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1636 The Atlantic Encounter: Chapter One

       Last updated: Monday, June 1, 2020 07:51 EDT

 


 

PART I

April 1636

The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea

    Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”

Hamburg

United States of Europe

    The first look Gordon Chehab ever had of the ship that would take him across the ocean was on a blustery day from across the harbor. He had come all the way from Grantville, part by stage and part by riverboat down the Elbe; he had taken his time — which was part and parcel of the way people got around in the year of grace 1636. It was the present day for him, and for all the rest of the inhabitants of the small town in West Virginia that had been carried back to this time by the Ring of Fire. But rough travel was nothing new for Gordon; he’d hitchhiked his way across the United States several times when he was younger.

    The ship didn’t have a name at the time he first saw her. She sat high in the water, unladen; carpenters and riggers were hard at work.

    He walked along the broad dock, his duffel slung over his shoulder, but before he reached the ship’s anchorage he heard his name being called from the quarterdeck.

    “Chehab?”

    He shielded his eyes against the afternoon sun. “That’s me.”

    “Was told you’d be coming,” the man said in Amideutsch, though it was with a round Dutch accent. “Thought you might come in yesterday.”

    “Not much chance of that. I made the best time I could.”

    The man grunted. “No rush, I suppose. We’ll not be weighing anchor for some weeks.” He turned aside and spat over the side of the rail. “Care to come aboard?”

    “It’s why I’m here.”

    The man gestured to the gangplank. Gordon walked up as one of the riggers walked down. The man who’d spoken to him was waiting at the top, and firmly grasped his hand.

    “Maartens,” he said. “Claes Maartens. I’m to be the sailing master for this expedition.”

    “Gordon Chehab. You work for the Cavrianis?”

    The man looked about, as if it were a scrap of information not to be overheard. “Ja,” he said quietly. “Though, as they say, not officially.”

    Gordon didn’t answer. From the time at which he’d been approached by Francisco Nasi until now, the entire expedition had been a matter of secrecy. At the outset, he’d been told the expedition would be undertaken by the government of the United States of Europe; but since mid-1635 that government had been in the hands of Wilhelm Wettin rather than Mike Stearns. And, by extension, Don Francisco was now a private citizen.

    So, very quietly, the expedition’s auspices had been taken over by the provincial government of the State of Thuringia-Franconia. Gordon now reported to President Ed Piazza’s head of intelligence Estuban Miro, usually through the intermediary of Leopold Cavriani. The expedition was now officially a trade mission for the SoTF, rather than for the USE. Apparently Prime Minister Wettin hadn’t been informed of the project, either, which made Gordon feel a little exposed.

    It’s an offâ“budget program, the spymaster had told him at their first interview. Wettin doesn’t know about it — I’m not sure that the Emperor really knows about it either. His briefing from the President of Thuringia-Franconia, Ed Piazza, confirmed that.

    If caught or killed, Gordon thought, the President will disavow all knowledge of your actions. Good luck, Jim.

    “Yes,” he said. “I suppose we do.”

     


 

    Maartens gave him a place in the captain’s cabin to temporarily stow his gear. No one was sleeping aboard the partially refit ship: there was a boardinghouse where the craftsmen were staying. He then gave Gordon a thorough tour of the ship he would call home for most of the next year.

    “She’s a beauty, I’ll say that,” Maartens said. “Used to weather, from what I see.” The tour had started amidships. As he spoke, Maartens placed one of his beefy hands on the main mast. “We took off her lines, the shipwright and myself, and we realized that she was probably set to handle most of what the Atlantic can throw at us.”

    “Most?”

    “There are storms that no one can handle.” Maartens made a gesture. “‘Twould be bad luck to speak of that. But properly ballasted, she should do well. I’d rather be on her deck than up in that airship of yours.”

    “Then it’s arrived.”

    “Ja. It’s ashore, a great heap of canvas, all of its rigging, and that basket or whatever it is. We’ll rig that like a lifeboat. The rest of it, we’ll store in part of the lower hold which we’ll rat-proof as you specified. I have to tell you, though, I don’t see how that could ever fly, whether or not the rats gnaw holes in it.”

    “It flies,” Gordon said. “That’s my department. It’s why I’m here.”

    Maartens looked at him sidelong. “Some up-timer thing, I’ll wager.”

    “I first flew in a balloon up-time,” Gordon answered. “This is a little more sophisticated than that: it’s a dirigible. But the technology isn’t all that complicated in any case — but back to the ship.”

    Maartens patted the great mast with his hand. “The original shipwright knew what he was doing: it’ll stand up to heavy weather. The ship has three masts, as you can see, fore” — he pointed forward, then behind — “and mizzen. We’re going to rig her fore and aft rather than square, which I’m not sure I hold with — I think that’s going to cause us more trouble, but it means we need fewer crew. Wrong kind of weather, though⦔ He looked skyward, as if the bright sunny day would darken and prove him right. Then, shrugged. “Ach. But with the ripstops in the sails, and the extra reefing sailsâ¦As long as the crew is trained properly, she’ll handle all right.”

    Gordon nodded, not sure what to make of what he’d been told. Sailors had their own language, and he’d not learned it quite yet.

    Maartens led him aft, talking all the way. “She’s designed to be fairly shallow draft, in case we want to take her upriver or into some coastal waters. But you pay for that, you do — in stiff weather she’ll take on water. Sailors have a saying,” he added, poking Gordon with a sharp elbow, “‘sailing with your own coffin.'” He chuckled. “But God willing we’ll be spared that.”

     


 

    The ship had been originally built for and used in the Baltic Sea. It had been acquired for this expedition, and from what Maartens told Gordon, it had been structurally intact but had “been through some heavy seas” — by which Gordon came to understand that those heavy seas had beaten the living crap out of it.

    Cavriani had probably gotten a good deal, Gordon thought. To some extent that was a blessing in disguise. Though Maartens complained about the extent to which the rigging was a ruin, it meant that the riggers and carpenters could rework her from start to finish without having to engage in a struggle with seventeenth-century shipwrights.

    She had originally been square-rigged. Gordon had needed to have that explained to him, because the sails didn’t look square. Maartens explained in a voice with scarcely leashed patience that the term referred to the rigging, not necessarily the sail itself. Square rigging was suitable for the type of ship, but sails with that sort of rigging — at least given seventeenth-century materials — tended to be baggy. It meant that, even though it was stable in rough seas, the ship had to catch the wind at least three points behind in order to properly fill. But it was stable, less likely to capsize in rough seas.

    The disadvantage for square-rigged ships was the amount of crew required to handle them. By rigging the ship fore and aft only, a quarter to a third the number of men would be required, though they’d have to be more skilled as the maneuvers were a bit more complex. But fewer crew meant fewer people who might be working against their interests.

     


 

    There was still daylight when Maartens finished showing him around the ship, but that was hardly surprising: at fifty-three degrees north. Days in Hamburg were long, even in April. Maartens showed him everything: the masts and ropes, the decks and holds, the spars andâ¦a number of other nautical things that Gordon couldn’t remember.

    You’re the airship guy, he kept reminding himself. He’d done a little sailing, but on a fairly calm lake on a fairly nice day — not across the Atlantic Ocean in a seventeenth-century sailing ship. It struck him as a bit crazy, but the idea that his home town had been transported back to the Thirty Years’ War was like a plot from a fantasy novel as it was. He knew he’d have to trust his life and the mission to men like Maartens.

 



 

    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.


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