The earl of Strafford was not the only man in the world who was contemplating the general subject of predestination. The next day, in the sky over central Germany, Jesse Wood was doing much the same thing.
* * *
"Try it again, Jim."
Jesse looked to the right at his sweating student. He hadn't yet reached the comfort level where he would allow this student to sit in the left seat with the only throttle. It mattered little here in the patch of sky north of town that he had designated the high training area, but the young man's touch was even more ham-fisted near the ground.
He set the power near maximum and unconsciously cleared left as Jim Horton began another sloppy cloverleaf. Jesse felt the rudder pedals moving erratically beneath his feet and knew the student was already having trouble making the first coordinated climbing turn in the simple maneuver. Jesse felt the aircraft skid and noted far too much variance in the bank angle.
"Crosscheck with your turn and slip, if you have to," he advised. "Keep steady back pressure on the stick and gradually let the bank angle increase to ninety degrees as you reach the top."
Instead, what he saw disappointed him again. As the aircraft neared the top of the climb, he felt the student relax back pressure and slide around the turn, never approaching the vertical. The instructor remained silent as the struggling student finished the other three sections of the cloverleaf and looked over for approval.
"That was better, wasn't it, sir?" Jim asked hopefully.
"A bit, Jim," Jesse admitted, though he noted to himself that the aircraft was pointed at least thirty degrees off where it should have emerged from the last turn, had lost a thousand feet, and was somehow twenty knots slower than what it should have been. He was certain that all of his other students had done better on only their second flights. In the case of his best students—Hans, Woody, and Alice—maybe even on their first.
"Let's take her home, huh?"
* * *
Jesse took refuge in his notes as he sat reviewing the just-finished training flight with Jim. They were seated in two of the torn and broken overstuffed chairs the students had scrounged from somewhere and placed in the grass below the control tower, giving a fine view of the entire airfield on the warm afternoon. He listened as Jim gave his version of how the second touch and go landing had gone wrong, forcing the instructor to take over to avoid a crash. Jesse knew exactly what error had been made. And what he had to do now.
If only he weren't so damned eager and dedicated, he thought. Well, tell him, damn it. Don't leave him hanging. Be businesslike.
Jesse closed the training folder and sat up in the chair, as the cadet's explanation trailed off.
"Jim, I am removing you from the flight portion of your training." He watched the news strike the young man like a blow and plowed on. "You have an excellent grasp of aeronautical theory and you have the best study habits of all our students. None of the others can match your knowledge of the aircraft systems and construction. However, in my professional opinion, you will not advance in flight training to a successful solo. I'm sorry."
Jesse saw tears well up in Jim's eyes as the cadet struggled to speak.
"How about one more chance, sir. Just one more flight. Please, sir?"
Jesse steeled himself. "No, son, I'm sorry. Maybe under different circumstances, a different time . . . But we don't have the luxury of time and I'm telling you straight—you don't have the aptitude."
Jim's eyes tightened. "Yes, sir. With your permission, then, I will remove my things from cadet quarters and move back into town tonight." He began to lever himself out of the chair.
Jesse touched the young man's arm. "Not so fast, Jim. Sit back down. I've got something else in mind."
Jaw set and trembling a little, Jim sank back into the chair.
"Jim, look around and tell me what you see."
"An airfield, sir."
Jesse snorted. "No, what you see is a poorly mowed pasture, getting ruts in it. You see a half-assed 'control tower' which doesn't control anything. You see one airplane, a windsock, a barn serving as a hangar and aircraft production line, and maybe the world's sorriest set of shacks passing themselves off as 'quarters' on a so-called 'air force base.' "
He scowled at the world in general. "In short, you see a disaster waiting to happen. At least, that's what I'm seeing."
He caught Jim's eye. "We need organization, Jim. More specifically, our ground operations need it. I can't do it alone, not while flying a full training schedule and helping with aircraft design. And I can't keep relying on Kathy without telling Mike he's got to draft her into the service, and—" He winced. "That's not going to make for marital harmony in my life, leave 'bliss' out of it altogether."
