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Chapter Twenty: Playing Chess with Death



USS George Washington

New Orleans, North American Union (TimeLine B)
There were no personnel from the alternate world, their new home, in the Admiral’s quarters. Only the seven senior officers of the George Washington – and Sharon Green – sat in the large stateroom, listening to Admiral Jackson. The mood was grim, tainted with hope, fear…and a kind of depressing numbness. They knew, one and all, that they would never see their home again.
“The presence of the Charles de Gaulle, presumably including Contre-Admiral François Videzun adds a sudden change to the world,” Admiral Jackson said. His voice was firm; any doubts he had were pushed firmly underground. “We no longer have a monopoly on technology, to share or not as we chose.”
“They will do the same,” Morrigan said. The carrier captain scowled. “We…may have problems with the British and the British-Americans; they will get on fine with the French.”
Commander Talia Taylor, Navigator, coughed. “Will they?” She asked. Her grandparents had been French. “Many Frenchmen are very…devoted to the ideal of democracy, at least in their home country. Will all of the carrier crew go along with Contre-Admiral François Videzun?”
“Does it matter?” Commander Patrick O’Reilly growled. “They will follow his orders. The rewards that a grateful and ultra-powerful French Empire can bestow will make any…scruples they have seem like nothing. Think about it; the French of this era can set all of the crew, even the expanded crew, up with rewards that would make each and every one of them a lord. They could live lives of luxury and…”
“We get the point,” Admiral Jackson said. “So…what about the other ships?”
There was a moment of consternation. Morrigan put it into words. “The UFOs could have put them anywhere,” he said.
“We may also have a French spy on board,” O’Reilly said. “The security scans have been picking up…some kind of transmissions. Whatever they are, they barely register on our systems.”
Jackson blinked. “How could a French spy have known that the Charles de Gaulle is here?” He asked. “Presumably they were as surprised as we were by the UFOs and our arrival here.”
“One would think so,” Morrigan agreed. “That said…if they’re not reporting to the French, then who are they reporting to?”
“Assuming they exist at all,” O’Reilly said. “God alone knows how they’re doing it; the most advanced sensor sweeps can only pick up hints of their presence.”
“A technology so far advanced over ours,” Lieutenant Sally Woods mused. More and more, she was becoming the de facto liaison with the shore-based people – and the Royal North American Navy. “Admiral, Captain, we have to force everything forward faster now.”
Jackson lifted an eyebrow. “Explain,” he said, although he understood. “Why must we move faster?”
Sally flushed at the sudden attention. “Having an idea is half of the problem,” she said. “The British made the first use of tanks in World War One, and by 1918 the Germans had a design of their one, several designs. Some of them were better than British designs.” She paused, her hands running over the map of Europe. “Now that that particular serpent is loose, the French will start working on the designs and building them.”
She paused for a long moment. “The same goes for submarines, aircraft carriers and aircraft,” she said. “Their technology is capable of duplicating many of the World War Two aircraft, from the Zero to the Hellcat; they just never thought of it. They could even build anti-tank weapons, if they know that there’s a pressing need to do so.”
O’Reilly shook his head. “There’s a long way between knowing that they need something and producing it,” he said. “How can they build them so quickly?”
Commander Simon Hazelwood snorted. “They have ironclad ships and their descendants,” he said. “These people are not playing with wooden-hulled ships. They have armour-piercing guns, ones designed to punch through hulls a lot harder than ours. If they know that they’ll be facing…land ironclads, with the warning they could find a counter.”
“Wonderful,” Jackson said. “Do we have anyone with serious tank experience on board?”
“A couple of Marines served in the 1st Marine Division during Iraq,” O’Reilly said. “They might be able to help.”
“Then speed is of the essence,” Jackson said. “At the same time…”
“Excuse me,” Morrigan said. The carrier captain had been thinking. “We have the weapons; we can go sink the Charles de Gaulle right now.”
Jackson scowled. If the French had been honest about what the Charles de Gaulle was carrying – and with the different information in different databases it was impossible to be sure – then he might have risked it. If the Charles de Gaulle were in the open sea, it would have been easy to have launched an attack…although perhaps not so easy to have sunk the ship.
“It’s in a locked sea,” he said, deciding that he would discuss his other worries later. “Our aircraft do not have the range to reach the Charles de Gaulle in Cyprus, which is where intelligence places it. The gateway is guarded by heavy guns, designed to prevent the British from forcing their way though, and we don’t have the sort of armour needed to survive. If we use up all our weapons to punch through…”
He didn’t spell out the possible consequences. At point-blank range, the George Washington would by quickly sunk by a French superdreadnaught. If they ran out of the weapons that could sink the French ships at very long distances, then that would be it.
“So sinking the Charles de Gaulle is out of the question,” he said. “Even if we did manage it, what next? The French will have shared their technology with the French here – and they’ll start work on their own tanks and aircraft.”
Commander Simon Hazelwood spoke into the silence. “We might be able to create a scratch force of tanks within three to four months,” he said. “They’re already building the items needed to make tanks; they only have to put them together. Anything else, the aircraft and the carriers for example, will take longer.”
