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Chapter 8

Mike and his "cabinet" held their first meeting an hour later, in Melissa Mailey's classroom. Mike began the meeting with a fumble. Of the hemming and hawing variety.

"For God's sake, young man!" snapped Melissa. "Why don't you just come out and say it? You want me—the only woman in the room, except Rebecca—to be the committee's secretary. Take the notes."

Mike eyed her warily. Melissa Mailey was a tall, slender woman. Her hair was cut very short, and its color matched the conservative gray jacket and long dress she was wearing. Her hazel eyes were just as piercing as he remembered them, from days gone by when he stammered out an unstudied reply to a stiff question. She looked every inch the stern and demanding schoolmistress. The appearance was not a pose. Melissa Mailey was famous—or notorious, depending on who was telling the tale—for her acid tongue and acerbic discipline.

She was also famous for being Grantville's most unabashed and unrelenting liberal. Flaming irresponsible radical, according to many. As a college student, she'd been a participant in the civil rights movement. Arrested twice. Once in Mississippi, once in Alabama. As a young schoolteacher, she had marched against the Vietnam war. Arrested twice. Once in San Francisco, once in Washington, D.C. The first arrest had cost her first teaching job. The second arrest had done for the next. Boston Brahmin born and bred, she'd wound up teaching in a small town in West Virginia because nobody else would hire her. Her first year at the newly founded high school, she'd organized several of the schoolgirls to join her in a march on Washington demanding the Equal Rights Amendment. A clamor had gone up, demanding her dismissal. She held onto her job, but she'd been treading on very thin ice.

As ever, Melissa didn't give a damn. The next year, she got arrested again. But that was for denouncing an overbearing state trooper at one of the UMWA picket lines during the big 1977–78 national strike. When she got out of jail, the miners held a coming-home party for her in the high-school cafeteria. Half the student body showed up, along with their parents. Melissa even snuck out, halfway through the proceedings, and joined some of the miners for a drink in the parking lot.

Melissa Mailey had finally found a home. But she was still as unyielding and acerbic as ever.

"Look, Melissa," Mike muttered, "I know it looks bad. But we've got to have accurate records, and—"

Melissa broke into a smile. That expression was not seen often on her face. Not in Mike's recollection, at any rate. But it was quite dazzling, in its own cool way.

"Oh, relax," she said. "Of course we have to keep meticulous records." Again, the smile. "We're the Founding Fathers, you know. And Mothers. Wouldn't do at all not to have accurate notes. I know—I'm a history teacher. Historians would damn us for eternity."

The smile vanished. Melissa's eyes flicked around the faces gathered in the center of the room. Her expression made plain just how sloppily and carelessly she thought men would keep important records.

When her eyes came to Rebecca, Melissa's frown deepened. The young Jewish refugee, hands clasped nervously in her lap, was sitting on the edge of her seat. Her chair was pushed back several feet from the circle.

Melissa stood up and pointed her finger imperiously to a spot next to her own chair. "Young woman," she stated, "you move that chair here. Right now."

If Rebecca had any difficulty with Melissa's Boston accent—still as pronounced as ever, after all these years—she gave no sign of it. Hastily, like a thousand schoolgirls before her, she obeyed the voice of command.

Melissa bestowed the smile upon her. "Attagirl. Remember: United we stand, divided we fall."

Melissa sniffed at the men. "Do something useful, why don't you?" She pointed to a row of long tables lining the back wall. "Move those together into the center of the room. Make a big conference table out of them. Then push these silly desks away and go get us some real chairs. Ed'll show you where they are. We'll be meeting here from now on, I imagine. May as well set things up properly."

She turned away, briskly striding toward a cabinet. "I, meanwhile, will demonstrate the marvels of modern technology." Over her shoulder, with a snort: "Stenography. Ha!"

The next few minutes were taken up with a flurry of activity. When the meeting resumed, a large and expensive-looking tape recorder occupied a prominent place in the center of the jury-rigged "conference table."

