Nr New Orleans, North American Union (TimeLine B)
As a flight of F-18s passed overhead, trailing red, blue and white smoke behind them, the USS George Washington finally entered the Gulf of Mexico, passing countless boats from New Orleans and even a couple of French ships. Captain Morrigan watched them with concern, but they seemed as pleased as everyone else that the war was finally over.
“I wonder what will happen to the old girl now,” he commented. “Are all of us going to Cuba?”
Admiral Jackson shrugged. “Not all of us,” he said. “Some of us will be living in Springfield.”
“Yes, My Lord,” Morrigan said, his tone slightly mocking. “That baronetcy has gone to your head.”
Jackson smiled at him. “Quite right,” he said. “Now wash my face and shave my beard.”
“Only if you want your throat accidentally brutally cut with a razor,” Morrigan said. “What’s going to happen to the Washington?”
Jackson shook his head slowly. “She’s probably going to be in dry dock for a long time,” he said. “The engineers here want to know all about building her, so they can build one like her. There’s already talk of harnessing the atom for peaceful use here, and we’ve given them plans for safer fission plants. They know about oil here, but they want to move directly to nuclear power.”
Morrigan shrugged. “It should be interesting,” he said, as Springfield appeared in the distance. The shoreline wasn’t that impressive, yet, but for a town that had only been in existence for nine months, the growth rate was impressive. New factories, building the world’s first real computers, were springing up – many of them crewed by women and Native Americans. In Cuba, there were already plans to boost the island forward to first-world status within a decade.
He smiled. There was no such thing as the second world here, except perhaps the wilderness backwoods of Russia. Even darkest Africa was well developed, certainly up to the standards of 1860s America; the only place of real misery was China. In a new spirit of companionship, the three superpowers – and Japan – would be doing some work to improve the place.
“Better than anything we ever did,” he muttered. In timeline A, there had been far too many attempts to solve the effects of the problems, but hardly ever the root causes. These people…had never even pretended to accept the concept that there was something wrong with imperialism, with developing countries as part of a global empire.
“Yes, we could have improved Cuba simply by sending in the Marines,” Jackson said, misinterpreting his question. “I’m sorry about the ship.”
Morrigan shrugged. “Give us five years and we’ll be building more,” he said. “Then we shall see what I do.” He smiled. “You’ll be mayor of this little community for a while.”
“With all of the Native Americans coming in to find new hope?” Jackson asked. “It won’t stay little for long.” He paused for a long moment. “Did the security staff do as I asked?”
Morrigan nodded. “Yes, Admiral,” he said. “They found nothing, apart from some really sexy lingerie.”
Jackson laughed. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We know who is making those transmissions now.” He let out a heavy sigh. “All we have to do is confront her.”
The Church had been newly built, only two months old, and it was already over-serviced. The ministers for the church had already asked for permission to build a larger one, but for the moment it was the only large church in Springfield. It felt roomy inside, even with nearly five hundred people packed inside.
“You look wonderful,” Sharon said, as Maggie O’Brien twirled in front of her. “Almost good enough to eat.”
“Thank you,” Maggie said. “God, I feel happy and nervous and…”
Sharon smiled at her. “You look fine,” she said. “Where’s the stand-in dad?”
There was a knock at the door. “May I come in?” Sir Joseph asked. Maggie grinned and opened the door. The elderly admiral smiled at her as he considered her. “I am proud to be your father for an hour,” he said.
“Damning with faint praise,” Sharon said. Maggie gave her a sharp look. The last thing her wedding needed was for her to start sniping at Sir Joseph. “He’s right, you know; every tight-fitting trouser is going to be very sore.”
Sir Joseph coughed and made a valiant effort to glare at her. “It’s almost time,” he said. “Are you ready?”
Maggie nodded. The distant noise of the organ struck up; she’d never fully understood why someone had marked it BLOODY STUPID JOHNSTON, as if that was the name of the Chief Engineer who’d designed it. The vicar – for some reason Admiral Jackson hadn’t been too keen on anyone with a higher rank coming to the new town – hadn’t been pleased at all.
“It’s time,” Sir Joseph said. He took her arm gently, nodding to the page to open the door. “Come along.”
Maggie tried hard to keep her face serious as she walked slowly up the exact centre of the church, Sharon carrying her train behind her. She saw Anderson at the end, with Admiral Jackson standing beside him, and felt her heart almost burst from love. He smiled at her and she smiled back.
“Ahem,” the vicar said. She’d wondered if an Admiral would perform the service, but all three of them were involved in one way or another. She smiled; one was the bridegroom, another was the best man, a third was her surrogate father. A tall black man led a line of Captains, standing in salute to their admiral.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness the joining in holy matrimony of two God-fearing Christians, Felix Anderson and Maggie O’Brien,” the vicar said. “If anyone has just cause or impediment to their union, let him speak now, or forever hold his tongue.”
There was a long silent pause. “Marriage is a holy state, conceived by God,” the vicar said. “Maggie O’Brien, do you, of your own free will, take this man, to love, to honour, to cherish, to obey…until death do you part?”
