100km west of Britain, TimeLine B
Once, when he was a mere Captain, Admiral Jackson had taken part in a war game, when the massed might of the United States faced an unnamed Third World country. It had been a complete disaster…for the United States. The unnamed enemy, popularly supposed to be Iraq, had used special unorthodox tactics to hammer the American fleet so badly that it had been forced to withdraw.
Jackson smiled grimly. The overseers had promptly declared the victory illegal and stricken it from the record. It had been sheer luck – and Saddam’s refusal to set anyone competent over his defence forces – that the United States hadn’t faced a genuinely smart and competent enemy in the years of the Terror War. Jackson knew that some senior officers within the United States Navy had been worried about facing an equal opponent in combat – before the UFOs swept them into Timeline B.
He looked up at the display. Normally, the Combat Information Centre would be glittering with information from satellites, recon aircraft, intelligence sources and the other ships in the task force. At the moment, his reach was about two hundred miles from the ship; there were no satellites here and he was unwilling to risk sending any of his remaining aircraft too far from his ship. The aircraft from the Royal North American Navy carriers were more expendable, but he had no illusions about their ability to escape the aircraft from the Charles de Gaulle.
“What are you thinking, you bastard?” He asked, thinking of the French admiral. He had already proved himself to be brave, cunning and determined; qualities that Jackson would have admired more if they weren’t being used against him. The guts it must have taken to have planned and executed the Hellebore strike, the willingness to risk the attack on Britain itself…all of them had been masterstrokes in their way.
“Admiral?” Captain Sonja Robertson asked. The Commander of the Air Group had been planning for strikes against the Charles de Gaulle, when it was finally located. Jackson and Commander Thomas Henderson, Weapons Officer, had spent hours trying to work out how many Hellebores might be left, before giving up. At worst, they’d concluded, the French would have fifty left, all of which would be aimed at the Washington.
“It’s bloody Midway again,” Jackson said, as the display flickered slightly. An uncharacteristic contact was reclassified as a flock of seabirds, flying from some tiny uncharted island somewhere in the distance. Rockall, perhaps? Jackson thought.
“They could be anywhere,” Sonja agreed. “They might know where we are…”
“I know,” Jackson said. He’d evolved two plans; if they found the French first, the Washington’s strike aircraft would go into action, knocking out the Charles de Gaulle before it could launch a counter-strike. Then the other French carriers could be sunk at long distance…and then the French ships could surrender or die, for all he cared.
On the other hand, if the Charles de Gaulle caught a sniff of them first, they would launch a strike of their own against the Washington. In that case, the strike would consist of missiles from their Dassault Rafale aircraft, all of which would be aimed at the Washington. If that happened, then the point defence system would have to work…or the Washington would be destroyed.
In which case, the water gets contaminated for years, according to the eco-freaks, Jackson thought grimly, and resumed staring at the map. It wouldn’t be long before they passed close to Britain, and then they would be able to support the British forces and land the New Model Army. He had no doubt that the French were waiting somewhere, perhaps just below the horizon, and preparing to strike a deadly blow.
“Submarine contact,” Commander Patrick O’Reilly said calmly. His voice echoed through the intercom, warning them about a low-powered u-boat-like submarine. Jackson tapped the screen, flicking to the external monitors, just in time to see a distant burst of water break the surface, marking the submarine’s death at the hands of an ASW helicopter.
“Did it get a signal off?” He asked quickly. “Any sign of one?”
There was a slight pause. “No, sir,” Lieutenant Edward Doyle said finally. The communications officer had found love in the form of a woman back in Springfield; he might not move to Cuba along with most of the crew. There had been a long and violent argument about that, below decks. “There was no signal. I must remind you, however…”
“I understand,” Jackson said. There was no hope of setting up even a jury-rigged laser-link between the ships, and that was impossible for the aircraft anyway. The small fleet would be radiating radio signals like no one’s business, attracting attention from both the French and the Russians. The signals were low-powered, of course, but if the French had a passive sensor suite too close to the fleet…
He smiled suddenly, at ease with his decision. Hellebore missiles were BDMs; Big Dumb Missiles. They carried massive warheads and small computers; they were literally too stupid to be distracted from their role. They had been designed to counter American ECM developments; brute force to counter finesse.
He paused suddenly, thinking a nasty thought. Did someone whisper in their ears that they might be needed here?
He shook his head. It didn’t matter; Hellebore missiles were stupid; they had one vast disadvantage…and he intended to take advantage of it. When the French launched their remaining missiles, he had a plan for handling it…
The massive cluster of signals that made up the George Washington battle group could be seen at very long distance. In contrast to the Washington, Captain Jean-Pierre Mauroy had taken one simple precaution; turning all radiation emitters, such as radio, off for good. If the fleet ran silent, they should be able to get within hitting range before the Americans caught onto their presence.
“That’s them,” Commander Hachay, the radar operator, said with certainty. “There’s nothing that packs such a powerful sensor suite on this world, apart from us.”
