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Chapter 33

"I'm so nervous," whispered Rebecca.


She leaned her head on Mike's shoulder. He put his arm around her waist and gave her a quick reassuring squeeze. Then, nuzzling her ear, whispered in return: "Relax. You'll do just fine." His hand slid down, patting her upper fanny. Rebecca smiled and returned the pat with one of her own.


Janice Ambler, the school's television instructor, started hopping up and down with agitation, fluttering her hands frantically.


At the back of the high school's TV studio, Ed Piazza frowned. "Great," he grumbled. "We finally get this TV station back on the air and what's the first thing the audience sees? 'Grab-ass at North Central High.' "


Next to him, Melissa grinned. "You might remember, in the future, to warn her when she's going on the air."


"Why?" demanded Greg Ferrara. "If you ask me, it beats the old days. There's something nice about a National Security Adviser who lets her hair down in public now and then. In a manner of speaking."


"Good point," murmured Melissa.


Piazza was not mollified. "You people are sick, sick." He cleared his throat loudly. "Uh, Becky, you're live."


Startled, Rebecca raised her head and stared at the camera. The small audience in the room had to fight down a wave of laughter. She looked like a squirrel startled in the act of stealing food.


A moment later, Rebecca was scuttling into her chair. Mike ambled lazily out of camera range, smiling all the while. And a very smug-looking smile it was, too.


"Great," repeated Piazza. "You watch. Every kid and his girlfriend is going to be sneaking in from now on, trying to cop a feel on the air."


Ferrara started to make some jocular response, but fell silent. Rebecca was speaking.


"Good evening. Guten Abend. Welcome to our new television station. Thanks to the hard work of the school's teachers and students, we have been able to come back on the air for the first time since the Ring of Fire. Tonight, we will only broadcast for a few hours. But we hope, within a week, to be on the air for at least twelve hours every day."


She began translating into German. By the time she was halfway into the translation, all traces of nervousness had disappeared and Rebecca was her usual self.


"Smile," muttered Piazza. "C'mon, Becky, smile now and then."


"Naw," countered Ferrara. "I like it just fine the way she is. It's such a relief to see a news announcer who doesn't crack jokes every other line, like they were a stand-up comic or something. Just tell it like it is, Becky."


"Amen," agreed Melissa.


Rebecca resumed in English:


"Most of tonight's program will be entertainment. We felt everyone deserved an enjoyable evening, after all the hard work we have been doing. There is good news in that regard, by the way. I spoke to Willie Ray Hudson just an hour ago, and he told me that he is now quite certain we will have enough food for the winter. Rationing will be tight, but no one will go hungry. But he warned me—I felt I should pass this along—that our diet is going to be awfully boring."


Again, she translated into German. By the time, she was done, Rebecca was frowning. She added a few more sentences in German. Melissa, the only one of the Americans in the studio whose knowledge of the language was becoming passable, began laughing softly.


Piazza eyed her quizzically. Melissa leaned over and whispered: "What Becky said was that since Americans don't seem to be able to cook anything without a lot of meat, she just realized it might be a good idea for some German women to organize a cooking class and do it on TV. So she asked for volunteers. Congratulations, Ed. You've got your first new program for the season."


Piazza's face was a study in contradiction. Humor mixed with outrage. "She doesn't have the authority—"


But Melissa was laughing again. Rebecca, after pausing for a moment—still frowning—had just spoken another few sentences in German. "Now she said that while she's thinking about it we ought to have some German brewers come on TV and explain how to make real beer instead of that colored water Americans confuse with it."


Piazza started sputtering. "Amen!" exclaimed Ferrara.


Janice Ambler was scowling at them and making little waving motions with her hands. Shut up! We're on the air!


No use. Rebecca was now translating her latest impromptu remarks into English and the rest of the small crowd which formed the audience in the television classroom burst into laughter—all of which was faithfully picked up by the microphones and broadcast into hundreds of homes, trailers, and the still-packed refugee centers.


Grantville rollicked. The Germans' humor was heartfelt; that of the Americans, a bit chagrined.


By now, Mike had joined Piazza and the two teachers. He was grinning ear to ear. "I knew she'd be great."


Piazza shook his head ruefully. "So much for following the script."


But Rebecca was now returning to the planned program. She was still frowning, but the expression was now severe instead of thoughtful.


