Chapter Thirty-Nine: Hold the Line!
Nr New Orleans, North American Union (TimeLine B)
The war map on the wall had been designed to display all of the radar contacts from a global network of satellites, sensors, radar stations and passive systems, tracking everything that might have been of importance to the Admiral commanding the task force. In Timeline B, it was just a glorified map; half of the names were even incorrect – for they hadn’t existed in this new world.
The room was deadly quiet – and perhaps the only secure space in the North American Union. The press had reported upon the invasion, but without much detail; the censors had gone to work at once. It helped that very little was actually known; the day had gone by without anyone managing to pull together a coherent picture of the invasion and the situation.
Admiral Jackson sighed. He didn’t need this problem, not now, not with reports of an agent for an unknown power operating on board the Washington. He’d called most of the crew back to serve on board the Washington, along with the Royal North American Navy, but no one knew what the Navy was going to do. Rumours were everywhere; the Royal North American Navy was going to attack France directly, or even launch an invasion of Scandinavia.
Admiral Sir Joseph Porter coughed as he spoke grimly. He’d arrived with a folder and Admiral Anderson, discussing the situation in a hushed voice. He’d asked permission to hold the main meeting on the Washington itself and Morrigan – at Jackson’s request – had agreed.
“The Royal Navy has been more or less wiped out,” Sir Joseph said flatly. There was a long moment of absolute silence. Jackson, who’d suspected as much from the final telemetry, winced. “The missiles that were deployed against the fleet destroyed or damaged enough ships to prevent Home Fleet from escaping the French Baltic Fleet – or to defeat it. In effect, the French have control of Home Waters.”
There was a shudder running through the entire room. Jackson frowned, then realised that it wasn’t out of place at all. So too would an American from Timeline A wince at the loss of Washington, even though he might have come from Dixie. These people knew that their King-Emperor, the Imperial Parliament and much of the bureaucracy that kept the United Empire running was at risk from the French invasion.
And we’re not used to thinking of the French as competent, Jackson thought coldly, and scowled. These French had never been defeated in three world wars, never learned the lessons without the final lesson, never realised that in the end wars only made some people miserable. These French knew that they were a match for the Royal Navy…and had proved it spectacularly.
“They have not been slow to exploit their success,” Sir Joseph said. He tapped the map. Under normal circumstances, it would have followed his voice, but without the massive amounts of input it just stayed blank. “They have managed a major landing yesterday, in two separate places.”
Jackson frowned. It made sense, he supposed, particularly given French superiority in numbers. Having two angles of attack would force the British to split their defences and defeat both of them – a land version of the trick that had destroyed the Royal Navy by drawing it out into the open. He shook his head slowly; unless the French had somehow built a nuclear weapon, there was no way to repeat the trick.
Sir Joseph parsed out the locations on the map. “The first attack landed near Dover, yesterday,” he said. “The landing was in early afternoon and was supported by their fleet and a number of the aircraft from the Charles de Gaulle. After several hours of heavy fighting, a general retreat to the main defence line was called and our units withdrew in good order. Several French tanks were destroyed by bazooka weapons, convincing them to hold back.
“Dover itself is still holding out,” he continued. “The French have shown themselves willing to seal the city off rather than take the casualties involved in trying to take the city. Their superdreadnaughts have threatened bombardment, but Mayor Canns has refused to surrender and so far the French have held back the threatened bombardment.
“To add to our woes, however, a second invasion force landed near Yarmouth, heading to secure all of the region,” he concluded. “Norwich itself has fallen to an attack, but the militia gave a good account of itself despite not having any antitank weapons. By the time they retreated, this time in very bad order” – his face darkened – “the French had started to dig in themselves.”
There was a single cough in the room. The rest was silence. “For the moment, the French are concentrating on reinforcing their landings,” Sir Joseph said. “They’ve been moving troops in over the last day, and they’ve been expanding their area of control. It won’t be long, however, until they feel strong enough to advance against London – and then all hell will be out for noon.”
He must have picked that expression up from us, Jackson thought absently.
Sir Joseph looked around the room. Many of the faces were pale, others were shaking with rage. Anderson, Jackson saw, was furious. The American was going to marry a girl from Ireland, after all, and the Irish would be next on the list if Britain fell. Jackson thought rapidly; could they defeat the French Navy? If they could, what would the price be?
Sir Joseph looked at Jackson for a long moment. “It has been decided, by the North American Parliament, that the Royal North American Navy will sail to relieve Britain at once,” he said. “Unfortunately, that means that the French will have a greater margin of superiority than I am comfortable with.”
He nodded to his assistant, a scrawny man with a prune-like face. Jackson concentrated, trying to remember his name, and finally succeeded. Morley. Jacob Morley. Morley stepped forward, into the light, and attracted the attention of the assembled Admirals, Commodores and Captains.
“The entire French Navy in European waters numbers some seventy to eighty superdreadnaughts and dreadnaughts,” Morley said. “With the…reduction of Home Fleet, we will be outmatched thirty-five to seventy, at best. That, I hesitate to mention, was the same as the margin of superiority Home Fleet expected to face when confronting the Baltic Fleet.”
