1633 David Weber and Eric Flint



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Chapter 41


Jack Clements wished, not for the first time, that he was better at languages. Unfortunately, he wasn't. What he really needed right now was Eddie or Larry, or one of the other up-timers who'd acquired sufficient German to explain what he wanted done. He'd had Larry up until a few minutes before, but then the runner had arrived from the radio shack with the news that Larry was urgently needed to supervise an incoming message from Luebeck. Which was how Jack came to be struggling with the Outlaw's rocket launcher and ammunition stowage in the poor illumination provided by dockside torches. His two German assistants were eager enough to help; he just wasn't able to tell them what sort of help he needed, and gestures could only go so far.

He straightened his aching back and beckoned for one of the Germans to climb back up onto the wharf. More hand gestures, and the younger German nodded enthusiastically and began dragging another rocket from the cart parked beside the mooring bollard. In fact, he was rather more enthusiastic about it than Jack might have liked, given the size and weight—and explosiveness—of the projectile. He shook his head, trying to slow the youngster down, but the message clearly wasn't getting through, and he had to jump quickly to catch the heavy rocket before his overeager assistant dropped it straight into the Outlaw's cockpit.

He staggered as the solid weight hit his arms, but he managed to keep his footing and lower the black-powder missile in more or less controlled fashion.

The German on the dock obviously realized, after the fact, what Jack had been trying to get across. His expression was hard to make out in the poor lighting, but what Jack could see of it was—as his wife would have put it—"covered with chagrin." The up-timer chuckled and waved one hand in a reassuring gesture, but he also beckoned for his enthusiastic assistant to give him a moment to catch his breath.

Not as young as you used to be, Jack, he told himself, sinking down into one of the Outlaw's luxuriously upholstered seats. Not even as young as you were when you started out for Halle! He closed his eyes for a moment, one hand rubbing his chest in an effort to relieve the tightness in his lungs. Weather isn't helping any, either, he thought irritably. Cold and wet. Gets into a man's muscles and joints. Makes the bastards ache like hell, too. He rubbed his chest harder. Still, I can't just sit here all night. We've got too much—

The pain hit like a sledgehammer. It seemed to explode through his chest like a bomb, and his grunt of anguish was that of a man who'd just been kicked in the belly by a mule. His eyes popped open, and he saw both of his German assistants turning toward him in sudden alarm even as the sledgehammer smashed him again and he felt himself sliding helplessly out of his seat.

"Goddamn it!" Frank Jackson's left fist slammed down on his kitchen table and the knuckles of his right hand went white where it gripped the telephone. He snarled another curse before he could make himself stop, then he paused and drew in a deep breath.

"How bad does it sound, James?" he asked in a more nearly normal voice. He listened again, lips firmly compressed. Then he closed his eyes, and his square shoulders sagged. "Okay," he said. "Okay. I understand. Just . . . let me know if you hear anything else, all right?" He listened a moment longer, then nodded as if the other man could see him. "Thanks. I'll talk to you later."

He hung up the phone very, very carefully, and turned to his wife.

"What is it?" Diane Jackson asked. She'd been heating water to brew tea when the telephone rang. Now she studied her husband's expression with the same eyes which had seen the fall of one homeland, the loss of a second, and the painful birth of yet a third.

"Jack," Frank told her flatly, and his nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply. "Stubborn old bastard. Why the hell didn't he tell me he had a heart condition when I asked him to go to Wismar?"

"Don't be foolish," she scolded, and snorted when he looked at her in surprise. "Men! All of you just alike!" She shook her head. "Would you have told you if you'd asked you to go to Wismar?" she demanded.

Despite himself, Frank found himself smiling as she glowered at him. Diane's English sometimes got just a bit . . . convoluted, even after all these years. Not that his was always any great prize, he reminded himself, and shook his head at her.

"Point taken," he conceded. "I'm just as stubborn and pigheaded as he is, I suppose. But, Jesus, Diane! He could've at least warned me there might be a problem instead of leaving it all up to Doc Adams!"

