1633 David Weber and Eric Flint



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Chapter 25


After she finished tightening the gauze mask over her face, Melissa took the spray gun handed to her by Darryl. She gripped the device much the way a devout Christian might grip a heathen fetish: on the one hand, with great and squeamish reluctance; on the other, very tightly—lest the horrid thing escape and inflict unknown havoc upon nearby innocent children.

Everyone in the room burst into laughter. After a moment, Melissa couldn't help smiling herself.

"God, do I feel stupid," she chuckled.

Darryl's laugh faded into a simple grin. "Hey, Melissa—I told ya. I'll be glad to do it myself. The stuff doesn't bother me any."

Melissa sniffed. "All the more reason for you not to do it! It should bother you. You'll be careless."

Darryl's eyes rolled. "Fer Chrissake," he muttered. "It's just DDT. You're acting like it's nerve gas or mustard gas, or sumthin'."

Melissa eyed the spray gun with distaste. "Besides, I'm by far the oldest person here. So whatever the foul stuff does to me it isn't likely—I suppose—to kill me off until I'm dead of old age anyway. And since I'm past menopause, there's no problem with effects on my offspring."

Now it was Rita's turn to roll her eyes. In the two years since the Ring of Fire, Mike Stearns' sister had devoted her energies to nursing and medical studies. Although she was no doctor—nor even a nurse, by the strict standards of a pre-Ring of Fire RN—she had far more medical expertise than anyone else in the U.S. delegation to England.

"Melissa," she said, almost sighing, "how many times do we have to go over this? The health hazards involved in using DDT are long-term, and have a lot to do with how frequently you get exposed to it. It's not likely to hurt any of us to spray it once in a while, especially if we take simple precautions like wearing a breathing block—" Here she nodded toward the gauze mask on Melissa's face. "—wash the clothes used afterward, keep the windows closed while spraying so it'll settle quickly. Hell, people have even been known to eat the stuff and not die from it." A bit hastily: "Not that it's a good idea, of course. It is toxic, no doubt about it. And for a rich country like our old U.S. of A., it made plenty of sense to stop using it. But—"

Melissa waved her hand impatiently—just for a brief moment, before she resumed her firm clutch on the heathen device.

"Spare me the lecture," she grumbled. "I admit I'm probably a little eccentric on the subject—old habits die hard—but I'm not actually crazy. I know perfectly well that the fatality rate from typhus or bubonic plague makes the toxic side effects of DDT look like cotton candy. I still don't have to like it."

She waved the spray gun around, almost threateningly. "Now get out of here, all of you. To quote the Bard—whoever the hell he is, and that's something else I'd like to find out while we're here because I still don't quite believe Balthazar about the earl of Oxford anymore than I believed those slick-talking company spokesmen I can remember swearing that benzene was harmless—until the poor slobs on the factory floor who were making it started dropping like flies from cancer of the liver—and dammit, I liked the idea that the English language's finest poet and playwright was a nobody from the sticks—"

Everybody's eyes were now almost crossed, trying to follow the convoluted thought processes. Melissa stopped her prattle, cleared her throat noisily, and got to the point:

" 'If t'were done at all, best t'were done quickly.' Scat!"

The Schoolmarm's Voice, that last. Everyone scatted—hastily—while Melissa marched toward the far corner of their rooms in St. Thomas' Tower. Darryl was the last one to emerge onto the walkway connecting their suite to the inner walls of the tower. By the time he closed the door, he could hear Melissa's growls interspersed with the spish-spish of a manually operated spray pump being furiously worked.

He grinned, and pressed an ear against the door. "That's telling 'em, girl!" His voice took on a little falsetto, mimicking Melissa. " 'Die, bug, die! Out, damned louse!' And then there's something in . . . sounds like Latin, maybe. 'Sick sumper rickets perwacky,' I think."

