1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 07

Neither of the brothers had any inclination to go aloft, where more nimble and agile men and boys scrambled and climbed, heedless of the distance they might fall if they should put a foot wrong. Pete had witnessed an amazing display by a little Alsatian who signed on with the crew after going up the mainmast in record time; it was one of the first times either of them had seen the sailing master look impressed.

* * *

A few weeks after Pete, the radio and its operator arrived and came aboard Challenger. The equipment was bulky and primitive; Gordon had seen some ham radio setups before the Ring of Fire, but they were usually just plugged into the wall. There was no AC power outlet anywhere aboard ship — he was pretty sure of that — and that meant that the radio had to carry its own power supply. That took up most of the space, and weight, and it set Maartens to further grumbling.

As for the operator — a down-timer named Ulrich Jaeschke, a quiet and unassuming man who looked as out of place aboard a sailing vessel as Gordon himself — the Dutch sailing master ignored him entirely, just as he ignored the up-timer landsmen. Jaeschke was assigned a berth with the able seamen, who kept their distance from someone with a skill they didn’t completely understand.

Gordon began to feel as if he were being watched whenever he was aboard Challenger — which was more and more as time went on.

* * *

The spring days had been short, a race against the sun, but they became progressively longer, making Gordon eager to get underway. One particularly wearying day he was especially tired and decided to get a little rest before the evening dinner bell. He shared the small aft cabin with Pete; the ladies had been assigned the second cabin in the fore of the ship and Maartens, of course, commanded the first, and had more or less defied the brothers (or anyone else) to take it away from him. As it turned out, though, their quarters were remarkably snug, proof against the winds that blew in from Helgoland Bight.

Pete was already there, whittling away at a piece of wood as he sat on his hammock.

“You look a little worried, big bro. Anything bothering you?”

“No, nothing.”

“You lie very badly, which must’ve hurt you in the army. Out with it.” Pete stopped whittling to admire his work. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.” Gordon shrugged out of his coat and hung it on a peg, then rolled into his hammock — a maneuver that he did now without thinking, but had taken him a few days to learn properly. “Just a feeling.”

“What sort of ‘feeling’?”

“Like I’m being watched. Spied on, really.”

“Well, you do stick out. You’re taller than half the crew –“

“Pete –“

“Not taller than me, of course. But taller than half these malnourished down-timers. And you’re older than most of them –“

“Pete –“

“And uglier, of course –“

Gordon rolled out of his bunk and grabbed Pete’s side rope, threatening to dump his little brother on the deck.

“Pete,” he said, “I am totally serious. You know we’re trying to keep this project quiet. If someone’s spying on it — spying on us — we have to find out who it is.”

“And do what? Throw him overboard?”

“You’re the man of action, little bro. I’m not sure what to do.”

“All right, all right. Let me do a little looking around.” Pete went back to his whittling. “Do you suspect anyone, Sherlock?”

“I don’t think so. Maartens just took on some new crew for the shakedown — a few able seamen that can take her downriver and out into open sea and back. Maybe it’s one of them.”

* * *

“It’s early in the season as it is,” Maartens said, squinting at the cloud-filled sky. “All of these changes have taken longer than needed.”

“That’s what will keep us safe on the open ocean.”

Maartens spat over the side. “You up-timers love to tempt fate, don’t you?” He looked at Gordon. “Nothing keeps us ‘safe,’ Chehab. Safer, ja, I would say that. But the ocean is always there to swallow us.

“It will take us two or three days in the shakedown, and then we should be about ready for launch. That will have to be soon enough.”

“Why so long to shake down Challenger?”

“Want to make sure everything is seaworthy. I’m not going to try and cross the Atlantic without a few days in calmer waters.”

“Suppose everything is all shipshape. Is there any reason to come back to dock?”

“I hadn’t planned to have everything stowed aboard before shakedown. We’d have to come back for supplies.”

“What if that were done in advance?”

“It isn’t how we’ve always done things.”

“How is that different from most of the rest of this mission? Is any of the rest of this like the way you’ve always done things?”

Maartens scowled and folded his arms across his chest. “Nein, it is not. But there is some reason for this, eh?”

“Of course.”

“And you will tell me why?”

“When we are under way.”

“Ja. ‘Operational security.’ This is some deep, dark plot of…our patron, is it not?”

“No,” Gordon said. “I’m just making stuff up.”

* * *

On a chilly, clear spring day, Challenger’s sails filled with the brisk wind and she made her way down the Elbe and into the channel and open ocean.

It was here, Gordon thought, that he would find out if this mission was at all practical: not due to its planning, or its goals — but if he would show any propensity for seasickness. He wasn’t worried too much about the adventure…Pete was by his side, and the New World lay ahead: America, but not the one they’d grown up in. That world was never going to happen, at least in that form, at least in this version of history.

Good riddance, he thought. I get to fly.

* * *

As for Stephane Hoff, he soon realized that what had been mooted as a shakedown was nothing less than the beginning of the voyage itself. A few days after leaving port, with la Manche behind and open ocean ahead, he understood that by getting aboard Challenger he was going to get a firsthand look at the expedition.

But unless he could somehow make use of the radio, he might have no way of reporting it.

Chapter 5

The North Atlantic

There was much to be said for the element of surprise, but there was also much to be said for a sailor’s innate conservatism.

Gordon Chehab had no familiarity with the open sea, but he had a plan for the journey: to sail from Europe to America, taking what the map showed to be the shortest possible route, crossing the Atlantic to Newfoundland and then making their way down the coast to the English-speaking colonies in New England, to New Amsterdam, and then south to Maryland and Virginia — then, when they’d learned as much as they could, back to Europe.

It made sense on the map.

It did not make initial sense to Claes Maartens, who would not have chosen to go that way at all.

“The north coast is a dangerous place, Chehab,” Maartens told him on the night they passed the Channel Islands, only a few dozen miles from true open ocean. “That’s not how sailors cross the Atlantic.”

“How would you do it?”