The two figures met briefly, standing in a room that defied the normal laws of physics. A human, if he or she had been able to visit the room, would have considered it impossible, a reflection of madness given form.
Look away now…
The first figure spoke, his voice echoing in the room. Echoes of conversations that never happened echoed past, confusing, deafening to merely human ears. The room echoed and echoed, confusing everyone who visited – except its creators.
“They have arrived,” the first figure said. Countless versions of his own voice echoed past him. “They have made contact.”
“All variables have been accounted for,” the second figure said. Her voice was warm and feminine. “The endpoint remains feasible?”
“Yes,” the first figure said. Countless echoes agreed with him, disagreed with him, reflecting all of the possibility of the universe. “The endpoint remains feasible.”
The second figure seemed to pause. A human’s voice would have cracked slightly. “And the remainder of the force that was removed and inserted into the alternate reality?”
“They may come into play,” the first figure said. “As yet, such additional variables are not required. The endpoint remains feasible.”
The second figure inclined her head. “There are always problems with non-Contemporary energies,” she said. “Can we be certain that we can proceed without attracting the attention of the Enemy?”
“There are always…loopholes,” the first figure said. “As yet, however, no non-Contemporary energies have been released. Our agents on the surface will act to ensure that it remains that way. Humanity will become great in this timeline.”
He raised a hand. The thousands of millions of billions of alternatives streamed past his position. “We will win in this timeline.”
The second figure said nothing. There was nothing to say.
Chapter Twelve: Home Away From Home
USS George Washington
Atlantic Ocean The body hung from the roof, a single line of rope tied around his neck. In death, the face of the seaman had been denied dignity; it was purpled and darkened by blood. The uniform he wore had been torn; the cabin had been wrecked before the desperate man had finally committed suicide.
“His name was Jones, Paul Jones,” Captain Kate Rusholme, the Head of the Medical Department, said. Grimly, she indicated to two of her people to cut the former Jones down from his rope. “He had a wife; he had a life.”
Morrigan nodded grimly. Trapped on the wrong side of the looking glass, the F-18 pilot had taken his own life, rather than face a world that had never held his wife. The suicide note – one asking for his savings to be handed over to his counterpart in the new world – had been pleading; Jones hadn’t wanted to die.
“We all have pasts, Doctor,” Morrigan said, even though it had been a long time since Kate had been a simple doctor. “We’re all in the same boat here.”
The weak joke failed to amuse. “It’s not the fucking Titanic, that’s for sure,” Kate snapped. Her voice darkened. “God damn those fucking UFOs and whatever they did to us! This is the third fucking suicide in a week!”
“We’ve only been here a week,” Morrigan said. Inside, he shared her anger; he just tried to channel it into more useful pursuits. “Doctor…”
“There are around six thousand and five hundred people on this carrier,” Kate snapped. “Of them, roughly two thousand – including yourself – are married. Or were married; the separation seems to be permanent. They’re all going to go crazy.”
Morrigan thought of the handful of pilots who were in the middle of messy divorces and shook his head. “It won’t be that bad,” he said, and hoped he was right.
“No, it will be worse,” Kate said. Her voice softened. “Captain – Bill – what are we going to do with ourselves? Throw ourselves on British charity?”
“It’s hard to see that we have a choice,” Morrigan said. “This carrier was never truly designed for completely independent operations, was it? We told ourselves that it was…but it’s not. From food to fuel, we were dependent upon resupply, something that we are now completely cut off from.”
“Their medical science is not as good as ours,” Kate said firmly. “Did you know that that reporter woman was asking about contraceptive implants?”
Morrigan lifted an eyebrow. “Who’s she bonking?”
“Apparently, it’s for that other reporter, the one on the Amherst,” Kate said. Morrigan blinked. “She wasn’t clear, but she seemed to want it done secretly.”
Morrigan frowned. “Is that not a constitutional right?” He asked. “Ever since 2008, it has been illegal to share such information…”
“This is not America,” Kate snapped. “From what I heard, a lot of women go into the medical sciences and the real sciences, but that seems to be most of what they do – professionally, that is. Maggie is something of an unusual case. Contraception is almost unknown here; they have condoms, but they seem to be restricted to people who are already married.”
Morrigan shook his head. “Good God,” he said. “They must have one hell of a population problem.”
