Jesse and Hans were seated in the overstuffed chairs near the tower, reviewing the fourth in a series of instructor training flights. Jesse was determined to ensure that Hans could train other pilots as well as he could fly himself. Otherwise, the growth of the Air Force would be limited to the strength of Jesse's back. Which, he reflected, isn't any too strong, now that cooler weather is settling in.
On this flight, Jesse had played the part of a particularly dense student, unable to properly combine the use of rudder with ailerons. Hans was patiently explaining the theory and feel of coordinated flight when Woody, the tower duty officer, leaned over the rail and yelled down.
"Colonel Wood! Telephone!"
Jesse reflected that an extension phone on the ground floor would be handy, as he ran up the rickety stairs of the tower. He stepped inside and noted Woody standing at attention.
"At ease. Who is it?"
"The operator at Government House, sir," the young officer replied. "A message from the President, he said."
Jesse picked up the phone. "This is Colonel Wood."
"Colonel Wood, this is Capitol," came the immediate response. "Be advised that President Stearns requires immediate transportation to Magdeburg."
"Understood, Capitol. Transportation to Magdeburg. Anything else?"
"No, that's it. He's on his way now."
Jesse nodded at the duty officer and burst out the door. Hans was standing below looking up at the tower.
"Lieutenant Richter!" he bellowed. "The Belle II should be fully fueled. Go preflight her. The President is going flying."
Fifteen minutes later, Jesse had told Kathy where he was going, grabbed his homemade aeronautical chart, and reached the Belle II. He noted gratefully that Hans had already started the engine, as concerned as his commander that the cold engine might balk with the President looking on. Jesse returned the thumbs-up Hans threw him and saw the President's pickup pull into the yard.
Mike Stearns was obviously in a hurry. He ran up to the aircraft.
"Hello, Jesse," he said, shaking the pilot's hand. "Are we ready to go? Simpson swears he's got the landing strip shipshape and ready for us."
Jesse nodded. He and Hans had both made the Magdeburg trip twice—once together, once each solo. He didn't doubt that Simpson had the landing strip "shipshape." From what Jesse could tell, Simpson had a fetish about always having everything shipshape, and at all times.
The man probably has an exact routine for how he folds toilet paper. But Jesse let the thought drop, almost as quickly as it formed. Partly because a considerable part of him—certainly the part which was going to have to land a plane in Magdeburg before too long—actually approved of Simpson's precision. Mostly, though, because Jesse didn't like to think about toilet paper. Or, more precisely, its absence.
"Let me get in and then you take the right seat," he told Mike. "Mind the prop, okay?"
A minute later, Jesse began to taxi as the President struggled to strap himself in. The radio was already on Tower frequency.
"Grantville Tower, this is Belle II. Check that, Tower, this is Air Force One taxiing for takeoff."
"Roger, uh, Air Force One. Cleared for immediate takeoff. Wind is three-four-oh at twelve knots."
After takeoff, Jesse turned right and began to climb. Magnetic heading of 025 for now, he thought to himself.
Leveling off above scattered clouds at six thousand feet, he checked his chart. Yeah, 028 degrees to Halle, no wind. But not today. He peered at the scudding clouds and noted his cowling string inclined to the right. At least seven or eight degrees right drift.
He settled the aircraft heading on approximately 020 degrees by his whiskey compass and set 75-percent power for high cruise. The airspeed settled on a steady 95 knots. He noted they were abeam Weimar and hacked the clock. Only then did he look over at his passenger. He was puzzled to see Mike Stearns chuckling.
"Damn, this is a real aircraft, isn't it?" Mike said.
"Well, yeah. And I'm a real pilot and everything." Jesse was suddenly irritated. "What did you think it was?"
"No offense, Jesse. It's just that I haven't given much thought to the reality of what you and Hal have done. Sure, I get the reports, but there's nothing like the real thing. And Simpson doesn't think much of the Air Force. I can see he's mistaken."
Jesse couldn't help himself. "With all due respect to the admiral, Mr. President, he's a friggin' squid. His brain can't keep up with anything that travels faster than ten knots."
Stearns was laughing now. "Maybe it's a good thing you've missed what few meetings we've had of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Simpson would probably have challenged you to a duel by now."
