The cabinet meeting that began that evening, soon after Mike returned to Grantville, was the stormiest one in months. In some ways, the stormiest ever.
It began with a squall and escalated from there. Throughout, not to Mike's surprise, Quentin Underwood was at the center of it. Like the eye of a hurricane, except this eye was not calm at all.
"Look, I know it's going to be a pain in the ass! Unfortunately, that doesn't mean we don't have to do it. So quit telling me all about how we can't, and figure out how we can!"
Mike Stearns glared at the available members of his cabinet. At this particular moment, he missed Rebecca badly, and not just because she was his wife. And he missed Melissa Mailey almost as badly. This was definitely not the sort of crisis Melissa was best equipped to cope with, but her uniquely astringent version of calm would have been far more welcome than the exasperated expressions looking back at him.
"It's all fine and good to sit there waving your hands in the air telling us we have to do something," Quentin Underwood growled. "Have you really considered exactly how we're supposed to accomplish this miracle for you?"
"Eddie was already pulling together the first barge loads before Jesse flew me home again," Mike said flatly. "They've recalled Meteor and Metacomet to tow the barge strings downriver, and Eddie and Simpson promised me they'd have Meteor underway with the first consignment before dark. If they can manage that, then I am not going to accept any bullshit about how we can't do our part!"
Mike was genuinely annoyed. Meteor and Metacomet were the first pair of several planned sternwheel river tugs powered by Grantville-built steam engines. They weren't fast, but they were much faster than tow horses, and their two-foot drafts were shallow enough to navigate virtually any water deep enough to float a barge—all of which Quentin knew perfectly well, since he was counting on them to provide much of the transportation for the petroleum he was starting to produce at Wietze.
"But they're already on a damned river!" Underwood snarled. "In case you haven't noticed, we're not!"
"Gosh, really?" Mike glared at the other man, and for just a moment, they were once again union and management locked in mortal combat. But then both of them drew deep breaths, almost simultaneously, and shoved themselves back in their chairs.
"Look, Quentin," Mike said in his most reasonable tone, "I know we're looking at a major operation here. Hell, why do you think I've been pushing the rail link to Halle so hard?"
"Which," Underwood pointed out, "we'd have been in a far better position to have finished by now if we hadn't diverted all of those railroad rails to Simpson's damned fleet."
Mike glared at him, and this time several of his fellow cabinet members—including Frank Jackson and Ed Piazza—joined him.
"Quentin, don't be a fuckhead," Jackson said bluntly. The ex-mine manager turned an interesting shade of red, but Jackson went on before he could explode. "You know I was just as pissed off as you were when Simpson—well, Eddie and Simpson, if we're going to be picky—skimmed off all those rails. Not for the same reasons, maybe. But I purely hated to see all that high-grade steel disappearing. But just you ask yourself where we'd be right now if Simpson hadn't been sitting over there in Magdeburg building his little empire . . . and the boats that're going to kick the Danes' asses!"
"All right," Underwood allowed after a moment. "I'll grant that much—assuming he does get them finished and floated all the way out to sea! But," he rejoined in a voice which was calmer but no less stubborn, "that still doesn't change the fact that we don't have a railroad link from here to Halle. And won't, not for some time." His lips curled a bit. "Not even these dinky wooden rails with an iron cap we're calling a 'rail line,' with pathetic cargoes being pulled as often as not by 'locomotives' made up of a pickup truck—or even just a team of horses."
Mike grit his teeth. One of the many things he didn't like about Underwood was the man's refusal to let anything drop. For better or worse—and in Mike's opinion they'd had no choice—the decision to go with "light" railroads had been made months earlier. Quentin had been opposed, for the same reason the man always was whenever stretched resources required compromises. He wanted what he wanted, damnation, there's an end to it—and he'd make sure to let you know how he felt about it forever afterward. "Spilt milk" and "what's done is done" were not in Underwood's list of stock phrases. "Beat a dead horse," on the other hand, seemed to be right at the top. If he'd been present at the Creation, Mike thought sourly, he'd still be nattering at God for having made the waters out of sequence.