Kate snorted. “It’s well known that a bride can achieve in seven months what a wife can do in nine,” she said. “That seems to be even truer here. Here, Captain, we’ve met some of the most…cosmopolitan people, the fairly united imperial navy.”
Morrigan, who’d spent time while on the Falklands trying to unravel the complexities of the United Empire, shrugged. “It’s a force that seems designed to confuse everyone,” he said. “What’s your point?”
“Imagine that we were back in…oh, 1860, during the Civil War,” Kate said. “Think what a shock our mixed-race, mixed-sex crew would be to even the most radical of the abolitionists. Or, if that’s not shocking enough, what about the British Civil War? They tied themselves in knots wondering if they should execute Charles or not, and if so, under what authority? They…would be stunned by us.”
She stepped aside to allow her assistants to leave with the bagged body. “Captain, we are going to have one hell of an impact on these people,” she said. “This, I suspect, is a very conservative society – witness the importance of knighthoods and social birth, even now – and we are going to shake it to its foundations.
“One unexpected result of the development of the small car in the fifties was the sudden rise in pregnancies, because the back seat of a car provided a convenient place for impregnating a girl,” Kate continued. “What will happen here if contraception becomes widespread? Or – what about abortion? We can do it without hurting the girl – they can’t.”
“The back seat of a car can do that much?” Morrigan asked thoughtfully. “My wife always swore by hotel beds.”
Kate gave him a sharp look, realised she was being teased, and scowled at him. “This is no time for humour,” she said. “They’re going to see us as a threat to their society; they won’t be able to help themselves. We’re also going to grow quickly, and that will scare them too.”
Morrigan lifted an eyebrow. “Doctor, how will we grow? Unless the rest of the task force shows up…”
“There are nearly four times as many men as women on this ship,” Kate said. “Those extra men are not going to hang about with bulges in their pants, are they? Do you remember what the British used to say about us? Overpaid, oversexed, and over here.”
She hurried on before he could react. “Give us ten years and there’ll be a hundred thousand of us,” she said. “We’re a tightly cohesive body; we won’t vanish into the British melting pot, assuming that it exists in this world. They’ll see that as a threat, Captain; they won’t be able to help themselves.”
“We’re due to arrive at New Orleans in a few days,” Morrigan said. “And the fast battlecruiser has already gone ahead.” He smiled; a single nuclear-powered submarine could have matched and exceeded the battlecruiser’s speed. “I think that the cat’s out of the bag.”
“I know,” Kate said. “It’s just that…we may be on their side, but they won’t always be on ours.”
“So Patrick keeps telling me,” Morrigan said. “He thinks we should be fighting to free America from Britain.”
Kate shook her head. Grey hair swirled across her face. “They’re a democratic state,” she said. “If they wanted to be free, they would be free already.”
The Falkland Islands had never been very good at attracting teachers – in either timeline. Professor Colin Barrington-Smythe was an exception to the rule; a trained professor of history who had inherited some land on West Falkland. The land hadn’t come with any title – that had gone to his elder brother – but it had provided some of the seclusion he needed for his latest project. His work on the origins of the global power balance had been placed aside – the chance to study a whole different history had convinced him to sail on the Washington.
“I confess I don’t know why you named the ship after Washington,” he said. “To us, he’s the idiot who lost the Revolutionary War.”
Lieutenant Sally Woods was half convinced that she was in love. Barrington-Smythe might be middle-aged, and he was, with a small goatee and uncombed brown hair, but he was clever – very clever. His love of history matched hers; her former life had never included anyone like that before.
“In our reality, he won us the war,” she said. “You read the information we gave you.”
“I did,” Barrington-Smythe said, shaking his head. “I don’t believe it; Gates vanished into the wild lands after Long Island, although according to some legends he still hides in the woods, waiting for his nation to need him again.” He snorted. “It’s much more likely that he took ship to Havana and vanished to France. Arnold resigned and went to help found a new community when the mass waves of immigration began. Franklin founded a new dynasty of the most loyalist people you could find, led by his son. They’re Lords now; the Lords of Philadelphia.”
Sally smiled. “How much authority does that give them?” She asked. “Anything beyond social cachet?”
