1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 12 

A concise and accurate summary of all the possibilities. But the dance of dueling intelligence portfolios was not yet over. “Even if it is true that the Spanish have no town or garrison at Pitch Lake, it does not follow that the Spanish are inherently uninterested in it. It is a relatively short sail to Cumana and even Puerto Cabello, where they have a considerable depth of power. In order to hold out against a response from those bases, one would need a small flotilla, at least, to hold Pitch Lake.”

“That presumes the Spanish are even aware you have taken possession of it.” And McCarthy almost smiled.

So here at last was the first hint of something mysterious, unprecedented: a sure sign that the conversation would soon turn toward an unforeseen up-timer capability, upon which this pair was obviously basing their proposal. “And you have a way to ensure that the Spanish would remain unaware if Pitch Lake were to be seized?”

“Not permanently, but long enough that you wouldn’t need to commit large forces to landing and initial defense. Sizable forces would only be needed once Pitch Lake was securely invested and held, to further fortify and secure it against Spanish attempts at reconquest.”

“You speak of summoning ‘sizable forces’ as if I was the French military commander of the Caribbean, Mr. McCarthy. I assure you, I have no such authority. Nor, I think, does our senior factor on St. Christopher.”

“I am aware of that, Lord Turenne. That is why our proposal for seizing Pitch Lake calls for only one ship.”

“One ship?”

“Yes, Lord Turenne. A prize hull, currently at moorings in Dunkirk. The Fleur Sable.”

Turenne frowned. The Fleur Sable was a severely damaged Dutch cromster, recently taken by the “privateers” operating out of Dunkirk. She had earned mention in his intelligence dispatches when two confidential agents in her crew — one English, one French — both attempted to negotiate with the victorious pirates in the name of their respective governments. Heads (theirs) had rolled in the confusion and the ship, a potential item of international embarrassment, remained unsold and unrepaired. As Turenne remembered her, the oversized Fleur Sable was square-rigged at both the fore- and mainmasts and lateen-rigged at the mizzenmast, meaning that she was not only capable of making an Atlantic crossing in good shape, but also had reasonable maneuverability in capricious winds.

Turenne looked at his two visitors with newfound regard. They had selected this hull carefully and well. And they obviously knew that, given his contacts and authority in the region, Turenne could acquire a single battered (and therefore under-priced) hull for “experimental purposes” easily enough. But that did not dispose him toward ready agreement. “And how do you expect me to crew this Dutch sieve?”

O’Donnell answered. “Among the ranks of the Dunkirk privateers, there are currently French sailors, and even a few officers, who were unjustly dismissed from Louis XIII’s service in disgrace. As I hear it, almost all of them wish to return to his service, and success on a mission such as this might dispose him to hear their appeals with greater favor.”

Turenne was careful to make no motion, change not one line in his face. Merde! The audacity — and elegance — of the plan! And it just might work, if this odd pair did indeed have some way of seizing Pitch Lake without being intercepted first or detected shortly afterward. “His Majesty might indeed see fit to restore such men to his favor and service, but I am of course powerless to make such a promise.”

O’Donnell smiled. “I fully understand, Lord Turenne.”

Turenne wondered whether Richelieu would want to send him a medal or send him to the headsman when this operation was finally revealed. But France needed oil, easy oil that could be reached by her neophyte drillers, and Trinidad’s accommodating seeps and shallow deposits were a matter of record, well-detailed in the books at Grantville. But there were still problems with the plan. “Of course, you have not yet discussed who will land on Trinidad itself and take control of Pitch Lake.”

The big-shouldered Irish earl nodded. “Well, let us begin by acknowledging that this force cannot be made up of French soldiers, lest you officially embroil your sovereign in an attack upon Spain.”

“Exactly. So who would serve as the landing party and foot soldiers?”

O’Donnell cleared his throat. “My men. Five dozen, hand-picked.”

I should have seen that coming. “And they will serve France because . . . ?”

“Because you will provide sustenance for the rest of my tercio while they are on this mission.”

“And so let us presume you have reached and invested Pitch Lake with your forces. In whose name do you intend to claim it, for what country? Ireland?”

“A tempting idea, but rather futile, wouldn’t you agree? No, I will take it as a private possession, for sale to the highest — or preferred — bidder. So you see, my part of this operation is to be a purely corporate venture.”

Turenne’s head was dizzy with the possibilities and pitfalls. Corporations seizing national holdings? Was the word “corporation” just a legitimizing euphemism for “free company?” Would private ownership by dint of military conquest be recognized by any other sovereign state? On the other hand, what would national recognition matter if the “corporate” forces held it firmly? And the Dutch East India company had already made several forceful rebuttals to the common monarchical contention that all the lands of the Earth rightly belonged to sovereigns, who then bestowed their use upon a descending pyramid of vassals.

However, despite the foreseeable legal wrangling, Turenne saw one other certainty clearly enough: by proposing that he take Pitch Lake as a private entity, O’Donnell was allowing France to remain blameless of overt conquest. Of course, once O’Donnell’s seizure of Pitch Lake was fait accompli, it was almost certain that Richelieu would move quickly to purchase the site. And then France would have its oil, and Turenne would be able to fuel the machines needed for the nation’s defense. But still, the most nagging problem of all was that — “Logic and precedent dictates that the operation cannot be carried out by one ship. Unless, as you claim, your single ship can arrive at Pitch Lake completely unseen and land its small force intact, having suffered no losses in chance encounters. And so I must ask: can you do this?” He looked at McCarthy, certain from O’Donnell’s expression that the answer did not lay with the Irish earl. “Can your American technology turn a small ship invisible?”

“No, but if you can see far enough ahead, you can detect and dodge opposing ships. Before they detect you.”

“And do you have some means of seeing further ahead than the lookout in a crow’s nest?”

“I don’t,” said McCarthy. “But a friend of mine does.”

“Oh? What friend? The German fellow you came with, the one downstairs?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And what does he do? Build very tall masts?”

“No, sir. He builds hot air balloons.”

Turenne, despite his well-practiced self-control, couldn’t keep himself from snapping forward in his chair. “He builds what?”

“Hot air balloons, Lord Turenne. Right now, Siegfried’s got a model that carries about twelve pounds aloft.” McCarthy shrugged. “I think with a little guidance, some material support, and access to the inventories of your silk merchants — “

Turenne was on his feet, calling to the door and then the walls. “Orderlies. Please bring in the other visitor.” After nodding briefly at O’Donnell, he turned back to the up-timer. “Mr. McCarthy, did you have plans for this evening?”

“Well, yes. I — “

“Your plans have just changed.” Turenne finally smiled at the American. “And if all your hypotheses are correct, you will need to clear your itinerary for the next six months.”