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Chapter Six: Vive La France



Nelson’s Bane/FS Charles de Gaulle

Mediterranean Sea (TimeLine B)
The last thing that Captain Duchamp, commanding officer of the merchant ship and troop transport Nelson’s Bane had expected was a storm in the middle of the tranquil Mediterranean Sea. It had blown up out of nowhere, a wave of strange lights in the sky, and then a massive ship had materialised out of the storm, heading directly for the Nelson’s Bane.
“Hard a-port,” he shouted, losing his cigar in his panic. The massive ship was heading straight for a collision and the engines screamed, trying to move the huge ship in an impossible manoeuvre. The Nelson’s Bane fishtailed – for a long moment Duchamp thought that they would collide with the mystery ship – and narrowly avoided a collision.
“Captain,” his helmsman shouted. He was also his son; the Nelson’s Bane operated as a family ship, or had before the Navy had conscripted them to transport troops from the Italian ports to Turkey.
“Shut up, Danton,” he snapped. “What the hell was that ship?”
He directed his gaze towards the naval officer, a tall man who had introduced himself as Phillipe Lavich. He held himself with the bearing of a nobleman, which suggested one reason why he was on the Nelson’s Bane, rather than serving on the battleships in Toulon, or Gibraltar, or even Calais.
“I have no idea, Captain,” Lavich said, in a voice that oozed disrespect. The overbearing man flicked a small cigarette into the rubbish bin. “Perhaps we should ask them.”
“The storm is fading,” Danton said. His voice shook; sailors saw some strange things, but a ship appearing out of nowhere was something new.
“What a remarkable talent for stating the obvious you have,” Lavich observed. Danton glared sullenly at him. “Look, it’s coming about.”
Duchamp forced down his annoyance and returned his gaze to the strange ship. Up close, only a few hundred meters away, it was awesome. Strange objects, perhaps aircraft, sat on its decks; several aircraft-like machines were moving on the deck. With a clattering noise, one of them launched itself into the air, climbing higher and higher with each passing second.
“Wow,” Danton breathed.
“I’ve seen something like that in one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbooks,” Lavich said, too astonished to be haughty. “It was never made practical.”
Betraying your origins there, Duchamp thought. He hid his annoyance; annoying a nobleman was not wise, even for an independent sailor. Only noblemen got to see the horde of artefacts taken from French conquests around the globe.
“What do we do?” Duchamp asked, half-hoping that Lavich would know the answer. “That things bigger than a superdreadnaught.”
Lavich ignored him, peering through a pair of binoculars at the strange ship. “I can see its name,” he said. He paused. “FS Charles de Gaulle?”
“I’ve never heard of a Charles de Gaulle,” Duchamp said. “Who was he?”
Lavich shook his head. “I have no idea,” he said. “Still, it seems to be one of ours.”
Danton coughed. “Dad, what’s that flag?”
Lavich rounded angrily on the young man, and then caught sight of the tricolour flag himself. “I don’t know,” he said. He studied the ship for a long moment. “I think we’d better radio Toulon and ask for instructions.”
Duchamp shook his head. He was still master of his ship, whatever else happened. “If that ship wants to sink us, it can do so with ease,” he said. “I think we’d better do as it wants.”
Lavich snorted. “So far, it hasn’t asked us to do anything,” he pointed out. One of the strange aircraft broke away from the rising swarm and came towards the Nelson’s Bane. “I think we may be about to find out.” He paused. “Have a signal prepared, just in case.”
***