He glanced at the reconverted nearby barn. "Speaking of which—aircraft design, I mean—Hal Smith needs a full-time assistant himself. He's got his German helpers and the mechanics from town, when they have the time, and he's got me. But that's not enough. He's falling behind on just about everything."
Jesse watched a look of curiosity and speculation come into Jim's eyes.
"What's that got to do with me, sir? I just washed out."
"It's got everything to do with you, Jim. Back in the other U.S., the Air Force had over eighty thousand officers. How many of them do you think were pilots? I'll tell you—less than twenty-five thousand. And more than half of them were always in nonflying jobs, because many support functions needed someone with flying experience. Running an air force takes more than some idiots whose only desire is to 'kick the tire and light the fire.' It takes dedicated support. I want you to organize that support. To be more precise, I'm hoping you'll lead that work."
Jim was listening intently now, so Jesse plunged on.
"Jim, this here 'Air Farce' needs a ground operations officer. We don't need an aide-de-camp, or a public affairs officer, or an adjutant." Not yet, anyway, but the paperwork is starting to grow, damn it. "What we do need is someone who can take those day workers out there by the fence and turn them into airmen. Someone to keep the field mowed and smooth, to care for the aircraft, and to change that friggin' ramshackle fuel storage and refueling area back there into something that won't explode if someone makes a mistake. We need someone to organize a weather service and eventually teach air traffic control. And finally, we'll need someone who can go out on his own and create the whole thing all over again somewhere else."
Jesse paused. "You're about twenty-four, aren't you? Got some college before the Ring of Fire? ROTC?"
"I'll be twenty-four next month. Yes, sir. Two years at WVU." Jim sat up straighter now.
Jesse nodded. "Thought so. You're a few years older than the other cadets. I know you're more mature and smarter than hell. I think you can handle a man's job. Wanna take a swing at it?"
Jim jumped to his feet and came to attention. "Yes, sir!"
Jesse painfully pulled his sore back out of his chair.
"Okay, then. As of now, you are the ground operations officer for the First Air Squadron. Also base commander. And to make those cadets pay attention to you, you are now a captain. Congratulations, Captain Horton. You will immediately remove your things from the cadet area and move into the spare room in the house with Kathy and me. For the time being, anyway. We'll talk again later."
"Yes, sir!" Jim smiled and snapped a salute.
* * *
Predestination was on Rebecca's mind also, that day. In her case, spoken with a curse.
* * *
"They will not listen to me," snapped Rebecca, the moment she came through the front door of the house they'd rented in The Hague. "There is no point in trying any longer. Is the radio working?"
She stormed across the room, heading for the staircase leading to the upper floor. Behind her, Jeff gingerly closed the door, as if he were afraid the sound itself would send Rebecca's temper soaring higher still. He and Gretchen exchanged a glance. His wife shrugged and rose from the couch she'd been sitting on.
Gretchen had never entertained any great hopes that Holland's complacent oligarchs would listen to warnings brought to them by a young woman, the wife of the "President of the United States" or not—especially one who was a Jewess to boot, and whose father had even managed to fall afoul of Amsterdam's Jewish community. Three days after they'd arrived in The Hague, Holland's capital city, the normally even-tempered Rebecca was like a cat spitting fury. The treatment she'd received from Holland's powers-that-be had ranged from bureaucratic indifference to paternalistic condescension to—often enough—barely veiled outright hostility.
Gretchen, on the other hand, had the complacence of someone who could at least take comfort in the fact that the bad news was something she had firmly predicted. Fat burghers. Pigs in a trough—and you're trying to warn them the slop is about to run out. They don't want to hear it, simple as that.
As Gretchen headed for the stairs, she could hear Rebecca's voice coming from the landing above.
"Stupid!" That was almost a shout. Gretchen tried to remember if she'd ever heard Rebecca shouting.
No, she couldn't. Not once.
"Stupid!" That was a shout. The words which followed declined some in sheer volume, as Rebecca continued stamping up the stairs, but the tone remained furious.
" 'The French have always been our allies,' " she added in a singsong. " 'It is in their own interests to oppose the Spanish. Why would they change that long-standing policy?' "
When Gretchen reached the landing on the third floor, she saw that Rebecca was talking with Heinrich. More precisely, was using Heinrich as a sounding board for her snarls.