Rita was grinning too. " 'Sic semper Rickettsia prowazekii,' I bet. That translates more or less as: thus to all the damned critters that cause typhus. Rickettsia prowazekii is the germ involved in that disease. It's sorta like a bacterium."

"Only good bug is a dead bug," said Darryl, nodding approvingly.

Tom Simpson chuckled. "Don't let Melissa hear you say that, Darryl—not unless you want a lecture on how most bugs are our friends and you shouldn't squash spiders."

Darryl winced. Tom started to add something else, but felt a hand on his elbow. Turning his head, he saw that one of the Yeoman Warders standing guard on the walkway—as always, keeping the Americans from entering the inner Tower except under escort—had come up behind him. Politely, the man was leaning his partisan away.

Away, yes—but the great blade of the weapon was still honed sharp, and gleamed in the morning sun.

"Yes, Andrew?" he asked. By now, Tom had made it a point to learn the names of all the Yeoman Warders assigned to stand guard over the American delegation. They all had.

"If you'll pardon my asking, m'lord—ah, sir—what are you doing in there?"

The words were not spoken in a hostile tone. This was not the query of a guard investigating suspicious conduct, simply the question of man puzzled—not for the first time—by the sometimes odd conduct of these rather eccentric Americans.

"We're spraying our rooms with a chemical we brought with us. It's called 'DDT' for short." Tom nodded toward Rita. "You'd have to ask my wife what the letters actually stand for. I've forgotten. Some long bunch of chemical terms."

Andrew frowned. "Why?"

"The stuff kills most kinds of germs—small things; you can't see them with the naked eye—that carry disease. Well, some diseases, anyway. It'll work against the germs that carry typhus—what you all call 'Gaol fever,' I think—and bubonic plague, I know that."

Rita chimed in. "Tom doesn't have it quite right. DDT doesn't kill the bacteria directly, what it does is kill the lice which transmit it."

By now, Andrew's two companion guards had come up also. All three of them were frowning fiercely, obviously lost in the "explanation." But one word did register.

"That . . . ah, 'DDT,' " said Andrew. "It kills lice." Reflexively, all three Yeoman Warders started scratching themselves.

"Yup," said Tom. "Deader'n doornails. Of course, you have to keep spraying an area now and then to get the full effect. But we brought quite a bit of the stuff with us, and it really doesn't take that much. I imagine we've got enough to spray all the places in the Tower where people actually live. Rita?"

She nodded firmly. "Not often," she qualified. "Some places—except the sleeping areas—probably not more than once. But DDT decays at a very slow rate. The stuff'll last for years—which is a good part of the reason, of course, that back in the U.S. of A.—the old U.S. of A., I mean—we finally decided—"

She broke off, obviously realizing that this was neither the time nor the place to delve into the long-term drawbacks of using DDT. Her husband charged into the breach.

"And it helps a lot—a lot," said Tom firmly, "if you also have your clothing and bedding regularly cleaned. They need to be steam cleaned, though, to kill the lice. Regular washing won't do it."

The three guards stared at each other. Then, back at Tom.

"What is, ah, 'steam cleaning'?" asked Andrew.

Tom started to answer, but Rita interrupted. "We can show you—but, you'll have to give us some help."

Immediately, the frowns on the faces of the Yeoman Warders changed from those of puzzlement to suspicion. "We canna—" Andrew started to say.

Rita shook her head. "I'm not talking about any kind of private or secret 'help.' You'd have to get the agreement of your own commanding officer, or whoever"—she waved her hand—"is really in charge of this place. Which I never have quite figured out. For all I know, it's the earl of Strafford himself."

The frowns of puzzlement were back. Rita smiled sweetly. "In order to 'steam clean,' we'd have to set up something we call a 'laundry.' Which doesn't mean exactly the same thing you probably think it means. We'd have to build some kind of big central heating area, run water through it to make steam, then—"

Now at a bit of a loss, she glanced appealingly at Friedrich Bruch. As was his usual manner, the always-quiet Friedrich had been standing toward the rear of the little crowd gathered in conversation on the walkway. Seeing Rita's eyes upon him, he shuffled forward.

