It was bad luck that they arrived just as Admiral Simpson had finished chewing Eddie up one side and was starting on the other, in a voice that, though quiet, had an intensity that cut across the roar of the sawmill and the steam engine. Or perhaps it wasn't bad luck, but typical of the way life had been lately. Eddie stared straight ahead as Simpson went on.
"...if you don't shape up soon, Lieutenant, you'll be the oldest deckhand in this navy before I trust you with anything more complicated than polishing the decks. Lieutenants do not get into horseplay with the dock workers, and they certainly do not do it on the dockside here. You're not here to be their friend, you're here to learn how to command their respect and obedience. Fooling around with them instead of practicing emergency drills is not the way to do it." He punctuated his words with a deep frown, the most common expression Eddie had seen on his face for the past month. "Dismissed, Lieutenant."
As Eddie turned away, he realised they'd had an audience, and a seriously unexpected one at that. Jeff and Larry were standing just outside the perimeter fence, and they'd obviously heard it all.
"He's still got a stick right up his butt, doesn't he?" was the first thing Larry said to him. "Is it always like that?"
"Feels like it," said Eddie, still smarting. "Just because he doesn't want any friends, it doesn't mean we all want to live like that." He took a deep breath. "What are you doing here? I thought you were in Grantville. Is everything okay? Is Gretchen here too?"
"Yeah, she's gone off with her CoC buddies right now. Everything's okay. We came up to see you, really," said Jeff.
"They want me," said Larry in explanation. "In the Navy. But I'm thinking I should go for the army instead, if this is what it's like."
"Yeah," Eddie said, "yeah, I'm starting to wish I never had this idea. Come on, let's blow out of here before he thinks of something else I've done wrong."
They left the dockyard and headed through the busy streets to the new Freedom Arches. Eddie saw Gretchen there, but she was mobbed by dozens of young students and apprentices and only gave them a wave of greeting. Jeff steered Eddie and Larry towards a quieter corner.
"So they sent you here to join me?" Eddie asked Larry once they had a bowl of the day's stew, bread and beer.
"Yeah, but now I'm wondering if it's a good idea. Coming to work with you is one thing, but Simpson!"
"He wasn't as bad at the start," Eddie said. "But he's been such a hard-ass lately. I swear we'd get the ships done in half the time if he would just lay off a bit. But what do I know? Nothing, according to him."
"Apparently he's been pestering everyone for more up-timers to work here," said Larry. "So Mike asked me to come up."
"He's made it pretty clear that I'm not good enough. Last week it was the uniforms. The guys don't want to wear them on duty except for inspections, they're worried about damaging them and having to replace them. But Simpson doesn't care what the problem is, he just yells at me to deal with it."
"You're in the navy now, son," Jeff quipped. "Sounds like he hasn't changed at all. Look, I'm going to be heading off soon on a diplomatic mission. If you say the word, I'll insist--no, I'll get Gretchen to insist--that we need you and Larry along too. Get you out of here. If this navy idea of your has just turned into Simpson empire-building then you're better off out of it."
"Sounds good to me," said Larry. He frowned across the table at Eddie. "But I'm supposed to be up here to work with you. So I guess it's up to you."
Eddie took a sip of his beer. He was never going to get used to drinking it warm. "The ships were kind of my idea," he said slowly. "Even if I don't like what Simpson's doing with them. I--let me think about it, okay?"
"Sure." Jeff turned the conversation to what he and Gretchen and the CoC were doing, and telling Eddie about everything that had happened back home since he'd been up here. Eddie didn't really listen. He could get out. Escape from Simpson and his constant, endless poking and nitpicking and spit and polish, all the stupid rules and regulations he was sure Simpson was just pulling out of his ass to make himself feel more powerful. Go and work with people who actually liked him. Against that, leaving his ships--his idea!--to Simpson's tender mercies. He didn't taste the rest of his beer that evening.
Admiral Simpson was still in the same sharp-edged mood when Eddie reported in the following morning, dead on time and as polished as he could get. A few weeks ago, Simpson might have noticed the effort he'd gone to, and said something about it. Now all he did was glance at Eddie and demand, "Where's Larry Wild?"