Morrigan snorted. “How long for a carrier?” He asked. “One that’s actually useful?”
“A pity that the Invincible didn’t come through with us,” Commander Thomas Henderson, Weapons Officer, muttered. “It would be so much more useful than the Washington as an example.”
Hazelwood paused to consider. “Unfortunately, most of the conversion jobs in our timeline were done without urgency, so it’s hard to say for certain. The British, the Japanese and ourselves converted battlecruisers to aircraft carriers, but none of us were particularly rushed. Worse, building ships like that is not within my normal area of expertise.”
“And there’s only one nuclear reactor in America at the moment,” Jackson snapped, as the strain finally got the better of him. “You’ll have to adapt, same as the rest of us.”
“Yes, sir,” Hazelwood said. He didn’t react to Jackson’s sharp tone. “The shipwrights there, at least, have no major problems with duplicating the original Essex design, which probably means that the French will have no problems either. At a rough guess, best case scenario, we will have the first three carriers in four to six months; then purpose-built carriers within a year.”
“Wonderful,” Jackson muttered. “What about aircraft?”
“Those are hardly a problem,” Hazelwood assured him. “They just needed a few ideas. We’ll have more aircraft than we know what to do with in a few months.”
“No such thing,” O’Reilly said wryly. “I assume that the French have the same capabilities?”
“It’s hard to answer that question,” Sally said, when Hazelwood looked at her. “Intelligence suggests that the French have the same basic amount of shipbuilding, but other problems as well, such as the need to build monitors to hammer Russian positions in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. They have a roughly equal number of superdreadnaughts, but in the absence of a canal linking the two seas together, they have been avoiding confrontations between their fleets and the Royal Navies.”
Jackson scowled. Sorting out the exact degree of authority and power within the United Empire was extremely difficult; if was as if each state within the United States had decided to build its own navy, rather than have a united navy. Where did the Royal Navy leave off and the Royal North American Navy begin?
Perhaps it’s designed to make a second civil war impossible, he thought, and shuddered.
“So they’ll be looking for a silver bullet,” Hazelwood said. “We must assume that they will begin a crash program too.”
Sharon Green spoke for the first time. “You’re talking about meddling in their internal affairs,” she said. “What happens if they refuse to turn all their shipyards over to manufacturing carriers and submarines?”
“A submarine might be able to penetrate the Mediterranean,” Morrigan said. “They don’t seem to have sonar.”
“They will once the French suggest it,” Hazelwood said. “The technology is hardly beyond their grasp.”
I may have to offer Sharon the job of intelligence work, Jackson thought. “I understand your point,” he said, looking at Sharon. “I think it’s time that we recognised a certain reality – we’re stuck here.”
“So you have said before,” Sharon said, the only person who could have pointed that out. “We can’t get back and this world doesn’t have the tech needed to send us back.”
Exactly,” Jackson said. His voice darkened. “We cannot fly to Mars and escape,” he said. “We cannot find a nice uninhabited island and set up home there. We are committed; we were committed in some ways from the moment we attacked the Falklands, but the presence of the Charles de Gaulle means that we’re truly committed. The French will hate us – and they will come for us.”
O’Reilly glared around the table. “Let them try,” he said.
“Once we run out of bombs and missiles, we’re fucked,” Henderson said. “We could hold out for a while alone, but not forever.”
Jackson nodded. “We have to make this…alliance work, people,” he said. “That means spending more time ashore and helping them to develop as fast as possible.”
There was a long pause. Sharon broke it. “With all due respect, there are very few roles for women here,” she said. “Roughly a third of your crew is female, Admiral; will they all accept second-class citizenship?”
“Hell, no,” Morrigan snapped. “Why should we ask our own women to give up their hard-won freedoms? If they don’t like it, Admiral, let them change their damn customs.”
“Introducing contraception might help with…loosening the shackles,” Sally said. “That would, of course, leave us – and them – with other problems.”
“None of which are our problems,” O’Reilly said. “They would have stumbled upon tanks, aircraft carriers and other things later – their technology was already moving in that direction.” He sighed. “War always pushes development forward.”
“But we will be blamed for those problems,” Sharon said. “We’re a very tiny minority of people; only six thousand and five hundred souls on board.”
Jackson tapped the table. “Does anyone else see a reasonable course of action, other than throwing our lot in with the United Empire?”
There was a long silence. It grew and lengthened. No one spoke. “Then we’re committed,” Jackson said. “We will have to make this alliance work.” He looked around the table. “Commander O’Reilly; I want you to find a way of destroying the French carrier.” O’Reilly nodded. “Captain, you and I are going to have to plan our actions in the Caribbean.”
Morrigan nodded. “Yes, Admiral,” he said. “We already have images from some of the French bases.”
Henderson coughed. “We have seven long-range recon drones,” he said. “We could spare one and send it to Britain, using it to scout over France for the Charles de Gaulle and whatever they’re introducing into the French arsenal. Hell, we could send them an AWACS; if they could fuel it, it would be very helpful.”
Jackson smiled. “That’s what I’m looking for,” he said. “Any more ideas?”
