1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 25

“Yes, it does. It also assumes that Tromp’s stated intent to abandon Recife was not disinformation. But that seems very unlikely. Deceiving the Spanish on that point wouldn’t buy him any durable advantage. In a few months’ time, the Spanish would learn that he hadn’t left, would blockade Recife, and grind him down. With the Dutch fleet in tatters, there’s no relief force to be sent. And with the Spanish blockading every Dutch port worthy of the name, there’s no reliable way to send the colonies messages, either.”

“So let’s consider the three reasonable options. Curaçao is perilously close to the Spanish Main, just north of the path of the inbound treasure fleet. A great location from which to hunt the Spanish, but not a great location in which to hide from them. And the colony on Tobago is small. Too small: one hundred and fifty persons, at most.”

Eddie nodded. “So, St. Eustatia.”

Simpson nodded. “Exactly. St. Eustatia is in the middle of the Leeward Islands. So it’s out of the way and not much visited by the Spanish. Yet history shows that, in time, ‘Statia’s central location could make it a powerful trading hub, once the traffic in the Caribbean picks up in intensity. It’s also small enough to be defensible, but not so small as to be a rock from which there is no escape.”

Eddie nodded. “Yes, Admiral, it all makes sense, but I’m still worried that even our last word of the Caribbean — from the Dutch fluyt Koninck David — still didn’t include any mention of Tromp. Or much about St. Eustatia at all.”

Simpson shrugged. “As I remember the report, the Koninck David left the Straits of Florida for its return to Europe in August. They wouldn’t have been anywhere near ‘Statia for half a year before that, in all likelihood. And although they didn’t have any reassuring news for us, the American with them, young Phil Jenkins, also reported that the Spanish presence in the area was still pretty sparse. Which is historically consistent: until the Spanish were significantly challenged, they remained pretty close to their fortified ports and key colonies. With the abandoning of Recife, all the Dutch colonies are, practically speaking, off the beaten path. And St. Eustatia more than the other two.”

“I agree that’s where Admiral Tromp is likely to be, Admiral — if he’s anywhere at all.”

“What are you implying, Commander?”

Eddie produced one of the many history books he’d been poring over for the last several weeks. “I’m implying that in this period, the Spanish are realizing the need to establish the Armada de Barlovento, the squadron that enforces their territorial claim over the entirety of the Caribbean. If the ships that survived Dunkirk left Recife with even half of the ships that were already there, that’s still a major force in the Caribbean. Too major for the Spanish to ignore, if they detect it.”

If they detect it — a very big if, commander. But your point is well-taken. Even though our history books show that the Armada de Barlovento is fairly anemic right now, events since our arrival may have already led the Spanish to resharpen its teeth in this timeline. If so — well, then heed the Department of Economic Resource’s exhortations, commander: remember that this is a recon mission only, and not to get embroiled in close range gun duels with the Spanish.”

“Or pirates.”

Simpson smiled. “Or them either.” He stood. “Commander, I think that concludes the day’s business. And unless I’m much mistaken, you have a lot of paperwork and correspondence ahead of you yet.” He raised a salute.

Eddie jumped up, snapped a crisp response. “Yes, sir. Looks like I’ll be burning the midnight oil. Again.” And with that, he pivoted about on his false foot and made for the door, deciding that tonight he’d definitely need to use his remaining coffee ration. Definitely.

*     *     *

Simpson’s eyes remained on the door as it closed behind Eddie Cantrell and then strayed to the folder on his desk marked “Reconnaissance Flotilla X-Ray (Cantrell)”. He resisted the urge to open it yet again and inspect its ever-changing roster of ships. Each new diplomatic, military, or resource wrinkle in the USE seemed to make themselves felt as revisions to the complement of hulls. And with every week that Flotilla X-Ray’s departure had been delayed, its size and composition shifted.

Its original composition had been sufficient for its originally simple mission. And likewise, Eddie had been the only possible candidate for the flotilla’s senior up-time officer. Indeed, he had as much naval combat experience as any other up-timer (with the exception of Simpson himself). However, that experience was paltry by comparison to the great majority of the flotilla’s down-time captains and commanders, who had spent most of their lives at sea. Many began as common sailors working “before the mast,” and during some parts of their careers just about all of them had traded broadsides with their sovereigns’ foes. Although the down-time naval officers who had been training for the mission clearly respected Eddie for his combat experience and storied daring, they also were very much aware that he was a relative newcomer to their profession, and was almost completely unfamiliar with the nuances of the sailing vessels upon which they themselves had grown to manhood and in which they were infinitely more at home than any place ashore.

What Eddie had in lieu of their profound nautical skill — as much from his up-time reading and gaming as from recent training — was an innate sense of the tempo and requirements of a flotilla operating under steam power. He was the only officer in Flotilla X-Ray who had that almost instinctual insight. Even those down-time crewmen who had been intensely trained in the technical branches, and who had long ago outstripped him in the expertise specific to any given subsystem of Simpson’s new navy, still lacked his totalized sense of how all those complex parts fit and flowed together, producing both incredible synergies of military power, but also incredible vulnerabilities to breakdowns in either machinery or logistics.

Simpson kept staring at the folder, kept resisting the impulse to open it and reassure himself that Eddie was being given an adequate force to complete his mission and to be able to overmaster or outrun any foes that might present themselves. After all, the admiral told himself, feeling sheepish as he echoed the Department of Economic Resources, it was a simple recon mission. There was nothing to worry about. So what if Reconnaissance Flotilla X-Ray was bound for the New World, beyond the limits of the USE’s power to help, or even readily communicate with it? The flotilla was still fundamentally a shake-down cruise for the first production models of Simpson’s first generation of steam-powered warships. They, usually with Eddie on-board, had been put through extensive sea-trials, and, except for a few quirks, had performed admirably — even superbly, if Simpson were to say so himself. They were good ships, and Eddie was a good, if young, officer.

Simpson studied the flaps of the folder, edges dirty with the wear of his worried fingers, of his impatient thumbs prying back the dull covers. Commander Cantrell and the rest of the flotilla would simply conduct the preparatory operations in the Gulf and the Caribbean and then, when the time was right, Admiral John Chandler Simpson would bring over his new navy of mature, second generation ships, as shiny and lethal a weapon as this world had yet seen.

The consequent “pacification” of rivals in the New World would ready his blue water fleet for the more serious and definitive battles that it would almost certainly have to fight against one or more of the armadas of the Old World. It was impossible to foresee which nation, or collection thereof, would ultimately find the rise of the USE so intolerable a phenomenon that it would feel compelled to correct that trend in the most decisive manner possible: a no-holds-barred confrontation of navies. But in the dynamics of the rise and fall of nations, the uncertainties regarding such conflicts had never been if they would occur, but rather with whom, and when, and where.

That thought, however, made Simpson’s eyes wander to the thinner folder lying alongside the one for Flotilla X-Ray. This one was marked with a white triangle: an intel synopsis, containing a review of pending threats that might require naval intervention, sooner or later. France, Spain, even the Ottomans, could conceivably stir up enough trouble to keep Simpson’s larger, finished fleet from a timely deployment to the New World. However, none of those powers appeared to be disposed or deployed to do so.

But then again, John Chandler Simpson knew that appearances could be deceiving and that the only thing certain about the future was that there was never, ever, anything certain about it.

He pushed the folders away, rested his chin on his hand, stared at the door through which Eddie Cantrell had exited, and succumbed to his now-habitual array of worries — half of which were common to all commanders of young men regardless of the time or place of the conflict, and half of which were the dark legacy of every father who had ever sent a son to fight a war in a distant land.