Sergeant Elizabeth Buchholz, A Company, Thuringian Rifles, leaned on her elbows and peered at the estuary of the Trave River through the night-vision glasses. She and her small party were safely invisible in the misty darkness, but she could easily make out the riding lights of the Danish vessels anchored in the river. They were far enough downstream to be safe from any of Luebeck's guns, and Gustav Adolf had been careful not to station any of his own troops in the area. After all, he'd wanted the Danes to feel completely comfortable.
From here, it looked as if they did . . . and as if they'd done about what Gustavus had predicted they would. They'd placed a handful of warships upstream of their main body, to protect the merchantmen and transports from anything Lubeck's defenders might try to sneak downstream, but the bulk of their men-of-war were anchored further out. Obviously, they weren't as confident as they would have liked about the location of the Swedish Navy, and most of their warships were positioned to defend the transports tucked safely away in the sheltering estuary against any sudden pounce from the open Baltic.
"Here, Al," she said, and passed the glasses to Al Morton. "Take a good look," she said.
Al took her at her word and raised the glasses to his eyes. Unlike the sergeant or any of her troopers, he wore a diver's wet suit rather than a camouflaged poncho, and he sucked quietly on a piece of local candy something like toffee while he hummed to himself. After several minutes, he nodded in satisfaction and lowered the glasses once more.
"Sort of what we expected," he murmured.
"So you think you and Sam can pull it off?" Buchholz asked.
"Oh, no problem!" Al replied confidently. "And we'd damn well better, too. If Jeff Higgins and Jimmy Andersen can sink a genu-wine Spanish galleon with a fishing boat and a jury-rigged black-powder torpedo, we're going to look like pure fools if we can't do the same with all the fancy modern gear we've got. In fact, I intend to do better."
"That water's damned cold, Al," Buchholz pointed out. "When they briefed us on this, they said that someone who goes into the water has maybe ten minutes. After that, he's gone. What do you call it?" She fumbled for the word. Elizabeth's English was fluent, even colloquial, but her technical vocabulary was still somewhat limited. " 'Hypothermia,' I think."
"E-yup," Al agreed. "But that's why me and Sam have these real nice wet suits, Lizabeth. Don't worry. We'll be fine, won't we, Sam?" He looked over his shoulder at his younger brother, who grinned back in a flash of spotless white teeth.
"You betcha," he agreed cheerfully. Then he frowned. "Only thing really bothers me, Al, is not being able to use our lights."
"Hey, nothing's perfect," Al told him philosophically. He sucked on his toffee for a few more seconds, then shrugged and turned back to Buchholz. "Looks to me like our best bet is to go in right about . . . there," he said, pointing to a flat patch near the riverbank. "Doesn't look like there's a lot of current in close along the shore through there, and that'll help when we head back. I'll plant the beacon before we go in."
"Right." Buchholz nodded. "We'll watch the back door for you. I just wish we could talk to you while you're under."
"Hey," Al repeated with another shrug. "You do what you can. And at least Sam and I can talk to each other."
"There's that," Buchholz agreed, watching the two brothers as they began to don the rest of their equipment. They moved with the calm, smooth, unhurried precision of a dive team which had done precisely the same thing scores of times before. Buchholz found their obvious competence more than a little reassuring and concentrated on her own responsibilities while they got on with it. By the time they were ready, with facemasks, regulators, and radios checked, she had her four troopers deployed to secure their recovery point.
"Well," Al said laconically, "guess we'll be going now. See ya."
The two of them waded out into the river, submerged, and vanished.
Aage Overgaard stepped out from under the break of the poop aboard his flagship and inhaled a deep breath of the wet, cold night. It was getting colder, he noted. Nippy and raw for so early in October, even here on the coast of the Baltic. But there were still at least a couple of months, he reassured himself. Ample time to carry out his responsibilities before winter closed in in earnest.
He crossed to the bulwark and leaned on it, gazing out over the anchored transports. His eyes particularly sought out the warships scattered among them, especially at the upstream end of the anchorage, just in case the Swedes had any ideas about sending cutting-out expeditions down from Luebeck. He wouldn't put such a ploy past Gustavus Adolphus for a moment—especially not now that he'd put the bulk of his troops ashore. A few large row boats full of soldiers could easily overwhelm the crew of any transport—or even a smaller warship—if they took it by surprise. Which was why he had four guard boats rowing steadily back and forth across the river channel to watch for just that sort of enterprise.
