For a Public Relations Officer, he has a limited vocabulary, Sharon thought wryly. Lieutenant Han Wushi wasn’t just limited in his speech; he had shown no interest in Sharon herself, even though she wore one of her standard outfits that showed her curves off to best effect.
“In here,” Han said, tapping neatly on a fixed door. A voice bade them enter. “Good luck, Miss Green.”
“Thank you,” Sharon said, and swept into the office. A short man greeted her, smiling all the while. “Admiral Jackson, I presume?”
“Yes,” Jackson said. “Sharon Green, I presume?”
Sharon smiled wryly. “If I’m not, my office is in for a hell of a surprise when I start sending them dispatches,” she said. “Admiral, thank you for seeing me.”
“You’re welcome,” Jackson said. “What can I do for you?”
“I have a number of questions,” Sharon said. “May I begin?”
“Of course,” Jackson said. He smiled again. “You may even be seated.”
Sharon took her seat without embarrassment. “Admiral, what do you think of the task force?”
“Overall?” Jackson asked. “It’s a good force, for one thrown together at short notice. We could do with more practice, but we’ve done enough to work together. It helps that we’re all used to NATO protocols.”
Sharon smiled softly. “Everyone is cooperating?” She asked. “Even the French?”
“Despite our current disagreements with the French Government, which – I might remind you – are not over truly huge issues, the French have been very cooperative,” Jackson said. “Indeed, they have presented us with considerable help, filling in holes in the task force structure.”
Sharon frowned. She was certain that she’d detected…something within his voice. “Given the recent censure of the French by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, does sailing with a French force trouble you at all?”
Jackson met her eyes, his gaze almost pressing her into the seat. “That is a matter for the state department,” he said. “I obey orders, which in this case I’m quite happy to do so.”
Sharon smiled, scenting a scoop. “Tell me, does the…”
An alarm started to ring. “Excuse me,” Jackson said, moving to his feet with astonishing speed. “That’s the air attack alarm.”
He swept out of the office. Sharon followed him. Jackson hesitated, as if he was considering ordering her back to her quarters, and then allowed her to follow him.
“Report,” he snapped, as he strode onto the bridge. “Bill?”
Captain Morrigan looked up sharply from a radar display. “We have unknown contacts, heading over us,” he said. “At least seventy contacts, all…odd.”
“They’re not quite there,” the radar operator said. He pointed to the screen. “I can’t identify them at all; they seem to be fading in and out.”
“What are they?” Jackson demanded. Sharon watched from the rear of the bridge, wishing that she’d brought her camera. “Missiles?”
“I don’t think so,” the operator said. “Sir…”
Jackson looked up sharply out of the viewport. A ball of white light was streaking across the sky, swooping down across the task force. Everyone stared at it as it flashed over the carrier and was gone.
“We lost that one,” the operator said.
“Sound battle stations,” Jackson snapped. An alarm began to ring through the ship. “Captain?”
“They could be St Elmo’s fire?” Morrigan suggested. “They don’t look like missiles.”
“The first flight is ready to go,” Captain Jason Groom, air boss, reported. “Captain?”
“Hold the launch,” Morrigan snapped. “What does the CAP report?”
“The Frogs and the Brits are having trouble,” an officer snapped. “The…ah, UFOs are not hanging around for the aircraft to have a look at them.”
Sharon watched as Jackson stared up at the light display. There were dozens of the little lights now, spinning around the fleet, seeming to watch the fleet from their attitude.
“Sir, weapons are free and ready,” the weapons officer snapped.
“Hold fire,” Morrigan said. “Sir, they can’t be weapons.”
“Concur,” Jackson said. “Raise Washington and inform them that…”
Morrigan interrupted him. “Sir…”
Jackson swung around to look out the viewport and Sharon’s eyes followed him. A ball of light, a UFO, larger than any before was closing in on them. It was hypnotic; she stared into the light and saw…possibilities. Her mind shuddered under the impact…as the ball of light impacted with the carrier and the world went white around them.