Slightly chagrined, Jesse tried to calm down. "I guess Simpson knows what he's doing, most of the time. Sorry about the meetings, but I have one, repeat, one instructor pilot—me. That'll change soon, but I saw it as my primary duty that the Air Force has trained pilots. Given that Simpson insists he can't leave Magdeburg and it takes too long to get there from here unless I fly—and I had better things to do with our one and only airplane until last week when the Belle II here got finished . . ." He twitched his shoulders. "I get the written summaries, anyhow."
Changing the subject, he handed Stearns the chart. "Hold this for a minute, would you, sir?"
Digging out his 'whiz wheel,' the circular aeronautical slide rule he'd had since pilot training, Jesse stared hard at the clouds darting past. He marked the wind side of the computer, moved the outer ring, and pursed his lips at the result.
"Good thing we took off when we did," he explained to his passenger. "We've got a front moving in from the north. Looks to me like about a fifteen-knot headwind component into Halle. After that, probably thirty knots into Magdeburg. We won't have much daylight left."
Checking the clock, he made a quick calculation. "Seventy-five nautical miles to Halle. About eighty-five miles to Magdeburg after that. We'll get there around 1615 or so. Uh, that's 4:15 P.M. I hope you know we might not be able to fly back tomorrow, if that front closes in. What's the rush, anyway?"
"I've got to meet with the admiral about helping Gustav Adolf," Mike replied. "There could be some work in it for you, so I'll want you at it as well as Simpson." He took a breath and looked around. "Kinda bumpy today, isn't it?
Jesse shrugged. "Maybe a little."
He settled back to concentrate on his heading, though that was becoming a tad difficult. They were traveling through what he called light chop and the whiskey compass was bouncing around quite a bit.
He'd missed lunch, but Kathy had fixed him up. He pulled a sausage out of his flight jacket pocket and took a bite out of it. Remembering his manners, he looked over at Stearns. And realized he wouldn't have to share his meal.
Mike stepped down from the plane, delighted to feel his stomach settling down, turned, and froze as a stentorian voice bellowed a command. Two dozen men, most of them armed with up-time shotguns, but six of them armed with the new-model muzzleloading rifles being turned out by the Struve-Reardon Gunworks, snapped to attention and presented arms. Their clothing could scarcely be called a "uniform," but every one of them wore a brassard with the fouled anchor-and-muskets design Simpson had adopted for his "Marine Corps " insignia, and one of those brassards carried the three embroidered chevrons of a sergeant.
Eddie Cantrell stood beside the sergeant, clearly torn between embarrassment and enjoyment. He snapped to attention and saluted far more sharply than anyone who had known him before the Ring of Fire would ever have believed he could.
Mike was still staring at the youngster, wondering where the changeling had come from, when John Simpson stepped forward and saluted even more sharply than Eddie had.
Somewhere, Simpson had managed to have a very credible duplicate of a 21st-century officer's cap produced. The cap cover was a spotless white, and genuine gold leaf glittered on its polished black brim with eye-watering intensity in the bright afternoon sunlight. A single golden star flashed equally brightly on either side of his collar, and he carried a holstered 9mm automatic on a brilliantly polished Sam Browne belt he'd probably had made by whoever had made the cap for him.
He ought, Mike reflected later, to have looked absolutely ridiculous. But that thought came considerably later. What happened at the moment was that Mike Stearns, former president of a union local and now President of the United States, felt his own shoulders square themselves automatically, without any conscious thought at all, in acknowledgment of the formal courtesy.
Simpson held the salute for perhaps two heartbeats. Then the leather-lunged sergeant bellowed another order, and Simpson's hand came down from his cap brim at the exact same instant the honor guard snapped from present arms to stand easy.
It has to be for the benefit of the troops, Mike told himself. Even if it does feel like I've just stepped through the looking glass.
"Thank you, Admiral," he said after a moment, deliberately pitching his voice to carry. Then he gave himself a mental shake. "We have to talk," he said much more quietly, and Simpson nodded curtly.
"It's a five-minute walk to my office," he said equally quietly.
Simpson's office was another surprise. This was the first time Mike had been to Magdeburg since the meeting with Gustav and his staff to confer on matters of military production. He'd been too pressed at the time to take up Simpson's offer to tour the "naval base." He realized now that he'd been making some automatic—and erroneous—assumptions about exactly what Simpson had been up to. The office boasted a handsome desk and window glass, true. But aside from that, and an obviously locally manufactured filing cabinet in one corner, it was remarkably plebeian and utilitarian. Nothing at all like the "Douglas MacArthur Oriental Splendor" HQ which one of Mike's great-uncles who'd fought in the Pacific Theater had once described to him, and which Mike had assumed Simpson would mimic.