Contre-Admiral François Videzun let out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding when the smaller ship avoided their mad charge. The strange ship had appeared out of the ball of light that had struck the carrier…and then vanished. No, he realised; everything was different. It seemed to be almost…morning?
“Report,” Captain Jean-Pierre Mauroy snapped. Videzun allowed himself a moment to be grateful that Mauroy was so unimaginative; someone with a genuine imagination might have been thrown by the…UFOs or whatever they were. Give Mauroy a crisis with written procedures, and he was fine; something completely unexpected, however…
“Sir, Captain, we have lost contact with the task force,” Lieutenant Lagrange reported. The communications officer seemed pale. “I can’t find the Americans at all.”
Videzun smiled, taking command effortlessly. “You mean you cannot contact the Washington?” He asked. “Launch the SAR helicopters and the ready flight,” he muttered to the CAG. “The Americans are gone?”
The roar of aircraft engines echoed through the bridge. “Mon Captain, I cannot reach anyone,” Lieutenant Lagrange said. “Sir, there’s no global internet, no radio stations except some that don’t make sense…and that ship ahead of us.”
“The sea lanes are very busy,” the radar operator, Commander Hachay, said. “Sir, there’s only that ship close by though, and only a handful of aircraft, none which match normal Pacific traffic.”
“If we’re in the Pacific,” Picard murmured. “Admiral, where are we?”
The Navigation Officer worked his equipment. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “The GPS systems are gone. The beacons are gone. Radar imaging suggests…the Mediterranean?”
Videzun and Picard exchanged glances. “How can we have reached the Mediterranean?” Picard asked. “We were in the Pacific, only minutes ago.”
“I have no idea,” Videzun said. He smiled suddenly. “I think we should ask those people over there if they would like to talk to us.” He raised his voice. “Order one of the helicopters to land on the strange ship and invite the captain to dinner.”
“Yes, sir,” Commander Boulanger, CAG, said. “A firm invitation?”
Videzun nodded. “Very firm,” he said. “We’ll even give them a very good dinner.” He smiled. “Assuming they talk to us, of course.”
***

The deck of the Nelson’s Bane was perfect for the strange aircraft, settling down on the deck without any problems at all. Captain Duchamp was watching with his mouth open, but Commissioner Phillipe Lavich was watching with amusement – and determination. Despite his noble origins, he had been exiled from the Royal Court in Paris, simply for getting a serving wrench in trouble.


