"Goddamit, Mike, we've got to put a stop to this! We're too sloppy, I tell you. We might as well be handing out all our technical secrets on street corners."
Mike leaned back in his chair and studied Quentin Underwood for a moment, before he replied. He was trying to gauge exactly how much he would be forced to let Quentin know, in order to head off another one of the man's typical bull-in-a-china-shop rampages. There was a part of Mike—no small part, either—that wished Underwood would finally sever his connection with the July Fourth Party and go it on his own politically. Granted, the immediate damage would be significant. But, in the long run—
At least I'd be spared these constant clashes with him, Mike thought sourly. Quentin may be one of the best industrial managers the world's ever seen, but what he understands about how a society works could be inscribed on the head of a . . .
For a moment, Mike indulged himself in a little fantasy where he set all the world's scientists to find a pin small enough to fit Quentin Underwood's "social consciousness" on its head.
Can't be done, he decided. We left all the electron microscopes behind in that other universe.
He realized he couldn't stall any longer. Underwood's flushed face showed the man was working himself up to another explosion.
"Oh, calm down," he growled. What the hell, let's try it one last time. "Quentin, I've told you this before, but you never even listen to me. Whatever short-term damage might be done to us because of our 'open books' policy isn't a pittance compared to the long-term damage that clamping down would do. I don't have a problem with locking up a few books, and I've done it. But that only applies to stuff that involves immediate and specific details about weapons-making that really can be kept a secret, at least for a while. An example is that old 1910 book on guns by Greener that Paul Santee owned and all the gunmakers slobber over. Or Chapelle's books, with the building drafts for all those 19th-century frigates and ships-of-the-line."
Underwood, from his sullen expression, wasn't moved in the least. Mike decided to match Quentin's temper with his own. He slammed the palm of his hand down on the desk. He was a very strong man, with a large hand. The sound bore a reasonable resemblance to a thunderclap.
"Damnation! Do you even listen to the reports Dr. Nichols gives the cabinet?"
That jarred Quentin. A bit, at least. Underwood leaned back in his own chair, his hands braced on the armrests, and said defensively: "Hey, c'mon! I've been up in the Wietze oil field for the last stretch. Just got back a few days ago."
"James has been giving us the same message for a year," growled Mike in return. He wasn't going to let Quentin off the hook that easily. "Longer than that—and you've never paid any attention."
He levered himself out of his chair and took two steps to the window. Jabbing a forefinger at the teeming little city of Grantville below, he said:
"Thirty percent, Quentin. That's probably the lowest fatality rate we can expect, if we get hit with a really good dose of the plague. Or typhus. Or smallpox. Or—hell, you name it." Frowning: "And it could be worse than that, especially if it's plague. Some of the Italian cities have suffered a death rate in excess of sixty percent, from what we've heard. Every city in Europe in this era is a mortality sink. People die in them faster than they get born. The only reason urban areas exist at all is because paupers and poor peasants keep drifting into them hoping for a better chance. And most of them are young, too—which gives you some idea of how badly disease hits the cities."
He heard Underwood shifting in his chair. "I thought . . . I mean, dammit, I still don't like the idea of relying on a hippie drug-dealer, but he does seem to know what he's doing. I thought you were pretty sure we'd have some of this—what do you call?—cloram-something or other. Ready by now. Supposed to be some kind of wonder drug, even if"—his voice was a bit skeptical now—"I never heard of it."
Mike smiled thinly. "Chloramphenicol. Also known as Chloromycitin. And it is a wonder drug, Quentin. Very effective against typhoid fever and syphilis as well as plague and typhus."
He turned away from the window. "James tells me it was real big back in the 1950s. Which, of course, is before your time or mine. That's why neither one of us heard of it before, because they dropped it in favor of other stuff, back in the universe we came from. The problem, apparently, is that about one in twenty-five thousand people has a really bad reaction to it. Bad reaction, as in fatal. Kids—not many, but some—were dying just from being treated for an ear infection. So, with penicillin and other drugs available, it pretty much got put back on the shelves. But, for us, it's the one major antibiotic we can make quickly. And a one-in-twenty-five-thousand fatality rate in a world facing epidemics of bubonic plague just isn't worth worrying about."
He moved back to his chair and almost flopped into it. Mike was feeling bone tired, more from what seemed like never-ending stress than any actual physical weariness. Becky's absence was especially hard on him.
