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1636 The Atlantic Encounter: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 3, 2020 16:49 EDT

 


 

    Work continued on Challenger, almost exclusively by people who weren’t named Chehab. Gordon was what Maartens charitably called “not handy” — he didn’t have a good feel for the ship at the outset, whether it was barely avoiding being clocked by a swinging boom, or losing his balance on the gangways between decks, or tripping over the rigging. His most useful preoccupation was learning to read the down-time charts and to tie the knots that every able seaman knew. Pete, by comparison, turned out to have learned carpentry from somewhere, and soon was in thick with the laborers working on the decks. Ingrid and her assistant, Sofia, kept to themselves: clearly Maartens had spoken with the crew and warned what might happen if they succumbed to either superstition or their natural inclinations, while the two women had no interest in ship-fitting once their berths were arranged and their cargo was brought aboard.

 



 

    Neither of the brothers had any inclination to go aloft, where more nimble and agile men and boys scrambled and climbed, heedless of the distance they might fall if they should put a foot wrong. Pete had witnessed an amazing display by a little Alsatian who signed on with the crew after going up the mainmast in record time; it was one of the first times either of them had seen the sailing master look impressed.

     


 

    A few weeks after Pete, the radio and its operator arrived and came aboard Challenger. The equipment was bulky and primitive; Gordon had seen some ham radio setups before the Ring of Fire, but they were usually just plugged into the wall. There was no AC power outlet anywhere aboard ship — he was pretty sure of that — and that meant that the radio had to carry its own power supply. That took up most of the space, and weight, and it set Maartens to further grumbling.

    As for the operator — a down-timer named Ulrich Jaeschke, a quiet and unassuming man who looked as out of place aboard a sailing vessel as Gordon himself — the Dutch sailing master ignored him entirely, just as he ignored the up-timer landsmen. Jaeschke was assigned a berth with the able seamen, who kept their distance from someone with a skill they didn’t completely understand.

    Gordon began to feel as if he were being watched whenever he was aboard Challenger — which was more and more as time went on.

     


 

    The spring days had been short, a race against the sun, but they became progressively longer, making Gordon eager to get underway. One particularly wearying day he was especially tired and decided to get a little rest before the evening dinner bell. He shared the small aft cabin with Pete; the ladies had been assigned the second cabin in the fore of the ship and Maartens, of course, commanded the first, and had more or less defied the brothers (or anyone else) to take it away from him. As it turned out, though, their quarters were remarkably snug, proof against the winds that blew in from Helgoland Bight.

    Pete was already there, whittling away at a piece of wood as he sat on his hammock.

    “You look a little worried, big bro. Anything bothering you?”

    “No, nothing.”

    “You lie very badly, which must’ve hurt you in the army. Out with it.” Pete stopped whittling to admire his work. “What’s wrong?”

    “I don’t know.” Gordon shrugged out of his coat and hung it on a peg, then rolled into his hammock — a maneuver that he did now without thinking, but had taken him a few days to learn properly. “Just a feeling.”

    “What sort of ‘feeling’?”

    “Like I’m being watched. Spied on, really.”

    “Well, you do stick out. You’re taller than half the crew –“

    “Pete –“

    “Not taller than me, of course. But taller than half these malnourished down-timers. And you’re older than most of them –“

    “Pete –“

    “And uglier, of course –“

    Gordon rolled out of his bunk and grabbed Pete’s side rope, threatening to dump his little brother on the deck.

    “Pete,” he said, “I am totally serious. You know we’re trying to keep this project quiet. If someone’s spying on it — spying on us — we have to find out who it is.”

    “And do what? Throw him overboard?”

    “You’re the man of action, little bro. I’m not sure what to do.”

    “All right, all right. Let me do a little looking around.” Pete went back to his whittling. “Do you suspect anyone, Sherlock?”

    “I don’t think so. Maartens just took on some new crew for the shakedown — a few able seamen that can take her downriver and out into open sea and back. Maybe it’s one of them.”

     


 

    “It’s early in the season as it is,” Maartens said, squinting at the cloud-filled sky. “All of these changes have taken longer than needed.”

    “That’s what will keep us safe on the open ocean.”

    Maartens spat over the side. “You up-timers love to tempt fate, don’t you?” He looked at Gordon. “Nothing keeps us ‘safe,’ Chehab. Safer, ja, I would say that. But the ocean is always there to swallow us.

    “It will take us two or three days in the shakedown, and then we should be about ready for launch. That will have to be soon enough.”

    “Why so long to shake down Challenger?”

    “Want to make sure everything is seaworthy. I’m not going to try and cross the Atlantic without a few days in calmer waters.”

    “Suppose everything is all shipshape. Is there any reason to come back to dock?”

