South Atlantic (TimeLine B) “That’s definitely a British flag,” Colonel Sir Benjamin Phillips said. The British Marine Colonel smiled grimly at Lieutenant Sally Woods, who frowned back. Losing her husband was one thing – and without him she would be free at last – but losing the entire world? “That one there, I think, is an Aussie flag. The others…?”
Sally frowned. One of the flags was…odd; a strange elephant design, with a Union Jack in the corner. The others, the ones on six of the strange ships, were even stranger; a Union Jack in the corner, with a circle of thirteen stars in a blue background. It reminded her of the European Union flag, except for the stars being white, and the Union Jack.
A British-run European Union? She asked herself, wishing that she knew more about the strange alternate timeline. What had happened? Where had the timelines diverged?
“We should be making contact with them,” Phillips said loudly, addressing Admiral Jackson. “They’re friendly.”
“We may have no choice,” Sally agreed, even though she knew better than to accept that they were friendly at face value. “We may have to face a very different situation here than we faced in the home timeline.”
She shook her head. In her studies of history, the prospect of counterfactual scenarios was nothing new, but for the rest of the crew they were not only new, but something that was preventing them from returning home. So far, the busywork was keeping everyone busy, but it wouldn’t be long before everyone knew that they were cut off from all that they knew.
I wonder if there is an America here, she thought, and frowned grimly. It didn’t seem likely, did it? She hadn’t shared that thought with anyone else, not yet, but…
Captain Morrigan’s voice broke through her musings. “Admiral, the ships are moving in our direction,” he said. “I don’t know how, but they have a rough idea of where we are.”
“Clever,” Jackson said. “Any thoughts on how?”
Stress, Sally thought, and smiled. What was a historical laboratory to her was life and death to the rest of the crew, trapped on the wrong side of the looking glass.
“They might have noted the direction of the F-18,” Captain Sonja Robertson suggested. “When will they be here?”
“Perhaps an hour, perhaps less,” Morrigan said. His voice was just as tired. “Sir, if we want to evade them, we have to start moving. I’m not sure how, but those bastards are pulling more speed than we can.”
“Balls,” Jackson said. He scowled angrily. “Captain, I believe it’s time to implement First Contact.”
“Yes, sir,” Morrigan said. “Sir, are you sure that you should go?”
“It needs a senior officer,” Jackson said. Sally smiled; they were all too tired. They’d had the same argument at least twice before. “Without the rest of the task force, I’m about as useful as tits on a bull.”
“Yes, sir,” Morrigan said. “The helicopter is being prepared now.”
Sally scowled. “Sir, what happens if they’re hostile?”
Jackson glared at her. “Then we’re screwed,” he said. “Still, if we can’t find the America of this timeline, then we might as well contact the most likely allies.”
Sally thought about the history of relations between Great Britain and her former colony and scowled. “Sir, request permission to go with you,” Phillips said. “I might be able to talk to them.”
Sally smiled. “Me too,” she said. “It’s every historian’s dream.”
“This has to be a nightmare,” Jackson said. “All right, you’re coming. Come along.”
Phillips saluted. “Side arms?”
Jackson paused to consider. “There’s no protocol for this,” he said. “Remind me to take it up with the Pentagon when we get home.”
If you get home, Sally thought coldly. “I would advise only sidearm,” she said. “Let’s face it, if we have to fight our way off the ship, we’re doomed anyway.”
The strange otherworldly radar was still pulsing, isolated to a location several miles from BatCruDiv Seventeen, and the small force was closing in. Vice-Admiral Felix Anderson allowed himself a hunter’s smile; whatever force was behind the strange aircraft, still hanging over their heads, he would face it sooner or later.
Lieutenant Homchoudhury coughed. “Sir, we’re receiving a transmission,” he said. “It’s on the main frequency for our ships…”
Anderson blinked. International agreement gave each of the three superpowers a series of private frequencies, just to handle all of the different signals without adding to the confusion. Naturally, all three superpowers monitored the frequencies…and experimented from time to time with jamming them. It was one of the things that had made the world so much more dangerous during the run-up to the war.