Rebecca, hearing Gretchen's footsteps, glanced back. "It is just as Gretchen said it would be. Fat stupid burghers! Pigs in a trough. Except not even pigs are that stupid."
"Quite intelligent animals, actually," said Heinrich mildly. "But it's true that a pig in a trough usually can't think of anything beyond his slops."
Rebecca was starting to simmer down. From the experience of the past few days, Gretchen knew that the young Sephardic woman would be her normal calm self within a few minutes. Rebecca could not hold a grudge for very long. Unlike Gretchen herself, who could hold one for eternity.
Heinrich's next words helped. "As it happens, Jimmy finally got the radio working tonight. Not more than an hour ago, in fact." He smiled sweetly. "There's a message to you from your husband. He and the baby are fine. He sends you—"
But Rebecca was not listening. She was already through the door leading to the radio room. Heinrich transferred the smile to Gretchen.
"So impatient. It's this 'true love' nonsense the Americans talk about."
Gretchen returned his smile with one that was even sweeter. "Be careful, Heinrich. Annalise reads at least two American romance novels a week. One a day, I bet, now that summer's here and she's out of school. I think she's already gone through half the stock in the libraries."
That wiped the smile from his face. Gretchen couldn't resist the impulse to rub it in. She slid from the "Germanized English" which had become the lingua franca of the United States into the colloquial Oberpfalz-accented German which was the tongue she and Heinrich had both grown up with. "And there won't be any let-up once she does, either. Just before we left, she paid the two dollars to join the romance readers' club."
Heinrich rolled his eyes. " 'Letup,' " he muttered. "Even our good stout Oberpfalz German is getting corrupted by these newfangled terms and notions. Whatever happened to the idea that reading begins and ends with the Bible? Not even the damn Protestants tried to claim you needed more than that. Now—romance readers' clubs!' "
Gretchen grinned at him. "You should see what my husband belongs to. Something called a 'science fiction readers' club.' "
She and Heinrich had been born and raised in nearby towns in that part of the Palatinate known as the Oberpfalz. Although both of them were usually considered "Catholics" by most Americans in Grantville, the reality was far more complex. In the year 1555, in the so-called "Peace of Augsburg," the German princes had established the principle known as cuius regio, eius religio, according to which the religion of a territory was determined by the faith of the prince who ruled it. In some areas of Germany—the Palatinate being one of the most flagrant examples—what followed were decades of constant changes in official religious affiliation. In their short lives, Gretchen and Heinrich had gone from Lutheran to Calvinist to Catholic—and Gretchen's grandmother Veronica had gone through three more such switches before they'd even been born.
By the time they'd actually met, he as a mercenary and she as another mercenary's camp woman in Tilly's army, neither of them had much left in the way of practicing faith. In their day and age, before the Americans arrived and started turning everything upside down, "agnosticism" was a meaningless word. But now, it was an accurate enough description of both of them—Gretchen openly, Heinrich less so.
Still, both of them tended to retain a number of German attitudes on many questions. Neither of them, for instance, had any use for the silly namby-pamby American notions about the "evil of corporal punishment applied to children." One exception, however, was the subject of "romantic love." On that question, Gretchen had been thoroughly converted. Not by books or theory, but by the simple fact of her young American husband's own love for her. Beginning with their wedding night, Jeff's uncomplicated passion had washed her level-headed German practicality aside.
Not so Heinrich. He regarded Gretchen's younger sister's infatuation with him exactly the way Annalise's grandmother did: silliness; unpractical; Heinrich was still too young to be married, much less a sixteen-year-old girl with no property.
Gretchen patted him on the cheek and passed by him into the radio room. "Poor Heinrich," she murmured. "Like a piglet being led to slaughter."
Inside the room, she found Rebecca sitting on a chair, holding a piece of paper in her hands and reading it by the light of an oil lamp. Seeing the slump in her shoulders, Gretchen was alarmed for an instant. Then, as Rebecca raised a smiling face toward her, she realized that the slump had been simply one of relief.
