1633 David Weber and Eric Flint



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Chapter 31


That night, after he got Becky's message, Mike walked out of the radio room before answering. The radio operator assured him he'd have at least two hours to send a reply before transmission became too difficult, and Mike needed time to think. The decision he had to make was, in more ways than one, the most difficult he'd ever had to make in his life.

When he left the embassy building, he found his feet taking him down to the Elbe. Mike had always found the sight of moving water both restful and a help to concentration. This was a decision he needed to make standing on a wharf, watching the flow of a river, not staring at the walls in a room. The chill in the autumn air was just enough to be invigorating, given the heavy jacket Mike had brought for the flight up here.

Fortunately, the sky was clear and there was enough of a moon to see. The "street lighting" in the area was not even a joke. There wasn't any at all except an occasional lamp in an open window or signaling the entrance to a tavern. So Mike had no great difficulty picking his way through the mud puddles and finding the occasional patch of half-finished cobblestones, and was confident he could make it back to the radio room within a few minutes once he'd made his decision.

But when he arrived at the wharf, he instantly regretted having done so. By bad luck, Simpson was already there, standing on the wharf himself with his hands clasped behind his back. Apparently he found staring over water as relaxing as Mike did.

He was a lonely looking figure, staring down at the water in the moonlight. Mike's dislike for the man had been so constant, for so long, that he'd never really given any thought to what Simpson's own life must have been like, since the Ring of Fire. He had simply been a political opponent to be defeated.

Now, for the first time, he found himself wondering about it. And didn't take more than a moment to conclude that the lonely-looking figure on the wharf was a lonely man in truth. Neither Simpson, nor certainly his wife, could have found the transition easy—the more so after having, from their own sheer haughtiness and arrogance, alienated their own son so completely.

Well, that's a small horse or two I can trade easily enough, Mike thought. But I'll worry about that later.

He began to turn around, planning to retrace his steps. Staring at the walls of a room was not an attractive prospect, to be sure, but it beat trying to make small talk with Simpson while he wrestled with this decision.

But, then, he hesitated. Turned back around and studied Simpson again. The admiral had still not spotted him, standing in the shadows where the street debouched onto the wharf.

What the hell. Maybe I owe it to him. Or, let's put it this way: maybe I owe it to myself to remember what Simpson and I were fighting about in the first place.

Mike was decisive by nature. A moment later, he was striding toward the wharf.

Simpson, hearing him come, turned his head. When he recognized who it was, the expression which flitted across his face almost made Mike laugh aloud. Simpson, clearly enough, was no more pleased than Mike had been himself to see the other man in the area.

"My apologies for disturbing you, Admiral."

"Not at all, Mr. President. What may I do for you?"

"For starters—for tonight, at least—I'd like to dispense with the 'Admiral' and the 'Mr. President' business. If that's all right with you, John."

Simpson hesitated. "Very well." His shoulders shifted a bit, as a man's will when he feels uncomfortable. "I'm not actually as formal as you may think. Believe it or not, I did not require my executives—any of my subordinates—to call me 'Mr. Chief Executive Officer.' "

He unclasped his hands and waved one of them toward the flowing river. "Back in my days in Pittsburgh. In fact, when I met with the president of the local union which represented the production employees in my petrochemical plant, he called me 'John' and I called him 'Henry.' "

The hands reclasped; then, tightened. Simpson's next words came in a harsh voice. "Since you've chosen informality, at least for the moment, I'd like to get something off my chest."

Mike nodded. "Shoot."

"During the political campaign, the one accusation which you leveled against me which I deeply resented personally—and still do—was the insinuation that I was a racist. I am not, sir, and never have been. The union president I mentioned—Henry—was a black man. And while I have no doubt he'd have choice words to say about me on most other subjects, I don't think you'd find him raising that as an issue." Simpson's clasped hands were now very tight. It was obvious even in the poor lighting.

"Yes, Henry and I fought over a lot of things. As you can imagine, being a former local union president yourself. But not that. My company had an equal opportunity employment program which I took dead seriously—and saw to it was enforced down the line. We almost never had a grievance filed over discrimination issues." His voice was starting to rise a little in anger. "A few, sure—but you know as well as I do—"

"Yeah, yeah, John, I know." Mike waved his own hand at the river. "In any factory or mine, there's always a few goofballs who'll file a grievance on any grounds, especially if they get in trouble." He smiled thinly. "Of course—in my official capacity as a union president—you'd never catch me admitting that to the boss."