"And if he had, you wouldn't have sent him," Diane pointed out inexorably. "But you needed him. So he didn't tell you." She shrugged.

"Guess you're right," he sighed.

"So," she said. "How bad?"

"James couldn't really say," Frank said sadly. "Sharon was right there on the spot, thank God. But good as she is, she's not as good as her dad. And she doesn't begin to have what she really needs in the way of supplies and equipment." He sighed again and shook his head. "Sounds to me like James was trying to tell me he doesn't expect Jack to make it."

"I must go to Alice's," Diane said.

"I'll come along," Frank said. "After all, my fault he went."

"You will not come along," Diane informed him. "First, Alice does not need for you to come and beat yourself in front of her. Second, you must tell Mike and Admiral Simpson. They should know."

"Yeah." Frank nodded. "Yeah, you're right. Not that much we can do about it, of course, but I guess somebody should tell them that the only real pilot we had for Watson's Folly isn't available anymore."

"Can you think of anything at all we can do about it?" Mike asked.

"No." Simpson's face was drawn, and he shook his head. "There's not anything. We're here; they're there. And even if that weren't true, I doubt there's anyone else here in Magdeburg or in Grantville who's really qualified to handle that boat properly. We'll just have to hope Lieutenant Wild did pick up enough from Mr. Clements while he was available."

"I don't like it," Mike muttered, and Simpson snorted.

"I don't like it either," he admitted. "Unfortunately, what we like has very little to do with the situation. It never does. Especially when it's time for the shooting to start."

Mike leaned back in his chair and cocked his head at the older man. He gazed at him for several seconds.

"You don't have to answer this if you don't want to . . . John," he said, deliberately putting his question on a non-official basis with the use of the other's first name. "But I can't help wondering. It's obvious to me from some of the things you've said—and the way you talked to Eddie, before we sent him off—that you'd seen combat before we ever wound up here. A lot, I'd guess. Probably at least as much as Frank Jackson. But you never mentioned it until we needed you to build our navy. And to be honest, I've got the distinct impression you'd never mentioned it to Tom at all."

Simpson looked at him steadily, and Mike gave a tiny shrug. "John, I really don't think the fact that your son hasn't answered the radio message I sent to him just before I left means anything. That storm front has scrambled all our communications with Becky—and God knows what it's done to the relay between Amsterdam and London."

Simpson nodded once, jerkily, but his face was still tight.

Mike sighed. "Oh, hell . . . I guess if I'm asking for confidences, I should spill one of my own. Even though Rita swore me to silence."

Mention of Simpson's daughter-in-law caused his eyes to widen a bit.

"When the Ring of Fire hit," Mike asked, "what did you and your wife do? Right away, I mean. You didn't have anything left except a rental car—and we nationalized all the gas within a week—and a couple of suitcases. Every credit card in the world, I'm sure, and a wallet full of cash and the world's best wristwatch. Lot of good that was."

Simpson stared at him. "Well . . . a family took us in. Very nice people. The—"

"I know who took you in, John. The reason I know is because Rita set it up. The Wendells' son Jerry is an old friend of Rita's. Boyfriend, to be precise, back in high school. But they stayed on good terms after they broke up."

"Your sister . . ."

Mike snorted, half-angrily and half-wearily. "John, just because we West Virginia hillbillies like to brag about the fact that we won the Hatfield-McCoy feud doesn't mean we really think old Devil Anse Hatfield was a role model. So relax about your son, will you? My kid sister's got her faults, but spitefulness is not one of them."

Simpson looked away. For a moment, the stiff wooden face seemed slightly embarrassed. And relieved.

"So, to go back to my question—why?" Mike asked again.

Simpson said nothing at all for several seconds. Then he drew a deep breath.

"I never really wanted to go into the 'family business,' " he said. "I don't imagine that that's something you expected to hear, but it's true. There were always two traditions in my family—business, and the Navy. There's been a Simpson in the Navy in every generation since the War of 1812. Until Tom's, of course."

He looked away, and his tone was distant, as if he were speaking of someone else entirely.