Chapter Two: Desperate Measures
New Orleans, NAU (TimeLine B)
The city of New Orleans had been captured from the Spanish during the Great Global War, back in 1813. The decision of the early viceroys of America – urged on by the Colonial Parliaments – not to surrender the city back to the Spanish had resulted in considerable investment by British companies, as well as a flood of immigrants from Europe.
Vice-Admiral Felix Anderson, Royal North American Navy, stepped up neatly to the gates of the massive complex that controlled the various Empire naval activities within the Caribbean and presented his papers to the Royal Marines on duty. The Marine was Indian, wearing a turban over his head, a reflection of the united nature of the Royal Marines. Unlike almost all of the rest of the Empire’s services, the Royal Marines couldn’t risk a mistake caused by unfamiliarity; Marines trained as a united Empire-wide force.
“You may pass,” the Marine said. His English was perfect, revealing that the education programs had worked perfectly. English was the requirement for all posts within the Empire’s administration; it was the only language everyone could agree on. “Admiral Porter’s office is in the large building at the end of the complex.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Anderson said. He passed through the checkpoints, avoiding a car of Royal Marines patrolling the perimeter, and walked along the path to the main building. He smiled to himself; security had clearly been tightened up since the war had begun, one year ago.
“Papers, please,” a second Marine said. Anderson passed them over, noting that the Sergeant – clearly either American or British – took care to check every little detail. New Orleans had plenty of Frenchmen and Spaniards within its limits, including many who wished for the Emperor Napoleon to rule them instead of the Empire. Independence parties were rife within the region, although the open hostility of the Texans to both parties prevented outright rebellion.
Ungrateful swine, Anderson thought coldly. New Orleans was a hotbed of spies, which was one reason why the seven battlecruisers of his squadron were remaining outside, even outside of sovereign Empire territory. It was humiliating, no matter how necessary it truly was, just to ensure that a man with British or American citizenship didn’t betray them.
“You may pass,” the Marine said. “Follow the corridor down to the end, then knock at the door.”
“I have been here before,” Anderson assured him. The Marines guided people around the house – and they always resented it. “Thank you.”
“Just doing my duty,” the Marine said. Anderson nodded and followed the directions, ending up in front of a massive oak door, covered with decorations. It had taken an entire team of woodcarvers several weeks to do the decorations, intended to celebrate the visit of one of the King-Emperors to New Orleans. The great naval heroes; Nelson, Porter, Rogers, were captured on the door, almost as alive as they had been the day before they died.
Anderson took a moment to contemplate the designs, then he opened the door and peered through. A young black man – the secretary to the admiral – looked up and smiled.
“Ah, Admiral Anderson,” he said. “You’re expected.”
“Thank you,” Anderson said. Being polite to the Admiral’s secretary was simple prudence. “Shall I go in?”
“Yes, he’s just waiting for you,” the secretary said. “Good luck.”
Anderson smiled and entered the office. Admiral Sir Joseph Porter glanced up and waved him to a seat, before returning his gaze to a small mountain of documents on his desk. “Have a seat, Felix,” Porter said. “I’ll just be a moment.”
Anderson nodded, taking the seat. Admiral Sir Joseph Porter had a reputation as a martinet, serving his time on a non-British station just to earn the experience that would allow him to make a bid for becoming First Sea Lord. Anderson shrugged; the current First Sea Lord was due to step down in two years, and Porter clearly was in a hurry.
He smiled. An American admiral – the name had slipped his mind – was currently handling the British Home Fleet, making his own bid for the post. Porter would have to be very lucky – or be the only obvious candidate – as the current First Sea Lord was also British.
Porter coughed and Anderson looked up. Porter was a short man, wearing his standard fancy dress uniform, something that was hardly possible in hot New Orleans. He was fat, but in a good way; his blue eyes twinkled as he smiled at Anderson.
“Thank you for coming,” Porter said. “We have something of a…situation on our hands.”
“I had expected that, from the radio message,” Anderson said. “Sir, the submarine patrols aren’t working.”