Simpson snorted. "Neither did Henry. Ha! And what a laugh that was, sometimes. I remember one guy—took us forever to get rid of the bum—who seemed to have a grievance every week. Invariably after he got disciplined for something. Henry even managed to keep a straight face whenever it got to me in third-step hearings, and he'd argue the case as if he didn't know just as well as I did that we'd all be better off with the jerk looking for a job somewhere else."

"Gotta keep management honest," said Mike. "And that means, now and then, you fight a grievance on behalf of a guy you'd personally just as soon see get run over by a truck. If you start getting too cozy with the boss . . ." He shrugged. "Way it is. What union was that, by the way? Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers? Or PACE, now, as they're called since they merged with the paperworkers."

Simpson nodded. "Good outfit," said Mike. "We almost merged with them once."

He clasped his own hands behind his back. It seemed like the proper gesture, under the circumstances. "I never once, John, stated that I thought you were a bigot. What I did say—and I won't retract it—was that your program amounted to a return to Jim Crow. Or, at least, that was the logic of it." Simpson started to say something, but Mike overrode him.

"Hear me out, dammit. Just once—listen." Simpson took a deep breath, then nodded abruptly.

"Whether you ever intended it that way, John, is not the issue to me. Wasn't then, sure as hell isn't now. I'll be glad to grant you the best possible motives—simply trying to figure out the best way to deal with a bad situation. But what was clear to me then—and still is—is that we were in the position of a man who had stumbled badly and was about to fall. And the surface he was going to fall on was nothing but broken glass. You wanted us to throw out our hands to break the fall—which would, at best, have ripped our hands to shreds. And I thought we should get out of the stumble by running faster."

Simpson's jaws were tight, but he said nothing. Mike nodded toward the looming bulk of the ironclads under construction, then swept his head in a circle, indicating the entire city rising up out of the rubble of what had been the worst massacre in the Thirty Years War.

"Look at it, John. Can you honestly say I was wrong?"

Still, Simpson said nothing. Mike decided not to push the issue any further. Whatever were the good qualities of John Chandler Simpson—many, obviously, as those same ironclads indicated—the ability to admit error was clearly not one of them.

Besides, this horse is easy to swap.

"I realize—" Mike broke off, as if he were momentarily a bit embarrassed. (Which . . . he was, perhaps. Just a tiny bit.) "I realize that I'm a bare-knuckle kind of guy, in a political brawl. So if I insulted you personally, please accept my apology."

After a moment, Simpson nodded. Very stiffly, to be sure, but . . . a nod was a nod.

"Beyond that, I'll do what I can to make amends. I imagine, ah . . ."

Simpson smiled coldly. "Oh, indeed. One of the reasons I've grown so fond of my assistant, Dietrich Schwanhausser, is because he's one of the few Germans here who doesn't assume I eat German babies for breakfast. Thanks to you, and your campaign, my reputation has preceded me." Bitterly: "And it's even harder on my wife, who sits at home most days as if she were a leper. If she didn't have that school expansion project of Veronica Dreeson's to work on I think she'd go nuts entirely. As least in Grantville, she had some American friends. Here—"

Now, finally, some of the anger seeped into his voice. "For God's sake, Stearns, half of my ancestors on my mother's side are German. Her maiden name was Schreiber. How in the world—"

"John!" The half-shouted word cut Simpson off. "If you don't want to accept a man's apology, then don't. But don't accept it one minute and throw it back in his face the next."

Simpson froze. Then, abruptly, nodded again. "Fair enough."

"Besides, you should have told me sooner. I didn't realize—" Mike let out a breath. "Sorry. My fault. I hadn't really thought about it. Or, when I did . . ." For a moment, his lips twisted. "Truth be told, I was assuming you and your wife Mary were hobnobbing with the upper crust here in Magdeburg. Letting them all know—privately, of course—that I was indeed the reckless and disreputable and dangerous fellow they thought I was."

Simpson's stance was as rigid as ever. "We have not been invited to any . . . 'hobnobbings,' as you put it. Neither upper-crust nor any other kind. And even if we had, I can assure you—" His voice was starting to rise hotly again.

"John." Again, Simpson broke off. "Give me a break, will you? I wasn't accusing you of anything."

Mike motioned toward the ironclads. "As a naval officer in the service of the U.S. government, I will expect you to refrain from public attacks on your commander-in-chief. Or, if you feel strongly enough about something that you can't, I will expect your resignation. But what you say about me in private, as long as you're reasonably discreet about it . . . I won't go so far as to say that I don't care about it, but I will look the other way. Is that fair enough?"

