Frank rode with Mike on the way back, since Mike had decided to adjourn the cabinet meeting until the next day. The excitement at the airfield had wound up using most of the afternoon, and Mike said he had an important appointment that evening he didn't want to postpone.
"You pissed at me?" asked Frank, as soon as the truck started driving off. Mike had a fairly ferocious frown on his face. "I guess I should have asked you before—"
"Nah, forget it," said Mike, shaking his head. "We'd talked about putting Jesse in charge, once before, if he ever got that contraption off the ground. It made sense to me then, makes sense now. That's not the problem. It's the damn oil."
Frank's eyebrows went up. "I thought things were going pretty well up there. The last report you gave from Quentin sounded good."
Mike's frown deepened, became almost a scowl. "Yeah, sure. Quentin's a hard-driving manager, about as capable as they get, and you know as well as I do that he'd get that oil field up and working faster than anyone. So I'm sure his report was accurate. He's also got about the worst case of tunnel vision I've ever met in my life. Or have you forgotten?"
Frank smiled. In the days before the Ring of Fire, he and Mike had been coal miners working for Quentin Underwood, who had then been the manager of the coal mine they'd worked at. No one had ever questioned Quentin's managerial competence, to be sure, but . . . damn near everything else about the man had tended to drive his employees nuts.
"So, naturally, Quentin hasn't given a bit of thought to how we're going to haul the oil, once he's got the refinery running. That's my problem, I guess, not his."
"That's Quentin Underwood, all right. He's probably assuming a pipeline will materialize out of nowhere. Made out of what, I wonder, and by who? A cast-iron industry that's just got up to cranking out potbellied stoves a few months ago?"
Mike shook his head. "Not to mention that Quentin doesn't seem to have the slightest understanding of what the term 'conflict of interest' means. According to Uriel, he's already gotten himself a partnership with the Germans who put up most of the money for the operation. So I'll have to bring the hammer down. Again."
Frank made a face. Quentin had gone out to Celle to oversee the establishment of an extraction and refining operation at the nearby Wietze oil fields in his capacity as the United States' secretary of the interior—not as a private entrepreneur. But, as had been true several times already, the man seemed unable to grasp that there was anything wrong with using his official position to further his own personal interests. As long as he didn't steal anything, of course. Quentin Underwood would have been more outraged than anyone at the suggestion that he was a thief.
My books are good, dammit!
Yeah, fine, Quentin—but they're not supposed to BE your books in the first place.
Mike continued grumbling. "How the hell did two good union men like you and me wind up in charge of a pack of robber barons anyway? I swear to God, Frank . . ."
He broke off, sighing.
Frank shrugged. "It's not that bad, really. Stuff like this is bound to happen, Mike, under the circumstances. Everything's busting wide open and everybody wants to grab a piece of it. Hell, half the guys in the UMWA have got businesses on the side now. No way to stop it—even if you wanted to anyway, which you don't. However messy it is, we need that economic growth badly.
"I grant you," he added, "it'll make for some nasty situations down the road. But don't forget that we do have a powerful trade union movement also. So . . ."
He scratched his head. "Becky probably knows more American labor history by now than I do, but I do know this much—when the old-style robber barons were cutting loose in the 19th century they had all the advantages of labor legislation—if you can even call it that!—that was nowhere near as good as we've got. Not to mention—"
Frank cleared his throat. "I hate to be crude about it, Mike, but let's not forget that this time around we've got the army instead of them. So there won't be any federal troops being sent in to stop any big strikes, like the bastards did at Blair Mountain or that railroad strike in, when was it? The 1870s, I think. No goddam way. And just let those fucking rich boys try to get tough using nothin' but hired goons. Hah!"
For a moment, the cab of the pickup was illuminated by the righteous scowls of two lifelong union men, glaring at the world around them as if daring any new would-be robber barons—
Go ahead! Try it!
Suddenly, the scowls dissolved into laughter.
"True, true," admitted Mike, shaking his head, still chuckling. "Lord, aren't we a pair of good old-style hillbillies! Just goes to show: you can take the man out of the shack, but you can't take the shack out of the man."
By now, they'd reached the town itself and Mike slowed down. By the summer of 1633, Grantville had become almost as densely populated as Manhattan and—except for buses and the occasional official vehicle—the streets were given over entirely to pedestrian traffic. Well . . .
