North American Union (TimeLine B)
Sharon Green wasn’t certain what to make of New Orleans, particularly the larger section that was the main city outside the naval base. The British had converted a large section of the city into a naval base, as well as a major army garrison; pro-Spanish sentiment had been very strong for the first years after the Global War. Even after nearly two hundred years, there were strong family ties to New Spain – and therefore a hotbed of spies.
It was odd, to her eyes, and she could only be grateful that she’d only visited the city twice before coming on board the George Washington. The city was a curious mix of the familiar and the alien; it was both the same as it had been in her timeline…and radically different.
“The food here is generally regarded as good,” Maggie O’Brien said. The young reporter smiled dryly at Sharon. “Americans and Hispanics love it here; the rest of the Empire is not so keen.”
“And no hurricane here,” Sharon said. The hurricane that had struck New Orleans, only a few years ago from her perspective, had never occurred in the new universe. Absently, she wondered if that had been missed because of the lesser damage to the ecology, or if there was another, deeper cause.
“Apparently not,” Maggie said wryly. “I saw the pictures you showed me.”
Sharon smiled. “So, what are we doing here?”
“Apart from eating?” Maggie asked. “We’re going to meet the censor.”
Sharon blinked. “They’re going to censor your reports?”
“More or less,” Maggie said. “It should have been done a few days ago, just to get it out on the telegraph. As it happened, you people have been more important to the world at large.”
Sharon snorted as they entered yet another street, this one filled with dancers. “Everyone can see the Washington,” she said. “You yourself said that there are still thousands of smugglers and spies around. They must know by now.”
Maggie laughed. “They would have known once the Falklands was attacked,” she said. “The problem is; how much do they know?”
“Hey, pretty ladies,” a man called. “Do you want a kiss?”
Sharon felt a flicker of raw anger. “Fuck off,” she snapped. The man lifted his hat and vanished. “What was that about?”
“Life here is a permanent party, if you believe the tourist broachers,” Maggie said. She chuckled. “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“I can see that,” Sharon said. She glanced around; only a handful of Spanish-looking women were on the streets. “Where are the women?”
“Depends,” Maggie said. “With some of the businesses, they run them and their menfolk have fun and avoid conscription. Some are whores” – her mouth twisted – “and they’re probably at the base, trying to service all the seamen on Felix’s fleet…”
“So it’s Felix now,” Sharon teased. “How did it go?”
“Pretty well, I think,” Maggie said, showing the first sign of doubt. “I like him, you know.”
Sharon felt her heart go out to her. “I think that’s pretty clear,” she said. A massive Chinese dragon danced past, the only signs of the operators the legs under the massive silk monster. “What about them?”
Maggie laughed. “Some sadist in the immigration office decided to put many of the immigrants in the same place,” she said. “There are Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants here, you know.”
“I never would have guessed,” Sharon said, as fireworks began to go off in the daylight sky. “Why?”
“I have no idea,” Maggie said. “There was a guy, a while back, who thought that if you stuffed everyone together, you would end up with something better, something uniquely…New Orleans. There was another guy, perhaps a bit more practical, who thought that if you put the Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos together, they would dampen any desire on the part of the Spanish-descendants to head back to New Spain. The Filipinos, in fact, are rabid Empire-loyalists.”
Sharon considered the history of the Philippines and pinpointed the change. “Their homelands remained Spanish?” She guessed. “No rebellion?”
“Pretty much,” Maggie said. “The French took over when the Spanish joined the French Empire, pretty much against their will, and they were really unpleasant to everyone who wasn’t a Catholic. A lot of non-Catholics went to the Empire, mainly here. A lot more ended up on the west coast, mixing in better there.”
Sharon smiled as they finally reached one of the major government buildings. It was a black fortress, guarded by Marines. A massive British flag – the North American Union design – floated overhead, blowing back and forth in the breeze. A thought struck her and she blinked.
“What about the black slaves?” She asked. “What happened to them?
Maggie smiled a bittersweet smile. “In the year of our lord 1852, a lot of people got the idea that slavery was a bad idea, and the year afterwards a large organisation began buying slaves and freeing them. Once actually trading in slaves was forbidden, it was only a matter of time before the slaves were all freed.”
She snorted. “At the same time, Ireland was under the British and remains so to this day,” she said. “The Irish are regarded as second-class citizens, even in their own country.”
Sharon winced. “And the Americans?” She asked. “How do they regard you?”
“As a woman,” Maggie said. “It’s always harder for unmarried women.”
Sharon changed the subject. “So, when are you and…Felix going to tie the knot?” She asked. “You both want each other, don’t you?”
“I think so,” Maggie said, as they reached the main doors. “Here’s where we go in.”
The Marine checked Maggie’s identity card and waved her in. He studied Sharon’s card from the Washington more carefully, checking it against a colour printout that had to have come from the Washington, before allowing her in. By the standards of the Washington’s forward deployment base in Japan, it was a very light check indeed.
They could smuggle bombers in here with ease, Sharon thought, and shuddered. She made a mental note to warn Admiral Jackson about the possible danger.
