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Tuesday, June 19, 1635
West Virginia County
Astrid Schäubin puttered around her room, straightening everything. She tugged at the solid but inexpensive table beside her bed, trying to square it up. It creaked across the wooden floorboards.
"Astrid, are you still up?" Her brother Hjalmar leaned around the corner of the doorway.
"Why? We have to be up early."
Astrid sighed. "I do not know." She looked at her pack. "I have everything ready. Pistol, gun belt, neckerchief, hat, four days of clothes even though we should return Friday morning."
"Is everything okay with Georg?"
Astrid smiled. "Georg is fine. We had a nice dinner."
Now she was a little annoyed. "Hjalmar, when have you ever known Georg Meisner not to be a perfect gentleman?"
Hjalmar's head bobbled in acknowledgment of her point. "So what is it then? Lukas getting shot?"
"Well, ja, sure. This is my third Saxon Run since those bandits tried to hijack the train. And Krystalnacht."
"That is not anywhere near here," her brother pointed out.
"I know. But I have a bad feeling."
Hjalmar frowned. "So do not take chances and do not wander off."
Astrid threw her pillow at him. "I said I had a bad feeling, not that I had forgotten everything you and Neustatter ever taught me."
Hjalmar handed back the pillow he'd caught. "Maybe you noticed something you have not figured out yet. Sleep on it."
"Maybe. Thanks, Hjalmar."
Hjalmar went back to his and Ditmar's room. Astrid tucked her .22 under her pillow, doused the lamp, and went to bed.
Wednesday, June 20, 1635
Astrid hadn't slept particularly well. Nor had she been able to put her finger on what was bothering her about this mission. All her fellow NESS security consultants looked alert but comfortable.
"I am looking for Neustatter's European Security Services!" a man in an SoTF blue uniform called out in Amideutsch. He had a cloth armband with the letters MP around his right sleeve.
"You found us," Neustatter answered in the same language.
"Sergeant Johann Sandhagen, SoTF National Guard, military police."
"Edgar Neustatter." They shook hands. "Hjalmar Schaub here runs Team Two for me. Karl Recker, Otto Brenner, Jacob Bracht. Astrid Schäubin—she is Hjalmar's sister—will be running Team Three. Me. Phillip Pfeffer. Wolfram Kuntz. Wolfram is our medic, certified EMT."
Sandhagen shook hands all around. "Good to meet y'all. How many of these have you done? This is only my second one."
"We are on a schedule with the other security contractors and mercenaries," Neustatter told him. "Every seventh trip. This is NESS's fourth Saxon Run and my third personally, not counting the attempted hijacking."
Sandhagen nodded. "So y'all were on the train that was hit?"
"Ja. Astrid, Wolfram, Phillip, Lukas Heidenfelder, and I," Neustatter confirmed. "Lukas is still in the hospital."
"How is he?"
"He will pull through," Neustatter said.
Astrid knew that was what the doctors said, but she was still worried.
Neustatter nodded his appreciation. "How do you want do this? A team in each railroad car?"
"Ja, that is good. How did you train for this? You have done more of these than I have."
"I watched Murder on the Orient Express last night."
The MP looked shocked.
"Relax. I have also seen Breakheart Pass."
Astrid listened to the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails while she watched the left side as the train rolled north to Jena. The cars were about half-full, which she understood to be average for recent weekday runs—although that was still down a bit compared to before last month's attack. So far the ride was uneventful. Which is not surprising, Astrid reminded herself. It's always uneventful south of Jena.
But as the train slowed to a stop alongside the platform in Jena, Phillip called out from the back stairs, "Neustatter! Squad of men approaching the platform!"
Astrid quickly reached for her pistol. Neustatter's was already out. But then her boss called out, "Their weapons are shouldered. And they have tickets."
The approaching men sorted themselves into a file, and the first one swung aboard. He caught sight of Neustatter's pistol right away. Astrid saw his hand tighten on his rifle sling, but he had the presence of mind not to make a sudden move.
"Who are you?"
"Neustatter's European Security Services. Train guard on this run. And you?"
"The Yellow Circle Regiment." Astrid noted that emblem on his coat.
"In civilian clothes?"
"We are specially trained to operate behind the lines."
Astrid had to strain to hear Neustatter's response, even from three feet away.
"No, you are not. Who are you?"
Equally quietly, the man replied, "CoCs. We are returning to Magdeburg."
"Yellow Circle because you are defending the Jews."
"Ja, preemptive attack."
"What I said. Like Esther, ja?"
The CoC soldier cracked a smile. "We have ten rifles. Let us work together."
Neustatter nodded and called forward. "Sergeant? Five in each car? I will show you where the Saxons tried to hijack the train when we get there."
When the train pulled into Naumburg Station, most of the passengers disembarked. Some made a beeline for the restrooms, others for the food cart.
Neustatter indicated the food cart. "Sergeant Sandhagen, you should come with us. Good food, good information."