"Yeah, we can make it, Quentin. Stoner already has, in fact. Just like he and Sally over at the pharmacy—your son-in-law at the chem plant too, for that matter—have been able to make some of the sulfa drugs and DDT. But we can't make enough. That's the problem. We're doing better with DDT, but as far as the medicines go . . . right now, we've got enough stockpiled to treat a few thousand people. That's it, and the stockpile only grows slowly. A trickle—with, by now, maybe a million people just in the United States alone. Ten million, probably—maybe more, who knows?—in the CPE as a whole."
He gave Underwood a stony gaze under lowered eyebrows. "Stainless steel, Quentin. That's what we need in order to move from home-lab bucket-scale production to real industrial production. That's what we need in order to turn antibiotics from a social and political nightmare into an asset. From a privilege—who gets it? and who decides?—into a right." He waved a hand at the window. "Yeah, sure, we've been able to scrape up some stainless from what we brought with us in the Ring of Fire. Enough stock in the machine shops to make valves, that kind of thing. A couple of small dairy tanks, the lucky break of having a tanker truck in town when the Ring of Fire hit. Some other stuff. But we need lots of it, Quentin. Thick slabsof it, too, not just thin sheet. Some of these chemical processes require a lot of pressure as well as high temperatures."
As always, given a technical problem, that impressive part of Quentin Underwood's brain which wasn't half-paralyzed by bias and preconception was now working. "How about—"
Mike laughed. "Leave off, Quentin! You've got enough on your plate as it is getting our petroleum industry up and running. Without that—also—everything else is moot anyway. Besides, you're missing my whole point."
He leaned forward and tapped the desk with stiff fingers. "Forget us doing it, in the first place. There are tens of millions of people in Europe today, Quentin. They are just as smart as we are—smarter, some of 'em—and plenty of them have as much initiative and get-up-and-go as we do. And they're often—more often than not—in a better position to do something than we are. For stainless steel, just to name one instance, you've got to have access to chromium. Which they already have in Sweden. In fact, Gustav's sent out an expedition to examine some place called Kemi, somewhere in or near Finland.
"So let themdo it. Hell, let the French do it, if that's how it winds up shaking down. Once anybody starts making stainless steel, you won't be able to stop it from spreading. Provided—"
Here he gave Quentin his best glare. "Provided that we didn't put a roadblock in the way by locking up every book that might have a so-called 'technical secret' in it."
Quentin tried to match the glare, but gave it up after a few seconds. "Well, I guess," he grumbled. "But I still hate to just see us standing around with our thumb up our ass while these bastards rob us blind."
Mike was tempted to respond. I didn't say we weren't going to do anything, Quentin. But, with a little mental sigh, he left the words unspoken. The worst thing about having state secrets, Mike had discovered, was that you couldn't brag about it over a beer after work.
Not long after Underwood left, Mike was handed a radio message. From Gustav Adolf himself, in Luebeck. After he finished reading it, he had a powerful urge to drink something a lot stronger than beer.
"Very good," murmured Francisco Nasi, as his eyes scanned down the pages. He gave Freddie Congden a quick smile of approval.
Freddie, slouched on his couch, responded with a sullen scowl. But he didn't snarl or make any excessively overt indication of his disapproval of the Sephardic Jew who was, for all practical purposes, his lord and master. Since the "new arrangement" had been made, Freddie Congden had at least been civil, if not polite. Clearly enough, he was too terrified of Harry Lefferts to do otherwise.
Francisco did not blame him. Harry Lefferts, except for his casual Americanisms, reminded the Sephardic banker of some of the Ottoman emperor's spahis. To be precise, the ones the emperor tended to use as his personal guards. Notmen anyone in their right mind took lightly when they issued threats.
"Very good," he repeated. That was, in some ways, a lie. Freddie Congden's handwriting was so bad that Francisco had difficulty understanding some of the scrawled words which Freddie had copied from one of his son's books. But, under the circumstances, the semi-legibility of the writing simply added authenticity to the text.
"Now, I need you to add something." Francisco set the pages down on the edge of the table. Sullenly as ever, Freddie rose from the couch, slouched over, and slumped in a chair.
"You may continue from the point where you left off, in your history of the California Gold Rush. I shall dictate the words to you."
With no enthusiasm at all, Freddie picked up the pen. Francisco cleared his throat. The next words came slightly stilted, as words will issued in dictation.
"Despite the wealth of the California gold fields, they were very difficult to reach and the ore was hard to extract. So, the California Gold Rush was soon overshadowed by new discoveries of gold in that part of Florida—"
"Florida?" choked Freddie, his scrawling suspended for a moment. "Hey, I been to Florida. There ain't no gold—"
Sternly, Francisco's finger indicated the page. Freddie resumed his scrawling.