Melissa turned it on, recorded the time and date, and turned to Mike.

"You're on, Mister Chairman."

Mike cleared his throat. "All right. The first thing I want to take care of is this 'constitutional convention' business. It's important, of course—more important, in the long run, than probably anything else. But we've got way too much emergency business to take care of for this entire committee to spend any time on it."

He could see Melissa's gathering frown out of the corner of his eye. Hurriedly: "So what I want to propose is that we set up a small subcommittee to work on it. When they come up with a proposal, we can discuss it. Until then, the rest of us will concentrate on immediate matters."

"Sounds okay to me," said Nat Davis. "I wouldn't know where to start, anyway. Not with that problem. Who do you want on the subcommittee?"

Mike's first two names came instantly. "Melissa and Ed. She's the history teacher and Ed used to teach civic affairs." Pause. "One or two more people."

Everyone's eyes glanced at everyone else's. Melissa cut through the hesitation. "Willie Ray. He served a few terms as a state representative, way back in the Stone Age. Give us some practical experience, even if he was a chiseling politician like all the rest of them." Everyone chuckled except Hudson, who laughed aloud. "And Dr. Nichols should be on it too."

Nichols' eyes widened. "Why?" he demanded. "I don't know anything about constitutional law." He cocked his head. The gesture was both quizzical and half-suspicious. "If it's because I'm the only—"

"Of course it's because you're the only black man in the room!" snapped Melissa. Her eyes challenged Nichols, and then the other men. "Grow up—all of you. I didn't propose him out of tokenism. There's a good and simple reason to include someone whose people had a different history than most of ours. Whether he knows any law or not, I suspect Dr. Nichols won't be quite as complacent as everyone else about the received wisdom of the ages."

Mike wasn't sure he agreed with Melissa's reasoning. In general, that is. But he realized that he would feel a bit more confident himself, knowing that Nichols had a hand in shaping their new constitution.

"I've got no problems with that. James? Do you accept?"

Nichols shrugged. "Sure, why not?" Grinning: "Man does not live by chitlins alone, after all."

When the laughter died down, Mike moved on to immediate business. He started with the power-plant manager.

"Bill, the way I see it, power is the key to everything. As long as we have electricity, we'll have a gigantic edge over everybody else in this new world of ours. All the way from modern machine tools to computers. So—how long? And what can we do to keep the power coming?"

Porter ran fingers through his thinning hair. "I don't know how much anybody here knows about power plants. The truth is, the design of steam–water cycle power plants hasn't changed much in a long time. They're simple machines, when you get down it. As long as we're provided with water and coal, we can keep running until we use up our small stock of critical spare parts. That'll probably happen somewhere between a year and a half and two years from now. After that, we're shut down for good."

He shook his head. The gesture was both rueful and half-amused. "We've got enough coal stockpiled to last for six months. Water's not a problem at all. We used to get it from the Monongahela. The Ring of Fire cut the pipes, of course, but it turns out—talk about blind luck!—that there's another river pretty much right in the same place. Not as big, but it'll do."

"I don't understand about the spare parts," said Frank. "Can't we make them? We've got three machine shops in town."

Porter shook his head. "That's not the problem, Frank. I wish it was! We've got four machine shops in town, actually. We have a maintenance shop in the plant itself." He glanced at Piazza. "And now that I think about, I just remembered the high school's technical training center has a pretty good shop, too."

Piazza nodded. Porter turned to Davis, the machine-shop owner. "Tell 'em, Nat."

Nat Davis was a pudgy man in late middle age. When he puffed out his cheeks, he bore such an uncanny resemblance to a frog that Mike almost laughed.

"Not a chance, folks. Bill's right." He shrugged. "Oh, sure, I could make lots of parts. Shafts, you name it. But some things—like gears, and bearings, and mechanical seals—are specialty work. I don't think there's a job shop in the country that could handle that stuff. Not without spending years at it. We just don't have the tooling."