“So, what’s he like in bed?” She asked, as they entered the main foyer. “Is he any good?”
Maggie blushed bright red. “We don’t do that until we’re married,” she said. “I may be an independent woman, but I am not a common whore!”
The vehemence in her voice surprised Sharon. “Cool down,” she said. “What’s the big deal?”
Maggie scowled. “We’re meant to go virgin to our wedding night,” she said. “To be sullied means that you have done it before and…”
“Just like the bastard Taliban,” Sharon said. The Taliban – or perhaps their forerunners – had been crushed during the Afghanistan Proxy War in the new universe. “We’re really going to have to do something about it.”
Maggie didn’t answer, instead calling the lift. “Time to go upstairs,” she said. “I hate the censors. I’d almost sooner be groped in public, or have them looking up my skirt.”
Sharon grinned as the lift arrived. “Sooner you than me,” she said. “Remind me to tell you what I went through on my sorority welcome night.”
Maggie didn’t speak in the lift. Her face grew longer and longer as the loft proceeded upwards, finally reaching the fifth floor. Sharon followed her along a corridor that was ornate, finally reaching a secretary’s desk. The secretary, an Indian woman in a sari, looked up as they entered, greeting Maggie with a disapproving look – then staring openly at Sharon’s tight clothes.
“You are expected,” she said, in a voice that was pure cockney. The mixture was so astonishing that Sharon giggled; she glared at her without bothering to hide it. “You may enter.”
“Thank you,” Maggie said, and led the way into the office – and stopped. Sharon stuck out her tongue at the secretary, and bumped into Maggie's back. “Admiral?”
Admiral Sir Joseph Porter nodded gravely at her as Maggie curtseyed. Sharon felt a flicker of bright annoyance at the abasement; she contented herself with a nod. Two other officers, one who couldn’t keep his eyes off her breasts, nodded back to her.
“Please take a seat,” Sir Joseph said, pulling a chair out for Maggie. The basic courtesy was unusual in Sharon’s experience, but it seemed to fit in here. The horny officer pulled out a chair for her.
“Thank you,” she said, taking a seat.
“Thank you for coming,” Sir Joseph said, addressing Maggie. “I’m sorry about the delay; your office, for the moment, has accepted our explanation and our…responsibility for your lateness in filing.” He paused. “It is unlikely that they will proceed with disciplinary action.”
Maggie sighed in relief. “Thank you, sir,” she said.
Sir Joseph smiled. “You’re welcome,” he said. His gaze flickered once to Sharon; Sharon had the idea that he was annoyed that she was there. “As the exclusive was yours, it would have been very embarrassing for them to have given you the sack.” He smiled. “We have finally reviewed the report that you submitted.”
Maggie looked apprehensive. Sharon couldn’t wait. “And?”
Sir Joseph’s eyes flickered again. “And the decision has been made that you can publish it,” he said. Maggie sagged in relief. “While under normal circumstances we would insist on you removing some paragraphs, it has been deemed important that the entire report be published.”
Sharon felt her ears prick up. If it had been deemed, she suspected that that meant higher authority. But who? Who had the authority to overrule Sir Joseph, if not the censors? Who would have made that decision?
“In fact, it has been decided that the report will be shared by all the newspapers,” Sir Joseph said. He held up a hand to forestall objection. “While you won’t have an exclusive on anything, which will be shared between all interested parties and papers, you will be paid for all publications – and you will continue to remain the official reporter attached to the…ah, Washington.”
“Thank you, sir,” Maggie said. Sharon, who has listened to her worries that someone more senior would be sent in to take over, wondered exactly what was going on. “Sir…?”
“We have cleared the problem with your paper,” Sir Joseph assured her. “In fact, they have been leant on quite heavily, just to ensure that you remained on site. Your career has been made.”
“Thank you,” Maggie said again. Sir Joseph’s eyes flickered. “Can I go publish it now?”
“The department here will take care of the first publication,” Sir Joseph said. “Call it our support and compensation for keeping you waiting.”
Sharon’s mind worked furiously. This was way too much for one young rookie reporter, particularly one with the wrong plumbing to join the Old Boy’s Club. As much as she liked Maggie, she wasn’t sure why Maggie was getting all she had ever wanted, on a plate.
“However, we would like to talk to you alone for a few moments,” Sir Joseph said. Sharon’s eyes flew wide open. “Miss Green; please would you remain outside?”
Maggie looked up at Sharon, her green eyes hopelessly pleading. Sharon made her choice and stood up. “See you in five minutes,” she said. “I’ll just wait outside.”
Maggie, not for the first time, wished that Vice-Admiral Felix Anderson had proposed to her. She would have given half her life to be wearing an engagement ring; the last time she’d been in front of a review panel, she’d felt as if she’d been raped at the end of it. She knew that she knew nothing about what was really happening – and knew that that was a weakness.
I wish I was more like Sharon, she thought, and winced.
“I apologise for the theatrical nature of my actions,” Sir Joseph said. His voice remained calm. “Allow me to inform you that you are in no trouble.” Maggie didn’t relax. “In fact, you may be in a position to do your country some service.”