“I do,” Maggie said. Her voice was quiet, but it echoed out around the church. “I do.”
“Baron Falklands, Admiral Felix Anderson,” the vicar said. “Do you, of your own free will, take this woman, to love, to honour, to cherish, to obey…until death do you part?”
Anderson’s voice was softer. “I do,” he said. Only a handful of people heard him. “I do,” he repeated, a little louder.
“Then, by the authority invested in me, in front of the Lord God, I pronounce you man and wife,” the vicar said. “You may now kiss the bride.”
Anderson leaned towards her. Maggie leaned up, opening her lips slightly, and they met. They kissed, deeply, and the church cheered. “I love you,” he whispered, as they kissed again.
“Me too,” she whispered back. “I love you too.”
As soon as he could decently beg off from the ceremony, having eaten a slice of cake in the shape of the Amherst, Jackson headed for a small office that had been built near the Church. As soon as he reached the office, he sat down, allowing himself a moment to think, to consider.
For better or worse, he knew, the Washington crew had adapted to their new home. Many had remarried, or were going steady with people from the North American Union. Springfield had even had its first scandal, when a Native American – one of the people – had sliced his daughter’s nose off, as punishment for dating an American. Jackson, who felt that tolerance had its limits, had arranged for the man to face twenty years of hard labour.
“You live here, you live by our rules, and in exchange for living by our rules we tolerate you, provided you don’t break the rules,” he’d said at the time. The Prime Minister and the Mayor hadn’t complained; they’d felt that Jackson had been too lenient. The People were permitted to live in peace, provided they stayed on their reservation. In Springfield, how many of the People would find a second chance?
He shook his head slowly. The crew of the Newport had been buried in Springfield, as close to their homes as they could have been buried, but where were the others? The new Tsar, the former Colonel Petrovich, had been right; the remaining ships could be somewhere under the Russian snows, or in the Antarctic, or…in Japan, or the Congo, or…
We’ll never know, he thought, and hoped, that, perhaps, it would all reveal itself in time.
He picked up a report and read it absently. Nearly a month after the peace treaty had been signed, everything seemed to be going back to normal, at least for timeline B. Trade between Britain, France and Russia had been resumed and regular trade between New Spain and the North American Union was on the verge of resuming. The Russians were hiring teachers and scientists from the other two superpowers – and trading technology from the ships to pay for it.
Enough, he thought. He knew what he was doing and he hated himself for it. He was putting it off, putting off what he was supposed to be doing. With a muttered oath – I swear to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, his mind gibbered – he picked up his radio, made a short call, and waited.
Twenty minutes later, Lieutenant Sally Woods walked through the door. “Good afternoon, Admiral,” she said. “You wanted to see me?”
Jackson waved her to a chair. “I want to ask you a question, Lieutenant,” Jackson said. “Who are you working for?”
He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. There was no scream, or dramatic faint; Sally just looked back at him evenly. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“There have been transmissions coming from your quarters,” Jackson said. “The scientists we have, such as they are seeing the Washington is hardly an ocean research ship, cannot identify how the transmissions are being made. They rant and rave about non-localised phenomena, whatever the hell that is. Lieutenant; who are you working for?”
Sally said nothing. “I think I can guess,” Jackson said. “You can’t be working for the French, or the Chinese; they would use radio, or something like it, something that we can understand. I think you’re working for the aliens who sent us here.”
Sally lifted an eyebrow. “What put you on to me?” She asked. She was very calm; no panic, no attempt to run, just a single question. “What made you think it was me?”
“You knew too much,” Jackson said. “Your work was too good. Once we had an idea of the existence of a spy, we worked out that only three or four people had been in the region of the non-localised phenomena when it was present.” He paused. “Which is something of a contradiction in terms, but who cares? You knew too much about the situation – and that should have been impossible.”
“I read a lot of alternate history?” Sally asked mildly. “You might be making a mistake.”
Jackson looked at her for a long moment. “I don’t think I am,” he growled. “Who are you?”
Something seemed to go out of her. “I am Lieutenant Sally Woods,” she said. “I was…recruited, for want of a better term, in the year 2100, in a timeline that’s different again…suffice it to say that the United States covers half of the world.”
Jackson blinked. “Timeline C?”
“Something like that,” Sally said. She sighed. “There was a major temporal disturbance at the time, one originating from inter-Contemporary affairs, and it provided an opportunity for the…well, my people, to invite me to join them.”
“The UFOs that brought us here?” Jackson asked. “Why?”
Sally hesitated. “There are certain things I can tell you,” she admitted. “Imagine that every decision you make has two possible outcomes. Imagine…that something as simple as putting your left sock on instead of your right causes a…bump in time. It doesn’t necessarily create a whole new quantum reality…”
“Why?” Jackson asked. “Is it not a different universe?”
“I’m explaining as best as I can,” Sally said. “The properties of a universe are defined by its quantum structure. If two minutes later both universes are the same, then they are the same. Around ninety percent of all decisions cause a bump, rather than a fork in the timeline. Certain decisions, however, can create a whole new universe.”
