Dr. James Nichols finished washing off his hands and turned away from the sink, fluttering his hands in the air in order to dry them. Even in the hospital, Mike knew, towels were in such short supply that James had decreed that medical personnel should use them as little as possible.
He braced himself for the inevitable complaint. But, other than scowling slightly, the doctor simply shook his head and walked over to the door.
"Let's get out of here and let the poor woman get some sleep."
Mike opened the door for the doctor, whose hands were still damp, and followed him out into the corridor. Wondering, a bit, how the sick woman was going to get much sleep with her entire family crowded around the bed.
A bit, not much. Mike himself would never get used to it personally, but he knew that Germans of the 17th century were accustomed to a level of population density in their living arrangements that would drive most Americans half-crazy. A good bed was valuable—why waste it on two people, when four would fit?
Once the door was closed, he cocked an eyebrow at Nichols. Trying, probably with not much success, to keep his worry hidden.
No success at all, apparently:
"It's not plague, if that's what you're worrying about." James' voice was more gravelly than usual. Nichols worked long hours as a matter of routine. But Mike knew that since Melissa had left Grantville, he practically lived at the hospital. Insofar as a black man's face could look gray with fatigue, James' did. His hard and rough features seemed a bit softer, not from warmth but simply from weariness.
"You need to get some sleep yourself," said Mike sternly.
James gave him a smile which was half-mocking. "Oh, really? And exactly how much sleep have you been getting, since Becky left?"
As they continued moving down the corridor toward Nichols' office, weaving their way through the packed halls of Grantville's only hospital, James' scowl returned in full force.
"What in God's name possessed us to send our womenfolk off into that howling wilderness?" he demanded. Indicating, with a sweep of the hand, everything in the world.
Mike snorted. "Paris and London hardly qualify as 'howling wilderness,' James. I'm sure James Fenimore Cooper would agree with me on that, once he gets born. So would George Armstrong Custer."
"Bullshit," came the immediate retort. "I'm not an 'injun-fighter,' dammit, I'm a doctor. Cities in this day and age are a microbe's paradise. It's bad enough even here in Grantville, with our—ha! what a joke!—so-called 'sanitary practices.' "
They'd reached the doctor's office and, once again, Mike opened for James. "Forget 'gay Paree,' Mike. In the year of our Lord 1633, the sophisticated Parisian's idea of 'sanitation' is to look out the window first before emptying the chamber pot."
The image made Mike grimace a little, but he didn't argue the point. He'd be arguing soon enough, anyway, he knew. James' wisecrack about Grantville's sanitation was bound to be the prelude to another of the doctor's frequent tirades on the subject of the lunacy of political leaders in general, and those of the Confederated Principalities of Europe in particular. Which, of course, included Mike himself.
Once they'd taken their seats—James behind the desk and Mike in front of it—he decided to intersect the tirade before it even started.
"Don't bother with the usual rant," he growled. His own voice sounded pretty gravelly itself, and he reminded himself firmly not to take his own grouchiness at Rebecca's absence out on Nichols. For all that the doctor's near-monomania on the subject of epidemics sometimes irritated Mike, he respected and admired Nichols as much as he did anyone he'd ever met. Even leaving aside the fact that James had become one of his best friends since the Ring of Fire, the doctor's skill and energy was all that had kept hundreds of people alive. Probably thousands, when you figured in the indirect effects of his work.
"What's she got?" he asked gruffly. "Another case of the flu?"
Nichols nodded. "Most likely. Could be something else—more precisely, and be something else. But I'd say it's just another case—out of God knows how many—where we Typhoid Mary Americans inflicted the helpless locals with our highly evolved strains of influenza." His thick lips twisted in a wry smile. "Of course, I'm sure they'll be getting their revenge soon enough, once smallpox hits us. Which it will, don't think it won't."
"Any luck with—"
James shrugged. "Jeff Adams thinks we'll have a vaccine ready to go within a month or so, in large enough quantities to make a difference. I just hope he's right that using cowpox will work. Me, I'm a little skeptical. But . . ."