"All is well," Rebecca announced. "Although I so miss them. Bad enough to be absent from Michael. Not being able to see my little daughter every day is even worse."
Gretchen came over to her and laid a reassuring hand on Rebecca's shoulder. "Sephie will be fine. I raised little Willi in an army camp, and he did well enough. Children are much tougher than you think, as long as they don't become ill."
Rebecca stared up at her. Gretchen knew that Rebecca found her own calm attitude about leaving her and Jeff's children behind somewhat puzzling. But it was probably impossible to explain. Though she was a 17th-century woman herself, Rebecca had been born and raised in a rather sheltered environment. Gretchen's had been also, in truth, until she was sixteen. Then . . . Tilly's soldiers arrived in their town, plundered their house, murdered their father, subjected her to gang rape—Annalise, thank God, had still been too young for that—and took what was left of the family to become camp followers. In the two years that followed, Gretchen had given birth to a son of her own and become the unofficial mother of a number of others. The experience, when it came to the subject of child-rearing, had left her with a very "stripped down" attitude on the subject. Feed them; care for them; above all, make sure they don't get sick. They'll survive anything else, well enough.
Suddenly, Rebecca's face looked a bit guilty and she glanced back at the paper in her hands. "Oh, I forgot. Michael asked me to tell you and Jeff that Willi and Joseph are doing well also. So is your grandmother. And Annalise."
Gretchen nodded. "Any other news?"
"Not really. Michael senses that something is—'in the air,' as he puts it. But neither he nor Gustav Adolf can quite determine what Richelieu is up to. He does say—this came from Axel Oxenstierna—that the Danes have been acting especially hostile lately. There have been some minor clashes in the Baltic."
By the time she finished, Rebecca was tense again. Gretchen turned her head and stared out the window. That window, as it happened, looked to the north. Denmark was somewhere beyond that horizon, and . . .
Increasing Danish hostility.
In the two years since she and her family had been rescued by the Americans, Gretchen's own political sophistication and knowledge of the world had grown rapidly. So she was almost as quick as Rebecca in making the connection.
"Oh, God," she hissed. "If Richelieu's managed—"
"I think he has," said Rebecca firmly. "It all makes sense, Gretchen. Everything fits together now. Except . . . I wonder why he didn't want us to see what sort of preparations the French ports are making?"
"But everyone knows the French and Dutch are preparing to fight the Spanish," Gretchen protested, less because she thought Rebecca was wrong than because she so badly wanted her to be. "Why should he try to hide that from us?"
"Of course everyone knows about the Dutch alliance," Rebecca agreed grimly. "And he's gone to some lengths to see to it that they do. But there had to be something he wanted to hide from us. Something besides the fact that he's impressing merchantmen."
"Everyone's impressing them, Becky."
"Yes," said Rebecca, nodding. In the 17th century, during time of war, "navies" were mainly made up of armed merchantmen. Naval mobilization consisted largely of impressing the ships into military service and adding them to a core of vessels which had been specifically designed as warships. "But to what end?" She smiled with absolutely no humor. "I know we all thought we knew the answer to that question, but now . . ."
Gretchen went over to the window and pressed her nose against the pane. The glass, as was usually the case except in the richest homes, was not as clear as the glass she'd become accustomed to in Grantville. Leaving aside minor imperfections, the "flat" panes were almost always wavy, producing a certain distortion in the view. But it wouldn't have mattered, even if the glass had been perfect and it had still been daylight. There would have been nothing to see beyond the houses of The Hague, anyway, except Holland's flat terrain to the north. And then, beyond that, the Frisian islands and the North Sea and, eventually, Denmark.
"If the Danes have secretly allied with the French," she said softly, "which would make sense from their viewpoint, of course—"
She heard Rebecca's little murmur of agreement. For all that Denmark and Sweden were both Lutheran nations, they had been enemies for decades. As was usually the case in the Thirty Years War, political and dynastic ambitions overrode religious affiliation. Until Gustav Adolf's stunning victories at Breitenfeld and the Alte Veste, France had been the Swedes' principal supporter. Religion be damned. Catholic France had always been far more concerned about the ambitions of the Catholic Habsburg dynasty which ruled Austria and Spain than they were about heresy.
