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Chapter 2


Magdeburg, on the Elbe River
Capital of the United States of Europe

"Short handed again," Thorsten Engler muttered to himself, as he counted those still out sick. Fortunately, all they had to do at night was keep the furnace running until morning. Things were usually pretty quiet, although one time the gas had started to run out, and he'd had to scramble to unload the coke and load new coal in several retorts. That could be the case tonight, with the cold and the snow increasing demand for heat.

Being the recently promoted foreman for the night shift at the coal gas plant—which was almost as new as he was—Engler always tried to walk around the plant every hour, whether it was clear, rain, or snow. It was the only way to make sure everyone was awake, and it tended to keep him awake as well. Despite the snow falling, the plant was mostly clear. That was probably due to the heat of the furnace, and maybe some shoveling as well. He'd have to make sure that they continued that during the night, or he'd look bad in the morning when the plant manager arrived.

He walked around the plant, looking at the furnace and the machinery. As he had many times by now, he wished he knew more about the manufacturing processes involved in the operation. It had only been a month since the plant officially opened. He had trained for it and even helped build it, but no one here had ever seen such a collection of machinery before.

To make the situation worse, his training had been narrowly focused on the job of repairman he'd been originally hired on for, not the more general training a supervisor should get. Neither he nor the plant management had expected him to become a foreman almost as soon as he started. That was another effect of the influenza that was ravaging the city. The original foreman had been a much older man. He'd died from the disease just three weeks ago.

Everything looked good, though, so far as Thorsten could tell. He was about to head inside when he heard a faint high-pitched whistle. That was odd, he thought. The wind didn't seem strong enough for that.

But, not seeing anything amiss, he went into his office to catch up on his paperwork. With all the men out sick because of the influenza, the work records were more of a tangle than usual.

A couple of hours later, one of the workmen came into the office. That was Eric Krenz, who served the night shift as its crane operator. Since they still didn't have a full-time repairman on night shift, he also helped Thorsten in that capacity. Both single men in their mid-twenties, they'd become quite good friends in the short time since they'd started working together.

"Something's wrong, Thorsten," Krenz said. "The street lamps seem to be going out."

Thorsten quickly went outside. The lights were indeed dimming. Those farther away from the plant were already out.

"Shit. There'll be a lot of pissed people soon. Did we run out of gas?"

"I don't think so," said Eric. "It's only been two or three hours since we started this batch. I don't know what's going on."

Engler decided to start at the beginning, with the coal loading operation. That was being handled by Robert Stiteler these past few days. Stiteler was an Alsatian, one of the many immigrants who'd arrived in Magdeburg over the past year. He normally helped Krenz operate the steam-powered crane that moved the kegs containing the coal tar products and ammonia water. But with so many of the men off sick, he'd agreed to handle loading the coal instead. It was back-breaking work, using a shovel instead of a steam crane, but he'd done a fine job with it. He'd kept the coal going in and the coke going out, which was what mattered.

When Engler appeared in the furnace room, with Krenz in tow, Stiteler broke off from his work and leaned his shovel against one of the stanchions that supported the furnace room's walls and roof. As a safety measure, the stanchion was much thicker and sturdier than it really needed to be. The furnace "room" was really a big shed, with walls and a roof made of thin planks just thick enough to handle rain and snow.

"Evening, Thorsten," he said pleasantly. As was true of the most of the men working in the plant—anywhere in Magdeburg—the Alsatian immigrant had quickly adopted the informality favored in work places by the American up-timers. All the more so since the Committees of Correspondence who were almost a separate, informal government in the capital city insisted on it as a matter of principle. They had members everywhere, especially in the ranks of the industrial workers and their unions. Thorsten wasn't a member of the CoCs himself, simply because he'd been too busy for the meetings involved. But his friend Eric Krenz belonged, as did perhaps a fourth of the workmen in the plant.

"Evening, Robert," he said, trying to be just as pleasant but wanting to get on to the problem at hand. Normally, he would have taken the time to chat idly with Stiteler for a minute or two, just to give the man a legitimate excuse to take a rest from the grueling labor of shoveling coal down the chute into the retorts. "We seem to be losing gas somewhere along the way. Are you having any problems?"

Stiteler shook his head. "No, nothing."

Thorsten inspected the furnace, which seemed fine. Then he headed toward the gas main.

Stumbling over something, he looked down. There was a grate lying on the floor, which he hadn't spotted before because it was half-covered in the coal dust that was spread over much of room. Frowning, Thorsten looked over at the furnace again and noticed for the first time that the grate that should have been located on the coal chute was missing. Instead, the opening for the grate seemed to be covered with something solid, from what little of it Thorsten could see because of the coal dust.

He looked back down at the object he'd stumbled over. "Robert, what is this grate doing here? And what have you got covering the hole it was on?"

