North American Union (TimeLine B)
The vehicle moved carefully off the train wagon, blowing out smoke as it came onto the ground, then started to move into the main area of Fort Robertson – one of the major barracks near the New Spain border. Three miles to the south, the beginning of the disputed territory began…a stretch of land five miles wide where neither side was strong enough to establish dominance. After the slaughters of the first months of war, uneasy stalemate had resulted…until now.
“It doesn’t look that impressive,” Colonel Crenshaw said. The Marine commander, the first commander to have any experience with war in the alternate world, had been selected as the main commanding officer, although both the Army and the Militia had thrown up their collective hands in horror at the thought of a Marine commanding the New Model Army.
Colonel Sir Benjamin Phillips shrugged. “We fired a machine gun at that…unimpressive vehicle at almost point-blank range, mate,” he said. He ignored Crenshaw’s snort. “As you can see, it didn’t put it off its lunch.”
The driver, a Contemporary who had used to drive the fleet of lorries that reinforced any penetrations before it became obvious that there would be hardly any on the Southern Front, swung the vehicle around. Its left tread spun madly, turning it around to face the two commanding officers.
Crenshaw laughed. Someone – perhaps the driver himself – had painted a picture on the front; an angry mouth opening wide. Machine guns poked out of the front, two more poked out of each side, moving around on their own.
“This design is not intended to handle other tanks,” Sir Benjamin said. “We expect, now that the French have their own allies from the Charles de Gaulle, that we will see French tanks, sooner rather than later.”
“You should have attempted to sink that ship,” Crenshaw said. The Charles de Gaulle had remained in its location, well out of range of an airstrike from the George Washington. “Those bastards have been doing the exact same thing in France, you know.”
Sir Benjamin shrugged. He understood the argument; the Royal Navies had argued backwards and forwards about it for the five months since confirming the existence of the French carrier. In the end, though, he understood Admiral Jackson’s point; they had only one super-carrier themselves – it would be folly to risk it, whatever the cause. If both carriers were removed from the balance, then all the knowledge would be lost…and no one knew what had happed to the rest of the task force. Might the Japanese ships have gone to Japan? Might the German ships have gone to the Prussian Congo?
And Russia? There had been two Russian ships in the task force; a submarine and a troop transport. Where were they?
“We’ve had that debate before,” he said, suddenly reluctant to press forward. Radar from the George Washington’s AWACS, moved to Britain at the request of the Royal Flying Corps, had detected French aircraft moving with greater power and capability, the result of suddenly having the plans to build better aircraft. “If we expend all our weapons, then the carrier is helpless.”
Crenshaw shrugged. “I assume that you know what you’re taking about,” he said. “How many of these tanks are there?”
“The plan is for thousands,” Sir Benjamin said seriously. “These are exciting times, Colonel; there are three more designs under production even now. One designed for anti-tank work, one designed for limited amphibious work, and even one designed for faster work than this one, which is meant for clearing trenches.”
Crenshaw nodded. “I have the dummy trench ready,” he said. “Let’s see how well it works.”
Sir Benjamin nodded and waved to the driver, lifting a small radio, only about the size of a field telephone, to his lips. “Scott, how about you showing us what you can do?”
The Churchill – named for a statesman who had never existed in the alternate world - had seven crewmen on board; the driver, the mechanic, the radioman and four gunners. Captain Scott Martin, the driver and commander, loved his tank, even though he knew that it would be a death trap if the enemy managed to punch through the armour plates on the front.
“Let’s roll,” he said, as the signal came in. Thousands of new factories had appeared across the North American Union, converting a host of amateur radio enthusiasts to producing the small radios that were installed in each tank. He wasn’t sure that he bought the explanation for developing so many radio systems and installing them in the tanks – had they never heard of the commander directing operations from the rear? He’d watched the videos from the other timeline, but he didn’t really understand.
“Rolling,” the radioman said. “The command is to take that trench.”