Or, for that matter, the lavish CEO suite which Simpson's son Tom had once described to him that had been Simpson's before the Ring of Fire. Simpson's wife Mary, according to Tom, had been quite a connoisseur of art and a mover and shaker in Pittsburgh's upper-crust social circles. She'd had the executive suites in her husband's petrochemical corporation decorated in good taste, and at great expense. Here, the only things on the walls were a calendar, what looked to be a series of production charts and a Table of Organization, and . . .
Mike tried to suppress a grin, but found it impossible. There was some art up on one wall, but it was hardly the kind of work that would have adorned the walls of Simpson's CEO suite in up-time Pittsburgh. Three paintings, all told:
The first—more of a professional sketch than a painting—was a straightforward depiction of one of the ironclads. The sketch was precise, done in pencil, and had almost the look of a diagram or blueprint. Mike wasn't certain, but he thought it had probably been done by Nat Davis, who he knew had a good hand for such things.
Next to it was the illustration which was the cause of Mike's grin: a large, cheaply framed canvas which depicted the ironclads under construction once they'd gone into action. Guns blazing in full glory. From the vaguely 'science-fictiony' flavor of the painting, Mike suspected that Eddie Cantrell himself was the artist. He knew Eddie was something of an illustrator, and had had ambitions in that direction before the Ring of Fire.
Simpson came to stand next to him. When Mike glanced over, he saw that for once the stiff-faced admiral had something of a smile on his face.
Simpson nodded. "He's actually got some talent for it, I think. So does my wife."
"I'm surprised you let him put it up."
"I almost didn't. But I agreed, once Lieutenant Cantrell agreed to leave off the gorgeous young woman in skimpy armor and wielding a sword perched on the bow he'd had his heart set on. He claimed that was 'the tradition.' I told him I couldn't imagine anything sillier in a naval battle, since she'd be mincemeat in five seconds."
Still smiling, Mike moved over to the third painting. "Who did this? I'm no connoisseur of the arts, but . . ."
"The man's name is Franz Knopf. Mary found him doing this painting on the wharf and took him under her wing." The stiffness was back in his face. "My wife is a connoisseur of the arts and claims he's got the genuine touch."
Mike studied the painting. There was no question that the technical skill involved was far superior to that displayed in Eddie's painting. Yet, in its own way, this third painting also had something of a futuristic quality. It depicted one of the still-unfinished ironclads in its full glory, with a cavalryman staring up at it. But the ironclad, as the 17th-century artist envisioned it, bore little resemblance to what the warship would actually look like. It vaguely reminded Mike of photographs he'd seen of pre-World War I era dreadnoughts.
"Impressive damn thing," he murmured.
Simpson smiled thinly. "Isn't it? And don't I wish I'd actually have something like that, when we're done. I'm seriously tempted to have it duplicated and use it for a recruiting poster." He examined the painting, for a moment. Then, softly: "I put it up partly because Mary would have been upset if I hadn't. But, more than that, to remind myself of how we must sometimes seem to the people of this era. Bigger than life. Much bigger, at times."
The perspicacity of the last remark intrigued Mike. But before he could pursue the thought, Eddie Cantrell came into the room and moved to stand against the office wall. Immediately, Simpson was all business. He offered Mike a chair, and then walked around to seat himself behind the desk.
There was absolutely no warmth in the look Simpson gave Mike, after they were both seated. But there was none of the bluster or posturing he'd more than half expected, either, he realized. It left him feeling off-balance, like someone prepared for a fight who isn't getting it. Almost uncertain, in fact, which was rare for Mike. He wondered if that was the reason Simpson was doing it.
Then he shook himself mentally and he drew a deep breath. "We've got a problem," he said bluntly.
Simpson nodded. "So I gathered from your radio message."
Mike drew a folded piece of paper from his pocket. "Here," he said. "It'll probably save a little time if you just read Gustavus' message yourself, while we're waiting for Jesse to finish securing the plane. Especially the last two sentences."
