By the time Mike and Simpson neared the entrance to the naval yard, Mike was pretty sure he understood what was happening. The hurried words spoken by Nat Davis as he came up to meet them confirmed it.
"I don't know what's happening, Admiral," said Nat, his face creased with worry and confusion. "Almost nobody showed up to work today. Sergeant Kohler tells me a lot of the sailors didn't either."
Mike cocked his head, listening. He could hear what sounded like a low murmur in the distance. Words were impossible to make out, but he knew that was the sound of a huge crowd in the making. He recognized the odd feeling it gave to the air itself, like an echo in a cavern. He'd felt it before, from time to time, when he'd participated in mass demonstrations in Washington, D.C. called by the labor movement.
Except the crowd at those demonstrations had not been angry so much as simply resolved to exercise—as the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights put it—"the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
But that right was not established in the CPE as a whole, even if it had been in the new United States. And, in any event, the population of Magdeburg was not one accustomed to the fine etiquette of a long-established democratic society. That they were gathering in the city to demand a redress of grievances was clear. It was also clear to Mike, just listening to the undertone of fury in that distant murmur, that the crowd was going to be paying little attention to any notions of "petition" and "peaceable assembly."
"It's blowing wide open," he pronounced. "The news from Wismar must have been the last straw."
General Torstensson was gazing at him with a kind of detached curiosity. As if he was an observer of a heretofore unfamiliar phenomenon, interested to hear what a self-professed expert might have to say on the subject.
Simpson was frowning. He, clearly enough, was simply confused.
"But . . . why?We won at Wismar! Whatever else—whatever it cost us—that much is crystal clear. Why are they angry? Why aren't they celebrating?"
For a moment, Mike felt a flash of anger. For all that he'd come to understand and respect Simpson—even, to a degree, develop a certain liking for the man—he was forcefully reminded of the enormous gap that still existed between them. In the end, Simpson would always look at the world from the top down. Mike, no matter how high he rose, from the bottom up.
Try watching men you love choking their lives out with black lung, you rich bastard, fighting the companies tooth and nail—and their so-called "experts" and 90% of the government—for every dime they can get. Try—
He broke off the thought. Snapped it off, rather. This was no time for it.
"Why are they angry?Well, John, let's start with the fact that for fifteen years they've watched Germany's princes—and every other prince in the world except maybe Gustav Adolf—grind their lives under. Even Gustav is only on probation, as far as they're concerned. Add to that the fact that their lives before the war weren't exactly a commoner's paradise."
He shook his head. "Wismar didn't make them angry. Anger, they already had—anger and rage and grief and bitterness, drunk to the dregs. And I can guarantee you that the spectacle they've been watching right here in Magdeburg for the past few weeks"—Mike pointed a rigid and accusing finger in the direction of the palace where the Chamber of Princes had been holding their sessions—"did nothing but rub salt in the wounds. Once again, Germany's princes will bicker and dawdle and protect their privileges, while Germany's millions stare at their blood and intestines spilling on the ground."
Torstensson grunted. The sound was that of a detached observer, acknowledging that the expert had made a valid point.
"What Wismar did," Mike continued, "was finally crack their doubt. Not doubt in the princes—they've long ago given up any faith in princes—but doubt in their own ability to do anything about it."
He took a long, almost shuddering breath, fiercely controlling his own grief. "Hans Richter didn't simply destroy a Danish warship, John," he said softly. "He also broke the last chain the princes had on Germany. When all is said and done, he belongs to them. Not us. Or, at least, we only had a part of him. We can give whatever medals we want to that part. But Germany's people will lift his memory to the skies, and use it for their own standard. And that standard—don't doubt this for a moment—is a battle standard. The standard of people who, for the first time, think they can win. Understand for the first time, really, that 'winning' can even be a part of their world."
"True," pronounced Torstensson. "The first elements of the crowd moving toward the palace were chanting his name when I left the palace grounds. And, as you say, it was a battle cry." He smiled thinly. "I know the sound of such."
"But—" Simpson shook his head. "Who are they going to fight? Here, I mean?"
"Me, most likely," growled Torstensson. "Or the Saxon troops. John George has already summoned them into the city. To protect himself and the princes from mob violence. That is his excuse, at least, and—" Torstensson cast a quick glance toward the swelling murmur. "I cannot honestly say it's simply an excuse. Some of the crowd is already calling for his head. As well as the head of the elector of Brandenburg."
