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Eric Flint

After Arnold Bellamy finished his report, Mike Stearns leaned back in his chair and folded his hands, fingers interlaced, across his belly.

"Thanks, Arnold. I'll need to think this over and talk to Ed"—he nodded in the direction of Ed Piazza, sitting in another chair—"and then I'll get back to you on it."

Recognizing a polite dismissal, Arnold rose from his own chair. "Thank you, Mr. President. I realize you're very busy, but I'd appreciate a response from you as soon as possible. I'm afraid things are going to start blowing wide open in Franconia pretty soon."

After Bellamy had left the room, Mike got a slight grimace on his face. "Let's hope so."

He swiveled his chair and looked out the window. "Suits," he muttered.

He hadn't intended to, but he'd spoken loudly enough for Ed to overhear the last word.

"He's not a bad guy, Mike," Piazza said mildly. "In fact, I think Arnold's doing as well as possible, under the circumstances."

"No, he isn't," Mike replied forcefully. He unlaced his fingers and held up a hand, forestalling a protest. "Oh, sure, he's doing his job well enough. Like you say, probably as well as anyone could. The problem is that it's the wrong job in the first place."

Ed cocked his head, just a little, and raised his eyebrows, just a little. It was a familiar expression, that translated more-or-less into: And now will you clarify that quintessentially Stearnsish cryptic comment?

" `I'm afraid things are going to start blowing wide open,'" Mike quoted. "For Pete's sake, Ed, that's what we're supposed to be doing over there in Franconia. Blowing the setup wide open, so we can piece it back together again the way we want it. More or less, anyway. Arnold's like an engineer assigned to cut a road through a mountain who's now explaining to me that he's afraid the dynamite's about to go off. Well, hey, no kidding. If I wanted to be churlish about it, I could add: `It's about time.'"

He slapped the table, half-angrily. "The single most important thing about that whole incident down in Bamberg was the fact that the crowd stopped Willard and Johnnie F.'s beating. Not only stopped it, but tore down the reviewing stand and made real clear to the so-called `authorities' what was what. For the first goddam time since we started administering Franconia, we've finally got what amounts to a revolution starting—in one town, anyway. A real revolution, mind you. Not something we `administered,' but something the people themselves did. And how does Arnold deal with it? He barely mentions it at all in his report, and then as—God help us—a `problem.'"

Once again he mimicked: " `I'm afraid things are starting to blow wide open.'" This time, the sarcasm in his tone was right at the surface.

Ed's expression got a tinge of exasperation in it. "If that's what you wanted, Mike, you never should have sent that crew down there in the first place. None of them are really what you'd call demolitions specialists—well, except maybe Johnnie F., and that's more by temperament than training. They're civil servants, and you know it. What did you expect? If you wanted rabble-rousers, you should have sent some of your UMWA guys."

"Couldn't," Mike grunted. "First off, because despite our reputation, there aren't really all that many coal miners who are natural agitators and organizers. Most of your UMWA guys are just regular working stiffs. Ask them to tear down and rebuild a car or just about any kind of machine, and they'll do it. Ask 'em to tear down and rebuild a society, and they wouldn't even know where to start."

He laced his fingers back together. "If I could clone Red Sybolt, and a handful of other guys like him, I'd have hundreds of them scattered all over Europe. Unfortunately, there aren't all that many Red Sybolts at our disposal—and we needed him in Bohemia more than we did in Franconia."

"So, fine. You never hesitate to ask the Committees of Correspondence to give some an informal helping hand, do you? Why not approach them?"

"They're not ready for it. Not yet. Most of them are just youngsters, still. The CoCs are just starting to get their feet solidly on the ground and firmly planted on hospitable soil like Thuringia and Magdeburg. Ask them to go to Franconia at this point, with their lack of experience, and they'll most likely just screw up. You saw what happened in Suhl, before Gretchen put a stop to it. If Noelle Murphy and Anse Hatfield hadn't been there, we'd have wound up with a complete mess on our hands.

Mike shook his head. "So," he concluded, "I just went with the best alternative I had available. I sent what's probably our top team of civil servants over there to do a job they can't do—but can probably manage okay once somebody else blows up the joint. Might even manage very well, actually. Those are some pretty sharp pencils in that box."

Ed got a wry smile. "What's this? Am I actually hearing praise from Mike Stearns being ladled—okay, spooned—onto a bunch of suits?"

Mike smiled back. "I don't recommend calling Anita Masaniello a `suit.' The sneer at her class wouldn't piss her off, but the implied sexism would. With that caveat, I never said they were incompetent suits, Ed. They're very good at what they do, from what I can tell. But, as you said yourself, they're civil servants—whose qualifications have never once in the history of the world included `talent at fomenting revolution and unrest' as part of the job description. Still—"

He sat up straight, unlaced his fingers and planted his big hands on the desk in front of him. "If somebody or something else blows it all up, I'm pretty confident they can put the pieces back together properly. Better still, they might even manage to control the explosion and channel it constructively from the getgo. That's what I'm hoping, anyway."

Piazza winced. "Let me see if I've got this straight. You basically sent Steve Salatto and Vince Marcantonio and all the rest of them down there in order to act as a shaped charge—once somebody else sets off the explosion?" His eyes got a vacant look, as if he was dredging his memory. "Odd, though. I don't recall you ever putting it that way to them, in the briefings they got before you sent them off."

"Well, of course not. If I'd warned a bunch of suits ahead of time that their suits would most likely be blown off, they'd have spent all their time since then designing explosion-proof suits instead of getting on with the job of setting themselves up for the charge." He grinned. "Which, I've got to say—damn good people, did I mention that?—they seem to have done extremely well."

Ed's humor faded. "That's awfully cold-blooded. You're gambling with people's lives here, you know that."

"Sure, it's cold-blooded. And so what?" Mike's own expression got very grim, for a moment. "I've been gambling with everybody's lives—my own included, if that matters—ever since we arrived in this benighted century. I don't see where I've got much choice."

Piazza sighed. "Well, neither do I. But . . . what are you going to do if it all blows the wrong way?"

"Tell Gustavus Adolphus that in the middle of a war he's got to peel off a good chunk of his army and send them down to Franconia to suppress anarchy—that we sorta fostered but couldn't control." Mike matched the sigh with a heavier one of his own. "Have you noticed that our beloved captain general has one hell of a ferocious temper, when he gets riled?"

"He hollers right good," Ed allowed. After a moment, he added:

"So. Who's this `something or someone else' you're counting on to blow everything up?"

"Hell, how should I know? That's a real nice start, what those people in Bamberg did. The core of it, though, will be a farmers' rebellion. Got to be, with that setup in Franconia. But there's no way of telling what or who might set it off. Or—more properly—what combination of someones or somethings might do the trick."

Once again, he leaned back in the chair and laced his fingers together. "There's only one thing I can tell you for sure, Ed. Whoever it is, or whatever it's about, you won't find a suit anywhere in sight."


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