Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter One

       Last updated: Sunday, October 25, 2020 09:42 EDT




April-May, 1636

Pale ravener of horrible meat

Herman Melville, “The Maldive Shark”

East of the island of Dominica

    Commodore Eddie Cantrell looked past the bowsprit of the USE steam cruiser Intrepid into the nautical twilight brightening the eastern horizon. The stars above it were fading slowly, the predawn glow washing out what had been their laser-sharp brilliance of only a few minutes before. But on those days when his time on deck started along with the morning watch, he had learned that this was not just a time for novel sights.

    Eddie closed his eyes and listened: wind, sails slapping lightly, the slow hobnail-on-wood tread of the closest of the four crew walking watch on the main deck. On a ship in the seventeenth century, that was as hushed and quiet a moment as one ever experienced.

    He opened his eyes as he turned and looked west. The stars were still bright there, but an irregular dark hump of blackness blotted them out at the center of the horizon: Dominica. More or less at the center of the eastward bowing arc of the Lesser Antilles, the island was known for terrain and inhabitants that were equally unforgiving. No colony had ever been successfully planted upon it. And if Eddie and his bosses had their way, none ever would be.

    A faint, lazy hiss of rubber on hemp, a sound out of place on most ships of this era, drew his attention upward. Rising from a vertical guide tube laid along the mainmast, a thin strand of blackness disappeared into the gloom overhead. At first glance, it was as if a solitary hair of a dark-maned goddess had sprung loose from her tresses and fallen to brush along the surface of the mortal earth.

    But staring overhead dispelled the illusion: it was a tarred rope and a naturally black telegrapher’s wire, loosely twinned as they rose and disappeared into the night sky — or rather, into a small circle of absolute darkness that blotted out the stars behind it. That was the silhouette of Intrepid‘s observation balloon, almost seven-hundred-and -thirty feet above the deck. Although it had ascended to that new height while training for this operation, this was the highest ceiling it had ever made during an active mission.

    Happily, there hadn’t been any surprises since they’d commenced filling the balloon’s envelope with hot air, just before six bells of the middle watch. But that was less a matter of luck than preparation. As Eddie’s commanding officer and stern (albeit increasingly paternal) mentor Admiral Simpson had taught him, training for actual operations is effective only so far as it is faithful to real conditions. And they had certainly applied that in regards to this ascent.

    The challenge to increase the balloon’s maximum operating ceiling had required a consideration of diverse factors. Rate of fuel consumption determined the average temperature of the air in the envelope which also determined rate of ascent. But going higher meant more rope to tether the balloon to its platform (in this case, Intrepid), and more of the perpetually scarce telegraph cable. That additional weight meant it was necessary to generate more lift, lighten the operational weight of the vehicle, or both.

    With considerable mental and physical effort, that had been achieved over the winter, but the solutions had consequences and complications of their own. Reduced duration required a more disciplined schedule of activities while aloft and greater attention to the meteorological signs of optimum flying weather. Those new demands combined to impose additional criteria upon the selection process for new observers: lighter physical bodies and greater educational prerequisites. Less operational time meant that more work had to be conducted with greater accuracy in fewer minutes, including swift and near-flawless signaling of observations back down to the wire.

    But the difficulties and the costs had now proved their worth, as Eddie had insisted they would. Before, the balloons that served the naval amalgam of both United States of Europe and Dutch warships had been lucky to see a vessel at thirty-three nautical miles. Now, they had proven that they could spot a galleon’s top-sails at better than thirty-eight miles. Practically speaking, even if an oncoming ship was making four knots, that gave an hour and fifteen minutes of additional warning. That much more time to slip away unseen, or to set a wide-ranging ambush from which the spotted ship would have no escape.

    But at this particular point in the Atlantic ocean, just six and a half nautical miles due east of Baraisiri Pointe on Dominica’s wave-whitened windward side, those five extra miles of range became ten extra miles of observational diameter. Consequently, the observer in the balloon would not only detect ships approaching directly, but also, any that made for either of the channels that bracketed the island behind them: the Dominica Passage, which separated it from Guadeloupe to the north, and the Martinique Passage which separated it from the island of the same name to the south. In short, Intrepid‘s airborne eyes covered a seventy-six-mile-wide expanse which no sizeable ship could cross without her being aware. Which was the entire strategic and tactical reason for Intrepid to be waiting at this precise latitude and longitude.

    Eddie stifled a yawn. If only they had had equally precise data for determining the day that they had to begin waiting there. And in point of fact, they had not been one-hundred percent certain that their current position was casting a wide enough net to catch the fish…well, the whale…they were after. All the intel from the USE and its closest allies pointed toward the week Intrepid should be on station, but even that was only an estimate.