Not quite. Now and then, a newcomer to the town not aware of the city's ordinances would try to take his horse onto the streets. And, beginning a month earlier, the first products of the recently formed Jennings, Reich and Kuhn company had started showing up on the streets. The new bicycles were crude things, compared to the few modern ones which had come through the Ring of Fire. But they worked, and they were priced in a range which a family with a decent income could afford.
"Damn!" exclaimed Frank, his eye caught by something moving along one of the side streets. "D'you see that?"
"What?" Mike's eyes had been on the road ahead, picking a way through the crowd.
"It was like—I dunno. A rickshaw, I guess you could call it, except it was being hauled by a guy on a bike. Two people sitting in the back. Reminded me of Saigon, for a moment."
Mike grunted. "Steve Jennings told me, a while back, that they were thinking of introducing a line of 'cabs.' "
"He's gotta be doing well, these days."
"I'd imagine," agreed Mike. His frown was back.
"What's the matter? Steve's a good guy, and after that tough run of luck he had some years back, I sure as hell don't begrudge it to him."
"Neither do I, Frank. But the problem is . . ." Mike was silent for a bit, as he slowly worked his way through the town's main intersection. Then: "The problem isn't Steve personally, and it's a long-term problem."
He waved his hand around, indicating the town itself. "Give it a few years, Frank, and everything'll change. It's bound to. The truth is, when the dust finally settles—at a guess—I'd say at least half the original Americans who came through the Ring of Fire will be richer than they ever were. Way richer. Sure as hell in relative terms to everybody else, even if they miss their fancy toilet paper. Any high school kid with half a brain can figure out a way to apply his knowledge to something that'll turn a profit. And if he can't, some eager German partner of his will."
He swiveled his head and gave Frank a considering look. "And then what? How solid is a commitment to democracy and equality going to remain—in this world—when most of the people who brought it with them are part of the upper crust? Huh?"
Frank pursed his lips. Then, somewhat uncomfortably: "Hell, Mike—I went from 'coal miner' to 'head of the army.' You did even better than that. But I can't say I think my—what would you call it?—'political moral fiber' has declined any."
Mike smiled. "Mine, either. But that's not really what I'm talking about, Frank. I don't expect anybody—well, not more than a handful anyway—to start making paeans of praise to aristocratic rule. It'll be a lot more subtle than that. But it'll start happening, soon enough, don't think it won't. People on top always see the world from their angle, don't ever think they don't. We're no exceptions to the rule. Nobody is, really, except a few individuals here and there. And, by themselves, a few individuals aren't enough to make a difference. Not unless they have a mass base."
They had reached Frank's house and Mike pulled up the truck. Quietly, he added: "We're in a race against time, Frank, is what it is. So far we've been able to run a long way with the initial edge we had. But it won't last—not any of it, including the politics and the ideals. Not unless we convert, if I can use the term, enough of the people in this world so that they can pick up the slack after most of the original Americans have slacked off. Or it'll all start coming apart."
Frank studied him for a moment. "You've been listening to Becky, haven't you?"
"Yes. And, God, do I miss her."
"Yeah, me too. Although that stuff sounds gloomier than she usually does."
Mike shrugged. "I'm not actually 'gloomy' about it, Frank. Neither's Becky, for that matter. I'm just trying to be realistic, so I don't get caught by surprise when the time comes. And, what's probably way more important, don't screw up ahead of time and fail to take steps that'll make it easier."
Frank's eyes narrowed a little. Mike grinned.
"No, dammit! I'm not thinking of coups d'état and all that other banana republic bullshit."
Frank didn't quite heave a sigh of relief. Not quite. "Well, that's good. We've been friends a long time and I'd really hate to see it hit the rocks. Which it would if . . . ah, hell. Yeah, there's no way I'd let my troops get used to break strikes, sure—my resignation's on the table the first time anybody asks. But that's not the same thing as, you know, military rule and all that."
Mike was still grinning. "I said I'd been listening to Becky, Frank. Not Otto von Bismarck."
The grin widened. "It's no wonder you flunked history."
"I got a D, dammit. I didn't flunk." Frank opened the door and started to get out. "I'll admit, I think Mr. Pierce only gave me the D 'cause he wanted to get me out of his class. Still, I didn't flunk. Says so right on the high school transcript."
Once out of the car, he closed the door and leaned through the open window. "So where you off to now? And what is this mysterious meeting you said you couldn't miss?"
Mike grin faded some, but didn't vanish entirely. "Oh, hard to explain. Let's just say I hope to take one of those little precautionary steps I was talking about."