Martin took control of the tank and started the engine, moving forwards slowly, peering through a periscope at the trench. It was a fairly standard trench for the front; despite its singular name it was actually three separate trenches, interwoven with gun positions and artillery pads.
“We’re moving,” he said, as the tank closed in on the trench. A series of sparks erupted from the trench, fake bullets shoving their way towards the tank – and then the tank rang with the sounds of impact.
“Those are real bullets,” one of the gunners gasped. “They’re firing real bullets at us!”
“What did you fucking expect?” Martin demanded, swinging the tank around. “Let them have it!”
The machine guns fired as one, sweeping along the trench. The guns, triggered by long-distance commands, were swept out of the way at once, even as the tank crunched its way through the barbed wire, refusing to be deterred by the cardboard Spanish soldiers who were mock-firing at them before being wiped out by the tank.
“That trench is going to be a problem,” he observed. The Spanish – and their French masters – had dug several deep trenches, but they weren’t wide enough. He smiled, pushed the engine to full power, and drove over the trench. His crew yelped in shock, but the trench wasn’t wide enough to cause serious problems.
“We would have been fine,” he said. The tracks had been designed to help the tank ‘climb’ out of a trench, but that was a tricky manoeuvre, one that didn’t need enemy experience. “Hard a-port!”
He swung the tank to the left, avoiding a bunker and allowing the machine guns to spray bullets inside the concrete bunker. There were no screams, of course, but the guns inside the bunker stopped firing. He smiled again…and then the first shells started landing around them.
“This is a fucking drill,” he snapped, hoping desperately that the gunners were shooting to miss. “Forward!”
The tank slid forward, closing in on the guns. The gunners didn’t fire; the ‘enemy’ soldiers were holding up their hands and surrendering. Martin fought the temptation to turn his guns on them anyway; they had endangered his life and the lives of his people.
“I think they were trying to scare us,” the mechanic said. “We couldn’t have taken one of those shells and survived.”
“No shit,” Martin snapped. “Radio; is that the end of the fucking test?”
The radioman repeated the question, a little more tactfully, into his radio. “Yes, sir,” he said. “That’s the end of the test. We won, by the way.”
Martin snorted. “I think that if a shell had hit us…we’d be dead by now. The French and their Spanish allies won’t be shooting to miss, you know.”
Sir Benjamin smiled grimly as the tank crunched its way through all opposition, a smile that vanished when the first shells started to explode. He felt his mouth fall open, frozen into an agonised expression, until the tank completed its mission.
“That was unnecessary,” he said angrily. “The men could have been killed.”
“It’s the only way they’ll learn,” Crenshaw said.
Sir Benjamin glared at him. “They could have been killed,” he repeated. “How could they learn anything like that?”
Crenshaw smiled wryly. “They might have learned that their tanks were not invincible,” he said. “Look, I understand your point, but we are at war.”
“I know that,” Sir Benjamin snapped. “There’s no need to be as dangerous to the men as the enemy are, you know.”
“I know no such thing,” Crenshaw said, suddenly serious. “All I know is that the Royal Marines, which means me, got the task of evaluating the tanks in combat. If I fail, the Army or the Militia will tear the Marines a new one, as you people say, and dismiss whatever I tell them because – at the end – I’m just a dumb Marine. Neither fish nor fowl or good red hen.”
He smiled. “If I succeed, of course, they will take the weapons and tanks, and claim that it was all their idea in the first place,” he said. “All Marine involvement will be denied; I will be wiped from the history books, just like your family.”
Sir Benjamin winced. In his timeline, his family had had two American girls and one American man marry into the family; in the new timeline - that had never happened. His family might exist, in some form, but there was hardly a direct copy of himself in the world.
“It won’t be that bad,” he said, deciding not to start a fight. “So, what are your conclusions?”
Crenshaw smiled wryly. “I think that we need a few thousand tanks,” he said. “You know, there’s something to be said for going for Alaska.”
