1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 01


By Eric Flint and Charles E. Gannon


April-May, 1636

Pale ravener of horrible meat

Herman Melville, “The Maldive Shark”

Chapter 1

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?”