"But we do have a road link," Mike pointed out, through tight jaws. "And we still have some of the coal trucks and the three semi tractors. We've been holding them for use in case of an emergency. Well, Quentin, just what do you call this?"
"Jesus, Mike," Underwood said. "Do you realize what kind of hole that's going to make in our reserve fuel stocks?"
" 'Hole,' my ass," Mike said steadily. "It's going to use up most of it. But the alternative is worse. You and your oil fields are just going to have to take up the slack, along with the methanol plant. And we're getting a fair amount of oil now from the gas wells right here in Grantville, too, since we upgraded them. Don't forget that either." He held up a hand, forestalling another outburst. "Sure, sure, Quentin—call it a 'trickle' if you want to. For what we're doing, a 'trickle' is enough. We are not, fer Chrissake, trying to restage the invasion of Normandy."
"Even if we use the trucks," James Nichols pointed out, "we're not going to set any speed records. We've at least graded the roadbed most of the way to Halle, but it's still going to be a long, slow drive."
"I know," Mike agreed. "But two of the boats Eddie's asking for have their own trailers. If we winch George Watson's boat up onto one of the converted semitrailers and use one of the coal trucks, we can move Eddie's entire 'flotilla' in a single trip."
"George?" Jackson looked up quickly and laughed when Mike nodded. "Well I'll be dipped in shit," the general said with a nasty grin. "You mean to tell me that idiot's fancy toy is going to be useful for something after all?"
"Looks like it," Mike agreed. "Assuming we can get it to Wismar."
"You only want two of the coal trucks?" asked Ed Piazza.
"Of course only two of them," Underwood growled. "If we're going to do this at all, it only makes sense to send the rest of Simpson's damned shopping list overland to Magdeburg. The speedboats can't haul all that crap downriver; we'll have to send it to Simpson and let him barge it down. And at least we ought to be able to get all of it into one of the coal trucks. Probably." He shrugged. "If we can't, we can always hang an extra trailer off the back. We've got several of them. Sending it cross country will get it to Simpson faster than stacking it on barges from Halle down the Saale to Magdeburg. He can probably get it all cross loaded onto his own barges before even the power boats could get that far following the river. It'll sure as hell get it there sooner than barging it from Halle would!"
"Exactly," Mike said.
Underwood was still gloomy. "The worst of it's going to be the wear and tire on the truck tires. Fortunately, boats are a lot lighter load than what those tires were designed for. Still and all . . . we've got plenty of car tires, what with all the cars sitting around unused. But there's hardly any spares for the trucks. Once those tires are gone . . ."
"Then they're gone, and that's that," said Mike forcefully, hoping to cut Quentin off before they got tied up in another pointless wrangle. Underwood had turned a cabinet meeting some months earlier into a brawl, by insisting that developing a rubber industry should be a top priority. Exactly how that was to be done, when the world's existing rubber supply didn't exist in the first place, and the natural resources were halfway around the world under the political control of other nations—leaving aside the fact that even the CPE, much less the U.S., was effectively almost landlocked—was not Underwood's concern. He wanted what he wanted. Period.
"That's a problem for another day, Quentin. This is a problem for now."
"But we're not ready to be shipping weapons off," Ferrara said, more than a little anxiously. "We're still at least a month or so from putting the heavy rockets Simpson wants into production." He grimaced. "My fault, I suppose. The last time Eddie and I talked, I thought the schedule was going to look a lot better than this. And then I got pulled off onto the chemical plant design—what I'd give for just one heavy stainless-steel pressure tank—"
He shook his head. There was no point in dwelling endlessly on the fact that, while Grantville had quite a bit of stainless steel lying around in one form of another, almost all of it was in the form of thin sheet. And they were still a long ways off from being able to make stainless steel from scratch.
"That doesn't really matter right now," he continued. "What matters is that I can't give you what I don't have, and what I don't have is a standoff rocket."
"What's the matter with the ones we've got?" Underwood asked. "They worked just fine before."