“The Russians have been moving troops into Alaska,” Sir Benjamin said. They’d been forced to adapt to new strategic realities, including far better Russian logistics than had ever existed in the original timeline. “They might be planning another attack.”
“It’s possible,” Crenshaw said. “Alaska, however, most of the people who live there hate the Russians.”
“Then why aren’t we sending them weapons?” Sir Benjamin demanded. “It looks like a cheap way to win a victory.”
“It’s been tried,” Crenshaw said. “The Russians slaughtered several thousand Alaskans and the rest got the message. That said, with your tanks…”
Sir Benjamin smiled. The thought of thousands of tanks crashing through the lines was appealing. “There are terrain problems, though,” he said. “The only easy place did get taken, right back at the beginning of the war.”
“I remember,” Crenshaw said. “Now, what about the other weapons?”
Sir Benjamin waved a hand at a person standing on the railway car. “Oliver, bring the weapon,” he shouted.
Crenshaw blinked. “What’s that?” He asked, as Oliver came back out of the car, carrying a long tube. “Sir Benjamin?”
“That’s a bazooka,” Sir Benjamin said. He chuckled. “They’re a pain in the neck to produce, but once we get the hang of it we can start deploying them in large numbers. They’re a counter to the tanks.”
Crenshaw looked dubious. “What’s the point?” He asked. “If shellfire can take them out…?”
“Tanks can move faster than artillery can be retargeted,” Sir Benjamin said. “These bazookas can turn a force of tanks into flaming ruin in moments. Once the French start deploying tanks…”
“And what happens when the French start deploying bazookas?” Crenshaw asked. “Or the Russians?”
Sir Benjamin didn’t answer.
The howl of a jet engine echoed overhead as Maggie O’Brien watched from the main building. Holding her notebook to her chest, she watched as the tank returned to its railway car, much to the disappointment of the soldiers who had been watching the tank go through its paces. According to Crenshaw, the number of applicants for the Royal Tank Corps had skyrocketed – from only a handful to almost every soldier in the regiment.
‘The first test of a new weapon proved to be advantageous to our brave fighting forces,’ she wrote. It was neither clear nor conclusive, but the censors would love it. Any reference to armoured vehicles would get it suppressed…and perhaps get her thrown bodily out of the American compound. ‘Unnamed military officers claim high confidence…’
“No, that won’t work,” she said, wishing that she could give a full description of a tank. At Anderson’s suggestion, she was keeping notes, ones that would allow her a chance to write a full book…once the war had ended. “We’ve been claiming high confidence for years.”
She shook her head. On one hand, showing off the tank to the soldiers was unwise; the enemy would almost certainly find out soon. If not from the soldiers themselves, from the prostitutes in the nearby camp, many of which were Latino women with families on the other side of the border. The mere presence of the jet, flying overhead to ward off any prowling French reconnaissance aircraft, would alert them that something unusual was going on.
On the other hand, morale was low and had been low ever since the first slaughters of the war, when it had become painfully clear that victory would not come easily. Showing off the new weapon would do more to raise morale than any number of entertainments – or sermons by temperance ladies, whom the soldiers hated.
She smiled. The well-bred ladies who inveigled against prostitutes and liquor were disliked, simply because they came into the trenches – although not too close to the enemy – and railed against drink and women. The Mayor of New Orleans had nearly lost the re-election campaign after instituting anti-prostitute laws – which he’d had to repeal in a hurry. The women had complained about the soldiers – it hadn’t occurred to them that a lot of the protesting votes had been cast – must have been cast – by male and female inhabitants, including most of the prostitutes themselves.
“They should have gone on strike,” she said, and chuckled. She found it hard to imagine any strike that would have had the same degree of effect. A mischievous member of the city council had proposed a bill banning the temperance league from New Orleans, although it hadn’t passed.
