100km west of Britain, TimeLine B
Contre-Admiral François Videzun’s plan had been simple; the essence of a good plan. The Hellebore missiles didn’t have a long enough range to launch them from the French fleet, and at the same time they had to have their rudimentary computers constantly updated with the location of their main target. If the remaining fighters, carrying the Hellebores, were slipped in while the main battle was raging, they would have the best chance of actually hitting the George Washington.
“Admiral, we have incoming,” Commander Thomas Henderson snapped. “Incoming Dassault Rafales, launching missiles now.” There was a brief pause. “They’re Hellebores!”
Jackson grasped the side of his chair and cursed. He heard Morrigan barking out orders, retargeting all of the Washington’s defences, and he’d never felt so helpless in his life. If a single Hellebore could take out a battleship, then the Washington would be wrecked by one, if not sunk outright.
“Order the launch of every aircraft,” he ordered, forgetting himself. Every aircraft had already been launched. “No, counterman that; order every aircraft to take down those missiles!”
“Yes, sir,” Captain Sonja Robertson said. “Orders sent!”
Jackson thought as fast as he could. He dismissed the Rafales as a threat – unless they launched suicide attacks they had to be almost unarmed now – but the missiles were the real threat. Eighteen Hellebores, closing in on the Washington. They were ignoring the other ships; the Washington was their only target.
Heads they win, tails I lose, Jackson thought, as missiles launched rapidly from the Washington’s close-in defence launchers. If the missiles weren’t aimed exactly right, they would miss their targets – he could only hope that they would have time to fire a second round of missiles.
“F-18s launching missiles now,” Sonja said. Her voice was tense; the jet fighters had only one shot at hitting the missiles. “One impact…two impacts…”
“Sixteen to go,” Jackson muttered. Time was slowing, almost standing still. “When are the missiles popping up?”
“They’re not,” the radar operator said. His voice rose. “Sir, the Havelock!”
Jackson swung around to the display. The battlecruiser Havelock was moving slowly, far too slowly, right into the path of a missile. Before anyone could do anything, the Hellebore struck the Havelock and destroyed it utterly. Two more missiles fell to fighter-launched missiles, then another…
Thirteen to go, Jackson thought numbly. He scowled; the French had pulled one very nasty trick off, with missiles that were too dumb to be fooled by ECM. “Activate the Daemon’s Protocols,” he ordered. It might be his last order; the final order given on board a doomed ship.
“Seven left,” the radar operator said. “One of them has gone off course.”
Jackson blinked. Why had that happened? “Brace for impact,” Morrigan’s voice said, over the intercom. The chattering of the Metalstorm close-in defensive system was overpoweringly loud, hammering out thousands of rounds towards the French missiles. “Impact in…”
There was a colossal explosion, far too close for comfort. Jackson’s first thought was that they’d been hit, but if that had happened it would be unlikely that they would have survived to wonder about it. “What happened?” He demanded. “Report!”
“One of the missiles was triggered by the Metalstorm,” the operator said. His voice was shocked. “Sir, I think we’re going to make it.”
The blast must have taken out the other missiles, Jackson through, checking the display. The AWACS feed reported no further missiles; the French aircraft were making a retreat. “Order the CAP to engage those aircraft,” he snapped. “Take them down. Take them all down!”
“Yes, Admiral,” Robertson said. The Washington shuddered again. “Orders have been sent.”
“We just got whacked by a suicidal pilot,” Morrigan snapped. “Minor damage to the flight deck.”
Jackson cursed. “Can we recover aircraft?”
“I think so,” the Air Boss said, after a long moment. “We might want to put the fires out first.”
Jackson let out a long sigh of relief. Red and green icons on the display, both sides’ jet fighters, were dancing in combat, but the main thrust of the battle seemed to be over. He sucked in his breath, cold thoughts of revenge gliding through his mind. It wasn’t over; it wouldn’t be over until the Charles de Gaulle was sunk.
“Order the recon flights to probe along the flight path of the Rafales,” he said. “Their mission is to find the Charles de Gaulle. Put the Kitchen Sink squadron on alert; they’re to prepare to do unto them as they did unto us.”