Silence. "A year and a half," Ed muttered. "Two at the most." His frown conveyed both worry and exasperation.

Mike leaned forward, tapping the table with a stiff finger. "I don't think the situation's that bad. Remember, we don't need to keep that power plant running. That monster's overkill, anyway. Just any power plant."

Porter stopped running his fingers through his hair. His head popped up. "You're right, Mike!" he exclaimed. Then, chuckling ruefully: "We've got the thing running on minimal load condition as it is. Our plant could have provided power to the whole of Marion County. Over fifty thousand people, including all the industry in Fairmont. We can keep Grantville supplied with anything it needs with what amounts to a trickle."

He was getting excited, now. "Hell, yes—Mike's right! We can use that year or two grace period to gear down." Seeing the blank expressions on several faces, Porter elaborated. "Remember what I said. The basic principle of a coal-operated power plant is damn near ancient. We can build us a new one." Another chuckle, full of cheer rather than chagrin. "An old one, I should say. Forget about high-speed turbines and bearings. All we need, for our relatively modest purposes, is a good old-fashioned steam engine."

He looked at Nat. "We can build something like that, I imagine?"

Before Davis could respond, Willie Ray Hudson was laughing gleefully. "You imagine? Bill, I know of at least four men in this town who build steam engines for a hobby." The old farmer was grinning from ear to ear. "The Oil and Gas Festival contest, you know." He shrugged. "They don't build anything as big as we'd want, of course. But they understand all the principles."

Hudson slapped the table with his hand. "And that's another thing! Let's not forget that this whole area started with natural gas and oil, before the coal mines started working." The farmer pointed to the floor beneath his feet. "We're still sitting on it. Natural gas mostly. I run my farm direct off the gas from my own land. All my vehicles are converted to operate on natural gas instead of gasoline. Don't pay the gas company a nickel for it. So we've got another energy source, right there!"

Frank joined in the excitement. "You're right. Now that I think about, the whole town's heat comes from that gas supply. Even the high school. Right, Ed?"

The principal nodded, but his face was creased with worry. "Yeah, but—" He looked down at the floor. "Is it still there?"

For the first time, Greg Ferrara spoke. "I'm pretty sure it is, Ed." The science teacher made an apologetic face. "I can't be sure, of course. But I examined what I could of the evidence left by the Ring of Fire. As near as I can tell, the—whatever it was—cut out a perfect circle. Right through everything. Dirt, trees—even rail lines and power cables—cut like a razor."

Everybody was staring at the floor, now. "I can't imagine anything that would have just skinned the planet's surface. It's far more likely that the Ring of Fire moved an entire hemisphere. Well, a sphere, actually—but the top half would have just been atmosphere."

Ferrara paused, studying the tiles as if the answer were to be found there. "I'm not positive, but I'll be surprised if we don't discover that we've got the same radius beneath our feet. Three miles down, at the center—maybe more. Way deeper than any gas and oil beds we'll be tapping into. Or coal seams."

"We'll know soon enough," said Mike forcefully. "Quentin, we need to get that abandoned coal mine up and running. Six months from now, the power plant's stockpile will be gone. We've got to get the coal moving by then."

Startled, the former mine manager looked up. "But that belongs to—" He broke off, chuckling. "Ah, screw 'em. I never liked that outfit anyway. And now I guess they're in no position to yap about property rights."

Quentin's harsh chuckle was echoed by others. The abandoned coal mine was located less than two miles out of town. It was practically brand new. The largest coal operator in the United States had built the thing, run it for a few months, and then closed it down. The company claimed it was due to "unfavorable market conditions." Everyone in the town—including Quentin, who managed a competitor's mine—was certain that the mine had been built as a tax dodge.

Frank was grinning. "Tell you what, Quentin. I'll get the bolt cutters, you bring the hacksaw. We'll have that sucker up and running in no time."