"Sure they did," Frank agreed, his tone a bit sarcastic. "Of course, we were using 'em from nice, steady land-based launchers at fairly short range. And against targets the size and speed of Spanish tercios. Oh, and on thinking about it, we fired lots of them at once, so that when half of 'em missed, we'd still get enough hits to do the job." He shook his head. "I know the rocket Simpson and Eddie are talking about. It's a hell of a lot heavier than anything we've used in the field, Quentin. And it's got two or three times the range."
"And better accuracy, and a heavier warhead," Ferrara added.
"But if it's that much heavier, they'd have trouble mounting it on a speedboat anyway, wouldn't they?" Nichols asked.
"Mounting rockets on a speedboat is going to be a pain in the ass however you look at it," Ferrara told him grimly. "We're going to have to rig up some sort of blast shield to deflect the exhaust when they launch. And aiming them is going to be pretty much hopeless. We'll have to go with a scattergun effect if we want to produce hits . . . and they're going to have to run in close."
"How close?" Mike asked.
"I can't really say," Ferrara admitted unhappily. "I don't know enough about the conditions to have the foggiest idea. It's going to have to be something they work out as they go, but, frankly, I'll be surprised if they could hit the Titanic at much over a hundred fifty yards."
"That close?" Mike couldn't hide his dismay . . . and he didn't try very hard. Cry, havoc! And set loose the dogs of war. Youngsters—whom he sent into harm's way—were going to be dying soon.
"And this limpet mine idea of Eddie's?" Underwood asked skeptically.
"Actually, I think the kid's got something with that one," Jackson replied. "I know Sam and Al, and Al was always pretty handy when it came to blowing stumps or boulders. Never did understand what the two of them saw in swimming around in old quarry pits and flooded mines—is there a sillier sport in Appalachia than scuba diving?—but, hey—man's got to have a hobby, right?" He grinned. "Point is, they're both used to swimming around in the dark, and Al, at least, is a good man to have gluing dynamite to the bottom of somebody else's boat. And just happens that we've still got half a dozen cases of dynamite over in the armory. Been saving it for something just about like this, as a matter of fact."
"Really?" Ferrara perked up. "You've got that much dynamite left?"
"Well, yeah," Jackson said again, this time a bit defensively. "I didn't want to make a big thing out of mentioning it, seeing as how if everybody knew we had it, we'd have people over there every day explaining why they just had to have a stick or two for some vital project or other. Just seemed simpler not to admit we had it."
"And what else are you hoarding away over there?" Underwood inquired.
"We can worry about detailed inventories later," Mike interrupted, to Jackson's obvious relief. "The point Frank's making is that we've got the capability to plant underwater explosives on the other side's ships."
"Maybe we can even do a little better than that," Ferrara said. "A half or quarter stick of dynamite could make our rocket warheads a lot more destructive."
"But given how many we're going to have to launch to score a hit, we'd burn through our entire dynamite supply pretty damned quick," Jackson pointed out.
"I wasn't thinking so much about the rockets we've got now," Ferrara told him. "I was thinking more about the long-range job we're working on down at the shop. It's going to be a lot more accurate, Frank. That's one reason I'd like the best warhead I can put on it. I hate to waste a hit on anything less than that."
"Well, we can talk about that later," Jackson said. "For now, the important thing is that I can send a couple of cases along with Eddie."
"What about the rest of his 'wish list'?" Piazza asked.
"We send everything on it," Mike said decisively. "We're lucky Gustavus picked this particular week to go inspect his ironclad. If anybody can organize the defense of Luebeck effectively, he can. But by the same token, the fact that he's going to be commanding the city's defense ups the stakes all around. As soon as Richelieu and the Danes realize he's in the city, they're going to be more determined than ever to take it . . . and take him off the board with it."
"The same thought had occurred to me," Nichols said quietly. "Are you sure we want to risk him this way?"
"Want to risk him?" Mike barked a laugh. "James, the man leads cavalry charges for a living! And he couldn't even wear armor while he was doing it until you cut that musket ball out of his neck! What in the world makes you think he's going to turn a hair over something as tame as holding off the entire Danish army with a garrison of less than four thousand men? The idiot will probably think it'll be fun!"