“What does it say?” Anderson said grimly, realising that all was lost. There was no chance of sneaking up on the Falklands now; the French would be monitoring the transmission.
“Here, sir,” Homchoudhury said, passing over the headphones. Anderson listened carefully, realising that the message was repeating itself, several times over.
“This is Admiral Jackson of Task Force India, calling the British ships,” it said. “I request permission to land to discuss the recent sightings of my aircraft over your positions. Please acknowledge.”
“I beg your pardon,” Anderson said, puzzled. “Is there an Admiral Jackson in the navy?”
Caesar shrugged. “There’s a General Jackson in Texas,” he said, puzzled. “I don’t know any senior officer called Jackson over here.”
“And what’s with that accent?” Anderson asked, growing even more puzzled. A thought struck him. “How the hell does he propose to land on the Amherst?”
Caesar’s eyes flickered with genuine alarm. The Amherst was not a seaplane tender; she didn’t even have a seaplane mounted on the deck like some superdreadnaughts. “He can’t,” he said. His gaze drifted over the placid sea. “Perhaps he intends to land on the sea and come abroad.” He paused significantly. “Sir, you have to acknowledge.”
Anderson was too worried to be embarrassed. He spoke into the microphone. “This is Vice-Admiral Felix Anderson, Royal North American Navy, commanding officer of BatCruDiv Seventeen. You cannot land on my ship, Admiral; it’s impossible. If you have a seaplane, it is cleared to land.”
“Thank you,” the reply came back, through the static. Anderson realised with a sudden shock that their equipment was not totally compatible. “We will hover over your main deck in five minutes.”
The connection broke. “What are they talking about?” Caesar asked. “Sir…”
The radar operator interrupted, something that only happened when it was urgent. “Sir, we have a contact coming in from the southeast, heading towards us. It should be visible any moment now.”
Anderson looked up, through the portal. The sky was a clear as ever – he couldn’t see the strange aircraft that was shadowing his force – and then he saw it. A strange dragonfly-like aircraft, painted black, was heading towards the Amherst.
“They’ve located us as the flagship,” Caesar muttered. Anderson nodded, watching the strange aircraft as it slowed down, heading directly over the Amherst. It seemed to hang in the sky, the noise of its…rotating blades echoing over the battlecruiser’s hull. The crew stopped their duties to stare at the strange aircraft, watching with awe as a rope ladder fell from it to the prow deck of the Amherst.
“Not men from Mars after all,” Lieutenant Robin Redbreast muttered. The Gunnery Officer had bet on aliens invading the Earth. Anderson smiled, watching as four men – no, one of them was very obviously female – scrambled down the ladder, hitting the deck.
“Mister Exec, you have command,” Caesar said, as he followed Anderson outside, heading down to the prow. The rope ladder was being pulled back into the strange aircraft, which was moving gently away from the battlecruiser.
“We don’t have a protocol for this,” Anderson muttered to Caesar, as he fixed his cap firmly on his head. “What the hell do we say to them?”
“Who are you?” Caesar said wryly. “That strikes me as a good first choice.”
Anderson smiled wryly as they reached the four strangers. The short older man in the centre was the obvious leader; Admiral Jackson, perhaps. The taller man with the handlebar moustache was an army officer, or Anderson would eat his hat. The Union Jack suggested that he was British. The tough-looking man in Khaki had no rank badges, but he was armed, suggesting a bodyguard of some kind. The woman was a total mystery.
Do I salute or not? He asked himself. He saluted anyway; there was something otherworldly about the four men, something…odd. “Vice-Admiral Felix Anderson, Royal North American Navy,” he said, identifying himself.
“Captain George Caesar, Commander, HMNAS Amherst,” Caesar chipped in, a moment later. “Who are you people?”
Lieutenant Sally Woods understood before Admiral Jackson, even though the strange accent that the natives of this timeline possessed; the American War of Independence hadn’t been launched in this timeline, or it had failed. The man spoke like a New Yorker, but there was more of the Anglo in his voice than any normal American would have had, or at least one who had never left the country.
“Admiral Christopher Jackson, Commander, Task Force India,” Jackson said. “United States Navy.”