Suddenly, he grinned. The expression came more naturally to James Nichols' face than did the scowl which usually graced it these days. "You'd think, wouldn't you, that a boy from the ghetto would be less fastidious than you white folks! But, I ain't. God, Mike, talk about the irony of life. I can remember the days when I used to complain, back in my ghetto clinic, that I was mired in the Dark Ages. And here I am—mired in the real Dark Ages."
"Don't ever let Melissa hear you say that," responded Mike, grinning himself. "Talk about a tirade!"
James sniffed. "Fine for her to lecture everybody on the upstanding qualities of people in all times and places. She was brought up a Boston Brahmin. Probably got fed political correctness with her formula. Me, I grew up in the streets of south Chicago, and I know the truth. Some people are just plain rotten, and most people are lazy. Careless, anyway."
He heaved himself erect from his weary sprawl in the chair, and leaned over the desk, supporting his weight on his arms. "Mike, I'm really not a monomaniac. You just don't have any idea what disease can do to us—the whole damn continent—living under these conditions. We've been lucky, thus far. A few flare-ups, here and there; nothing you could really call an epidemic. But it's just a matter of time."
He jerked a thumb toward the window. Beyond it lay the town of Grantville.
"What's the point of lecturing people every night on the TV programs about the need for personal sanitation—when most of them can't afford a change of clothes? What are they supposed to do—in the middle of Germany, in winter—walk around naked while they stand in line at the town's one and only public laundry worth talking about?"
There wasn't any trace of the grin left, now. "While we devote our precious resources to building more toys for that fucking king, instead of a textile and garment industry, the lice are having a field day. And I will guarantee you that disease and epidemic will kill more people—more of Gustav's own soldiers, the stupid bastard—than all the Habsburg or Bourbon armies in the world."
Mike sat up himself. The argument was back, and there was no point in trying to evade it. James Nichols was as stubborn and tenacious as he was intelligent and dedicated. The fact that Mike was at least half in agreement with the doctor just made him all the more stubborn in defending Gustavus Adolphus—and, of course, his own policies. The United States of which Mike Stearns was President was, on one level, just another of the many principalities which formed the Confederated Principalities of Europe under the rule of the king of Sweden. Even if, in practice, it enjoyed a status of near-sovereignty.
"James, you can't reduce this to simple arithmetic. I know disease—and hunger—are the real killers. But one year is not the same as the year after that, or the year after that. Ifwe can stabilize the CPE and put a stop to the Thirty Years War, then we can start seriously planning for the future. But until that happens . . ."
He leaned back, sighing heavily. "What do you want me to do, James? For all his prejudices and quirks and godawful attitudes on a lot of questions, Gustavus Adolphus is the best ruler of the times. You don't doubt that any more than I do. Nor do you think, any more than I do, that Grantville could make it on its own—without devoting even more of its resources to purely military efforts. Being part of the CPE, whatever its drawbacks—and I think I understand thoseeven better than you do—is our best option. But that means we don't have any choice except to do what we must to keep the CPE afloat."
He lurched to his feet and took three strides to the window. There, he glowered down at the scene. Nichols' office was on the top floor of the three-story hospital, giving him a good view of the sprawling little city below.
And "sprawling" it was. Sprawling, and teeming with people. The sleepy little Appalachian town which had come through the Ring of Fire two years earlier was long gone, now. Mike could still see the relics of it, of course. Like most small towns in West Virginia, Grantville had suffered a population loss over the decades before the Ring of Fire. Downtown Grantville had some large and multi-story buildings left over from its salad days as a center of the gas and coal industry. On the day before the mysterious and still-unexplained cosmic disaster which had transplanted the town into 17th-century Europe, those buildings had been half vacant. Today, they were packed with people—and new buildings, well if crudely built, were rising up all over the place.
The sight caused him to relax some. Whatever else he had done, whatever mistakes he might have made, Mike Stearns and his policies had turned Grantville and the country surrounding it into one of the few areas in central Europe which were economically booming and had a growing population. A rapidly growing one, in fact. If Mike's insistence on supporting Gustav Adolf's armaments campaign would result in the death of many people—which it would; he didn't doubt that any more than Nichols did—it would keep many more alive. Alive, and prospering.
Such, at least, was his hope.
"What am I supposed to do, James?" he repeated, softly rather than angrily. "We're caught in a three-way vise—and only have two hands to fend off the jaws."