Since Gustav's power had grown so unexpectedly, largely due to his alliance with the newly arrived Americans, France had become hostile. So an alliance with the Danes was now quite logical. Still, that left Spain as France's traditional enemy. If the history of this universe remained true to that from which the Americans had come, France and Spain were "scheduled" to start a war in the year 1635.
That war would last for a quarter of a century, have no conclusive result, and leave both countries exhausted and Spain half-shattered. The Portuguese would revolt successfully in 1640, the Catalans unsuccessfully. Both revolts would be brought on by the stresses of the war and the exactions of the Spanish crown. The French would come out of it in somewhat better shape than Spain, but not much. They would gain a few piddling little territories—Artois, Gravelines, Roussillon and Cerdagne—at an enormous cost in blood and treasure.
"Richelieu's read the history books too," Gretchen murmured. "And the man is not stupid."
She turned to look at Rebecca, and saw in the vigorously nodding head a confirmation of her own thoughts.
"There is really no great reason for France and Spain to go to war," Rebecca stated firmly. "In—" Her left hand made that little vague motion which people often did when trying to indicate that other universe that would have been, or might be somewhere else. "In that universe, the war was brought on by nothing more than the usual stupid reasons. Petty dynastic quarrels over petty towns and statelets. And nothing came of it worth the cost."
"A grand alliance, then," said Gretchen. "France and Denmark and Spain—and that, in turn, will require the French to end their long support of the United Provinces. That would be the Spanish price." She hesitated. "But I still don't really see what France gets out of it, other than striking against us."
Rebecca's eyes seemed a bit unfocused, as they often did when she was thinking. "True. At first glance, at least. Richelieu can be subtle, though. And let us not forget how critical the Baltic is to any nation with maritime pretensions. Timber, pitch, iron, copper . . . the list is endless, all of it the sinews of naval power. The fact that Gustavus is poised to cut all of Europe off from those supplies—or, at least, to grant access solely on his own terms—gives him enormous additional influence. Indeed, over the next few years, Dutch foreign policy will—or would have—walked a careful line designed to play Swede off against Dane to insure that no one was ever in the position Gustavus now holds."
"You think that accounts for all of this?" Gretchen asked skeptically, and Rebecca snorted.
"Of course not. Oh, I feel sure it forms part of the . . . subtext, let us say, but it is scarcely the major factor. Not for France, at any rate."
She frowned, obviously thinking hard.
"It seems clear enough for everyone else," she murmured, as much to herself as to Gretchen. "The Danes would get the strength they'd need to attack Sweden in the Baltic and reestablish Danish control over it. The Spanish would get another chance to reconquer the rebellious provinces in the Low Countries—and a better one than they've had in decades, without the French army to threaten them from the southwest."
"Still have to defeat the Dutch navy, which is the strongest in the world," Gretchen pointed out.
Rebecca made a face. "With a French betrayal, Gretchen, that becomes possible. Especially"—the next words were almost hissed—"when the stupid Dutch won't listen to my warnings."
She rose abruptly and began pacing around. "I knew there was something wrong. But it was hard to explain it to those stupid fat burghers just based on my impressions of Richelieu's demeanor in a private meeting."
"Hard to blame them for being skeptical, in some ways," Gretchen said unwillingly. Rebecca looked a question at her, and she shrugged. "The one constant point of Richelieu's foreign policy, the single goal from which he has never wavered, has always been to resist and beat back Habsburg power," she pointed out. "Why should he change that now? If we can see no advantage for him in such a betrayal, then why should the Dutch? He's told the entire world he intends to support them against any fresh Spanish aggression, and we've seen no true evidence to prove he's lied. If I were the Dutch, I wouldn't believe he had, either. Not without some sort of hard proof, at any rate."
"Well, then," Rebecca said, holding up the radio message in her hands, "perhaps with this—"
"Don't be silly, Rebecca. All that contains is a Swedish chancellor's impressions of the Danes. Of course Oxenstierna will suspect King Christian of all manner of dark designs upon Sweden and the Baltic! The Dutch will just say it's the usual Swedish-Danish rancor at work."