"That might be putting it just a tad strongly," Jackson said. "I've spent a little more time in the field with him then you have, Mike. I'll admit, he's got a hasty streak in him. Just as well, come to that. Think where Jeff Higgins would be if 'Captain Gar' hadn't dived into that fight at the school. All the same, I think he's taken all of Melissa's and your lectures to heart. He's not going to risk getting himself killed off the way he did in our past. Not if he has any choice, anyway."
"The problem is that he's a lot more likely to decide he doesn't have a choice than I wish he'd be," Mike grumbled.
"It's what makes him so damned effective," Jackson said with another shrug. "Don't much like it myself, but I can't argue with his results. So far, at least."
"Maybe." Mike frowned, then sighed. "But what matters is that there's no way in hell I can order him out of Luebeck. And, truth to tell, the fact that the garrison—and the city population, for that matter—know that he's there in person will be worth another thousand or two men all by itself."
"Not to mention the fact that the Swedish army will move heaven and earth to dig him out of the trap," Jackson predicted confidently.
At that very moment, the subject of their discussion was convening a conference of his own in Luebeck. It was somewhat smaller than the one in Grantville . . . and some of its members were also restive.
"Your Majesty, you can't be serious!" Axel Oxenstierna objected. Gustav Adolf's chief minister had just returned from Sweden. In fact, he'd arrived early that same afternoon aboard one of the many ships crowding Luebeck's harbor, and he was more than a bit aghast at his king's plans.
"Of course I can, Axel," Gustavus said calmly.
"Then you certainly shouldn't be!" Oxenstierna said sharply. "This city may be important, but it isn't as important as your own person is!"
"It's no use," Lennart Torstensson told the minister gloomily. "I've spent all morning arguing with him." He glowered at his monarch. "No moving him at all. It's Captain Gars all over again!"
"Nonsense!" Gustavus said cheerfully. "That reckless officer has no business dealing with something as serious as this matter. No, no! It would never do to put him in command."
"It's all very well to make jokes, Gustavus," Oxenstierna's tone was far more serious. "But you're the one who told me about the consequences which followed your death in the world the Americans came from. If anything, you're even more important to the future now than you were then. We literally cannot afford to lose you, and you know it."
"Axel, my friend," Gustavus said softly, "caution is all very well, but I can't let it rule my life. I won't. I serve a monarch of my own, and if it happens that I must risk my life in His service, then risk it I will. And if He chooses that I should die, then I will die, trusting in Him to look after my people for me."
"I beg you to remember that He did not do so in that other history," Oxenstierna said very quietly, and Gustavus scowled. The chancellor didn't shrink from the genuine anger in his king's blue eyes. He simply stood there, gazing back into them, and, after a moment, Gustavus drew a deep breath and shook his head.
"Perhaps that is the reason—or one of them—He sent the Americans and the Ring of Fire in this history," he said. "There are implications of that entire extraordinary event which I have no idea how to interpret. But this I know, Axel: I cannot permit what happened in that other world I will never know to dictate my decisions in this one. Be warned by those events, yes. But I will not allow the fear that they will somehow repeat to divert me from my clear duty. And at this moment, my duty is to see to it that this city does not fall to Christian IV and his French paymaster!"
"I don't disagree," Oxenstierna replied, with the stubbornness that was the hard-earned right of his unrivaled record of loyalty to Gustavus. "I only argue that you have generals expressly to execute your commands. Lennart here," he waved at Torstensson, "could just as readily command the defense here while you rally our relief force."
"No," Gustavus said, and this time his tone was flat. "I do not undervalue Lennart. But it will be months before any relief force can be mustered for Luebeck, Axel, and you know it. And, even then, if at all possible I would prefer to use them in a counter-attack." He clenched his heavy fist, almost hissing the next words. "I intend to defeat Richelieu and his allies, not simply beat them off."
Torstensson, the most pugnacious as well as the youngest of Gustav's generals, grinned cheerfully. Even Oxenstierna allowed himself a smile.