"—known as the Everglades."
* * *
When he was done, Freddie scowled at Nasi. "What you got against Florida, anyway?"
"Absolutely nothing," replied Francisco with a smile. "I am especially taken by the prevalence of malaria. And, of course, by the fact that the French and the Spanish, once they get to fighting over it, will find the place a swamp. In more ways than one."
When Francisco Nasi returned to the converted office building in downtown Grantville which served as the quarters for the executive branch of the U.S. government, the soldier standing guard outside Mike Stearns' office began to open the door as soon as Francisco appeared on the landing. Nasi recognized the man as readily as the soldier had recognized him. Sergeant Gerd Fuhrmann, that was, one of the small group of soldiers whom Captain Harry Lefferts had begun assembling around himself in what amounted to a semi-informal special unit.
Nasi was tempted to call it a Praetorian Guard, but he knew the term would be inaccurate. True, "Harry's guys" had the task of guarding the President of the United States. But Francisco suspected their real function was—or would be, soon enough—much closer to what the English term "commando" captured.
"Señor Nasi," Gerd murmured politely. Nasi nodded and returned the greeting, appreciating the subtlety. Among the Sephardim themselves, Francisco Nasi was considered a hidalgo. Sephardic Jews, even those like Nasi who had been raised in the Ottoman Empire, still retained the cultural trappings of their Iberian homeland. But most Americans and Germans were oblivious to such matters, and would have simply called him "Mister" or "Herr."
As he walked through the door, Francisco found himself mulling over that unexpected subtlety. It did not come from Gerd himself, of that Nasi was quite certain. Gerd had been one of Tilly's mercenaries captured after the first battle at Badenburg, who had enlisted afterward in the U.S. Army. A German commoner of some kind, prior to that.
Mike was standing at the window overlooking the town, his hands clasped behind his back. "I think Harry Lefferts has currents beneath the surface," said Francisco cheerfully.
Mike turned his head, showing his profile. A thin smile came to his face. "Oh, I'd say so. Just two days ago I caught him actually reading a book."
Francisco and Mike shared a little laugh. As Mike pulled out the chair to his desk and sat down, the smile broadened. "Not just any book, either, but a genu-ine I-will-be-good-goddamned history book. He's starting to learn French, too, I heard. His Italian's already pretty good."
"Mazarini's influence, I think."
Mike nodded. Harry had been sent along as something of a bodyguard for the Vatican diplomat Mazarini who had returned to Italy after a visit to Grantville the previous year. The young American had spent months in the company of Mazarini—a man who was already, even at a young age, recognized as one of Europe's premier diplomats. And who would someday, under the Francofied name of "Mazarin," have become Cardinal Richelieu's successor in another universe.
"Mostly, yes. But give Harry himself some credit too. I think he's finally realizing it was time he grew up. All the way, if you know what I mean."
Francisco started to report on his latest little session with Freddie Congden, but Mike waved him silent before he'd finished the second sentence.
"Enough, Francisco. I trust you to handle that situation just fine. To be honest, it's pretty small potatoes now anyway. I'm dead sure Freddie wasn't the only leak, so the best we can hope for is just to keep the other side confused a bit." He paused briefly. "Actually, I'd just as soon you turned the Freddie business over to somebody else. Unless I miss my guess, we're going to have a lot bigger fish to fry before much longer."
Slowly, Francisco eased himself into a chair across the desk. "That's right. I'd forgotten. Today was to be the opening of the special session Gustav Adolf called for the Chamber of Princes in Magdeburg. How did it go?"
"I don't know yet. Simpson told me he'd pass word over the radio as soon as he heard anything."
Francisco cocked a skeptical eyebrow. Mike shrugged. "Oh, I don't think he'll play any games with it. Not that he won't be tempted. But don't forget that he's got Eddie Cantrell—Nat Davis too, for that matter—more or less watching him."
"Simpson is—ah—very strong on military discipline, I understand."
"So what? Eddie won't try to buck Simpson over any military matter. But if Simpson should try to start mucking around in political waters while he's in Magdeburg, Eddie will at least make sure I know about it."
In a half-irritated manner, Mike rubbed his jaw. "Ah, hell. The truth is—much as part of me hates to admit it—I think John Simpson is doing a hell of good job up there. And if he's diddling around in imperial politics on the side, he's at least keeping it under the table. I never expected the guy to act the saint. But as long as he doesn't sup with the devil in broad daylight on the terrace, I'll more or less look the other way."
