United Kingdom (TimeLine B) The air was very quiet in Ten Downing Street. The final telemetry from the device on the Britannia had been very clear; cruise missiles had struck almost the entire fleet. The Admiralty was trying to coordinate a retreat, but radar had made it impossible for ships to escape so easily, along with the aircraft from the French carriers. Even as the War Cabinet listened, the final radio signals vanished; the defeat had not only been crushing, but decisive.
Grey took a long breath. He noticed that his hands were shaking. Part of his mind couldn’t grasp why that was so; the rest of his mind was gibbering in fear. The rest of the Cabinet wasn’t much better; between them, they had just presided over the largest naval defeat in history; not even the short Battle of Mexico had been so…disastrous.
Admiral Sir Martin Benson spoke with a shaky voice. “What the hell did they hit us with?” He demanded, in a voice of ashy death. He rounded on Colonel Sir Benjamin Phillips. “What have you people brought to this world?”
Sir Benjamin spoke aloud, almost speaking to himself rather than anyone in the room. “They were planning to double-cross us all along,” he said. “Those were Hellebores; they couldn’t have been anything else. That’s why none of the Charles de Gaulle’s manifests made any sense; they were trying to conceal that they had them.”
“The Emperor meant it, I’m sure,” Grey said. “It was his son…”
“No, back in our reality,” Sir Benjamin said. His tone was bleak. “The French built those missiles and their warheads for use against armoured ships; they slam down on the ship from high above, punch through the armour and detonate inside. Your ships” – his voice broke off – “your ships don’t have anything like an ECM suite; we never thought that we could build one in time.
“The United States Navy was investing in battleships and something new called an arsenal ship,” he said. He scowled. “The French saw a gap in the market and build the Hellebores – and I bet you anything you care to put forward that what’s his name…”
“Contre-Admiral François Videzun,” General Sir Douglas Highlander supplied.
“I bet you that Videzun’s orders were to sell them to the Vietnamese or even the Chinese,” he said. “Neither one could hope to stand up to one of the planned battleships, but if they had weapons like the Hellebores – bloody stupid machines, so they don’t get fooled easily, and a compressed warhead that blew a hole in the middle of your ships and triggered the magazines and the stored shells inside.”
“And destroyed the Royal Navy,” Benson said. “Prime Minister, I will offer my resignation at once…”
“Sit down,” Grey snapped. “Sir Benjamin; what do you think they’ll do now?”
Sir Benjamin didn’t have to think. “Invade,” he said. “They’ll have been preparing for an invasion – and they’re beating hell out of the Royal Flying Corps.” He paused. “Shit; we assumed that the crew of the Charles de Gaulle would be sparing with their own weapons, but if they’re not…sir, you have to turn off the radar stations.”
Highlander gaped at him. “Why?” He demanded. “If we do that, we’ll be blind!”
“We’ll be blind anyway when they start firing HARM missiles at you,” Sir Benjamin snapped. “The RFC is in serious trouble – and it will only get worse when the radar stations are taken down.” He paused, thinking. “In fact, have as many radios as you can transmitting; perhaps we can convince them to waste anti-radiation missiles on the harmless signals.”
Grey tapped the table. “Have the full invasion alert sounded,” he snapped. “Invasion expected soon, perhaps today.”
“It will be at least two weeks, perhaps three, for any reinforcements to arrive,” Benson said. His tone was broken; his voice had broken along with his fleet. He looked up, a glimmer of hope in his eyes. “Unless the George Washington comes alone.”
Under other circumstances, Grey would have smiled at the irony. “The carrier will come with the rest of the fleet,” he said. “We will only have one chance. Tell me, can the Washington’s weapons inflict similar damage on the French Navy?”
Sir Benjamin hesitated. “I’m not a naval expert,” he said. “I believe that the Washington carries some air-deployed anti-ship weapons, but I don’t know if they will have the same effect. They can take out the carriers, though, perhaps even the Charles de Gaulle itself if they expose it to combat. Then our carriers can sink the fleet, assuming it tries to fight.”
