The worst thing about this episode with the Barclays and the O’Connors—assuming for the moment that they got away with it—wasn’t actually the tech transfer itself. True, among the whole group of them, they had quite a bit of technical knowledge and skills, not to mention the stuff they’d taken or stolen. But it was hardly as if there was any one “secret” that was equivalent to a magic wand. One of the USE’s enemies, probably Austria, would get a major boost to whatever modernization program they’d set underway. That was hardly enough, by itself, to transform them overnight into an industrial powerhouse—which was something of a double-edged sword in any event, for Europe’s royal houses and aristocracy.

            No, insofar as the affair constituted a crisis, it was a political one, not a military or technical one. Among the still-murky set of possible outcomes, one outcome was a certainty. Wilhelm Wettin and his Crown Loyalist party would pull out the stops to make as much political hay of it as they could. Wilhelm himself would keep within the limits of using the episode to argue that it showed Americans were nothing special, so what difference did it make if Mike Stearns’ party had the support of most of them? A large number of the Crown Royalists would go a lot farther than that, though, arguing that the whole affair cast suspicion on American loyalty in general.

            And there were some elements within the CRs who’d take it to the hoop. It was well-known that reactionary elements were infiltrating that loosely-defined and none-too-disciplined party, now that nation-wide elections would be taking place within a few months. Some of them were outright extremists. They’d trot out their usual anti-Catholic diatribes, of course, given the high percentage of Catholics in the defecting group—even if most of them were lapsed Catholics. They’d probably also fire up the anti-Semitic propaganda, ignoring the fact that none of the defectors were Jewish or had any connection to Jews beyond purely casual ones. Logic was hardly the strong suit of that particular current within the politics of the Germanies.

            Ed managed a chuckle, then, remembering one woodcut illustration of himself in a pamphlet put out by one of the reactionary outfits. The Knights of Barbarossa, if he remembered right. The thing had been quite charming, in its own way. The horns and the cloven hoofs and the forked tail were standard fare. Generic, really. But he’d thought the addition of a grotesquely “Jewish” hooked nose was a nice touch, given his rather pug-like features. Not to mention showing him sacrificing a presumably gentile baby in some sort of religious rite, and never mind that he and his wife were lifelong Catholics and attended mass regularly.

            He swiveled the chair back, to face Preston Richards and Carol Unruh, the two other people in the room. “What if Noelle’s right, Press? And have we gotten any word from her since she left?”

            “Nothing,” said Carol Unruh, answering his second question. “Not a peep. We don’t know where she is, really, except ‘somewhere south of Rudolstadt.”

            The police chief grunted. “She hasn’t passed through Saalfeld—or, if she did, she didn’t stop for anything. We’re in radio contact with the authorities there.” His expression grew sour. “Not that it’s likely to do any good. The garrisons in all the towns in the area are small and entirely mercenary, since—”

            Ed waved that aside. “Yeah, Press, I know. Since the emperor is keeping most of the regular army units in the north because he wants them in position to attack Saxony and Brandenburg in a few months—and he’s sending the ones he can spare down to reinforce the troops facing Bavaria and Bernhard. So we make do with what we can get. No point pissing and moaning about it all over again. I take it they haven’t gotten off their butts and started scouring the countryside?”

            “’Scouring,’” Carol jeered. “Their idea of ‘scouring the countryside’ is trotting a few miles out of town to the nearest watering hole, getting plastered, and reporting that they saw no signs of suspicious activity or suspicious persons passing through. Two or three days worth of getting soused later.” Her expression grew more solemn. “I’m mostly worried about Noelle, Ed. She could get hurt, or even killed. I mean, you know what she’s like.”

            Indeed, he did, having read the detailed report of her activities the previous summer and fall in Franconia, during the Ram Rebellion. Ed’s wife Annabelle had once described Noelle Murphy—now Noelle Stull—as Grantville’s distaff version of Clark Kent, absent the glasses. Primly-mannered maybe-I’ll-become-a-nun young woman, zips into the phone booth, out comes Super-Ingenue. She’d even blown a torturer’s head half off, when he attacked her partner Eddie Junker. Since Noelle couldn’t shoot straight, by the simple method of shoving the barrel of the gun under his chin and pulling the trigger.

            Timid, she was not, appearances to the contrary.

            “We’ll just have to hope for the best,” he said. “Captain Knefler took practically the whole garrison with him up to Halle. That just leaves the police force, which is under-strength to begin with, the way Grantville keeps growing.”

            Richards gave Carol an apologetic glance. “I did send a couple of officers over to Rudolstadt, and they were able to get the garrison commander there to detach three of his soldiers to accompany them. No more than three men, though, and no farther south than Hof, without the count’s okay. I radioed Magdeburg to see if I could reach him, but it seems Ludwig Guenther and his wife are out of the city visiting relatives at the moment.”

            That was too bad. The count of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt was a capable and conscientious man, and maintained good relations with Grantville. If he or his wife Emelie had been in residence at their castle in Rudolstadt, they’d have sent out the whole garrison to search for Noelle and Eddie—and the defectors, too, if Noelle was right and they were in the vicinity. It wasn’t a big garrison, but it was a good one. Mercenaries, true, but a well-trained and disciplined company that had been in the service of the count for a long time, not a contractor’s slapdash outfit.