London, United Kingdom (TimeLine B) The Privy Council was the highest council in the land, at least within Britain itself. Its twenty-one members, from representatives of the Dominions to representatives of the two military services, made the overall decisions of policy, which would be rubber-stamped by their respective parliaments and the King-Emperor himself. In the deliberate policy of understatement, they met in a simple room within Ten Downing Street, rather than a massive ornate palace.
Prime Minister Lord Harriman Grey peered around the table as the Privy Council entered, led by the American Representative, Adam Grovetown. Admiral Sir Martin Benson followed him, the First Sea Lord looked paler than usual. General Douglas Highlander stepped inside, his burly form barely concerned within his simple uniform. Dress uniforms were not required at the Privy Council; as far as it could be, it was informal.
“There are no strangers in the room,” he said finally, following the ritual that had been introduced by the Parliament Party, many years ago. The Leader of the Opposition, Sir Robert Melton, smiled wryly; the Parliament Party had not held power for several years. “All rise.”
They rose. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the King-Emperor,” Grey said.
“The King-Emperor,” they echoed back. Grey smiled; only a couple of women had ever risen to Cabinet rank, but the toast still held good.
“You may be seated,” he said, and took his own seat. “We have had a vitally important intelligence windfall.”
He watched their expressions. Imperial Intelligence, the one attempt to unite all of intelligence gathering into one overseeing body, reported directly to the Prime Minister and the King-Emperor. It was not known for sharing information with anyone else, nor were the leaders known for disclosing anything they’d learnt with anyone else, even during a formal state of war. Few of the men at the table had been out of diapers during the last state of war.
He scowled; it didn’t take geniuses to work out that whatever was so important was likely to be Earth-shattering. It wasn’t as if the war situation had changed so badly, or had it? The room fell quiet…and he spoke as calmly as he could.
“As you may be aware, we have several agents within the French Bourbon Court,” he said. This wasn’t news to the Privy Council; the French Court was known for being a den of vipers, controlled by the Emperor through sheer bloody-mindedness and playing one faction off against another. Emperor Napoleon XI didn’t lack for brains, courage and cunning, which was partly why he had remained on the throne.
He smiled. It would have been shocking, with all the treachery and intrigue that went on in the French Court, not to have found anyone who wasn’t prepared to work with the British for future favours. They all had to be watched carefully, of course, but their willingness to betray their country was encouraging.
“The French have had an unexpected windfall,” he said, and watched their faces fall. With the sudden loss of the Falklands – and they still hadn’t heard anything from the small task force dispatched to recover them, if possible – morale had fallen. A year after the war had begun; there was still nothing to show for it, but thousands of dead bodies.
He briefly summarized the situation as he saw it, including the invasion threat, and then threw the floor open for discussions, turning his back as he did so. It was tradition, even though he knew that it was stupid; hardly anyone had the same voice in the remarkable group.
“This…bunch of people from the future,” Sir Robert Melton said finally, disbelievingly. “Prime Minister, what were they drinking at the time?”
Grey smiled. The French Court was also known for its debauchery. “It’s not a joke,” he said. “We have three different sources” – he refused to go into further details – “telling us the same thing. The French have this group of people from an alternate reality – and no, I don’t understand it either.”
He paused. “The question is simple,” he said. “What the hell do we do about it?”
Admiral Sir Martin Benson spoke into the growing appalled silence. “As you know, Prime Minister, my office and the army” – he paused to glare at his counterpart, General Sir Douglas Highlander – “have been constantly updating plans to counter a possible French invasion, particularly seeing the stalemate remains unbroken.”
Grey nodded slowly, grimly. “With fronts in Iran, Afghanistan, New Spain and perhaps the Congo or Ethiopia, when they decide which side they’re on, to say nothing on China…they have to be getting as frustrated as we are.”
“Which is to say very frustrated,” General Sir Douglas Highlander said. “Prime Minister, we have kept troops in Britain when they could have made a difference elsewhere…”
“Doubtful,” Adam Grovetown said. The American had served in the American Militia, so he knew what he was talking about. “Battles these days cannot be won by pouring men on them until we run out of men.”
“I don’t suppose that you have a better idea?” Sir Douglas snapped. “Sir, I understand what you mean, but unless we come up with a new weapon…”
“The French are likely to come up with a new weapon soon,” Grey mused. “This is not the time for fighting between ourselves.”
“Prime Minister,” Grovetown said. Grey looked at him. “It has been suggested that with an extra commitment to the Caribbean, we could island-hop to Panama and seal the French base there off from the rest of New Spain.”
“You have always wanted to destroy the French base at Panama,” Sir Douglas snapped. “I understand your point – hell, I’d love to force the French out of New Spain altogether – but we don’t have the forces for a frontal attack from the sea.”
“It has been managed once,” Grovetown protested.
“The French did it,” Sir Douglas said. “From our sources in Russia and France, they managed it at an awful cost, then bogged down in the Crimea. We might be able to shut Panama down, but the cost would be appalling. The French have the place very well fortified against an attack from the sea.”