Porter nodded. “We have to seem as if we’re doing something,” he said. “We also have to look as if we can do something, or the French will take advantage of us.”
Anderson nodded. With a total force of fifty American superdreadnaughts and dreadnaughts, to say nothing of what other Empire ships were in the region, Admiral Porter should have been able to handle the French ships; thirty-five superdreadnaughts based permanently in New Spain or Peru. The problem, however, was geography; the Empire ships were divided between the east and west coast, while the French could move ships through the Panama Canal to reinforce and concentrate with ease.
We dare not pick a fight, for fear of the damage, and they dare not pick a fight, for fear of the damage…and so we circle around them and fight it out on the Caribbean Islands, attempting to gain an advantage, he thought grimly. The enthusiasm in the American Parliament for annexing the French islands had faded as the campaign ran into its second year, neither side being able to gain an advantage.
Porter coughed. “The French have managed to pull a fast one on us,” he admitted. Anderson winced; the prospect of the French gaining an advantage was not a pleasing one. “They’ve snatched the Falkland Islands from us.”
Anderson swore. The Falklands was British territory, one of the countless dependences too small to rate representation in the Imperial Parliament. It was part of the Colonial Office’s responsibilities…and it had been an important coaling station and small base for the Royal Navy.
“My thoughts exactly,” Porter said. Anderson realised suddenly that the Admiralty would be looking for a scapegoat when questions were asked – and Porter would almost certainly be that scapegoat. “Observe.”
Porter stood up from behind his desk and paced over to the massive map of his area of responsibility. The massive French base at Panama was clearly marked, sitting on top of the Canal that linked the Pacific with the Atlantic. Anderson had seen hundreds of plans for attacking it, but all of them had been dismissed as suicide. The only workable plan was the Army’s plan – a ground offensive through New Spain to Panama – but that had bogged down in the general stalemate.
“We dare not spare any units of the Eastern Fleet,” Porter said. “We need those concentrations here. The same goes for the Western Fleet, particularly with Japan sitting on the side-lines. Those slant-eyed bastards might jump on us, or the Russians, or…”
He smiled. Anderson nodded; the Japanese Empire, which consisted of Japan itself, Korea and a handful of minor islands, was officially neutral in the war. Unofficially, it supported the Empire, but it resented its dependence upon British trade, and they had been eyeing the East Indies, which belonged to Australia, which belonged to the United Empire. It didn’t help that there were thousands of Japanese living in the British colonies around the Pacific, exciting major paranoia in Australia.
He scowled. On their own, the Japanese would last less than five months against the concentrated United Empire. In alliance with the Russians…who knew?
“I have some reason to believe that the Russian ambassador has been talking to Emperor Yamamoto,” Porter said. Anderson nodded; the intelligence service had been learning its trade rapidly in the year of war. “While the Foreign Office is confident that there is no real threat of war with Japan, those diplomats don’t have their heads screwed on properly.
“In any case, we have to remain strong in the Pacific, which means maintaining the fleet at Pearl Harbour, and the forces in Australia hunting French raiders. The Russians, so far, have only sent out raiders themselves, but they might change their tactics any day.” He sighed. “Do you remember Admiral Rogers?”
Anderson nodded. Admiral Rogers, very much the designer of the modern navy, had predicted confidently one massive battle when the war began, a massive confrontation between the British and the French. The Russians, who had less interest in massive battle-fleets, had not been part of his scenario. A year after the war had begun, the French had clearly decided to avoid battle, which meant that the United Empire had to keep massive fleets of its own near the French ports, which limited the amount of protection that could be given to convoys, which…
“Yes, I remember him,” he said. Porter smiled. “So far, all we’ve had are minor actions against convoy raiders and submarines.”
“I dislike wars, they are unpredictable,” Porter misquoted. “No matter; all we have to respond to the Falklands…invasion is your force, and a handful of the new fast troop transports.”