Now, Torstensson looked every inch the 17th-century general. Still interested, perhaps; but also sure of his duty. His eyes were hard and narrow.
"Who, may I remind you—yes, George William is a swine; and so what?—has a son to whom Princess Kristina is unofficially betrothed. And since I am the commanding officer of Gustav's army in this city—where the Princess also lives now—I must put a stop to this. However brutal that may become."
Simpson's eyes widened. "My God, this could be a disaster!"
"Screw that," Mike snapped. "Yes, it could be a disaster. It can also be a triumph and a victory. And a big one, too. But that's up to us, gentlemen." He gave both Simpson and Torstensson a hard look of his own.
"Will you follow me?" he demanded. The question was addressed at both men.
Torstensson's answer came immediately. "Yes—to a point." He smiled somewhat grimly. "And do not ask me what that point may be. I do not know yet. But . . . this much I can promise you, Michael Stearns. So long as I retain confidence that you can control the situation, I will do as you say."
"Good enough. John?"
Simpson drew himself up stiffly. "Mr. President, the Navy is always under your—"
"John! Cut it out, goddamit. Now is not the time for this. I know you will obey orders. That's not what I asked. Will you—this time—follow me?"
Simpson hesitated and looked away. Then, his lips quirking a little, nodded his head. "Yes, Mike. This time I will. I just hope—"
He shook his head. "Never mind. If you don't know what you're doing in a situation like this, I'm damn sure nobody else is even going to come close. So. What do you want?"
Mike's thoughts had been racing ahead. "First. Did you ever get those fancy uniforms?"
Simpson snorted. "They're sitting at the tailor's, still. All made up and—no money to pay for them. You wouldn't approve the expense, you may recall."
Mike grinned. Now that he was sure he would be going into combat fully armed—his kind of combat, the kind he understood and knew he was genuinely superb at—he was full of cheer and confidence.
"We'll fix that, right now." He drew a small notebook from his shirt pocket, scribbled a few letters on it, signed it, tore the page off and gave it to Simpson. "Here. Have one of your men take that to Abrabanel Bank." The small building was nearby, since—no fools, they—the Abrabanels made sure they located in the radical district, and close to the U.S. military base. "They'll issue the funds immediately, with that code. As fast as possible, I want you and all your men in the fanciest dress uniforms you have."
Simpson passed the sheet over to one of the petty officers who had started gathering around. He didn't even have to give instructions. The noncom had been listening to the conversation and was already trotting toward the gate. Simpson nodded toward another man, this time one of the German-born commissioned officers.
"You heard, Lieutenant Kelleher. Go to the tailor and make sure the uniforms are ready when the money arrives." He turned back to Mike. "What next?"
Mike waved his arm, encompassing in the gesture the entire navy yard. "Now, I want you and Nat to turn this whole place into Disneyland. Today the U.S. Navy is going to throw an open house, with all the trimmings. Guided tours, let the kids play on the boats, the whole shot. For the first time, we're going to let Germany's people come and see their Navy. The one whose heroes fought alongside the great Hans Richter."
"Fuck yes!" exclaimed Nat Davis. "That's a great idea, Mike. For damn sure, all the missing sailors and workers will pour in. And they'll bring their families with them too, sure as shooting."
Mike was watching Simpson, expecting an outburst on the subject of security. But, instead, Simpson nodded. Mike had forgotten that Simpson had also run a major factory.
"Yes, I agree. Nothing pleases working men so much as showing off their place of work to their wives and kids. Every time we held an open house in the plant, the place was packed."
Mike was not surprised. Because it's the one place where, even in our old world, much less this one, a common man can really feel like a man. Here is where I spend much of my life, wife and children, doing what only real men can do. Here, I am a master of my trade. Screw the suits. They don't count.
But this was no time for idle thoughts. "Next thing. I need you to pull out the loudspeaker system you set up in the plant. Have some electricians bring everything to the palace. While you're organizing Disneyland, I've got to organize as fine a filibuster as any politician ever pulled off. I've got to talk to that crowd—and my own voice just isn't loud enough or strong enough. Not for a whole day. Won't surprise me if it turns into a two-day stint. Maybe three. That crowd is pissed."
"Done." Simpson started to issue orders to yet another petty officer, but, again, the man was already racing off. By now, the little knot of confused noncoms and junior officers gathered around Mike and Simpson and Torstensson was neither little nor confused. The air of sure command and authority had returned, and if it was centered on their President rather than their admiral, all the better. The confidence of those men was pouring back in like a flood.
