1624: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 11:



            After the concert was over, John Simpson waited while his wife did her usual gadding about, congratulating the performers, chatting—or chatting up, rather—various key members of the nobility and wealthy merchants present, comparing notes quickly with Amelie Elisabeth and the Abbess of Quedlinburg. The usual conspiratorial business of the Dame of Magdeburg, in her drive to turn the brand new USE’s brand new capital city into one of Europe’s cultural powerhouses.


            To Simpson’s amusement, some of the city’s newspapers were already starting to use that title for her. He wondered if they’d come up with it on their own, or if somehow they’d discovered that in a different universe Pittsburgh’s newspapers had often called her “the Dame of the Three Rivers” and decided it was catchy.


            Whatever. Over the years, he’d learned to be patient about the whole business, even though he had very little interest in the matter himself. As one of Pittsburgh premier industrialists, Mary’s constant cultural and philanthropic enterprises had added a great deal to his own prestige and status. Now as an admiral in the USE’s growing little Navy—the Admiral, really—he knew her activities would have the same effect. More so, probably, in this world than the one they’d left behind.


            So, he waited. Still, it was with some relief that he was finally able to escort her out of the palace. He hadn’t let any of it show, but he was actually quite concerned about that industrial accident. True, the location of it wasn’t close enough to the Navy Yard to pose any direct threat to his own enterprises. But as stretched thin as all of Magdeburg’s industries were, any major disaster would have an impact—especially since his naval building projects were the main customer for a lot of those industries.


            As soon as they stepped out of the palace onto the portico, his concern spiked sharply. The portico was elevated a good fifteen feet above the rest of Magdeburg—a city whose terrain was as flat as a pancake, where it wasn’t outright marshland—with a wide stone staircase descending to the street below. From that perch, they had a good view of the Elbe.


            “Oh… my… God…” said Mary, staring.


            The veranda was packed with people, staring along with them.


            Suddenly, Mary chuckled. Almost a giggle. “Well, we won’t be able to make jokes about Cleveland any more.”


            The nonsensical comment jarred Simpson out of his anxiety enough to look at her. “Excuse me?”


            “The Cuyahoga, remember?”


            Simpson still couldn’t make any sense out of what she was saying.


            “The river that burned? That song by Randy Newman?”


            “Oh. Yes.”


            He looked back. True enough, the Elbe itself seemed to be aflame. That was an illusion, he knew. Somehow a large quantity of flammable substances must have gotten spilled into the river and they’d caught fire. It wasn’t really as dangerous as it looked, since even the slow current of the Elbe would soon enough carry it away. Assuming it hadn’t burned out by then, which it would probably would. Whatever was burning there had to be some sort of light oils, floating on the surface. There simply couldn’t be that much of it, given the still-primitive state of the USE’s petroleum industry.


            Nevertheless… the Navy Yard was downstream. As dark as it was, with a light snowfall, Simpson couldn’t actually see it. But he knew the location of the Yard perfectly. The edges of the flames might already have reached it by now.


            “I need to get down there.”


            “Yes, dear, of course. I’ll come with you.”


            With Mary in tow, Simpson shouldered his way through the little mob on the stairs. Being as polite about it as he could, but not to the point of being delayed. There would be a wait anyway, to get a carriage, once they reached the street. He wanted to be one of the first in line.


            As it happened, however, no wait was necessary. By the time he got down to the street, he discovered that there was a Marine carriage already drawn up for him.


            Lt. Franz-Leo Chomse emerged from the carriage and held the door open for them. “I assumed you’d wish to be taken to the Navy Yard, sir.”


            Simpson was pleased to see him. Partly because of his general anxiety, but also because it demonstrated once again that Chomse was turning into an excellent aide. He would have taken this initiative on his own, of course. Chomse wouldn’t ever replace Eddie Cantrell somewhere in that place in Simpson’s heart he almost never admitted existed, even to himself. But as an Admiral’s aide, he was actually better. If he had less of Eddie’s occasional brilliance he had a lot more in the way of methodical thoughtfulness—and, thankfully, none of the up-time redhead’s irritating rambunctiousness.


            “Thank you, Lieutenant. Yes, I would, please.”


            John and Mary entered the carriage and took their seats. Chomse joined them on the bench opposite, after a quick command to the driver. No sooner had he closed the door than the carriage set off.


            Almost immediately, Mary got jostled into her husband. “You and your blasted notions of military protocol,” she muttered.


            Simpson ignored the wisecrack. Like most people, Mary thought using a wheeled carriage in the streets of Magdeburg was just silly. Between the ruts and the mud and the potholes—not to mention those few stretches which had been cobblestoned, which were often worse—riding through Magdeburg in a wheeled contrivance guaranteed a rough ride. Bruises, often enough. Far better to take one of the more common conveyances, which were essentially small palanquins toted between two horses, like big covered litters. Or four horses, in the case of big ones. The conveyances never had direct contact with the street, since the legs and hooves of the horses absorbed the impact.


            But Simpson found the contraptions repellent and insisted on “proper” carriages for the Navy and the Marines. He wasn’t sure why, actually. In public, even to Mary, he stood stoutly by his claim that the arcane demands of military protocol required wheels. But he suspected it was really an emotional residue from the Vietnam War. A war which he had faithfully served in, as a junior officer, but had detested just as much as almost anyone in the military at the time.


            The seventeenth century palanquins, in some vague way, had an oriental flavor to them. And not the Orient of Vietnam’s peasants and poor town dwellers, which he had often found irritating—their consequences, rather—but had never despised. Poverty was simply what it was, no more to be sneered at than sneering at the winds or the tides. No, the palanquins somehow reminded him of South Vietnam’s elite, a class of people he had come to loathe, as had most American junior officers. He had no desire whatever to infuse that spirit into the ranks of his new Navy, even indirectly or purely symbolically. Real soldiers would have their teeth rattle when they rode in carriages, damnation.


            Fine, it was silly. So was war, if you looked at it from a certain perspective. But war was now John Simpson’s business, and he took it seriously.