"No—not you, Frank." Mike's words were spoken softly, but decisively. "Put Ken Hobbs in charge of it. That old-timer almost goes back to the days of pick-and-shovel mining, anyway. Which is what we're probably going to be reduced to. I doubt very much if the company left any continuous-mining machines down there. Or any long-wall equipment."

He drove over Frank's gathering protest. "I need you here, Frank—not buried hundreds of yards down in the ground. We've got to build us a real little army now. I'm counting on you to show me the ropes. You're a real veteran of a real war, which I'm not."

Frank stared at him. Then at Quentin Underwood, then at James Nichols, and then at Ed Piazza. Those were the Vietnam War veterans in the room.

"I will be good God damned," he mused. "Whaddaya know? The Vietnam 'era' is finally classified as a for-real war."

The other vets chuckled. Quentin eyed Mike. "How 'bout me?" he demanded. "You going to insist on putting me in a uniform too?"

Mike shook his head. "No offense, Quentin, but you were stationed on an aircraft carrier. I need men with combat experience on dry land. James was in the Marines, but he's one of our only two doctors. Ed—"

The short, stocky principal laughed. "Not me! Spent my whole tour of duty as a rear-echelon motherfu—" He broke off the vulgar term, glancing warily at Melissa. She responded with a grin and a wagging finger. "The closest I ever got to action was being caught in a shoot-out in downtown Saigon between the police and some black marketeers. You want a real combat vet like Frank."

Jackson made a sour face. "I was in the Eleventh Armored Cav, Mike. I haven't noticed any tanks parked around town."

Nichols' eyes widened a bit. "You were with the Blackhorse?" he asked. "Good outfit."

Frank returned the doctor's compliment with a brief nod. "So were the Marines. By the way, which unit were you in?" He shook his head. "Ah, never mind. Later."

To Mike: "Sure, I had some experience with infantry tactics. But nothing like what we're going to be facing here." He snorted. "Can't hardly call in an air strike."

"That's still more experience than I've got, Frank," retorted Mike. "The only combat I saw in the service was barroom brawls." He scanned the other faces in the room. When he spoke again, his tone was deadly serious.

"Building our army has to take first priority, people. Without it, we're just another town ripe for plunder. I'm going to need every combat veteran I can get my hands on. That's true of most of the middle-aged miners, fortunately. But—sorry, Frank—they're getting a little long in the tooth for this sort of thing. I want to use them as a training cadre for the younger miners, and any of the younger men in town who aren't absolutely needed for something else. And—"

He took a deep breath. "We're going to have to call for volunteers." Another deep breath. "I'm going to pretty much want every boy in next month's high-school graduating class."

The room exploded with protests from Ed Piazza and Melissa Mailey. Ed gobbled semicoherent and indignant phrases about his kids. Melissa neither gobbled nor was incoherent. She simply denounced Mike. She avoided the term warmonger, but precious little else.

Throughout, Mike weathered the storm in suffering silence. When the protests began to die down, he opened his mouth to speak.

Greg Ferrara cut him off. "Don't be stupid, Melissa. You too, Ed. I agree with Mike completely. Most of the miners are getting on in years, you know that as well as anyone. The mines have done only a trickle of new hiring for the last decade." Bitterly: "Downsizing. Hell, at least half the working miners in this area are Frank's age. Late forties and up. You can't expect men that old to do all the fighting. Not for long, anyway."

Ed and Melissa were staring at their fellow school teacher, jaws open. Their thoughts were obvious: Benedict Arnold.

Seeing their expressions, the science teacher smiled ruefully. "Sorry. But facts are facts. Every country in history, when the fighting starts, depends on its youngsters. I can't see where we're any different."

He turned to Mike. "I know those boys, Mike. Every one of them will volunteer. Even the kids in the special education program."

He waved down Melissa's gathering storm of renewed protest. "Relax! We're obviously not going to put someone like Joe Kinney into the army." Mike nodded his firm agreement. Joe Kinney was a sweet-tempered eighteen-year-old boy. But he had the mental age of a five-year-old, and was never going to get any better.