Frank leaned away from the truck, shaking his head. "Glad I'm just a grunt. Even if nowadays I do wear a fancy—hey, now that I think about it, we never did get around to designing a suitable uniform for—harumph!—the Army Chief of Staff. How much gold braid d'you think I ought to insist on? Two pounds? Three?"
Mike drove off.
"Geez," complained Frank, "you didn't hafta peel rubber . . . We ain't got much rubber left, y'know!" he yelled after the truck.
Smiling, Frank walked toward his house. His wife Diane was already opening the door.
"That boy worries too much," he announced.
Diane shook her head solemnly. "Not enough," she pronounced. Looking down on her, less than five feet tall, Frank was suddenly reminded that she came from a country named Vietnam.
"Maybe you're right," he allowed.
* * *
The meeting was held on "neutral ground," insofar as that term meant anything in Grantville. Whatever the future might bring, for the moment Grantville was still solidly in the hands of Mike Stearns and his supporters. But, in the year and a half since it had opened, the Thuringen Gardens had become such a famous landmark of the town that almost everyone would accept it as a suitable place for an informal meeting.
Even the man who had, once, been the duke of the region.
* * *
"You're looking good, Wilhelm," said Mike, shaking the hand held out to him.
Wilhelm of Saxe-Weimar smiled and, with the same hand, invited Mike to sit at the small table in the booth. "Does a booth suit you? I thought it would be quieter than trying to speak in the main room."
Mike grimaced. Trying to have an actual conversation in the main room of the Gardens on a Friday night—any night of the week, actually—would have taxed the lungs of an ox. "No, this is fine. In fact, let's draw the curtains."
He reached behind him and did so. When he turned back, Wilhelm was already seated. Next to him was a man who bore a close resemblance.
"I trust you will not object if my brother Albrecht stays. I would have asked Ernst to come also, but—as I believe you know—he is campaigning with General Banér against the Bavarians."
Mike shook his head. "Not at all. In fact, I should have asked you to bring him myself."
They made small talk until a waitress appeared with a pitcher of beer and three mugs. Then, after taking a sip and smacking his lips appreciatively, Wilhelm set down the mug and folded his hands on the table.
"So, Michael. Why did you ask me here?"
Mike studied him for a moment. The four Saxe-Weimar brothers—Wilhelm, Albrecht, Ernst and Bernhard—still constituted the official ruling aristocracy of the region. Wilhelm, the oldest and senior of the Saxe-Weimar dukes, was a slender man in his mid-thirties—just about Mike's own age. His brown eyes were those of an intellectual, though, not a cavalier. The more so as they peered at Mike through a pair of American-made spectacles. The fact that Wilhelm's command of English had become excellent and almost unaccented, in a relatively short time, was just one indication of the man's intelligence. Truth be told, Wilhelm's English was better than Mike's German—and Mike had concentrated on learning that language.
An intellectual's eyes, yes. But still, at the same time, those of a man accustomed to wielding authority and moving easily in the corridors of power. The eyes of a dean, perhaps, or a college president—and of a major and prestigious university, at that—not an absentminded associate professor still unsure of gaining tenure. Mike had never allowed himself to forget that the man sitting across from him was one of Gustav Adolf's most trusted German allies and advisers.
"I wanted to offer you a position on the Supreme Court," Mike said abruptly. "Not Chief Justice—I'm going to be renominating Chuck Riddle for that—but the next nomination I'll be sending to the Congress. I can't make any guarantees, of course, but I don't imagine there'll be much in the way of opposition."
Wilhelm studied him for a moment, his eyes indicating nothing beyond calm calculation. Then:
"You've decided to move quickly, I take it. You are not required by law to make permanent nominations until the 'emergency period' is over. Which is not for several more months."
Mike lifted his shoulders. The gesture was not so much a shrug as the movement of a man shedding a load.
"Why wait? Damn the formalities. The only legitimate purpose of the emergency period was to give the new government a bit of breathing space right after being formed. Which we don't need any longer. If you start getting into the habit of stretching things like this . . . it gets to be a habit."
There was a moment's silence as Wilhelm continued his calm scrutiny. "Good for you," he said quietly. "But will you extend that across the gamut? Or is it just to be with the judicial structure?" Wilhelm took another sip of his beer. "I feel obliged to give you fair warning. If I take a seat on the Supreme Court, I will rule favorably on any challenge to having Frank Jackson remain Vice-President while he continues to serve as head of the Army. One or the other, Michael, but not both."
