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1636 The Atlantic Encounter: Chapter Two

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

 


 

    Even from the top of the gangplank, Gordon could see how much Pete had grown. Four years ago, when the Ring of Fire had taken them all back to the seventeenth century, his oldest younger brother had been lanky and a bit soft, avoiding the beer gut by twenty-two-year-old metabolism and lots of baseball. Now —

    Well, now he was a soldier. In fatigues with a sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve, there was nothing soft about him.

    “Big bro,” Pete said, coming up to meet him.

    “Peter.” Gordon shook his brother’s hand, and then found himself taken up in a bear hug. “Great to see you.”

    “Same here.” Peter Chehab let go and stepped back. “You look good. Mom and Dad wanted me to say hi.”

    “And Penny?”

    Pete looked away across the harbor. “Yeah,” he said after a moment. “I’m sure she’d say hi too.”

    “You didn’t see her?”

    “She was on call. I was only in Grantville for a few hours.”

    Pete’s wife, Penny, was a nurse — one of the relatively few up-timers with medical training, like himself; she would likely be busy all the time. But Penny was his wife, and he had a little baby daughterâ¦which was why he was married in the first place.

    But that was a conversation for another time.

    “Thanks. I’ve been meaning to write, butâ¦you know, time gets away.”

    Pete laughed. “Every time someone from Grantville says something like that it makes me laugh. ‘Time gets away.’ Right. Soâ¦what’s the deep dark secret project? Dad said you were working for the Man.”

    It was Gordon’s turn to laugh. “Let me buy you a drink and tell you all about it.”

     


 

    Hamburg was full of pubs, especially since it was in use as the anchorage for some of the USE Navy. There were a few places down by the docks that the crew frequented; instead, after Pete’s gear was stowed, they walked into the Altstadt and found a quieter place where they wouldn’t be easily overheard.

    Gordon gestured to a table. No one took particular notice — there were only a few patrons in the gloomy room. The brothers sat at an unoccupied table.

    At Gordon’s gesture a pitcher of beer and two ceramic mugs arrived, along with a wedge of cheese and plates of Labskaus, a sort of local stew that reminded him of their grandmother’s shepherd’s pie — except that this had beets in it.

    Pete needed no encouragement; he dug right in.

    “The lieutenant had a saying, which sounds even better in German,” Pete said between bites. “‘When in doubt, eat. If there is nothing to eat, sleep.’ Never quite know where your next meal is coming from.”

    “How are things down in — wherever you were last posted?”

    “Suhl.” Pete stopped eating for a moment. “Not too bad, after the Ram Rebellion was over. For a while, though, things got pretty hairy.”

    “And what about back home? Penny, and my little niece?”

    “I hear she’s growing up fast. But she’s only a year and a half old, big bro.”

    “And you didn’t have time to see her when you were last in Grantville.”

    Pete set his fork beside his plate and looked up at Gordon. “I don’t know when this became a conversation about me.”

    “It isn’t. But given why I arranged for you to come up here, it might be.”

    “All right, Gord. Let’s have it. What’s the big dark secret project? What are you doing out here — with such tight-ass security?”

    Gordon took a sip from his own mug. The beer was thin and hoppy, not really to his taste, but there was no pop and you couldn’t drink the water.

    “Do you remember when I hitchhiked across the country, the summer after I graduated from high school?”

    “Remember? How could I forget? I wanted to come with you.”

    “I know you did. But you were only sixteen and still in school.”

    “It didn’t matter.” Pete smiled. “I didn’t know at the time how much it didn’t matter.”

    “Well, they didn’t know when I’d get back if ever, and it was important to Mom and Dad that you finished school. They had hopes for you, Pete — that you’d find something you wanted to do, or that some scout would like the look of your fastball — “

    “You mean, so I could get out of Grantville and out into the real world.”

    “I don’t think they would have put it that way, especially Mom.”

    “This is old ground, big bro. Grantville was a dead end until the Ring picked it up and dropped it into the middle of a bloody war. Then things started looking up.