Greg nodded at Nichols. "Dr. Nichols and Dr. Adams can screen out the boys who are just plain unfit. But most of them can serve, and all of them will. For the duration—just like in World War II."

He squared his slender shoulders. "And some of the male teachers should volunteer to lead them in. Just like in the Civil War. Let's start with me. I'm sure Jerry Calafano will volunteer also. And Cliff Priest and Josh Benton."

Half-unconsciously, the school principal nodded his agreement. Priest and Benton were the two younger coaches for the high school. Calafano was a math teacher in his late twenties. He and Ferrara were close friends, as well as mutual chess fanatics.

Melissa started to say something—a protest, from the sound of the initial stuttered syllables. Then, her shoulders slumping, she heaved a great sigh. "Oh, Lord," she whispered. "Oh, dear God." Her eyes filled with sudden moisture. There was nothing of politics in either the words or the wetness. Just the grief of a woman who had helped to raise another generation of children, and must now see them march toward the dogs of war. Cry havoc! Like so many generations before them.

Mike gave that grief a moment's respectful silence. Then, squaring his own shoulders, he pushed on to new business.

"All right. Greg, I appreciate the offer and I accept it. It'll help if several of the teachers volunteer along with the kids. Help a lot." For a moment, his mind sped off at a tangent. Ferrara, he knew, had organized a rocketry club with some of the science-oriented students in the high school. He could see possibilities—

Later. He looked at Willie Ray. "Willie, I want you to get all the farmers together and draw up a plan for food production. Inventory our resources, figure out what you're going to need—" He broke off. Hudson had started nodding before Mike had finished the first sentence. The old man was a natural-born organizer. Mike could let him handle it from there.

To Quentin: "Frank will talk to Ken Hobbs and some of the older miners. We'll also see if we can get some retirees back to work. Break into that abandoned mine and see where we stand. Transporting the coal will be a problem, too. We got rail tracks leading most of the way from the mine to the power plant, but as far as I know there isn't a locomotive anywhere around. We may have to haul it by truck."

To Dreeson: "That brings up the problem of the gasoline supply. We need to inventory how much fuel we've got sitting in the underground storage tanks of the town's gas stations. Diesel and kerosene also. And anywhere else it can be found. Which will mostly be in the gas tanks of everybody's cars and trucks."

He paused, pursing his lips. "I can't see any way around it. Starting immediately, we've got to put a complete stop to people using their vehicles for personal transportation. As of right now, all motor vehicle fuel is a vital military resource."

Quentin nodded. "Absolutely!" He looked at Willie Ray. "How hard is it to convert to natural gas?"

Before Hudson could respond, Ed piped up. "Yeah! We could convert a couple of the school buses. Provide the town with a bus service." Apologetically: "Some of the old folks can hardly be expected to walk all the way to the grocery stores." His quick mind seemed to have a life of its own, tripping from subject to subject. "And that brings up the question of groceries. We can't keep the freeze on buying much longer. But how are we going to ration the food? And what do we use for money? I'm not sure U.S. currency's worth much anymore. And—"

Dreeson pitched in immediately, with a proposal to use the town's only bank—85% community owned, remember?—as their new financial clearing house. Quentin agreed. Melissa snapped something about protecting the town's poorer residents. Quentin snapped back. Before that argument could get started, Nat Davis chimed in with a concern for the town's resident businessmen. Not the absentee owners, of course. Hell with them. Nationalize all that stuff. But I worked all my life— Ed and Dreeson immediately assured him arrangements could be made. Property rights would be respected, but the demands of the common good—

On and on. Mike leaned back in his chair, almost sighing with relief. He had picked this team on the spur of the moment, driven more by instinct than conscious thought. He was pleased to see that his fighting instincts seemed to be as good in this arena as they had been in the much simpler environment of a boxing ring.

