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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Three

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



East of Dominica

    Admiral Maarten Tromp lowered the spyglass, which he still preferred to the binoculars being made in Amsterdam. “The leading galleons are within two nautical miles.” He leaned toward the runner. “Tell the captain that he will want to beat to quart –” He checked himself with a small smile. “He will want to sound general quarters.”

    He gestured for the waiting signalman. “Send the word to the fleet: prepare to engage the enemy.” As the comms rating disappeared down the companionway to the various control compartments under the cruiser’s armored pilot house, drums and coronets arose in contending staccato alerts. Deck hands began clearing for action. The weather shrouds were lifted and borne away from both the fore and aft 8″ wire-wrapped breechloaders.

    The sea was just choppy enough that its sibilant rise and rush drowned out most of the similar flourishes and tatoos that followed a moment later on the two closest ships: Salamander and Trump’s own 54-gun Amelia.

    Except that today, it was not his ship. In keeping with one of the few parallels between both seventeenth century and up-time naval practice, admirals were not also the captains of their own vessel. Managing an entire battle while simultaneously directing the operations of a warship were deemed beyond the ability of any human to perform without severely undercutting both. Each role involved too many wholly disparate activities, all of which were infamous for how quickly they could go wrong without warning — and potentially, at the same time. In short, Maarten Tromp acknowledged that there was good reason not to be the captain of a ship today.

    But that didn’t mean he was comfortable with it. He glanced over at Amelia, three hundred yards to starboard, and thought he saw a single, curt hand wave from the back near the stern. Probably not the current captain, but his own First Mate — no, “Executive Officer” — who he had left behind there: Adriaen Banckert. Almost as accomplished a mariner as his father the admiral, the twenty-year-old had not taken it as a slight, but rather, as a point of pride that Tromp had left him on Amelia: as the admiral had explained, aside from himself, no one knew the ship better than young Banckert

    Well, Tromp reflected, perhaps Amelia‘s prior XO, Cornelis “Kees” Evertsen, could lay claim to equal knowledge. But young Kees had one of the most rare and important aptitudes among all the Dutch officers: an innate knack for working with both the complexities and strange synergies of the up-time technologies that predominated upon Resolve. Because of that, Tromp had apologetically called him away from his first independent command, the swift 38-gun Wappen van Rotterdam, to serve as his personal aide and staff officer while aboard the USE steam cruiser. An admiral’s assistant has to be at least as conversant with the new realities of the war as the commander himself, and Kees was one of the few who met that criterion.

    Tromp glanced to port, over the lively dark blue waters, in-running crests stippled bright white in the late morning sun. He could just picked out Wappen van Rotterdam, the northern- and eastern-most hull of the squadron that Maarten had dubbed his fleet’s “Anvil.” A fine, smooth sailer, she looked eager to run against the Spanish, like a sprinter leaning forward eagerly, anticipating the thrill of the trials to come.

    Tromp not only heard someone approach his other side, but could sense it in the way the wind, channeled between two adjacent bodies, began to buffet his sleeve on that side.

    “Inspecting the Wappen, Admiral?” It was Kees’ voice.

    Tromp squinted against a gust and the brightness of the sun. “I was. To the extent that unaided eyes may. And you? Eyes or thoughts upon your ship, just now?”

    Evertsen took a half step forward. “Yes, but she’s not my ship, today.” He smiled sideways at his commanding officer. “I saw your attention was upon Amelia, a few moments ago. Thinking similar thoughts, perhaps?”

    Tromp smiled back. “Perhaps.”

    A brusque, darker voice put an abrupt end to whatever reveries might have followed. “And how does it feel, letting the Spanish have the weather gauge, Admiral?”

    Tromp smiled, turned slightly more to his left. Dirck Simonszoon, captain of Resolve came up on the admiral’s other side. By general acclaim, Simonszoon was the best mariner — and most laconically taciturn — among the Dutch captains. He nodded out beyond the bowsprit; it edged a bit toward the sky before drifting back down to point at the approaching galleons. “I’m sure they’re not complaining about having the advantage, today.”

    Tromp nodded. “I’m sure they’re not. And I share your unease, Dirck. This is an unnerving position, when our whole lives have been spent making sure we have the wind coming over our quarter and the enemy on our bow.”

    “And here we are, doing the opposite.”

    Tromp heard Simonszoon’s unvoiced addition: “And on your orders, no less.”

    From a few feet further aft, a younger voice offered a counterpoint, not just higher in pitch, but spirits: “Ah, but you must concede, Captain Simonszoon, that this is an excellent opportunity to put our new technical training to the only test that matters: against an enemy on the open sea.”

    Dirck turned a baleful glare upon his young Norwegian XO, Henrik Bjelke, whose effortless and thorough understanding of the steam ships seemed akin to an up-timer’s. “Remind me, Rik: I used a word to describe you last week. But it’s slipped my mind. It was a word I had been looking for since you became my ‘Executive Officer’ half a year ago. But I’ve forgotten the term. I’ve even forgotten how I stumbled upon it.”

    Rik’s cheeks reddened a bit; Tromp was quite sure it was not from the occasionally gusting wind. “I suspect it may have slipped your mind because you were in a state of . . . of singular inspiration, sir.”