“Very little,” Barrington-Smythe said. “They own and work lands, and they have interests in industries, but most of the older families were caught out by the new developments.” He smiled. “Benjamin Franklin X is the current Viceroy of America, a post he earned through hard work in the civil service.”
Sally laughed. “So they survived the revolution,” she said. “What happened to Washington himself?”
Barrington-Smythe gave her an odd look. “He wasn’t as important as you keep suggesting,” he said. “After being paroled, he was soundly drubbed by Congress, sacked, came very near to being lynched and sent back to his farm in disgrace. There’s a Washington Family in Boston now; they’re something in the merchant trade.”
“They must be pleased that we took out some of the superdreadnaughts,” Sally said. “Pleased enough to support us?”
Barrington-Smythe smiled. “I don’t think they’ll hate you,” he said. “After all, shipping costs and insurance have gone upwards and upwards, ever since the war began. If the French Navy is weakened, they’ll be able to spare more for convoys to India and Britain, which will improve their position.” He grinned. “There are people paying through the nose for tea.”
“Coffee never caught on here?” Sally guessed. “We drink it all the time.”
Barrington-Smythe shuddered. “Believe me, I have noticed,” he said. “How you can drink it like that I don’t know…”
“It’s an acquired taste,” Sally said.
“Then I pray heaven that I never acquire it,” Barrington-Smythe said. He paused. “You are wanting to ask me something?”
Sally smiled inwardly. Barrington-Smythe was very perceptive; he was far from stupid. “Answer me a question,” she said. “You and your people have quite a good thing going here, and you have a far more peaceful world than we do.”
“I’ve read your histories,” Barrington-Smythe said. “Why you never sent a punitive force to Mecca is beyond me.”
“The French took Mecca in your timeline,” Sally said absently. She’d studied that campaign with considerable interest. “Tell me, you have a peaceful world, and it’s not like any of the empires can really harm the others…so why are you fighting?”
“It’s a long story,” Barrington-Smythe said grimly. His reluctance was so feigned that Sally seriously considered dangling her breasts in his face. He wanted to be asked, wanted to be needed – but he was reluctant to come out and say it. “Where do you want me to start?”
“The beginning is usually a good place,” Sally said wryly. “What started the war?”
“As I said, it’s a long story,” Barrington-Smythe said. He smiled. “The last war we fought was the South African War, in 1883. The French fought a war in 1940, against the Prussians in the Congo…and then we had sixty years of peace.”
“I keep meaning to ask,” Sally said. “How did the Prussians end up there?”
Barrington-Smythe chuckled. “The French exiled thousands of them to the Congo,” he said. “They revolted, managed to seize much of the Congo…and held out for five years. The French gave up in 1945, and agreed to recognise borders and allow further emigration.”
He paused. “Anyway, the problems really began when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, in 1970. The French gobbled up Turkey and below; the Russians got parts of Persia, which then became a neutral zone between us and the Russians. It’s a war zone at the moment, sadly. The Tsar’s heir – who holds some unpronounceable Russian title – believed that the Russians had been cheated. He got the throne in 1990 – after the previous Tsar died of gunshot wounds – and started a build-up.”
“He killed his own father?” Sally asked. “What sort of man is he?”
“A bastard,” Barrington-Smythe said. “We never got any proof that he had killed his father, but it’s the common story. The Russians got a great deal more aggressive very quickly – and then the Chinese Emperor died. Historically, we were holding China together so the three powers could milk it, but without a Chinese Heir…it was suddenly weakened, and then it collapsed.”
“The Chinese Empire collapsed?” Sally asked. “Were the Japanese involved?”
“Only on the side-lines,” Barrington-Smythe said. “The Japanese managed to bite Korea off, but that was about it.”
“And no Italians or Germans here to make matters worse,” Sally mused. “So, what happened?”
“There were several warlords trying to take power,” Barrington-Smythe said. “We backed one, the French backed another and the Russians actually backed two. By 2003, our forces were being pulled into the fighting, and by 2006 there was a full-scale arms race going on. And, in 2008, the war began.”
Sally shook her head. “And then none of you could claim the advantage and win the war,” she said. “No one was used to the new weapons.”
Barrington-Smythe nodded. “There have been improvements and minor victories, but so far the war as a whole has just stalemated.”