Quickly, Mike pictured in his mind the layout of the city in the vicinity of the imperial palace. Fortunately, the palace opened directly onto a large square, into which three broad avenues emptied. Mike was certain that Gustav Adolf had ordered that layout with cannons firing grapeshot in mind. But a square large enough to commit mass slaughter was also large enough to bring order to the masses before slaughter became necessary. There was room there for a large enough part of the crowd to assemble, and for him to transform an inchoate burst of fury into a political rally.
True, the crowd would be baring its teeth. A "petition for redress of grievances" with real fangs. All the better. Let Germany's princes cower for a change. So long as Mike could keep the blood from flowing, he could turn a potential disaster into another nail—a very, very big nail; a spike, in fact—driven into the coffin of Europe's aristocracy.
He glanced at Torstensson. Easier said than done, of course. Since I'll need a Swedish nobleman general to hold the spike while a Swedish king swings the hammer. Oh, Mike. Mama done told you not to walk on tightropes. And look at you now!
It was a cheerful thought, though. Mike Stearns, for the first time in months, felt as if all his blood was flowing. He would need that confidence, he knew, just as any master craftsman needs it when he faces one of the top challenges in his trade. But, also like a master craftsmen facing such a challenge, he could not deny the sheer exuberance involved. That, too, was necessary.
"The next thing we'll need, John, is for you to provide General Torstensson with secure radio communications with Gustav Adolf in Luebeck. That means secure from us, too. Unless I miss my guess, the emperor and I are going to be trading a lot of horses over the next day or three. But he can't do that unless he's sure he can talk privately to his own man on the spot, without me eavesdropping." His eyes flicked back and forth between the American admiral and the Swedish general. "Do we have a Swedish soldier who can use the radio well enough?"
"We've got two, in fact." Simpson's eyes ranged the small crowd, coming almost immediately to rest on a short and thickset man. "That's one of them. They've been training for weeks with us. By now, they should know how to handle all of it."
Torstensson cocked his head, looking at the man Simpson was pointing to. The gesture was inquisitive. The Swedish radio operator was fluent in English, of course, given his assignment, so he'd been able to follow the conversation.
The man nodded firmly. "Good," said Torstensson. "That will help. A great deal."
He gave Mike a smile that was still grim, but also a bit amused. "I must warn you, however, that while it is most disrespectful to suggest that His Majesty would stoop to something as low and common as horse-trading, he is actually very good at it."
But not all that painful. Sure as hell not compared to a civil war, if it can be avoided. Some can't, but this one can.
"Anything else?" asked Simpson.
"Send an immediate radio message to Wismar. I want Jesse back here ASAP, with the plane. And tell that stubborn apolitical character that if he doesn't overfly the palace at least three times before he lands, I'll have his liver for dinner. Gas is cheap; blood isn't. But, most of all, I want Sharon here. Desperately. She'll be worth her weight in gold."
"Done. Anything else?"
Mike thought a moment.
"Yes. Please send a runner to your wife. I'll want—very much want—Mary and Veronica to be standing on the palace steps next to me."
Again, Simpson was caught off-balance. "Mary? Why? Sharon and Veronica I can understand, sure—Hans Richter's betrothed and grandmother. But Mary—"
The admiral groped for words. "Mike, please. She'd be like a fish out of a water at something like that. Not to mention scared out of her wits. Ask Mary to give a speech to a crowd of—well, you know. Rich people sitting at fancy tables in a fancy banquet room while she tries to squeeze money from them for her latest project. But—"
"John, be quiet." Mike's voice was low, but almost steely. "What you—or Mary—understand about this stuff could be written on the head of a pin. You're not in that universe, any longer. You're in this one. And in this one . . ."
He groped for words himself. As he did so, his eyes ranged across the area, coming to rest on the small crowd of Germans gathered just beyond the gate to the naval yard. Except it was no longer a small crowd, he saw. Several hundred people, he estimated. Not hostile. Simply . . .
Watching. Waiting. Wondering.
Most of all, sitting in judgment.
He recognized one of the men standing at the front of the crowd. Gunther Achterhof, that was, one of the CoC's militants. Shortly after Mike had arrived in Magdeburg, he had noticed Gunther and several other men following him everywhere. A self-appointed bodyguard, he suspected. Which Gunther had immediately confirmed when Mike went up to him and asked. He'd then spent some time in conversation with the man. Idle conversation, in one sense; a probe, in another.
