Chapter 5. The nature of plans



Near Grantville, State of Thuringia-Franconia


            “Fucking idiots, what they are,” pronounced Denise. She finished the beer she’d ordered at Stephan Wurmbrand’s roadside tavern just outside Grantville on the road to Rudolstadt and almost slammed the glass back on the bar. Then, glared around the room, as if defying any of its habituees to challenge either her use of language or her judgment of police chiefs and cavalry officers.

            No challenge came forth, except from Lannie Yost, perched on a nearby stool. Owlishly, he peered at her empty glass. “Ain’t you a little young to be drinking that stuff?”

            Denise gaped at him. So did several of the other barflies in the place. In their case, because they were down-time Germans who thought the notion of anyone being under age to drink beer was silly—one of those up-time fetishes they’d thought must have died a natural death by now, three and a half years after the Ring of Fire. In Denise’s case, because her father was Buster Beasley and she thought—so did Buster, actually—that she was practically abstemious when it came to substance abuse.

            She was also gaping because she was outraged, of course.

            “You! Lannie Yost, you’re pie-eyed half the time! So-called test pilot. You got some nerve—”

            “Hey, Denise, take it easy! I wasn’t trying to pick no fight.”

            That wouldn’t normally have done him any good at all, except he added hurriedly: “You got the right of it when it comes to Captain Knefler, that’s for sure. Guy couldn’t find his ass with both hands in broad daylight.”

            “That jackass. I told him I found their trail, leading south from Rudolstadt. But, nooooooooo. Mr. Military Genius insisted they must have used those rafts the one guy—the one in charge, whoever he is—bought in Jena.”

            By now, the news had spread all over the area, including some of the details. “The rafts were gone,” one of the down-timers pointed out. He was sitting with a friend at a table nearby.

            Denise sniffed. “Big deal. All the guy in charge—and I think he’s got more brains in his little toe than Knefler does—had to do was hire a few men to pole the rafts downriver. There’s day laborers hanging around all over the place, in Jena. Probably told them they needed to pick up something in Halle and take it down to Magdeburg. Off goes whichever idiot came in pursuit—his name’s Knefler, did I mention that? it’s spelled ‘k-n’ like in numbskull—while the guy with the brains keeps heading up the Saale valley. Hasn’t it struck any of you geniuses yet that Mr.-Whoever is good at this? Why would he have been wearing such a flamboyant outfit just to buy some cargo rafts—if he hadn’t been trying to draw attention to himself?”

            She was pretty proud of that deductive logic. Maybe she oughta become a detective when she grew up. Finished growing up. Which she was practically there. She’d bet Minnie would partner with her.

            On the other hand, she’d neglected to mention that Mr.-Whoever-He-Was had been wearing the same outfit when he arrived at her father’s storage place to load the wagons. Obviously, just to make sure every idiot in Grantville connected Obvious Dot A to Blatant Dot B. The Grantville police chief and Captain Numbskull had squeezed that information out of her, despite her misgivings about what they’d do with it, but she saw no reason to weaken her case by divulging it to these layabouts.

            Lannie took a swallow from his own beer. “You think?”

            “Sure. What sort of lunatic would make his escape further into the USE?”

            The same down-timer wasn’t ready to let it go. “Not so foolish, that. Before he gets to Halle, he can offload the rafts and make his way into Saxony. Probably he’s working for John George.”

            Denise opened her mouth. Then, decided it wasn’t worth the effort to get into an argument with somebody who was obviously not playing with a full deck.

            Right. Sure. That made sense. In six months, the Elector of Saxony was staring in the face an all-out invasion by Gustav Adolf. Fat lot of good some tech transfer would do him at this stage of the game. Except give Gustav Adolf another Cassius Belly. Or whatever the name was of that ancient Roman guy who’d caused a war.

            Denise might be willing to concede that John George was that stupid. But none of the up-timer traitors was that dumb, except maybe Jay Barlow and Mickey Simmons. Even Suzi Barclay wasn’t that dumb, just nuts. No, wherever the lousy defectors were going, it was someplace they figured could hold off the USE, at least for a while. That meant Austria, probably—that had been Noelle’s guess—or maybe Bavaria.

            Lannie finished his beer and stood up. The motion was just a little bit too exaggerated to be that of a completely sober man. Which, given Lannie, was no surprise. He wasn’t actually drunk, just in his more-normal-than-not state of a pleasant buzz. Lannie’s alcoholism wasn’t so bad that he couldn’t get by in life, with his rare skills. Jesse Wood hadn’t been willing to accept him in the air force, but the Kellys used him for their test pilot.

            “Okay, then,” he said. “Give me a ride back to Grantville on your bike, kid. I’ll nail the bastards for you.”

            Denise frowned. “What are you talking about?”

            He slapped his chest. “When the cavalry falls down on the job, you gotta call in the air force. One of the planes at the facility—that’s the Dauntless—is finished and ready to go.”

            Denise stopped laughing after a while. Then, shrugged. “Sure, why not? I’ll take you there. I’m warning you, though. Those hands of yours better not move around any while you’re holding onto me.”

            Lannie looked aggrieved. “Hey, there’s no call for that. Besides, I ain’t crazy enough to piss off your dad.”

            Denise squinted at him. “You start groping, and my dad will be the least of your worries.”



The Saale Valley, south of Saalfeld


            “It has to be them,” Noelle pronounced.

            Eddie sighed and wiped his face. His whole body ached, from spending three days in the saddle. Especially his thighs. “No, actually, it doesn’t. They passed through Saalfeld yesterday evening, in bad lighting, and the guards we talked to didn’t recognize anybody. Just three wagons, which they didn’t give more than a cursory inspection if they gave them any at all, because they most likely got bribed. Those are not exactly elite troops in that garrison, now that nobody’s worried any longer about another raid deep into the Thueringerwald. Even if they hadn’t been bribed, they probably wouldn’t have bothered to check the wagons anyway. You have any idea how many times heavily loaded wagons pass through Saalfeld?”

            “It has to be them,” Noelle repeated stubbornly. She swiveled in the saddle, the slight carefulness of the motion making it clear she wasn’t feeling any too spry herself. “We should have gotten reinforcements by now. I guess Denise couldn’t get anybody to take her seriously. Maybe I should have—”

            You weren’t going to stay behind, since you can’t resist the thrill of the chase. I couldn’t stay behind, because somebody has to look after you. That left Denise—and we practically had to sit on her to get her to agree.”

            He wiped his face again. “And, yes, they probably didn’t take her seriously. Given that she would have had to report to Captain Knefler, him now being the commander of the Grantville garrison, and Knefler is a jackass.” He smiled. “Probably, after ten seconds or so, Denise started denouncing him. She’s a real pip, that one.”

            Noelle eyed him suspiciously. “She’s only sixteen years old. Not even that.”

            “All that more reason they wouldn’t take her seriously.”

            “That’s not what I was referring to. I was referring to the possibility of other men taking her too seriously.”

            “Don’t be ridiculous.”