“Yes, sir,” Robertson said. “We’ll find them soon; they can’t escape!”
Captain Rupert Potter gunned his afterburners, pushing the F-18 Hornet through a massive series of manoeuvres, following the French aircraft. At these speeds, he knew that it would be a stern chase; the F-18 had a slight advantage, but not one long enough to be decisive. If the French kept running, the Americans would have to launch missiles…and hope. So far ahead, the French aircraft couldn’t be seen and he wondered if they knew that the Americans were hunting them. He shook his head; they had to know. They’d only waited long enough to see what the strike had done to the Washington before bugging out…and they would have known that it had failed.
Not completely, he thought grimly, and checked his systems. If the catapult had been damaged, the Washington’s ability to launch aircraft would have been seriously compromised – perhaps even lost altogether. The British Empire was capable and had considerable experience with large ships, yes; but did it have the ability to rebuild parts of the Washington?
“Eye spy-one, I’m in missile range,” he said. “Request permission to open fire.”
There was a pause. The operator on the AWACS had to be calculating the odds of a successful hit, balanced with the simple possibility of the F-18s having to abandon the chase. The Charles de Gaulle was somewhere along the French flight path – unless the French were being really gutsy – and the main problem with the Hornet was that it might not have the range to find the Charles de Gaulle and return to the George Washington.
“Permission granted,” the operator said, finally. “You are cleared to engage.”
It was a moment, Potter felt, that needed a strong patriotic soundtrack to accompany it. He selected the basic missile, locked it onto the closest Rafale, and fired. The AIM-120 AMRAAM lanced away from his plane, chasing the French aircraft.
“They’re taking evasive action,” his co-pilot said. The American planes could use the moment to close in on the French aircraft; ten of which were now…turning to face them. “Missile impact…now!”
Potter saw a flicker in the distance as the AIM-120 AMRAAM struck the French aircraft, destroying it. He glanced at his display; at these speeds they would be on the French defenders before they even knew it…
“Incoming fire,” the AWACS snapped. “Take evasive action!”
“Really?” Potter muttered, swinging the F-18 around to avoid a French MICA missile. “I never would have guessed.”
He scowled as he fired a second AMRAAM. The French aircraft was piloted by a pilot at least as capable as himself, he avoided the missile with ease, if not grace. The seeker head lost its lock and flew harmlessly into the sea. His targeting systems reported a lock-on and he fired automatically, hammering the French aircraft at practically point-blank range. The Rafale exploded and…
“Eagle-five and Eagle-seven are down,” the AWACS said. “SAR teams are on their way for both of them.”
Potter glanced down at his display and cursed. By their comrades bold sacrifice, the remaining French aircraft, the ones that had launched the Hellebores, had had time to make their escape. He shook his head in grim admiration; even as badly outnumbered as they’d been, the French had made them pay for the victory.
“See if I ever make fun of them again,” he said aloud, and led the way back to the Washington.
Captain Jean-Pierre Mauroy examined the transmitted reports from the aircraft with considerable dissatisfaction. They’d damaged the Washington, perhaps enough to prevent it from launching more aircraft, and they’d killed somewhere around three to four British aircraft carriers…but in the process they’d lost their own carriers and some other ships.
“At least we know the Harpoons are not as effective as Hellebores,” he muttered to himself, as he tallied up the result of the brief and violent air battle. The roar of the landing Rafales drowned out his words. He’d given orders for them to be rearmed as quickly as possible; somehow the flotilla of superdreadnaughts surrounding the ship didn’t fill him with confidence. If the Washington could still launch aircraft – or still had an attack force in the air – then the Charles de Gaulle was in serious trouble.
“Helm, get us out of here,” he ordered. There was no longer any point in hiding; without any ability to hit the Americans – mentally he cursed Videzun’s decision to keep two of the Hellebores in France – the Charles de Gaulle couldn’t sneak around any longer. “Full speed; head for Toulon.”
He ran mental calculations in his head. If they were lucky, they might manage to keep ahead of the George Washington, long enough to reach the gates to the Mediterranean Sea. The George Washington wouldn’t pursue them there, he was sure; the massive super carrier would be an easy target for the heavy guns mounted on Spain and what had been Morocco, back when the world made sense.