Mauroy stared at the screen for a long moment. Every instinct he had was telling him to run; the Charles de Gaulle wasn’t designed for a combat with a ship like the Washington. There was no choice, of course, but it would be…tricky to get it right – and extremely dangerous if they got it wrong. If the plan failed, the American aircraft would be all over the Charles de Gaulle…and the thirty aircraft left on the ship would be unable to stop them from ripping his ship apart.
We shouldn’t have left those aircraft on Britain, he thought, even though he understood the reasoning. Contre-Admiral François Videzun had explained it all at great length; the Washington could be defeated…but only if everyone played their parts just right.
“Pull us back,” he commanded, knowing that the Washington would be unable to see them. “Now…send the signal.” He paused for a long moment. This was it; they were committed. “Launch flight one.”
The seven French carriers had been largely configured to launch attack aircraft, carrying torpedoes and bombs for the enemy carriers. Superdreadnaughts, they knew, could be left alone until later – carriers ruled the seas now. As Captain Cauthery led his flight off the flight deck of the Emperor Louis XV, he shuddered; he’d seen the aircraft from the Charles de Gaulle and suspected that the United States – whatever that was – aircraft would be just as good.
He smiled as he saw a flash of light glinting from an aircraft hanging below. The Charles de Gaulle might not be nearby, but it had sent some of its aircraft to escort them. With those wonderful aircraft on their side, how could they fail?
He checked his compass carefully, knowing that a single mistake could result in them getting very lost indeed, and watched as the fleet of aircraft skimmed over the waves. How long, he wondered, would it be until they finally met the British fleet – and completed the task of destroying it?
The alarms rang, warning everyone on board that an enemy strike had been detected. Pilots ran to their aircraft; the ready flight was already being launched, along with the tanker that had been on stand-by. Admiral Jackson watched as the tanker climbed to its ceiling height, escorted by four F-18s, and then returned his attention to his board.
“We have at least four hundred aircraft, types comparable to Zero-design, heading our way,” Commander Patrick O’Reilly said grimly. “They’ll be on us in twenty minutes.”
Jackson nodded, even as Admiral Anderson’s aircraft carriers began launching their aircraft. With four hundred aircraft inbound, perhaps more, they would be needed – and if Contre-Admiral François Videzun had designated the French fighters as cannon fodder, they would be needed to save on the advanced weapons. A plane could refuel in mid-air; Jackson had yet to hear of a way for them to reload.
“Vector Commander Harpoon’s first strike along their line of flight,” he ordered. The Little Air Boss, Commander Simon Washington, nodded. His name was the source of much ribbing below decks, but there was no questioning his competence. “If the Charles de Gaulle is there, it’s the prime target. If not, then they’re to take out their carriers.”
“Yes, sir,” Commander Simon Washington said, and headed over to his console to issue the orders. Jackson returned to staring at the display, wondering exactly what was going on. Sending the propeller-aircraft in first made sense, he supposed, but why not combine the strikes?
“Order the AWACS to climb higher,” he said. They’d been surprised once before by the enemy bolting a modern missile onto one of their aircraft. “In fact, order it to do a detailed search of the region and…”
“Here they come,” Captain Morrigan said. His voice was calm and composed. “All decks, brace for impact. Close-in defence weapons, free. Weapons hot; I repeat, weapons hot.”
Admiral Anderson knew that the battle has already passed beyond his ability to control it. He'd heard how the George Washington, with a proper task force, could control a battle and every last detail, but he knew that the Amherst was not up to that task. He watched grimly as the French aircraft swept in…and his own aircraft moved in to counter them.
“Pom-poms are firing,” Captain George Caesar reported. Anderson said nothing; this was Caesar’s ship, not his. The Amherst rocked as its anti-aircraft weapons fired; any hits they scored would be though luck, not through technology. Some people were talking about linking the guns into radar, but he couldn’t see that happening for a while.
“Something’s wrong,” he said, as a thunderous explosion blew the destroyer Hyacinth out of the water. He couldn’t see what had happened; the explosion had been big enough to utterly shatter the destroyer. A French aircraft swooped down towards the Amherst, but launched no torpedoes; the targets were clearly the carriers. A missile from the Washington killed it before it could launch any weapons.
Anderson shuddered. There was something so…indecent about such killing. A shattering series of explosions marked the death of one of his carriers, but he couldn’t see which one it was, hidden through all the dust and smoke of the battle. Later, he would know and he would mourn, but until then…
“The Lord Kenneth has been sunk,” the fleet control operator reported. “The enemy are concentrating on the Washington.”
“Bastards,” Caesar commented. “Sir, if we send our aircraft to cover the Washington…”
“It’ll limit our own defences,” Anderson agreed. There was no question, though; there was only one possible answer. “Send all of the aircraft, cover the Washington as best as you can.”
Lieutenant Franklin Kratman held his F-18 high above the fray, watching for threats to the Washington itself. When he saw one, he swooped down into the fray, firing madly with his cannon and weaving from side to side. The French torpedo-bomber, already preparing an attack run, never saw what had hit it as the F-18 blew the plane apart. Kratman swept out through a cloud of French aircraft, relying on the effects of his passage to destroy them. The shockwave shattered the aircraft, even as some of them dared to fire back at him.