Simpson's hesitation was very brief. "Yes," he said curtly. "That's fair enough."

Mike nodded. "Good. That's settled." His smile was now actually a bit warm. "Do keep in mind, of course, that I certainly won't object either if—just now and then—you find you have something positive to say about me also."

Simpson chuckled. And, there too, there was a bit of actual warmth in the sound. "Actually—and just in private, between you and me—there are a few things I like about you. Not many, mind. But . . ." He took a deep breath of his own. "I'll give you this much, Mike Stearns. At least you're not one of those presidents we had back up-time who shilly-shallied and danced around every time the shit hit the fan."

The reminder jolted Mike. "Oh, hell," he muttered. He held up his watch, trying to read the old-style face in the dim lighting. That was the disadvantage of the somewhat antique mechanical watch he owned. The advantage, of course, was that it still worked—where almost everyone else's fancy digital timepieces were unusable because the special batteries had gone dead long since, and Grantville had few spares.

"You need to send a radio message, while the window lasts?"

Mike nodded. "Yeah. I've still got a bit of time, though. But I'd better—"

He was starting to turn away already. Then, struck by a thought, stopped and turned back.

"What the hell. As it happens, John, I've got a decision to make. And—in a different way—it's the same kind of decision you and I fought about once. When a man stumbles, does he try to break it by running or taking the fall? So I'll be interested to see what you think about this one."

Quickly, he sketched out Becky's radio message and the choice he had to make. When he was done, Simpson shook his head.

"Jesus. That one's a bitch." Simpson thought a moment. "Even leaving aside the decision itself, it's the kind of thing your political enemies could try to make hay over."

"I'm not worried about that."

Simpson smiled thinly. "No, you wouldn't be. If nothing else, because—with your roughhouse political skills—you'd leave them bleeding in the street."

"Yeah, I would. Bloody, bruised, battered, and beat to shit. And I'd make no apologies for it, either." Harshly: "But that's neither here nor there, John. I wouldn't let that influence me anyway. You may not like my character, but don't make the mistake of thinking I don't have one."

"Oh, I won't make that mistake. I meant what I said. I can think of former presidents of the U.S.A. up-time I wouldn't want in your shoes now, making this decision. I wouldn't trust them—especially that worthless bastard—"

He shook his head. "Never mind. Of all the silly things I can think of, hauling in old partisan squabbles from another universe ranks right at the top."

He gave Mike a sharp glance. "You're inclined to go for it, aren't you? Use a knife in a knife fight—even if it's your own wife who's the blade."

Mike nodded. "Yeah, I am. So's Becky herself, by the way. Her own opinion was, ah, firm."

Simpson nodded. "Cowardly, the lady is not." He thought a moment further. Then:

"Do it, Mike." He glanced at the ironclads. "And for what it's worth, the Navy will back you up to the best of our ability."

"That's worth quite a bit, John. In fact, the time may come when it's worth a lot. And now, I'd better go. I'll have more than one message to send tonight."

After taking a few steps, Mike turned back around.

"Before I forget, one other thing."

"Yes?"

"As Admiral of the U.S. Navy, I expect you'll be getting a fair number of social invitations. You and your wife, both. Quite soon, in fact." He raised his fist and coughed into it. "Not to put too fine a point on it, I'll see to it. And I think it would reflect badly on the United States if you didn't accept them. It might give the aristocracy the notion that we don't have any manners, you know. Won't leave our houses because we're afraid we won't know which fork to use in polite company."

For a moment, Simpson's face almost turned puce. "Mary? She could—"

His shoulder heaved a little, suppressing a laugh. Then, smiling: "Thank you, Mike. I'd appreciate that."

Mike nodded and began to turn away.

"Mr. President."

"Yes . . . Admiral."

Simpson squared his shoulders. "As a rule, I'd prefer formality. It's not a matter of personality. Well . . . not much. But I'm building a military force here, a navy. And while—"

He paused, briefly. "I will not interfere with General Jackson and Colonel Wood. They can create whatever traditions and customs in the Army and Air Force they choose. But I will insist they extend me the same courtesy. And you also."

"Fair enough. Admiral."

Simpson nodded stiffly. Then, for the first time since Mike had appeared on the wharf, the admiral seemed to relax completely.

"Did you have any horse traders in your family tree, Mr. President? I'm just curious."

Mike grinned. "Two, that I know of. And at least one horse thief. Family tradition has it that they never caught and hung 'im, neither." Solemnly: "Even though, of course, everyone agreed that was a great shame and he was a disgrace to the family name."


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