Grey nodded. “Adam,” he said, turning to the American representative, “please would you brief Prime Minister Lord Roger Adams and the American Parliament. Remind them…that the Empire stands and falls as a united entity.”
Grovetown’s eyes shadowed. “You’ll have all the support I can provide,” he promised. “I just hope that it gets here in time.”
A telephone rang. General Sir Douglas Highlander picked it up and listened. His face turned greyer under his moustache as he listened. “We just lost three of the radar stations,” he said. “At last contact, Dover and the defences further east were bombed heavily.”
“They’ve learned how to tactical bomb,” Sir Benjamin said. “Have all of the radar stations turned off, sir; they’re defenceless.”
Highlander nodded. “With your permission,” he said to Grey, who nodded helplessly. “I’ll see to it now.”
Sir Benjamin watched as he left. “Prime Minister, I respectfully request the right to join the defending forces,” he said. “I have experience with some of the new weapons.”
Grey nodded slowly. “If we’d moved faster on building tanks here, would we have more than we do?” He asked. “Perhaps if we’d built more of the weapons, perhaps even the ones that were forbidden…with good reason, would this have been averted?”
Sir Benjamin took a breath. “This is their last chance,” he said, and shuddered. Admiral Jackson, he knew from their last discussion, had been astonished at the willingness of the…ruling powers to call the war a draw, but the enemy - Contre-Admiral François Videzun – knew better than they did. No, that wasn’t right; he came from a different culture, one that had learnt the ‘victory at all costs – or fight again later’ discipline.
“If they hold here, we are at a disadvantage in the peace talks,” he said, and knew that there wouldn’t be any. Videzun would know better; would the Crown Prince agree with him? “If we can beat them, then we can hold out for a better deal in the peace talks.”
Grey looked up at him. “I hope you’re right,” he said. “Go; take your command, and good luck.”
Videzun stared down at the display, almost unable to believe his own eyes. The effect of the Hellebore missiles had been exactly as promised, even if some of the aiming had been…insufficient. He smiled; given what they’d had to work with, perfection was probably impossible.
“I just proved the concept,” he gloated, and smiled to himself. He would never be able to report home, of course, but it was good to know that the American technology had been bettered in more ways than one. They clearly hadn’t bothered to inform their clients that the Hellebore missiles existed, let alone warned them that they might be used against the Royal Navy. The success rate had been…awesome.
If I’d fired them off in the middle of the original task force, I could have sunk it all, he thought. The missiles had been intended for Vietnam, to give them some extra firepower – and France some extra influence – but he’d put them to far better use here. It wasn’t the only item that was being used; French-built Dassault Rafale aircraft had launched precision attacks against a handful of British targets.
“A pity they removed the Super Étendards,” he muttered, as he glanced down at the display. As the RFC went blind, he dared to order his own radar plane closer, wishing that the Charles de Gaulle had carried an in-flight refuelling capability. It had been planned – and the George Washington had such a capability – but it hadn’t been developed until it was too late for the Charles de Gaulle’s final refit.
“They’re wanting to know if they can begin the invasion,” Jacqueline Petal said. She tapped the landline system; Videzun had had high hopes for developing some kind of fibre-optic system, but that had proven impossible in the time they’d had. “The aircraft have scored a number of direct hits on British targets and the RFC is losing the fight…”
Videzun considered. It was the beginnings of the afternoon. Just enough time to land a major force. “Order them to…land the landing force,” he said. “Let’s see how quickly we can land an entire force…”
Captain LeFay knew little about the changes within his own country, but he knew his duty. The four older dreadnaughts of the Brest Squadron, which had been trapped in port for over a year, were finally free to move as they pleased…even though he discounted the story about how many British ships had been sunk.
“Steady as she goes,” he ordered, as he peered ahead towards the coast of Britain. He’d been promised fighter support, but he knew better than to believe that it was possible, even with the recent developments in carrier-borne aircraft. Everything had gotten a great deal more dangerous for the French Navy recently – it felt good to strike back.