Sally saw the puzzlement on the handsome semi-American’s face and smiled. “I beg your pardon,” Anderson asked. “The United States of what?”
Jackson’s eyes narrowed. “Why, the United States of America, of course,” he said.
The big black man, who seemed to command the battlecruiser, spoke in a dry tone. “The North American Union?”
Sally decided she’d better interrupt before anything unfortunate happened. “Sir, the United States doesn’t exist here,” she said.
Jackson rounded on her. “Are you certain?” He snapped. “What the hell could have happened to wipe us from existence?”
He didn’t understand, Sally realised. Whatever had happened would be interesting, but irrelevant. If the British Empire had won the war – or, alternatively, the plan to make George Washington King had succeeded – then the United States simply didn’t exist, at least as far as could be determined.
“Excuse me,” the black Captain said. It spoke well of whoever they were that they had a multiracial crew. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Admiral Jackson gathered himself. “I honestly don’t know what to say,” he admitted. “Admiral, we seem to be rather lost. Sally?”
“Are you familiar with the concept of alternate universes?” Sally asked, directing the question at the two alien-British-American officers. They shook their heads. “We’re from a different timeline, one where history proceeded down a different path to yours.” She hesitated. “If you don’t mind, what is the status of America?”
The two officers exchanged glances. “It’s the North American Union, ever since the Colonial Parliaments were united in 1850,” Anderson said. “Ah…madam, are you suggesting that you’re from the future?”
Sally wished that it were that simple. “No, we’re from a different dimension,” she said. “Look, perhaps we could sit down and have a cup of tea.”
Anderson laughed. “Yes, perhaps we could,” he said. “George?”
“Right this way,” Caesar said. “Madam, I don’t believe that we’ve been introduced.”
Sally held out her hand. “Lieutenant Sally Woods, Assistant Supply Officer and historian, George Washington,” she said.
Anderson blinked. “Your ship is called the George Washington?” He asked. “Why?”
“It’s something of a long story,” Admiral Jackson said. Sally smiled; he seemed to have recovered from his shock.”
“I think we have time,” Jackson said, as they entered the main body of the battlecruiser. “My stateroom is just down here.”
Anderson felt himself reel as the strangers explained their position and their point of origin. Now he had a moment to think, he understood the concept; the Admiralty studied endless campaigns of the British Empire, before it had become the United Empire, and counterfactual outcomes happened several times. There had even been a popular series of novels based on the concept, including a major collapse of the French Empire in 1800, when it had seemed like Louis something or other would have lost his throne. Instead, with the help of his Prime Minister, a genius called Napoleon, Louis had kept his throne, and Napoleon had built the Empire for him.
He shook his head. No one, as far as he knew, had developed a timeline that had included the original Thirteen Colonies becoming independent. The colossal blunder that had cost the rebels the war had been so bad that it had utterly destroyed the army that had been raised to face George III’s legions. The best thing that could be said about the rebellion, short-lived though it had been, was that it had convinced the King and Parliament to work towards home rule for the colonies – and eventually full equality within the empire.
“So, in your timeline the rebellion succeeded,” he said, after outlining the disaster that had cost the rebels the war. “What happened after that?”
Maggie O’Brien entered and smiled dazzlingly at them. Anderson waved her to a chair absently; the reporter would be able to put the experience into words for the public, when the censors cleared it. He smiled absently; the censors would probably not have the slightest idea what to do about it.
“The rebellion ended in victory, after the Battle of Yorktown,” Sally Woods said. Anderson nodded absently; Miss Woods and Miss O’Brien would probably get along like a house on fire. “The result was – eventually – the forming of a democratic government…”
“Unless you happened to be black, or a woman, or very poor,” Colonel Sir Benjamin Phillips injected. The British officer, one from the Alternate Britain, had been listening without commenting – until now. “You never freed the slaves until after the civil war.”
Jackson held up a calming hand. “Carry on,” he said.
“We ended up fighting a civil war,” Sally admitted. She paused. “The origins of the war were multi-faceted, but in the end the Union was strengthened, leading to American power and its – our – rise to superpower status.” She frowned. “Recently, we have been involved in a war against people who hate us for being much better than they are.”