"I dunno. Sir."
Eddie had meant to bring Larry with him to avoid exactly this problem, but when he'd knocked on his door at the boarding-house, Larry wasn't there. Eddie had hoped to find him here already.
"Not a very auspicious start, is it? I hope you told him I expect punctuality from my officers. I understand that concepts of time are not quite as precise here as we're used to, but that's no excuse for slackness."
Slackness had been Simpson's pet bugbear recently. Eddie just nodded. Larry had the right idea, he thought. He should get out of here. Take Jeff up on his offer.
The door to Simpson's office burst open and Larry swung into the room. "Sorry, I went to the wrong building--" he began breathlessly.
"I see," said Simpson. "In future I suggest you allow extra time until you know your way around. You've been sent here to assist with the work, and to join the Navy if I find you fit for the job."
Eddie noticed that Larry brightened at this suggestion that he might have another way out of it, if Simpson didn't think he would be any good.
"For today, I want you to shadow Lieutenant Cantrell here and get to know the place and what we're doing. But after that I expect you to hit the ground running. There's no time for slackness here."
"Okay," said Larry, and Eddie winced.
"'Yes, sir'," Simpson retorted sharply. "You're in the navy now. When I give you an order, you say 'yes, sir'. Is that understood?"
Larry rolled his eyes at Eddie, but gave a reluctant nod. Eddie elbowed him. "Yes, sir," said Larry. Klingon would have sounded positively normal by comparison.
The morning passed quickly in a high-speed tour of the whole site, followed by a training session with the newest recruits and then a visit to the timber merchant who was supposed to be supplying them but had been having difficulty making the deliveries. When they returned from the merchant's house in the town, Simpson was just coming out of his office. Larry grimaced, but Eddie stopped to check in with him.
"There shouldn't be any more problems with the supply," Eddie said, hoping a bit that the good news would help improve things. "It was something about a stream bursting its banks along the road, so the carts couldn't get through. Now that it's a bit drier, it shouldn't happen again."
"With the road conditions here, who knows. We need to maintain a reserve to cope with these fluctuations in supply," Simpson said. "While we can." He stepped aside, looking out over the dock with the new steam engine and sawmill running. "I guess it's time to talk to you about this, Lieutenant. We may not need all that timber." He looked even more sourly angry than he had all week. "The Allocation Committee have been kicking up a hell of a fuss, and now the Magdeburg authorities are upset about the way the dockyard is starting to dominate the area. They're talking of scaling back, just a few timberclads and no ironclads. A waste of resources, they're calling it, trying to do too much too soon."
"But--but we need those ships! They're our best hope of military superiority, long-term. And we need them now. It'll take time, but eventually the French and Spanish and whoever else will be using modern ship designs too."
"One of the less desirable consequences of your President Sterns' policy of not protecting information," Simpson put in curtly.
Larry bristled, but Eddie ignored that. "But we can do it now, right now, and get a head start that nobody can match. And we're well on the way here, even with all that time we waste on drills nobody's going to need and uniforms and all that." He gestured at the pile of timber, each tree trunk being sliced into neat uniform planks by the great spinning saw. He'd sweated blood to get that rig set up, with Nat Davis working on the design with him. Simpson had insisted on the steam engine rather than the quicker water wheel, and it had taken a long time to source the parts, build it, get some down-timers trained up as stokers and engineers for it, and get it into operation. But they'd done it, got it all started. "We can't give up now! I thought Mike was in favour of this."
"You would know that better than I," said Simpson. "But he's not the only voice on the Committee, and it's uncertain whether he can convince them all. I asked him for four more up-timers to help with the work. Instead I only get one." He nodded to Larry. "And I understand both of you would rather be elsewhere."
Eddie's mouth opened.
"Jeff Higgins spoke to me. He said he might require you both on his diplomatic mission to Amsterdam. I'm not a fool, boys, and I can see when a project's being scuppered by politics."