“Ah, Captain?” His exec asked. He’d been appointed by Videzun, which was one reason why Mauroy didn’t like the man. “If we do that, we’ll leave our escorts behind?”
He phased it as a question. Mauroy wasn’t sure if it was an attempt to annoy him or a search for reassurance. “Yes, I know,” he said. “Tell me; against Harpoon missiles, how much good do you think they’ll be?”
The Exec’s face fell. “Yes, Captain,” he said. “They won’t be any good at all.”
Mauroy’s face darkened. “The Americans have just been poked in the eye,” he said. “As soon as they’ve finished licking their wounds, they’ll come for us…and we’d better be a long way away from them by then, understand?” He didn’t wait for any comment. “Helm; move us out.”
“Yes, Captain,” the helmsman said. Mauroy watched through the porthole as the superdreadnaughts were slowly left behind. “Moving to full speed now.”
Mauroy nodded nervously. The Charles de Gaulle had had enough problems with its reactors to make him very worried; if the reactor chose this moment to fail, it would spell their doom. He imagined being becalmed within the Atlantic; they would almost certainly have to surrender to the Americans when they showed up, just to have competent people helping to stabilise the reactor. It wasn’t supposed to be able to meltdown…but Mauroy knew better than to trust the experts. What did they know?
“Have the aircraft turned around as fast as possible,” he said, thinking as fast as he could. Launching the aircraft was asking for trouble; the Americans would be more likely to see them if they had aircraft hovering above them. “If the Americans show up, I want our remaining aircraft launched as soon as possible.”
“We took minor damage to one of the catapults,” Captain Robin Brooks, Chief Engineer, reported. “Some minor damage to the hull; some injuries caused by an exploding helicopter – thank God it wasn’t armed. I think we came though pretty well.”
“For the first super carrier to engage in carrier-to-carrier war,” Jackson agreed. He smiled at Morrigan. “You should be proud of your crew.”
“I am,” Morrigan said. There was a deep undercurrent of anger in his voice. “I want the French cocksuckers dead.”
“No argument,” Jackson said. “We have to find them first.” He wished, not for the first time, that he could talk properly to Admiral Anderson. The British-American had a good understanding of carrier operations. “The French carriers were sunk, right?”
“All seven,” Sonja said. “Their superdreadnaughts seemed to be able to almost shrug off a Harpoon, although we think that we killed some of the command crew on the ships. One was destroyed; two were damaged. On the other hand, killing the carriers is just like stamping on bugs.”
“What a nice analogy,” Jackson said. He smiled with a certain grim look. “We are going after the Charles de Gaulle.”
A ripple of anticipation ran around the room. “Admiral,” O’Reilly said, “I know that I want them too, but don’t we have to worry about the New Model Army?”
Jackson nodded. It was a good point, and without a proper staff, it was O’Reilly’s job to make it. “Yes, Commander,” he said. “You’re right; that is a problem. Fortunately, we can move some of our ASW assets to the Arnold” – he refused to use the ship’s full name – “and then Admiral Anderson can escort the rest of the transports to the United Kingdom.”
He paused for a moment, inviting comment. None came. “Captain Morrigan, please set course along the flight path of the French aircraft,” he said. “Inform me when the recon aircraft find something.”
An alarm rang in the bridge of the Charles de Gaulle. Mauroy moved as fast as he could, cursing. Nearly an hour after leaving behind the superdreadnaughts, he’d dared to hope that they had escaped the Washington.
“What do we have?” He demanded. “What have you seen?”
“Long-range recon aircraft, American design,” Commander Hachay said. He tapped the screen, pointing to a blinking icon. As they watched, it changed to reveal that the aircraft was transmitting. “Sir, they’ve seen us.”
“Battle stations,” Mauroy snapped. “Sound the alert; launch all fighters.” He glanced down at the screen; the American aircraft was out of range of the Charles de Gaulle’s missiles. “Order the lead fighter to deal with the American aircraft, as fast as possible.”
“That’s the Charles de Gaulle, all right,” Sonja Robertson said. The display screen showed a ship that was as out of place in Timeline B as the Washington itself was. “Sir, she’s launching her fighters.”
