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Chapter Thirty-Seven: Degrade and Diminish

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Chapter Thirty-Seven: Degrade and Diminish

Over Britain

United Kingdom (TimeLine B)
Life in the strange alternate Britain had proven to be…rather less challenging than Lieutenant Alison Hayes had expected. Her sudden graduation to command of the E-2 Hawkeye had left her assigned to Britain to assist the Royal Flying Corps – which had been so pleased to see her that they’d forgotten to be sexist. While she couldn’t take part in many of the male-only activities at RFC Maidstone, not having the plumbing for the task, she’d been pleased to discover that she could out-drink almost all of the men.
Still, she had suffered from one problem; she wasn’t a combat commander or pilot. She’d complained bitterly about the fighter pilot mafia that left support pilots under-utilised, even in a USAF that was bending more and more towards a ground support role. What was the point, she’d asked bitterly, in having the best of the best of the best aircraft for fighter-to-fighter combat – when there were no opponents who could hope to match the F-14, let alone the F-22. The RFC…treated its fighter pilots like little gods.
She smiled. They expected – and the barmaids at the Dog and Duck pub nearby certainly acted to confirm – that every woman would open her legs for them without a second thought. Rumours of contraceptive implants had reached across the Atlantic even before she had, convincing them that she would be ‘safe’ to sleep with, without little…consequences nine months down the line. After she’d broken two noses, they’d finally gotten the message – and she’d been able to strike up several friendships.
Still, most of the time she was in the air, watching the French air movements. The French had been improving their aircraft with equal speed and she’d tracked them practicing the same tactics that had been used at Pearl Harbour – and Panama. She’d attempted to warn the commander of the RFC, but he'd been dismissive; there were two thousand Spitfire aircraft on defence duty for England alone – and then there were the four F-18 aircraft from the Washington. Indeed, the F-18 crews had scored several notable successes against French bombers, remaining in the background unless they were needed.
“I wonder why they don’t send the French jets in to engage,” she’d muttered at the time. The aircraft from the French carrier, one on one, might have managed to score some minor successes, but they were remaining well back. The only air combat there had been had been a draw; both pilots had fired missiles – which had missed – and ran for it.
The day was bright and sunny, perfect flying weather. Neither side really had the hang of night time flying, even though they had radar and navigation beacons. Both sides had raided the other’s cities, but not as much as had happened in World War Two. Alison shook her head slowly; the people here seemed less given to atrocity than the people back in timeline A. If some kindly alien space bat had offered her a way home, she wasn’t sure that she would have accepted it…
“Alison,” the radar operator said. “I have something on the radar.”
His tone, clipped and controlled, warned her that something was wrong. She tapped her console, rerouting his input to her screen. “Shit,” she said. “Is that what it looks like?”
“Two thousand aircraft,” the radar operator said. “I think we’re in trouble…”
“You’re telling me,” Alison said. She scowled, thinking fast. One advantage of running her aircraft here was that she got to make her own decisions. “Take us up, now,” she ordered. “Contact the Air Marshall and warn him that we have a major raid in process.”

Air Marshall Bentley, for one, was delighted with the AWACS. It had a commander who was – shock, horror – a woman, but she was competent and many in the RFC had grown to accept her, if not always to like her. Its radars were far more capable than the ones deployed to defend Britain, even the newer systems. The drone that floated constantly over France was another example of technology; it gave them total coverage of French movements within the Netherlands.