Rebecca's hand fell to her side. "True," she sighed. "Damn those complacent Dutchmen."
"Danish, Spanish, and French," Gretchen murmured to herself, then looked back at Rebecca and raised an eyebrow. "That accounts for everyone but the English," she observed. "Where do you think they fit into all this?"
"At this point, I don't have the least notion," she acknowledged. "They have a much greater interest in the Baltic's naval stores than the French, and I would think they would be unlikely to support anyone who threatened to monopolize access to them. That should mean they would be as opposed to giving the Danes dominance of the Baltic as to leaving it with Gustavus, so perhaps they intend to remain neutral in all this. God knows the rumors suggest Charles faces troubles enough domestically without borrowing still more in foreign adventures! But what matters most is the French. The French . . . and the Spanish."
She shook her head decisively and moved over to the table where Jimmy had set up the radio equipment. To his right, sticking out of the third-story window, was a hexagonal thing with a coil in the middle on the end of a stick. Even to Rebecca, who was not very familiar with radio, the antenna looked bizarre. It was large in cross-section, too—almost three feet across in its widest dimension.
Gayle Mason and the two other Extra-class hams in Grantville had built the thing, along with an identical one carried by the mission to London. They called it an "isotron design," and had chosen it because it could be packed up to fit easily in a trunk and didn't require a tall antenna.
Jimmy was fiddling with the radio, which was getting nothing but static. To his left, sitting on a nearby chair, one of the German soldiers was stoically pedaling away at a small contraption which they'd bolted to the floor. That provided the power source for the radio, and had also been designed by Gayle and her cohorts. Jimmy had told Gretchen that it was modeled on a device first pioneered in the early 20th century by people in the Australian outback.
For a moment, Gretchen was almost overwhelmed by an urge to laugh. There was something peculiarly comical about her situation. There she was, in a house in Holland, a girl born in 17th-century central Germany, consorting with Americans from centuries in the future, who, in turn, were relying on a gadget which had been designed in a country which didn't exist yet—on a continent which had only recently been discovered by Europeans.
She saw Rebecca giving her a cocked eye, with a smile on her face.
"Yes," murmured the young Sephardic woman. "It is all a bit . . . twisted."
Rebecca turned to Jimmy and laid a hand on his shoulder. "No luck with England?"
His long, half-muttered reply meant very little to Gretchen. Not because his voice was too low but simply because the words themselves were meaningless. To anyone, at least, except someone who shared his technical jargon.
"There's a lot of static, but the bands are clean, since we're the only folks on the air. So there's no QRM, and the QRN ain't too bad—probably some thunderstorms causing that—and it wasn't any real problem making the QSO earlier with SK-1."
Rebecca rolled her eyes. Jimmy plowed on: "But if they're having any kinda problem in London getting that antenna outside—like maybe they've gotta keep it hidden in a room—bad business that, you don't want to get too close to an operating antenna with them kinda voltages—so—"
"Jimmy!" exclaimed Rebecca. "Could you please translate all that into English?"
The youngster started in his chair. "Oh. Sorry. What I mean is . . ." The effort of abandoning his beloved acronyms was obvious on his furrowed brow. " 'QRM' is interference caused by other radio stations. In the here and now, that's not gonna be a problem. Not for a while, anyway. 'QRN' means noise caused by . . . uh, God, basically. You know, bad weather, that kinda thing. 'QSO' just means 'contact made.' "
"Three syllables saved by using three other syllables," chuckled Rebecca. "Sometimes I think Americans suffer from a bizarre form of dementia that manifests itself in a compulsive urge to use acronyms."
Jimmy stared up at her, confused. Rebecca smiled sweetly. "Never mind. And what does 'SK-1' stand for?"
"Oh. That's a station call sign. Gotta have 'em."
"Why?" mumbled Gretchen. But—perhaps fortunately—Jimmy didn't hear her.
" 'SK-1' is Magdeburg. Chester'll be guarding the sked there. Uh . . . that means he's monitoring the frequency at scheduled times. Which, for him, means pretty much the first four hours after nightfall."
" 'SK-1.' " Rebecca rolled the syllables over her tongue, smiling. "Again, three syllables for three. I admit the logic escapes me."