"I worked for a time in the big public laundry in Grantville," he said softly. Softly, but not hesitantly. "I can design a steam-cleaning system for the Tower, given the necessary resources and labor. It's really pretty simple, when you get down to it."

The guards stared at him. Stared at Tom and Rita. Then, stared at the door to St. Thomas' Tower. The door was opening now, Melissa almost charging through.

"Faugh!" she exclaimed, tearing the mask from her face. Then, imperiously, handed the spray gun to Darryl. "Take this thing, would you? I've had enough of it."

Seeing the three guards, almost ogling her, Melissa gave them a somewhat savage smile. "I will say this, however. I won't be scratching myself to sleep every night. Typhus and plague be damned! That alone is worth its weight in gold."

Three Yeoman Warders, as one man, started scratching reflexively.

After the earl of Strafford had explained the situation to the man who was considered probably England's foremost doctor of the day, Sir William Harvey frowned.

"If I understand you correctly, my lord, you are concerned that this might be a subtle ploy on the part of the Americans? An attempt, perhaps, to poison the entire population of the Tower."

Strafford pursed his lips. "Not that, exactly. Perhaps." Suddenly, he heaved a great sigh. "Sir William, to be honest I don't know what it is I fear—or might fear, or should perhaps fear. If anything. For all I know, their proposal—their offer, if you will—is quite genuine. I simply . . ."

His voice trailed off into silence. Harvey's lips quirked a bit, into something that was half a smile of understanding and half a grimace of shared exasperation.

"Ah, yes, Lord Strafford—I do understand. Believe me! The short time I spent in Grantville was often, ah, frustrating. Never quite knowing what to believe, and what not. The great discomfort—great discomfort—of old sureties being rattled by new and—to me, at least—outlandish theories. Still—"

The doctor swiveled his head and stared out the window of the palace. His eyes seemed slightly unfocused.

"I do not think . . ." He took a long breath. Then, abruptly: "You've read, I suspect, the long report I wrote for His Majesty on my experiences in Grantville?"

Strafford nodded.

"Do you recall my account of a public session I attended of what they call their 'Congress'? It's a bit similar to our own Parliament."

Again Strafford nodded; the gesture, this time, accompanied by a thoughtful running of his fingers through his thick hair. "You are referring, I imagine, to the dispute that took place over the use of—what did they call it? 'Chemical warfare'?"

"Yes. 'Chemical and biological warfare,' to be precise. I sat through the entire debate, my lord. There's a gallery from which guests can observe the proceedings. I was quite fascinated—and more by the political struggle taking place, really, than the scientific aspects of the question."

Strafford grunted. "You don't believe, then, that the whole thing was a staged performance?" He hesitated for a moment, then added: "That seems to be the opinion of His Majesty himself, and most of his courtiers. Laud thinks so as well."

Harvey barked a little laugh. " 'Staged'? For my benefit, you mean? So that I might scurry back and warn everyone that the Americans have the capability of slaughtering entire nations?"

Strafford nodded. Harvey barked another laugh. "To be honest, my lord, I doubt if many of their officials were even aware that I was in the gallery. And that hardly explains the speech given by their President, when he insisted on addressing the Congress directly. You did read that portion of the report also?"

Strafford smiled. "Yes, I did. I was rather amused, despite the man's appalling language. He seems a blunt and direct sort of fellow." The earl closed his eyes for a moment, summoning his memory—which was, as always, excellent—and began reciting:

" 'If you pass this stinking bill, I will veto it. If you override my veto, I will refuse to implement the provisions in my capacity as the head of the armed forces. I will also give it a development budget too small to pay for a child's toy. If you try to impeach me for so doing, I guarantee you will be in the worst damn brawl of your lives. We outlawed this crap in the world we came from, for Chrissake—and for good reason!—so why is anybody here such a fucking idiot as to think it's a good idea in the new one? Do I make myself clear? Go ahead, try me."

