1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 13

After a fair amount of cursing and ordering by Maartens, Challenger turned into the wind, keeping the ship relatively motionless. Jaeschke stepped back inside his sanctum, where the dials and instruments were already glowing.

Maartens, for his part, leaned against the taffrail and squinted at the sky, which had gone from mostly sunny to mildly cloudy in a matter of minutes.

“I don’t like this, Chehab,” he said, spitting over the side. “Not at all.”

“You wanted to make sure our patron agreed with the course,” Gordon said. “We can ask him.”

“On a clear day. But I’m not happy with the look of those clouds.”

“What’s wrong?”

Maartens looked Gordon up and down, as if measuring him. “Remember our little talk about safety on open ocean, up-timer? I told you that anything your technology brings to the table makes us safer, but there’s no way to be completely safe. I’m not happy to be lying hove to in mid ocean with a storm coming. Anything can happen out here.”

“I appreciate your wisdom.”

“And you ignore it.”

Gordon walked away from Maartens, who remained at the rail, looking up at the sky. He could faintly hear the crackling noise of the radio, though the door to the shack was closed.

“You wanted guidance,” Gordon said. “Jaeschke will get in contact; you’ll get your guidance; then we’ll follow the course.”

The sun was behind a cloud, so much of the radio shack was in shadow.

Gordon looked up at the sky. The wind was picking up, and things looked darker than they had just a few minutes ago.

There was a loud crackle from inside the equipment shack; Gordon looked toward it.

Then he heard the rumble of far-off thunder.

“I think the storm is here,” Gordon said.

“What?”

Gordon could feel the first hint of rain on his face. “Weather,” he said. “It’s coming.” He took two steps toward the shack and saw a huge arc of lightning erupt from a cloud in the distance.

The sky had darkened quite a bit in the last few minutes. The crew was beginning to batten things down on the main deck. Maartens turned to look at Gordon, then glanced up at the mainmast.

Another crash of lightning came out of the sky. Several seconds later — Gordon counted, as every mountain boy learned to do — a loud rumble of thunder echoed across the ship.

“Crap. He’s got to disconnect.”

Maartens grabbed Gordon by the shoulder. “If the lightning hits the mast, your wires will run right down into the sea, net wahr?”

“Not if the damn radio is still in circuit! I’ve got to tell Jaeschke to hang up.”

He shrugged loose from Maartens and began to run, but the first rain on the deck, which was tilting slightly as the wind pushed at the ship, got the better of him: his feet slipped out from under and he landed on his backside.

Maartens caught up with him. “Damn landsman, you’re the least handy man I’ve ever seen. What needs to be done?”

“The radio. It has to be disconnected or –“

“Or?”

Gordon hauled himself to his feet. “Or else. I’ve got to get to the shack.” He made his way a few steps aft, trying to keep his balance; but then there was someone there before him: the Alsatian, Hoff.

“I’ll take care of it,” Hoff said, and began nimbly making his way past, using toeholds and hand braces without looking. The rain was coming down now in big fat droplets; fifteen feet above the deck the lightning came down again; Gordon thought it was closer this time, lighting up the entire scene with a bright glow for a moment — and then again a moment later. A loud roll of thunder followed.

Well if this isn’t just crazy, Gordon thought, as he tried to follow. He heard another crackle coming from the radio in the shack. Why hadn’t Jaeschke disconnected the switch? Granted, the shack had no window, but he still should have been able to hear the thunder.

He was probably too preoccupied with the radio. If he was having trouble, and given his relative lack of experience… Thankfully, Hoff had reached the door of the shack and was yanking at it.

Oh, Christ. Somehow the door had gotten stuck. The Alsatian turned toward Gordon, alarm in his face: the down-timer didn’t know what might happen, but knew that if an up-timer wanted the radio turned off, it was time to turn it off.

With a fierce yank, Hoff was able to pull it open. Gordon heard a few words: “Jaeschke, you need –“

But he was interrupted by a brilliant flash and a sound that Gordon would remember for the rest of his life: a crack that transformed itself suddenly into a ringing like the sound of the world’s biggest hammer striking the world’s biggest bell. There was an explosion in the shack and then the smell and sound of fire.

* * *

When Stephane’s senses returned, the first thing that swam into view was a kindly woman’s face, framed by bright light. His first thought was that he had died on the deck, and that this was Heaven and that he was looking up at an angel.

But he did not think he was likely to end up there: even if his deeds hadn’t betrayed him, he was hardly in a state of grace — and there were too many things in pain to suggest that he had given up his body just yet.

Slowly he began to be aware that he was being spoken to. He swallowed, closed his eyes and opened them again, and tried to sit up — but someone gently pushed him back down into his hammock.

He closed his eyes again and listened to the voice — a woman’s voice, which wasn’t making much sense just yet. He could hear the rain pelting down, but there was no thunder —

There had been thunder all right: it was moments after a flash of lightning that had come out of the sky and jumped from the tip of the mast to the wire at the top of the shack, and then there had been an explosion and he’d grit his teeth and clenched his hands around the door post as it blew off its hinges —

It was the last thing he remembered, before waking here.

“– seems finally to have relaxed,” the female voice said. “He should be able to sleep more easily,” she added.

“It’s a wonder he’s alive at all.”

“You would know better than I, Gordon,” she said. “I suppose that you up-timers understand all about lightning.”

“Enough to stay away from it.”

“Stephane did something brave — and foolish. We could have had two casualties instead of one.”

Stephane opened his eyes at the mention of his name. “One?” he croaked, scarcely able to form the word.

Gordon Chehab came into view. He looked concerned. “How are you doing?” he said.

“Thirsty.”

“Sure.” He brought a small ceramic bowl to Stephane’s lips, and helped him to drink a small amount of something — watered wine, from the taste of it. He swallowed a few times, managed to keep from coughing, and moved his head aside.

“Thank you.”

“You may have saved the ship,” Chehab said.

“But not‚Ķ” the cough came then, and it took a moment to continue. “But not everyone on it.”

“No.” Chehab set the bowl aside. “The lightning strike grounded on the radio shack. The‚Ķoperator was inside. The radio was destroyed. There was a fire‚Ķ”

Stephane closed his eyes again. He’d not spoken to the radio operator, only nodding in passing; he had seemed a nice enough sort, a down-timer who had been canny enough to get a new skill.

And the radio was gone. Even if he’d figured out how to send a message, that was no longer possible.

“Poor guy.” Stephane wasn’t sure if he was talking about Jaeschke, the radio operator, or himself.

He realized for the first time that he would have to get away from Challenger somehow, somewhere in the New World; there were French colonies, and he would have to reach them.

Poor guy, he thought, and let himself drift with the sound of the rain.