"I loved the Navy. And I didn't start off on an engineering track, either. Not me. I was headed for a major surface command of my own one day. Sea duty—that was what I wanted, and I volunteered for river duty in Vietnam right out of the Academy. And I got it, too. I got there about the time our riverine forces were reaching their maximum size, and I fitted right in. Within six months I was the squadron XO. Another six, and I was the 'Old Man.' At the grand and glorious age of twenty-four."

He shook his head, his eyes sad.

"You may not believe this, but in some ways, those were the best months of my life. I didn't like combat. Some people actually do, you know. I wasn't one of them. But whether I liked it or not, I was good at it. I was . . . effective. And my people and I were . . . Well, 'family,' I guess."

He swiveled his eyes back to Mike, almost defiantly, as if he expected the other man to laugh at him. But Mike only sat there, waiting, and Simpson looked away once more, gazing back into the distance across the vista of vanished years.

"And then, one day, I found out it doesn't always matter whether or not you're good. I never did find out whether it was a communications screw-up, or an intelligence failure, or just plain stupidity, but we were ordered to move in to cover what was supposed to be the extraction of a battalion of ARVN paratroopers . . . and found out it was a battalion of North Viet regulars, instead.

"They blew the crap out of us. I lost three boats, almost a third of my people, and my right foot."

Despite himself, Mike stiffened in surprise, and Simpson chuckled mirthlessly.

"Oh, yes. I do so well with my prosthesis that no one ever guesses, but it's nylon from right about here." He leaned over and rapped his right calf just above the ankle. The sound was surprisingly loud and hollow.

"That was the end of my Vietnam tour," he went on after a moment. "Almost the end of my career, for that matter. They wanted to give me a medical retirement. Seemed surprised when I turned it down, actually. But the loss of the foot, coupled with the McNamara build-down and the general reductions in manpower after Vietnam, changed my plans. I went into engineering, instead, which is what led me to the Pentagon. And you know what? I was good at that, too. Very good. Had a promising future.

"And then, just about the time I was put on the captain's list, my older brother was killed in a plane accident. Thomas was the one who'd been going to take over from my father. That was why I'd been free to be the one to pursue a Navy career. But now Thomas was gone, and I didn't have any other brothers, which made me the only choice to manage the family business interests. So I resigned my commission, went home to Pittsburgh, and took over when my father retired."

He was silent for two or three endless minutes, then shrugged.

"Sometimes," he said softly, "I think that's where Tom and I first got into trouble. I was so pissed off with him because he didn't want the Navy or the business. He wanted to play football, from the time he was just a kid, and I never understood. Mary did. Or, at least, I think she came closer to understanding than I did. And probably it was my fault. I was never very good at putting things into words to begin with, and I never really talked to Tom. I talked at him. I told him what I expected him to do, but I never got around to explaining why I wanted him to do it. Just like I never told him about my own Navy career, or even exactly how I came to lose my foot. I wanted . . . I wanted him to be like me. To realize that sometimes you have to give up a dream because you have responsibilities. To recognize how 'silly' it was to be so focused on playing a stupid game instead of preparing himself for his 'real' career. And I was so busy wanting him to do those things that I never quite got around to recognizing the sheer determination and discipline he was showing in pursuit of what he wanted to do with his life."

He was silent again, still gazing frowningly into the past. Then he inhaled sharply and gave himself a vigorous shake.

"Anyway," he said briskly, "that's the deep, dark secret of my naval past."

He smiled tightly, a man uncomfortable with confidences settling back into his familiar armor, and Mike nodded in acceptance. He wondered how much of Simpson's willingness to reveal his past stemmed from Mike's own effort to help him find reconciliation with his son. A lot of it, he suspected. But not all. Perhaps not even the majority of it. No, the real source, Mike thought, was the two youthful lieutenants at Wismar. Lieutenants even younger than he had been on a muddy, bloodsoaked river three and a half decades before.

Lieutenants who, in many ways, had become almost replacements for the son from whom he had estranged himself so thoroughly.


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