Stiteler had gone back to shoveling, but now looked over. "Oh, that damned thing. I took it off two days ago and replaced it with some wood. It kept getting fouled with the smaller pieces of coal. Made it hard to shovel the coal in, because it kept catching the blade. This way works much better."

Engler hissed in a breath. "Robert, it's supposed to get fouled. You don't want the fine pieces . . ."

Robert was frowning at him. "Why? What's the matter?"

Truth be told, Engler wasn't sure himself why the grate was important. But he had a vague memory of one of the up-time engineers who'd designed the plant telling him that it was. If he remembered correctly, the function of the grate was to make sure that only the larger chunks of coal got into the furnace itself. If you let the coal pieces that were too fine into the furnace, especially the dust . . . 

He couldn't remember what would happen. The foreman's training he'd gotten—all half a day of it—had been too quick and hurried for him to remember a lot of what he'd been told. But it was certainly nothing good.

"Put the grate back on," he ordered, "and don't take it off again."

Moving more urgently now, he began moving down the main, inspecting the big pipe. Eric Krenz came with him.

"The main looks wrong," Thorsten said. "See, Eric?"

Krenz nodded. "The pipe should be entirely red hot, but only the top half seems red. It stops at the bend."

There was a loud crack from inside the furnace, the sound of metal breaking.

"What was that?" half-shouted Stiteler, stumbling back and almost dropping his shovel.

"I don't know," Thorsten replied. "I've never seen something like this." He began to smell smoke. "Smoke?"

"Look, Thorsten!" said Eric. "There's your smoke!"

Sure enough. Smoke was starting to pour out of one of the short smokestacks next to the furnace.

Understanding came instantly to Thorsten. "One of the retorts must have broken, and the coal has caught fire. But why?"

He looked again at the gas main, thinking quickly. With the grate removed, small pieces of coal—a lot of it nothing more than dust—would have . . . 

He wasn't sure. But with the inside of the gas main lined with coal tar, as it inevitably became . . . and as gummy as that stuff was . . . he had a bad feeling that the coal dust would have started piling up in there, constricting the main.

"There has to be a blockage," he stated firmly. "Quick, turn the gas off!"

"If the coal has caught fire in there," said Eric, "that won't do any good. We can't put that out."

Thorsten wavered for a second. He wanted to handle this problem himself, but not bringing the fire under control could be disastrous. "Yes, you're right. Run over and get the fire brigade now!"


"Please get these messages out ASAP," Mike Stearns said, handing the radio operator a sheaf of papers. "And let me know if any of the messages are not acknowledged."

"Yes, sir," the operator said. "Conditions seem pretty good tonight. I'll encrypt them and get them out. Any special priorities?"

"Not really. But send the one to my wife first, please. And make sure the one to Colonel Wood gets through. I'd like him up here tomorrow, if it's at all possible."

Mike turned and walked out of the room. The Marine on guard outside stood at attention as he walked by, and nodded in response to Mike's "good night." He was leaving the building when he heard a bell ringing in the distance and the clattering of horses. By the time he was at the entrance to the USE government's main building—the Hans Richter Palace, to use its official name, although most people just called it "Government House"—a dozen Marines and sailors had come out of the nearby barracks, apparently curious about what was going on.

Almost immediately, they heard the horses slow and then stop. Realizing it was close, Mike said "Let's go, guys." With his impromptu military escort, he headed toward the commotion at a brisk walk.


Thomas Kruz, Chief of the First Fire Brigade in Magdeburg, had been playing cards with several of his men when the runner arrived with the news. His men knew their jobs, and they'd quickly hitched their horses to the fire wagon and ridden out into the night. The wagon was new, a first-of-its-kind steam pump fire wagon, and he was proud of it. He and his men had trained with it over and over, until they could operate it in their sleep. He was sure beyond any doubt they were prepared for a fire.

Within a couple of minutes, they had reached the coal gas plant. When they arrived, they saw thick black smoke rising from one of the smokestacks. The snow falling everywhere else turned into steam before it struck the furnace. But, fortunately, there were no flames, no exposed fire, nothing that really screamed Emergency!

He saw someone running towards him. As he got closer, Kruz recognized the night shift foreman, Thorsten Engler. As it happened, they were neighbors.

"There's a fire in the furnace, Thomas," Thorsten said, "and we can't put it out. It could destroy the furnace."

Chief Kruz had toured the coal gas plant, several times, since a fire here was one of his biggest fears. Still, he really didn't know much more about it than most people did—including, unfortunately, most of the people working in the plant itself. The drive to expand industry in Magdeburg in response to the war with the League of Ostend was forcing people to take shortcuts and use makeshifts everywhere. His fire crew was actually quite exceptional in having had the time to be trained properly. Most of the factories in the city were being run by half-trained people, with foremen who often had little more training than the men they supervised.

