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Chapter Four: Unidentified Flying Objects



HMNAS Amherst

South Atlantic (TimeLine B)
“So tell me, what do you think of the fleet?”
Vice-Admiral Felix Anderson allowed himself a moment to consider, sipping his wineglass thoughtfully, as Maggie O’Brien asked the question. The table, strewn with the remains of a good dinner for the eighteen senior officers in the fleet, had been well laid; the dinner had been excellent, as always.
“A very good question, Miss O’Brien,” he said, considering his answer. “It is a formidable force, to be sure.”
Maggie looked sharply at him, searching for traces of mockery. Two weeks into the voyage, he was starting to think that bringing her along wasn’t such a bad idea; she was good and intelligent company. She was also easy to look at, he acknowledged without guilt. Under other circumstances, he might have invited her out to start the process of courtship.
“That’s not exactly what I asked,” Maggie said, waving a hand around the table. “How does the fleet perform?”
Anderson smiled. Perhaps the courtship could be permitted after all. Admirals were expected to marry, after all. “The fleet performs as well as can be expected,” he said, and was unsurprised to see her scribble it down in a little notepad she carried around. “It’s not as practiced as I would wish, but…”
He shrugged. Maggie smiled at him, turning up the charm a little. “The fleet has nine ships from different navies,” he said. “Do you not have problems with the units?”
It was a perceptive question, Anderson acknowledged. “That’s not exactly true,” he said. “We have six American units, the original units for Battlecruiser Division Seventeen as planned. Then we have a British ship, an Indian ship, and an Australian ship. While I would have liked to have had more time to practice drilling the fleet, it’s as good as is needed for the task at hand.”
“Thank you,” Maggie said. She sipped her wine glass thoughtfully. “Have you ever considered transferring to one of the other navies?”
“Bit hard to do that as a Vice Admiral,” Anderson said. “At least, a full transferral would be. When you reach Admiral’s rank, you are expected to have an established career path.”
“And where does yours lead?” Maggie asked, chewing her pencil thoughtfully. The electric light flickered slightly as the generator flickered, deep within the battlecruiser’s hull. “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”
“An odd question,” Anderson observed. “Where do I see myself, indeed?”
Maggie smiled. “Assuming you survive the war,” she said.
Anderson smiled back. “Miss O’Brien, I hope to rise to Station Commander, perhaps,” he said. “A superdreadnaught squadron is a far more complex unit than a battlecruiser – and it’s boring.”
“Everyone expected a battle for the seas the day after the war broke out,” Maggie agreed. “Instead…we have endless stalemate. Back in Amherst, the MP for Pitt County was asking why the fleet, which had cost millions of pounds, wasn’t pushing the offensive against the French. The Texans, on the other hand, want the fleet to force the French Navy out of the Caribbean.”
She paused, inviting comment. “The problem is that we have to remain concentrated against the French,” Anderson said finally. “Their raids on the Texas coast are annoying. At the same time, we cannot risk a major battle without the odds being in our favour, simply because of the dangers of losing a large percentage of the fleet.”
“So Admiral Porter said,” Maggie said calmly. “What do you think of it?”
Anderson considered. “Off the record?” Maggie nodded. “Off the record, I would like a more aggressive policy. The Russians and the French are both raiding our convoys, which distracts attention from fighting the real battle at sea. At the same time, we have to include escorts to ensure that the submarines don’t engage the superdreadnaughts and sink them by surprise.”
Maggie nodded daintily. “Are the French and the Russians sticking to the convention governing submarine warfare?” She asked. “There are…rumours of…”
She broke off. “It’s hard to say,” Anderson admitted. He paused; the censors would cut it, would they not? “There have been rumours of fast civilian ships being hit by submarines, but there’s been no proof. Unfortunately, the advantages of a successful submarine blockade of Britain itself are so self-evident that they have to be working hard on deploying newer submarines that can turn the advantages they have into war-winning weapons.”
“Such as sealing off the heart of the British Empire,” Maggie said, with the traditional Irish disdain for their English cousins. “What would happen if they managed it?”
“That’s as likely to happen as the bomber offensive actually managing to hurt us, or them,” Anderson said. He knew that the problem had been extensively studied by all of the United Empire’s navies, but all of them had concluded that submarine warfare was overrated. “The technology doesn’t exist to turn such grandiose dreams into reality, no matter how much the French might want to do so.”
He paused for a moment’s thought. “When aircraft were invented, everyone believed that they would change the course of the war, but have they? The only major change is in reconnaissance, artillery spotting and some bombing raids, none of which inflict major damage on the enemy.”
“And theirs inflict nothing on us,” Maggie agreed. “The men of the Royal American Flying Corps will be pleased to hear that their labours count for nothing.”
Anderson smiled delightedly. The air battles over New Spain and Texas were legendary. “Even without the fighters, the French could accomplish little with the bombs they can carry,” he said. “Scaling up the bombers is possible, of course, and we’ve been doing that ourselves, but there are so many problems to solve, including guidance.”
“True,” Maggie said, apparently tiring of the discussion. “How confident are you of victory in the coming battle?”
“Very confident,” Anderson said. “We’ve been drilling for the last week – this dinner was to celebrate the completion of the first series of drills – and we’re ready for the battle, assuming that we fight it.”
“So you intend to seek battle,” Maggie said. “What about the orders from Admiral Porter?”
Anderson lifted an eyebrow. The orders had been meant to be confidential. “Admiral Porter ordered me to avoid battle if the enemy was stronger than we were,” he said. “I am confident that we can break away, if we have to, should the enemy have more ships or firepower than we have.”
“I see,” Maggie said. “When are we going to reach the Falklands?”
Anderson grinned. “In a week,” he said. “We just left Accession, and the French haven’t shown their faces there. That suggests that we’ll have a clear run to the Falklands.” He sighed. “Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what there is to face there,” he said. “I was hoping that a freighter would put into the Falklands, but no luck.”
“The islands are only useful during peacetime,” Maggie commented. She smoothed her skirt down demurely. “If the enemy holds them, then the freighters have to go to Durban instead, and then cross the Atlantic above the equator.”
“You’ve done your research,” Anderson said, impressed. “How are you adapting to the voyage?”
“It’s not as bad as I had feared,” Maggie said. “Thank you for the stateroom, by the way.”
“You’re welcome,” Anderson said, automatically. “No trouble with the crew?”
“Just some wolf-whistles,” Maggie said. “Compared to some of the harassment in the newspaper world, it’s hardly anything.”
“Imagine a less refined world than sailors at sea,” Anderson said dryly. “Don’t forget; you’re committed to the battle now.”
Maggie smiled at him. “I do understand,” she said. “I can’t wait for the article I’m going to write about it. I can forward it from Accession – seeing they cut the connection to the Falklands – and then the Times will publish it everywhere.”
“I’ll look forward to reading it,” Anderson said. He stood up. “Unfortunately, I have duties to attend to.”
“But the night is young,” Maggie protested, and spoiled the effect with a yawn. “I could stay up for hours yet.”
“Child,” Anderson said, with genuine affection. She was good company. “Go to bed, Miss O’Brien; morning will be here soon.”
“Goodnight,” Maggie said. Anderson half-wondered if she was going to kiss him, but she settled for a formal curtsey before leaving the stateroom. Smiling to himself, Anderson called for the stewards to clear the room and headed for his own cabin.
***
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