“You expect nine battlecruisers to take on the entire French force?” Anderson asked. “Admiral…Sir Joseph…I…”
“No, I don’t,” Porter said. Anderson wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or insulted. “What I want is a little trickier. I have some reason to believe that the French haven’t moved many troops into the Falklands, not with that minor rebellion in Argentina and the possibility of Brazil coming in on our side.”
“Is that likely?” Anderson asked. Brazil, one of the handful of independent states, held a governing position. If it joined the war, the entire situation could be shifted in the United Empire’s favour. “Have they committed themselves to anything?”
“Not as far as I know,” Porter said, and winked at him. “They’re very dependent upon the French – and us – for some of their trade. If we pressed them, they might jump towards the French, simply for the protection of their economy, which is more dependent upon the French than us.”
“Bother,” Anderson said.
“Back to the situation at hand,” Porter said. He tapped the map. “Your orders are simple, Admiral; you are to follow the roundabout route to Accession, which hasn’t been taken yet, and then attack the Falklands. If the enemy is there in sufficient strength to destroy or cripple your force, you are to break off. If not…”
“Retake the islands,” Anderson concluded. “If it can be done, Sir Joseph, my force will do it.”
“If you face a force that can destroy you, you are to break off,” Porter said sharply. “Felix, we cannot risk losing your ships for the Falklands, important as they are. If they have a superdreadnaught there, you are to break off.”
“Superdreadnaughts operate in packs,” Anderson pointed out.
“Whatever,” Porter said, dismissing the comment. “They’re experimenting with fire-control radar, just as we are” – Anderson smiled at the disdain in Porter’s voice – “and they might have some unexpected advantages. You also have to watch out for submarines.”
“Yes, sir,” Anderson said. He understood the point, but he also wanted to test his ships against the enemy – and there had been little opportunity beyond submarine patrols that had only caught one submarine.
“I hope so,” Porter said seriously. “This is considerably more risky than I would prefer. We’re in a naval race, at the same time as fighting the war, and the other two major powers are doing the same thing. We cannot afford to lose any ships we don’t have to.”
“Then why are we fighting?” Anderson said. “No gain without pain.”
Porter smiled. “There is a second problem,” he said. Anderson winced. “You have a second problem. Have you heard of a woman called Maggie O’Brien?”
“Irish, I’d guess, from the name,” Anderson said. “No, sir; I haven’t heard of her at all. Is she one of the rebels?”
“Lord God, I hope not,” Porter said. “In its infinite wisdom, the Admiralty has decreed that she is to travel with your fleet.”
Anderson felt his mouth fall open. “A woman, perhaps a spy, on a ship?” He stared at him. “Sir…you commanded ships yourself – you know what sailors are like…”
“Yes, that has been pointed out to her,” Porter said. “She is…insistent.”
“A suffragette, then,” Anderson said. “One of the women who thinks that since they have the vote, they should move into male spheres as well.”
“I haven’t discussed politics with her,” Porter said. “She is, however, a reporter, for the Irish Times.”
“Not the American Times, then,” Anderson said. The Times franchise was all over the United Empire. “Sir…this is not wise.”
“I know it’s not wise,” Porter snapped. “However, I have my orders, and so do you.”
There was only one response. Anderson jumped to attention and saluted. “Sir, yes, sir!”
Porter smiled. “I suspect that after a four-week trip, Miss Irish Times will decide that it’s not the life for her,” he said. “There are some women on the fishing fleets; some of them would have been a better test subject, if that is what she has in mind.”
Anderson blinked. “Sir?”
Porter smiled. “Felix, if that is not what she has in mind, then it’s up to you to find out what it is.”
“Aye, aye sir,” Anderson said. “Where do I meet her?”
“Room 101,” Porter said. “Go introduce yourself to her, talk her out of it if you can, and if you can’t, take her back on the launch to the Amherst.”
“Aye, aye sir,” Anderson said. “I’ll be back with a victory, or not at all.”