“A simplistic argument,” Jackson injected. “The war on terror has many origins.”
Anderson took a deep breath, confused. “Terrorists?” He asked. “Like the Quebecois?”
“They’re causing trouble for you as well?” Woods asked. Anderson nodded; despite far better treatment than they could hope to receive in the French Empire, the Quebecois were a constant problem for the United Empire. “I think ours are worse.”
“I feel a headache coming on,” Anderson said. “Let’s move to the important question; what are you doing here?”
“I have no idea,” Jackson said, and he realised that his counterpart was telling the truth. “The…incident that brought us here, the strange UFOs, is well beyond our own technology.”
“But you can do so much we can’t,” Anderson said. “Those dragonfly aircraft, for example.”
“The helicopters,” Jackson said, naming them for his benefit. “That’s something else I don’t understand; by rights, you should be at least equal to us.”
“I think that they haven’t had as many wars as we’ve had,” Sally said. “Wars have certainly forced us forward.”
Anderson nodded. “So, you can’t get back,” he said, and saw them all nod grimly. “So, what now?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Jackson admitted.
Maggie spoke, her voice warm and innocent. “Why don’t you come with us?” She asked. “We have to raid the Falklands, but then you could come back to the North American Union with us.”
“The Falklands?” Jackson asked. “Why?”
“The French captured the islands a month ago,” Anderson said. “Our mission is to take them back.”
Jackson’s eyes narrowed grimly. “I think you’d better take a look at this,” he said, opening his briefcase. Anderson had expected papers to come spilling out, but instead Jackson pulled out a small device, which opened into a typewriter-like machine.
Caesar blinked. “What’s that?”
“A portable computing device,” Jackson said, an answer that left Anderson none the wiser. “Normally, we would be able to access satellites, an invisible field of electronic bandwidth that allows us to access information from around the globe. Connection to the Washington is piss-poor in your ship, but we can get the pictures.” He scowled. “Almost down to a full second for the pictures.”
He fiddled with the device a bit more, and then passed it over. Anderson stared at the image – it was the most perfect reconnaissance picture he’d seen – and then cursed. The looming shape of French superdreadnaughts, sitting within the Falkland Sound, was enough to spell disaster for his force.
“We might have gotten close enough for their guns to tear us to ribbons,” he said, and realised that the force had been very lucky.
“Perhaps,” Jackson said. “What are your orders if faced with superior forces?”
Anderson scowled. “Run for it,” he said. “Show them our heels and run. A ten thousand-strong force of Royal Marines, risked for nothing.” He scowled. “They’re needed in the Caribbean, and we sent them here, on a wild goose chase.”
“I assume that you’re running on radio silence protocols,” Jackson said. Anderson took a moment to realise what Jackson had said. “They don’t know you’re here.”
Anderson made a face. “They know we’re here now,” he said. “They will have detected our signals to you, Admiral.”
“But you can wait here for a little bit,” Jackson said. He hesitated. “I can’t promise anything, but we might be able to help you.”
Anderson shook his head. “I don’t want to be caught here without steam-up by those superdreadnaughts,” he said.
“They haven’t left the Falklands,” Jackson said. “Admiral, the George Washington is coming here to meet you. We will see any attacking force even as it leaves Argentina.”
“New Spain,” Anderson corrected. Hope and fear mixed within his breast. “I have to tell Admiral Sir Joseph Porter something, Admiral.”
Jackson smiled. “Hold off for a moment,” he said. “Give us a couple of hours, and then we’ll see.” He paused, and glanced down at the laptop. “Admiral, the George Washington should be within sight now,” he said.
“That was quick,” Anderson said. He led the way up back onto the deck, his eyes scanning the horizon. A massive shape hung in the southeast, growing closer and closer all the time. “My God.”
“The aircraft carrier George Washington,” Jackson said, and there was an unmistakable note of pride in his voice. “Whatever else happens, we will warn you of any attacks coming your way.”
Anderson studied the massive ship as it grew closer, watching as it took on shape and form… and wondering why anyone would name their ship after George Washington? It simply didn’t make sense.