Maggie O’Brien, you are an idiot, Maggie thought, as she changed for bed. She had been very tempted to kiss the Admiral, breaking a lifetime of celibacy. Despite New York’s claim to be the most libertine city in the United Empire, it hadn’t had any potholes for her to fall into. Men, by and large, were rivals and nuisances, people who had all the power and made all the rules.
Still, the long voyage hadn’t been bad, not in the sense that it was a hellish trip. It was strange, to have a steward perform the task of waking her, instead of a maid. The battlecruiser was a stable ship, but she’d still been dreadfully seasick for the first couple of days. She’d spent the first few days wandering the ship, exploring it, and then she’d stayed in her cabin, reading books on the recent history of the Falklands.
She smiled to herself. Her editor had been confident that the public needed to know things like why the empire was fighting a war, which meant transferring information to them as carefully as possible. Newspapers had been sued for getting the information wrong, or misleading people, and honesty was the bedrock of the system.
So, how do I tell people about the Falklands? She asked herself, considering the discovery of the islands – the first European discovery, that was – and how eventually the islands had become a permanent British territory, with five thousand inhabitants. The Falklands had never sought more than local government for themselves; unlike the Americans or the Indians, the islanders had never sought the reins of power within the empire as a whole.
Instead, they had stayed on their islands, not bothering anyone, until the war had come to bother them. She shook her head; she’d read some of the reports from the lines in Texas and Iran. The war was horrific – and it seemed to be endless. How long could any of the three superpowers hold out against its opponents, when they had to fight on several different fronts at once.
She finished pulling on her nightshirt and checked herself against the mirror. She’d been amused to discover the mirror, until Admiral Anderson has explained that it served to allow an Admiral to check his uniform for any little problems, such as a dress sword on back to front.
Maggie had laughed. “Does that really happen?” She’d asked. “I would have thought that men had it easy when it came to dressing.”
Anderson had sighed. “I’d sooner wear a dress than the dress uniform they designed for formal dinners,” he said. “It may look good, but it would tear if I had to give orders while wearing it.”
Maggie smiled at the memory, before checking the lock on the hatch. Anderson had warned her, in no uncertain terms, to keep the cabin locked when she was in it, just in case. She hadn’t really been harassed by the sailors – certainly nothing as bad as Anderson had led her to fear – but he had insisted. She smiled; he was so cute when he was concerned.
She pulled herself into the bed and turned out the light, closing her eyes to go to sleep. Sleep came harder than she’d expected; the night broken by a rugged handsome face, all angles in the night. After a while, her hand slipped down between her legs – sinful it might have been, but she’d long overcome that scruple.
The Captain of HMNAS Amherst was black, something unusual in the navy. After the long slow process of ending slavery, the former slaves – and their descendants – had mainly gone into farming; the Freedom Fund had worked hard to ensure that they didn’t have to go through a process of being re-enslaved in all, but name. He saluted as Vice-Admiral Felix Anderson entered the bridge.
“The Admiral is on the bridge,” the Royal Marine announced. There was no practical reason to have a Marine guard on the ship’s bridge – it was tradition and therefore unquestionable. The crew stood rapidly, those who hadn’t been standing already, and saluted.
“As you were,” Anderson snapped. He thought that the entire procedure was ridiculous; it was banned during a battle, but then everyone would have more important things to worry about than an admiral’s wounded dignity. “Captain?”
Captain George Caesar saluted Anderson, his white teeth flickering under his dark skin. “There’s been an odd incident,” he said. Anderson glanced up in alarm. “The French are all agitated about something.”
Anderson blinked. Caesar was competent and imaginative, a man not given to panic. If Caesar was alarmed, it was wise for him to be alarmed as well. “What’s happened?”
“Lieutenant Homchoudhury wants to brief you,” Caesar said. “However, their radio traffic seems to have increased.”
