1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 23

Chapter 12

Lübeck, United States of Europe

Nodding to the after-hours Marine guard, Eddie entered the antechamber outside John Simpson’s office. As he did, his stomach growled so loudly that he expected a Marine to enter behind him, sidearm drawn, scanning for whatever feral beast was making a noise akin to being simultaneously tortured and strangled.

And if being two hours overdue for supper wasn’t enough, he’d just received yet another letter from Anne Cathrine. It was alternately sweet, steamy, and sullen at having to spend her nights watching her father pickle his royal brain with excesses of wine. She made it emphatically — indeed, graphically clear — just how much, and in what ways, she’d rather be spending those nights with Eddie, indulging in excesses of —

Nope, don’t go there, Eddie. You have a job to do, which doesn’t include learning to walk with a stiff prosthetic leg and an equally stiff —

The door opened. “Lieutenant, there you are,” said Simpson.

Yes, here I very much am. A bit too much of me, in fact. Eddie cheated the folders he was carrying a few inches lower, shielding his groin from ready view. However, nothing slackened his line quite so quickly or profoundly as hearing the CO’s voice, so he was safe by the time he had entered the room and saluted.

As soon as Simpson had returned the salute and invited him to sit, Eddie produced one of the folders — rough, ragged cardboard stock of the down-time “economy” variety — with a black square on the upper right hand front flap. “News from the rotary drill project.”

“Not good?”

“Disastrous, sir. The rig literally blew apart. But it wasn’t a technical failure. One of the owners’ inexperienced factors decided to show up for a surprise inspection and start the morning by playing platform chief.”

“And how did that turn out?”

“Five dead, six severely wounded. The rig is a write-off. They’re still trying to fish all the drill pipe out of the hole.”

Simpson may have winced. “Well, so much for the overly-ambitious hope that they’d have that drill working by the time we left, and be boring holes by fall.”

“Yes, sir. But the Department of Economic Resources still wants to send the mainland prospecting team with our task force.”

Simpson shrugged. “Well, that only makes sense, assuming the test rig was reasonably promising. That way, by the time they get a working rig ready, they’ll know where to start drilling well holes.”

“That’s the ER Department’s thinking on the matter, sir. They’ve shifted all the actual drilling crew and operators over to the Trinidad cable rig team.”

“Which is just as well. That oil will be a lot easier to find.”

“Yes sir, although there’s a whole lot less of it.”

Simpson looked up from the paperwork. “Commander, let’s not go round on this again. Firstly, Trinidad’s oil will come to hand comparatively easily and it is sweet and light. Just what we need. And we’re not equipped to ship more oil than they can produce, won’t be for at least eighteen months. Secondly, and arguably more important, Trinidad has an additional strategic benefit of pulling our rivals’ attentions away from our other operations.”

Eddie knew it was time to offer his dutiful “Yes, sir” — which he did — and to move on. “All the regionally relevant maps, charts, graphs, and books that will comprise the mission’s reference assets have been copied and are en route from Grantville. We still have two researchers combing through unindexed material for other useful information on the Caribbean, but it’s been ten days since they found anything. And that was just some data on a species of flower.”

“Hmmph. I suspect the focus in the Leeward Islands will be on agriculture, not horticulture.”

“Yes, sir.” Which was typical Simpson: he was the one who had insisted on extracting every iota of up-time information available on the West Indies, Spanish Main, and environs. And now he was turning his nose up at the tid-bits he had insisted on pursuing. I suspect he’s going to be a very cranky old man. Well, crankier.

“Did you find any more of that data on native dialects in the Gulf region?”

Eddie shook his head. “No, sir.” All they had turned up were a few snippets of a local dialect alternately referred to as Atakapa or Ishak. And those snippets were so uncertain that would be better described as “second-hand linguistic rumors” than “data.”

“Provisioning and materiel almost ready?”

“Getting there, sir. Without the rotary drill equipment and pipe, we’ll have a lot more room than we thought. But we’re still taking on plenty of well casing for Trinidad. Each section is about the length, weight, and even girth of pine logs. So we got a lumber ship from the Danes to haul it.”