“We are a race of warriors,” Grovetown said, but he quietened. “How much of a threat does this…new ship and its crew pose?”
Admiral Sir Martin Benson had been reading through the reports. “We need more information,” he said. “Still, they must follow certain rules; they will need food, fuel and weapons. How many of them can the French give them in the next month or so?”
Grey felt the first real prickle of hope. “Of course,” he said. “How many of those aircraft he describes can they build?”
Sir Martin smiled. “I have no idea, but it will take them time,” he said. “It took us nearly two years to gear up to produce superdreadnaughts, didn’t it? New weapons? Training? Could we have made superdreadnaught shells thirty years ago? I don’t think so.”
He tapped the map. “For the moment, the danger is in whatever they have brought with them,” he said. “As you know, our worst nightmare is a coordinated attack from the French fleets in the Baltic and the Mediterranean, trapping the Home Fleet in two pincers. With the stalemate going on, then…what? Might they be desperate enough to attempt an invasion?”
Grey frowned. “If they defeat the Home Fleet, can they land?”
“Almost certainly,” Sir Douglas said. The burly general shook his head. “With naval superiority they can land anywhere along our coastline, and we will be unable to stop them. We have been fortifying the ports and some of the cities along the coastline, but they could land anywhere.”
The distant howl of air raid sirens began to howl. “They’re back again,” Grey observed. “Perhaps we should head to the shelter.”
The pounding of the anti-aircraft guns began. The French aircraft were targeting the city; they couldn’t hope to hit anything smaller. “Perhaps we should beef up our anti-aircraft defences,” Sir Douglas said. “We really need more information.”
The Foreign Secretary cleared his throat. “They might also be capable of causing trouble in Ireland,” he said. When Sir Charles York spoke, it was like hearing a yawn. “The Irish remain restive under the Empire.”
“They would be more restive if we let them fight it out to the last,” Sir Douglas said. Ireland remained divided between the Protestants and Catholics, despite massive emigration of Protestants to America. Those left were in no mood to compromise with a Catholic-dominated government, one that was more in favour of the Pope than anyone on Britain found healthy.
Grey tapped the table and they fell silent. “We have a responsibility,” he said. “General, I want you to put the defence forces on alert, particularly for here and for the Irish.”
“We might also want to distribute the government,” Grovetown said. “If we have the Royal Family well out of the way in America or Australia, they will be safe.”
“The King-Emperor has refused to leave his people,” Grey said. He found it hard to be pleased about the decision, even though he understood it. “We have to keep him safe here.”
The French aircraft swept over London, dropping their bombs. The pilots meant to hit factories – or so they claimed before they were lynched – but most of the time they hit houses and flats. The east end of London was littered with massive housing blocks, housing thousands of people, and they were firetraps.
“Get out of there,” Constable Plod shouted, blowing his whistle. Three looters – factory children by the look of them, children of factory workers – dropped their loot and ran; he chased them for several minutes before giving up. The hundreds of fires were threatening to blend into several big fires…and the fire brigade was taking its time.
“Bucket chain, now,” he snapped at the people who were gathering to watch the spectacle. There was some grumbling from the men – the women were silent or taking the chance to make a get-away – but, conditioned from birth to obey a policeman, they formed a chain and started to put out the fires.
“Faster,” Plod snapped, as the fire engine finally turned around the corner, unloading hand-pumped hoses. “Volunteers for hose duty, form up by the corner!”
“Nasty blaze,” the fireman snapped. “There’s a bloody hole in the road caused by a crashed bomber, some bloody French wine and a dozen idiot children taking it apart for scrap.”
Plod was too tired to be amused. “I hope that the ARP has cordoned it off,” he snapped, as the air raid sirens finally died. “Bastard Frenchmen!”
“It could have been the Russians,” the fireman said, as the hoses finally started to fly. They wrestled with their hose desperately, pouring a great stream of water onto the fire. “They hate us too, you know.”
“The Russians are miles off,” Plod snapped, as the water started to have an effect on the fire. “You have a plane that can fly thousands of miles?”
“There was that twit who flew to America,” the fireman reminded him, only half listening. An explosion shattered a building, only a few hundred meters from their position. “What the hell was that?”
“Unexploded bomb,” Plod guessed. “I think we’re going to have to pull everyone out.”
The fireman nodded and waved to one of the volunteers to take over the hose. “I’ll go call HQ and ask them for help,” he said. “We might need troops to help fight that fire.”
“This was a nice city we had once,” Plod said. “God damn all Frenchmen.”
The bombers returned twice, each time engaged by the Royal Flying Corps. Plod, who’d seen the aircraft at work, knew that the pilots were lucky if they hit anything, even at close range. The anti-aircraft guns hammered frantically, missing everything they aimed at, and the fires grew and grew.