Harvey smiled. "Mind you, my lord, I doubt if the proposal would have been adopted anyway. But after that little speech—he broke custom, apparently, by even appearing to give it in the first place—the thing was dropped immediately."

Strafford studied the doctor. "And what do you think? Could the Americans make such weapons?"

Harvey shrugged. "From what I could tell, based on conversations I had with various people . . . the answer is both 'yes' and 'no.' Yes, they could make them. But not without great difficulty, and not in such quantities as to enable them to poison entire nations."

"But possibly in enough quantities to poison a much smaller place," stated Strafford immediately. "Such as, for instance, the Tower of London."

Harvey hesitated, then nodded. He began to add something, but Strafford shook his head.

"No, that doesn't solve the problem. Obviously, they wouldn't want to poison themselves at the same time. But who is to say they don't have an antidote of some kind already with them? We've never searched their rooms or their luggage, you know. Nor, given the need to maintain at least the appearances of diplomatic niceties, am I prepared to order such a search. I am violating established custom badly enough as it is, by keeping them sequestered."

The doctor was silent. Strafford kept studying him. "And I would remind you, doctor, that according to the accounts we've received—three of them, now, from independent sources—the Americans did not hesitate to use some sort of fiendish incendiary weapon against the Spanish troops they trapped in the Wartburg."

Again, Harvey began to speak; but, again, Strafford shook his head. "No, doctor, that won't do either. I am aware, also, that the Americans seem to have taken care at the Wartburg to keep the Spanish casualties to a minimum. I am not suggesting these people are a new tribe of Tatars. Still, we cannot make too many assumptions about what they will and won't do. It seems odd to me that they make such a fuss about some forms of what they call 'chemical warfare,' but don't seem to have any qualms about roasting a man to death with another. Contradictory, that is, from any philosophical or theological or ethical standpoint I can imagine. So, at least, it seems to me."

Harvey was silent. Finally, Strafford allowed a little smile to come to his face. "Oh—say it, doctor. I am not trying to browbeat you. Simply, if you will, playing the good sophist by arguing the other side of the case."

Harvey returned the smile with one of his own. "Nor, for that matter, should you assume I am their partisan, my lord. There was much about the Americans that, frankly, I found quite distasteful. But the fact remains—"

He squared his shoulders a bit. "The fact remains that one thing I did notice, while I was there—impossible not to notice it, save you were a blind man—was the great care they take of children. Much better care, to be honest, that we often do in our own kingdom."

Strafford's lips tightened, but he did not argue the point. He had often been appalled himself, since his youth, at the condition of many of England's children. Especially those of paupers.

"The Tower is full of children, is what you are saying."

"Yes, My Lord. And I remind you that the one woman—" For a moment, Harvey's lips twisted into a grimace. "The one who seems to fancy herself some kind of 'lady.' Well. The point being, that whatever her pretensions now, she was—by all accounts—"

"A teacher of children. And for most of a lifetime."

Harvey nodded. Strafford turned slightly away from the doctor and clasped his hands behind his back. "Do not be misled by your own habits, doctor," he said softly. "I have, as it happens, spent a number of hours in the company of Lady Mailey." There was just a slight emphasis on the title. "Which you have not, I believe. That she is a 'lady,' in some fundamental sense of the term, is not subject to doubt."

Harvey accepted the mild reproof without demur. Strafford swiveled his head back toward him. "Still, as you say, a former teacher of children. And I believe you are correct in this matter, doctor. Whatever else that woman might be capable of, I find it impossible to imagine her deliberately poisoning dozens of innocent children. True, it is a sinful world. But some crimes, at least, we may have safely left behind us."

He smiled crookedly. "Which, now that I think upon the matter, is exactly what their President said to their own Congress. If not, admittedly, with such a fine turn of phrase as my own."