    Dirck’s answering frown was histrionic. “Eh? ‘Singular inspiration’?”

    Tromp smiled. Kees was trying very hard not to.

    Lieutenant Bjelke stood straight. “At the tavern, sir. A month ago, actually, not a week. Just before we weighed anchor for this mission.”

    Dirck rolled his eyes. “You are altogether too well-mannered, Rik. If I was bleary-eyed in my cups, just say so. But take care to start that assassination of my character with the honorific ‘sir’, or I’ll have you flogged and keel-hauled. At the same time.”

    A suffocated laugh burst beyond Kees’ tightly clenched lips: Simonszoon’s surreal suggestion of inflicting these punishments simultaneously was a droll capstone to his other absurdities.

    Dirck pretended not to notice Kees’ chortle. “Blast you, Bjelke, you near-polar Norwegian pup; don’t make me ask again. What was the word I used to describe you?”

    “I believe it was ‘indefatigable.’ Sir.”

    Dirck nodded vigorously. “Yes, that’s it! And you are! Indefatigably cheery! A walking, talking, smiling cross to be borne by realists such as me. And the Admiral.” Simonszoon squinted at Tromp. “Except when he gets that pleased little smile on his face — like that one — his eyes get that insufferable ‘Father Christmas’ twinkle.” At which point, the tall, dark Dutchman’s sour expression buckled into a grin at his own therapeutic nonsense.

    Tromp chuckled. “You never change, Dirck. Always bizarre fancies before a battle.”

    “Well, less cost to one’s pocket and wits than gin, hey?” He grew slightly more serious. “Although I do miss the gin. There’s another ritual consigned to the bottomless depths of the past.” He turned toward Bjelke. “I’m all for learning these new ships — and these new ways and titles — by feel as well as thought. But it’s likely easier for those who haven’t grown up before the mast.” He nodded meaningfully at the Norwegian, whose first assignment had been to Task Force X-Ray a year ago.



    Bjelke nodded back. “I suppose it must be akin to breaking an ingrained habit.”

    Simonszoon scoffed lightly, stared at the Spanish ships coming toward them. “Harder. Because these habits kept us alive. Since we were boys. It’s more like trying to resist an instinct. Or better still, like trying prevent your eye from shutting — quicker than thought — when something comes flashing towards it.”

    Cornelis Evertson nodded at Bjelke, then toward the oncoming Spanish van. “And station keeping like this, as the war galleons bear down?” He shook his head. “It goes against what every lesson and every battle teaches: having weather gauge at sea is even more crucial than having the high ground on land.”

    Tromp realized he was no longer smiling, but staring, like the others, at the oncoming fleet. He pointed. “Look out there, Lieutenant Bjelke. That is what an admiral sees in his nightmares. One’s sworn enemies closing from windward while you are caught motionless before them. No way to win the battle. No way to save your ships and your men.” He sighed, rubbed his face; the fine, infrequent spray kept it moist, despite the sun. “Yet here we wait, like lightly armored skirmishers standing before a charge of black-hulled knights which outnumber us almost two to one. And outweigh us, both in tonnage and broadside shot, by three to one. Easily.”

     “Which proves,” Simonszoon grunted, “that I’m the greater fool than Bjelke.” He turned on his heel.

    Rik sputtered, “H-how’s that then, sir?”

    Dirck turned back. “Because, as the realist, I should be steaming — or if need be, swimming — away from those Iberian leviathans. Yet here I remain.” He paused at the stairs that mounted the side of the pilot house to the flying bridge, squinted to starboard. “Bjelke, that Bermudan sloop has finally caught up to us. Have a detail see that her master’s brought aboard. And smartly; we don’t have much time left for chatting.”

    Tromp turned to Evertsen. “I’ll want that master’s report directly.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “And Kees, get Sehested.”

    Evertsen paused, glanced to the east. “Sir, granted that we have at least three-quarters of an hour yet, but is it prudent that we –?”

    “Kees. This is why Sehested came along. If we can risk our lives for our sovereigns, he can do the same.”

    “I’ll have him called above, Admiral.”

    Tromp simply nodded and gestured Evertsen on his way. He considered the slowly growing vanguard of the Spanish fleet: eleven galleons. The three out in front were specially built for combat, decks reinforced to enable them to carry upwards of forty guns, each. Most of those pieces were likely to be 32-pounders — demi-cannons, as many still called them. But almost as many were likely to be the monstrous 42-pound full cannons which were restricted to the lower decks, lest the ship become so top-heavy that it sailed crank or even rolled. They were all comparatively inaccurate guns, short-ranged, and often took several minutes to reload.

    Having faced them before, Maarten Tromp knew their limitations. He also knew the strength of Resolve‘s hull, its speed, and had seen her shrug off hits from just such guns. But she had never sailed against so many, and never from what amounted to a standing start. If anything went wrong with Resolve‘s engines now . . . He put that thought out of his head, and formulated yet another set of contingencies should his men’s new apex of trust in up-time technology prove to be a precipitous height from which their fortunes would fall.

    The black ships seemed to have grown slightly larger in the last several seconds.  

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