Without turning away from the window, he held up a finger.
"Jaw number one. Whether we like it or not, we're in the middle of one of the worst wars in European history. Worse, in a lot of ways, than either of the world wars of the twentieth century. With no sign that any of the great powers that surround us intend to make peace."
He heard a little throat-clearing sound behind him, and shook his head. "No, sorry, we haven't heard anything from Rita and Melissa yet. I'd be surprised if we had, since they and Julie and Alex were planning to sail from Hamburg. But I did get a radio message from Becky yesterday. She arrived in Paris a few days ago and is already leaving for Holland."
He heard James sigh. "Yeah, you got it. Richelieu was polite as could be, but hasn't budged an inch. In fact, Becky thinks he's planning some kind of new campaign. If she's right, knowing that canny son-of-a-bitch, it's going to be a doozy."
He looked toward the south. "Then, of course, we've still got the charming Austrian Habsburgs to deal with. Not to mention Maximilian of Bavaria. Not to mention that Wallenstein survived his wounds at the Alte Veste and God only knows what that man is really cooking up on his great estates in Bohemia. Not to mention that King Christian of Denmark—Protestant or not—is still determined to bring down the Swedes. Not to mention that most of Gustav's 'loyal princes'—Protestant or not—are the sorriest pack of treacherous scumbags you'll ever hope to meet in your life."
Mike started tapping his fingers on the pane. "So that's the first jaw. We're in a war, whether we like it or not. If anything, I think the war is starting to heat up again.
"Which brings us to 'jaw number two.' How should we fight it? The same way Gustav's been doing since he landed in northern Germany three years ago? With huge mercenary armies draining the countryside? Even leaving aside any outrages they commit on the civilian population—and they do, even with Gustav's disciplinary policies, don't think they don't—it's the stupidest waste of economic resources imaginable. It's already bled Sweden of too many able-bodied men, and left Gustav's treasury dry as a bone."
His fingers moved. Tap, tap, tap; like a drummer beating the march. "We can't keep borrowing money forever, James. The Abrabanels and the other Jewish financiers in Europe and Turkey who are backing us aren't really all that rich, when you get down to it. Not compared to the resources Richelieu and the Habsburgs can marshal. So that means more taxes and levies on our own population—and there are too many already."
He turned his head and returned James' glare with one of his own. "They won't be able to afford another change of clothes either, you know, with the taxes the way they are now. Levies on everything, once you go beyond the boundaries of the U.S. And, I hate to say it, but we've got too many levies going ourselves. We don't have any choice."
Nichols looked away, his face sagging a little. James was by no means stupid, however strongly he felt about his own concerns.
Mike drove on relentlessly. "So what's the alternative—besides John Simpson's 'new military policy'?"
The mention of Simpson brought a fierce scowl to Nichols' face. Mike barked a laugh—even though, as a rule, the name "John Simpson" usually brought a scowl to his own face.
"Yeah, sure. The man is an unmitigated ass. Arrogant, supercilious, about as caring as a stone, you name it. What's that paraphrase from Gilbert and Sullivan that Melissa uses? 'The very picture of a modern CEO?' "
James nodded, chuckling. The doctor's lover despised John Simpson even more than he and Mike did.
Mike shrugged. "But whatever else he is, John Simpson is also the only experienced military officer in Grantville. On that level of experience, anyway. He did graduate from Annapolis and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, you know. And however much ass-kissing the bastard did in his years in the Pentagon, he's the only one of us who has any real idea how to plan and coordinate something like this."
Mike planted his hands on the windowsill and pushed himself away. Then, went back and sat down again.
"Look, James, on this subject Simpson is right. That's why, gritting my teeth, I supported him from the day he first advanced the proposal. Not only supported him, but took the lead in convincing Gustav Adolf and his advisers and generals. We have got to shrink that damned army of his. It's become a giant tapeworm in the guts of the country. But the only way to do that—with the enemies we have surrounding us—is to replace quantity with quality. And that means devoting a huge percentage of our modern production facilities and skills here in Grantville to military work."