The sight of Achterhof brought everything into full and final focus. In that one man, Mike knew, could be found the soul of the mob now rising throughout reborn Magdeburg. And soon enough, he knew, pouring into the city from the nearby area.
All of it. Beginning with the rage which could kill and mutilate a soldier, but not . . . necessarily ending there. Perhaps no longer even needing to start there, or even go to that dark place at all. Because there was also hope, and yearning. Most of all, the dawning half-recognition that perhaps victory was within his grasp, not simply vengeance. The beginning of it, at least.
"I'll bet on Gunther," Mike murmured, more to himself than anyone else. "I'll always bet on the world's Gunthers."
He turned back to Simpson. "Do you know what they call Mary? The people who live around here, I mean. The most ferocious of the CoC's militants. The same ones, by the way, who watch your house—her house—day and night, to make sure no enemy strikes."
He didn't wait for Simpson's answer.
"They simply call her 'the American Lady.' That's 'Lady' with a capital L, John. You can hear it in the way they say the word. And do you know why they call her that? It's not because of her table manners, I can assure you of that. They wouldn't know whether she was using the right fork or not themselves. No, the reason's simple. It's because your servant Hilde is one of them, and they know how she treats her servant. She says 'please' and 'thank you,' and—most important of all—she looks at Hilde when she says it."
Torstensson grunted. This grunt had more than a trace of surprise in it. But, again, also contained the sense of an observer acknowledging an expert's point.
Simpson didn't really understand. It was obvious in the blank look on his face.
"You just don't get it, John. You still think—you and Mary both—that these noblemen are just this world's version of your old familiar upper crust. Well, they're not. They've got all the vices, oh, yeah, in spades—but damn few of the virtues."
His smile was very thin, now. "Virtues, mind you, which you only have because we beat them into you, over the centuries. Often enough with blood and iron. Usually our blood and your iron, but blood always wins out. If nothing else, it'll rust iron."
Still, incomprehension. Mike almost sighed. Give it up, will you? The man is what he is, and you can live with that. Just explain it to him.
He thought of demanding that Torstensson explain. But Mike wasn't actually sure of Swedish custom. He suspected the Swedish nobility, given their own history, lacked some of the sheer unthinking arrogance of Germany's princes.
"When a German nobleman or noblewoman addresses a servant, John, they do not say 'please' or 'thank you.' In fact, they don't even address them at all. They summon the servant and never look at them. Simply gaze at the wall, as if the servant does not exist, and give their orders in the third person. 'He will bring us tea.' 'She will clean the bedroom.' "
Simpson's eyes almost crossed. "You're kidding!"
"No, he is not," said Torstensson. "Such is indeed the custom."
The general swiveled his head. The crowd's murmur was swelling ever more powerfully. "Best we be off, now. These servants will not be satisfied until, at the very least, we look at them. Straight in the face, as you say." He gave Mike a glance. "And maybe not then. Let us hope you can teach them—"
He broke off abruptly. Mike was grinning at the general, and the grin was purely feral. A wolf, daring a nobleman lost in the forest to finish the sentence. Before the wolf tears his entrails out.
"I do not propose to teach them manners, General Torstensson. I propose to teach manners to Germany's aristocracy. Who are badly in need of the lesson."
The nobleman flinched from the wolf. The general remained. Mike gave him his instructions for the day, as surely and firmly as might Gustav Adolf himself. "You, Torstensson—come with me. Your job is to keep those fucking Saxons away. Far away. And most of your own troops, for that matter. Just enough for a bodyguard for Princess Kristina. That's it."
"Yes, Mr. President."
Mike turned back to Simpson. "Send Mary," he commanded. "If she can't bring herself to speak, so be it. But I want her standing there with Sharon and Gramma Richter right next to me, facing our folks. And beginning the nobility's instruction. They'll either learn to use a fork, Mary's way—and be damn quick about it—or they'll learn what a pitchfork feels like. My way, if it comes down to that."
He began to turn toward the gate. But paused long enough to address some final words, both to the admiral from another world and the general from this one. "And it will come down to that, gentlemen, if I can't be satisfied at the negotiating table. Never doubt it, not for a minute. I'll compromise, if I can, but don't ever think I don't know whose side I'm on."
He pointed a finger at Gunther Achterhof. "His. So you can deal with me, or deal with him. Your choice."