"We are starting to develop a problem with sanitation." Frown, frown. "Some of the newer members of our community are growing lax about it. We cannot have that! You all know that plague comes with the springtime, which is not so many months away. Later tonight, Dr. Abrabanel is going to come on the air and explain—again—why personal and public sanitation is so essential for warding off disease."


Ferrara was frowning, now. "I don't understand this," he muttered. "Why is Balthazar doing that segment? I'd think James or Doc Adams would—"


Mike interrupted, shaking his head. "No. You've got to remember, Greg, that the Germans are still skeptical about all of this weird stuff about germs. But the one thing they know for sure is that Jewish doctors are the best. That's why all the kings and high nobility have them. If Balthazar says it's true, they'll believe it."


Mike smiled at the expression on Ferrara's face. "Nobody ever said prejudice made any sense, Greg. Even when it's standing on its head."


Again, the television instructor was waving everyone silent. This time, the crowd obeyed. Rebecca, after translating the medical announcement into German, broke into her first smile since starting the program.


"But it is time we should enjoy ourselves. I will be returning with news announcements later, but for now let us watch a motion picture. I have seen it, and it is truly wonderful."


She fell silent, smiling into the camera. The television teacher's frown of displeasure didn't seem to faze her at all.


"She's supposed to explain what it's about," hissed Piazza.


Mike grinned. "She told me that was purely stupid. Buster Keaton explains himself."


Janice Ambler gave up her useless frowning, sighed, and started the movie. The General came on the air and Buster Keaton spoke silently for himself. Within minutes, Grantville was rollicking again—and no one harder than the Germans. True, they were not very familiar with trains. Many of them had helped to lay the tracks just coming out of the new foundry, but the first steam locomotive was still being built. It mattered not at all. Film critics had often argued that Buster Keaton's genius was universal. That speculation was now proven, beyond a doubt, in another universe.


 


While Keaton struggled with a refractory cannon, Mike and Rebecca conferred with Ed, Melissa and Greg on a different problem.


"I still think it might be smarter to let Simpson have what he wants," argued Ferrara. "He's been squawking for months about Mike's so-called 'rule of martial tyranny.' So let him have his hour of 'free speech.' "


Mike rubbed his chin uncertainly. But Rebecca was adamant. "That is absolute nonsense! Michael was elected unanimously. If we allow Simpson to proclaim himself the official opposition—and who elected him, anyway?—then we would have to do the same for everyone with a grievance. That is not democracy, that is simply anarchy."


Piazza immediately sided with her. "She's right. Besides, we've already announced that the founding convention is going to be held over the winter. There'll be new elections then. If Simpson and that gaggle of his want to run for office, let them do it at the proper time. Until then, he's just another grouser."


"He's got a pretty big crowd following him," countered Ferrara.


Melissa snorted. "Oh, come on, Greg! It's not that big. Three or four hundred maybe, out of three thousand. And that's only counting the Americans. How many Germans do you think would vote for him? Five, tops?"


"The Germans won't be voting in the next election," pointed out Ferrara. "We've already agreed we can't extend the franchise until the convention says it's okay."


Mike came to a decision and shook his head. "Doesn't matter. Even if he had more support than he does, he's still just another private citizen. When the elections are opened, he can get nominated if he wants. Then he'll have the same access to airtime as any other candidate. But Becky's right. If we give in to his demands now, we'd just be accepting political blackmail. Rules are rules. The loser can't demand they be changed after the fact."


Grudgingly, Ferrara nodded. "All right. I won't push it any further. But—" He gave Melissa a skeptical glance. "Three or four hundred? Now, maybe. But you just watch what happens after Mike announces the first plank of his election platform. Universal suffrage for everyone eighteen years or older, after three months residency."


Mike grinned. "Yup. And no lawyering, either. No poll taxes, no literacy tests, no language requirements—nada. If you've lived here for three months, you're eighteen years old, and you're willing to take the loyalty oath—you're a voter."


"The shit is going to hit the fan," predicted Ferrara. His expression was gloomy. "Right now Simpson's only got some of the older folks and the faint-hearts. But as soon as Mike makes that announcement, every bigot in town is going to be jumping on the Simpson bandwagon. And don't think there aren't plenty of them. You can start with those rednecks who hang out at the Club 250."


"Those bastards," hissed Melissa. "I oughta picket the sons of bitches."


Piazza frowned. "What's this about?"