Francisco's smile was rather crooked. "You are such an oddly tolerant man, for a 'ruler.' I fear for your sanity, at times. And for your life, quite a bit more often."
Mike's returning smile was equally crooked. "Method to my madness, I'm telling you. Not sure what it is yet, but I know it's there." He planted his forearms on the desk and leaned forward. "But I think the real reason we haven't heard anything is way simpler than John Chandler Simpson playing petty games when it comes to relaying important news. I don't think there is any news yet, because the session isn't over. And unless I miss my guess, won'tbe over for some time. Days, for sure, maybe for many weeks."
Francisco drew in a deep breath through wide nostrils. "Ah. You think, in other words, the princes will try to use this crisis to extort concessions from the emperor. Stall as long as they can, quibble, fuss—they're so good at that—while Richelieu and his allies put the squeeze on."
He made a face. Extorting anything from a man like Gustavus Adolphus was . . . what the Americans called "a dicey proposition." But German princes were notorious for combining caution—to the point of cowardice—over major things with recklessness over petty ones. Like a man who'd let a fire grow until it burnt his house down, because he was unwilling to risk his favorite boots stamping out the initial small flames.
Mike snorted. " 'Princes,' " he mimicked. "What a pretentious title. For a handful of them, the word might mean something. John George of Saxony, George William of Brandenburg—even, to a degree, Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel. The rest? The so-called 'Hochadel'? A pack of puffed-up peacocks. Hundreds of them—'high nobles' one and all—most of whom rule over territories which aren't much bigger than a good-sized cattle ranch in my old U.S.A."
"Still," cautioned Francisco, "with the legal and political structure as it currently exists, they have a great deal of influence. And, what is probably even more important, a multitude of ways in which they can serve as impediments and stumbling blocks."
"Tell me about it," snarled Mike. "We still haven't been able to negotiate something as simple and straightforward as free passage down the Elbe. Don't even think about a common imperial currency, as desperately as it's needed. Much less—ha!—a coherent and systematized tax structure."
For a moment, he left off in order to glower at a painting on a nearby wall. The innocuous landscape seemed quite undeserving of the displeasure.
Mike himself apparently felt as much; for, within seconds, he was chuckling softly. Nasi felt a momentary surge of affection for the man. Mike Stearns was one of those rare leaders who combined intelligence, shrewdness, decisiveness—and good humor, far more often than not. With a bit of a shock, Francisco realized that over the past months he, too, had become something of a "Stearns loyalist." Which was quite an odd sentiment, really, for a man brought up in the knife-in-the-back atmosphere of the Ottoman court. In Istanbul, Machiavelli would have been considered a neophyte. A dabbler and a dilettante.
Nasi chuckled as well. Not the least of Mike Stearns' talents was the ability to spot and use the talents of others.
"So. You wish me to go to Magdeburg. I warn you though, Michael, most of those 'princes' will refuse to meet with a Jew."
Mike's curled lip was not quite a sneer. The sentiment was there, to be sure. But the expression conveyed almost too much in the way of contempt—as if the subject of the curled lip was not even worth the effort of a full sneer.
"Don't care about them," he grunted. "Unless I miss my guess, I think that lot is going to discover very very soon that trying to twist Gustav Adolf's tail when he's in the middle of a fight is as risky a proposition as twisting a bear's tail when his fangs are bared."
He leaned back from the table, spreading his arms a bit. "What I do care about is how the rest of them act. Hesse-Kassel most of all. Our own Wilhelm—Saxe-Weimar, I mean—is at the session also. He's always been friendly to you, and he's on good terms with Hesse-Kassel. Try to move in that crowd, Francisco. I think . . ."
After a pause: "Guessing, sure. But I'll be surprised if we don't see a quiet little flurry of deals being offered to us. Under the table, as it were."
Nasi nodded. "I will set off first thing tomorrow. When do you want me to report back?"
Mike chuckled again. It was a harsh-sounding chuckle. "I won't be surprised if I'm up in Magdeburg myself, soon. Emperor Gustav is in Luebeck, you know. If all hell breaks loose—which is the way it's looking to me—I'll probably have to make some rush trips to Magdeburg. For all I know I could get there before you do."
When the meaning registered, Nasi's eyes widened. "You can't—!"
"Oh, don't be silly. I'm no hick, y'know, even if I am a country boy." Mike squared his shoulders and puffed out his chest in mimicry of a boy's bravado. "I've flown in planes lots of times."