1634: THE BALTIC WAR — snippet 46


1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 46:



            “And what else is dangerous?”


            Norddahl shrugged again. “That was the only thing he could tell me specifically. But all of the dangers, including the bends, seem to come from the same general peril. What he calls the pressure of the water itself. That’s another way of saying—”


            “Yes, I understand.” That much of the up-time texts, at least, had been easy enough to comprehend. The idea that even the air had weight, pressing down on a body, had seemed peculiar at first. But once Ulrik remembered his experience trying to breathe, the one time he’d ventured into the high Alps, the concept had come into focus. And he’d swum and dove often enough—and deep enough, now and then—to understand full well that water got… thicker, the farther down you went. “Pressure” was not a bad term at all to describe it, since his ears had felt as if a soft-handed giant had been squeezing them.


            On the other hand…


            “There’s something I still don’t understand.” He set down the helmet. “Not even my ebullient sire proposes to send a man or a machine very far beneath the surface.” He turned slightly and pointed to the submarine being built. “Even that preposterous device is not intended to go much deeper than thirty feet.”


            “Nor”—he rapped the helmet with a knuckle—“is this. Forty feet perhaps. Fifty, at most. Am I right?”


            “Yes, Your Highness.”


            Ha! Apparently Ulrik was making an impression on the rascal. Norddahl was finally using the proper appellation, instead of the “prince” business that bordered on disrespect.


            “And I understand what you’re questioning,” the Norwegian continued. “Many men dive that deep, or even deeper. I’ve been thirty feet down myself, more than once, and there are sponge fishermen who go much deeper than that. Do it for a living, day after day, and suffer none of the consequences Eddie warns about.”


            “And what do you conclude? Since you don’t believe he’s lying.”


            Baldur paused, scratching his chin while he examined the helmet himself. Then, with a very dubious look in his yes, studied the coils of the hose. “I posed that very problem to him, as it happens. He was obviously puzzled for a moment. I really don’t think he knows very much about all this. But he finally said I was overlooking what he called ‘the differential.’ What he meant by that is that—this is what he says—when a diver without all this complicated gadgetry goes deep, somehow the pressure of his body is enough to resist the pressure of the water.”


            Ulrik’s eyes almost crossed. “That’s… hard to make sense of.”


            “Isn’t it?” The cheery smile returned. “But I think I understand what he’s talking about, Your Highness. When a diver goes deep, what he does is breathe very heavily—but then he expels all the air before he dives. If you didn’t—I learned this myself—you simply can’t get very deep to begin with.”


            Comprehension began to come again. Even at the age of twenty-two, Ulrik had quite of bit of military experience. He’d seen a human body—more than one—torn to pieces.


            “Yes, I see. If you picture the lungs as empty sacks, not full of air…”


            He turned his head and squinted at the bizarre-looking boat being constructed at the far end. “But that shouldn’t affect men in a submarine.”


            “No, I don’t believe it does—unless the hull shatters. But what about a man in this contraption?” Again, Norddahl wrapped the diving helmet with a knuckle. “So long as the pump above is keeping him supplied with air, he should be fine. But what if the pump fails—or the hose ruptures?”


            The prince tried to imagine the consequences. “Well, he’d drown very quickly, if you didn’t pull him up in time.”


            Baldur shook his head. “No, Your Highness, I don’t think he would. I think something much worse would happen to him.”




            “I don’t know. Neither does Eddie. He says he read about it once, but can’t remember any of the details. What he did remember was that, whatever it was, it was quite horrible.”


            “And you believe him?”


            “Oh, yes. That’s why I told His Majesty I wouldn’t go down in it myself, once we got it finished. The submarine, I’d be willing to try—but not this devilish device. Of course, no one will be able to test it for a few months anyway, even if we had the pump ready. The water would be much too cold during the winter, assuming you could find a spot without ice cover. But, come spring, by which time everything should be done, I still won’t do it.”


            Ulrik didn’t blame him. Courage was one thing. This was just lunacy, and it got worse the more he learned. Devoting any effort to this particular project was completely pointless. It had no possible military application at all, that Ulrik could see. How was a man laboring under the weight of a huge bronze helmet and a heavy diving suit—even assuming you could make a long enough hose to provide him with air, which was impossible—supposed to pose a threat to a warship?


            He suspected that not even his father thought it could. The king had simply… gotten interested. Christian IV was also a man of many parts. He read relatively little, unfortunately, but he was very intelligent and was fascinated by a wide range of things. In particular, he adored mechanical contrivances and would have made quite a good artisan himself.


            “So let us return to the beginning, Baldur. I said this seemed all madness, and you disagreed. Why?”


            “I disagreed only in general, Your Highness. Eventually, I think all of these contraptions can be made to work. I’m quite partial to the submarine, in fact. But I think it’s… well, not wise—not for me to label your august royal father a madman!—to believe they can be made to work in time to fend off the American ironclads. They’ll be here by May, I’m thinking, at the latest.”


            Ulrik looked back to the submarine, then at the helmet. “You don’t share the opinion of my father’s courtiers, I take it? Most of them insist that the up-timers are not magicians, simply artisans—and that there is no way to get such ungainly boats down the Elbe and through the North Sea and the Kattegat and Skagerrak. Even leaving aside the political problem of passing Hamburg and the likelihood—the near-certainty, to hear those very martial fellows talk—that heroic units of our army—perhaps even the miserable French—will destroy them before they ever smell a whiff of saltwater.”


            Baldur chuckled. There was a bit of a sneer in the sound. “Oh, the Americans are certainly not magicians. On that much, I quite agree. But I’m wondering how many of those courtiers were there, at the battle of Wismar?”


            “Not one,” said Ulrik flatly. “I asked.”


            “What I thought. Well, I was there, Your Highness. I was aboard the Lossen. Fortunately for me, after the airplane crashed into us, I was one of the officers detailed to command the lifeboats we lowered. So I wasn’t aboard when the magazine finally exploded, a few minutes later.”


            There wasn’t a trace of the usual humor in Norddahl’s face, now. In that moment, Ulrik thought he was finally seeing the man beneath the rogue. A burly Norwegian, somewhere around the age of forty, with ash-blonde hair and very light blue eyes—and an impressive collections of scars even on that small part of his body that was visible. The prince didn’t doubt for a minute that there were plenty more beneath the heavy clothes Baldur wore in the workshop. This was a man who had seen more of danger than most any ten other men. Without the sheen of humor on the surface, he was like a grim ancient who’d gone a-viking every summer of his life since he was a boy.


            The prince sighed. “What I feared.”


            His eyes moved around the workshop again. Slowly, because there was so much to be seen. His father Christian IV was nothing if not an enthusiast, once something took his fancy. Where another monarch might have ordered one or two such dubious naval projects set underway, the king of Denmark had ordered a dozen.


            “Is there anything in here that isn’t hare-brained?”


            The smile came back. “Oh, yes! Two of the projects, in fact. Alas, I’ve not been able to generate much interest in them on the part of His Majesty. Too simple for his taste, you understand. But I think they have quite splendid possibilities. Here, let me show you.”


About Eric Flint

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