He sighed, and rubbed his face. "And that, of course, brings us right up against 'jaw number three.' Because those same resources being used to build Gustav's 'toys,' as you call them, aren't being used to develop other things. Such as really pushing a textile industry, or throwing the weight we ought to be throwing behind the small motor industry—farmers need a lot of little ten-horsepower engines, not a handful of diesel monsters driving a few ironclads—or damn near anything else you can think of."
For a moment, he and James stared at each other. Then, shrugging again, Mike added: "What the hell, look on the bright side. If nothing else, the economic and technical crunch is making everybody thinkfor a change. Think, and organize."
The word "organize," inevitably for a man brought up in the trade-union movement, brought the first genuine smile to Mike's face. "Don't underestimate that, James, not for a minute. We may be a sorry lot of filthy disease-carriers, but I can guaranteeyou the population of the United States is rapidly becoming the best-organized group of people anywhere in the world. And self-organized, to boot, which is a hundred times better than anything that comes down from on high."
He waved his hand in a gesture which was as broadly encompassing as the one James had used earlier. But vigorous, where the doctor's had been despairing.
"You name it, we've got it. Trade unions spreading all over the place, farmers' granges, Willie Ray's kids in his Future Farmers of Europe spending as much time arguing politics as they do seeds, Gretchen's fireballs in the Committees of Correspondence. Damned if even the old boys' clubs aren't alive and kicking and talking about something other than their silly rituals. Henry Dreeson told me that his Lions club voted last week to start making a regular donation to the Freedom Arches Foundation."
James' eyes practically bulged. Somehow—to this day nobody knew exactly how she'd managed it—Gretchen had gotten the former McDonald's franchise hamburger stand in Grantville turned over to her Committees of Correspondence. (The manager of the restaurant, Andy Yost, swore he knew nothing about it—but he'd stayed on as manager, nonetheless, and—pure coincidence, perhaps—was on the Steering Committee of Gretchen's rapidly growing band of radicals.)
Gretchen had promptly renamed it the "Freedom Arches," and the former McDonald's had instantly become the 17th-century's equivalent of the famous bistros and coffee houses of the revolutionary Paris of a later era. Moving with their usual speed and energy, the Committees of Correspondence had begun creating other franchises patterned after it in every town in the United States—and beyond. A new "Freedom Arches" had been erected just outside the boundaries of Leipzig, the nearest big city in Saxony. Much to the displeasure of John George, the prince of Saxony, who had immediately complained to Gustav Adolf. But the king of Sweden, who was also the emperor of the Confederated Principalities of Europe, had refused to direct its dismantling. Gustav had his own reservations—to put it mildly—about the Committees of Correspondence. But he was no fool, and had learned the principle of keeping aristocrats under a tight rein from his own Vasa dynasty's history. The Committees made him nervous, true; but they terrified such men as John George of Saxony, which was even better.
The buildings in which the new "Freedom Arches" sprang up were themselves 17th-century construction, of course. But the two arches which prominently advertised them, even if they were painted wood instead of fancy modern construction, would have been recognized by any resident of the United States in the America which had been left behind. Granted, once they went through the doors, the average 21st-century American would have been puzzled by what they saw. The food served was more likely to be simple bread than anything else, with tea and beer for beverages instead of coffee. And they'd certainly be amazed to see a crude printing press occupying a place of honor in the "dining area," with—almost round the clock—youngsters cheerfully cranking out leaflets and broadsides.
"The Lions?" choked Nichols.
Mike grinned. "Yup. They're keeping it quiet, of course. Give them some credit, James. Sure, Gretchen and her firebrands make them twitchy, but even the town's stodgiest businessman knows we're in a fight for our lives. The Knights of Columbus aren't even trying to keep quiet about their own donations. As Catholics, they're determined to prove as publicly as possible that they're the most loyal citizens around."
James grunted. In the sometimes bizarre way that history works, the officially Protestant Confederated Principalities of Europe—in that portion of it under U.S. jurisdiction, with its rigorously applied principles of freedom of religion—had become a haven for central Europe's Catholics. By now, between the influx of immigrants and the incorporation of western Franconia after the victory of Gustav and his American allies over the Habsburgs at the battle of the Alte Veste, the majority of the population of the United States might well be Catholic. Catholics were certainly approaching parity with the Protestant population—and, typically, were even more devoted to its (by European standards of the day) radical political principles.
