1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 14 

Chapter 8

Lübeck, United States of Europe

At a nod from Simpson, the two Marine guards stood at ease, but remained flanking the man who had hired the skiff. The fellow did not look particularly anxious. Then again, he did not appear particularly comfortable, either.

Simpson took his seat, glanced at the chair beside him, which Eddie quickly occupied, grateful to be off his one real leg.

Simpson scanned the few scant reports he had on the man and his activities. Scanned them long enough to have read them five times over, Eddie realized.

The man from the skiff cleared his throat. “Admiral, I wonder if I might –“

“Herr Kirstenfels — if that is your real name — I have not finished studying the information we have on you and your actions today. I will speak with you when I have concluded.”

“But Admiral, I only –“

It was quite clear what he wanted: a chair. But Simpson, who had kept this slightly pudgy man from sitting since he was taken into custody, simply waved him to silence.

Herr Kirstenfels shifted his feet but did not resume his request.

After another minute, Simpson put down the papers and folded his hands on the desk in front of him. “Herr Kirstenfels, I presume you are aware that you not only put your own life at risk, but also the owner of the skiff?”

“Yes, Herr Admiral, I know this now. May I please have a seat?”

Simpson frowned. “Herr Kirstenfels, you are hardly in a position to request anything, but I will allow you to be seated.” The admiral pointed out a chair to one of the Marine guards, who promptly fetched it and put it behind the detainee. Who sat on it and winced: it was as small, hard, and ugly a chair as humans could craft. Which, as Eddie knew from prior witness, Simpson kept on hand for exactly this purpose. “Now, I wonder if you know how much trouble you are in.”

“Perhaps I do not.”

Eddie suppressed a frown. Kirstenfels’ admission sounded humble enough, but it also sounded faintly coy. Not what one would associate with an appropriately cowed, even intimidated, civilian. The undertone in his voice did not suggest fear, but watchful maneuvering. Hmmm . . . did we catch this guy, or did he want to get caught?

What Simpson had heard, if anything, was not suggested in his response. “I shall provide a brief outline of the situation in which you find yourself, Herr Kirstenfels. You entered a test range during official operations. You did so with the admitted intent to observe our weapons trials. Since we did not announce the trials publicly, I must conclude that you bribed or extorted that information out of a representative of the USE’s armed forces or government. And that alone constitutes grounds for a full investigation by my staff.”

If Simpson had meant to frighten Kirstenfels, it apparently had not worked. The smallish man merely nodded, listening carefully to each of the specifications read against him. When the admiral had concluded, he reflected momentarily, and then asked, “But have I broken any laws?”

Simpson’s color changed slightly. “That remains to be seen.”

“Pardon me, Herr Admiral, I should have been more precise. Were any of the actions you cited just now legal violations?”

“Your presence on the test range certainly was. Your possession of information regarding the trials may be.”

“Well, Admiral Simpson, as to the latter, I did not suborn or solicit information illegally.”

Eddie noticed, and so did Simpson, judging from the slight stiffening of his neck, the carefully official language.

Kirstenfels expanded upon his claim. “I simply overheard the conversation between some of the land-based test crew talking about the gun with the sailors who were preparing to go out with it on today’s trial.”

A convenient and utterly incontestable alibi, Eddie conceded silently.

“And as far as being on the range during the test is concerned, I do not know how that could be illegal, Admiral.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, if the trial was supposed to be a secret, how could anyone know it was illegal? Since your men were speaking about the weapon tests in a public place, I rather assumed it was not secret. And I never did hear anything about that stretch of the Baltic being off-limits to the public.”

“That is because ‘the public’ does not often venture into those particular waters, and because we had distributed navigational restrictions to all the ship operators and owners currently in port.”

“Ah. But that is still not a declaration of illegality, Herr Admiral. Rather, it is an official attempt to make the area temporarily unreachable to the public. Those are two very different things. Wouldn’t you agree?”

John Simpson was motionless, but Eddie could read that as one of the clear signs of growing fury. Simpson had a particular sore spot when it came to the press. In his view of up-time events, they had been uncharitable to his country and his comrades in the way they depicted the Vietnam War, in which he had lost his own foot. The press had once again been opportunistic and accusatory when he was a captain of industry afterwards. And Eddie could see that Simpson would soon leave a crater where this hapless reporter was now sitting, if he gave voice to even a small measure of his rage. Which was not in the interests of the Navy —

But Simpson surprised Eddie by exhaling at a slow, controlled rate and then smiling, albeit without the faintest hint of genuine amity. “Well, Mr. Kirstenfels, it seems you wanted to get access to me for an exclusive interview. And now you have it, don’t you?”

Kirstenfels stammered for a moment, obviously surprised at being sniffed out so quickly. “Er . . . well, yes, I suppose that may have been part of my –“

“Come now, Mr. Kirstenfels, what else would be sufficient motivation to sail near a live-fire range? Certainly nothing having to do with our guns.”

“Well, in point of fact, your guns are a matter of keen interest to me.”

“So it seems. I have reports that, during the land-based proving trials, some of our perimeter guards escorted you back beyond the no-trespassing line.” Simpson’s restored smile was anything but genial. “You are an artillery enthusiast, perhaps?”

But Kirstenfels, despite his unprepossessing appearance, turned out to have more than his share of sand. “Perhaps, but not in the way you mean, Admiral Simpson.”

“Then why don’t you explicate?”

“Thank you, Herr Admiral, I will.”

And Eddie could tell from Simpson’s suddenly rigid jaw, that he had just given the reporter what he wanted: not merely an opening, but an invitation.

The reporter had produced a pad and one of the new, if crude, pencils that were starting to show up in a variety of forms. “You see, Admiral Simpson, I have been duly impressed by the tremendous range and accuracy of your new guns.”

“They are not really new,” Simpson corrected.

Kirstenfels nodded. “No, of course not. They are modeled on the ten-inch naval rifles you used in the Baltic War, except these are breech-loaders rather than muzzle-loaders. But I was surprised to see the mounts for them being readied on the frigate-style ships you are building at your secure facility in Lübeck.”

“Oh, and why is that?”

“Well, for the very reason you demonstrated on the water earlier today. Guns such as those require a very stable ship in order to be accurate. The monitors you first put them on have exactly that kind of stability in the mostly calm waters where you employed them, but not the sea-going frigate-style hulls you are currently fitting with steam engines.”

Well, Eddie reflected, the steam-engine “secret” was going to come out at last. Which was just as well: it had always been a pretty laughable as a “classified” project. After all, it was simply a logical progression to move from steam-powered monitors to steam-powered blue-water ships. In fact, all their projections had presumed that some external observers would have surmised, and then confirmed, that development long ago. Eddie and Simpson privately conceded that Richelieu had probably had definitive intelligence reports on that aspect of the ships’ construction no later than March.

But “investigative reporting” was a new phenomenon, and frequently, even the best down-time newspapermen missed telltale clues of what might be transpiring simply because they did not have nuanced enough knowledge of up-time technology to understand how small details were often indicative of whole stories. It was the old problem of the expert tracker who is tasked to find an animal he has never seen or heard of.

But in this case, Kirstenfels was a reporter who obviously understood the greater significance of the (literally) “smoking gun” he was investigating. “My reading in Grantville last month suggests that those long guns would be almost useless while riding up and down the swells of the Atlantic. But there are other bodies of water — strategically significant bodies of water — for which they might be far more suited.”