“Uh-oh,” Lieutenant Pearson said. “Sir, I think we have a problem.”
Bentley rounded on him. The officer from the Washington seemed too worried for it to be something harmless. “What’s happened?” He asked, and then the screens from the drone went blank. “What the hell?”
“We just lost the drone…both drones,” Pearson said. He hesitated. “No, the second drone is only damaged…but it’s out of commission.”
Bentley cursed suddenly, vilely. Losing the first drone was bad enough; it was orbiting over France and the ports in the Netherlands. They’d been rebuilt in recent years…and Bentley knew that defence planners within the United Kingdom suspected that that was for only one purpose. Losing the second drone was worse; the nightmare was the French managing to link up the Baltic and Mediterranean Fleets.
Bentley turned to face his communications officer, a young man who should have been enjoying life, not having been recruited into the final line of defence. “Send out the alert,” he said. “Inform the Prime minister that I believe that invasion is likely to happen at any moment.”
The young man didn’t argue. “Yes, sir,” he said, and headed over to the secure lines. Bentley returned to his thinking, trying to grasp at the French plans. If they planned to defeat the Royal Navy first, as they would have to do, they would be looking at a link-up somewhere west of Britain itself.
“A pity we can’t make any real penetration into the Baltic,” he muttered. The AWACS radar did its best, but it wasn’t really prepared for the task. The entire Baltic fleet could be preparing to make its move…and they wouldn’t have a clue about it until it came boiling out of the Baltic looking for trouble.
…Boiling out of the Baltic…?
Bentley smiled suddenly. He’d had an idea. He’d have to kick it upstairs to the First Sea Lord, but if they were lucky, it could be done.

“The Crown Prince clearly doesn’t share his father’s desire for peace,” Prime Minister Lord Harriman Grey said grimly. “Exactly what is the current situation?”

“They’re about to try to invade us,” General Sir Douglas Highlander said. He tapped the map. “In twenty-odd minutes, our defence lines are going to get pasted.”
“The last thing the drone sent before they took it down was the images of the ports on the Netherlands coast,” Admiral Sir Martin Benson said. “They’re preparing themselves to launch an invasion. If they can defeat the Royal Navy…”
Grey frowned. “Can they defeat the Navy?” He asked. “I thought that the two enemy fleets combined would not be able to defeat our navy, let alone the reinforcements we could call from America.”
“They clearly think so,” Benson said. He frowned. “They took out the two drones using missiles from their ship, from the Charles de Gaulle. The mere presence of that ship introduces a whole series of unknown factors into the power balance; it’s already shown off one unexpected surprise.”
Grey muttered several words under his breath. “Can they take out the Royal Navy?” He asked bluntly. “Admiral, I need to know now.”
“I think that we have to act fast,” Benson said. “Their carriers are in the Mediterranean, mostly, although we think that they have at least two carriers in the Baltic. That means that they will have a serious deficiency in carriers, even without the Royal North American Navy. If Home Fleet moves to challenge the French Baltic Fleet now, we might succeed at defeating them in detail. Home Fleet’s carriers are all air defence ships; the French land-based aircraft won’t be a serious problem.”
Grey closed his eyes. “And if they fail?” He asked. “What about the air defence?”
Highlander frowned. “They should be able to damage us,” he said. “If they can hammer the coastal defences enough, they might be able to land. That’s when the plan calls for a counter-attack; if we can hit them when they’re on the beach, they might be destroyed without further ado.”
He paused. “If they manage to develop a beachhead, we have a plan to fall back on a defence line and seal them off from the rest of the country. Once the reinforcements arrive, then we can evict them.”
Grey nodded. “Get the preparations made now,” he ordered. “Admiral Benson; you are cleared to launch the attempt to destroy the Baltic fleet.”
Benson nodded. “I won’t fail you,” he said. “It will be done.”
“I hope you’re right,” Grey said. “Good luck.”
“One question,” Sir Robert Melton, Leader of the Opposition, asked. “What do we tell the public?”
Grey hesitated. “The truth,” he finally decided. “Robert; you should be on your way to Liverpool.”
Sir Robert shook his head. “I stand or fall beside you,” he said. “The voters would never forgive me for running.”
Grey smiled. “Can’t blame me for trying,” he said, wishing that he felt the humour he pushed into his voice. For the first time since the Global War, there was a very real chance that Britain would be invaded…and it would happen on his watch.

The Charles de Gaulle had carried a single E-2 Hawkeye of its own, which Contre-Admiral François Videzun had been careful to try to keep out of range. The Charles de Gaulle had been overloaded with weapons and systems, intended for the deployment to China, and most of them had been off-loaded.