Simpson unfolded the sheet and laid it on his desk. The message wasn't a very long one:
YOUR MESSAGE RE DESTRUCTION DUTCH FLT RECEIVED. BALTIC ONLY LOGICAL TARGET FOR RICHELIEU. EXPECT JOINT DANISH-FRENCH NAVAL ATTACK SOON. PROBABLE TARGETS STOCKHOLM, LUEBECK, WISMAR, ROSTOCK, STRALSUND, GOTEBORG, OLAND. STOCKHOLM, LUEBECK, WISMAR ALL VITAL TO WAR. AM PREPARED TO ORDER ADMIRAL GYLLENHJELM TO DEFEND STOCKHOLM AND PERSONALLY UNDERTAKE DEFENSE LUEBECK. GARRISON FOR LUEBECK HOWEVER CAN ONLY BE DRAWN FROM WISMAR, ROSTOCK, STRALSUND. I CAN AFFORD LOSE ROSTOCK AND STRALSUND. NOT WISMAR. URGENTLY REQUIRE ALL POSSIBLE SUPPORT. MOST URGENT YOU ADVISE ME IMMEDIATELY ON AVAILABLE SUPPORT WISMAR. ALSO ADVISE IF YOUR IRONCLADS CAN ENTER BALTIC TO NEUTRALIZE DANISH-FRENCH NAVAL FORCES THERE.
He read it through twice, carefully. By the time he was done, Jesse Wood had entered the room and taken another chair. Simpson handed the message silently to Eddie and looked up at Mike.
"Yes," he said simply. "But not immediately."
"Are you serious?" Mike asked. "You think you really can get these monsters—" he gestured through the office window at the flank of a looming armored vessel which looked far larger in the flesh than he'd ever envisioned from the plans "—through to Luebeck?"
"I said I could," Simpson replied a bit more testily, then gave his head an impatient twitch. "Oh, it won't be easy. And there's no way in hell you can get one of these ships—not even one of the timberclads—through the Stecknitz, much less across the Schwerin to Wismar! If you're really serious about our neutralizing the Danes, we're going to have to go through Hamburg, into the North Sea, up the Helgoland Bight, through the Skaggerak, and down through the Kattegat. We'll have to fight our way through the Belt to break into the Baltic, but that shouldn't be a problem. As a matter of fact, I'm more worried about making the trip than I am about what we may have to fight at the other end. When we modified the original design for the ironclads, we made them a little more seaworthy than most river defense vessels, but they were never really intended to operate in the open sea, even in coastal waters. Fortunately, the Baltic is fairly sheltered. We should be able to handle any conditions we're likely to meet there."
His confidence, Mike realized, was not at all assumed. He meant it, and the President felt his gloom ease ever so slightly.
My God, he thought. Who would ever have thought Simpson could actually make me feel better about something?
He glanced at Jesse. The head of the Air Force was scowling slightly, but it was simply a thoughtful expression, not a hostile one.
"What about your schedule?" Jesse asked. "Last I heard, you were still predicting that you couldn't have them completed until next spring."
"We can do somewhat better than that," Simpson told him. "But not without some prioritizing. My existing estimates were based on completing all four of them, but I can get two of them—Constitution and United States—launched within six to eight weeks. This is September; call it mid-November, and I can have them in the water. I can only do that if I pull the crews off of the other two, though, and I'll need not just Nat Davis but Ollie Reardon and Greg Ferrara up here, as well. It's going to take an all-out effort to get them launched that quickly, and I'll need the best mechanics and machinists we've got to deal with any unforeseen problems."
"What sort of problems?" Mike asked.
"If I could tell you that, they'd hardly be 'unforeseen,' now would they?" Simpson replied, with an acidity Mike found oddly comforting, under the circumstances. Then the admiral relented—slightly, at least.
"We've done our best to test the machinery as we went along, but there's no way to really know what problems we may or may not have until we actually get the ships into the water. And although Mr. Ferrara and I have checked our estimates as rigorously as we can, we can't absolutely predict how they're going to handle or what their actual top speeds are going to be. It may turn out that we have to make some last-minute modifications to the steering arrangements, for example. If we do, I'll need the best technical people we've got to deal with them promptly. And I'll need them here, not in Grantville."
"All right, I can see that," Mike acknowledged. "But even if you get them launched that quickly, and even if there are no technical problems at all, you've still got to get them down the river to the North Sea. Are you certain you can do it?"
"I'll get them down the river," Simpson said flatly.
"What about these wehrluecken? We still don't have agreements for all of them."
"Fuck agreements." The harsh-voiced obscenity startled Mike, and Simpson laughed without humor at his expression. "I said I'll get them down the river," he said. "I didn't say it would be pretty. But there's a time for diplomacy and negotiation, Mr. President, and there's a time to be direct. I'm willing to go on working for voluntary agreements right up to the last minute. But if we don't get them, then I'll by God blast my way right through any fucking wehrlueck in my way!"