For a moment, he and William Harvey shared a little laugh. When that was over, Strafford issued his commands.

"We shall do it, then. Give the Americans in the Tower whatever they ask for—within reason—in the way of resources and labor. If nothing else, this might prove to be an interesting and valuable test of their claims. Their moral claims, even more than their mechanical ones—which, I think, will prove in the end to be the most important thing to know about them. I would ask you, however, to oversee the affair from the standpoint of the crown."

"Yes, my lord. Ah—"

"No need, I think, to concern King Charles over such a small matter as building a clothes-cleaning apparatus and killing insects. Nor, of course, do I expect you to take any time away from the medical demands of His Majesty and the queen."

"Ah, yes. my lord. You understand—"

"Yes, yes. I am aware that the queen's health is frail and she requires a great deal of attention. Simply give this affair at the Tower as much attention as you can."

"Yes, my lord."

On the third day of the spraying of the Tower of London, Darryl McCarthy was manning the spray gun. Toward the end of the day, he insisted on spraying the special dungeons where the most dangerous criminals were kept.

"Doesn't do any good," he said forcefully, "if you don't kill all the lice—and you know as well as I do, Andrew, that the damn things will be worse in there than anywhere else!"

By this time, the Official Sprayer was a title of great—even if informal—respect. Somewhat helplessly, the Yeoman Warder looked to Doctor Harvey for guidance. After a moment's hesitation, Harvey nodded his approval.

"But the prisoners will not be allowed to leave their cells during the process," he said firmly. "If they suffer some ill-effects, so be it. Most of them will be dead soon enough anyway."

Darryl didn't argue the point. Truth be told, he agreed with the good doctor.

When Darryl entered the fourth cell, the Yeoman Warder accompanying him curtly ordered the prisoner into a corner. Once the man was there, Andrew fastened his manacles and hastily backed out of the chamber, closing the heavy door behind him.

The moment he heard the sound of the bar being dropped across the outer door, Darryl began by spraying the prisoner himself. Most vigorously.

"Take that, you Sasanach bastard. If the Brits don't chop you, I hope this gives you cancer. Black-and-Tan asshole. Butcher of Ireland." Spish-spish-spish. "I didn't have orders, I'd shove this thing down your throat and let you have the whole lot."

The prisoner was covering his face with his hands. Still snarling obscenities, Darryl turned away and finished spraying the rest of the chamber. Then, started fumbling beneath the heavy protective garment he was wearing. Rita and Nelly had designed and sewn the thing. It was something like a combination of a poncho and a pair of "heavy duty pajamas." Very bulky—certainly bulky enough to conceal a small object like a walkie-talkie.

"Orders," muttered Darryl. "I still say this is a bad idea. Here, fuckwad—take it. Keep it hidden." He smacked the prisoner on the top of his head with the spray gun. "Dammit—pay attention! You see this button?"

Bleary-eyed, the prisoner stared up at him. Then, down at the button on the strange device. Darryl smacked him again. The prisoner nodded.

"That turns it on and off." He glanced up to make sure the cell had an arrow slit through which the prisoner could tell if it was day or night. "Keep it off except just after sundown. Then turn it on until you hear a voice. Then do what the lady says. See this button? Looks kinda like a little black wheel sticking out on the side."

Smack. The prisoner nodded.

"That's the volume control. That means the voice will sound louder or softer. Turn it down as low as you can and still hear it. So the guards don't. The gadget's set for VOX, so you just talk into it. But remember that when you're talking, you can't be listening. So shut up when you're done so she can get a word in. And that's it. Even a stinking murderous shithead like you should be able to figure it out."

For good measure, Darryl gave him a few last spurts of DDT—spish-spish-spish—and stalked over to the door. By the time Andrew opened it, in response to his hammering fist, Darryl was humming the tune of "The Men Behind the Wire."