    “I hated that summer. David and Terri and Luke marked your trip with little pins in an AAA map tacked onto a corkboard in the family room, every time you called home. And instead of being on the road with my big brother I was stuck back there. I thought about just running away, but I didn’t for some reason.”

    “Because I talked you out of it,” Gordon said. “More than once.”

    “So why are we talking about the summer of ’94, anyway?”

    “When I left Grantville it wasn’t to go anywhere.” Gordon leaned back in his chair, mug in hand. “It was to get as far away as I could. Not from you, or Mom and Dad, or my other brothers and sister — just to get away from Grantville. I don’t think I even knew how small it was when I left, but I sure as hell did before I’d thumbed as far as Cincinnati.”

 



 

    He took a sip of his beer. “I tried to hide my ‘hillbilly’ accent, y’know. That’s what they called me. Asked me where my banjo was. All that crap.”

    “Banjo?”

    “Well, they could tell I couldn’t dance.” Mugs clicked together and both brothers drank.

    “So my eyes were opened,” Gordon said. “I mean, when we were growing up we always heard about how Dad was from ‘away,’ from Wheeling, the big city. But Wheeling was nothing.”

    “And Grantville was less than nothing,” Pete said.

    “Right. The last one in our family to get out and see the world was Grampa Charlie, and that was to go to Korea. Guess he learned to duck.”

    “He was at the Inchon landing.” Pete raised his mug again and took a long drink.

    “Do you remember the night I called you from El Paso? I was working as a dishwasher at a hotel chain. I’d been on the road a couple of months — you’d started your junior year at the high school.”

    “I remember how pissed off I was that night.”

    “Bro, you were pissed off the whole of your junior year. You told me that Mr. Piazza said you were going to wind up in the state prison if you kept it up, and — “

    “And you asked me what kind of trouble I was getting into, and I told you nothing that really mattered. It was just evil ways. ‘You got to change your evil ways, baby,'” Pete sang, off-key like every other male member of his family, and they laughed again. Then Pete said, “So what does this have to do with — “

    “I’m getting to that. Don’t rush me.”

    “You’re just like Grampa Charlie. Never just give the facts, got to have a whole damn story to go with it.”

    “I’m buying. You get the story.”

    “Fine, whatever. Go ahead.”

    “I told you that the only chance we have for happiness in this world is to hold on to some kind of dream, Pete. I didn’t know what mine was at the time.”

    “I didn’t either. I mean, when I was thirteen I wanted to strike out Barry Bonds and win the World Series. But at sixteen⦔

    “Well, bro, on that trip that summer I found out what my dream was. I wanted to fly.”

    “Meaning?”

    “I could’ve wound up anywhere, Pete. A buddy from that hotel in El Paso got a job offer from his cousin in Denver and invited me to go with him. There was a long-haul trucker who would’ve taken me all the way to L.A. if I bought him enough coffee. And there was this sweet young thing from Portland, Oregon, who had a motherly streak and wanted to take me home.

    “But I stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A dozen years and one Ring of Fire later, I’m still not sure why I wound up there, but my timing and the universe’s timing somehow lined up. During the first week in October, 1994, quite by accident, I found myself in the middle of the International Balloon Fiesta. And I knew that I wanted to fly.”

    “In a balloon?”

    “Damn straight. I went back in ’96 before I went to EMT training, and again in ’99. I had tickets and a place to stay in 2000â¦but I got me a German vacation instead.”

    Pete thought about that for a minute, and then his eyebrows went straight up.

    “Do you mean to tell me that you’re building a — a⦔

    “The correct term is ‘dirigible,’ my man. And that is exactly what we’re building. And when it’s done, I’m going to get to fly it.”

    “In the war zone?”

    “No way,” Gordon said, and lowered his voice. “Not in Poland. In America.”

    Pete didn’t say anything for a while. Gordon pushed the last bits of the Labskaus around on his plate.

    “So you’re building the Goodyear Blimp.”