Mike blinked, then darted a glance at Eddie. The young man's expression surprised Mike more than a little. He looked just as determined as Simpson. Even more surprisingly—and importantly—his entire manner radiated agreement. And confidence. Whether Simpson really could pull it off or not, Eddie thought he could. Out of the corner of his eye, Mike saw Jesse smiling coldly. Apparently, he did too.
Mike felt a moment's amusement, then. He suspected that his top military officers sometimes found his diplomatic and political subtleties a bit frustrating. Whatever differences there might be between John Simpson and Jesse Wood, after all—or Frank Jackson—they hadall at one time been officers or soldiers in the world's most powerful military. The prospect of—for once, dammit—just blasting through the crap must have a certain appeal to them.
For that matter, once he thought about it, Mike found the prospect had an undeniable charm. He knew all about Freiherr von Bleckede and his obstructions over his precious little wehrlueck. Bleckede was a fine sample of the German petty aristocracy at its worst. Mike allowed himself a moment's pleasant reverie, imagining the expression on the good baron's face after Simpson's ironclads . . .
He shook it off.
"That still leaves Hamburg," he observed. "They've been hesitant to sign on with us from the beginning because of how close to Denmark they are. They don't have any particular love for Christian IV. In fact, they've been all but at war with him themselves for the past two or three years. But everybody in the region knows that sooner or later Christian and Gustavus are going to have it out to decide who's top dog in the Baltic, and they haven't wanted to get caught in the crossfire. Now that France and England and Spain are obviously signing up with Denmark and the Dutch are completely out of the equation, Hamburg's authorities are going to be even more unwilling to openly support Sweden in any way. Especially with Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar's army perched in Alsace, French troops even closer, and the Spanish—from what Becky can tell—rolling into the eastern Netherlands."
"With all due respect, that's your problem, Mr. President," Simpson said with a tight smile. His eyes locked with Mike's. "It comes with winning elections, I believe," the admiral added.
Mike felt himself smiling back thinly. "I believe you're right," he agreed. "And I promise we'll give it our best shot. All the same, I doubt that anyone is going to be able to talk them into just letting you sail through their harbor."
"Well, if Porter could run his gunboats past Vicksburg, I can run mine through Hamburg if I have to." There was an undeniable edge of arrogance in Simpson's voice, but to his own surprise, Mike found the other's flat confidence immensely reassuring. He looked over at Jesse and saw the cold smile was still there. That, too, was reassuring.
"But by your best estimate, it's going to be six weeks before you can be ready to start," he pointed out.
"No," Simpson corrected. "I said it would take six to eight weeks to get them launched. I'll need at least one more week, probably two, to get any problems worked out and the crews sufficiently familiarized with them. Especially if I'm going to be taking them into the North Sea!"
"All right," Mike accepted the correction. "Two and a half months, then. How long will it take you to get them to Luebeck or Wismar once you're ready to go?"
"Um." Simpson leaned back in his chair and looked thoughtful. "It's roughly a hundred and fifty miles from here to Hamburg, as the river flows, and another fifty from there to the sea. Then up around the Skaw . . ." He rubbed his chin, then shrugged. "Call it six hundred and seventy-five miles from Hamburg to Luebeck."
He sat back up and focused on Mike.
"I estimate that it should take us somewhere between three and ten days to get down the river itself. It depends on a lot of factors, including how much rain we get over the next few months, given how shallow parts of the river are between here and Hamburg. Once we get to sea, we should be able to make Luebeck within another three days, maximum. So take a worst-case estimate and say the entire trip will take two weeks."
"That makes a total of three months," Mike said. "Late December, at best, then."
"At best," Simpson agreed. "And while we're thinking about timetables, let's not forget that December gets us well into winter and that the Baltic sees a lot of ice in winter. I'm not sure what sort of icing conditions we can expect, either. From last winter's numbers, though, I don't expect it to be good."
He paused, and Mike nodded. Average temperatures in the 17th century were lower than in the 21st, and the previous winter had been colder than any of the up-timers had expected.
"There's no reason to expect this winter to be any warmer," Simpson continued, "and ice is the reason Baltic shipping is so extremely seasonal in this century. It's entirely possible that by the time we can get them to sea, the ice situation will be too bad for us to operate in the Baltic. By the same token, however, if we can't operate there, then sure as hell no sail-powered navy's going to be able to, either. So if winter shuts us down, it'll also shut the other side down. And by the time the spring thaw sets in, I damned well know we'll be ready to go after them."