He paused. “We have to somehow defeat that force,” he said.
Anderson spoke into the silence. “There is also the danger of them transiting forces through the canal from the Pacific and stabbing us in the back,” he said.
Sir Joseph shook his head. “There are too many aircraft and submarines around to risk that,” he said. He spoke to the room at large. “I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of what’s at stake here,” he said. “If Britain falls, then we will face a long and very costly campaign to get it back.”
Morley paused. “Our aircraft carriers are the only ships that can hope to deal with the French,” he said. “Except for the unknown factor of the Charles de Gaulle, of course.”
Jackson nodded slowly. The George Washington could have made it to England quicker than the coal-powered ships of the Royal North American Navy, but at the price of facing the French alone. It would have been simple if it was just the Charles de Gaulle, of course, but the French were already proving themselves to be every bit as cunning as…well, the British.
Sir Joseph nodded. “It has been decided that Admiral Anderson will command the force,” he said. Jackson nodded; the United Empire’s politics normally dictated that the dominion providing the most ships would hold the command. Not always, but most of the time. “Admiral Jackson will be his second.”
There was a rustle running through the room. It was a test, Jackson realised; both of their willingness to accept someone with no seniority in any of the Royal Navies – and of his willingness to accept the subordinate command. He nodded once, slowly, not trusting himself to speak.
“Thank you,” Sir Joseph said. “Gentlemen; Admiral Anderson will have the task of defining the battle plan. Good luck to you all.”
“That always sounds like passing the buck to me,” Jackson commented, as Anderson and himself relaxed in his stateroom. “If Sir Joseph isn’t willing to offer suggestions…”
“Oh, he will,” Anderson said. “The Royal Navies just place a lot of trust in the officer on the spot, as you people say.”
Jackson smiled wryly. “I wish my people acted the same way,” he said. “Take my word for it; once you have a modern telecommunications infrastructure, you’ll have officers making unhelpful remarks for every little decision you have to make.”
Anderson smiled into his glass. “You like it here, don’t you?” He asked. “Would you go home if you could?”
Jackson was honest enough to admit it to himself. “I don’t know,” he said. “This world is so much more decent than mine, although it won’t stay that way.”
Anderson laughed, then sobered. “One question,” he said. “Admiral; can your missiles do the same as theirs?”
“We don’t have any Hellebores,” Jackson said grimly. “God alone knows why the French bothered to have them on the Charles de Gaulle.” A nasty thought flickered at the corner of his mind, but he dismissed it; it didn’t matter now anyway. “Our cruise missiles will mess up a superdreadnaught, mainly by taking out the bridge, but not the same level of total destruction.”
He grinned suddenly. “On the other hand, we can take out their carriers pretty easily, and then…your planes can go into action.”
“I was worried about that,” Anderson admitted. “Their carriers seem to be more configured for air defence and scouting.”
“Don’t place too much faith in spies,” Jackson advised. “Remind me to tell you about the Chinese plan to build their own battleship sometime.”
“I won’t ask,” Anderson said. “So…we destroy their carriers, then hammer away at their fleet until it quits?”
Jackson smiled. It didn’t touch his eyes. “Sounds like a plan,” he said. “Tell me; do you think that the British – the defenders of Britain – can hold out for the two to three weeks it will take to get there?”
Anderson refused to meet his eyes. “I don’t think so,” he admitted. “They won’t be able to reach Scotland, but I would place money on them having taken London. They’re flooding supplies in now, despite our submarines. The Charles de Gaulle seems to be operating with their fleet, using its ASW technology to hunt down our subs.”
Jackson looked up sharply. “The Charles de Gaulle is operating with their fleet?” He demanded. “That could be…bad.”
Anderson blinked. “How?” He asked. “I thought you said that your ship could sink it.”
“In a straight battle, yes,” Jackson said. “In a melee, with those damned missiles of theirs…it could get unpleasant. I’m not worried about the Washington, but if that frog bastard knows anything, he’ll aim at your carriers. Those fighters of his can launch the missiles.”
“Hell,” Anderson said, with great feeling. “Your fighters can cover us, can’t they?”
“Yes, but it will get dicey,” Jackson said. He smiled. “A fight to the death, carrier to carrier…”
Anderson smiled. “Back to the point at hand,” he said. “What do we do if London has fallen?”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Jackson said. “We’re going to have to bring some of the New Model Army with us, in transports like the ones you had back when we first met.” He remembered that day and smiled. “And if we do that, we’re going to have to cover them as well as challenge the French fleet.”
“They could go to Iceland,” Anderson suggested. “Once we defeat the French, we can pick up the transports and invade Britain again. Hell, the Irish will be preparing some armies anyway.”
Jackson thought about the alternate Ireland, which seemed unable to resolve the religious divide, and frowned to himself. “Yes,” he said, and hoped that Anderson was right. “Now, I think we’d better get to work.”
Anderson nodded. “I’m still going to be on the Amherst,” he said. “I’ll just outline the plan to Sir Joseph, and then get back on board.”
Jackson smiled. “I think you’d better go see Maggie first,” he said. “She’s come on board to follow the trail of a story.”
