1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 06 

Chapter 3

Grantville, State of Thuringia-Franconia

Eddie emerged onto the rapidly-dimming streets of Grantville and pushed up his collar against the faint chill. You’d think after spending almost a year and a half on the Baltic I’d have a little better resistance to cold, but no. Having recovered from borderline hypothermia while recuperating from the amputation had left him weakened for quite a long time. In particular, he had been susceptible to chest colds that, up-time, would have been an annoyance tackled by any halfway decent decongestant. Down-time, they were potential death-sentences in his then-weakened state. And ever since then, cold weather cut through him like a knife.

He strolled west, deciding to take a look at the three trailer homes that had served as his first down-time abode. He smiled to think of the first days when he and Jeff Higgins and Larry Wild and Jimmy Anderson had played D & D there, the game having acquired a strange significance given their displacement in time. It wasn’t because of the ‘historical value’ of the game — because there wasn’t any; role playing games were about excitement, not accuracy — but because it was somehow a symbol that not everything had changed with their arrival in war-torn Germany. Not every waking minute was toil for food, scrambling to preserve or rebirth technology, find allies, and repel utterly murderous foes. A quick session of D & D, where imaginary warriors and wizards strove to slay evil trolls and troglodytes, was also a reassurance that life had not boiled down only to a mere continuation of existence. There was still time for fanciful adventures, for larking about a fictional world with his very real friends.

But then Jeff had married a down-time firebrand named Gretchen Richter, and her entire loosely associated clan had moved in. Overnight, fancy had given way to kid-powered frenzy. And that, too, had been reassuring and endearing in its own way. It was as though the house was constantly alive with rambunctious sounds of hope, thanks to all the healthy, lively kids that were forever charging around and through its small rooms and tight hallways. Yes, in all its permutations, Eddie reflected, it had been a good house.

He almost walked past the tripartite structure, so changed it was. Gone were the bright, albeit fading, colors of the siding. The local tenants (who paid a pretty penny for the privilege of living in an up-time domicile) had given it a second layer of wood shingles, dug a number of discrete latrines in the back to relieve the burden on the indoor plumbing, tidied up the yard, and had replaced two of the doors (and their frames) with solid local manufactures. They had also erected what looked like a huge, wooden carport over the entire structure, evidently in an attempt to preserve the metal and vinyl conglomeration from the elements. However, it created the impression that this was not so much a home as it was an oversized shrine commemorating trailer parks everywhere.

Through the windows, oil lamps glowed to greet the dusk, and then shadows moved with slow purpose toward the largest of the kitchens. A brief pause and then a sharp white-yellow light seemed to blot out all the other fire-orange glows about the house. Clearly, someone had turned on an electric light. Immediately, silhouettes of all sizes began gathering around it, some bearing what looked like outlines of cooking implements, others arriving with already-open books.

It looked ritualistic, Eddie admitted, but he knew damned well it was not some strange species of cargo-cultism, a trait Larry Wild had often ascribed to the down-time Germans before he was killed off the coast of Lübeck almost two years ago. This was the prudence of practically-minded folk, amplified by the parsimony of war survivors. Germans who had lived through the now-truncated Thirty Years War were generally not spendthrifts. Every resource they had was kept as long as possible, its life extended by using it only when absolutely necessary. And when that intermittent and gentle use nonetheless wore it out, the object was repurposed — right down to its last component. Objects with limited service lives became especially revered objects: not because of their wondrousness, but because of the mix of singular utility and utter irreplaceability that characterized them. It would be a long time before the up-time boosted labs and workshops of even the best down-timer engineers and inventors were producing freon filled cooling compressors or a wide selection of vaccines or antibiotics.

But the down-timers were also coming up with new compensatory technologies, one of which now intruded upon Eddie’s reverie. Just down the street from where he stood staring at the house that had been his first haven in this often frightening new version of the Old World, he heard a distant toot. Like a child’s train whistle, but louder. He turned and, already moving far faster than he ever had with his peg leg, Eddie Cantrell hobble-ran in an attempt to catch the new monorail trolley that was approaching the stop on East Main street, just a block behind him.

The strange vehicle chugged slowly into view: a simple wooden front car that resembled a rough-hewn and vastly shrunken version of a San Francisco cable-car. Except there were no cables, and there was only one track, comprised of split logs, their flat-cut centers lying flush upon the ground, their sun-bleached hemicircular trunks facing up. The operator reached down, disengaged the drive-gear, applied brakes. The train slowed and the passengers in the front car swayed, as did the crates and boxes in the high-sided freight car behind it.

Eddie timed his hobble so as to wave his cane and shout when he came down on his good leg. “Hey, wait up!”

If the operator heard him, he gave no sign of it. Instead, he stepped down to help an elderly passenger up into the lead car.

Which, on closer inspection, was a radical departure from any form of up-time rail transportation Eddie had ever seen. In addition to the two, flanged, steel track-wheels — salvaged from small automobiles, and now leather-strapped on their contact surface with the rail — there was, for lack of a better term, a larger wagon wheel attached to the side of the car as an outrigger. It kept the car upright, and ran along the smooth up-time roadbed. The front car’s very small steam engine, puffing faintly, was of entirely down-time manufacture. Not terribly efficient, and both heavy and crude, but none of that mattered: it provided reliable power to the up-time car wheels that pulled the car along the wooden track at a comfortable six miles an hour or so.