Quickly, he looked toward the area of the plant where the vats of pitch and other flammable materials were stored. But they seemed to be safe, not being very close to the furnace. He breathed a sigh of relief that his worst fears were not realized.

"What's the problem, Thorsten?"

"I'm not sure. But I think the gas main is blocked and the gases are backing up into the furnace. It's starting to break on the inside."

"Show me where it's blocked."

Kruz followed Engler into the furnace room. Once inside, they walked around to the other side of the furnace, and Thorsten pointed out a big wrought iron tube, the upper half of it glowing red against the dim light. "You see? That's the main. It's got to be clogged. The gasses are backing up into the furnace."

The fire chief wasn't sure what to do. He'd been trained to deal with open fires, flames. This . . . 

"What can we do to help, Thorsten?"

Engler ran fingers through his thick black hair. "We have to stop the fire and cool the furnace, before there is any more damage. This plant is providing gas to light the street, to heat and run several factories here. It is important!"

"Yes, fine, but what's the best way to do that? Thorsten, we can't pump water over the furnace, because we can't keep it from hitting those metal doors." He pointed at the doors to the retorts which, like the gas main, were glowing dull red with heat. "The water could well cause them to crack."

Exasperated, Engler shook his head. "You're right. And it wouldn't put out the fire inside the furnace anyway. We have to put that out first and let things cool down."

They hurried back around to the front, where the smoke from the left smokestack was, if anything, increasing. One of the plant workers was already there. Another of Kruz's neighbors, as it happened, the crane operator Eric Krenz.

"There! The air is drawn into the furnace over there!" Krenz was pointing to a smokestack on the right. His finger moved over. "And the smoke is coming out there. We change the direction every ten minutes. We need to pump water in both."

Finally having clear directions, Kruz nodded vigorously. "You three, set up the pump," the chief instructed his men. "You two, run a canvas hose down to the river. We'll pump water from there."

He looked over the situation. Pumping water there seemed reasonable. It wouldn't hurt to try. "That furnace is very hot. Stand well back!"

Within three minutes, his men had set up the pump, attached a hose from the river and two hoses to the pump, and had the steam engine up to heat.

By now, a small crowd had gathered outside the plant, and were watching them. Kruz took a quiet pride at how his fire crew was holding up under pressure. Two men were holding each fire hose, one was stationed at the river to control the hose there, and another man reported to the Chief: "We're ready."

"Start up the pump," Kruz directed.


The Marine sergeant at Mike's side leaned over toward him. "Is there anything you want us to do, Mr. Pres—ah, I mean, Prime Minister?"

Mike had to fight down a little smile. The sergeant was an up-timer, and like most such was still getting used to peculiar "foreign" titles like prime minister instead of the familiar president. Not surprising, of course. The United States of Europe had been in existence for less than three months.

"No, Sergeant. The firemen are here and they seem to know what they're doing. We'd just be getting in their way."

He almost ordered everyone to go back to the barracks, but . . . 

Didn't. The problem was that Mike knew full well just how desperately undertrained most people were in Magdeburg's new industrial plants. The capital of the new USE was also rapidly becoming both its largest city and its major manufacturing center. Those were both developments that Mike was encouraging every way he possibly could. Grantville was simply too small and too isolated in the Thuringian hills to serve as the center for the new society coming into existence in central Europe. Nor, even if its location had been better, could it ever grow very big because of the surrounding terrain.

He'd been very cold-blooded about it all, willing to accept the risks for the benefits. However diplomatic he might be, most times, and however much he was willing to tack and veer in the requisite political maneuvers, Mike never lost sight for a moment of the fact that what he was really doing was organizing a revolution. And one of the lessons he'd taken from the voracious reading of history he'd been doing since the Ring of Fire—with advice from Melissa Mailey and his wife Rebecca, who read even more extensively than he did—was that revolutions were greatly assisted by having a big capital city that doubled as a nation's industrial center. The role that, in other revolutions in another universe, had been played by cities like Paris and "Red Berlin" and St. Petersburg, Mike intended to be played in this one by Magdeburg.

But nothing came free, and the price they paid for that explosive growth was inevitable. Everything and everybody was stretched very thin, and they weren't so much cutting corners as lopping them off with an ax. With his own extensive experience in coal mining and stevedoring, Mike knew full well just how dangerous that could be.

So, he decided to stick around for a bit. True enough, the firemen seemed to know what they were doing. However, that could simply mean that they were efficiently going about their work, but the work itself wasn't what they should be doing.

It was hard to know. The sight in front of him, mostly in darkness with a soft snowfall obscuring everything still further, was a pretty good summary of the whole situation in Europe as the year 1633 came to a close.


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