The Thalassocrats

Wellington, Somerset
Sunday, 3rd May 2015
01:30am (BST)


It had been a good wedding. A civil ceremony, brief and personal; a gourmet wedding breakfast, exquisitely prepared and accompanied with lashings of booze; a vigorous ceilidh followed by dancing to an excellent selection of the best man's illicit Superior Soul records; and, for the hardy few still standing, a rather raucous post-dance drinking session with the happy couple in the bridal suite. So raucous, in fact, that when Chief Petty Officer Jim Grady and his new wife Louise had retired to bed (and almost instantly fallen asleep) it had taken their guests some fifteen minutes to notice their absence.

Two figures stepped out of the door and onto the path, making their way up the hill with the unsteady gait common to those who have spent eight hours drinking mostly scotch. One was carrying his suit jacket rakishly over one shoulder; the other was gripping the neck of a large bottle, frequently taking quick nips from the amber liquid inside and spilling significant amounts on his shirt collar.

“How you holding up, Tommo?” the jacketed one called to his dripping colleague, who wiped his chin and gave him a thumbs up.

“Fan-fuckin'-tastic, ol'-chap,” he chirruped, clapping a spirit-soaked hand heavily on the other man's shoulder. “An' howwa you, Max buddy?”

Max smiled softly, closing his eyes as he did so. “I'm good mate, I'm good. Feelin' really good about stuff now.”

“I' wassa good service, I though'”, mumbled Tommo, releasing his grip on his friend and swaying across the path and into a bush. There was a tearing sound as part of his suit failed to extricate itself from the branches.

“Yeah, it was,” mumbled Max. “Feelin' good about Thursday, too.”

Tommo wasn't listening; he seemed preoccupied by the twin concerns of finding which of his sleeves had gone missing and getting his whisky in his mouth, so Max carried on, not so much having a conversation as talking to himself with someone else there.

“I mean, I don' think we're gonna come first – I'm optimistic, like, burram not tharroptimistic – but I think we can gerra good foot'old in the Commons an' start pushin' our own legslllah- legislon- ugh! - Ledge-Ih-Slay-Shon-”

“You're really qui' excited by this, aren' you,” Tommo cut in unexpectedly, suddenly sounding far less sloshed. Max shrugged.

“Firs' time I get to vote, under the new rules.”

Tommo fixed him with bleary eyes for a long moment, then looked away and grinned. “Ah yes, now your shiny new second-hand Leyland counts as 'property'.” Condescension dripped off his words like single-malt was dripping off his chin; Max felt a ball of rage rise in his stomach as he went on. “It won' make the slightest difference, an' y'know it won't. The Admiral's still in the House o'Lords, he'll still be Pee-Emm come Friday mornin', an' when the time comes for him to step aside – and God knows it'll be soon! – it'll be because he's found another successor from Admiralty Arch, not b'cos o'some damnfool notion like 'lections. We're not France, ol'boy.”

“How'bout America?” retorted Max, trying not to snap and not quite succeeding though the alcoholic fug.

“'Merica? Huh,” snorted Tommo, turning away. “Been there, done that, bought the records. Decent place for a holiday, but you wouldn't want to live like them.” He took a long swig from his bottle.

Max stared at his friend for a long while. It's easy for you, he wanted to say. You were born into this world; your family was wealthy before the Great War, and they've benefited so much from the thalassocrats. You didn't grow up in a sixty-year old tenement with three beds for seven people. Nobody's expecting you to sign up for three years on a dreadnought blowing the shit out of Bengalis or Kenyans who have even less than you do, on threat of conscription into the Army if you refuse without a good excuse. Sure, I didn't have to either; I got lucky, got to go to university, got the job at RayCorp. I'm the first member of my family to even get the vote. You don't even know you're born. He wanted to say it, but the words refused to line up, evaporating in the wire-wool mist of tiredness and drunkenness.

Tommo took another swig from the bottle, spilling a great deal of its remaining contents down his front. It formed a pattern on his waistcoat that made it look remarkably like he'd been sick.

“Good stuff?” asked Max, trying not to sound too sardonic.

“It tastes like burning.”

“Then why on earth do you keep drinking it?”

“'Sappropriate.” Tommo swung the bottle towards him, and for the first time Max read the label: SINGLETON.

“Oh, Thomas... I'm sorry, pal, I had no idea.” Max put a hand on his friend's shoulder, as companionably as he could. “But... you and Eleanor...”

“We're puttin' a brave face on it – just for the weekend, y'know.” Tommo met his gaze, tears sparkling at the corners of his eyes.

“Are you still sharing a room, though?”

