Paris, France (TimeLine B)
Contre-Admiral François Videzun strove as best as he could to find some positive side to the disaster, but he knew that it was a waste of time. The Washington might have been damaged – or it might not have been – but if it could still launch aircraft, it was still dangerous. He shook his head slowly; with the British carriers still intact – and the French ones at the bottom of the sea, it didn’t matter if the Washington was destroyed or not. Losing the Charles de Gaulle hurt – without it, there was no chance of a naval victory.
Videzun replayed the final moments of the compressed transmission, looking for a bright side. There wasn’t one; he was smart enough not to lie to himself. It was a disaster, and…there was no way to avoid the consequences. For a moment, he considered sending the entire French Navy against the Washington – the data burst did indicate that Harpoons were less capable than Hellebore missiles – but he knew that it would be futile. The superdreadnaughts would be sunk by the British carriers – and even if the British ran out of weapons, the Washington and the converted battlecruisers could simply outrun them.
He picked up the phone and dialled a number from memory. It was a dedicated line – any other number would have cut the connection automatically – and it didn’t ring for long before it was answered. The Crown Prince’s voice hummed down the line, with a disregard for security that Videzun found terrifying. If an English spy managed to hack into the line…
“Your Highness,” he said. There wasn’t an easy way to phase it. “Your Highness, the attack on the Washington has failed.”
He was amazed that he couldn’t hear the shouting through the palace walls. “You have failed me,” the Crown Prince shouted. It would have been reassuring under other circumstances; the cold interior could be melted. At the moment, it wasn’t reassuring at all. “How bad were the losses?”
“All of the carriers,” Videzun said, and left it at that. If the Crown Prince worked out that that included the Charles de Gaulle lost – well, there would be time for explaining that later. “Your Highness, we must withdraw from Britain now.”
He glanced up at the map. The first French attack had no hope of reaching any port that would be unloading the New Model Army. The second…might be able to reach Liverpool, but only if the British let it through. He doubted that they would – and even if they did, it might be an elaborate trap.
Damn them, he thought. The British of this era had made some serious preparations for invasion, far more than any of his timeline had done; invasion, through losing command of the sea, must have been a far more realistic concern to those in Timeline B. Their submarines were making dents in the French ships, and that was impeding their advance. The RFC hadn’t been wiped out, although it had been damaged, and the three Rafales remaining couldn’t handle all the precision bombing…even if the bombs themselves held out.
“If they do,” he muttered to himself. The Crown Prince made a strangled noise. “Your Highness?”
“You have lost me my ships,” the Crown Prince said. “François Videzun; give me back my ships!”
Who would have thought that he knew the classics? Videzun thought absently. “They can retake Britain,” he said, as calmly as he could. “If they do that, it gives them nothing beyond Britain itself – provided we save as much as we can of the army and the navy. If we lose either one of them, the Russians will knife us in the back.”
“My diplomacy has prevented any chance of that,” the Crown Prince snapped. His voice sharpened. “The Russians would never dare to break such a solemn oath.”
Videzun spoke bluntly. “Yes, they will,” he said, wishing that he had the nerve to give the Crown Prince a good spanking. He needed it. “If we look weak, they will come rolling over the border…and destroy the Empire.” He paused. “Pull the ships back to the Baltic and the Mediterranean,” he urged. “Bring the army back to France. We can still end this with honour.”
“No,” the Crown Prince said. “You know nothing of battles within our world. The troops stay in Britain.”
He put the phone down. Videzun was grimly certain that he was already issuing orders to the army staff; not to retreat or to dig in to Britain. Couldn’t he see? Unless the army dug in, it would be destroyed! Unless it retreated, it would be destroyed! If it kept trying to advance, it would stretch itself too thin…and be destroyed. He picked up his radio, to ask Jacqueline Petal, but then he remembered that there had been a decline in her work recently.
“Lucky Belen,” he said, absently. With Belen and Lavich still on their honeymoon, there was very little that he could do…except one thing. “I hate changing plans in midstream,” he muttered. “This is going to be worse than anything else.”
Without further ado, Videzun picked up his radio again and placed one single call. “Doctor,” he said, “I have a task for you.”
He listened to the shocked objections, and then waved his hand in unconcern. “Believe me, Doctor,” he said. “The situation cannot get any worse than it already is.”
United Kingdom (TimeLine B)
If there was one thing Anderson had been worried about, as the fleet approached the Celtic Sea under cover of darkness, it had been enemy submarines and superdreadnaughts. His improved radar, and the George Washington’s AWACS, made him certain that the enemy ships weren’t about, but he was still worried. Admiral Jackson – whose success against the French super carrier had been a big shot in the arm to the crew’s morale – had tried to reassure him, but he was still concerned.
Submarines, however, were another story. They’d been developing sonar for the ten months since the George Washington had arrived, but it still wasn’t a system they fully understood. Two submarines had been detected and sunk – and the nightmare was that they might have fired upon a British submarine instead of a French one.
“You’re still worried,” Caesar said. His dark face glittered when he opened his mouth, the moonlight glinting off his white teeth. “Think about what we did to their carriers.”