Low-bred bitch, he thought, knowing that his bastard son had destroyed any chance he might have had of rising to glory. Except…there was power in the mystery ship, he could feel it. Power, perhaps, even enough to push him back to the heights of high society. His parents, his family…all of them would have to prostrate themselves in front of him like Mohammedans to gain his favour, once the power was his.
The rotating blades came to a stop. Captain Duchamp held his idiot son back from running to the exotic aircraft at once. Lavich smiled inwardly; the average intelligence would have risen if the boy had been killed. He was certain that Duchamp’s fat wife was in fact Italian, perhaps even from the Balkans. The hatch opened and a woman stepped out.
Lavich felt his mouth fall open and closed it with a snap. The woman was beautiful, long dark-brown hair cascaded down over a very tight-fitting suit. Danton stared openly; his father lowered his gaze. She stepped out onto the deck and saluted Duchamp, much to Lavich’s irritation.
“Flight Lieutenant Belen Lefunte,” she said, speaking in an oddly-accented version of French. Lavich, who spoke English and Russian as well as several other languages, couldn’t place the accent. “I have been ordered to invite the Captain on board the Charles de Gaulle.”
“That would be me,” Duchamp said. He took the hand she extended and kissed it. Lavich noticed her surprise at the courtly gesture, but didn’t have time to think it through. “Miss Belen, what is that ship?”
Lavich spoke rapidly to cover his annoyance. “I am Commissioner the Honourable Phillipe Lavich,” he said. “I have been appointed as naval liaison to this ship.”
Belen’s gaze passed over his body, a curiously frank gaze. Lavich wasn’t sure how he felt about it; Belen was clearly in a different category to the ladies of the Court. “You are from which navy?” She asked. “I don’t recognise your uniform, sir.”
“The French Navy, which serves Emperor Napoleon XI, long may he live,” Lavich said, and Duchamp and his son echoed the heartfelt wish. The heir to the throne was an idiot; everyone knew that, despite the best efforts of the censors to conceal his gaffes. Lavich dreaded the day that his master would shuffle off the mortal coil – leaving Crown Prince Louis on the throne.
Belen’s frank gaze was puzzled. “I don’t understand,” she murmured. “I think you’d both better come with me,” she said. Lavich smiled and nodded. Duchamp demurred. “Captain, I insist…”
“It should be just me,” Lavich said, before something unfortunate could happen. He placed all of his charm into his words. “This might impinge upon classified matters, ah…Miss Belen.”
Lieutenant,” Belen said. “Coming?”
I’d pay money to follow you, Lavich thought, and followed her swaying behind back into her aircraft. It was small and neat, but some of the instruments were beyond his comprehension. Despite his spoiled upbringing, he knew that he had a fairly complete education – his father had beaten him when he had refused to learn – but the strange aircraft was far too complex to understand.
Belen shut the hatch and took the pilot’s seat. “Hang on,” she said, her voice all business-like. “We’re about to make the hop over to the carrier.”
Lavich didn’t have time to wonder what she meant when the noise grew louder and the aircraft began to shake. “What kind of aircraft is this?” He asked, and then it struck him. There were no women at all in the French Navy. Was Belen a noblewoman, one spoiled enough to gain a piloting commission?
“It’s a helicopter,” Belen said, as the helicopter lifted off from the deck, heading over the sea towards the massive aircraft carrier. Lavich felt his mouth drop open as the carrier grew closer and closer; its decks were littered with strange aircraft, ones far deadlier than the fighters that he’d seen in Paris, protecting the capital from the British bombers.
The helicopter landed with a bump and Belen got up, adjusting the hatch to allow them to exit. Lavich’s eyes followed her behind, but he said nothing, until she jumped out neatly. “Come with me,” she said, and he followed her, his eyes staring around the massive ship. The crew stared back at him, their uniforms…odd.
“What are you people?” He asked, dazed. For the first time, he wondered if he was doing the right thing. “Where is this ship from?”
“France,” Belen said. “The ship was launched nearly a decade ago.”
“We have no such ship,” Lavich said, as they entered the corridors. A thought struck him. “You’re from the future?”
“What year is it?” Belen asked. “We were in 2009.”
“So are we,” Lavich said, feeling an insane urge to giggle. He forced it down; Belen probably thought that he was already half-mad. “Belen, what are you?”
Belen didn’t answer, stopping in front of a cabin. Two grim-faced guards passed a strange metal rod over his body, and then waved them through. “The Admiral’s in here,” Belen said. “Good luck.”
“I hope to see you again,” Lavich said, before entering the room. A man looked up at him from a desk; a second man smiled at him from a chair. Neither man looked happy; both of them wore uniforms with the strange tricolour flag.
“I am Commissioner the Honourable Phillipe Lavich,” he said. “I represent the interests of the French Navy.”
The two men exchanged glances. “I am Contre-Admiral François Videzun,” he said. The other man was left unnamed. “Commissioner, what year is this?”
“This is the year of our lord 2009,” Lavich said. “Admiral, what are you?”
“I’m a Frenchman,” Videzun said. An Englishman would have made a joke. “We seem to be rather lost.”
The mild tone, Lavich realised, held more than a little desperation. “I don’t understand,” he said. “I serve the Emperor, but your pilot didn’t understand.”
The unnamed man coughed. “We’re in an alternate history,” he said, and smiled in delight. Lavich didn’t understand at all. “Commissioner, have you ever heard of Charles de Gaulle?”
Lavich shook his head. “No, sir,” he said. “I don’t understand.” He hated feeling if he was stupid. “What exactly has happened?”
“Ah, what about Napoleon?” The unnamed man asked. “If you serve an emperor…”
“Napoleon was the Prime Minister during the Age of Unrest,” Lavich said. “He served the Emperor; he kicked hell out of the Church and the nobles, binding them to serve the Emperor and the Empire.” He paused. History was not as studied in France as it might have been. “I really don’t know much more,” he said.
***

It took several hours of back-and-forth questioning before Videzun felt that he understand…and it wasn’t quite real, not to him. If the French Revolution had failed, then the Empire never had a period of unrest…and apparently was still a going concern in 2009, Alternate TimeLine.