“Now that was surprising,” she said, spying Colonel Sir Benjamin Phillips heading up towards her. She smiled at the Alternative Briton, who was just as alien as the other Alternative Americans. “Good afternoon, Sir Benjamin,” she called, with a curtsey. “What can I do for you?”
Sir Benjamin smiled at her. “Not much,” he said. “What are you going to say about this event?”
Maggie passed over her notebook. “Not much,” she said. “I can’t slip too much past the censors, you know.”
Sir Benjamin nodded. “Now that’s something I would have given my right eye-teeth for in Iraq,” he said. “The Shias revolted, the Shias did not revolt, the Shias hate us, and the Shias love us…”
Maggie blinked. “I beg your pardon?” She asked. “What does that have to do with the price of tea in India?”
“It’s the price of tea in China where I come from,” Sir Benjamin said. Maggie shrugged; she’d read some of the histories that had been published in the second month following the Arrival, or more accurately republished. She couldn’t help, but think that her world had gotten off lightly. “I wonder how many other surprises there are.”
Maggie felt her heart go out to him. Every time Sir Benjamin went to London, or New York, or even New Orleans itself, he faced a world that was at the same time familiar, but chillingly different. London itself, a city that was pretty much the same at the core – barring the modern technology – would be more alien to him than an alien world.
“Surprises never really end,” she said. “Would you like to say a few words?”
Sir Benjamin smiled. “I’m really grateful for this prize, which I never deserved,” he said. “Now I’m going back to caterwaul again.” Maggie blinked at him. “Never mind,” Sir Benjamin said. “Have the two of you set a date yet?”
Maggie blushed; Sir Benjamin laughed at her. “We haven’t gotten that far yet,” she said, unwilling to admit to the feelings that had awakened within her breast. “He’s been busy drilling his ships in the new tactics, now that we have improved shells.”
Sir Benjamin nodded. “With the French around, we can’t afford to play games,” he said. “Your French, I dare say, are better than our French.”
Maggie blinked. “How so?”
Sir Benjamin snorted. “No one likes a sore loser,” he said. He corrected himself. “The French lost three wars, pretty much, in quick succession, although technically speaking they won one of them.” He smiled at her puzzlement. “Don’t ask,” he said. “Anyway, they hate the fact that they were saved by the Anglos – us and the Americans – and therefore act with spite towards us.”
He paused. “Your French might be more mature,” he said. “They haven’t sunk any liners yet, have they?”
Maggie shook her head. Relations outside the war zones were almost civil; there had been several prisoner exchanges in the last month, although under the main rules of war. No one really believed that the war could be won outright…except the tanks she’d seen today might change that. She was almost scared; was victory worth destroying the French Empire?
“No, they haven’t,” Sir Benjamin said, taking her agreement for granted. “They know the rules and they stick to them, even when it costs them. Our French will change the rules if it looks like they’re losing.”
Maggie looked up as a thought struck her. She turned to face him. “Does that mean that the crew of the…Charles de Gaulle might try to change the rules?” She asked. “If the Emperor doesn’t please them, they’ll overthrow him?”
Sir Benjamin looked disturbed. “It’s a possibility,” he said. “Despite their whining, they’ve been more willing than us to overthrow governments they don’t like.” He paused. “It’s hard to see how, though.”
He left, wandering back towards the railway car. Maggie watched him go, considering the matter. It was something, she thought, that should be mentioned to higher authority.
She shook her head. What had been loosed upon the world?
Chapter Twenty-Three: What is in the Air?
Paris, France (TimeLine B)
The Emperor of France, Spain, assorted German states, Scandinavia, North Africa, New Spain, French Indochina and various bits too tiny to mention – and were mainly under British occupation at the present – was, in the opinion of Doctor Mimi Rouge, a dear. He wasn’t rude or condescending to her; he allowed her to examine him without a fuss.
“So, what’s wrong with me?” He asked, as he dressed himself after her examination. “Why am I so tired all of the time?”