Anderson smiled. The open battle had done more to pull the ‘Americans’ and the ‘quasi-Americans’ into one unit than anything else. “I have thought about it,” he said. “The problem, of course, is where we land.”
An Admiral was not supposed to confide in anyone. Right now, he felt the need. “We’re nearly at Liverpool now,” he said. “We have the transports, safe and well, and the New Model Army. So…why don’t I feel safe?”
“Perhaps the George Washington is about to reveal itself as a French ship and open fire,” Caesar said. Anderson glared at him, and then realised that he was joking. “I think you’re worried about your decision to land at Liverpool.”
“It’ll take at least two days to get the New Model Army down to Oxford, where the lines have been forming,” Anderson said. He was glad that the French hadn’t attempted to take any more cities by force, but at the same time unhappy; that meant that the New Model Army would face a French army that hadn’t been that badly worn down. How much could the French have moved to England in the sixteen days they’d had? With some preplanning, they could have moved enough for long-term combat operations…
“If I had risked the landing at Southampton,” he said, and shook his head. The proof that alternate histories actually had some use didn’t mean that it was any use to him personally. He peered out into the darkness, seeing the tiny flickers of light revealing flaws in the blackout curtains or other problems.
“The New Model Army would have had to cut itself out of the city,” Caesar said. “For what it’s worth; I think you made the right decision.”
“Thanks,” Anderson said wryly. He checked his watch; only half an hour until they could dock the transports at Liverpool. “How long until dawn?”
Caesar shrugged. “Three, four hours,” he said. “You know what English weather is like.”
“And at that point we can expect major air attacks,” Anderson said. “Oh joy.”
“Oh joy indeed,” Caesar said. “Do you think it’s always going to be this way?”
Anderson lifted an eyebrow. “Endless fighting over small patches of land?” He asked. “You know, from the other history, I would have thought that we’d been lucky. Three massive empires, four independent states, two puppet states…rather different from hundreds of little annoying countries…”
Caesar nodded slowly. “And more technology,” he said. “More capability to do themselves harm.”
“That too,” Anderson said. “That too.”
If there was one thing that living in the French Court taught a person, it was how to read between the lines, both of written and unwritten works. The sheer silence on the subject of the naval battle – and the direct order from the Crown Prince to move forward – told General Leblanc more than the official briefing. If there had been a victory, the radio would have been gloating…and if there had been a draw, if honours had been even, he would have been informed.
That meant that there had been a disaster…and that the New Model Army had managed to land. The French air force had directed constant attacks against Liverpool, but the RFC had suddenly become stronger – boosted by the addition of carrier aircraft, perhaps? All of a sudden, the French forces had been reduced back to limited sight; the fog of war had enveloped Liverpool.
And it was quiet, too quiet. He lifted his binoculars and peered towards Oxford, home of a famous university and a particularly bloody-minded militia division. In the long run, his strategy of holding the country would have to work – because a direct assault on all of the cities would have simply destroyed the cities and cost him all of his men.
“The RFC is launching another flight,” his aide said. “They’re patrolling back over Oxford, at least nine aircraft.”
General Leblanc muttered under his breath, several words that he would have been slapped for using in front of a lady. “What are they doing?” He asked grimly. He checked the map of the British railway system again and cursed; the entire country was dotted with railways and their supports. With some effort, the British could have placed the entire New Model Army in their path.
“Perhaps it’s their final aircraft,” his aide suggested. “Perhaps they simply don’t have the ability to launch more.”
General Leblanc snorted and stamped off towards the scouting tent. The scouts, some of them mounted on horses, waited there. “Here are your orders,” he snapped. “Travel around Oxford and report.”
He watched as the scouts, both walking and riding, set off. He knew that the horses would probably lead to them being discovered, but there wasn’t much that he could do about that. He needed information…and there were only a handful of ways to get it.
A distant explosion in the air marked the death of an aircraft. He wondered whose side it had been on; British or French. Did it matter; the wonder-aircraft from the Charles de Gaulle had been recalled to their carrier, except two that were back in France. What did that mean?
“My General, there is a disturbance,” a watchman shouted. His face paled, from his position up the tower he could see for further than General Leblanc. “My General, there is an entire army of land ironclads moving this way!”
General Leblanc cursed bitterly. Perhaps it was the New Model Army, or perhaps the factories in Manchester had turned out enough land ironclads to equip their militia. It didn’t matter; the simple fact was that they were there…and that they were coming his way. The noise of incoming shellfire shocked him; the British were firing at them!
“How the hell did we miss them moving heavy guns?” His aide demanded. “The aircraft should have seen them and…”
“It doesn’t matter,” General Leblanc said, as the second round of shells smashed down. “Get our people into defensive position, now!”
Private Bruce Hanuman loved his tank. It was designed for one simple task; crushing French infantry under its treads, and it was so much easier to drive and fight with than being an infantryman in the trenches. His success in the battles in New Spain had won him command of a tank, just in time to join the battles in Britain.