"I don't--it's not--" Eddie said, but he couldn't find the words. He looked away.
It was pure chance that he was looking at the sawwheel. He saw what was about to happen an instant ahead, but by the time he'd leapt forwards with a shout, it was too late.
The gang feeding the logs into the saw were laughing and joking as they worked. One man--Konrad, one of their newer recruits who had chosen Simpson's navy over the life of a drover--bumped into the end of the log as it was being fed into the wheel. It sheered sideways, and knocked against another man, Otto, who put out a hand automatically to save himself.
The saw spun at about two thousand revolutions per minute. It was a thick, coarse blade, the best they could do here, and it was taken off and sharpened every two hours of use. Otto's frantic grasp went straight into its path.
Eddie began to run. The log was still slewing sideways, knocking the third man, Johann, off his feet, and the sawdust was flying thickly in the air. Otto was on the ground, and Eddie saw blood spurt from where his left hand had been.
He was vaguely aware of Simpson and Larry sprinting too. He heard Simpson shout in a voice that could have carried across the deck of a ship in a storm, "Get the emergency stop!"
Racing across the dockyard, Eddie saw the stoker releasing the emergency valve on the steam engine. There was a great hiss of steam, but the saw-wheel was still spinning. The blow from the log had knocked it out of true, and sparks were flying, flying onto the thick layer of sawdust on the ground around it.
He was vaguely aware of Simpson skidding on the mud and falling to one knee with a hissed curse before getting back up again. Then Eddie was on the scene, and Larry was helping Johann wrestle the wildly swinging tree-trunk away from the fallen man and the saw. Suddenly the saw slowed to a halt, and glancing up Eddie saw that Simpson, back upright, had reached the emergency stop. Eddie dove for the injured man.
Blood was spurting from the stump of his wrist, and Eddie's first-aid training kicked in. Apply pressure. He wrestled his jacket off and pressed it to the fountain of blood, as hard as he could.
He had no idea, afterwards, how long he was there, holding his blood-soaked jacket to Otto's arm. It felt like a blink of an eye, and half a lifetime. The immediate danger with the saw over, Larry and Johann and Konrad gathered around him, and Eddie heard himself say, "Get the duty medic," in a cool, controlled voice that didn't seem like his. Konrad ran.
He got Johann to cover Otto with his jacket against shock. Larry donated his as well. Eddie kept up his death-grip on the bloody jacket. The blood had stopped dripping from his hands now. He hoped that was a good sign.
Then the medic arrived and took over with Otto. Eddie stepped back, and was surprised that he wasn't horrendously shocked. A year ago he would have been, but since then he'd been involved in more than one battle and had seen plenty of injuries more gory than this one. Though none so unexpected.
The medic and his assistants loaded Otto onto a stretcher and they carried him off, away from the shipyard to the fledgling hospital that was being set up in the town. Johann and Konrad made to follow.
"Where do you think you're going?"
Eddie had forgotten about Simpson altogether, in the past few minutes. Now he looked up and saw that Simpson was still standing by the saw, motionless.
"This needs to be cleared up," Simpson said. "The wheel's damaged, we won't be doing any more work until the smith gets here, but there's no excuse for leaving the place looking like a slaughterhouse." His voice was sharp, and Eddie felt a hot reply bubbling up inside him, but then he looked again at Simpson as his brain took in what he was seeing.
Simpson was leaning against the side of the rig, standing on one leg. The other--Eddie blinked. Simpson's other foot was five yards away in the mud where he'd slipped, his pants leg flapping loose, thickly smeared in mud.
"Don't stand there like a fool," Simpson snapped at him. "Make yourself useful, Lieutenant. Both of you."
"But--um, yes sir," said Eddie. He went slowly over and picked it up out of the mud. A prosthetic. It must have come off when Simpson had skidded in the mud, but he'd kept going anyway. He'd had no idea.
Not, Eddie thought, that it made it all okay. The fact that Simpson must have lost a foot in combat didn't make him a nice person all of a sudden. But it did put some things into a new light, especially Simpson's habit of sending Eddie to run up and down on errands that Eddie had privately thought Simpson could perfectly well do himself.