Mike spread his hands. "So, like I said, look on the bright side. We're buying time, James. I know as well as you do that we could get struck by an epidemic. But, if we do, we'll at least be able to deal with the crisis with a population that's alert, getting better organized by the day, and is probably already better educated than any other in Europe outside of maybe Holland."
"I still don't see the logic of devoting so much of our resources—military ones, I'm talking about—to those ironclads Simpson is gung-ho about," said James sourly. "Those things are a damn 'resource sink.' Leaving aside all the good steel we had to turn over—I can think of better things to do with miles of steel rails left over from the Ring of Fire than just using them for armor—we had to cannibalize several big diesel engines, the best pumps in the mine . . ."
He trailed off. "Okay, I grant you, I wasn't at the cabinet meeting where the decision was made, since I was in Weimar dealing with that little outbreak of dysentery—at least that's something we can deal with—but your summary explanation afterward never has made much sense to me."
Mike pursed his lips and stared out the window. He wasn't surprised his synopsis of the logic hadn't made a lot of sense to James, at the time. That was because it really didn't make much sense, in purely military terms, to build an American navy allied to Gustavus Adolphus which could only operate along the rivers of central Germany. It was a pure "brown water" navy, not even a coast guard.
Mike hesitated. He was reluctant to get into the subject, because the real reason involved such cold-blooded "Realpolitik" and Machiavellian thinking that he knew most of his American-born-and-bred cabinet members would choke on it. Melissa Mailey would have had a screaming fit. Fortunately, although she'd been at the cabinet meeting, Melissa generally found all military issues so vaguely distasteful that she hadn't really carefully examined this one on its own merits. For which Mike was thankful. Whenever the woman looked past her own biases and preconceptions, she had a fiendishly sharp mind.
Nichols, as a doctor—even leaving aside his romantic involvement with Melissa—would be just as likely to choke. Especially given that, unlike many doctors Mike had known in his life, James Nichols took his profession as a healer dead seriously. The Hippocratic oath was not something James Nichols had rattled off quickly just so he could get his license and start raking in the cash.
On the other hand . . .
Mike studied James for a moment. The rough-featured, very dark-skinned black man returned his gaze stonily, his hands clasped on the desk in front of him. There were scars on those hands which hadn't come from medical practice. Before Nichols turned his life around, he'd grown up as a street kid in one of the toughest ghettoes in Chicago. Blackstone Rangers territory that had been, in his youth.
Screw it. If this damn job requires me to lie to one of my best friends, it's not worth it.
"All right, James, I'll give it to you straight. The reason Gustav Adolf wants those ironclads is in order to secure his logistics routes in case the CPE is attacked from without. In this day and age, military supplies can be transported by water far more easily than any other way. If he can control the rivers—the Elbe, first and foremost, but also the smaller ones and the canals, especially as we keep improving them—then he's got a big edge against anyone trying to invade. But that's only part of it, and not the most important part."
He sat up straight. Harshly: "The more important reason is because he needs them—or, at least, thinks he might—in order to hold the CPE together in the first place."
Nichols' eyes widened slightly. Slightly, but . . . not much.
"Think about it, for Pete's sake," Mike continued. He waved his hand at the window. "The Confederated Principalities of Europe is the most ramshackle, patched-together, jury-rigged so-called realm"—the word dripped sarcasm—"the world's probably ever seen. A Swedish king ruling over a crazy quilt of German princedoms, independent imperial cities, an outright republic like ours founded by expatriate American 'up-timers'—you name it, we've got it. All of it riddled by religious bigotry and intolerance, not to mention the periodic outbursts of witch-hunting. It's something straight out of a fantasy, or a madhouse. And half of Gustav's semi-independent 'subjects'—let's start with John George of Saxony, who rules the most powerful of those princedoms—would stab him in the back in a heartbeat. While most of the rest of them—"
Nichols snorted. "Would take bets on how deep the stab wound went. And then start quarreling over who got to hold the money."
