1624: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 12:



            “What happened, Lieutenant?” he asked Chomse. “Do we know any details yet?”


            “Almost all of them, sir. A large number of naval ratings and Marines were involved in dealing with the disaster at the coal gas plant. The Prime Minister happened to be nearby when the fire started, and he pretty much took charge of things using sailors and Marines from the Navy Yard.”


            Quickly and precisely—by now, the lieutenant had learned to give excellent briefings—Chomse explained what had happened.


            When he finished, Mary shook her head. “My God, is the man insane? He’s the Prime Minister of the United States of Europe! He’s got no business risking his life like that!”


            Simpson looked out of the window. There was still nothing much to see, beyond an occasional street lamp in front of a tavern or one of the wealthier residences—and, then, only the old-fashioned oil lamps. None of the newer gas lights were working. As a result of the catastrophe, obviously.


            He felt his wife tugging on his elbow. “John, you must speak to Mike about the matter. He simply can’t do things like this.”


            Simpson thought about it for a moment. “No, Mary, I don’t think I will. First, because Mike Stearns wouldn’t pay any attention to me if I did. And secondly, because I don’t really agree with you anyway.”


            “How can you—”


            “Mary, leave off. The man is what he is. You might as well ask an iceberg to stop being chilly. Or—perhaps a better analogy—ask a general like George Patton to lead from the rear, the way a sensible general should.”


            His wife shook her head. “People will think he’s crazy.”


            Which people, Mary? That crowd we just left in the palace? Oh, yes, they will. Most of them, at least.” He tilted his head toward the window. “But I can assure you that most of the city’s residents won’t have that reaction. This is a workingmen’s city, dear, don’t ever forget that. If the fire had spread, it would have been their modest and cramped apartments that went up in flames—along with what little they possess in the way of material goods, and quite possibly they themselves and their children.”


            Mary stared at him. Simpson felt an old exasperation stir a little, and suppressed it. Being fair, it wasn’t that his wife was callous in her attitudes toward people of the lower classes. In fact, she was quite popular with those of them she had contact with. She was invariably gracious and the graciousness wasn’t simply a façade.


            Put any single person in front of Mary Simpson whom she had to deal with, and she had no difficulty at all seeing them as an individual human being, regardless of what class they came from. And she was quite indifferent to matters of race. In fact, she was generally far more perceptive in her dealings with people than Simpson was himself.


            The problem lay elsewhere. It was simply that Mary didn’t deal with such people all that often, and almost never at close range except for servants. Her world—both of those worlds—had always been that of the upper crust. Whereas Simpson himself, as the CEO of a major corporation, had always had to deal with his workforce—and now, as an Admiral, had to lead men into combat almost every one of whom came from very modest circumstances. The prestigious service for seventeenth century noblemen was the army, not the navy.


            That included the young man sitting across from him, in a naval uniform that he wore all the more proudly because his father had been a simple butcher. Chomse’s expression was outwardly noncommittal, but some subtlety there made it perfectly clear to Simpson that the lieutenant did not agree with the opinion of his admiral’s wife. Not that he would ever say so openly, of course.


            In the event, he didn’t need to. Mary hadn’t missed the subtleties in his expression either.


            “I take it you don’t agree with me either, Lieutenant Chomse?”


            Franz-Leo shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Well… to be honest, Mrs. Simpson, no. I don’t. I understand your point of view, but…”


            He, too, looked out of the window. In his case, not to gather his thoughts but because they’d now entered the industrial zone and were passing by an area of flat land devoted to storing timber. For the first time, they had a close-up view of the burning river, with no buildings to obstruct the view.


            It was an impressive sight, in its own way. Now that they were much closer, it was obvious that Simpson’s guess had been correct. The flames emerging from the river were clearly coming from a thin film of oil on the surface. The fire actually seemed less threatening from this distance, since it was clear from the dancing and flickering motion of the flames that it was literally skin-deep. There was nothing burning here that could last for all that long.


            “Skin-deep,” however, meant a lot of skin, spread out of that much expanse of water. Gloomily, Simpson was quite certain that the USE had just suffered a noticeable dent in its stock of petroleum products—which had been none too extensive to begin with.


            “The thing is, Mrs. Simpson,” Chomse continued, “however much the Prime Minister might frighten many people in the nation, his own people are ferociously loyal to him.” He did not need to add—in fact, Simpson was sure, didn’t even think about it—that by “his own people” Chomse was referring mostly to German down-timers.


            That thought was more than a bit of a rueful one, for Simpson. He knew he’d been wrong about many things, in the period after the Ring of Fire. But about nothing had he been more wrong than his assessment that seventeenth century Germans would be oblivious to the appeal of democracy. Many of them, especially from the lower classes, had adopted Mike Stearns’ ideology quite readily. Often, in fact, with a fervor that made Simpson himself uncomfortable.