“Kratman, get out of there,” his commander snapped. “Handle…”
He was cut off by the deedle-deedle-deedle of the threat receiver. Kratman acted on instinct, swinging the plane around into evasive action, just in time to dodge a missile from a Rafale. The French aircraft didn’t seem too bothered; it followed Kratman, firing at him every time the pilot saw a clear shot.
“Fuck off,” Kratman snapped, sending his aircraft through a series of tight turns. The Rafale was just as manoeuvrable as the F-18 and followed him through the motions, firing at him. “Thousands of incompetents in the French Navy and I get the one fucking guy who deserved the medals they planted on him.”
“Heads-up,” one of his fellows said. “Ah reckon this guy deserves a missile.”
“I’m not fucking arguing,” Kratman snapped. “Kill him or get out of the fucking way.”
“Firing,” the pilot said. Ten seconds later, the Rafale had been struck by a missile and destroyed. The two pilots flew together in a moment of peace and quiet.
“Good shot,” Kratman said, not without jealousy. How many pilots had a chance to take a shot at a Rafale? “I suppose we’d better get back to the party.”
“Ah reckon that they can make do without us,” his fellow said. “Ah think that we should take a gander at the other French jets.”
“The Rafales have been splashed,” Captain Jason Groom reported. “That’s the end of the French jets.”
“No, it’s not,” Jackson said. He had an uneasy feeling in his chest. Something was really wrong. “Where’s the Charles de Gaulle?”
Captain Morrigan spoke grimly. “The Vikings are nearly at the French battle group now,” he said. “They might be about to destroy it.”
Jackson shook his head. “Have the other strike groups prepared,” he said. “The Charles de Gaulle must be out there somewhere.”
The S-3A Viking had been planned to be scrapped – or sold to other navies – by the end of 2009. The war situation had merited keeping a few, including the flight commanded by Commander Harpoon. It was not the most prestigious of aircraft, but Harpoon – who allowed only one joke at the expense of his name – loved his flight. Eleven Vikings, armed with anti-ship missiles, and seventeen F-18s escorting them.
“What a wonderful day it is for flying,” he commented, as he digested the information from the AWACS. He wished that they had a proper drone, but there were only a handful of them available and his mission wasn’t as important to some people as he thought it was. “Look…I see some ships.”
The pilot chuckled. “Commander, I think they’re big ships,” he said, affecting a little-boy voice. “I do believe that they’ve seen us.”
“Escorts, have fun,” Harpoon said. The F-18s could clear the skies of the enemy fighters, all propeller-driven, before the Vikings could start their mission. He didn’t think that the fighters could have stopped them unloading their Harpoon missiles onto their carriers, but it was well to be certain. “Eye-sky, can you locate primary target?”
“That’s a big negative,” the AWACS said. The operator’s tone was grim; if the primary target was missing, then it would have to be found…and it could be anywhere. “Only French carriers and their escorts.”
“Understood,” harpoon said. He tapped orders into his computer, designating targets. “All aircraft; launch AGM-84 Harpoon; one apiece.”
The aircraft shuddered as it launched the missile. There was no need to engage from such close range; the French had nothing that could have stopped the missiles, but the Admiral had wanted to try to keep the French in the dark about the true extent of the AGM-84 Harpoon’s capabilities. Personally, Harpoon thought that that was a waste of time, but it didn’t pay to question an admiral’s orders.
“Impact in twenty seconds,” his pilot said, as the swarm of missiles lanced towards the enemy carriers. The French clearly had some idea of what was coming, moving their carriers as fast as they could – futile, since the missiles could move to pursue them. The explosions tore through seven carriers…and missiles struck three superdreadnaughts.
“I confirm direct hits,” the AWACS said. “Be warned; two enemy superdreadnaughts appear to have survived the experience.”
Harpoon cursed. Firing on the French superdreadnaughts had been a gamble, but who could really grasp how limited their weapons were against such armour? The French had Hellebore missiles…the Americans…did not.
“I think that you killed the command crew, though,” the AWACS continued, after a long moment. “The ships are moving randomly in the water and there’s still some burning on one.”
“Humm,” Harpoon said. “Orders?”
“You’re to refuel,” the AWACS said. “And then…stand by.”
“The Charles de Gaulle wasn’t there,” Morrigan said grimly. Jackson, who’d been watching on the main screens, nodded. “Sir – Admiral – if we can’t find her…”
“Then all of this has been for nothing,” Jackson snapped, as the Washington shuddered. A French plane had crashed on the side of the ship; not hard enough to cause serious damage, but enough to worry him. It wasn’t as if there was a dry-dock that could take her in this world. The remaining French planes kept fighting, either unaware that their carriers had been sunk – or determined to take the Americans down with them.
He thought rapidly. If he could be certain that the Charles de Gaulle was out of the game, he could order the close-in weapons and the F-18s to engage. The fight could be ended quickly – but at the cost of burning through their weapons. As he couldn’t be certain…
“Admiral,” Commander Patrick O’Reilly said. “I really think you should see this.”
Jackson swung around to the main display. He’d ordered an AWACS – an E2 Hawkeye – to go looking for the Charles de Gaulle. It had found something, and…
There was only one thing to say. “Shit,” he breathed.