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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Sunday, October 25, 2020 09:39 EDT



East of Dominica

    “Mr. Svantner,” Eddie cried, stepping forward on his ergonomically-designed prosthesis.

    “Sir!” the Swede shouted in the reply, approaching at the double-quick.

    “Are all sections in readiness for next evolution?”

    “They are, sir!”

    “Very good. Pilot?”

    “Sir!” came the response from the opened steel shutters of the flying bridge.

    “We will be proceeding under sail only.”

    “Aye, sir!”

    “Flight Master?”

    “Here, sir!”

    “Reel platform down to five hundred feet.” Eddie leaned toward the speaking tube. “Comm’s Mate, send Delta Alpha Charlie to the observer.”

    “Signaling directions, sir?”

    “Observer already has them, down to the degree. He’ll want this, though: send code India Echo Zero Delta.”

    Svantner frowned. “Aye-ee-zero-dee, sir?”

    “‘Intercept envelope is zero deviation’ from plan, Svantner. As you said, they’re right where we hoped they’d be.”

    He nodded. “So the pickets will start closing search net around them?”

    “That our opponents won’t fully see for another five hours.” Eddie noticed that Svantner was looking back toward Dominica, or rather, through it. “Concerns, Arne?”

    “Sir,” the Swede murmured, keeping his voice low, “I’m still . . . unsettled about the lack of a rearguard, sir.”

      Eddie appreciated his XO’s attempt at discretion; ratings were already running past them, having been brought up by three bells. Intrepid‘s crew was readying her for the next evolution. He leaned closer to his subordinate. “Svantner, I appreciate the reservations you had about having so many jachts on picket duty and none watching the waters behind us. But firstly we didn’t have enough jachts on hand to do both jobs, and secondly, we wanted to see what would happen if we turned our backs.”

    Svantner frowned. “Sir? I don’t follow.”

    Eddie sighed. “I know. And I regret that we couldn’t include you in the brief. But when we outlined this plan to the civilian council back at Oranjestad two weeks ago, we didn’t do that to keep them apprised. We did it to see if there were intel leaks.”

    Svantner blinked. “Sir?”

    Eddie shrugged. “It was a test, to see if any of them were either knowing or unwitting intel sources for our enemies.”

    Svantner’s eyes widened. “So if there had been any ships behind us now…”

    “…it would strongly suggest that the Spanish, or more likely their pirate lackeys, had gotten word and come out here to make some mischief.”

    “And did you actually reveal our objective to them?”

    Eddie shrugged. “We had to give them some warning regarding the amount of work that will be returning back to home port with us, if we are successful. So we gave them the bare-bone basics.”

    Arne’s frown was back. “But we still can’t be sure that there aren’t ships laying in wait further behind us.”

    Eddie smiled. “Well, they’d have appeared behind Admiral Tromp. Granted, he’s been under way since we first telegraphed our sighting of the enemy an hour and a half ago. But he did leave one jacht behind, tucked near Dominca’s southern headland to watch for any unwelcome company. But frankly, we already had a dedicated force patrolling to leeward of these islands.”

    Svantner didn’t even try to conceal his perplexity. “And what force would that be, sir?”

    “Our own, well, ‘pirates.'”

    The Swede’s face rapidly transformed into an ugly combination of surprise and disgust. “Our pirates? So we are resorting to the same tactics as the Spanish?”

    Eddie frowned. “Watch your tone — and your volume — XO. Our pirates remain so because we don’t have authority to give most of them letters of marque. Most are affiliated with Moses Cohen Henriques Eanes, who’s been coordinating with Cornelis Jol for years now.”

    The confusion had left Svantner’s face, but the disapproval remained, darker than before. “As you said, sir: our own pirates.”

    “Mr. Svantner, if you cannot set aside your compunctions enough to remain fully committed to the operation and respectful to your superiors, then you may consider yourself relieved for the duration of this operation.”

    The dark expression — and all color — bled out of the Swede’s face. “I simply regret that we are compelled to employ such . . . expedients, sir. It caught me by surprise.”