Maggie O’Brien had grown up in Ireland, the most restive section of the United Empire, a nation that had provided more colonists for America and South Africa than England or Scotland. Her father, a drunken loudmouth, had planned to sell her in marriage, a dangerous mistake when dealing with a clever daughter. Maggie had joined the Irish Times, moved into her own flat in Dublin, and never looked back.
Her determination had forced her onwards, rising rapidly to higher levels within the Times franchise. Her sex, however, proved a barrier; female reporters simply didn’t go where the action was. Her male contemporaries went off to the wars – and sometimes didn’t return – she stayed in Dublin, patronised by all. After the fifth incident of sexual harassment, hardly a recognised problem in Britain, she applied for the post in America, and got it.
“You’ll either do well or not,” Mickey Flynn, her gruff editor, had told her. “Either way, you’re going to get the adventure you wanted – idiot.”
She looked up from the table at her pocket mirror, checking her appearance. She had to look perfect for the Admiral, the one who would be taking her on board his ship. Her red hair was curly and perfect; her green eyes sparkling with life. At twenty-seven, most of her friends and relatives were married, but she was still single.
The door opened and she looked up. A handsome man, with blonde hair and a dry smile, considered her for a long moment. She didn’t know how to read his uniform, but she was certain that all the gold braid meant that he was an Admiral. She stood up and extended her hand for a shake, and wasn’t surprised when he kissed it instead.
“I assume that you are Miss O’Brien,” the Admiral said. “I am Vice-Admiral Felix Anderson, Royal North American Navy.”
His voice was lightly accented, the voice of someone from New York, rather than New Orleans or Canada. “Maggie O’Brien,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last.”
She sat down, smoothing her long skirt and smiled as he took the seat opposite her. She was frankly curious how he intended to broach the subject at hand, and wasn’t surprised when he hesitated noticeably. The subject was rather delicate, after all.
“Tell me about yourself,” she said, just to break the ice. “How did you end up in the navy?”
“I couldn’t stand the thought of walking behind the rear end of a mule,” Anderson said. He regarded her thoughtfully. “Why?”
Maggie smiled demurely. “Why what?”
“Why do you want to come with the fleet?” Anderson asked bluntly. “It’s not exactly a safe place for a woman.”
Maggie was stung, harder than she had expected. “The safe place I was supposed to have betrayed me,” she snapped. “My mother died of a broken heart. My father planned to sell me to finish drinking himself to death. I’m not exactly a shrinking violet.”
Anderson smiled. She recognised for a sudden moment a flash of respect in his eyes. “A ship is not a safe place,” he repeated sharply. “Sailors spent months away from their homeports, or from women. The unnatural…vice is practiced more often than the navy cares to admit, even with the dire punishments lined up for offenders…”
“Sodomy,” Maggie said. “I do know what you mean.”
“You may be raped,” Anderson said bluntly. “There are also hygiene problems…”
Maggie, unexpectedly, found herself warming to the blunt Admiral. The blush on his cheeks at the roundabout mention of menstruation was almost charming. “It’s rather overrated,” she said, as reassuringly as she could. Anderson wore no wedding ring, she noted. “I’ll be fine.”
“And the doctor will be a man,” Anderson finished, ending a long list of dire possibilities. “Miss O’Brien, this will not be a pleasure cruise. You never answered my question; why?”
Maggie looked up at him. “I want to do something that no one has ever done before,” she said. “I will be the first female reporter to write her reports from the deck of a battleship.”
“Battlecruiser,” Anderson said absently. “Have you read the Official Secrets Act? It will apply to you as well, Miss O’Brien, and if you break it, you will be spending time in jail, perhaps even facing a hangman’s noose.”
Maggie winced for the first time. “I understand that,” she said. “Admiral, I will be happy to cooperate with the censors.”
“You’ll be the first reporter to do that,” Anderson said dryly. “This really has been a day for turning the world upside down. Very well; come along.”
Maggie blinked. “Admiral?
“You wanted to come,” Anderson said. “So come then; we have a launch to catch.” He smiled. “The Amherst won’t wait for us if we don’t reach it by high tide.”