"Good to see you again, Neustatter. The Saxon cities east of the river caused some trouble earlier this week, but all is quiet today." Kraft used some English idioms and word order, but retained der, die, and das and inflected the German nouns if not the occasional English one. He nodded toward a pair of men with green armbands. "We Saale Levies have two of the oversized squads we call heaps near Weissenfels, with a radio. They checked in this morning, as did Camps Terror and Destruction."
"Good enough for me," Neustatter declared.
Sergeant Sandhagen raised an eyebrow, as if to say, "This is an extremely well-informed sausage dealer."
Astrid indicated the jars of pickles and relishes along the side of the food cart. "I have seen these in Grantville."
Kraft smiled. "We hope to have more varieties after this year's harvest. Safe run."
The train picked up speed out of the station and clattered across the Unstrut River bridge. The engineer gave a long blast on the horn as they passed Camp Terror. Astrid saw SoTF National Guardsmen on the corner watchtowers waving. She watched the ridgeline to the left carefully as the train negotiated the S-curve and headed north toward Eulau and the site of the attempted hijacking.
"Neustatter, it looks like the Saale Levies have almost finished that watchtower on the ridge, but the second floor is crooked."
Neustatter crossed to her side of the train and studied it. He whistled. "It is turned forty-five-degrees from the walls of the first story to remove all the blind spots."
The train sped past the site of the ambush and continued north with a steady clickety-clack. A couple passengers boarded at Weissenfels, and the train rumbled on toward Merseburg.
Neustatter crossed to Astrid's side of the train again. "We are approaching Camp Destruction. Tell me what you see."
The engineer honked the horn again, and the soldiers in the watchtowers waved. The steady clickety-clack on the rails continued as the train continued on toward Merseburg.
"They are alert," Astrid observed, keeping her voice down as Neustatter had. "Those two new buildings look almost finished."
"I have never seen anyone at work on them. Nor have Hjalmar nor Ditmar."
"Yet progress is steady."
"Makes you wonder who does the work, and when, does it not?" Neustatter asked.
Astrid mulled that over until Merseburg came into sight. No one sees the work being done. So they stop work when trains go by, and get out of sight. No reason for von Hessler's Saale Levies to do that. No reason for the SoTF National Guard—Oh!
"I figured it out, Neustatter."
Neustatter nodded. Astrid figured half of that was approval for keeping her mouth shut about who it was.
The Weissenfels passengers disembarked at Merseburg, a couple other passengers boarded, and the train rumbled on toward Halle.
One of the CoC men came over. "I heard your men call this the Saxon Run," he said. "Does that mean you get off in Halle?"
"Nein," Neustatter told him. "Trouble is less likely beyond Halle, but a determined opponent could still cause some. We ride all the way to Magdeburg."
"As do we," the CoC man said.
"I thought the CoCs were generally moving outward from Magdeburg," Neustatter observed.
"We finished our assignment. They want us back in Magdeburg. We were not in time to make it to Güstrow, but if anything else like that happens . . ."
Astrid managed not to cringe at the matter-of-fact way he said it. Krystalnacht had started a couple weeks ago. The Committees of Correspondence attacked anti-Semites and witch hunters—the sort of people responsible for the deaths of Mayor Dreeson, Enoch Wiley, Buster Beasley, and far too many police officers in Grantville. In Mecklenburg Province, the nobles had attacked the CoCs—but then CoC reinforcements shattered the nobles' army at the Battle of Güstrow.
A couple passengers boarded at Schkopau, and a few minutes later, the train pulled into the station at Halle. Most of the passengers disembarked; there was a half-hour stopover, and Halle's station had restrooms.
"You and Wolfram first," Neustatter told Astrid.
Wolfram was already back at the train when she returned—the line for the women's restroom had been a bit slower.
"Miss Schäubin, you are in charge." Neustatter informed her. "Hjalmar and I will see if Sergeant Hudson is on duty."
"Understood, boss," she replied.
A few minutes later, she saw Neustatter, Hjalmar, and two CoC men come out of the railroad station. Makes sense. They must want news, too.
The clickety-clack of the wheels increased as the train picked up speed.
The train pulled into Magdeburg Central at dusk.
"That was uneventful," Sergeant Sandhagen remarked.
"That is how we like them," Neustatter agreed.
"We need to report in. Good working with you," the CoC leader said. "You might have a drink at Green Horse Tavern and see if Frau Linder is singing. She is an up-timer, very popular with the Committees."
Neustatter nodded his thanks.
Neustatter nodded. "To you, as well." He watched as the CoC men set out toward the walled part of the city.
"You are concerned," Astrid observed. "Krystalnacht?"
"I do not doubt that the anti-Semites and witch hunters had it coming. But such a large operation depends heavily on its small unit commanders . . . It is very easy for something to go wrong. People make mistakes, after all." He sighed. "Shall we go find this Green Horse Tavern?"
