, was utterly fantastic, almost in bad taste. Golden objects hung from the ceiling, the bed itself was large enough for an orgy.
“I could call that maid,” Pham said, as soon as they were alone. Barrington-Smythe had left, promising to return for them in the morning. “That might be fun.”
Sir Benjamin sighed. “Do as you please,” he said, too tired to argue. “I’m off to bed.”
Barrington-Smythe, true to his word, had returned for them at 0800hrs, inviting them both to breakfast. From the little hints of lipstick on Pham’s face, Sir Benjamin deduced that he had indeed succeeded with the chambermaid, which showed a different side of the United Empire. He’d expected her to refuse to bed an oriental on principle, but apparently she’d been quite willing.
“And now we have to be off,” Barrington-Smythe said, as soon as they had finished their excellent breakfast. It had been utterly delicious, rather than the half-cooked breakfasts in some of the original London’s hotels. The meat had been perfect; the eggs done to a turn. “The Prime Minister is waiting.”
Pham yawned. Sir Benjamin took the opportunity to mutter a dry comment about beds being made to sleep in, rather than more pleasurable activities, and then turned his full attention to Barrington-Smythe.
“We’re going to take a car again,” Barrington-Smythe said. Sir Benjamin nodded; there had been fewer cars on the streets of London than he’d expected, perhaps the first real sign of rationing that he’d seen. “The Prime Minister will not be happy if we’re late.”
“Lead on, McDuff,” Sir Benjamin said, checking to make sure that he had his equipment. “Let’s go.”
The trip through London wasn’t much different from the one the day before, but he was more able to look around and compare notes. This London was more sedate, if such a thing were possible, than his London, and yet it had a certain charm. This people were the heart of a global empire and it showed in the way they walked and talked.
“Here we are,” Barrington-Smythe said. Sir Benjamin started guiltily. Ten Downing Street stood in front of them, still the same building that it had been in the original timeline. He’d half-expected to visit Buckingham Palace, but instead it was what he had expected. “Right this way.”
The policeman at the door was usual too, along with the corridors. A terrible suspicion began to blossom in Sir Benjamin’s mind, but it vanished when the main doors opened, revealing four men sitting around a table, waiting for them.
“Sir Benjamin, Prime Minister,” Barrington-Smythe said.
A grey-haired man stood up and extended a hand. “Harriman Grey, Prime Minister,” he said. “You must be Colonel Sir Benjamin Phillips.”
“I’m not sure if I am a knight here,” Sir Benjamin admitted. “Still, guilty as charged.”
Grey’s face twitched. “This is the council set up to decide what to do about you people,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have to move fast. Does the name Charles de Gaulle mean anything to you?”
Sir Benjamin felt his blood run cold. “That was the name of a carrier with the original task force,” he said. A nasty thought occurred to him; that detail had never been shared with anyone, as far as he knew. “How did you know that?”
“That carrier has arrived in France,” Grey said. His face was suddenly lined with worry. “We have some sources in the French Court, Sir Benjamin; one of them warned us about the new arrival. We were panicking…until we heard about you.”
“We still are panicking,” a man in civilian clothes said. “Adam Grovetown, American Representative. Sir Benjamin, will your people help us?”
Sir Benjamin nodded once. “That’s what I came here to do,” he said. “Do the French know about the Washington?” He shook his head angrily. “No, they must know; we attacked the Falklands, after all. Which means…”
“That whatever you tell us, the French will tell the French,” Grey said. “How much damage can that carrier do?”
Sir Benjamin glanced at Pham, who had been trying to stay out of the way. They’d had no idea at all that any other units had come through the transition, thanks to the UFOs. They’d detected no sign at all of them, and so they’d assumed that they were alone…and now, there could be task force units everywhere – anywhere.
Pham coughed. “The Charles de Gaulle is a far less capable unit than the George Washington,” he said. “In a straight-up battle, the Charles de Gaulle would be swiftly destroyed. Unfortunately, they would be capable of introducing as much technology as we could, perhaps more.”
Sir Benjamin scowled. “It gets worse,” he said. “For reasons I won’t discuss at the moment, the admiral commanding that ship is known to be very pro-French.”
A man wearing a naval uniform similar to the one worn by Admiral Anderson coughed. “Sir Benjamin, they’re French,” he snapped. “Of course they would be pro-French.”
“It’s a long story,” Sir Benjamin said, deciding that French Politics 101 could wait for a while. It would hardly be relevant here anyway. “The point is; they could introduce new ideas into the French Empire, including ones that could be used to break the land stalemate in the east.”
“Both sides have lost thousands of men fighting in Poland,” Grey said. “If they could break the stalemate somehow…”
The army officer nodded. “If we had the ability to break the stalemate in Alaska, or New Spain, we would use it,” he said.
“We’re offering that to you,” Sir Benjamin said. He sighed grimly. “We’re also going to have to invest some time in confirming that the Charles de Gaulle was the only other ship to arrive.”
“Oh God,” the naval officer said. “The Russians might have a ship as well.”
There had been Russian ships in the task force, Sir Benjamin knew. He decided not to mention that for the moment. “It’s a possibility,” he conceded. “For the moment, however, we have to start preparing the new weapons.”
“As the French will be doing the same,” Grey said. “If you were in charge of France, Sir Benjamin, what would you do?”
Sir Benjamin stood and wandered over to the massive map on the wall, displaying the war situation. The Falkland Islands were still marked as occupied, he noted with some amusement. “There are dozens of ideas, ranging from tanks – land ironclads – to improved artillery that we were going to show you,” he said. “We must assume that the French have been thinking along the same lines.”
“The logic of the situation will force them to think about the same things and along the same lines,” Pham injected.
Sir Benjamin nodded. “If I was in their place, I would head east,” he said. “I know nothing about the Russian Empire in this timeline, but according to the people in America it’s nasty. If the French can break though the defences, they will be able to topple the Russians and gain control of Russian land. If they do that…they will be unbeatable.”
He smiled at their shock. “If I was in their place, that’s what I would do,” he said. “We have to prepare for the worst, Gentlemen; France armed with the resources of Europe.”