    “I hadn’t planned to have everything stowed aboard before shakedown. We’d have to come back for supplies.”

    “What if that were done in advance?”

    “It isn’t how we’ve always done things.”

    “How is that different from most of the rest of this mission? Is any of the rest of this like the way you’ve always done things?”

    Maartens scowled and folded his arms across his chest. “Nein, it is not. But there is some reason for this, eh?”

    “Of course.”

    “And you will tell me why?”

    “When we are under way.”

    “Ja. ‘Operational security.’ This is some deep, dark plot ofâ¦our patron, is it not?”

    “No,” Gordon said. “I’m just making stuff up.”

     


 

    On a chilly, clear spring day, Challenger’s sails filled with the brisk wind and she made her way down the Elbe and into the channel and open ocean.

    It was here, Gordon thought, that he would find out if this mission was at all practical: not due to its planning, or its goals — but if he would show any propensity for seasickness. He wasn’t worried too much about the adventureâ¦Pete was by his side, and the New World lay ahead: America, but not the one they’d grown up in. That world was never going to happen, at least in that form, at least in this version of history.

    Good riddance, he thought. I get to fly.

     


 

    As for Stephane Hoff, he soon realized that what had been mooted as a shakedown was nothing less than the beginning of the voyage itself. A few days after leaving port, with la Manche behind and open ocean ahead, he understood that by getting aboard Challenger he was going to get a firsthand look at the expedition.

    But unless he could somehow make use of the radio, he might have no way of reporting it.

 



 

    “Well.” The Dutch sailing master’s face brightened, as if he might now have an opportunity to affect the direction Challenger would be going. “The best way is to follow the trade winds, the northeast winds, and make for the Caribbean.”

    “The Caribbean? I don’t want us to –“

    “It’s not necessary to follow them all the way, Chehab,” he said. “It depends on just where the edge of the trade-wind zone lies. Somewhere south of Gibraltar we could cut west, perhaps bear for Bermuda or Virginia. We’d have to navigate around the Sargasso; the winds are unpredictable and we might become becalmed, but⦔

    “And if we made directly for Newfoundland? What then?”

    “Iâ¦if we crossed out of the trade winds and bore north, we would be in the variables. The wind could come from any quarter, though we would benefit from the fore-and-aft rigging, if we weren’t swamped by the waves.”

    “Sailing with our own coffin. I remember.”

    “Ja,” Maartens said. “It might be a longer trip, but if we could raise the east coast of Newfoundland –” He jabbed a thumb at the chart, then carefully traced the rough coast of Labrador with his index finger. “The charts say that the current is favorable along the lee of this coastâ¦but it’s a bad wager, Chehab. I’d rather head for Virginia or the Bahama Islands and beat our way up the coast.”

    “But if we made for the Maritimes — for Newfoundland — we could make it.”

    “Tacking all the way,” Maartens said.

    “You know how to do that,” Gordon said, and got the scowl he expected.

    “I’d like us to take the southern route.”

    “It’s not as important as going north.”

    “We can still go south first.”

    Gordon took several moments before replying. He saw some glimmer of hope in Maartens’ face; the Dutchman had clearly wanted to convince him of the folly of sailing the northern route across the Atlantic.

    “We’ll do the tacking thing,” Gordon said at last. “We go north.”

     


 

    Ingrid Skoglund and her maidservant, Sofia, had settled into a regular routine aboard ship. Maartens had faced down the most recalcitrant of his crew — he’d even let go a couple of them back in Hamburg: older men who couldn’t get used to women aboard; but he treated the Swedish doctor and her companion in the same way he treated the radio and its operator — as installed equipment that he didn’t understand and didn’t care to learn.

    They took their meals with the sailing master or, when weather permitted, on the quarterdeck away from most of the crew; Maartens allowed this violation of his privacy merely (as he said) for convenience — but whenever they were with him, and whenever he encountered them as they walked around the shipâ¦which, to Gordon, seemed remarkably frequentâ¦he was scrupulously courteous. Sofia rarely spoke; Ingrid was particular in her formality, meeting Maartens’ eye but restricting their conversations to as few words as possible. Maartens seemed more gruff with his crew after such encounters, as if he had postponed his normal peevishness to take it out on others.

    On a sunny but brisk afternoon, Gordon finally decided that it was time to get to know the doctor. He’d kept his distance for the first few weeks, and Pete seemed to have no real interest in following up; he’d snorted with laughter when Gordon had told him of her insistence that she owed him no favorsâ¦he’d wanted to throw his kid brother into the harbor, but had decided to ignore it instead.

    The two women had found a seat on some securely lashed crates amidships, where they were mostly out of the wind. As Gordon approached, the servant girl said something to Ingrid that he didn’t catch, rose and with a slight bow to Gordon walked aft toward the pilot house, out of earshot but not out of sight.