    “Not exactly. It’s a dirigible, but it doesn’t have much of a frame other than a keel and a nose cone to keep the bag from deforming. It couldn’t carry the weight, particularly since we don’t have any aluminum. It would have to be made of wood, and we just don’t have enough lift.”

    “Couldn’t you salvage some — “

    “Yeah. As if. After almost four years, Pete, all the salvaging that’s going to happen has already happened. No, it’s a big airbag with a long boat-shaped thing underneath connected by catenaries. It’ll be stored aboard Challenger — “

    “That’s the name of the ship?”

    “Yeah.” Gordon sipped at his beer. “Thought you’d like that.”

    “You did a paper on that old ship, the one that went around the world. Still, seems like a bad luck charm to name it for the one shuttle that didn’t make it.”

    “Let’s not focus on that. As I say, it’ll be stored aboard ship, and we’ll launch it from shore.”

    “So you’re not planning to go across the Atlantic in a balloon.”

    “Hell, no.” Gordon sat up straight. “Depending on the weight it carries, I’m not expecting much more than a hundred miles’ range. It gets lofted, flies inland, then comes back to the starting place. It’s not the Hindenburg.”

    “Didn’t that one turn out badly too?”

    “Well, yes. But this is a hot-air ship, not a hydrogen one.”

    Pete let his brother look off into the distance for a few seconds, then said, “So how do I fit into all of this?”

    “Well, it’s like this, little bro. The expedition for this jaunt is pretty small, especially aboard the balloon when we go inland. There’s going to be a doctor in the crew, and I can help out as a combat medic. I’m the linguist and the director of tourism: my German’s good and my French is pretty solid, and after a little while in this area my Dutch isn’t so bad either. But if everything I hear is true, there’ll be times when talking isn’t going to work.”

    “You meanâ¦shooting instead.”

    “And not necessarily asking questions later.”

    “I have a previous commitment, Gord. I’m in the Army, you know. There’s a war going on with the Poles and now the Bavarians.”

    “All taken care of,” Gordon said. “If you’re willing. Detached service. There’s no one I’d rather have at my back. We’d be away for at least a year. No mail, no visits home: no chance to keep in touch except by radio, and not very oftenâ¦I realize that it means leaving Penny and Karen behind⦔

    “That’s less of a deal than it might be.”

    “You’re sure.”

    “Yes. This has become a conversation about me again.”

    “We might as well get it out in the open, little bro. I shouldn’t take you that far away from your family.”

    The last comment was met with a stony silence.

    Gordon wanted to ask further, but his brother didn’t seem interested in pursuing it: Pete gave him back the stare he used when he was getting ready to strike someone out.

    “All right,” Gordon said at last, and looked into his mostly empty mug, as if there might be an answer in there.

    “So you want to take me up in a balloon. A — a dirigible.”

    “Yep. And on the ground, too. Think of it as a replacement for the trip I couldn’t take you on when you were sixteen.”

    “Even if it means being awayâ¦from homeâ¦for a while, it probably beats getting shot at down south.”

    “You may get shot at in America, Pete.”

    “So where are we going, exactly?”

    “Newfoundland, at least, to check out the Danish settlement there. New England coast, possibly New Amsterdam. See what the French are doing. It was originally a scouting mission for Francisco Nasi, but he’s been succeeded by Estuban Miro. Officially, it’s now a trade mission for the State of Thuringia-Franconia.” Gordon smiled. “Think of it as the best detention you’ll ever serve for Mr. Piazza.”

    “The, uh, President.” This time Pete looked into his mug for several moments. “And if I say no?”

    Gordon Chehab was about to reply, but stopped suddenly, perplexed.

    “I — I’m not sure. I mean, you know what’s here now, and it’s being kept quietâ¦I just assume — “

    “You assumed I’d say yes.”

    “I guess I did.”

    “I’ll have to think about it.”

    “Fair enough,” Gordon said after a moment. “We’re not due to sail until — “

    “Okay, I’ve thought long enough,” Pete said. “Count me in. On one condition.”

    “Which is?”

    “We don’t go back to West Virginia.”


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