Mike inclined his head, combining a nod with lifting his own tankard. "It's a moot point, Wilhelm—or will be soon, at any rate. Frank's going to resign as Vice-President, as soon as I announce that the government considers the emergency period at an end."
Wilhelm's eyes crinkled a little, as he watched Mike drain half his tankard in one swallow. "Ah, to be so vigorous! And, I think your assessment is correct—I would retain Frank in the Army also, in your position. I do not expect there will be any serious opposition."
Mike lowered the mug and cocked his head. "No? I'd think people might be cranky about it. Being as how it makes it pretty obvious where I think the real power lies."
For the first time, Albrecht spoke up. "Please! No ruler with any sense would relinquish control of the army. Especially not in order to retain that—you will pardon the discourtesy—silly and useless post of 'Vice-President' you insisted on placing into the Constitution."
Wilhelm shook his head. "Not so silly, Albrecht. True, the post itself is a—what do Americans call it?—yes, a 'fifth wheel.' But it does provide a clear and established line of succession." He gave his younger brother a sharp glance. "Something which, you may have noticed, we Germans have mismanaged approximately ten thousand times in the past century alone."
Albrecht took the reproof in good nature. "Always the scold! You see, Michael, what we poor brothers have had to put up with over the years?"
Mike bit off the comment which immediately came to him: your brother Bernhard didn't! That would be . . . impolitic. Since Bernhard's treacherous switch of allegiance from Gustav Adolf to the French, the other three Saxe-Weimar brothers never spoke of him in public. To their credit, Mike would admit. Wilhelm and Ernst, in particular, had thrown their considerable talents into the task of forging the CPE.
Wilhelm was back to studying Mike. Again, there was a moment's silence, while he sipped his beer.
"Let us approach the question from a different perspective," he said. "Rather than making me an offer, Michael, why don't you give me your advice. If you were in my position, would you accept the offer?"
"No," said Mike immediately. "It's a trap, really. A very well-baited one, sure. You'd have quite a bit of authority, even some real power. Lots of prestige, of course. And . . .
"You'd do well at it, too. I'm not making the offer lightly, Wilhelm. I think you would make a good Supreme Court justice. Even if"—here, a smile took off the sting—"I'm also sure I'd be cursing your name more often than not."
Albrecht stirred in his seat, as if he wanted to say something but somehow sensed he would be making a fool of himself. Gently, his older brother laid a hand on his arm.
"Just listen, Albrecht. I've told you before—do not assume these Americans are naïve simply because their manners seem unpolished. I've studied the histories; you haven't. Not enough, at any rate. They managed to govern a realm the size of a continent for over two centuries, without more than one civil war. Compare that to our own European history."
Albrecht frowned, still obviously not sure of the point. Wilhelm smiled. "Their concept of 'power' is more subtle than ours, brother. To us, power comes directly from the sword, or the law. So just listen, and learn a bit."
He nodded at Mike. "Please continue."
"The most you can do as a judge is interpret the law. To a point, of course, interpretation can shape it. Sure. But it can't create it in the first place, or change it beyond certain limits. For that, you need to be in Congress."
Albrecht couldn't restrain himself. "That silly House of Lords you allowed us has the teeth of a puppy! You only agreed to it because the emperor and his Swedish advisers insisted. I've tried—"
"Listen, I said." This time, Wilhelm's admonition had an edge to it. His younger brother shrank back a bit.
"Continue, Michael." Wilhelm was still smiling, but his eyes had narrowed. "I think we are about to get to the real point of this meeting."
Mike drained the rest of the tankard and placed it solidly back on the table. Almost, not quite, slamming it down.
"Take yourself seriously, for God's sake! Wilhelm, I've been watching you for over a year now. I'd call it 'spying' except I haven't actually violated any of your personal and civil rights. But I know you've been doing a lot more than just having private meetings with every big shot in Thuringia or Franconia who's got a beef with me."
"And you discovered . . . what, exactly?"
"For starters, the library records show you've checked out—usually several times over—every single book relevant to early American history and political theory there is. And British. One book in particular, which you kept renewing for three months."
Wilhelm leaned back. "Surely you are not accusing me—"
Mike waved his hand impatiently. "Oh, don't be stupid. What the hell use would Richelieu—much less that bastard Ferdinand—have for those books?"
"Ah." The duke's eyes suddenly widened.