Tommo laughed loudly. “Good God, no! We swapped earlier, quiet-like. I'm stayin' with the Dancin' Doctors tonight- ah, speak of the devil!” He strode through the door of the nearest chalet, one which had a light on in the upstairs window. As Max carried on up the path towards his own cottage, his friend's voice followed him in the still night air: “Jeffrey! Your fiancée has fallen asleep on the stairs again!”

Even at a stagger, it took much less time to cover the upper two-thirds of the path now he was on his own. It was still a tough climb, though, and he found himself cursing Louise for putting him in the farthest hut from the lodge. He entertained himself by thinking about how much he was going to enjoy mocking Tommo when he got woken up.

The lights in Max's chalet were off; not that surprising, as his roommates had left a good half an hour before him. He pushed the door open, then paused, leaning on the doorframe and savouring the night air. It was cool, with a sweetness that promised imminent rain. He closed his eyes and tipped his head back, letting the gentle breeze wash over him...

And then he heard the footsteps.

He looked down the path, trying to pick out who was approaching. Maybe Tommo had got the wrong one after all, and needed a place to kip.

A figure hove out of the darkness, just visible in the shadow and gloom...

“Ann?”

She stopped about five yards away, unable to see who had just called her name. He stepped out into the path, pulling the door shut behind him; her head turned, her panicked expression relaxing into a smile that caused something inside him to tingle happily for a moment.

“Is everything alright?” he asked, stepping closer.

“Yes! Yes, everything's fine, just taking some stuff up to the car,” she replied glassily. His eyes drifted down to the bulging holdall she had in one hand.

“At... what, two in the morning?” Something was very off here, he could tell.

“I... needed some fresh air.” Ann's smile was beginning to fade now, her old expression – not panic, he realised now, but something altogether sadder – stamping itself back on her face.

“So why did you...” Max began, only to be cut off by a very, very small gasp.

All of a sudden, Ann was sobbing. She was trying to hide it, but all that accomplished was making the heaves of her shoulders more pronounced as she fought her own body. There was still a good five or six feet between them, but even so she was shrinking away from him. He paused for a moment, frozen from indecision, then reached out and placed a hand on her arm. She tried to pull away, but his grip hardened; only then did she look at him again, eyes brimming with tears. He felt a kick in his chest, that regardless of what Tommo and his ilk might tell him what he had just done was a Bad Thing, but she must have read his concern and bewilderment in his face, because she stopped fighting him and stood there, eyes downcast. She took a deep breath, as though she were about to say something, but the words seemed to fail her. He stood waiting patiently as she composed herself.

“Do you want to come in?” Max said eventually, after two or three minutes of watching her forehead creases deepen. “Please? The wind's getting chilly, and it's about to rain. Dave will never forgive me if you-”

Her reaction to his mentioning her boyfriend's name told him a lot he didn't want to know but had already been suspecting. Gently, but firmly, he steered her indoors and into the chalet's miniature kitchenette.

An ancient, bare tungsten bulb flickered to life as Max busied himself filling a kettle and preparing two mugs as quietly as he dared. Into each he dumped two heaping teaspoons of slightly musty cocoa powder dug out from a cupboard next to the sink, added milk to each and stirred it before adding the boiling water. Throughout he kept glancing over at Ann, who had sat on an ancient wooden chair and had neither spoken nor moved since. She seemed to be staring at something far beyond the walls of the little chalet. The click of the cocoa mug being set in front of her seemed to bring her back to the here and now; she blinked, and turned to look at Max.

“So,” he said, blowing in his drink, “you and Dave had a fight.”

She nodded, picking up her mug and sipping gently at it.

“Mind if I ask what about?”

She paused, then took another sip. He waited, silent, patient, feeling something of a tool for interrogating her like this.

Pause, sip, pause. Sip, sip, pause. Sip, sigh, mumble.

“...Sorry, Ann, I didn't hear you.”

“Fleet Air Arm.” Her eyes were fixed to the table.

“I don't follow-”

“He wants to stay, Max. He said he thinks he's got more of a chance and more of a career if he stays in for a few more years. He doesn't want to do it our way any more.”

“...What?”

“Someone at the Arch promised him a good place at one of the Ministries. The big Ministries, I mean, not Social Affairs and Citizenship or something like that.”

Max was aghast. “But... but I thought he was on our side...”

“So did I.” Ann's voice broke, and tears again glinted at the corners of her eyes.

“So what did you say?”

Ann stared fixedly at the bottom of her mug.

“Ann?”

Another mumble. She didn't raise her eyes.

“I didn't catch that...”

I said I thought it was a stupid idea,” she whispered in a tiny voice. Her body, too, seemed to be shrinking to match it; she seemed hunched in and tiny in her chair. Max would not have been surprised to see her feet dangling off the floor.