"I see," Mike said, then frowned. "Either way, though, December is a long time to expect Gustavus to hold out in Luebeck. Especially if the Danes and this League of Ostend have complete control of Mecklenburg Bay for the next couple of months. Possibly even the entire Baltic; the western part of it, at least. And it sounds from his message like the only way he can get a garrison into Luebeck soon enough to do any good would be to strip it away from Wismar and the Stralsund Peninsula."
"Of course he will." Simpson sounded almost as if he were surprised Mike felt any need to comment on something so obvious. "He has to find the troops for Luebeck somewhere—where else could he look?" The admiral shook his head. "From my last information on his deployments, he ought to be able to scrape up enough additional troops to hold Wismar, at least. Probably have to just write off Stralsund and Rostock, though, at least for now. He can always take them back later, assuming we survive, but hanging onto Luebeck and Wismar will split the Danes' attention. If he thinks he can do it, it's certainly worth trying. But if he reduces Wismar's garrison to cover Luebeck, we're going to have to do something to keep the enemy from just walking in and taking it away before he can shift in fresh troops to cover it. He's pretty much got to hold on to Wismar. With Luebeck invested in a siege, and Rostock and Stralsund in enemy hands, Wismar would be his only good outlet on the Baltic."
"Do something? Like what?" Mike asked.
Simpson glanced at Jesse. "Colonel Wood will have to speak for the Air Force. As for the Navy, I've been thinking about that ever since you radioed that you were coming. And I had Lieutenant Cantrell do some resource analysis for me. He tells me that there are several speedboats in Grantville, including a couple of good-sized launches and at least one cockpit cabin cruiser. He also informs me that there are at least two or three people who scuba dive as a hobby. And he reminds me that Mr. Ferrara and his rocket club have been working on a ship-launched surface-to-surface missile for us."
The admiral gave his youthful lieutenant a long, sharp look, then turned back to Mike.
"If we commit those resources to Wismar with orders to hit and run, try and keep the French and the Danes off balance, they ought to be able to disrupt enemy naval operations to at least some degree. Long enough for Gustavus to bring in fresh troops, at least. And I assume that General Jackson ought to be able to provide at least a few surprises for them on the land front, as well."
For the first time, Jesse spoke up.
"We can commit the two Belles to it, too, if we can get some kind of airfield ready in or near Wismar. The X-2s, unfortunately, won't be ready in time, no matter how much we try to rush things.
"That'll mean delaying flight training for the new batch of pilots, but . . . Depending on the circumstances, I might take one or two of the first group with Hans and me. There's no point in me staying back in Grantville when our only functioning aircraft is on the Baltic coast. And the truth is my original pilot group—especially the best of them, like Hans and Woody—are actually at the point where the experience would do them good. Assuming, of course, they survive the experience at all."
The Air Force colonel's face was grim.
"This is going to be a bitch, don't think it won't, especially this time of the year. As it happens, I've flown a lot in Germany and some around the Baltic. But not in the simple machines we've got. We'll be able to fly on the days between the passage of succeeding storm fronts—of which there will be an increasing number as winter approaches. Then subtract some of the calm days because of fog, which is frequent on the coast."
He gave Simpson a hard stare; Simpson returned it, after an instant, with a curt nod. Mike realized he was witness to a little inter-service . . . not "rivalry," precisely. More like a mutual demand for respect.
Apparently satisfied with Simpson's response, Jesse continued. "Here's how it is. You can take off in clear weather and not be able to return two hours later. Or it might be clear for days on end. As a best guess, I'd say we'd have at least marginally VFR weather about one-third of the time. On the other days, it would be asking for death to take off in these machines. Not because you couldn't fly, but because we have no radio navigation aids to guide us to landing and because they aren't really equipped for instrument flying. A half-trained pilot—which is what I've got—would likely get into a classic death spiral after entering heavy cloud formations. There are chances an older pilot like me might take, because they have a feel for weather that surpasses that of new pilots. Plus an older pilot won't panic, which is often what kills you in weather."
He drew a deep breath and let it out.
"Mr. President—Admiral Simpson—I'm not going to kid either one of you. Flying in the Baltic doesn't appeal to me, with winter coming on. I'd say you can bet on perhaps fifty to sixty percent of flyable days in September. Maybe forty percent in October and November. Don't count on more than twenty-five to thirty percent from December through February. Foggy days will be very common on the coast."