“Hey!” shouted Eddie again, and this time, missed the timing with his cane. But his new foot’s spring-compressed heel popped him into his next step, and what should have been a nasty fall turned into an arm-flailing stumble.

Which apparently attracted the attention of the operator. “I wait!” the man assured him loudly, squinting at Eddie’s gait. “We always wait for our soldiers.”

Eddie waved his thanks, noted the driver’s extremely thick accent. Swabian, from the sound of him, likely rendered homeless by the border wars between the up-timers’ first allies — the Swedes of Gustav Adolf — and the upstart dukedom of Bernhard, originally one of the dukes of Saxe-Weimar. As had so many other refugees from all the neighboring provinces of Germany, this driver had probably come to Grantville to find his fortune — and no doubt, from his perspective, had accomplished just that. There was a palpable eagerness as he turned from seating the elderly passenger and came forward to offer a hand to Eddie. The prompt, energetic gesture radiated that special pride particular to those down-timers who operated the new machines that their own artisans had crafted from up-time ideas and inspirations. It was as though they were simultaneously saying, “See? We are helping build this new world with you!” and “Do not discount us: we are just as smart as you are.” In truth, given how little of the up-time science and engineering they understood when Grantville first fell out of the future, and how much of its technology they were now mastering and adapting, it was arguably true that, on the average, the Germans were smarter than the up timers. Markedly so, in a number of cases.

Eddie smiled his thanks at the driver and accepted the hand up into the passenger car. With only room for twenty, who were currently packed in like sardines, there was no seat left for him. Seeing the unnatural stiffness of Eddie’s left leg, one of the comparatively younger men stood quickly, gestured towards his spot on a transverse bench. Eddie smiled, shook his head with a “Thanks, anyhow,” and held on to the rail as the car lurched forward to resume its journey with a sigh of steam.

The other passengers were mostly mothers with children, older folks, and two other amputees. One of the passengers seemed to be a workman, hand truck tucked tight between his legs. Probably delivering the cargo in the back, Eddie surmised.

They had hardly gone a block when the driver stifled a curse and backed off the steam, letting the little train begin to coast. Seeing Eddie’s interest, he pointed forward. “Another train. I have to pull off.”

Eddie saw the oncoming train, almost a twin to the one he was on, approaching from about two blocks away. But there was only one rail. “Um…how do we — ?”

The driver seemed gratified, rather than annoyed, by the question. “See ahead, the curve into the smaller cross-street we approach?”

“Yeah, you mean Rose Street?”

“Yes. We take that curve and wait.”

“Like a train being diverted into a siding.”

“Yes.But it is only one track, so we slow down to wait in the little street. “

And applying the brakes gently, they slid around the relatively tight curve with only a slight bump. But the operator frowned at the brief jolt.

“Problem?” asked Eddie.

“Not with the train; with the track,” he answered. “It is wood. It wears out quickly at the joints.”

“Then why use wood?”

He smiled. “Because wood is also very cheap. So is the cost of putting new track into place. Much cheaper than iron. Or steel. Maybe you forget that, since there was so much of that metal in the future?”

Eddie smiled back. “Yeah, there was — but no, I didn’t forget. I deal with that problem every day.”

The driver’s slightly graying left eyebrow rose. “Yes, and so?”

“I work with Admiral Simpson. Building the new navy.”

“Ah. Of course you would know about iron shortages, then.” He paused, looked at Eddie more closely. “So you are…are Commander Cantrell, yes? The hero?”

Eddie felt a rapid flush. “I was just — just doing my job.”

As the other engine huffed past, the man’s eyes strayed to Eddie’s left leg. “I think you did a little more than just your job, maybe.” He looked up. “I am honored to have you on my train.” His English became slightly more precise. “Where may I take you, Herr Commander Cantrell?” There was also a hint of a straighter spine and the faintest bow. Not enough to imply a new, distant formality, but enough to show acknowledgement and respect.

“Oh, just up the street to — “

“The Government House? We shall be there very soon.”

“The Government House?” Eddie echoed. “What’s that?”

The man smiled. “It is officially called the ‘Administrative Annex’ — the old Presidential office building. It is where all the decisions were made before the capitol was moved to Bamberg. But as you must know, there are still many decisions being made there. And I suspect it will continue to be so.”

“But then why relocate the capitol to Bamberg?”

The driver smiled sagely. “Oh, Bamberg will certainly be the center of attention, and home to most of the bureaucracy. All the fine lords and burgermeisters will journey there and make speeches and drink too much and diddle the barmaids — if their wives have not made the journey with them.”

“And here at the Government House?”

“Here is where the business of putting certain decisions into practice will remain. Certain sensitive decisions. It is interesting to see which offices remain here — renamed, but still here. Offices which must make important decisions very quickly. And how else should it be? Here, all the leaders, all the decisions, are still only a phone call away. But here, also, there are many up-time radios and the people who know best how to use them. Here is running water, and electricity for computers, and heat and light for winter hours that reach far into the night.” He shifted a gear, opened the throttle, looked behind, and began to reverse back out onto the main line of the track that ran along East Main. “Bamberg is certainly the capitol, the center for important talk. But Grantville, Commander Cantrell, remains the center for important action.” And with that, he shifted the train’s gear back into its original position, tugged the whistle cord, and, as if to give emphasis to that hoarse toot, opened the throttle to resume their journey to Government House.