“Such as General Howe at Long Island,” Jackson said, just to show that he was paying attention. “In our universe, he let Washington escape.”
“Exactly,” Sally said. “What you have to understand is while there are a finite number of timelines, that number is very high indeed. In some of them, a race rises to cosmic power, finally stepping outside their reality into the…call it the Vale; a universe that…”
She paused. “Sorry, I’m not explaining this very well,” she said. “Think of it as spaghetti in tomato sauce; each timeline is a bit of spaghetti, while the Vale is the sauce. If you enter the Vale, you can re-enter any timeline at any possible point along it, while at the same time you are immune to any changes in your own timeline. In effect, you have entire universes to study and explore.”
Jackson frowned. “And change?”
“Oh yes,” Sally said. “Now pay attention, because this is the important bit. My employers are not the only race ever to penetrate the Vale. Very few races manage to do that; they either stagnate, transcend, or destroy themselves or get destroyed. One other race that managed that…well, they’re not very nice. We call them the Enemy, because we don’t know what they are or where they came from. We suspect that they’re none the wiser about us.
“Anyway, the Enemy started manipulating history across various timelines, doing it in ways to diminish that timeline without creating alternate realities. They…want one outcome of the timelines, and one of the things they want from their ideal is a weak humanity. Humans are important; in various timelines humans become very important within the galactic community that’s out there. My employers…got involved in countering their actions, and the war began.
“And, because of quantum states again, any…extra-Contemporary interference causes some…distortion in the timeline,” she said. “If the Enemy learned that we had a base operating in this reality” – she grinned suddenly – “around the planets of a star you’ve never heard of, they might intervene directly and destroy the star. We would be compelled to retaliate; there have been entire galaxies caught up in a war few of their population could even perceive – and destroyed.
“So my employers work through agents, like me,” she concluded. “This reality needed a kick in the pants, something to help it get ready for the future…and your people, Admiral, are that kick in the pants. The UFOs…were just a light show, something for your people; the transfer was effected by other agents.”
Jackson felt his mind reel. He fixed on one question. “Why are you telling me all this?” He asked. “Why…have you made that choice?”
“I’m an observer, normally,” Sally said. She seemed…more urgent; she’d almost grown up in front of him as she spoke. “How can I observe if everyone knows who I am?”
“But if we’re here, then won’t there be…distortion?” Jackson asked. “Just by being here, aren’t we attracting attention?”
“Not as much as you might think,” Sally said. “You’re very tiny on a cosmic scale. My employers…have a sense of fairness, for want of a better word; if someone finds a Time Agent, they get some explanation.”
She smiled at him. Jackson stared at her. “What about the other agents, the other ships?” He asked. “Do they all have agents?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you,” she said. “If the Enemy does look at this reality, they will be looking for their enemies first, people like me. If you knew where to find one, they might try to take the knowledge from you. Do not be tricked by my appearance, Admiral; the Enemy could read anything from your mind, if they decided that they could risk unleashing bursts of Psi radiation on this world.” She shuddered. “One of their attacks on human history was to introduce a small degree of active telepathy to a number of small children; defeating that was difficult. By the time we caught on and got involved, they were…controlling entire nations of your planet.
“As for the other ships in your force, I dare say they’ll turn up sooner or later,” she said. She stood up. “Admiral, it’s been a pleasure serving with you.”
“You are not going anywhere,” Jackson said. “In fact…”
“You disappoint me, Admiral,” she said. “Goodbye.”
Jackson stood up…and she vanished in a brilliant flash of light. Jackson swore under his breath, hoping that the recorder had caught all that. The last thing he needed was for Captain Morrigan to relieve him on the grounds of mental instability. He checked once and smiled; the entire event had been recorded. He tapped buttons quickly, dumping all of the information to the George Washington, and wandered outside. Time itself seemed to have changed; it was dark and all the stars were coming out.
Admiral Jackson stood on his porch, staring into the sky, and wondering.
The house was simple, one designed for a small family; one large living room, one kitchen, one large bedroom and two smaller ones. It had been a gift from the government, an acknowledgement of the new Baron in the New Orleans region. As Maggie made to enter her new house, Anderson stopped her and picked her up, carrying her across the threshold.
“Like it?” Anderson asked, as he put her down in the living room. “Is it good?”
Maggie held him close to her. She was nervous…and curiously excited. “Yes,” she said, “it’s wonderful.”
She turned to kiss him and found his lips coming to meet hers. Her entire body was on fire, his hands roaming over every one of her curves. It required a massive effort to undress without tearing anything. She slipped out of her clothes and found that he too was naked and coming for her and…
Afterwards, they lay together on the couch, holding each other. There was no longer any war, there was no longer any need to pretend that they didn’t have feelings for one another. Maggie smiled, feeling like a woman for the first time in ages; it really had been very good indeed.
Anderson had drifted off to sleep in her arms. “I love you,” she whispered, and meant it. Was there any other point to the universe than that?