    Boots behind; a slower tread, not hobnailed. “Report as you requested, Commodore Cantrell.”

    Eddie turned, nodded at his tall, lanky executive officer. “A smile, Svantner? Some unusually good news to report?”

    The Swede shook his head. “No, sir. Frankly, I don’t know how the news could get any better than it already is. This is just a confirmation that their formation is still on the same heading. That’s almost an hour now. Unlikely they would adjust course before clapping eyes on Dominica, sir.”

    “Very good, Svantner, but still: why the grin?”

    “Well, damned if they aren’t right where you said they would be, Commodore.” He aimed his prominent nose forward, as if to compete with the prow. “Radios and telegraphs and steamships don’t answer to all of it. Nor even luck.” He shook his head. “Seems to me that God loves each of you up-timers so much that he doesn’t just put a sage’s library between your ears. He whispers into them about time, tides, and fortunes, too.”

    Eddie merely nodded. Months ago, his first impulse would have been to attempt to explain that while fortune was certainly not working against them, this morning’s success owed little to chance. But time and acquaintance had taught him that Svantner’s mind, while quick to learn and well-ordered, was of neither a figurative nor philosophical bent. If anything, it was too well-ordered, inclined to perceive the world as an improbably tidy and well-defined place. For the tall Swede, whatever contemporary knowledge did not explain was attributable to the works of a just yet unknowable God. That he also implicitly believed that the same God possessed an innate preference for Western perspectives, values, and outcomes evidently did not strike him as being inconsistent with a deity characterized by mysteries of both intent and method.

    Svantner’s voice was like a vocal jog at the elbow of Eddie’s awareness. “Orders, sir?”

    Eddie nodded. “Radio check. And summon the flight master to the winches. We’ll soon need his gang up here for reeling her in. Also, pass this word along to the Comms Master’s mate: send code Delta Five Charlie.”

    The Swede frowned. “Sir? I do not believe I have been apprised of an internal communication with that designation –“

    Eddie waved a stilling hand at Svantner. “Last minute change, Arne. That code is for relay to the observer in the balloon. No way to know we’d spot the bad guys this far off, but it’s dark and they’re running stern lights.” Because why should they anticipate that anyone could spot them at this hour and so far out? “So they won’t see anything when our observer uses the Aldis lamp at cherubs five.”

    “So: descent to five hundred and hold to signal. Very good, Commodore. Will you be wanting to raise steam?”



    Eddie met Svantner’s frank, dutiful eyes for a moment before smiling and shaking his head. “No, XO. If the wind holds, we can save the fuel and move to Objective Bravo by canvas alone. Send the word.”

    A crisp “Aye, sir!” accompanied Arne’s equally crisp salute, which was followed by a sharp step toward the speaking tube down to the intraship comms cubby, just beneath Intrepid’s flying bridge.

     Eddie watched and listened to Svantner pass the orders smoothly, efficiently, smartly down to the Master’s Mate, then respond to an unheard question from the Comms Master in the radio room. Svantner was a solid officer, a good sailor, enjoyed the respect of the crew, knew Intrepid in all her particulars. He even understood how they functioned in relation to each other: no small feat, given the complexities of a ship which incorporated steam, a new hull type with new sailing characteristics, and several electronic systems. He was an eminently capable tactical XO, and had even displayed good-natured flexibility when that designation officially replaced the title which he, like his colleagues, had grown to manhood coveting: First Mate. He might even make a fine post-captain one day, but he would never truly grasp that the new technologies did not merely improve performance statistics, but signified a complete transformation in the calculus of how war at sea would now be conducted.

    This had nothing to do with any intellectual want on Svantner’s part, but what the machinery and its application implied about the increasing reliance upon intelligence reports. And of course, research. Often mind-numbingly meticulous research, such as the kind that Eddie had conducted for the mission to the New World under the direction of Admiral John Simpson.

    Long before today’s operation could have even been envisioned, it was understood that even with balloons and radios and the improved signaling of Aldis lamps, the USE’s formations would be at pains to gather a timely and expansive knowledge of their battlespace. Fortunately, Simpson had known there was another advantage the up-timers could count on, at least for a while: precision charts. Compared to the mostly approximated shapes and distances on down-time maps, up-time cartography was nothing short of miraculous in its precision and quality of render. What that meant to a commander in terms of projecting travel times, rendezvous points, or — in the current case — patrol areas was difficult to overstate.