He smiled at Anderson’s sudden anguish. “Poor Lieutenant Han Wushi is trying to handle the press now,” he said. “Go save him from her.”
Maggie had never been sure of the exact moment when she realised that she had strong feelings for Admiral Anderson. What she was sure of was that kissing him felt right, in ways that touching herself or even thinking about a one-night stand – to use her friend Sharon’s term - didn’t feel right. As she wrapped herself into his body, her lips meeting his for a very un-decorous kiss, she felt his tension in every line of his body.
“I love you,” she breathed, and knew that she meant it. “Felix…”
“I know,” he said softly, and led her out of the cabin into the corridor. After nearly six months, he’d become as experienced with the Washington as any regular guest to the ship could be; finding a vacant cabin was easy. Maggie lifted an eyebrow as he closed the door, leaving them both alone together.
“Shouldn’t there be a chaperone?” She asked, lilting her voice to indicate if now was the time to take their relationship to an all-new level, she wouldn’t object for more than form’s sake. “Who knows what the neighbours will think?”
“Balls to them,” Anderson said rudely, a sentiment right out of her own heart. She half-wondered if she was supposed to undress, but she was sure that men didn’t pace around nervously when considering sex. “Maggie…what are you thinking?”
Maggie blinked. “About what?” She asked. “About us, now?”
He blushed. He’d been so worried about…whatever he was worried about that he hadn’t even thought about how it must have looked to her. He coughed, embarrassed, and she let him off easily.
“Maggie, are you really coming with the fleet?” He asked. “Maggie…”
“I’m a reporter,” Maggie said, feeling a curious mixture of emotions. She was pleased that he cared enough to care; angry that he was thinking about stopping her. They weren’t married yet, for God’s sake. “I have to go where the story goes…”
“You’re my fiancée,” Anderson said. She read his worry and concern in every line of his body. “Do you have any idea what’s happened?”
“Britain has been invaded,” Maggie said. She’d picked that much up from Lieutenant Han Wushi. “Felix, I do understand…”
“No, you don’t,” Anderson snapped. The sudden tone of fear in his voice, fear not for himself, but for her, shocked her. “Maggie, the Home Fleet has been wiped out!”
Maggie felt herself stagger. Home Fleet was the most powerful force in the world; she’d been taught that at school. The finest naval commanders, the ones who history remembered, had served in Home Fleet. “No,” she said. “It can’t have been destroyed.”
“It was,” Anderson said. “Maggie, the defeat was almost total; only a handful of ships survived. Maggie – my force could face the same fate.”
Maggie clutched him to her in a reflex that was as old as time itself. “I won’t let you go,” she said, with more emotion than logic. “Felix.”
Anderson held her closely. “Maggie…I won’t lie to you,” he said. “If everything goes bad, the Royal North American Navy could meet the same fate. If that happens” – he squeezed her tightly – “I don’t want you hurt too.”
Maggie shook her head. “When I go, I go with you,” she said. “I won’t lose you now.”
Anderson hesitated. “Tell you what,” he said. “You can come, but only if you travel on the Washington.”
Maggie stuck out her tongue defiantly. “And what will you do if I don’t?” She asked mischievously. “Put me over your knee and spank me?”
Anderson blinked at her. The blink turned into a giggle; the giggle turned into a laugh. “I just might,” he said, and kissed her. “Seriously…”
Maggie nodded. “You’re the first man to care that much,” she said, exposing all of her heart. “Felix, you had better survive this, or I’ll kill you myself.”
Anderson reached out and swatted her on the rump. “I promise,” he said. “Now, come on; we have to ask Admiral Jackson if you can stay on the ship.”
Maggie, feeling oddly disappointed, took one look back at the bed in the cabin, and then followed him out. As they walked, they held hands, trying to take as much of each other as they could before the ship left New Orleans…perhaps for its final voyage.
Admiral Jackson watched as New Orleans disappeared into the distance. The carrier had been prepared for combat as best as they could, but he knew that it wasn’t ready. Some of the crew had been too far away to recover, and others were in England already. In the long run, he knew, it wouldn’t matter that much to the United Empire if the George Washington was lost; there was no way that the French could invade enough of America to really matter, or to force the war to end.
But, for the moment, them holding Britain would be a disaster. Jackson stared down at the map; it reminded him of something, something he’d seen in a book, a long time ago. Risk, he remembered; he’d played Risk as a child. The map of the second Earth, Timeline B, reminded him of a vast game of Risk.
Too simple, he thought. Is that the motive of the UFOs? Of the Alien Space Bats? Is all this just a game?
He sighed. He knew now that the mystery agent on board wasn’t French. There was no way that such an agent could cause the strange…semi-transmissions they’d been picking up. Only sheer luck had allowed them to catch on to the agent…and the scientists – such as they had – still had no idea how the transmissions were actually being made. Jackson was confident that they would work it out eventually, just through observing the effects, but the physics base of Timeline B wasn’t anything like as developed as Timeline A.
He shook his head slowly. There was one thing he hadn’t told anyone, except Captain Morrigan; he knew who the agent was, who it had to be. In the long run, there was only one possible suspect…