"Exactly. The whole thing could fly apart in an instant. So. Consider how the situation looks from the emperor's viewpoint. If he can improve the rivers enough, and if he can build new canals and upgrade the ones that exist, and if we can provide him with a handful of river-going ironclads which can hammer the living crap out of anybody within range, then the CPE starts looking like a viable proposition. At least, from the standpoint of naked force. Take a look at a map sometime—I can assure you Gustav Adolf has, because our surveying team provided him with the best there is today—and you'll see what I'm talking about. Consider the Elbe as the spinal cord and the aorta combined. Then look at all the branches—some rivers, some canals, some a combination of both—which tie everything together. Connects the Baltic Sea to Thuringia, Hesse-Kassel to Saxony and Brandenburg."
He smiled wolfishly. "Consider, for instance, the Finow canal which connects the Elbe and the Havel and the Oder—which, as you may know, is one of the ones Gustav has prioritized for rebuilding and upgrading. Second only, in fact, to the canals connecting the Elbe to the Baltic ports of Luebeck and Wismar. Consider what things will look like then—from the standpoint of the elector of Brandenburg, George William, who's almost as untrustworthy as the Elector of Saxony—as he contemplates one of Simpson's ironclads floating on the Havel in Berlin. With its ten-inch guns pointing at his palace."
"They could wreck the canals," protested James. "Destroy the locks, at least." But the protest was half-hearted.
Mike shrugged. "Easier said than done, James, and you know it as well as I do. With a good engineering corps—and Gustav has the best—they can be rebuilt. Besides, that all presupposes a bold and daring and well-coordinated uprising on the part of several princes acting in unison. Which—"
James was already chuckling. "That lot of greedy, bickering thieves? Not likely!"
Mike shared in the humor. Within a few seconds, though, James was no longer smiling. Instead, he was giving Mike a somewhat slit-eyed stare. "Are you that cold-blooded?" he murmured. "Hand Gustav that kind of power saw . . . knowing, of course, that the one part of his little empire he couldn't really use the blade against is us. Seeing as how, when you get down to it—for quite a while, at least—he's depending on us to make and man those ironclads."
Mike shrugged. "Yeah, I am. Like I said, James, I'm buying us time. And buying it for Gustav Adolf, too, because—for quite a while, at least—our fortunes are tied to his."
Nichols lowered his clasped hands into his lap, rocked back his chair, and gave Mike a thin smile. "You'd have probably done pretty good, you know, down there around Sixty-Third and Cottage Grove. Of course, your skin color would have been a handicap. But, if I know you, you'd have figured out some way around that too."
Mike's smile didn't waver. "Under the circumstances, I think I'll take that as a compliment."
Nichols snorted. "Under the circumstances, it is a compliment. The only difference between Chicago's street gang leaders and Germany's noblemen is that the gang leaders are generally smarter and the noblemen are generally more treacherous. A toss-up, which of them are more callous."
Silence fell in the room. James' face was still tight with concern, but, after a moment, Mike realized that the man's concern had moved from general affairs to the point nearest to his heart.
"I'll send word as soon as I hear from her," Mike said softly. "She'll be all right, James. I gave Rita and Melissa enough money to hire a big ship. And besides, with Tom Simpson and Julie along, any pirate who tries to attack thatship is in for a rude surprise."
James smiled. Julie Sims—Julie Mackay, now, since her marriage to a Scot cavalry officer in Gustav Adolf's army—was the best rifle shot anyone had ever met. And whatever James and Mike thought of John Simpson, both of them approved highly of Simpson's son Tom, who had married Mike's sister on the same day the Ring of Fire changed their entire world. Especially under these circumstances. Whatever other dangers James' lover Melissa and Mike's sister Rita would face in their diplomatic mission to England, they were hardly likely to be pestered by footpads. Tom Simpson was quite possibly one of the ten biggest men in the world. He'd been something of a giant even in 21st-century America, with the shoulders and physique you'd expect from a lineman on a top college football team.
But the doctor's smile faded soon enough. Mike knew he wasn't really worried—not much, anyway—about pirates and footpads. Melissa and Rita would be dealing with people a lot more dangerous than that.
"Kings and princes and cardinals and God-help-me dukes and fucking earls," grumbled Nichols. "Oughta shoot the whole lot of 'em."
Mike's grin was probably a little on the merciless side. He certainly intended it to be, seeing as how the doctor needed to be cheered up. "We might yet. A fair number of them, anyway. Like I said, look on the bright side. Simpson may be an asshole, but he knows his big guns."