    “I hope I’m not interrupting,” Gordon said. “May I join you?”

    “If you wish.”

    Gordon settled himself on the crates, but at a respectful distance. For what it was worth, Ingrid seemed standoffish, but not upset or threatened.

    “I’d like to know a little more about you,” he said. “Since we are going to be working together.”

    “What would you like to know?”

    “Where you’re from, how you came to be a doctor, that sort of thing. I was not expecting that we would have a⦔

    “A Swede?”

    Gordon smiled, and to his surprise Ingrid did as well. “No. I didn’t expect a Swede. Though I don’t have, well, any problem with Swedes. I just assumed thatâ¦someone other than a Swede would have an easier time on a ship full ofâ¦non-Swedes.”

    Ingrid smiled again; the sun peeked from behind a cloud and lit up her face. The breeze blew a few strands of hair from under her hat; she reached up and tucked them back into place. “I told our patron that I might not be best suited for this expedition, but he insisted. To be honest, I was hoping he would agree; certainly Sofia would rather be on dry land. We shall both have to make the best of it.”

    “As will we. I don’t know what to expect; the New World — well, it’s where I’m from, sort of, though it’s a time I’ve only read about and as far as I can tell most of that is exaggeration.”

    “You shall have to use your own eyes — and your own judgment.”

    “I was expecting to do that in any case.”

    They sat a few moments in silence, then Gordon added, “Doctor — Ingrid — you are too clever by half.”

    “Why do you say that?”

    “When I sat down a few minutes ago I told you I wanted to know more about you, and you have succeeded in completely diverting the conversation. This is part of your bedside manner, I suppose.”

    He saw anger in her eyes for a moment, then they softened. He thought about what he had just said and realized that it could have been misinterpreted — damn American idiom, she thinks you’re coming on to her, Gordon thought. Damn, damn, damn.

    “You meanâ¦the way I attend patients.”

    “Yes,” he said quickly. “Yes, that’s exactly what I meant. I’m sorry, your English is excellent, and I used an idiomatic expression. When I was learning French I had no end of trouble with them.”

    “Language is elusive,” Ingrid said. “Speaking a foreign tongue is sometimes like riding a wild horse. It can toss you over and knock you senseless. Or worse.”

    “Or worse,” Gordon repeated. He placed his hands on his thighs and looked at them, then up at Inge. “Now. Tell me about yourself.”

    “On a single condition.”

    “Which is?”

    “You tell me about yourself.”

    “Agreed. So — who is Ingrid Skoglund?”

    “A good question,” she said. “The answer is simple: I am a doctor, trained in your hospital in Grantville. I was born and grew up in Jansköping, where I learned the skills of a midwife.” She folded her hands in her lap and looked down at them, as if they belonged to someone else. “I thinkâ¦I think that I might have been content to remain there and bring new lives into the world. My father was a doctor; he had no son, so he taught me much of what he knew.”

    “So what changed?”

    “What has not?” She laughed. “You have changed everything. You up-timers have turned the world on its head. New knowledge. New ways of killing people.” Her face became solemn. “We knew of the war, and our king’s desire to change the balance between the powers. But when the Ring of Fire altered things, my father decided to travel to your wondrous home city to see what he could learn. He chose to take me with him.”

    She looked away from Gordon then, letting the stiff breeze blow more stray curls into her face. It was clear that this was something emotional for her, though he wasn’t sure why.

 



 

    “There was so much to learn,” she said, without looking back. “So many books, so many papers, so many new techniques. He took it all in like a drunkard who could not help himself.

    “He died in Grantville,” she said at last, turning to face Gordon. “He was simply too old — his heart was weak, and I could not save him. Even Doctor Nichols could not save him. It was just as it was when my mother died: my father could not save her either.

    “I was ready to journey back to Jansköping. I was going to return home and⦔

    Again she looked away, letting her thoughts be dispersed by the sea breeze. Gordon waited for her to continue; when she said nothing, he said, “That was never going to happen.”

    “A consideration of what might have been is a subject every up-timer should understand, Min Herre Chehab –“

    “Gordon. Else I’ll be obliged to call you Frau Doktor Skoglund every three minutes.”

    “Gordon.” She pronounced it clipped and short-voweled; he decided at that moment that he liked the sound of his name on her lips. “Very well. I do not think about what might have been, as it has no meaning now. But I do confess that I am still surprised at what happenedâ¦how I have reached this point.”

    Gordon did not answer, but waited for Ingrid to continue.

    “When my father died,” she said, “I assumed that I would be dismissed — I was no more than a Swedish midwife, after all, and not the renowned Doctor Hjalmar Skoglund. Everything I had ever known, everything that the world had taught me, assured me that the only way I had been able to learn the medical arts was because of my father’s indulgence.