“Aye, sir,” the helmsman said. The Brest Squadron didn’t even rate a real commander; four dreadnaughts weren’t a very important command except…here they might be decisive. “Moving up the channel.”
LeFay smiled as the white cliffs appeared ahead of them. Portsmouth, he knew from the intelligence briefing, was heavily protected and attempting to land directly in a port was suicide. Sevastopol had proven that, even though the follow-up landings outside the city had been a success. He’d kept the Oran and its companions out of range of the heavy guns, just in case; discovering that the British were in no mood to be trifled with would have ruined his day.
He glanced up sharply as one of the strange futuristic aircraft swept across the sky, and then relaxed as he realised that it was one of the French aircraft. Time was passing rapidly – could his ship not move any further? Bangs and cracks echoed across the water as the monstrous air battle raged on, out of sight, but hardly out of mind.
“That’s Dover, sir,” the navigator said. A series of flickers appeared on the shoreline; seconds’ later massive gouts of water blasted up from nearby as shells hit the water. “Sir, they’re attacking us.”
“I had noticed,” LeFay said, too pleased to be annoyed at the stupid comment. He lifted the intercom and muttered one single command into it. “Open fire,” he ordered. Seconds later, the Oran shuddered as it unleashed its main guns on the landing zone, hammering the British defences at short range.
“Firing,” the gunnery officer said. The system of coordinating the fire from all of the turrets was a new innovation, one from the Charles de Gaulle, but it worked. “Sir, we’re pasting them.”
“Keep firing until we run out of shells,” LeFay ordered. “I want there to be nothing left between Dover and Folkestone. The troops are going to land there and get all of the glory, but we are going to clear the way for them.”
Sir Benjamin threw himself to the ground as the first shells impacted near the defences on the beach, detonating mines and shattering lives with ease. The ground heaved as the heavy guns returned fire, bracketing the French ships, then there was a thunderous explosion far too close for comfort.
“They’re hammering us, guv,” a man shouted. Sir Benjamin took moments to make him out through his ringing ears – and knew that it wouldn’t be enough. Cursing the loss of any serious radar coverage, he carefully pulled himself to his knees and lifted his binoculars. He cursed again; one of the French battleships was burning, but the others were still pouring fire into the British defences.
“I’d never have guessed,” he snapped. “What do we have left?”
“I dunno, guv,” the man snapped. “They’re killing everyone…”
Another thunderous explosion cut his words off as one French gunner got lucky, triggering the stored shells in a bunker. The explosion literally blew the gun into the water, tearing a hole in the defences. Perhaps unaware of their success, the French continued to pour shells over what Sir Benjamin was starting to realise was their landing zone.
D-Day, he realised. We made a mistake; this is not Sealion, but D-Day.
“Where are the fucking landlines?” He snapped. The man couldn’t hear him; his ears were clearly broken too. Sir Benjamin shook him and shouted right in his face. “Where are the landlines?”
“Cut,” the man snapped back. “The shelling has cut the lines.”
Or perhaps one of their precision bombs, Sir Benjamin thought coldly. So this is what it felt like in Iraq. He forced down the sudden unexpected feeling of sympathy, concentrating on the here and now. The shelling stopped suddenly; the French ships were just holding position. Other ships could be seen, moving up the channel, defying the British by the mere power of their presence.
Superdreadnaughts, he thought coldly. The handful of remaining guns opened fire on them…and all hell broke loose. The superdreadnaughts were firing madly, aiming their guns higher than necessary, and then Sir Benjamin realised why. Darting in among the superdreadnaughts, crossing directly from the French coast, were thousands of small landing craft. Somehow, he’d expected barges, but these were proper landing craft.
The man grabbed his arm. “Guv, what the hell is that?”
Sir Benjamin swung around, to see a helicopter – two helicopters – heading over from France. He scowled; they had nothing capable of taking one out…and their presence meant that air support could be sent whenever the French troopers needed them.