“Move us forward in line with the others,” he said, watching through his periscope. “Gunners; fire as soon as you see the whites of their song sheets.”
“They won’t be singing Hail to the Emperor here,” the driver said. Unlike many Quebecois, he hated the French; they’d killed his parents during the run-up to war. Hail to the Emperor, the French anthem, was only sung in Quebec, outside the French Empire itself. “They’ll be singing God Save the King as soon as they see us coming.”
Hanuman shrugged, peering through as the explosions from the shells died away or headed further east. The idea had been simple; the self-propelled guns would mount an impromptu barrage, while the tanks themselves charged the lines. If the French cowered, the tanks would get them; out in the open, the artillery would have a good chance of killing them.
“There,” he said, as the French lines came into stark relief. He smiled; the French clearly hadn’t been expecting a major offensive. They’d only built one trench, after all. He was certain that they would have built stronger defences around Dover and Maidstone, but for the moment…
“Firing, sir,” the lead gunner said, and the tank’s machine guns opened fire. Hanuman swivelled the periscope from side to side, watching as the bullets slashed across the French trench, careful to keep an eye out for antitank tanks. The French had concentrated on building to that design…and it was a right pain in the arse for tank attacks. As it was, they had to assume that every French tank was an antitank design, until they knew differently.
“Die, you bastards,” the driver snarled, as they broke over the trench, the gunners firing up and down it. Hanuman almost laughed; they really hadn’t been expecting trouble…and then a tank exploded. Three Frenchmen with bazooka-like weapons, although he could see some differences, were firing at them.
“Kill them,” he snapped, and the gunners fired at them. Hanuman shuddered as the French bodies were chopped to bloody gore by the bullets. Their weapons, abandoned, were picked up by the British infantry supporting their advance.
“Some Frenchmen are surrendering,” the radio buzzed. “Accept their surrenders.”
“Bastards,” Hanuman cursed. He thought that the surrenders should be refused, refused with extreme prejudice if needs be. “Watch them carefully,” he ordered. “They blink, they’re history.”
“You’ve been watching too many of those movies from the weird ship,” his driver observed. “Personally, I like the Star Trek ones myself.”
“Tripe,” Hanuman said flatly. “Keep watching for trouble; you don’t think that they’re all going to just give up, do you? This was the vanguard; the rest of the bastards are somewhere to the east.”
“The rest of the bastards are somewhere to the east,” Colonel Magadan said. “General…?”
General Smith considered. The French occupation looked impressive – on paper – but it wasn’t the perfect red-shaded areas on the map. How could it be? Even ten times the number of troops the French were supposed to have couldn’t have held down the countryside, even with most of the civilians staying out of the fighting.
“We have to round them all up quickly,” he said, and checked the map. The New Model Army had disembarked, moved itself as quickly as it could to a hidden base, and then attacked as soon as dawn had risen. They’d smashed the French vanguard, but he knew that there would be more Frenchmen, either besieging London or Southampton, or marching up to engage them.
“Yes, sir,” Magadan said. Smith smiled; it was the safe thing to say, he supposed. “Perhaps if we were to concentrate on attacking the airfields they are using to attack us?”
“That’s the Royal Flying Corps’ job,” Smith reminded him. The RFC had been firmly subordinated to General Highlander. With his death, they’d been trying to assert their independence – no matter how much it might have hurt the defence of Great Britain. “Order them to concentrate on the enemy airfields.”
“Yes, sir,” Magadan said. He left, heading to the radio tent, allowing Smith a moment to figure out what to do next. The problem, of course, was that the enemy would have time to react to him – even with the George Washington’s drones providing him with surveillance. They were digging in at Dover, even taking in reinforcements despite carrier attempts to interdict them, and cracking that line would make New Spain seem like a bloodless victory.
“We’ll move to relieve London,” he decided, and summoned his staff officers. The French had built powerful lines around the city, just to prevent the British from breaking out, but were they designed to stop someone on the outside? “Gentlemen; we are going to lift the siege of London.”
“Yes, sir,” they said. Magadan returned and nodded to him. “The RFC has its orders.”
“Good,” Smith said. “We’re going to London, then we’re going to Dover,” he said.
Magadan asked a question. “What about the forces in the Cambridge region?” He asked. “Aren’t they a problem as well?”
Smith shook his head. “Local militia has them under control,” he said. “The ones near Dover and London, however, are still dangerous; we need to deal with them.”
“Yes, sir,” Magadan said, and headed off to issue the orders.
Smith stared down at the map grimly. “What would I do, in their place?” He asked himself. “Answer; dig in and prepare to repel attack. If so…”
He called Magadan back. “Ask the George Washington to prepare to watch for any heavy troop movements from London,” he said. “They should be trying to concentrate their own forces, tempting us to attack them.”
“Yes, sir,” Magadan said. “Sir, if they do that, we can reoccupy Britain – most of Britain – without a fight.”
Smith shook his head. “Most battles are won by crushing the opposing army,” he said. “That’s what we have to do…and what our enemy will be trying to make difficult.” He paused. “And if he makes it impossible, then that’s it.”