"My office," Simpson said. He reached out and peremptorially gripped Eddie by one shoulder, and limped over. Larry trailed awkwardly behind them for a few steps, then moved to Simpson's other side. After a moment, Simpson put a hand on his shoulder too.
In the office, Simpson sat heavily at his desk, then bent to deal with whatever he needed to do with his prosthetic foot. Eddie stood in front of the desk, Larry beside him. It was Larry who broke the silence.
"Will he be okay?"
"Present-day medicine is well used to traumatic amputation," Simpson said without looking up. "Even under current medical practice, it would be survivable. With sulfa drugs and good wound care and possibly a direct blood transfusion if they've got typing set up and a suitable donor, I'd say he's got a very good chance." He glanced up at Eddie. "Does he have dependents?"
Eddie had recruited Otto, and worked with him. "He's married. Three little kids, I think, and an elderly mother."
"Hm. I'll have to sort out a pension. Injured in service. It'll need a new fund, I think, and we may have to press for an additional allocation for this. It's the last thing we need right now, but it's got to be done."
"Money," Eddie blurted out. "I've still got his blood on my hands, it's not even dry, and you're talking about money."
Simpson sat back in his chair. "He has five dependents," he said, his voice measured and calm. "I guarantee you that as soon as they've heard that he will live, their next question will be, what will we live on. There's no social security here, boys. If he can't work, they don't eat. It's down to us to take care of them, and to do that, I have to make the budget work out and find some room in it to establish a dedicated system of benefits for the families of men injured or killed in the Navy. Assuming there is a Navy." He looked from Eddie to Larry and back. "This accident won't help that situation. It'll be used as proof that we were going too fast, trying too much--or proof that I'm not the right man for the job."
First money, now politics. Was the guy made of granite? Eddie rubbed his hands together unconsciously. "It was my fault," he muttered. "Nothing to do with you. If I'd done what you--they were fooling about, like yesterday--it was my fault. They can't blame this on you."
Simpson frowned at him, then jerked his head. "Sit down, Eddie. Both of you. Yes, they were fooling around and yes, you set a bad example yesterday. But the ground was slippery underfoot, too, and I told them this morning to try to up the pace of work. It was an accident. And besides, everything that happens here is my responsibility, ultimately. That's what these uniforms mean. But if it makes you feel better, you can take point on a review of the safety procedures and emergency drills. Figure out how to prevent this happening again. You too, Larry. Fresh eyes can be very useful." Simpson paused, then looked down at his desk for a moment before adding, "That is, if you're both staying." His tone was challenging, but by now Eddie knew him well enough to recognise the hint of something else. Anxiety, he thought in surprise.
Larry was looking at him. They knew each other well enough that Eddie could read the message on his face. He gave a nod. "Yeah. Yeah, we're staying. And we'll get all the ships built, too."
Simpson's lips twitched. "Good," was all he said, then bent and did something to his prosthetic again.
"Are you all right?" Eddie asked suddenly.
"I'm fine. Thank you."
"I'm fine, boys. It'll be sore for a few days, that's all. You two can do all the running around. But it's fine. I've been dealing with this for longer than you two have been alive." He smiled. Eddie blinked. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen Simpson smile before. "After I got this, I couldn't serve in combat again. That's how I got into engineering and shipbuilding. But if," he paused, corrected himself, "but when we get these ironclads launched, then I'll be back on the command deck at last."
Eddie had read plenty of fantasy novels, plenty of stories of extraordinary and charismatic leaders, who men would follow anywhere, who you could trust to lead you into battle. He'd assumed that if you met a man like that, he'd have some kind of glow about him, and you'd know right away. Not that you'd hate his guts for a year, then spend four months either indifferent to him or still hating his guts because he was such a hard-ass, before you started to see the whole picture. He tried to think of some way to express this realisation, and found himself standing up and saluting, the way Simpson had tried to teach him and the way he hated doing. Larry blinked, but copied him, eyes gleaming.
"Yes, sir," he said.