* * *

The meeting broke up three hours later. There was still a lot to be done—all of the actual work, and most of the planning—but at least they'd agreed on an initial division of labor.

Overall command of the political and military situation: Mike Stearns.

Army Chief of Staff: Frank Jackson.

Coordinator of all planning and general factotum: Ed Piazza. The school vice-principal, Len Trout, would assume Ed's old duties in the interim.

In charge of drafting a proposed permanent constitution for the new—nation? Whatever it was. Melissa Mailey.

In charge of the town itself, rationing, finance, etc.: The mayor, who else? Henry Dreeson.

Medical and sanitation: James Nichols, with some help from Greg Ferrara when Greg wasn't too busy being the unofficial "Minister of the Arms Complex." (Which wasn't, of course, all that complex at the moment.)

Power and energy: Bill Porter and Quentin Underwood.

Agriculture: Willie Ray Hudson.

That left only—


Rebecca had been silent throughout the entire meeting. The refugee had simply listened intently. It was obvious that much of the discussion passed by her completely. But the one time that Mike began to explain an unfamiliar term, she simply shook her head and, with a firm little gesture of her hand, urged him to continue. Clearly enough, Rebecca had an excellent grasp on priorities. Explain later. Right now, let's stay alive.

Mike was pleased and gratified by that hand gesture. Quite powerfully, in truth. Charm and exotic beauty are all fine and good in a woman. So, of course, is intelligence. But, like many men born and bred in poverty's hills, Mike treasured hard-headed practicality even more. He could feel his attraction toward her deepening by the moment. Whether the sentiment was reciprocated, he had no idea. But he made the decision, then and there, that he was going to find out.

Rebecca Abrabanel did not speak until the very end. Then, softly clearing her throat, she asked: "I am uncertain. What is it, exactly, that you desire me to do?" Her English had a distinctive accent, a strange blend of Germanic harshness and something of Spain, but her command of the language was fluent and grammatically precise.

Mike hesitated, trying to explain. He blurted out the whimsical thought which first came to him:

"Basically, Miss Abrabanel, I need you to be my National Security Adviser."

Rebecca frowned. "I understand the words. Taken separately, I mean to say. But I am not certain—" She cocked her head slightly. "Can you explain what I am supposed to do?"

Melissa Mailey snorted. "That's easy, Miss Abrabanel. Just do the same thing every National Security Adviser I can remember always does." She pointed a finger at Mike. "Whenever he asks you what to do about any problem, just tell him: Bomb it."

The answer confused Rebecca. But not half as much as the uproarious laughter which filled the room. When the laughter died down, Mike stood up and extended his hand.

"May I walk you home, Miss Abrabanel? I can explain on the way."

Smiling, Rebecca nodded and rose. By the time they had passed through the door and taken three steps down the wide corridor of the school, Rebecca's hand was tucked under Mike's arm.

Frank sidled over to the door and peeked after them. Then, chuckling, he turned back and spoke to Melissa. "In that new constitution of yours, I'd suggest you run a little lightly on the matter of separation of powers. We don't need another scandal in high places, right out of the gate."

Melissa arched her eyebrows. "Whatever are you talking about, Frank Jackson? I certainly don't see a problem with the chief of state walking his national security adviser home." She scowled. "In fact—might be a good idea to put in right there in black and white. The National Security Adviser must be female."

Greg Ferrara curled his lip. "Yeah, the gentle sex. Like Catherine the Great, or the Medici women. Or—what was her name? You know. The English queen who had everybody burned at—"

Melissa waved her hand airily. "Details, young man. Details! You can't get everything perfect. But at least we'd have a modicum of good sense." She scowled. "Not that I don't imagine Miss Abrabanel won't be advocating a certain amount of bombing."

The scowl deepened. "So would I, come down to it. We could start with half the palaces in Europe." Scowl, scowl. "I take that back. Let's start with ninety percent—and work our way up from there."



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