    “It was all gone: it was as if it had never been — except for the kindness and generosity of Doctor James Nichols. I could never imagine that anyone would have extended himself, especially a — a –“

    “A man from the future,” Gordon finished her sentence; he wasn’t sure what word she was going to use to finish that sentence — something to describe his skin color, presumably — but decided that he didn’t want to hear it.

    “â¦Yes,” she said, smiling. “A man from the future. He told me that he admired my talents and my intelligence and thatâ¦ahem.” She placed a hand on her chest and said in a faux deep voice, “‘There are damn few doctors worth the title, girl, and we can’t afford to lose you.'”

    It was actually a very decent impression of Nichols’ voice; Gordon couldn’t help but smile.

    “You mock me, Min Herreâ¦Gordon.” But her heart wasn’t in it: she was smiling as she spoke.

    “I do no such thing. Dr. Nichols is a wonderful man. Thank God he was in Grantville for Rita Stearns’ wedding when the Ring of Fire happened.”

    “Our God is mighty and wise,” Ingrid said. “And Dr. Nichols is wise as well. He arranged for me to study a year in Salerno.” When Gordon did not seem to understand, she added, “The Schola Medica Salernitana. I did not know that there were women doctors, but in Salerno I learned from the best of them. There was so much to learn and so little time⦔

    “And you were a drunkard as well, like your father.”

    “Yes,” she agreed. “But I was better prepared for it. I learned everything I could, and then returned to Grantville. I even have a fair copy of the Trotula Major — it is in my cabin if you would like to see it.”

    A doctor’s version of the etchings? Gordon thought and almost said — but obviously she meant nothing else by her words; the Trotula Major was obviously a big deal, whatever it was.

    “Impressive,” he said at last.

    “You appreciate scholarship,” she said. “Or so it seems.”

    “What about Sofia?” Gordon asked.

    Ingrid looked at her servant, who had continued to look out to sea, only glancing occasionally to see if her mistress required her assistance.

    “She is devoted to me, because I saved her life. She was with us in Grantville — it was a wonder to her, as it was to all of us — and when I went to Salerno she naturally came with me. There she became very ill and I nursed her back to health.”

    Ingrid looked away before Sofia returned her attention to the doctor — as if she did not want her to be disturbed, or perhaps did not want this conversation to end.

    “I believe I have fulfilled my obligation, Gordon. You must now tell me about yourself.”

    The matter-of-fact turn caught Gordon by surprise for just a moment; but he recovered. “I don’t think I have too much to tell. I’m just a regular guy — I was born in ’76 — 1976 — and was twenty-four at the time of the Ring of Fire. I hadn’t decided what I was going to do with myself; I was more concerned about Pete: he was always getting into trouble, and I think I hadn’t been as good a brother as I might have been –“

    Ingrid put up her hand. “I believe I asked you to tell me about yourself, not your brother. I feel that I understand him quite well.”

    “Really. I’m not sure I do.”

    “Oh, you dissemble with me. Your brother is young and assertive, a typical soldier from any age: he believes himself invincible and attractive to every woman at every moment. He is married, and yet his eyes follow Sofia — and me — whenever we come into view.”

    “I’ll kill him,” Gordon said.

    “I do not feel threatened,” Ingrid said. “I will let you know if that changes.”

    “For sure.”

    “In any case, your brother is not of interest. As for youâ¦you call yourself a ‘regular guy’: but every up-timer is from a place we can scarcely imagine. What you must think about our time⦔

    “I talked about this with Pete — I know, I know,” Gordon said, holding up his hands. “A lot of up-timers think of the seventeenth century as a second chance. But even if it’s a second chance for Grantville, the story would have been lots different if a piece of a big city had been thrown back here, or a piece of a big university with lots of professors — “

    “I would guess,” Ingrid said, “that it would have been a disaster. A big city from your time, from what I have read and heard, would have been full of people who would have been slaughtered by the first troop of cavalry that rode through. As for a university full of professors: if they were anything like the universities of today, they would never be prepared for this time.

    “I am inclined to believe that the Lord of Hosts chose the exact place to bring back to us: a small, remote town with good people.”

    “We’re not all good people, Ingrid.”

    “Enough of you are,” she said, and smiled again. It was as if the sun had peeked out from behind one of the clouds above.

    He told her about growing up in Grantville, about his family, about his home and his travels after high schoolâ¦and about the balloon festival in Albuquerque that made him want to fly. She listened with close attention — but he wasn’t sure whether she truly understood.

    It was going to be interesting when she first went upâ¦he wondered what her reaction would be.

    Finally he decided he had talked enough, and that Sofia had looked out at the ocean enough. He stood and offered a polite bow, then walked away, trying to decide what he was going to do with Pete when he found him.


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