Videzun smiled suddenly. Missiles that had been intended for one deployment would now be put to a far better use – in attacking Britain itself. The real problem was that the Royal Navy was stronger than the combined French fleet – and if the George Washington got involved, it would lead to a swift defeat. If the Royal Navy could be destroyed…then all sorts of options suddenly opened up.
“I have a communications pulse from Captain Jean-Pierre Mauroy,” Jacqueline Petal said. Her voice hadn’t been the same since the first night with the Crown Prince. Videzun felt bad about that, sometimes; the deadness in her voice was chilling. “He reports that the fleet is moving out now and heading for the British homeland.”
Videzun smiled grimly, wishing that they had a proper command centre, instead of the cobbled-together computer centre that they’d established near Brussels. The irony amused him; Brussels was hardly important in this timeline. The Netherlands, after several attempts to assert their independence, had been systematically reduced back in the time of Prime Minister Napoleon.
Still, he assured himself, it would do what he wanted it to do; coordinate a massive invasion of Britain. It was a plan that had one major flaw; the unknown factor of the George Washington. He’d laid his plans carefully, hoping to have most of the invasion completed by the time the American carrier could become involved…and he’d acted to tempt the British into a killing zone.
“Good,” he said. “How long until the aircraft clash with theirs?”
“Around seven minutes,” a staffer said. He’d been pulled from the Charles de Gaulle; there had been no time to prepare anyone from the new reality. “Sir, when they enter visual range…”
“I know,” Videzun snapped. He did too; if the British got a close look at the approaching bomber swarm, they might see the little surprises attached to the aircraft. He scowled; he was going to be burning up hundreds of irreplaceable weapons in the battle…but it would be worth it if they succeeded…
And if they failed, well that wasn’t worth worrying about.

“Look at the bastards,” the radar operator breathed. Lieutenant Alison Hayes could have rebuked him, it was far from professional, but she understood the feeling. Even knowing that none of those red icons could have possibly have harmed her craft, she still found it intimidating.

“Give me a breakdown,” she snapped. The radar signal from the AWACS was going directly to the defence command at London, and through drone relay to the George Washington, but she wanted to look at the data herself. “How many of them are there?”
“Somewhere around two thousand,” the radar operator said absently. Alison gaped at him. “There’s a mixture of modern and old types, madam; some of them are newly built, others are from before we arrived. Madam, some of them are…quite large.”
Alison nodded as the computers continued to break down the signals into something they could use. Several of the aircraft were around the size of a B-29, although they clearly had no jet aircraft…which was odd. Where were the forty-odd jet fighters from the Charles de Gaulle? Both sides had been able to tool up for propeller fighters quickly, but none of them were a threat to the F-18s…
“Madam, the Hawk Squadron is requesting permission to engage with the F-18s,” the radio operator said. “Air Marshall Bentley wants your opinion.”
Alison looked down at the display again. It…reminded her of something, the way that the aircraft were moving in one massive swarm, but it refused to come to her. It made sense to have the F-18s intercept; simply by flashing close to a ‘modern’ aircraft they could hope to take it out.
“Tell him that they have permission to intercept,” she said. “Gunny, have you managed to break down the centre of the formation yet?”
“No, Madam,” the radar operator said. “They’re moving to confuse our radars…”
“Hawk squadron is engaging,” the other operator said. His voice became a startled squeak. “Holy shit!”
Alison swept back to the display and felt her mouth drop open. The F-18s had been accelerating towards the enemy planes…which had just launched a salvo of guided missiles at them. Even as she watched, the missiles locked on to the F-18s, chasing them without mercy or regard for their desperate attempts to engage.
Radar-guided, Alison thought grimly, as chaff and flares proved useless. Seconds later, three of the four F-18s were destroyed, the fourth was badly damaged. “Pull us back,” she snapped. A SAM could reach their position, even if nothing else could. “Pull us back.”
“Shit,” the radar operator said. “Madam…”

The French pilot cared nothing for politics; he just wanted to have the pleasure of convincing the Americans that all of their technology could be outsmarted with ease. He smiled to himself as he yanked his aircraft away from the French bomber, heading directly towards the AWACS; the Americans should have expected the technique, seeing that the French had pioneered it in Bosnia.