    Of course it did. Another reason why you’ll never make more than post captain. “I understand, Arne. But they were the perfect rear pickets in that even our adversaries would not suspect them of helping us that way. And oddly, they were far less likely to be a source of intelligence leaks. Moses and Jol were contacted over a month ago and have been cruising these waters since, watching for intruders and without putting into port. All coordinated through scheduled meetings at uninhabited locales.  And the one or two times pirates thought they’d have a go at our convoys to and from Trinidad, they broke off as soon as they saw the escorts coming after them.”

    “And so Jol and Moses have not reported any contacts?”

    “None, although if they had an encounter in the past two days, we might not have heard about it, yet. They operate independently and they are outside the intelligence loop on this operation.”

    Svantner lowered his head, frowning. “I see, sir.”

    Eddie thought it possible that he did, in fact. “As soon as the Comms Mate reports that the observer has finished signalling to the pickets, complete recovery of the balloon.”

    The Swede nodded sharply at someone well beyond Eddie’s shoulder. “Those orders are being executed now, Commodore. Anything else?”

    “It’s time to send our final message to Tromp.”

    He nodded. “I’ll send up the runner, sir.” Svantner saluted and darted away, seeming a bit relieved to go.

    His departure gave Eddie an unobstructed view over the taffrail, where the outline of Dominica was growing clearer against the brightening sky. Although the sun was only half an hour away from rising above the opposite horizon, the stars were still faintly visible over the dark landmass astern. He recognized the early morning constellations — and suddenly found himself recollecting a similar sky he’d seen on an early morning astronomy outing for his senior year science class. That had been six years ago — or, from another perspective, three-hundred sixty-four years in the future. A future that could now never occur, given all the changes wrought by the appearance of Grantville and its inhabitants.

    “Commodore Cantrell, sir?” asked a young voice at his elbow. Eddie’s runner — a skinny eleven-year-old with a stubbornly unruly thatch of dirty blond hair — was waiting with pad in hand. Eddie smiled. “Ready, Cas?”

    “As always, sir!”

    “Okay. From E. Cantrell, CO Intrepid to M. Tromp, aboard Resolve, D. Simonszoon CO. Message follows.

    “Confirming all prior reports. Stop. Detected OPFOR lights 0400, appx 37 NM due east Baraisiri Pointe, Dominica. Stop. Heading was west south west, making four knots with stern wind and following seas. Stop. Observations at 0430 and 0500 show course and speed unchanged. Stop. As per OPORD, am commencing evolution Bravo. Stop. Balloon secured and Intrepid under sail to Guadeloupe, Petit-cul-de-sac Marin. Stop. Wind over starboard quarter. Stop. ETA 1300. Stop.”

    Eddie considered a moment. He was averse to speculation, but he should convey some impression of the enemy’s numbers. He added.

    “OPFOR estimated at fifty primary hulls. Stop. 2 to 4 smaller craft, probably packets. Stop. Formation consistent with descriptions of OPFOR’s prior Dominica landfalls. Stop. Message ends.” He nodded at Cas. “Read it back, please.”

    Cas did so, ending with: “Revisions or additions, sir?”

    Eddie shook his head. “No. Send it and advise when receipt is confirmed.”

    “Aye, sir,” and Cas was off with a light-footed scampering.

    As that sound faded, the creaking of the balloon’s lines becoming louder and sharper as it neared the poop deck, the mizzen boom having been cleared to provide enough room for its operations. off the quarterdeck “XO!” Eddie shouted.

    Svantner appeared as swiftly as a summoned spirit. “Yes, sir?”

    Cantrell nodded toward the just-landed balloon, bulging and swaying like a distressed gaseous amoeba. “As soon as the envelope is clear, bring the boom inboard, and smartly. Sail-handlers to stand ready.”

    “They’ll be hopping to the task, sir. Wouldn’t do to be around when La Flota arrives and finds Admiral Tromp waiting for them, would it, sir?”

    “No,” Eddie affirmed, glancing east to where this year’s treasure fleet from Spain was approaching in the distant dark. “It wouldn’t do at all.”

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