“Invasion,” he said simply. “Where is the closest landline?”
The man shook his head, clearly unaware of the fact. Sir Benjamin cursed and started to gather his men; after the bombardment there were only a handful left. “We’ll hold them as long as we can,” he said, “and then retreat in good order.”
“Yes, sir,” the senior sergeant said. His Scottish accent was somehow stronger than any from TimeLine A. “Sir, what about Dover?”
Sir Benjamin shuddered. Dover had several regiments and the militia dug in. “They’ll have to take care of themselves,” he said. “Stand by to resist” – the word stuck in his throat – “invasion.”
Andre Arsenault had had a better view of the invasion than perhaps anyone else; the overrated Rafale would not have seen anything like as much as he did. The gathered ships in the Channel, the massive fleet of landing craft, barges, passenger ships, transports and other vessels, the massive explosions on the British mainland as the French Navy poured fire into the shoreline…and so much else. Aircraft swooped overhead, RFC and French aircraft fighting it out for dominance.
I’m glad I’m just a helicopter pilot, he thought, as he swept towards the shore. The weapons on the helicopter were already ready, along with the twenty-one man assault team he and his fellow pilot were carrying. The helicopter carried fewer weapons and only one pilot – not something he was comfortable with – but it was the only way to get troops on shore in time to…
BOOM! An explosion, far too close for comfort, battered the helicopter. He heard the men in the rear becoming sick and shuddered at the thought of cleaning up the mess, even though he knew that it was probably unavoidable. A single British gun was trying to hit him, using shells designed for timed detonation.
“Die, you bastard,” he snapped, firing a long burst down at the gunner. The gun exploded, hopefully killing the gunner – Arsenault had no time to check. The helicopter settled to the ground as its companion circled around, watching for British soldiers. The flat grassland looked harmless, but two years of fighting homicidal fanatics had taught him never to take anything at face value.
“Everyone out,” he snapped, as the helicopter’s hatch snapped open. “Move it, now!”
“Move it, you bastards,” the leader snapped, and the troops leapt out. Arsenault didn’t wait; as soon as they were all out he launched himself back into the air, watching for British aircraft. He swept once around the landing zone, then cleared the second helicopter to land.
“A good days work, I think,” he said. “Can we go home now?”
He listened to the answer on the radio. Instead of flying back to France, they were to continue giving ground support to the French. Arsenault cursed; many of them would probably take them for British aircraft and fire on them. Ever since the Falklands, rumour had given the British supernatural abilities.
He laughed suddenly. “Don’t worry chaps,” he said. “You have your own wizards now, eh?”
The moment that the helicopters appeared, and evaded all attempts to shoot them down, Sir Benjamin knew that the battle for the beachhead had been won - by the French. Without any way of calling down fire on the French positions, which would lead to the heavy gunners being exposed to French counter-fire and aerial attack, the French would have all the time in the world to land their forces and prepare their positions.
“We have to move from here,” he snapped. The small team he had, which was doing the best they could by firing their machine gun into the masses of troops, stared at him. “We have to move…”
“Dragonfly,” one of the men interrupted, as a French helicopter swooped down on them. The man didn’t hesitate; he fired madly at the helicopter, which started to fire back…before being consumed in a ball of fire. Sir Benjamin let out a sigh of relief as he realised that he was still alive – he’d expected that the aircraft would crash on top of their position - before remembering that the French had other weapons.
“Move, now,” he snapped, and led the men away from their position. The French troops were moving now, heading away from the beaches – countless targets being missed because he had no way to contact any artillery that might have been emplaced to the east. “Move it!”
The men obeyed and ran east. They had had the contingency plan – head east until meeting the main defence line – hammered into their heads, and yet…they didn’t want to run. Sir Benjamin didn’t give them time to worry, forcing them forward with all of his remaining strength, knowing that for the first time since never, a major French force had established a beachhead on British soil.
This could get dicey, he thought grimly, and ran faster.