He triggered his afterburners and his aircraft leapt forward, already gaining on the E-2 ahead of him. It didn’t take long to catch up with the unarmed aircraft; the Americans had only rarely armed their Hawkeye craft, perhaps hoping that they would be considered neutral targets. The pilot knew better than to count on it; firing his missiles from just inside their range. Seconds later, a chain of explosions destroyed the Hawkeye, sending Lieutenant Alison Hayes and her crew to their fiery deaths.

Admiral Ronald Graves, Commanding Officer of the Home Fleet, scowled as he read the note; the AWACS had been taken down. There were savage air battles being fought over Dover, but his own radar was making it clear that there were more French aircraft, hovering over Denmark and watching him.

“Order the carriers to launch a second ready flight,” he ordered, and his Commander Air Group leapt to obey. He stared out into the choppy seas and hoped that it would put the French off sailing, but he knew better than to hope for it. The French weren’t cowards and the seas weren’t that bad…which meant that forty-odd superdreadnaughts were somewhere within the region.
He glared across at his radar operator. “Any sign of the enemy, yet?” He demanded. One thing was clear, at least; if the French operated their own carriers, then they would be detectable from further away, simply by having a higher horizon. Still, the North Sea was a very big place and the two fleets very tiny – even his seventy-five superdreadnaughts and scouting elements would be very tiny indeed on that scale.
“None, sir,” the operator said. “Sir, there’s just the aircraft forming up over Denmark.”
Graves nodded to himself, studying the map. The discipline of hunting enemy ships was well known to the Royal Navies; a craft starting from Point A with a total speed of twenty knots will be somewhere within a circle, depending upon the time between the present and the last contact. He had worried about a submarine ambush, which was why he had the destroyers and the new sonar equipment probing for enemy submarines, but they hadn’t found anything…yet.
“Where are the bastards?” He muttered to himself, assuming a noble posture on the flag deck. Could the French have launched their ships as a diversion of some kind? If so, why? Could they be hugging the Scandinavian coast and trying to sneak past? “Where are they if they’re not here?”
“Contact,” the radar operator snapped. “I think it’s the fleet.”
Graves glanced at the cathode-ray screen and cursed. There were dozens of targets, perhaps all forty of the Baltic Fleet superdreadnaughts had come out, and they were moving to avoid a confrontation.
“Pursuit course,” he snapped, as one of the devices from the George Washington started to chime. He stared at it; it was blinking up a sign in some incomprehensible technobabble - FRA/RAD/0685/Y! “What’s that?”
“We just got scanned by a French radar from our world,” the operator said grimly. “They’ll know us completely sir; every ship, every…”
“Then they aren’t they running?” Graves demanded. No one in his right mind would risk forty on seventy-five, not counting the other ships. “What are they…?”
“They’re firing,” the operator said. There was a sudden chilling moment. “Sir, order the ships to move, now!
Graves didn’t move fast enough. The Charles de Gaulle had carried one hundred anti-ship missiles, intended for use against the Chinese Navy – or possible sale to the Vietnamese Navy. They had been configured for use against the Chinese cruiser design…and eighty of them had been unleashed against the British Home Fleet. No one knew it, then or ever, but the French aircraft had been carefully plotting out targets and assigning them to the missiles, which had been mounted on land.
Two missiles struck each of the carriers, massive overkill for ships like them, vaporising them without given the crew any chance to abandon ship. The rest of the missiles spread out and slammed into superdreadnaughts, slamming through the hull and exploding within the hull. Several missiles were accidentally directed onto battlecruisers instead; twelve superdreadnaughts survived the sudden catastrophic attack.
Before any of the surviving crew could manage to coordinate a defence, or an escape, the French fleet was upon them. The battle was short, heroic…and had only one possible outcome. In the wake of the shocking defeat, the Home Fleet was no more…and France had gained naval superiority.

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