"Bingo," said Mike. "And it's about time. Wilhelm, the day is going to come—I don't know when, but it will, sure as sunrise—when I'm going to need another real Edmund Burke. More precisely, when the country's going to need it. Not some useless nobleman who's read Reflections on the Revolution in France eighteen times over because he had nothing better to do."
Wilhelm's eyes were very wide, now. His brother was staring at him, puzzled. Clearly enough, Albrecht had not often seen his older brother so completely taken off guard.
"Stupid," growled Mike. "Damn stupid, petty, meaningless privileges. Do you really care, Wilhelm?"
Slowly, the duke began to shake his head.
"Good. Didn't think so, once someone pointed out the obvious to you."
Mike rubbed his large hand over his head, smiling a bit slyly. "Hey, will you look at that? Not even a trace of baldness yet. Won't last, of course. My daddy looked like a monk by the time he died. But I'd just as soon keep as much of it as I can, as long as I can."
He placed the hand on the table and spread the fingers, leaning his weight on the table. "Wilhelm, there is going to be an opposition. Hell, it's already there, and plenty of it. But, so far, it's had no clear pole around which to organize. Simpson's still discredited among the Germans because of that racist crap he pulled in the last election. The existing aristocracy, with a handful of exceptions—you're one; I think Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel might be another—has the political vision of a pack of hyenas. No offense and all that, I'm just being my usual crude, uncouth self." He gave Albrecht a brief little nod, as if (conditionally) exempting him from the blanket charge also.
"Figure it out, Wilhelm. The meat of the opposition—the real driving force of it—is going to come from the rising new men. People like Troelke, among the Germans, and Quentin Underwood among the up-timers."
"Underwood's a member of your own party," countered Wilhelm. But the riposte was almost feeble.
Again, Mike waved his hand impatiently. "That won't last forever, and you know it as well as I do. The 'Fourth of July Party' is a coalition, and Quentin's never really been that comfortable in it. If he sees a viable alternative, he'll jump at it."
"Then why should he not create it himself?"
Mike said nothing; simply stared at the duke. After a moment, Wilhelm took a deep breath and looked away.
"Ah, yes. But . . . 'new men,' as you say. Without, really, any more in the way of a vision than the aristocracy."
"Yeah. More energy, sure. Vision? Probably even less. Gimme. That's about the sum and substance of whatever program they'd come up with."
Again, there was silence for a moment. Lost in confusion, Albrecht used the opportunity to refill everyone's tankards. Mike drained half of his immediately, never taking that cold, challenging stare from the duke's face. Wilhelm, for his part, sipped slowly and thoughtfully. Not avoiding Mike's eyes, exactly, but not quite meeting the gaze either.
Suddenly, the duke laughed. "God, has the world ever seen such a political adventurer!" He bestowed on Mike a look of approval, mixed with wonder and a bit of derision. The sort of look a man gives another who is walking a tightrope across a chasm, for no better reason than to prove to the world that he can do it. "I must inform you that Machiavelli would disapprove of you most strenuously." He finished another sip and gently placed the tankard on the table. "Or, perhaps, might hail you as his ultimate student."
Albrecht couldn't restrain himself any longer. "What are the two of you talking about?"
Wilhelm glanced at his younger brother, smiled serenely, and then brought his intellectual's eyes back to Mike. "This crude and uncouth fellow across the table from me is trying to engineer the best opposition he can think of. Because, given such an opposition, he might someday be able to relinquish power. For a time, at least. Instead of having to fight a civil war. You might say he wants a Jefferson to his Washington. A Burke, as well as a Pitt."
Albrecht was still frowning. "But there's no way . . . Sorry, Wilhelm, I think you're the smartest—certainly the most knowledgeable—political thinker I know." He gave Mike a glance which was almost angry. "But the way they created this new realm, there's simply no way you can lead anything. I know, Wilhelm. Unlike you, I've sat in most of the sessions of the House of Lords. I'm telling you—"
"You and Ernst will have to decide," said Wilhelm quietly. "Which of you succeeds me, I mean, after I abdicate."
"I'll drink to that!" boomed Mike, refilling the tankards and holding his up. "To the new contender for the post of Representative, District 14."
"The Commons?" choked Albrecht.
"Mind you," added Mike, slurping cheerfully at his mug, "it won't be a pushover. I'll see to it you have to run a vigorous campaign. If I didn't, people would wonder."
He and Wilhelm clinked mugs. For the first time, the duke drank deeply.
"Now that I'll be a plebeian," he explained, "I can afford to be uncouth."