Anderson nodded and beckoned for both of them to follow him into the staff room by the side of the bridge, perfectly placed for classified meetings. It was an open secret that all three empires intercepted radio transmissions from their enemies; what wasn’t an open secret was that the United Empire – and presumably the French and Russians as well – was deciphering the codes used for classified radio signals. He knew, Caesar knew, and Lieutenant Homchoudhury knew – they were the only men on Amherst cleared for that information.
“What exactly has happened?” He asked, as soon as the three of them were alone in the staff room. “Tell me everything.”
Lieutenant Amit Homchoudhury winced. It was the subject of a running battle between the War Cabinet and the Admiralty on one side, and Intelligence on the other, over how much information could be released to the rank and file, even officers as high as Anderson and Caesar.
“We have been intercepting radio messages, in the clear, from the Falklands,” Homchoudhury said. The little Indian wasn’t navy; he was on loan from Intelligence. His dark skin contrasted oddly with the white uniform he wore. “They all report the same thing; a strange aircraft flew over the Falklands, some hours ago.”
Anderson blinked. “I don’t suppose that we have a seaplane tender around?” He asked. “Admiral Porter didn’t mention one, did he? He never mentioned one to me.”
“Not as far as I know,” Caesar commented. “I thought that all of them were supposed to be with the major fleet units.”
“They are,” Anderson said. “Even so…that does put the cat among the pigeons. Do we continue, knowing that the French are alarmed?”
“I don’t think, from the panic, that it was a seaplane,” Homchoudhury said. “The French would recognise and understand a seaplane – they might even be able to shoot it down. The reports say that it was high enough to avoid the fighters on the Falklands, and well out of range of the anti-aircraft guns mounted on the islands.”
Anderson shook his head slowly. “I don’t suppose they let you know anything else that might be useful,” he said. He scowled; the mystery of the unexplained aircraft was distressing. It might be nothing, the result of too much alcohol the night before, but he couldn’t think of any way that that could place the entirety of New Spain on alert.
“No, sir,” Homchoudhury said. He paused, significantly, the expression of a staff officer charged with protecting his commander. “Sir, do we proceed?”
Caesar nodded firmly. “Sir, nothing has changed,” he said. “We should press on. If the French are alarmed, so much the better for us. Scared and nervous enemies are more likely to give up.”
Anderson opened his mouth, but the jangling of the alarm brought him to a halt. “Air attack,” he snapped, and led the way to the bridge. Caesar’s executive officer was relieved to see them…as a massive aircraft flashed over the ship.
Anderson felt his mouth fall open. It was white and deadly. He knew without knowing how he knew that the cylinders under its wings were weapons. It passed overhead, screaming a war cry with its engines, and vanished into the distance. He swung around, hoping to catch a second sight of the mystery aircraft, and lost it in the blue sky. It had passed out of sight in seconds. He was awed…and not a little scared. If it was a French aircraft…
If it was a French aircraft, it would be bombing us by now, he thought, and was slightly reassured.
“Beat to quarters,” Caesar snapped, directing his instructions to his crew. The Amherst crew was well drilled; they came to full alert in a matter of moments. “Radar?”
“No track on it, sir,” the radar operator said, nervously. Anderson sympathised; radar was growing all the time, but it was still a very inexact science. “No, I have something, behind us…”
The aircraft swooped back, far too close to the water for comfort, dodging between ships with ease. It was too low for the anti-aircraft guns to hit it, Anderson realised grimly, if it collided with one of the transports…
It didn’t, swooping back into the air with ease and vanishing into the distance, on a course not quite towards the Falklands. The black dot vanished into the distance, hidden within the blue sky…and then it returned, taking up station high above the task force. Anderson winced, expecting bombs to fall, but instead it just paced the small fleet.
“Radar?” He asked.
“There’s something wrong with my equipment,” the radar operator said. His voice was trembling with frustration. “Sir, it’s like…it’s like someone else is using a powerful radar close by.”
“See if you can triangulate the source,” Caesar suggested, gently. “Admiral?”
“We can’t knock it down from up there,” Anderson said, who had thought of nothing else since the mystery aircraft had appeared. “That suggests…that the French might have had a valid reason to panic, after all.”