“We’re going to have to pull everyone out,” the fireman said. “Constable…”
“Captain,” Plod said in left. Captain Farthing, his superior, had arrived, along with other policemen.
“What was in that building?” Farthing asked, as a blast of flame scoured across the sky. “What the hell was that?”
“I have no idea,” Plod said. The Police force encouraged a certain degree of informality, but he truly didn’t know. “Perhaps one of the aircraft got lucky.”
Farthing snorted rudely. “Those aircraft only get lucky on weekends,” he said. “The gunners on the ground couldn’t hit an aircraft without a can-can dancer on the top, shouting instructions.”
Plod nodded. “Anyway, have the area cleared,” Farthing ordered. His men leapt to obey. The remaining people, those without a place in the volunteer force, were moved out quickly; most of them had already left. The fires raged on, despite the volumes of water being poured onto them, raging through the tenements.
“I think we’re going to have to dynamite,” the fire chief shouted. “Police, get the warnings out…”
The air raid sirens cut out. Plod allowed himself a moment to feel relief, before joining the rest of the force in moving anything that could burn out of the region. The firemen raced past them, setting explosives, destroying lives.
“I’m sorry,” Plod muttered, as a family watched their home being destroyed to prevent the fire from spreading. “I’m so sorry…”
Farthing clapped him on the back. “You’ve done well, for someone on their own, without support,” he said. “The looters will be caught in due course.”
“They should be in the army,” Plod snapped. His gamy leg had prevented him from chasing them as fast as he once had. “Why do they have to make things worse anyway?”
Farthing shrugged, watching as a plume of water lashed against the fire, driving it back. “Perhaps we’re winning,” he said. “I wonder if we can force it into the river.”
“We need more water,” Plod said. The fires lashed back at the water, hissing into steam, but they were falling back. It was almost like watching an army at work. “We need…”
An explosion within the fires revealed the presence of an unexploded bomb. “We need this war to be over,” Farthing snapped. “That’s what we damn well need.”
General Sir Douglas Highlander, supreme commander of forces on the British mainland, would not normally have disturbed the Prime Minister. It was important; important enough to brush through the Prime Minister’s secretary and demand an interview.
Grey understood and listened. “The death toll, so far, is greater than three thousand,” Sir Douglas said. Grey winced inwardly. “The French have a new weapon, a genuine firebomb.”
“We’ve been looking for something like that for years ourselves,” Grey said. He scowled; the buildings of London were firetraps. “Do you think they’re getting desperate?”
“Even with the mystery ship?” Sir Douglas asked. “They have the Russians to worry about. Poland is not Afghanistan.”
“How true,” Grey said wryly. “I wish we knew more about what the strange ship was capable of. We don’t have a spy within the very heart of their councils; just people on the outside who want in.”
He paused. “The Foreign Secretary has been in discussions with the Congo,” he said. “The Prussians might join us, if we supported them.”
“And the price?” Sir Douglas asked. “Can we pay it?”
Grey laughed. “Oh, nothing much,” he said. “They just want to carve a Greater Germany out of the remains of France, complete control over French North Africa, unlimited rights over Ethiopia…”
“That would please the Emperor,” Sir Douglas observed dryly.
“And support in building themselves to superpower status,” Grey concluded.
Sir Douglas laughed. “And to think I thought that the Russians were bad,” he said. “I hope you told them to go to hell.”
“The Foreign Secretary told them that, although more diplomatically,” Grey said. “Still, we might have to open up a front there ourselves, or perhaps the French will beat us to that particular punch.”
Sir Douglas nodded. The French, British and Prussians had spent years building Africa into a place to be proud of. Even on the map, that was a huge achievement – all of which would be threatened by a war ranging across Africa. Ethiopia, the only African state left independent, was perpetually surrounded by Europeans…and threatened by them. They were trying to remain neutral and…
“Could we not recruit the Ethiopians instead?” Sir Douglas asked. “They might be willing to work with us.”
“They might,” Grey agreed. “Problem is; the Prussians will ally with the French if we do that. They hate the French, but they have dreams of covering all of Africa with their power.”
Sir Douglas shuddered. The press had reported at length on the genocide of African tribes that had ended any African resistance to the Prussians. The world…the world hadn’t really cared. It wasn’t as if any of the three superpowers really cared, or was in a position to take the moral high ground.
There was an urgent knock at the door. Grey blinked; that was the second time he’d been interrupted today. “Prime Minister, urgent telegram from North America,” his secretary said. Grey took it and read it and…
He laughed. “Prime Minister?” Sir Douglas asked. “Prime Minister, what’s happened?”
Grey passed him the telegram. “It seems that we have a mystery ship too,” he said. “Its weapons sank nine superdreadnaughts from France, and the Falklands are ours again!”
Sir Douglas read the telegram quickly. “This is certainly good news,” he said. A particular section caught his eye as he read through the document. “One of the people on the ship wants to come here.”
“Well, he’d better,” Grey said. “Perhaps…perhaps the French can be defeated, after all.”