He opened a folder on his desk and passed her a series of photographs. The sheer quality of the colour images showed that they had come from the Washington, taken after the Battle of the Falklands. Nine superdreadnaughts, in various stages of destruction, lay in the middle of the Falklands Sound. Nine proud ships, reduced to scrap metal in minutes.
“I was there,” Maggie said. “I interviewed some of the captured Frenchmen.”
“We know,” Sir Joseph said. “That is in your first dispatch.”
There was…something in his tone. It was odd, a tone that she had never encountered before. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought that it was fear. Coming to think of it…how did she know that it wasn’t fear?
“I included everything,” she said, wondering what was going on. Sharon would have demanded to know; she…didn’t have quite the guts to do that. “You have agreed to publish everything.”
“Oh, we will,” Sir Joseph said. “You must recognise, however, that this is a power that changes the entire global power balance – and shatters the established order.”
Sharon would have pointed out that the established order, the global stalemate, wasn’t very good anyway. Maggie…did not. Sir Joseph seemed to understand anyway. “These people are not…us,” he said. “They do not have the loyalty to the King-Emperor, or the United Empire, or even to the North American union. Their loyalty is to the United States of America, a nation that never existed on this world.”
Maggie closed her eyes. She’d read, once, a counterfactual novel written by a guy called Parry Garrison. In it, he had predicted that an independent America would have fought a civil war over slavery; something that Maggie was confident was nonsense. As technology had advanced, so too had the aversion to using brute-force labour.
Except that Sharon’s world did indeed fight a civil war, she thought. Coincidence?
“That state does not exist,” she said, becoming aware that Sir Joseph was waiting for her to say something. “Even if they wanted too, they could not get back to it.”
“Perhaps,” Sir Joseph said. “I would not have believed these pictures unless I had seen them with my own eyes. Tell me; what could a ship like the Washington do to the Royal Navies?”
Maggie felt her blood run cold. The ships of her semi-lover’s fleet were still gathered near the Washington. She wondered, feeling cold fear trickling along her spine, just how strong the temptation had been to organise an attack from the Amherst and her cohorts, firing armour-piercing shells at point-blank range.
“It could certainly inflict a great deal of damage,” she said, neutrally.
“Exactly,” Sir Joseph said. “For reasons I cannot discuss with you yet, I have been ordered in no uncertain terms not to take any action against the Washington. However, it is vitally important that we keep a sharp eye on them – and learn how to duplicate their technology as quickly as possible. Sooner or later, their interests and ours will separate…and what we learn between now and then could make or break the North American Union.”
Maggie shuddered. For the very first time in her life, she wished that she’d stayed in Ireland. “What exactly do you want me to do?”
“You have been granted access to the Washington,” Sir Joseph said. “We want you to watch them, find out how they think and what they plan to do with themselves. We want you to learn as much as you can about their technology – nothing more.”
“You want me to spy for you,” Maggie said. “Don’t you have other agents?”
“You’re a trained newshound,” Sir Joseph said wryly. “You might notice something that others might miss. We want you to learn about them; their culture and society, rather than anything else.”
One of the other men, the one who couldn’t keep his eyes of Sharon’s chest while she was in the room, spoke for the first time. “It’s your patriotic duty,” he said. His voice was pompous, the voice of a man who never questioned.
“I don’t know what to say,” Maggie said. Her mind spun around, considering everything; her friendship with Sharon, her relationship with Admiral Anderson, the trust that the crew of the Washington had shown…and the possible consequences if the Washington and the North American Union found themselves on different sides.
Sir Joseph frowned. “We can, of course, offer a reward,” he said. “Even without anything else, you would be the only reporter on the spot.”
Maggie knew that she had no choice, not if she wanted to keep her career. “I’ll do it,” she said. “Now can I go get some lunch?”
The horny man looked shocked; Sir Joseph merely smiled. “Yes, you may go,” he said, dismissing her with a word. “Good luck.”
Maggie stood up, returned the folder of photographs, and left the room. Sharon and the Indian secretary were talking, discussing the need to liberate women from the male shackles placed upon them. To hear Sharon talk, men were only useful as sperm donors for babies, nothing else. Maggie wished that she were like her, just for a while, even though she liked the thought of spending the rest of her life with Anderson.
“Time to go,” she said. She made a mental note to send the report to her paper through the telegraph anyway, just in case the Admiral forgot. “Come on,” she said, when Sharon showed no inclination to leave the argument. “There’s a large meal calling my name with growing urgency.”
Sharon smiled and stood up, following her outside the door back to the lift. “What did they want with you anyway?”
Maggie felt like crying. “Nothing much,” she said. “They just wanted to go over the security regulations, like the Official Secrets Act.” She scowled. “Some of the information on your activities is going to be classified.”
Sharon lifted an eyebrow. “The ones that you said you were required to memorise?”
Maggie smiled, trying to keep a brave face. “Exactly,” she said. “The ones that we were required to memorise.”