Authors: Nick Thacker
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PROLOGUE: PART 1
FEBRUARY, 1791 - JUST NORTH OF the Potomac River
The bubble-shaped submarine came to a slow halt. Its pilot looked through the bent glass in the craft’s top section to get a visual of his target. This shallow section of the river was interrupted by a deeper divot in the river’s bottom; a small well-shaped valley that sunk into the riverbed about eight feet.
It was into this hole that David’s sights were set.
He maneuvered the small submarine — an exact copy of one of his previous inventions, the
— into position at the edge of the small well. The watercraft wasn’t exactly easy to move — a combination of foot pedals and hand cranks were required in perfect unison just to move the semi-buoyant craft forward, much less side-to-side. He needed to turn completely around, slowly moving
's stern toward the hole.
His hands flew over the controls and cranks, ensuring there were no over-corrections or fast movements that might send the vessel spinning out of control. The
, and her predecessor,
, were both groundbreaking in many ways. David Bushnell designed the first American submarine, and this second version, using a water-based ballast system for controlling depth. This newer version incorporated a screw-type propeller to push the craft forward through the depths. To the untrained eye, this newer copy was exactly the same as its first incarnation.
The major difference, however, was that
was not fitted with the large detachable mine that the
mine had been something David included as an afterthought — given the turmoil of the British occupation of Boston and the surrounding colonies, he'd had enough foresight to fit his underwater vehicle with a functional — though limited — weapons system.
Combining the detachable mine with the stealth of a vessel that could travel sight unseen below the water's surface, Bushnell had hoped to create a vessel that could one day be used in naval and military applications. If the
succeeded in deploying its timed explosive onto the underbelly of a British battleship, the young nation might gain an advantage over its powerful British opponent. David hadn’t been able to get the mines to “stick” to the undersides of the ships, so while the intended effect — destroying British ships — hadn’t been achieved, the outcome was still the same: the timed mines erupted from the ocean’s floor, and the British pulled their fleet back out of the harbor, unsure of what had caused the explosions. Overall, Bushnell’s mission was a success.
had a different mission. Rather than a detachable mine on the submarine’s backside, a 200-pound detachable box was added. Its contents were unknown to David — he was simply contracted to navigate to the proper location beneath the surface of the Potomac River and detach the box, placing it precisely where his employers designated — the well-shaped depression at the river’s bottom, the corners of it now marked with temporary wooden rods.
With his turn finally complete, David was now directly above the drop zone. He unscrewed the large connecting rivet and pressed the clasp holding the detachable unit in place. He heard a soft
as the box disconnected from the rear wall.
After waiting thirty seconds to ensure that the box had reached the river bottom, he turned the submarine ninety degrees to his left — facing the craft almost due north. From this angle, he could see his handiwork through the submarine’s small, bubble-shaped viewing window. The large crate, bound with metal bands and locked in four places, sat nestled at the bottom of the shallow well, half submerged in silt and pebbles. Satisfied, David began spinning the propeller with his feet and guided the craft up to speed toward the shore. His work was done, and his payment could be collected.
PROLOGUE: PART 2
FROM A RISE ABOVE THE northern edge of the river, three men watched silently — two on horseback, the third standing next to them. The
was submerged for an hour or so, yet the men looked on. They said nothing to each other until David’s ship resurfaced, proceeded by a growing circle of lapping water and bubbles from the emptying ballast.
As the submarine slid toward them, the man seated in the middle spoke to the man standing next to him. “Benjamin, the mission has met with success. Finalize the plans for the layout at dawn, then return here and deliver the letter to our associate, Mr. L’Enfant.”
“Yes, Mr. Washington,” Benjamin replied. He left on foot, heading west.
Bushnell disembarked and returned from the river’s edge. He looked up the hill at the two remaining men and gave a slight nod. It was finished.
Washington looked to his companion. “See that Mr. Bushnell is compensated for his fine work here today — the object should now be safe from prying eyes.” He let out a tired sigh. “I suggest that you forget it as well; all that is left in this matter is the drawing of the new city’s layout.”
The man responded, “I am afraid that our dear Charles will not welcome the news. He has struggled for months to perfect the layout for our nation’s capital, and he does not always respond well to criticism.”
Washington took a long moment to answer. “Mr. Jefferson, I have personally appointed Charles l’Enfant to oversee this project, but the situation has changed. Our enemy is close to discovering our secret; we cannot continue to burden our nation with its protection. We shall leave it for another generation.”
“Please see to it that Mr. Ellicott takes over the surveying and layout of this area, and that Mr. Banneker remains behind as his personal scribe and assistant. I am confident they will give our capitol a foundation worthy of the secret it is built upon.”
Washington knew the secret could tear apart the fledgling nation. He also knew from experience how the promise of wealth and prosperity could tempt even the best of men, and the contents of the now submerged box would prove a terrible temptation indeed.
Washington and his colleagues had come so far in this new land, and had taken great pains to ensure that they would leave their families and friends with a solid foundation. If left unguarded, the whispers and rumors of this secret could eventually lead to an uprising — men would do anything to possess the knowledge it would provide. Washington knew the young government was not yet capable of dealing with this powerful object. It must be hidden away, until someone worthy of its power might find it.
Jefferson and Washington continued watching the great river before them as the sun sank into the water’s far edge to their right. The Potomac would make a wonderful backdrop to a marvelous city, one that would hopefully see many centuries of growth and prosperity, and serve as a beacon for the people of the great land.