Things were going well, he thought, then instantly scolded himself for succumbing to such a moment of complacency. It was always just when a man thought things were going best that something resoundingly unpleasant happened. Nothing but superstition, of course. Still—
The explosion wasn't really as ear shattering as it seemed at the time, he realized later. It was the total unexpectedness of the sound which made it seem that way. That, and the towering column of white water and mud that erupted from the Trave as the thirty-four-gun Falken seemed to leap halfway out of the river. Then the 300-ton ship sagged back, masts folding in on one another as her back broke. Even as Overgaard watched, the shattered ship settled to the bottom with only the very top of her stern galleries still above water. Two of the guard boats pulled frantically toward the wreck to rescue anyone they could. Overgaard doubted that they would find many to save, between the icy temperature of the water and the fact that so few sailors ever learned to swim.
For a moment, the captain-admiral was certain Falken's magazine must somehow have exploded. But, no. There'd been no visible flash. That explosion hadn't come from inside the ship—it had come from underneath her. But how—?
The Americans! It had to be those uncanny allies of Gustavus! But how could even they have contrived something like this?No diver could survive long enough in water this cold to place a charge beneath a ship. And even if someone could have, fusing such charges was always a delicate and dangerous business. Certainly not something to be attempted in the middle of a dark, foggy night!
For the first time, Overgaard found himself truly believing the wilder tales about the American marvels. And as he did, it suddenly occurred to him that if the Americans could do it once, there was no reason they couldn't do it more than—
It was one of the transports this time, he noted almost numbly. The ship went down even more rapidly than Falken had, and this time Overgaard could hear the terrified screams of at least some of her crew.
The captain-admiral shook himself out of his momentary stupor with a venomous curse. Was he going to just stand here while the American devils blew up one of his ships after another? He started to bellow orders, then made himself stop as he heard the thunderous patter of hundreds of feet. Other voices were shouting orders, axes were thudding on anchor cables, and windlasses creaked and groaned as the entire Danish fleet began frantically preparing to get underway.
Yet another transport collapsed in on herself in a folding curtain of white foam and river-bottom mud. Overgaard cursed more venomously even than before as he recognized the precise timing between explosions. They were marching through his fleet as steadily as some demonic metronome. They had to get clear of whatever the Americans had left in this stretch of the river! And, he told himself grimly, it was already obvious that they wouldn't be able to come back. Not, at least, until they knew exactly what the Americans had done to them and how to make sure it couldn't be done again!
More and more of his ships were getting underway, cutting their cables in desperation and allowing themselves to be carried by the current more than the weak and fitful breeze. His own flagship was moving slowly, but steadily, and—
He gritted his teeth as a fourth explosion ripped through the river water. But this time it wasn't one of Overgaard's ships, and he laughed with a sort of hysterical glee as he realized it was Martignac's flagship. He watched the arrogant French nobleman's ship settling rapidly while an entire flotilla of small craft hurried toward her to take off any survivors.
Overgaard turned his back upon her, wondering how many other ships—and how many of those his—would be killed before they could get free. Perhaps there wouldn't be many more. Perhaps it was only that one stretch of the river, and once they escaped from it everything would be—
"Think we used enough dynamite there, Butch?" Al Morton asked his brother with a huge grin as the carefully placed charge's timer detonated it and sent a fifth Danish ship to the bottom.
"Looks like it to me," Sam agreed gleefully. "I admit, I figured we'd need bigger charges, but looks like you pegged it just about right."
"Sure," Al said expansively. "Water's not all that compressible, 'specially not with the river bottom so close and all. Doesn't take a really big explosion to break a wooden ship's back under those conditions, now does it?"
"How many did you get charges under?" Sergeant Buchholz asked in half-horrified awe.
"Actually, only half a dozen," Al admitted. "It's dark down there, Lizabeth. And cold, even with the suits. Six was the best we could do and still get out within the safety margin on the timers. On the other hand, I don't 'spect most of those ships are gonna take a chance on hanging around where we might do it to them again."
"I think you can say that again," Buchholz agreed, still shaking her head.
"Well," Al said cheerfully, "when Admiral Simpson explained what he wanted, he did say that was the name of the game. Reckon he'll be kinda pleased by how well it came out?"