“Oh, Ann...” He cast around for some tissues, and when he came up short grabbed a few sheets of kitchen roll and passed them over. There was a rather unladylike blort as Ann blew her nose.

“What did Dave say?” Max asked, as he took the used paper and chucked it in the bin.

“He said... He said...” Ann faltered, and let out a huge, choking sob. “He said I'd spent too long on the continent! That I was only chasing the vote!” She looked up at him, eyes overflowing. “H-he called me...” She broke down again.

“Ann...” Max came around the table, and knelt beside her. “Ann, what did he say?”

“'Traitorous French harlot',” she choked out between sobs.

For a moment, the silence was deafening.

“I'm gonna kill 'im,” said Max eventually.

“No, Max-”

“I mean it. He can't speak to you like that-”

“Max, please-”

“Seriously, I'm gonna go down there now and end the little shit-”

Please! I feel bad enough as it is, don't go making everything worse...”

Max opened his mouth to retort, but one look at the haunted expression on her face was enough to make him relent. He sighed.

“All right – but you're staying here tonight. No argument,” he added, seeing her mouth open. “You can sleep in my bed, I'll take the couch. I brought a sleeping bag just in case.”

Ann, staring at the bottom of her mug again, nodded mutely. He opened his mouth to say something, but the words froze in his throat; all he could do, before stepping quietly out of the room, was gently squeeze her shoulder.

His room was right by the top of the stairs; he stood in the doorway, watching the first fat drops of rain spatter on the skylight window, waiting for the roiling clouds of anger in his head to calm down. He felt sick, queasy; he didn't want to believe his oldest friend had betrayed the cause, especially in such a spectacular manner, but he knew Ann, and she was no liar.

More to the point, he knew Dave, and he'd seen how he'd changed over the years. He'd seen his friend's radical tendencies bloom, and how his conservative streak – which had always been there, all along – had become ever more prominent over the last few years. He couldn't shake the horrible feeling that he should have seen this coming.

He bent awkwardly and switched on the bedside lamp; as he straightened up, he noticed for the first time the plates on the wall over the bed.

Whoever owned the little chalet had decorated this room with a series of commemorative plates; they were a few years old now, celebrating the Admiral's golden wedding anniversary. They looked cheap – probably bought from an advert in the Sketch or its weekend magazines – and the choices were odd. There was a depiction of a dreadnought training guns on a U-boat from Franz Ferdinand's War – historically inaccurate and implausible to boot, but the Navy hadn't really had a role in that war and they could hardly go giving the Army credit for killing a quarter of a million people for Henry Ford's status quo ante bellum (but then, why include it in the first place? It was hardly a glorious naval war). The First Glorious War was the bombardment of Kiel and the destruction of the HSF, not that you could tell without the clumsy wording around the edge. Obviously, the Second Glorious War was the assault on Le Havre, although it seemed unlikely Redoubt would've sailed straight into the harbour when it was the Navy's legendary first aircraft carrier for heaven's sake. There was a Battle of the Atlantic plate, with Trafalgar facing off against Washington at ridiculously close quarters like something from the Napoleonic Wars. And the Third Glorious War, showing Vanguard leading Royal Oak through the reclaimed Suez Canal at Alexandria even though the aircraft carrier would have struggled to fit. And, in the centre, a depiction of Queen Elizabeth II in regal regalia, and her husband, Admiral of the Fleet Philip Mountbatten-Windsor, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland, in full dress uniform – both waving happily to the unseen crowd, looking far more youthful than they did in 1997. Artistic licence could be a wonderful thing.

For a moment, he considered flinging each one out of the skylight and listening to them smash on the ground below; but he doubted he could get away with such blatant property destruction, especially at this time of night. Gently, he took each one off the wall and stacked them under the bed.

“You know,” said a quiet voice behind him, “you don't have to sleep on the couch...”

He spun round – Ann was standing in the doorway, the light from the lamp casting shadows on her face that made her expression unreadable. Even so, there was something in her voice that sent alarm bells ringing in Max's head, even as other parts of him, inhibitions stunted by alcohol, reacted with unbidden enthusiasm.

“...What? What are you...” he stumbled, suddenly feeling very tired indeed. Ann hadn't moved from the doorway; she was radiating unease, but her eyes shone with ramrod certainty. Max felt his head swim.

The world held its breath.
 
So yeah, I did a thing.

The title's been knocking round my head for a couple of years; the British Empire is sometimes described as a thalassocracy, and the idea of a nation literally ruled by sailors grew from there. The actual story I started writing several weeks ago during the brief vignettes craze, then abandoned when I couldn't get the ending right. I had a burst of inspiration the night before last, hence the piece you see before you.