“Stress,” Mimi told him flatly. He'd been reluctant to talk to her at first – the Hippocratic Oath might as well have been called the Hypocrite Oath at Court – but he’d warmed up to her after a while. It helped that she was not only more competent and knowledgeable than the famed Jew doctors, but she lacked any connection to the various factions in Court.
“Stress,” the Emperor said. His voice was warmly amused. “Stress. Is that why I can’t have more children?”
Mimi considered the question for a moment. The causes of male infertility were hard to explain, although stress sometimes did play a role. “How often do you do it?” She asked bluntly. “Perhaps you’re just not doing it enough.”
The Emperor laughed. “I try, even at my advanced age,” he said. Mimi considered using Viagra, and then wondered if there was any on the carrier. The French Court was teeming with items designed to…assist male potency, most of them completely useless. The only item that might have helped was not rhino horn or Indian erotic exercises, but the rhythm method.
“Perhaps you need a holiday,” she said, and knew that it was an impossibility. An Admiral or a Captain could hand his duties over to another; she knew that the only person whom the Emperor could hand power to was a young man who was unfit to command a tugboat, let alone the ship of state.
“I think that that might prove difficult,” the Emperor said. “So much is happening at the moment, Doctor, and I have to remain in control.”
Mimi nodded. The Charles de Gaulle carried three doctors, two of which had been attached to the Court, just to help get medical information flowing through the system. Most of them got requests for contraceptives, never mind actual medical help, and they tried to involve the doctors in their factions. The Emperor ran the place through authority, sheer force of personality and playing one side off against another. Except…
She shook her head. Politics wasn’t her subject, but it was clear that the entire structure of French society, particularly at the Court, was being shook up. Those who had allied themselves with Court Phillipe Lavich, the ones who were willing to gamble on the advanced ‘future’ knowledge, were the new powers at Court – and it was reflected in their growing confidence. Elementary politics, the Court brand, suggested that a quiet bloodbath was waiting in the future, which meant…
Trouble, she thought.
“The rules are changing,” she said. “Everything is no longer what it was.”
“That was the fault of your people,” the Emperor said, without anger. “You’ve turned the world upside down.”
Mimi shook her head slowly, feeling every one of her years. “It would have happened anyway,” she said. “As long as this war goes on, you would have happened upon the land ironclads anyway.”
“Land ironclads,” the Emperor said. “It sounds so much nicer than tanks, eh?” Mimi smiled. “I know,” he said. “Armoured cars would have led to that, would it not?”
“I think so,” Mimi said. “I’m not a history expert.”
The Emperor nodded. “Perhaps I can put more on faithful Vincent, but there’s so much that requires my personal attention.”
Prime Minister Vincent Pelletier nodded as the sentry, armed with a modern weapon from the Charles de Gaulle, waved the two guards to search him. He lifted his hands and allowed the guards to search him, and then stepped into the private chambers. The Emperor looked up and smiled tiredly at Pelletier.
“Stress, apparently,” the Emperor said, holding up a hand to forestall comment. “What news on the production program?”
“I think we’ll have the land ironclads ready in time,” Pelletier said. “Sire…”
“Don’t worry about me,” the Emperor said. “What about the problems you mentioned over the telephone.”
Pelletier scowled. Improving the telephone network had been easy, a requirement according to Videzun, simply because of the Washington’s computers, which could break any code they could make with ease. They’d used information from the Charles de Gaulle to improve the network, but Pelletier had his suspicions.
“The…newcomers arrived in March, early March,” he said. “It’s August now, Sire, and I do not believe that we can maintain the…rate of advance of the Wehrmacht.” He scowled; there was something so funny about Germany being a major power. None of the Princes could agree on anything, ever since Frederick the Great had been torn down and hung.
