1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 19

Chapter 11

Undisclosed location near Wietze, USE

Ann Koudsi finished her morning cup of broth — it had been unseasonably chilly overnight — and nosed back into her books and progress charts again. As the second in charge of the rotary drill test rig, and ultimately, the superintendent who would be responsible for the new machine and its crew in the field, it was her job to be The Final Authority on all things pertaining to its operation. That, in turn, meant minor or full mastery of a wide range of topics, including practical geology, mechanical engineering, the physics of pressurized fluids and gases, and even organizational management. To name but a few.

So it was not merely frustrating but alarming and infuriating when, once again, concentration on the words, and charts, and formulae did not come easily. Indeed, she discovered that she had been reading the same line about assessing imminent well-head failures because, instead of seeing it, she was seeing something else in her mind’s eye:

Ulrich Rohrbach, down-time crew chief for the rig.

Which was not just foolishness, but utter, stupid, and dangerous foolishness. As she had kept telling herself over the last nine months. It was foolishness to allow him to court her at all. Foolish that they had started taking all their meals together. Foolish that they had spent Christmas visiting what was left of his war-torn family: a widowed sister and her two perilously adorable kids. More foolish still when they had started holding hands just before Valentine’s Day, a mostly up-time tradition which he had somehow learned of (Ann secretly suspected their mutual boss, Dave Willcocks, of playing matchmaker). And most foolish of all had been their first kiss as they were laughing beneath the Maypole just weeks ago.

And there were so many reason why it was all extraordinarily foolish. Firstly, Ulrich was a down-timer, albeit an extraordinary gentlemen and more patient than any up-time American would have been in regard to the glacial progress of their relationship. It was foolish because Ulrich barely had a fourth grade education, although, truth be told, his reading had become much faster and broader in the past half year and revealed that his mind was not slow, merely starved. And it was foolish because he just didn’t look the way she had imagined the man of her dreams would look: he was not tall, dark, or particularly handsome. But on the other hand, he had kind eyes, thick sandy hair, dimples, a wonderful bass laugh, and a surprisingly muscular build, which, compacted into his sturdy 5’8″ frame, would have put any number of up-time body-builders to shame.

And what had been especially foolish about their first kiss was her own response: not merely eager, but starved. She had absolutely embarrassed herself. And why? Because, as she learned when she started flipping backward through the months on her mental calendar, it had been at least — well, it had been a long, long, long time since she had had sex.

So all right, maybe her physical reaction — her over-reaction, she firmly reminded herself — to the kiss had been understandable. But Ulrich wasn’t likely to understand it. Or, more problematically, he was all too likely to understand it the wrong way: that her sudden avid response had been to him, personally, rather than to his, er, generic maleness. And so how would she explain that to him so that he wouldn’t get more attached or more hopeful?

Are you sure that’s really what you want to do? said a voice at the back of her mind, the one that had been growing steadily louder and more ironic for the past three weeks.

Her response was indignant and maybe a little bit terrified. Of course she wanted to let Ulrich know that she wasn’t interested in him, per se. She had work, important work, to do. And after all, where could a relationship with him wind up?

Well, let’s see, said the voice, it could start in bed, then move to a house, which would quickly acquire some small, additional inhabitants —

Ann Koudsi stood up quickly, her stomach suddenly very compact and hard. She did not want to get married to a down-timer. No matter how nice, or how good-natured, or how gentlemanly — or how damnedly sexy — he was. It wouldn’t end well.

Right, agreed the grinning voice, because it wouldn’t end at all. Just like it hasn’t ended for the hundreds of other up-time-down-time marriages that have occurred over the past few years.

She paced to the bookshelf to get a book she didn’t need, opened it, furiously thumbing through the index for she had no idea what.

Unless, said the voice, what it’s really about is home.

Ann stopped thumbing the pages, forgot she was holding the book.

Yes, that’s it, isn’t it? If you marry a down-timer, it’s the final act of acceptance that you’re here in the past for good. That so much of your family, so many of your friends and almost everything else you ever knew and loved. is gone like that awful song said: dust in the wind. You won’t embrace anyone in this world because you won’t let go of the people in the other world.

Ann discovered she had clutched the book close to her chest, could feel her heart beating with a crisp, painful precision.

But here’s the problem, girl: you can’t hold on to what isn’t there, what no longer exists. And if you wait too long, if you push Ulrich away too hard, you just might lose the best thing — the best man — you’ve ever laid eyes on in this world or the —

A distinctive metallic cough broke the stillness of the remote, steep-sided glen in which they had set up their test rig. Ann looked up, disoriented and startled. That was the drilling rig’s engine, starting to run at full speed. But today’s test run had been cancelled —

Then she detected an almost subaudial hum: the rig’s turntable was  spinning at operating RPMs.

Ann dropped the book and was out the door, sprinting for the drill site, which was located in a dead-end defile a quarter mile away. There was no fire-bell or even dinner-gong to ring, to get them to stop, because other than the three cabins for the workers and the one for the senior site engineer — her — there was no one else nearby. And nothing with which to make alarm-level noise. “No reason to attract undue attention,” Professor Doctor Wecke of the Mines and Drilling Program of the University of Helmstedt had explained coyly to her when she had accepted the position. She had wondered at the isolation of the site and then wondered if Wecke’s caution about gongs and the like wasn’t a bit ridiculous. Why worry about noisemaking bells when you spent most of the day running a loud, crude, experimental rotary drilling rig?

As she ran, Ann saw the expected plume of steam from the rig’s engine, obscuring the black cloud of its wood-fired boiler, and glimpsed a small figure well ahead of her, also running toward the drill site. That figure was moving very quickly and angling in from the main access road that led off to the rig’s supply and service sheds. Then she saw its grey-dyed down-time coveralls. Distinct from the typical brown ones of the rank and file workers, that could only be Ulrich. He must have heard the engine start, too. Had probably been in the materials depot, checking the quality of the new casing before it went in the hole to shore up the soft, unconsolidated walls that would be left behind by the next day’s digging.

The next day’s digging: that deferral to tomorrow had not been merely advisable, but essential. Today’s run had to be called off because too many of the main crew, the veterans, were down with the flu. It was one of those brief but vicious late spring bugs that spreads like wildfire, burns through a body by setting both brow and guts on fire (albeit in different ways), and then burns out just as quickly. Even old tough-as-leather Dave Willcocks, head of the rotary drill development team and liaison to the academics and financiers back at the University of Helmstedt, had fallen victim to the virus. Which was a source of some extra concern at the site and beyond: this was the first sign that Willcocks was anything other than indestructible, and at seventy years of age, there was no knowing if this was just an aberration in his otherwise unexceptioned robust health, or the first sign of impending decline. Ann had seen, all too often and too arrestingly, that people aged more quickly in the seventeenth century, and the transition from good health to decrepitude could, on occasion, be startlingly swift.