I ummed and ached about putting this in post-1900 or in the writer's forum; it's a bit more "literary" than most works, and I admit the actual AH elements are quite light and soft. In particular, the 'reveal' of Philip as PM was inspired by the alternate-PM vignettes and doesn't really stand up to scrutiny; if (as I'm increasingly tempted) I do more writing in this world, that particular detail will be changed, and I'll likely post in the writer's forum.

As ever, any criticism or comment is greatly appreciated; I think this is one of the most detailed works I've ever posted here, so I'd be grateful to know how it holds up in the eyes of the community.
 
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I enjoyed the writing.

But, err... What's the PoD?

The PoD - which is briefly alluded to in the text - is that Henry Ford manages to get his peace conference in 1916 and bring WWI ('Franz Ferdinand's War' ITTL) to a close with status quo ante bellum. Asquith falls, and the incoming Conservative government won't even contemplate widening the franchise to the women or the workers. The RN, meanwhile, aren't happy that they didn't get their New Trafalgar with the HSF, and when the unions call a General Strike in 1920 the Admiralty are the main players in forcing the PM out and installing one of their number from the Lords.

Thank you for the kind words!
 
The PoD - which is briefly alluded to in the text - is that Henry Ford manages to get his peace conference in 1916 and bring WWI ('Franz Ferdinand's War' ITTL) to a close with status quo ante bellum. Asquith falls, and the incoming Conservative government won't even contemplate widening the franchise to the women or the workers. The RN, meanwhile, aren't happy that they didn't get their New Trafalgar with the HSF, and when the unions call a General Strike in 1920 the Admiralty are the main players in forcing the PM out and installing one of their number from the Lords.

Thank you for the kind words!

Yay for Dictatorship!
 

Dom

Moderator
Love it, Ed. You're right; it is very literary. I would love to see more of your work.
 
This is fantastic. I will comment properly tonight.

Well done, Ed.

(Kudos for one-upping Zonen in the AH Narrator Might Be About To Get Some Action stakes.)
 
Very good stuff, Ed.

I really like this. It's a wonderful little vignette. Little hints of all sorts of stuff, and something rotten in the state of the UK. The strength of the writing showed in the fact that I was already invested in the character by the end of the tale.

Bravo, good sir. :)
 
I found that painful to read. Nothing to do with the writing because that's good, very good. I suppose I just don't enjoy reading about family struggles like that. I can't explain it really. It's effective as a way of showing the world though, possibly more effective than a high level overview would be.

It's a dark world. The Royal Navy being the only legitimate authority in the country, power all but unchecked even by the Commons who (I assume) still sign off their budget, at least officially. The UK has clearly fallen behind France and the US in many ways, and it seems to me that the navy are essentially creating enemies to justify their own position.

Nicely done.
 
Thank you all very much for the kind comments (and to Heavy, who expressed similar sentiments in the Politibrit thread) - it means a great deal, and I'm quite enthused to develop this world a bit more now.
 
I'll add to the chorus of praise - this is very well-written and evocative, and an excellent look at how the march of history can affect people on the ground. I'd certainly like to see more of this world if you care to show it to us.
 
This is a fascinating world and a fascinating political concept--I hope you explore it more!

Have you ever read Orwell's thoughts on the possibility of rule by navies?
 

cpip

Gone Fishin'
Well done. I enjoyed reading it, and would love to see more if you choose to write in this universe.
 

Raunchel

Banned
This is a very well-written start and you have me intrigued. I hope that it will be continued.

Have you ever read Orwell's thoughts on the possibility of rule by navies?

I know that I'm not the one to who this was addressed, but it sounds interesting. Could you tell me where I could find it?
 
Again, thank you all very much for the praise you're lavishing on this - I'm very keen to delve back in to this world, so you should be hearing more about this soon if the muse proves willing.

Have you ever read Orwell's thoughts on the possibility of rule by navies?

I admit I haven't - it sounds like it'd be a very interesting read, and quite useful for taking the project forward. Do you know where I might find it?
 
Apologies for the belated comment, but this is very very good.

As has been mentioned above it has a much more literary flair to it than most AH (including most definitely my own). The actual AH is introduced so subtly and lightly at first, and is all the more realistic for it.

I also don't think I've ever seen kitsch *Daily Mail commemorative plates used as an expansionary device before. :D Glad that our character has the same reaction to them as I would - for reasons of politics and taste.

You've done humans and human interaction very well too - this could work well enough as a short story even without the AH backdrop. These are full characters, not just conveniently-placed viewpoints. There is most definitely scope for expanding this into a longer piece.

Incidentally, I noticed this again on a second read through that the wedding takes place in Wellington. Given the Admiral-based government, was this a deliberate allusion to a previous General turned reactionary Prime Minister?

All round very good stuff. The bar has yet again been raised.
 
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