Shortly after sundown, the prisoner did as he had been instructed. He heard a woman's voice coming out of the strange little box. Hastily, he followed the orders he had been given and swiveled the little wheel until the voice was barely loud enough to hear.

"—mwell. Oliver Cromwell. Come in. Are you there?"

A bit hesitantly, he spoke. "Aye. 'Tis I."

There was a little pause. Then he heard the woman muttering something. It sounded something like "damn Darryl—didn't he—" He didn't catch the rest.

A moment later, the woman said: "—can barely hear you. You need to hold the—ah, the thing—up close to your mouth. Talk into the grille—ah, the crosshatch-looking part—ah, what do you call it—"

He smiled. "I understand. Is this better?"

"Yes. Good! Now, listen. This thing is called a 'walkie-talkie.' With it, we can talk to you from where we are, which is in a part of the Tower called St. Thomas' Tower. But you don't have a lot of power to spare—"

He didn't understand the sentence or two which followed. Something involving "batteries," though he didn't see where massed guns had anything to do with the subject at hand.

"—only right after sundown, you understand? If you leave it on, you'll drain it."

That seemed clear enough. "Aye. Only after sundown, and then turn it off when you instruct me to do so."

"You got it. Good." There was another pause. "That's really all I've got for tonight. Any questions?"

The prisoner thought for a moment. Then, in a mild tone of voice: "Yes, actually, I do have a question. Why did the man you sent to deliver this device strike me on the head—several times—spray what I suspect is poison in my face, and bestow a truly monumental string of curses upon me? I don't recall ever meeting the fellow."

He heard another muttered string of phrases. The only part he understood was: "—kill the stupid kid, I swear I will—"

She broke off abruptly. "It's because he's Irish and you—well, the 'you' that would have been—conquered Ireland once and apparently—depends who you hear this from—either killed half the Irish or—ah, hell, never mind. He's holding a grudge for something you did about fifteen years from now. In another universe."

"Ah." The prisoner nodded. The little smile on his face widened. "It seems fitting enough. The king is peeved with me for a similar reason. So why should my—ah, allies—not feel the same?"

"Well." Another pause. "It's all pretty complicated. To be honest, I'm not sure what I think about the whole thing myself. Not just you, I mean—everything. We're from the future, you know. Americans. You may have heard about us."

"Oh, to be sure. The earl of Strafford has waxed eloquent on the subject to me, once or twice. I confess I was somewhat skeptical. Apparently I was wrong."

Silence. Then: "Okay. Well, I guess I'll sign off now. Remember to turn the walkie-talkie off."

"A moment, please. What is your name, Lady of the Walkie-Talkie? And do you have any thoughts on the subject of predestination? I have been puzzling over that matter myself, these past many weeks. Nothing much else to do, of course."

"My name? It's Gayle Mason. As for predestination . . . oh, hell, Oliver Cromwell. I haven't got the faintest idea. I always just figured a person should try to do the right thing and let God figure out the rest of it."

"Ah. Splendid. A Puritan after my own heart."

He heard what sounded like a snort. "Ha! 'Puritan,' is it? That's sure as hell not what my ex-husband called me."

"The more fool him, then." The prisoner's smile became something rather sad. "Enough. I'll not keep you, Lady Gayle. I suppose it is just that I have not heard the sound of a woman's voice since . . . since my wife died. It's a sound I miss a great deal."

Again, there was silence. The prisoner began to push the button, then paused. "Is there some proper signal I should give, before shutting down this little machine?"

"Oh. Yeah. 'Seventy-three.' But—"

"Aye?"

"Ah . . . never mind. I'm sorry about your wife and your son. We heard what happened from some of the Yeoman Warders. Ah . . . never mind. I'll call you again tomorrow night, Oliver Cromwell."

"And the nights after that?"

"Oh, yeah. Sure. Every night. And now, ah—"

"Seventy-three, Lady Gayle. May the Lord watch over you."
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