Jackson nodded. “Felix wasn’t that keen on the whole idea,” he said. In fact, Anderson had muttered something about cowboys. “We have to deal with her quickly. Order the Kitchen Sink and the Eagles in to engage.”
“Yes, sir,” Sonja said. “Sir, what about the French superdreadnaughts?”
Jackson checked the AWACS radar stream. The seventeen dreadnaughts were beating their own retreat, running from Anderson’s force or from the Washington. That was lucky, he supposed; none of the carriers was in a real state for a battle. The Royal North American Navy might have lost the battle, after all the effort.
“Leave them,” he ordered, after a moment. “We can deal with them later, if we have to. I see no need to waste missiles.”
“Yes, sir,” Sonja said. The roar of aircraft engines echoed through the ship. “Kitchen Sink force launching now.”
Captain Rupert Potter had never expected to fight a real combat, jet to jet. Iraqis and Iranians had simply lacked the competence of NATO and the other handful of modern states; the Iraqis hadn’t even launched a single air attack against American forces. The USN and USAF had held countless practice duels, but they weren’t quite real.
“Eagle-one, he’s on your six,” his co-pilot snapped. Potter acted on instinct, throwing the Hornet across the sky. The French missile narrowly missed him; his desperate manoeuvre had barely saved his life. He swept up, just above the surface of the water, and fired a missile of his own.
The dark shape of the Charles de Gaulle loomed in front of him and he swept aside to avoid a collision, staying low to avoid the carrier’s own weapons. The carrier wasn’t holding anything back; missiles and gunfire roared off its decks, firing at the American aircraft. He had a clear shot at a French aircraft and fired, scoring a direct hit…and then had to swoop out of the way of a French aircraft. The pilot must have used all of his missiles; he only fired at the Hornet with guns.
“Take that,” Potter snapped, sparing no thought for the pilot. A single missile destroyed his aircraft, killing the Frenchman before he had time to escape. “Eagle-one, fox-two!”
“Excellent shooting,” the AWACS said. “Stand by; you have clear skies.”
Potter checked his scopes out of habit. The last time an AWACS had said that an F-117 had appeared out of nowhere, launching missiles it wasn’t supposed to be carrying. The drill had been unfair, some of the pilots had protested – the ones who no longer had real careers. Expect the unexpected, the instructors had warned them – this time, there were no longer any French aircraft in the sky.
“Kitchen Sink is inbound,” the AWACS said. “Cover them.”
Against what? Potter thought. The Viking squadron, the Kitchen Sink, no longer faced opposition. He watched as a salvo of Harpoon missiles were launched, lancing in towards a ship that was now defenceless…and helpless.
Mauroy swore badly as the last of the Rafales was wiped out of the air. They’d fought well and hard, but in the end they hadn’t been enough. Seven Hornets and the American recon plane had been destroyed, but the Washington had always had more planes than the Charles de Gaulle.
“Blasted Americans,” Mauroy muttered. “Must they always have bigger ships than anyone else?”
“They’ve overcompensating,” his exec said. “Most Americans are bad lovers.”
Mauroy gave him a cross look. It wasn’t the time for bad jokes. “Transmit the compressed signal to Contre-Admiral François Videzun,” he snapped, cursing the Admiral in the only way left to him. Videzun had to know what had happened here. The communications officer nodded. “Then contact the Americans. Inform them…that we surrender.”
“You must be joking,” his exec said. “The French Navy never surrenders.”
Mauroy ignored him. “Do it,” he snapped. “Now.”
“It’s too late,” the weapons operator said. “They’re launching Harpoon missiles.”
“Activate all point defence signals,” Mauroy snapped. “Transmit the signal again…”
“Too late,” the weapons operator said. “They’re overloading the system and…”
Seven Harpoon missiles struck the Charles de Gaulle. Two of them slammed into the superstructure and killed Mauroy and his crew. The others slammed into the main hull, blasting it apart. Many of the carrier’s weapons had been removed, but it made no difference to the final result; a tearing series of explosions. The fuel supplies caught fire, adding to the damage, and blowing the bottom out of the hull.
As the American planes watched from high above, the wreckage of the Charles de Gaulle slipped slowly beneath the waves.