He was so downcast that Sally smiled. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We have a working group working on it already. Give us six months and we’ll be able to build more weapons and use them.”
“I’ve studied your…First World War,” Barrington-Smythe said. “You’re numbering them, as if they were something to be counted up.”
“I doubt you had time for a proper study,” Sally said dryly. “These stalemates have been broken, Colin; you would have managed it even without us.”
“Really,” Barrington-Smythe said. “I wonder if…”
The intercom on the wall buzzed. “Lieutenant Woods, please come to the brig at once,” O’Reilly said. “There’s been an…incident.”
Ordinary Seaman Fortson was feeling put-upon. This was a far from new feeling for the man; he’d been put-upon ever since he’d joined the Royal North American Navy. A talent with fishing boats and an unfortunate incident involving a bundle of smuggled Cuban cigars had earned him the involuntary posting to the Pelican, just in time to have a French bullet go through his boat and scatter burning oil over his body.
He’d expected to die, scared of death, but the doctors on the strange ship had been able to heal him with ease. Although walking was still slightly painful, the burns had faded, allowing him time to live again. He loved the Washington; it was so simple and easy compared to the Pelican. It also had more amusing distractions.
There was a nurse. She was a bonnie thing; a dark-haired woman who wore revealing clothes and smiled at him. Fortson was in love, he was certain of it, and he was certain that she felt the same way too. When she came close to him, wearing her short skirt, he’d reached out under her skirt and squeezed her bum. He was expecting her to fall into his lap and start kissing him…instead, she slapped him as hard as she could and screamed.
He lifted a hand, to try to silence her, and a burly man came rushing in. The world went dark very suddenly for Ordinary Seaman Fortson.
The brig on the George Washington was neater than the brig on any Royal Navy vessel, Anderson was amused to notice. It was much nicer than a would-be rapist deserved; Ordinary Seaman Fortson had a list of minor offences, including bar fights and drunken behaviour, as long as his arms. The Boson had reported on him before, at Captain’s Mast; Fortson had come very close to being sent to a detention colony.
“What are you going to do with him?” He asked. Admiral Jackson scowled. “A rapist is normally sent to a detention colony, once it can be proved that it was him that did it.”
“It has been proven,” Jackson said. He glared at the sleeping Fortson. “The television cameras in the medical bay recorded everything. Nurse Rollins wants to press charges.”
“This is not a normal situation,” Anderson admitted. “Normally, there are no women on a ship, nothing to tempt trouble.”
“We had problems like this at the beginning,” Jackson admitted. “This bastard has tried to attack one of my people, Admiral!”
Anderson shrugged. “He’s yours to punish,” he said. Sacrificing Fortson would not be a big loss; if there hadn’t been a war on, he would have been thrown out of the navy long since. “What are you going to do with him?”
“Normally, we’d put him in a military prison,” Jackson said. “They’re on the other side of the looking glass.”
Anderson considered. “I think he should be sent to a detention colony,” he said. “I’m not convinced that the judge will agree. People have been known to die there, and it wasn’t a successful rape.”
“Don’t you have any means of punishing a molester?” Jackson demanded. “What about public flogging?”
“A possibility,” Anderson agreed. “Captain’s Mast has the power to hand out such a sentence, although I don’t think that it’s been used for some time.” He paused. “That will be George’s choice; he’s the Captain.”
“You would be amazed how many officers I’ve had who needed a flogging,” Jackson said coldly. “What will George say?”
Anderson considered. “I think he will agree with me,” he said. “However, such a sentence may attract attention from the Admiralty, particularly seeing it hasn’t been used for a while. Certainly, anything stronger than a flogging will be noticed, and he does have the right to appeal against sentencing to hard labour somewhere.”
“And to think that I thought the Uniform Code of Military Justice was bad,” Jackson sighed. “So, what now?”
Anderson had been thinking as fast as he could. “The simplest solution would be to offer him the choice between a flogging now, or a full hearing before the Captain. If he feels repentance, he will avoid further trouble by accepting the flogging.”
“And then he’s free and clear?” Jackson asked. “He might offend again.”
Anderson sighed. “I’m not sure how to put this to you,” he admitted. “Everyone knows what sailors do, Admiral. Quite frankly, there will be those who will think that a flogging is too harsh.”