“Would we have to?” The Emperor asked. “If we can break through the Russian lines…”
“It’s still a very long way to Moscow,” Pelletier said. “Sire…”
“But the Tsar would be sure to sue for peace,” the Emperor said. “Facing complete defeat…”
“He’s mad,” Pelletier reminded him. “If we launch the campaign now, they might bog down in the cold.”
“Like that Hitler idiot did in the alternate timeline,” the Emperor said. “I read the books, even the ones that Court Videzun decided to hide from me.”
“You’re determined to go ahead with his wedding,” Pelletier said. “Sire, it’s not wise.”
“We have to bind him to the nobility, like we do with commoners,” the Emperor said. He smiled suddenly. “You’ve changed the subject; why do you think that we cannot match or exceed Hitler’s rate of advance?”
“We don’t move as fast as his people did,” Pelletier said. Learning about Adolf Hitler had been one hell of a shock. “We can make certain preparations, perhaps even improve the land ironclads that the alternates designed, but we can’t duplicate the so-called T-34 yet.”
He snorted. The Russians were anything, but imaginative. “We might meet the fate of…ah, Emperor Napoleon.”
The Emperor chuckled. Everyone tiptoed around that subject when they were near him. “Yes, that might be a problem,” he acknowledged. “That said, we have a fleet of lorries that will help us to move faster.”
Pelletier shook his head. He knew, just as well as anyone, how the army needed time to learn to use the new weapons. The Generals had to translate the ideas; the red lines on the map, into actual war fighting tactics…and then use them to defeat the Russians. Even with total preparation, it was hard to see them reaching Moscow before the snow put the war to a halt.
“There’s always the other idea,” he said. “Do you think that we can pull it off?”
The Emperor paused. Pelletier knew that he was instinctively opposed to the idea, just on general principles – it was too dangerous if it failed, and even success might be disastrous. Still, the French Empire could endure the losses involved…even though it meant revealing the existence of the Charles de Gaulle.
“I don’t know,” the Emperor admitted finally. “If we could get the British off our backs, we might be able to really take the war to the Russians, but if we lose…”
Pelletier nodded. “Then it is your Royal Command that Operation Sealion is not to proceed?”
The Emperor nodded. “It’s too dangerous,” he said. “We will proceed with the original plan – attack Russia in a month and make limited gains in the remaining months before winter.”
Pelletier bowed. “Yes, Your Majesty,” he said. “It shall be done as you command.”
The Charles de Gaulle had carried thousands of little bits of technology that were literally unimaginable to the people of the alternate world; transistors had been beyond them until the idea had been suggested to them. An electronic surveillance device, literally the size of a tiny dot on the wall, was undetectable to those charged with defending the Emperor.
“It shall be done as you command,” echoed through the private room. Jacqueline Petal nodded to herself; bugging an Emperor was something new for her, along with building an intelligence network right in the heart of France.
“Admiral,” she said, as the computer automatically transcribed the entire conversation. “I think that there are happy days in your future.”
“Shut up,” Videzun growled, reading the transcription. “How…interesting.”
Jacqueline gave him a droll look. “I trust that you are not actually going to marry the child,” she said. “Is she not too young for you?”
“It’s a political marriage,” Videzun said. He finished the transcription and sighed. “So, no Sealion.”
“It looks that way, yes,” Jacqueline agreed. “We could seek support from other factions in the Court, but that would reveal the secret…”
Videzun nodded. With the French Court the way it was, someone would betray the plan to the British, just to ensure that they came out on top in the resulting confusion. In the months since Jacqueline had set up the intelligence operation, they’d discovered seventeen spies, thirty-seven conspiracies, two plots to assassinate the Crown Prince and more plots aimed at Videzun than anyone had expected.
Videzun smiled. There was a certain benefit to it, he supposed; the Darwinian method would winnow out the weak and timid, but at the same time force everyone to keep their eyes on their own backs…and on their opponents’ backs.