Mike was scowling now. "The owner, Ken Beasley, put up a sign last week behind the bar. 'No dogs and Germans allowed.' "


Ed's mouth dropped. Mike chuckled harshly—very harshly. "Yeah. When I first heard about it, I grabbed some work gloves and started on down there. Looking for sparring partners. But Becky stopped me."


Rebecca sniffed. "Stupid. So was Dan Frost's idea to close them down for violating the building codes. It took me an hour to talk him out of it." She gave her fiancé a glare and poked him in the ribs with a finger. "Especially since this one kept encouraging him."


"Why'd you stop him?" demanded Ferrara. "That rathole must have a thousand violations."


Mike shook his head. "No, Becky was right. It would have been a gross abuse of official power. It's not as if we haven't been cheerfully violating the fine points in the building code ourselves, with the all new construction we've been putting up. Besides, she came up with a better idea."


Melissa cocked her head, inviting an explanation. Rebecca smiled seraphically. "I spoke with Willie Ray—he owns that piece of land across the highway from the Club 250—and the partners who set up the Thuringen Gardens. I pointed out that with winter coming, they really needed to get themselves a permanent building. So—"


Mike grinned. "So Willie Ray's now a new partner and they're starting construction next week. A great big enormous German-style tavern they'll be putting up, right across the street. Frank and I are planning to raise the matter at the next local meeting. We want the miners to adopt the new and improved Thuringen Gardens as our unofficial watering hole. The partners have already agreed we can hang a big sign on the side of the tavern, quoting the relevant passage from the UMWA Constitution. The one we adopted back in the nineteenth century, banning racial discrimination."


Melissa burst into laughter. "Oh, that'll be perfect! Let those rednecks huddle in their rathole, with the town's biggest tavern doing a booming business right across the way."


Ferrara and Piazza were grinning themselves. "Won't be any rough stuff, that's for sure," said Ferrara. "Not even the bikers are crazy enough to piss off the UMWA."


"When do they expect to open?" asked Ed. "I'll make it a point to bring the whole family down for opening night. Even if it's standing room only, which it will be."


The television teacher scurried over and interrupted. "Becky!" she hissed. "You've got to start getting ready for the news broadcast."


Startled, Rebecca glanced at the clock on the wall. "It will not start for another—"


But Janet was not to be thwarted. She took Rebecca by the arm and began hauling her away. "We're going to rehearse," she hissed. "You must learn to follow the script."


"Why?" asked Rebecca. Her studious face was intent. She added something else, but she was too far away for the rest of her words to be heard.


Ed smiled ruefully. "Poor Janet. I think she's in for a rough few months."


"That's my girl," murmured Mike happily.


 


When Rebecca came back on, she followed the script for not more than three minutes. Then, frowning, she laid the sheets of paper to one side and clasped her hands in front of her. Staring intently into the camera, she said:


"I will return to all this news on the production projects later. The essence is that things are going well except for the new ice-cream factory, but I think we can all agree that that is really a little frivolous."


A hiss went up from the audience, a groan from Janet.


"Well, maybe not so frivolous," admitted Rebecca. "But it is still not so important as the news on the military front."


The audience fell silent. Rebecca paused for a moment to scan her notes. Then:


"You all know that Tilly's troops have been leaving Thuringia for the past several weeks. Mackay's scouts report that the last units of the Weimar garrison have also departed, as of two days ago. Now Mackay has received more news, from a courier sent by King Gustav."


She stared into the camera. "A great battle is looming, somewhere near Leipzig. Tilly is marshaling all his troops to meet Gustavus Adolphus on the open field."


She looked away, gathering her thoughts. When she turned back to the camera, her face was solemn and pensive.


"I am Jewish, as you know. Most of our citizens are Christians, and most of them are now Catholics. But I do not believe that anyone here can take sides in this coming battle based on creed. What is really at stake is not whether Protestant Sweden will defeat Catholic Austria and Bavaria, or the opposite. What is at stake is our own freedom and liberties."


There came another long pause. "I am supposed to present the news without commentary. That seems a bit foolish to me, since I do not know anyone who does not have an opinion on almost everything, including myself. But I will of course abide by the wishes of the television people. Nevertheless—"


Another groan from Janet. The audience—throughout Grantville—was utterly silent.


"My prayers tonight will be for the king of Sweden. In this coming battle, Gustav II Adolf fights for our future. Ours, and that of our children, and of theirs, and of theirs, and of theirs, and of theirs."


"Amen," whispered Mike.


 


 


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