Simpson grunted. "I remember the year when two F-111s just disappeared during fighter operations in NATO's BALTAP exercises—that stands for 'Baltic Approaches,' Mr. President. I was involved in that, from the naval side. They never were found. One in September and one in March, as I recall."
"Yup," echoed Jesse. "Of course, they probably flew into the sea while on 'hard ride' autopilot, but thinking about it is still not pleasant. Even in the world we came from, there are places where, if someone goes down, you don't bother looking very long. That's just the way it is—and will be for us."
Mike felt his own expression tighten at Simpson and Jesse's matter-of-fact assessment of the risks involved. He'd suspected it was coming, of course. And the fact that Simpson had been the first to actually suggest it didn't mean Mike was blind to the logic. It was just that the up-timers were already so thinly spread. The thought of sending his people into Wismar and all of the horrors of a 17th-century siege was not one that he wanted to contemplate.
But that was cowardice speaking, he told himself coldly. That was the fear of a man who was unwilling, when it came down to it, to pay the price his own beliefs demanded. Or even worse, of a man who was willing to let someone else's people pay for his beliefs.
He looked down at his hands for a moment, then drew a deep breath and raised his eyes once more.
"If Gustavus takes personal command in Luebeck and we assume responsibility for covering Wismar until he can reinforce it, it sounds like anything we commit will have to be more on the naval side. I think that means one of your people appropriately ought to be in charge, with the Air Force in a supporting role." He saw Jesse nodding out of the corner of his eye, and felt a moment's relief that whatever else he was facing Mike wouldn't have to play referee in some petty interservice brawl. "So who do you recommend, Admiral?"
Simpson's jaw clenched, and he turned to look out the dockyard window, as if this part of the decision was one he, too, would have preferred to pass to someone else. He stared out the window for several seconds, then turned back to Mike.
"Lieutenant Wild is already at Luebeck to set up the commo station with the Swedish encampment there. Once that's done, he's supposed to move on to do the same thing at Wismar. He's got a couple of petty officers with him, but his primary function is to coordinate communications. That's going to be just as important as anything else, and we're going to need a reliable commo link with anyone we send to Wismar. We're going to need it pretty badly, in fact, so I don't want to pull him off that. And, frankly, I'm not sure he'd be the right person for a combat assignment, anyway." His nostrils flared, and he turned his head to look directly at Eddie at last. "I think Lieutenant Cantrell is probably the best available choice."
"Eddie? I mean," Mike corrected himself almost instantly as he saw Eddie flush, "Lieutenant Cantrell?"
"He's here in Magdeburg, closer to Wismar than anyone back in Grantville, so we can get him there that much quicker. And we're going to have to establish the support infrastructure in Wismar now, before the city gets itself invested."
"What infrastructure do you have in mind?" Mike asked just a bit warily.
"Colonel Wood will have to assign some Air Force personnel for his end of things. The Navy will cooperate with them fully, of course. Speaking for the Navy itself . . ." He paused for a moment, thinking. "At the very least, we're going to need refueling facilities in the city. We can stow extra ammunition aboard the ironclads and probably even tow some supplies with us on barges, but I'm not about to put half of our total armored combat strength out at the end of a supply line that may or may not be there when it arrives. I want technical support personnel, fuel, and spare parts in place in either Wismar or Luebeck before we get there. Fuel, at least, in both, preferably. Most of that sort of thing is going to have to come from right here at Magdeburg, down the Elbe and through one or the other of the canals. Fortunately, the advance warning we've gotten from your wife's reports gives us a few days to work with. The enemy won't be expecting that. If we use both tugs, we can get anything here in Magdeburg to Lauenburg and through the Stecknitz to Luebeck within forty-eight hours. But it's going to take longer to get anything to Wismar, because the Swedes still haven't finished rebuilding the stretch from Lake Schwerin to the coast. That means we're going to have to move fast to get what we need into position, and Lieutenant Cantrell is very well versed in what we have here and how it all goes together.
"And, finally, he's the one I had figuring out what our available resources are. That means he's completely informed on what we have in Grantville, as well. And that he's probably in the best position to make effective use of them, for that matter."