The king continued. "Any troops we can find immediately must go first to Wismar, to make good the forces I will withdraw from there to reinforce Luebeck, and it will take time to free up more than a few thousand even for that task. Horn is nailed to the Palatinate, keeping watch on Bernhard and the French on the Rhine. Banér and his corps must remain in the south, of course. Neither Maximilian of Bavaria nor Emperor Ferdinand is going to quit simply because we've now taken Regensburg." He took a deep breath, his jaws tightening. "And—curse the lot of them!—Otto Sack and his troops must remain in Magdeburg and the surrounding country to stiffen the spines of my so-called 'affiliated princes' in Saxony and Brandenburg. Not to mention—"
He gave Oxenstierna a very sharp glance indeed. "—the need to keep an eye on Wallenstein in Bohemia."
The chancellor nodded in unwilling—and silent—agreement with his last sentence.
"You know our commitments, Axel," Gustavus went on. "And so you know it will take many weeks, probably months, to free up sufficient strength to hope to break the siege which will soon begin here. It is for that task, to organize the defense of Wismar and the ultimate relief of Luebeck, that I will use Lennart. And while he sees to that, I will see to the defense here."
Oxenstierna started to continue the argument, then closed his mouth with a click. He knew his monarch too well, and recognized the futility of attempting to sway him from the decision he had so obviously made.
"Better," Gustavus told him with a smile. Then he turned to the other officer seated at the table. Karl Gyllenhjelm was an experienced naval commander, and he was obviously unhappy about what he'd been hearing.
"And so we come to you, Karl," the king said.
"With all due respect, Majesty," Gyllenhjelm said stiffly, "neither Wismar nor Luebeck are yet under siege. Nor will they be until my squadron has been defeated!"
"Against the Danes by themselves, I would back you without qualm," Gustavus told him. "But the Danes won't come alone. They will be accompanied by the French, at the very least; and by the English, as well, unless I miss my guess. You have parity against Christian's ships. Against the Danes and the forces Richelieu committed to the defeat of the Dutch, you would be outnumbered by more than two to one." He shook his head. "I will not commit you at such odds. And even if I were willing to," he admitted honestly, "it would achieve little beyond your heroic death."
"But I could at least anchor my ships in the Wismar harbor approaches," Gyllenhjelm protested. "Even as no more than floating batteries, they would take much of the pressure off of the defenses there. Here, so far up the river—" He shook his head. "We would be helpless as rats in a trap at Luebeck, but from Wismar the possibility of a sortie would still exist, and the enemy could never be certain when we might attempt to sever their supply lines!"
"So you might," Gustavus agreed. "But this is not the only point they will attack, Karl. Think about it. For the first time, the Danes have the full-fledged support of not simply one outside kingdom, but at least two of them—three, if Richelieu has entangled Ferdinand in his webs. And Christian has that support while our main strength is committed to Germany. And scattered from the Rhine to Dresden, at that! Do you truly believe that with that advantage he will restrict himself to attacking only Luebeck and Wismar?"
Gyllenhjelm's expression stiffened. Clearly, he saw exactly where Gustavus' logic was headed and had no desire to go there.
"They will attack us at home, as well," Gustavus said. "Unless they're fools—and we dare not assume they are—then their objectives must be our German supply ports, to starve our army, and Stockholm, to crush our fleet and destroy its base. We do not have the strength to defend both of them on the water, Karl, and we can better afford to lose Luebeck and Wismar both than to lose Stockholm, if we're honest about it. So I won't argue this point with you further. You will take your ships to sea no later than the morning tide, and you will sail for Stockholm. And you, Axel," he turned on Oxenstierna once more, "will sail with him."
Oxenstierna's head came up as he stiffened in instinctive protest, but Gustavus continued, rolling over any objection he might have voiced.
"You will return to my capital, Chancellor of Sweden," he commanded, "and you will hold that capital for me. I charge you with that duty upon your oath of fealty to me."
Oxenstierna closed his mouth a second time, and bent his head in submission. He might argue with his king with all the stubbornness of Swedish iron, but in the end, he recognized the man he served. The only monarch in Europe truly worthy of the title "King." When that man commanded, Axel Oxenstierna would obey.
"Thank you," Gustavus said, clapping him on the shoulder. "And don't look so glum, Axel! I have no intention of leaving my bones in Luebeck! And, for that matter, I rather doubt the Americans have any intention of allowing me to."