Green Horse Tavern was crowded, but the NESS teams found a table in the back. They spent the next couple hours listening to Marla Linder and her fellow musicians play what they called Irish music.
When Marla finished singing “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” Neustatter turned to Astrid. "It sounds like the Irish had a hard time of it in the up-time but persevered. I should have a researcher look into whether there is anything we can adopt for NESS."
Astrid shook her head. "If so, you will find at least one John Wayne movie about it."
Thursday, June 21, 1635
The NESS teams slept late. It was mid-day before they all assembled and wandered about Magdeburg in search of food.
Astrid found herself checking her surroundings frequently.
"Nervous?" Hjalmar asked.
"The city feels different."
"You are correct," Neustatter said. "But tell me how you know. What do you see?"
Astrid watched people for a few minutes. "Many are glancing around. Some are hurrying with their heads down."
A few minutes later, Hjalmar asked, "Are we going back to Green Horse Tavern, Neustatter? We have passed at least three places where we could eat."
"You may eat anywhere you wish. I am going to Syborg's Book Store," Neustatter said. "There's an inn with good food a couple blocks north of it."
Hjalmar rolled his eyes.
Astrid just smiled. She wanted to see the inside of this bookstore. She'd heard about it from the men often enough.
Half an hour later, she was still smiling in amusement as Neustatter and Herr Syborg carried on an animated discussion of westerns in Amideutsch. Syborg had sent his son and the sales clerk off to lunch a while ago.
"You must see the latest from Haas and Seitz," Matthias Syborg urged him. "The characters are masterfully done."
"I agree Haas and Seitz write great characters," Neustatter acknowledged, "but I do not think they get the geography right. The American West didn't have villages every couple miles. Not in the up-time movies, anyway."
Naturally that led into a discussion of those movies. Astrid half-listened to Syborg's quick, chopped-off Amideutsch and Neustatter's adopted drawl as she wandered around the bookstore. She felt crowded as she maneuvered around three other patrons. The whole shop would easily fit inside the Calvert High School library, so why did it seem to have so many books? Train your power of observation. The voice in her head sounded just like Neustatter. So she followed orders.
One shelf in each stack had a book open, propped up on a little wooden lectern, with a stack of the new magazines to either side. That meant fewer books per shelf, and it also meant the shelves had to be spaced further apart than at Calvert High, so there were fewer shelves per stack. And the bottom two shelves had literal stacks of books. She bent down to check. Yes, they were more copies of the titles on the upper shelves. Astrid looked around and realized that the bookstore had no back room. The bottom two shelves were inventory storage. That meant nobody had to get down on the floor to read book titles. She counted the books on one shelf, the number of shelves in a stack, and the number of stacks in the store. No, there were not nearly as many books as it seemed.
Neustatter and the proprietor were still talking, so Astrid kept browsing. A lot of the non-fiction was reprints of up-time books, mostly technical subjects and histories. But some were newly written by down-timers. Most had Dewey numbers printed right on the spine.
The fiction was grouped by genre. Astrid skipped the romance. She'd get recommendations. That would save her no end of frustration trying to figure out whether a given book was the up-time "in love" style, the down-time family alliance style, or a mix of clashing expectations. She'd read one of those that was quite good and a few that were bad enough that she'd moved along to mysteries. She liked those where she had a reasonable chance of figuring out the culprit.
Astrid looked up when she heard the door open. A young woman maneuvered a teenage boy into the bookstore, then quickly pulled the door closed behind her. Astrid kept a book in front of her as if she were fascinated by how the dowager freifrau was narrowing down who could have killed the church sexton. But really she was assessing the new arrivals. The young woman looked like she was in her mid-twenties, about her own age. She was expensively dressed and carried herself confidently. More confidently than I would expect of a burgher's daughter. Probably of the adel. But she looks worried. The teenaged boy wore similarly fine clothes, a sword, and a stubborn expression.
"Welcome," Syborg said. "May I help you find a book?"
"Nein," the boy said.
"Ja, bitte," the woman said at the same time.
"What kind of book are you looking for?"
Astrid watched her falter for a couple seconds and realized the woman hadn't really come in for a book. But she recovered quickly and said, "An adventure." With a nod toward the young man, even.
"What sort of adventure?" the proprietor asked. "Foreign lands? Science fiction?"
"Science fiction?" The woman pronounced it carefully. "What is that?"
"A genre popularized by the up-timers. The stories feature much technology, often in space."
"That is boring." Whether it was the dismissive tone or the casual flip of his hand, Astrid was suddenly seized by an urge to smack him a new attitude.
"What about a Western, then?"
"What is that?" The boy's lip curled dismissively.
"They are set in North America, in the up-time."
"Pfffffffttt. Stupid stories."
"Do you even know what you are calling stupid?" Neustatter rumbled. He stepped up in front of the boy. "I study westerns carefully, the real thing and the stories. They help me understand the up-timers, and because of it my men and I make a better living as security consultants."