Mike stared at the admiral for several seconds, and a memory played itself mercilessly in the back of his brain. The memory of an argument with Melissa Mailey and Ed Piazza that first night when he'd beaten back Simpson's argument that the up-timers must turn Grantville into some sort ofFortress America and refuse to grant asylum to starving, terrified refugees from the madness of war lest they all be overwhelmed. He'd disagreed then—and still did—with Simpson's logic, but he hadn't been blind to the necessities of his own. That same night, Melissa had called him a "warmonger" for proposing that high school seniors be called upon for military service in defense of Grantville.
So now it's my turn, he thought. My turn to say "But he's just a kid!" And he is . . . by the standards of the 21st century. But even in our own world, plenty of teenagers died fighting our wars. Sure as hell, Eddie—and Larry, and Hans—aren't "kids" here. Simpson's right, here and now, just as I was back then.
"All right." He turned from Simpson and looked at Eddie. "You heard what Admiral Simpson said, Eddie. You understand how important this is?"
"Of course I do," Eddie replied. "And don't worry, Mike. Uh, Mr. President. Larry and I will kick their asses! Speedboats and rocket attacks, maybe throw a few limpet mines at them." He grinned with the ferocious enthusiasm of the very young. "We may not be able to lift the siege all by ourselves, but we'll sure as hell keep them from getting very much done!"
"You'll do what you can, Lieutenant," Simpson said coldly. Eddie looked at him, obviously surprised by his tone, and Simpson showed his teeth. "I know you think of me as an ancient and decrepit military bureaucrat," he said. "It may surprise you to know that that wasn't always the case. I spent my time in gunboats on another river, Lieutenant. The same one General Jackson spent some time wading in. And I saw a lot of people die—as often as not because they thought technology and 'advanced weapons' made them invulnerable. Well, they didn't. And they won't make you invulnerable, either. I expect you to use good judgment. To think, damn it!"
Mike heard Jesse grunt approvingly. Eddie's eyes widened for just a moment, and then he nodded sharply. It was obvious from his expression that he was considering coming to attention, as well, but he didn't. Perhaps, Mike thought, he was too stunned to do anything that active. The President wouldn't have been a bit surprised if that were the case, for he was a bit stunned himself. Just as Mike had expected Simpson's HQ to resemble the fabled ones of MacArthur, he'd expected Simpson to be prone to the same glorious posturing.
But this was no time for that. He turned to join Simpson in glaring at the young man. "I agree wholeheartedly," Mike said forcefully, "and I expect you to do exactly what Admiral Simpson just told you to. Is that clearly understood?"
"Yes, sir!" Eddie blurted, and this time he did snap to attention.
"Good!" Mike growled. He turned away to consider John Chandler Simpson, who was still giving Eddie his best admiral's glare. And, for the very first time since he'd met the man, realized he was feeling something surprisingly close to genuine respect, not simply cold-blooded assessment of his talents.
"Good," he repeated softly.
That night, Mike and Jesse settled into their rooms in the new building very close to the shipyards which was the official U.S. embassy in Magdeburg. As he tossed his little traveling bag onto the bed, Mike found himself smiling whimsically. The very title of the building—embassy—was somewhat amusing. Given the tortuous complexity of the political structure of the Confederated Principalities of Europe, which resembled one of the mythical creatures made up from the parts of different animals—a manticore, or a sphinx, or a winged horse—the United States was a part of the CPE as well as an independent realm in its own right.
But Mike found the situation only somewhat amusing. The advantage to the arrangement was that each realm—including his own U.S.—enjoyed a great deal of autonomy to manage its own affairs. The disadvantage, of course, was that when faced with a real external threat the resultant beast was as unlikely to fight effectively as . . .
Mike's smile widened, and grew more crooked.
Jesse entered the room. "What's so funny?"
"Just the man I wanted to see. I have a technical question for you, O great experienced pilot. What do you think would really happen if Pegasus took a flying leap off a cliff?"
Jesse snorted. "Are you kidding? Horsemeat for dinner, that's what. Mind you don't break your teeth on all the splintered bones and little rocks mixed into the mess."
"Yeah, that's about what I figured."
"Ready to eat?" asked Jesse. "The guard tells me there's a very nice new restaurant just opened down the street. Um. Using the term 'street' loosely, anyway."
Mike sighed regretfully. "No, you go ahead, Jesse. I'll scrounge up what I can here. Oh, and, by the way—figure we'll be here at least another day."
Jesse cocked an eyebrow. Mike's whimsical smile came back. "I'll be in the radio room most of the time, I imagine, whenever I'm not meeting some of the people who showed up here for the Chamber of Princes."
"Trading horses—before we all wind up a lot of mangled horsemeat."