“I think that we have to make a choice,” Picard said. The former political commissioner had fitted right in at Court. “We can…take this opportunity to defeat the British once and for all…”
“Which means deciding to do without the Emperor,” Videzun said. “If we put the Crown Prince in his place…”
Jacqueline snorted. “The young bastard is easily led,” she said. “You know what he kept asking Mimi - Doctor Mimi Rouge - for? Contraceptives!”
Videzun laughed, rather cruelly. “He doesn’t get much fun,” he said. “You know what a lot of the people here are like.”
“I have had the distant pleasure of watching him at work,” Jacqueline said. “Pity any woman who falls into his hands, that’s all I can say. He’s an abusive son of a bitch.”
Picard smiled. “And dependent upon us, or he would be if he were Emperor,” he said. “Far too many factions hate him, and with good reason.”
Videzun nodded slowly. “The other option is simple,” he said. “We have the tanks – or the land ironclads as they insist upon calling them here – and we have the men. We allow the Emperor to order an attack on the Russian positions, perhaps marching as far as Moscow before the snow falls.”
“Either way, we’re looking at turning the heat up a lot,” Picard said. “I understand their concerns; war here is almost gentlemanly. If we present a serious threat to one of the big empires, they might sign a quick peace with the other and turn on us.”
Jacqueline nodded. “Can we guarantee a victory for us?” She asked. “What about the atomic pile?”
“Two years, assuming that everything goes right,” Videzun said. “These people had very little understanding of atomics before we arrived, you know.”
Jacqueline smiled. “Yes, I know,” she said. “It’s important, of course, to keep that out of the hands of the Empire as a whole – and particularly out of the Crown Prince’s hands.”
Videzun shook his head. “There is a point that has been missed,” he said. “The George Washington is here, now.” Picard nodded grimly. “If we can do as much as we have, one assumes that they can do the same.” He waited for them to nod. “In a year, they might be able to have atomics themselves, which would make life…interesting.”
“Interesting,” Picard said. “You think that we have to strike now?”
“Oh, yes,” Videzun said. “We can, with some of our technology, coordinate a strike against the Royal Navy in the Orkneys, then land on Britain and march to London.”
Jacqueline scowled. “If the George Washington became involved, the losses could be rather heavy.”
Videzun nodded. “That said; we do have some anti-ship missiles.”
Picard snorted. “Can we take out an entire American aircraft carrier with the handful of missiles we have?”
Videzun smiled. “I have no idea,” he said. “It should be fun finding out, don’t you think?”
“It would be a great deal safer, at least in my head, if the George Washington was elsewhere,” Picard said. “It’s an unknown factor – do they know about us?”
“It’s impossible to be certain,” Jacqueline said. “There is a second problem.” She waited for the two men to look at her. “We know very little about the land defences in Britain itself. Now that the George Washington is operating an AWACS near the islands, we can’t use one of our fighters to probe the defences. In fact…if we want Sealion to succeed, we’ll have to use our fighters to take down the AWACS.”
“Which would mean revealing our existence,” Picard said.
Videzun shrugged. He would have been delighted if the Americans remained ignorant of the Charles de Gaulle, but common sense warned that the Americans – who were not as stupid as French propaganda claimed – would have had ample signs of the existence of the Charles de Gaulle, simply though monitoring the new aircraft going through their preparations.
“We have to stop them from using Britain as a base,” he said. “I think it’s time to talk to Belen, don’t you think?”
For the nobles in Paris and France, used to having the best of the best, there was a certain…temptation in simplicity, in having genuine elegance as opposed to filling ones rooms with as much gaudy items as one could. For the private rooms of Court Phillipe Lavich, newly appointed controller – with General Leblanc – of the project to develop a new force using the alternate technology, nothing was too small.
Lavich smiled as he considered the room. It wasn’t over-decorated, searching for a balance between ultra-ornate decorations and practicality. Like the best parlours, belonging to those on the social circuit, Lavich’s private rooms were an expression of the personality of their owner. He could care less about the people – he didn’t care about impressing many people with his taste, charm, sophistication…and outright greed – but he wanted to impress his visitor. It was her first visit to his private rooms, after all.
