1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 03

The Dutch sailing master seemed pleased with the ongoing work, with one singular exception.

“I know you up-timers have a lot to say about ship design,” he told Gordon as they stood on the quarterdeck. “Some of the old salts in Hamburg harbor can’t say enough about what they think will happen to this ship when she launches. But I trust what I’ve been told.” He laid his hand on the ship’s wheel, which was smooth and polished wood, quite different from the weathered walls nearby. “But this — ach, it’ll take some getting used to.”

“The wheel? Why?” he asked. “How did you plan to steer her?”

“Why, with a whipstaff, of course. I know your Admiral Simpson insists on this contraption, but it’s…” He took hold of one of the handles and pulled the wheel slightly counterclockwise. “It’s just foreign, you know.”

“I don’t know of any other way to steer a ship.”

“Really.” Maartens looked at him, half-amused and half-scowling. “Well, a whipstaff is how sailors control their ship. It’s simple — you want to go to starboard, you pull the staff to port and push down. This — you turn the same direction you want the tiller to go? Madness.”

“Makes sense to me.”

“Not surprised,” Maartens said. “But Miro insisted on it. More control, he said. True, you couldn’t move more than five or six points of sail with a whipstaff, but at least you knew what you were doing.”

“By pushing the tiller the opposite way.”

“Aye, that’s right.”

Gordon decided that it was better not to argue the point.

* * *

Almost nothing was decided that first day — as Maartens had pointed out, the ship wasn’t due to be launched for at least a few weeks. But Miro had given Gordon considerable leeway for the mission: where they were to go, who would be included, and so forth. Sitting on his bed in the rooming house overlooking the Speicherstadt of Hamburg as the late-setting sun cast its last rays between the warehouses, Gordon resolved one thing: the name of the ship.

When he was just a kid in Grantville, he had seen — repeated over and over on television — the disaster that had claimed a space shuttle as it launched from Florida. It was a horrible sight, but not long afterward the president — President Reagan — had given a speech that had stuck with him. In the face of the tragedy, the speech had praised the astronauts that had died that day. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted, he’d said. It belongs to the brave. That line had stuck with him, along with the more famous one about slipping the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.

That vessel — that ship — had never reached its destination. But the ship for which it had been named, on which Gordon had done a history paper later on, was famous: it had sailed for two years, opening up the world of the sea for nineteenth-century science. It was a worthy name, and Gordon wanted to adopt it.

In a few weeks, Challenger would slip the surly bonds of the Old World and journey to the new, and he and the others aboard would try to be worthy of its name.

Chapter 2

Even from the top of the gangplank, Gordon could see how much Pete had grown. Four years ago, when the Ring of Fire had taken them all back to the seventeenth century, his oldest younger brother had been lanky and a bit soft, avoiding the beer gut by twenty-two-year-old metabolism and lots of baseball. Now —

Well, now he was a soldier. In fatigues with a sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve, there was nothing soft about him.

“Big bro,” Pete said, coming up to meet him.

“Peter.” Gordon shook his brother’s hand, and then found himself taken up in a bear hug. “Great to see you.”

“Same here.” Peter Chehab let go and stepped back. “You look good. Mom and Dad wanted me to say hi.”

“And Penny?”

Pete looked away across the harbor. “Yeah,” he said after a moment. “I’m sure she’d say hi too.”

“You didn’t see her?”

“She was on call. I was only in Grantville for a few hours.”

Pete’s wife, Penny, was a nurse — one of the relatively few up-timers with medical training, like himself; she would likely be busy all the time. But Penny was his wife, and he had a little baby daughter…which was why he was married in the first place.

But that was a conversation for another time.

“Thanks. I’ve been meaning to write, but…you know, time gets away.”

Pete laughed. “Every time someone from Grantville says something like that it makes me laugh. ‘Time gets away.’ Right. So…what’s the deep dark secret project? Dad said you were working for the Man.”

It was Gordon’s turn to laugh. “Let me buy you a drink and tell you all about it.”

* * *

Hamburg was full of pubs, especially since it was in use as the anchorage for some of the USE Navy. There were a few places down by the docks that the crew frequented; instead, after Pete’s gear was stowed, they walked into the Altstadt and found a quieter place where they wouldn’t be easily overheard.

Gordon gestured to a table. No one took particular notice — there were only a few patrons in the gloomy room. The brothers sat at an unoccupied table.

At Gordon’s gesture a pitcher of beer and two ceramic mugs arrived, along with a wedge of cheese and plates of Labskaus, a sort of local stew that reminded him of their grandmother’s shepherd’s pie — except that this had beets in it.

Pete needed no encouragement; he dug right in.

“The lieutenant had a saying, which sounds even better in German,” Pete said between bites. “‘When in doubt, eat. If there is nothing to eat, sleep.’ Never quite know where your next meal is coming from.”

“How are things down in — wherever you were last posted?”

“Suhl.” Pete stopped eating for a moment. “Not too bad, after the Ram Rebellion was over. For a while, though, things got pretty hairy.”

“And what about back home? Penny, and my little niece?”

“I hear she’s growing up fast. But she’s only a year and a half old, big bro.”

“And you didn’t have time to see her when you were last in Grantville.”

Pete set his fork beside his plate and looked up at Gordon. “I don’t know when this became a conversation about me.”

“It isn’t. But given why I arranged for you to come up here, it might be.”

“All right, Gord. Let’s have it. What’s the big dark secret project? What are you doing out here — with such tight-ass security?”

Gordon took a sip from his own mug. The beer was thin and hoppy, not really to his taste, but there was no pop and you couldn’t drink the water.

“Do you remember when I hitchhiked across the country, the summer after I graduated from high school?”

“Remember? How could I forget? I wanted to come with you.”

“I know you did. But you were only sixteen and still in school.”

“It didn’t matter.” Pete smiled. “I didn’t know at the time how much it didn’t matter.”

“Well, they didn’t know when I’d get back if ever, and it was important to Mom and Dad that you finished school. They had hopes for you, Pete — that you’d find something you wanted to do, or that some scout would like the look of your fastball — “

“You mean, so I could get out of Grantville and out into the real world.”

“I don’t think they would have put it that way, especially Mom.”

“This is old ground, big bro. Grantville was a dead end until the Ring picked it up and dropped it into the middle of a bloody war. Then things started looking up.

“I hated that summer. David and Terri and Luke marked your trip with little pins in an AAA map tacked onto a corkboard in the family room, every time you called home. And instead of being on the road with my big brother I was stuck back there. I thought about just running away, but I didn’t for some reason.”

“Because I talked you out of it,” Gordon said. “More than once.”

“So why are we talking about the summer of ’94, anyway?”

“When I left Grantville it wasn’t to go anywhere.” Gordon leaned back in his chair, mug in hand. “It was to get as far away as I could. Not from you, or Mom and Dad, or my other brothers and sister — just to get away from Grantville. I don’t think I even knew how small it was when I left, but I sure as hell did before I’d thumbed as far as Cincinnati.”