Simpson frowned. “‘Lumber ship?’ “

“Yes, sir. Their sterns are modified. In place of the great cabin, they have an aft-access cargo bay, so the logs can be loaded straight in through the transom. Sort of like stacking rolls of carpet in the back of your van.”

“Military stores?”

“Almost all are on site now, sir. We’re still waiting on the molds and casts for the two-caliber dual-use 8″ shells. Which are working well in both the carronades and the long guns. All our radios are tested and in place, as is the land-station equipment. And the special-order spyglasses came in two days ago and passed the QC inspection.”

“And the local binoculars?”

“There’s an update on that in this morning’s files, sir. The Dutch lens makers have demonstrated an acceptable working model to our acquisitions officer, but they haven’t worked out a production method inexpensive enough for us to afford multiple purchases for each ship. My guess is that they’ll have the bottlenecks licked by this time next year.”

Simpson made a noise that sounded startlingly similar to a guard-dog’s irritated growl. “Another key technology for which appropriations were not approved. Like the mitrailleuses.”

Eddie sat up straight, genuinely alarmed. “Sir? They’re not — not going to approve any mitrailleuses for the steamships? Why, that’s — “

“Insane? Well, as it turns out, the Department of Economic Resources is not completely insane. Only half insane. Which is, in some ways, worse.”

Eddie shook his head. “Sir, I don’t understand: half insane?”

“Speaking in strictly quantitative terms, yes: half insane. Instead of approving one mitrailleuse for each quarter of the ship, they’ve approved exactly half that amount.”

Eddie goggled. “A…a half a mitrailleuse for each quarter of the ship?” He tugged at his ginger-red forelock hair slightly, doing the math and coming up with a mental diagram. “So only two? One on the forward port quarter, the other on the starboard aft quarter?”

Simpson nodded. “That’s about the shape of what the wiser heads in Grantville have envisioned.” His voice was level and unemotional, but Eddie saw the sympathy in his eyes.

“But sir, how do you defend a ship against an all-point close assault with only two automatic weapons? If they come all around you in small boats — “

“Which they probably won’t. As the holders of the purse strings were pleased to point out, yours is only a reconnaissance mission. So to speak. And you have no business going in harm’s way, particularly at such close quarters. But if fate proves to take the unprecedented step of deciding to ignore all our reasonable expectations and plans” — Simpson’s bitter, ironic grin made Eddie’s stomach sink — “well, I just cut an order to Hockenjoss and Klott for a special anti-boarding weapon. Two per ship, to take the place of the two missing mitrailleuses.”

“Well, sir, I suppose that’s better than nothing,” Eddie allowed. And silently added, but not by much, I bet.

Simpson shrugged. “Certainly nothing very fancy or very complicated. Essentially I’ve asked them to build a pintel-mounted two-inch shotgun. Black powder breechloader. It’s already picked up a nickname: the Big Shot. It should help against boarders.” He must have read the dismay in Eddie’s face. “I know what you’re thinking, Commander. That such a weapon will be useless against the small boats themselves. That was my first reaction, which the committee has now heard repeatedly and, on a few occasions, profanely. I’ll keep fighting for the full mitrailleuse appropriation, but I think I’m going to have to spend all my clout just getting percussion locks standardized for the main guns.”

Eddie nodded. “Yes, sir. Which is of course where your clout belongs. Those tubes are carrying the primary weight of our mission.”

“Well said, Commander. And if you find yourself in a tight spot — well, to borrow a phrase from another service, improvise and overcome.”

Eddie tried to be jocular, but could hear how hollow it sounded when he replied, “Oo-rah, sir.”

Eddie’s failed attempt at gallows humor seemed to summon a spasm of guilt to the admiral’s face. It reminded Eddie of one of his father’s post-binge reflux episodes. The admiral’s tone was unusually self-recriminating. “It’s bad enough that we’re not getting all the resources we were promised, but having delayed your departure to wait for them was a bad decision. My bad decision. I should have insisted on keeping the mission lighter and going sooner. That would have given you more time in the Caribbean before hurricane season, less of a squadron to oversee — and fewer hangers-on, I might add.”