Sally held up her hand. “If we want to remain…well, American,” she said. “We should ask them for Cuba, once we conquer it. A sort of base of operations.”
Jackson considered it. In the original timeline, Cuba’s population had been around eleven million. In this strange world, there were only two million natives, mainly worked to death by Spanish, who were in turn ruled by the French. As a base for French activities, it was a pain in the United Empire’s collective neck.
“If we can take it for them, then yes, that’s a good idea,” Jackson said. “A place that we can be ourselves, rather than their…wizards.”
“We may still have to be part of the United Empire,” Sally said. “Even if they were willing to permit us to remain independent, we would be better off being part of the Empire.”
***

“It’s an interesting idea,” Anderson said, afterwards. The two admirals – Anderson had been promoted after the Falklands – sat together in Jackson’s cabin. “You do realise, of course, that we are not in a position to simply give you Cuba?”


Jackson felt, again, a feeling of sadness at what they and the French had introduced into this world. America’s long history of broken promises had cost them dearly; the United Empire seemed based on honesty and truthfulness…and integrity. They might be bastards, sometimes, but they were honest bastards.
“It’s still in French hands,” Jackson said wryly. “You could play at giving us Caesar’s Gift, I suppose, but…”
Anderson blinked. “George’s gift?”
“Never mind,” Jackson said, dismissing the quote. Introducing the comic books to the United Empire could wait until after the war had been won. “Naturally, we would help you to capture it.”
Anderson lifted an eyebrow. “You do know, of course, why previous attempts have failed?”
Jackson nodded. The superdreadnaughts on both sides had been reluctant to risk a direct clash, leaving it to the smaller ships on both sides. Neither side had been willing to risk a direct, all-out attack, preferring to raid, harass and occasionally launch a minor invasion. Jamaica had changed hands three times in the past year; Cuba had only been raided, mainly because of the large garrison on the island.
“We have the aircraft and men we need,” Anderson said. “Once your aircraft are ready, we can proceed against the French at Panama.” He paused. “If we destroyed the Panama Canal, then…”
“They would have some problems all of a sudden,” Anderson said. Jackson smiled; Anderson was as aggressive as Morrigan. “The problem, of course, is destroying it.” He frowned. “We would have to reopen it as quickly as possible; the generals in charge might want to wait until the army is ready to move.”
“The army does insist on primacy on the land,” Jackson said crossly. “We could build a proper Marine division here, you know.”
“That would really annoy the Royal Marines,” Anderson said. “They do all the water-land war; they have a monopoly on it.”
Jackson shrugged. “We can handle turf fights later,” he said. “What do you think of the other idea?”
“Giving you people somewhere to live?” Anderson said. “I rather think that the Mayor of New Orleans was hoping that you would stay here – you bring him revenue for his city and more mentions in the newspapers. Did you read his interview in the Daily Paper? He thinks that you’re the best thing since the superdreadnaught.”
Jackson chuckled. “There’s going to be friction,” he said, predicting with gloomy certainty. “We have values that you lack.”
Anderson smiled. “There always is,” he said. “I’ve been on exercises in India, where there are occasionally friction between us and them, mainly over women.” He smiled again. “They have brothels too, but their authorities don’t even reluctantly accept that they might exist, so they deny everything when asked.”
Jackson lifted an eyebrow. “What is the status of women there?” He asked. “It wasn’t always good in my world, let alone yours.”
“The same as the rest of the world, officially,” Anderson said. “There are some families that keep to the old ways.” He frowned. “And, occasionally, a woman from Afghanistan runs to India to escape her menfolk.” He paused. “But seriously, it’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to mention it to Admiral Sir Joseph Porter and the government here.”
He sighed. “The first priority, however, remains the Charles de Gaulle,” he said. “That sudden source of ideas for the other side means that we have to act faster.”
“I know,” Jackson said. “You know that we no longer have the luxury of preparing at leisure?”
“I gathered that,” Anderson said. “Convincing everyone to work faster is going to be a pain. Workers had it when you ask them to work harder; they get ill and so on.”
Jackson scowled. “What about Ordinary Seaman Fortson?”
“Transferred him to a destroyer,” Anderson said. “After the flogging, he probably won’t try that again.” He paused. “I think that the lesson about your female crewmen will have sunk in.”
“Crewwomen,” Jackson corrected absently. “How are you getting along with that reporter women, Maggie…what’s her name?”
Anderson blushed; Jackson smiled inside. “I think that it’s going well,” he said. “I’m thinking of asking her to marry me and spend the rest of my life with her.”
“That’s good,” Jackson said. He smiled. “Have fun with her and spend as much time as you can with her.” He winked. “We can even provide you with some contraception, if you want.”
Anderson lifted an eyebrow. “Why do you care?” He asked. “I thought you had a don’t ask, don’t tell policy?”
Jackson sighed. “There’s a lot I wish that I’d said to my wife,” he said. “And now, I never will.”
Anderson nodded in sympathy. “She might have been born here,” he said. “Perhaps you could look…?”
“I doubt it,” Jackson said. “The history of this world is so different that it’s unlikely that there are any…counterparts here at all.”
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