He smiled. Normal French practice, when Ladies of the Court were involved, was to have a chaperone, perhaps a mother or a sister, protecting the virtue of the woman in question. Maids and other lowborn people didn’t need chaperones; it was assumed that they had no virtue of their own. With his guest tonight, it had been made clear that her being chaperoned would be seen as insulting.
The doorbell rang and he almost moved to answer it himself, but he calmed himself; that was the task of the butler. His grave old family servant answered the door; he heard a calm female voice speaking to him. The sound of the voice made his heart quicken inside his breast.
“The Lady Belen Lefunte,” the butler said. Lavich looked up and felt his mouth fall open; in white trousers and a white shirt, hidden under a white cloak, Belen was astonishingly beautiful. Her long brown hair, almost untamed by comb or expensive styling, hung down her back; she smiled at him and he thought that he was in heaven.
“Thank you for coming,” he said, trying to remain calm. “Did you have a good trip?” His voice stumbled. “Ah, please sit down.”
Belen smiled at him, understanding his problem. “Yes, I had a nice trip in the carriage,” she said. “Thank you for sending it.”
“Everyone will know how lucky I am to be eating dinner with you,” Lavich said. “They’ll be burning with envy.”
Belen laughed. “Let them burn,” she said. “I’ve not seen you for a week. How’s the project coming along?”
“Well enough,” Lavich said. “We have the first designs of land ironclads on the way now, and we understand the production methods enough to start spreading out the factories. Give us a couple of months and we’ll have thousands of the land ironclads.”
“A good thing too,” Belen said. “Of course, you have to keep innovating.”
Lavich lifted an eyebrow. “Why?” He asked, just to hear her talk. “Why do we have to keep innovating when we have you?”
Belen’s face twitched. “You’ll run out of our ideas sooner or later,” she said. “You have to keep forcing everything forward, from rockets to tanks to submarines, just to stay ahead. Once Russia is beaten, the George Washington will still exist.”
Lavich frowned as the maid brought in the first dish, setting the tureen of soup down at his table. Lavich offered Belen his hand, guiding her over to the table. “You cannot simply sink the enemy ship?” He asked. “It’s still at New Orleans.”
“Not and wipe out the knowledge it carries,” Belen said. “You have to force forward development, my love.”
Hearing her admit that she had feelings for him made his heart nearly burst with delight. “If we can beat the Russians,” he said, feeling as if he could do it himself naked, “then the British will sue for peace.”
“They’re developing land ironclads – tanks – too,” Belen said grimly. They drank their soup in silence. “They will not stand still either…”
“Of course,” Lavich said. “The Russians, at least, don’t have any helpers…”
“How do you know?” Belen asked. “If one ship reached here and another reached the British Empire…then why not one in Russia as well?”
Lavich said nothing as they ate the main course. “I see your point,” he said finally. “They have to be beaten quickly.”
Belen nodded. “The side that makes the most use of the new technology will be the dominant power for the next hundred years,” she said. “In our timeline, we never dared try for space on our own, but you could.”
“I read some of your novels,” Lavich said. “Do you think that we can build spaceships?”
“Given enough time, yes,” Belen said. “Remember, you must innovate and keep innovating before time runs out.”
“Thank you, Marie,” Lavich said, as the maid cleared the table. He escorted Belen to a sofa and sat down next to her, much to her amusement. “Do you know what the Russians do to women?”
Belen smiled. It was enchanting. “I was rather hoping that you were going to show me what you do to women,” she murmured, pulling him towards her for a kiss. Lavich sighed as the kiss ended, his passion flowering deep within him. It was a struggle to undress her, or him, without tearing their clothes. Her body was as good as he had expected, her passion as much in evidence as his own.
“I love you,” he breathed, seeing her for the first time completely naked. “I love you…”