Who would have thought that Picard would come in handy? Videzun thought, as he poured over the map, brought from the Nelson’s Bane. Even in relief, hardly revealing more than political boundaries, it revealed the three main powers and the four independent minor nations, it showed a French Empire that ruled a fair percentage of the world. From Norway to the Congo Border – apparently an independent Prussian state – France ruled, and then all of Lower South America, with the exception of Brazil.
“I don’t want to believe it,” he muttered to himself. The carrier’s complement of aircraft, mainly the Dassault Rafale and E-2 Hawkeye AEW aircraft, were probing the waters around them. He was now convinced that they were in the Mediterranean, which meant…what?
“We can’t get home,” Picard said, and Videzun watched as Lavich nodded. The alternate Frenchman had an attitude that had been knocked out of France before the rise of the National Front, which now didn’t exist. “What do we do now?”
“You come join us,” Lavich said. “I’ll sponsor you before the Court; this ship alone could guarantee us victory against the British.”
Videzun thought quickly. Lavich, he was certain, intended to use them to boost his own status. In that case, he would not be eager to risk his gains by threatening the crew, and yet…how would the rest of the French Navy react to the alternate version of their history? Lavich had been shocked beyond words; he expected that the rest of the Court would feel the same.
“It’s a possibility,” Picard said, without committing himself. “Can we have a few moments to discuss it?”
Lavich nodded once, saluted, and headed outside to meet Flight Lieutenant Belen Lefunte. Videzun smiled to himself and gave her permission to spend the day showing him around the carrier, while calling Mauroy and Commander Hachay from the bridge.
“If this is a hoax, it’s astonishingly and impossibly detailed,” Picard said, as soon as the door was locked and two extra marines posted on guard. “Admiral?”
Videzun considered rapidly. “Commander Hachay?”
Passing the buck, he thought, as Commander Hachay considered. The radar operator had no lower-ranking officers to pass it down further to, just himself. “I think it’s the truth,” he said. “The radar systems all confirm that we’re in the Mediterranean, and the radar traces of aircraft in flight are nothing compared to what they were in our timeline.”
He paused. “In fact, the general volume of sea traffic is higher than in our timeline, and the volume of air traffic is far lower. There are no jumbo jets, just propeller-driven aircraft. At a general rule of thumb, they have World War Two-era technology, which means no jets, no missiles…and no atomics.”
“So we have something to bargain with,” Videzun said. “So…what are our options?”
“We have to make contact with France,” Picard said. Videzun smiled; he would not have expected anything else from the Political Commissioner. “We have a duty towards France, one that allows no compromise. We have the chance to place the world in their hands, Admiral; we should not waste it.”
Videzun nodded. “It’s not our France,” he said, “but it’s close enough. Think of the Empire we could build.”
Mauroy coughed. “I hate to disagree,” he said. Videzun gaped; when was the last time that Mauroy had disagreed with him? “We should be returning home.”
“How?” Videzun asked. “Commander Hachay?”
“I haven’t had any opportunity to discuss the concept with any scientist from this timeline,” Commander Hachay said. “However, it seems fairly likely that they don’t have the ability to send us back. In general, they seem to be well behind us.”
“Advantage; us,” Videzun said. “That young man seemed quite impressed with Belen Lefunte. I wonder if she would agree to pump him for information.”
“She’s one of the most competent helicopter pilots we have,” Mauroy said. Videzun gazed at him, disturbed. It was a fine time to start showing that he had a brain after all. “She’s not Mata Hari.”
“She’s the best we have,” Videzun said. “Besides, I don’t think that sleeping with him will be necessary.” He smiled, his mind spinning over. “We could show them how to break the stalemate in Central Europe,” he said. “My God, we could even show them how to build proper fighter aircraft. If the British have the same technology as they do, and they must have, then some torpedo-carrying aircraft should really ruin their day.”
“I’ll have a word with the deck crew,” Mauroy said. “Some of them study past aircraft, merely as a hobby.” He paused. “There’s also the anti-ship missiles for the Chinese fleet.”
“Excellent,” Videzun said. “So…we have an Empire to win and an Emperor to impress.” He smiled. “How should we go about it?”
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