Jimmy was frowning. "You gotta have call signs, Becky! It's—it's—just the way it's done, that's all. Grantville's 'W-1.' People got 'em too. I'm 'NØOXF'—"
"Instead of the two-syllable 'Jimmy,' " murmured Rebecca.
"—and Gayle's 'KC6EU'—"
"Instead of the one-syllable 'Gayle.' "
"—you just don't understand!" The last was practically a wail.
"Never mind, Jimmy," soothed Rebecca, patting his shoulder. "I am quite sure I am mistaken and being obstreperous. 'NØOXF' it is. It is quite a nice name, by the way. It suits you, I think."
Jimmy looked somewhat mollified. "Had it since I was—"
Suddenly the radio burst into noise. Interposed over the static came a series of beeps and whoops. That, at least, was what it sounded like to Gretchen.
Jimmy almost jumped in his seat. "That's her! That's her! That's Gayle!" He grabbed his pencil and began scribbling, translating the noises as he went.
" 'CQ CQ DE KC6EY CQ CQ'—jeez, why is she CQ-ing? That means 'call for anyone out there.' " He sounded aggrieved. "Who the hell else would be out there except me? She can't reach SK-1 or W-1 directly, not with this gear."
He started tapping away at his own key, muttering the words aloud as he transmitted them.
" '—KC6EY HC6EY KC6EY DE NØOXF'—that's the way she shoulda done it except the other way around—'reading you 559'—that means . . . never mind, it's too complicated. But it's good, especially the tone."
A moment later, the whoops-and-beeps returned and continued. And continued. Jimmy was now scribbling furiously. "I ain't gonna be able to translate for a while—this is gonna be a long message, I can tell—"
Slowly, Rebecca lowered herself into a nearby chair and perched herself on the edge of the seat. Her hands were clasped tightly in her lap. Gretchen, too tense to sit, went back to the window and pressed her nose against the pane again. Below, she could see lights in the windows of The Hague's nearby houses. The lights were steady, not flickering. Not much, at any rate. Holland was a wealthy country—the wealthiest in Europe, in all likelihood—and even common burghers could afford the best lamps and tapers.
—BEEP BEEP BEEEEEP WHOOP BEEP BEEEEP—
Somehow, those odd noises seemed ominous. Gretchen suddenly found herself wondering how much longer Holland's complacent citizens would be able to enjoy good lighting in their homes.
Not long, unless I miss my guess. I think—as my husband would put it—all hell is about to break loose.
—BEEEEEP WHOOP BEEP BEEP WHOOP—
"I think all hell's gonna break loose," muttered Jimmy. He pushed the first completed sheet across the table toward Rebecca. She picked it up and began to read. "Things don't sound good in England neither." WHOOP BEEEEEP WHOOP BEEP BEEP BEEP. "I can't believe the bastards locked 'em up!"
Gretchen turned from the window and looked at Rebecca. The beautiful face was growing tighter as her eyes moved down the page. Her lips seemed to thin with every sentence.
A motion in the doorway caught Gretchen's eye. Jeff was standing there, gazing at her. "Bad?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Not sure yet, but—I think so."
He nodded, not seeming overly concerned. "So be it. Our kids'll be safe enough."
For a moment, husband and wife exchanged simple looks of love. Then, looked to Rebecca. Jimmy had handed her a second page, which she was studying as he kept transcribing yet another.
"Yes, bad," she said. "Rita and Melissa—the whole delegation—is essentially imprisoned. Wentworth's in charge—Strafford, rather, and that's a sign in itself. From everything they can tell, the English fleet is moving. A foreign adventure of some kind. They don't know much."
She and Gretchen looked at one another, two pairs of brown eyes filled with the same bitter surmise.
Jimmy finished, and pushed the third page over. Then, after keying a few short phrases which Gretchen assumed were some kind of "sign off" message, swiveled in his chair.
"You got anything you want to sent to SK-1?"
Rebecca sighed. "Oh, yes. But stretch a moment, Jimmy. Get a glass of water, whatever you need. It is going to be a long message."
Which, indeed, it was. But it began with only three syllables.