    Eddie smiled and glanced south. Out there, well over the horizon, was a small, swift Dutch jacht. And beyond her view of the southern horizon was yet another, similar ship. And another beyond that, and so forth. To the north, a similar but shorter daisy chain of fore-and-aft rigged pickets waited at the same intervals. And because they were able to maintain relatively constant positions by periodically triangulating on the landmarks behind them, the actual interception net that Eddie’s recon mission had cast was almost three times the width of the observation diameter from the balloon. Or in other words, slightly more than two hundred miles. Because if their target had approached from further to the north or the south, the captains of those yachts were prepared to fire long-barreled launchers that would send magnesium-tipped flares high into the night sky. Flares which the adjacent picket-ships were sure to see and relay, since — again because of the precision charts — they knew exactly what part of the sky they had to keep under constant observation.

     Eddie felt his smile grow rueful as he recalled the monotonous labor which had led to the creation of those charts. After recovering from the loss of his left foot and ankle and arriving at his new naval posting in Magdeburg, he was made Simpson’s aide and line-officer-in-training. And creating the precision navigational charts he was now relying upon had been his first job. And the only way to accomplish it was to pull the needed information from materials that had come along for the ride when the Ring of Fire swept them from Twentieth Century West Virginia to Seventeenth Century Germany.

    The first step was to explore and catalog every relevant source in Grantville, a tedious task compared to the one he would have much rather been embarked upon: exploring and cataloging all the characteristics of his beautiful new wife’s mind and body. Albeit not always in that order.

    However, one visit to Grantville revealed that the high school was not going to be the convenient mother-lode for this particular data mining operation. It had plenty of maps of every region of the globe, but they were the kind with which you teach geography, rather than navigate. Instead, upon going to the house of a recently deceased up-time boater, Eddie discovered the where he would find the actual treasure trove of nautical maps: in the personal collections of naval buffs.

    What followed next was a little detective work and a lot of socializing. Specifically, finding out which of Grantville’s citizens had known about the community’s other devotees of all things maritime, and then getting cooperation from those individuals — or, in almost half of the cases, their heirs’. It seemed that a yen for the tales and technologies of the high seas was heavily correlated with older folks — not because of their advanced years, Eddie realized, but because of the topics that had inspired and sparked young imaginations back when they had been kids.

    He sent a preliminary report of his findings to Simpson. It produced two results: a request to Ed Piazza for a half-dozen individuals — drawn from the State of Thuringia and Franconia’s bureaucracy, if need be — to search for useful documents and images in the houses of those who had agreed to cooperate. Secondly, the Admiral ordered Eddie to return to Magdeburg at once with the greatest treasures he had unearthed so far: books that provided not only details, but diagrams, of the construction of various Civil War era vessels. Most notably, both the Union ships Hartford and Kearsarge: the vessels that the USE’s steam cruisers and steam destroyers had been patterned upon, respectively. Eddie had telegraphed back: what was he to do about the growing pile maps? Simpson’s response came back so quickly it was a wonder that the electrons had been able to keep up with it: “Transshipment to Magdeburg not your concern. Process as they arrive HQ.”

    And so Eddie did. Crate upon crate of personal collections that had belonged to people who’d been fascinated by all things nautical. However, the thousands of books did not actually make the most decisive contributions to Eddie’s cartographic quest. Rather, it was what had been found slipped in amidst them, at the back of  bookcases, lurking even in the pages of well-worn manuals: maps and navigation charts of places to which their starry-eyed owners would never go. Happily, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico had been their preferred stuff of dreams, perhaps because their comparative proximity made those regions seem more accessible, more easy to imagine going to one distant day. 

    A would-be mariner’s mind is a strange thing, Eddie had decided as he catalogued countless charts that had never been used. Indeed, actual boaters would not have had use for the majority of them unless they had made a project of sailing to the most obscure ports of the Greater and Lesser Antilles. And yet those charts had been poured over. Their edges were crinkled and yellowed from the lustful touch of those whose longing to set the sails and man the wheels of tall ships had never gone beyond sitting hunched on the thwart of a square-bowed skiff, motionless upon an inland Appalachian lake, fishing rod in hand and high seas in their minds’ eyes.

    Sorting through the water-stained cardboard boxes was often complicated by the age of the would-be captains’, the sad chaos of encroaching dementia wreaking havoc among what were already erratic filing systems. But by the time he finished categorizing and collating and assembling, Eddie had compiled an extraordinarily detailed picture of most of the Caribbean and much of the Gulf of Mexico: the area to which he and his flotilla — Task Force X-Ray — had been dispatched not quite a year earlier.

    The ship’s bell rung once. Eddie didn’t listen for the other two he knew were coming. It was 0530. The watching and waiting was over.

    Now it was time to move.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image