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1635 The Dreeson Incident: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Friday, October 3, 2008 21:35 EDT




November 1634

Sublimed with mineral fury


    “When you agreed to delay the national election, Prime Minister,” said Francisco Nasi, “I think you played into Wilhelm Wettin’s hands. We would have done better to insist on the earliest election possible.”

    Frank Jackson, sitting in another chair in Mike Stearns’ office, nodded his head. “He’s right, Mike. I told you at the time that coming right off our victory at Ahrensbök would be the best time to have the election. Instead, you gave Wettin months to start working on peoples’ fears and insecurities again. Months, dammit. Now, Ahrensbök is half a year in the past. These days, that’s not much different from a decade. Nobody remembers.”

    Being one of Mike’s oldest and closest friends, Frank was blunter and cruder than Francisco would have been. But everything he said was true, in Nasi’s opinion.

    Stearns simply looked patient. Almost serene, even.

    “And I told both of you at the time—I was right then, and I’m right now—that you were missing the forest for the trees. Sure, I know that a lot of people straddling the fence, and even some of Wettin’s supporters, think I make a better war president that he will. Who knows? If I’d pushed it, and insisted on a quick election, we might even have won. Gotten a big enough plurality, anyway, and then we could have formed a coalition government with one or another of the smaller parties.” Mike smiled thinly. “Now that would’ve been a barrel of laughs, wouldn’t it? Spend half our waking hours squabbling over crossing t’s and dotting i’s.”

    Nasi couldn’t help but wince. None of the small political parties in the USE was inclined in the least toward political practicality and they all viewed the term “compromise” as being a synonym for “treason.”

    That was one of the reasons they were small, of course.

    He looked out the window. Since he wasn’t sitting near it and the Prime Minister’s office was in the palace’s top floor, there was nothing to see but sky.

    Gray sky. What you’d expect, of course, in November. That dull, sullen, somber month. The battle of Ahrensbök, where the USE army under Torstensson’s command had won its great victory over the French, had taken place in May.

    Bright, sunny, cheerful May. As Frank Jackson said, though, that might as well have been a decade in the past. In the six months since, Wilhelm Wettin and his Crown Loyalist party—coalition, rather; as a “party” the CLs were ramshackle—had spent every waking hour working on every fear and doubt and insecurity that any German might have concerning Mike Stearns and his Fourth of July Party—which was also a coalition, being honest, if not as ramshackle—and their supposed “radicalism.”

    Well. His actual radicalism, in the case of Stearns himself if not every member of his party. By the standards of the seventeenth century, certainly.

    The end result…

    Stearns said it aloud. “Look, guys, face it. We’re going to lose the election. I’ve always known we would”—here he leaned forward in his chair and his tone hardened—“just as I knew at the time that winning the election by taking advantage of Ahrensbök would be a fool’s paradise. Once the glow wore off, the fact is that the majority of people in the United States of Europe simply aren’t ready—not yet—for my political program. And a politician who tries to obtain office for any reason other than carrying through his program is either a scoundrel or a fool. Often enough, both.”

    He leaned back in his seat and clasped his hands over his belly. It was a belly which was perhaps a bit larger than the one he’d carried into the office of Prime Minister a little over a year ago, but not much. Even with his incredibly heavy work load, Stearns always managed to exercise for at least a half hour each day.

    “Here’s what would have happened,” he continued. “At best. We might have won, although we’d almost certainly not have won an outright majority. That means a government that can’t rule very effectively. Then, squabbling and bickering all the while, we’d have tried to shove a program down the throats of a nation that really wasn’t ready for it. Not enough of its people, at any rate. The result? Sooner or later, Wilhelm forces a vote of confidence, there’s another election, and we’re out and he’s in anyway. Only, this time, after having discredited ourselves.”

     He unclasped his hands and sat up straight again. “No, gentlemen, there are times when taking the high road is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. So we lose an election. Big deal. In the meantime—swords have two edges, don’t forget—we’ve been able to take advantage of this long election campaign to solidify our own political base and clarify our own political program. You both know as well as I do what the realities are in the seventeenth century, when it comes to political activity. Most people are farmers and they work like dogs nine months out of the year. They have very little time for politics, and when they do they just want to get something done, not sit around and jabber. That means that winter is the only time of year you can talk to most people about politics—not to mention listen to them—and really hammer out a solid program that your electorate understands. Politics is education, before it’s anything else.”

    Frank Jackson’s scowl had never left his face. By temperament, Jackson was simply not given to patient explanation and elucidation.

    Nasi looked at the window again. Neither was he, really. But at least he could understand clearly what Stearns was saying.

    And… the man might very well be right, after all. If there was one thing Francisco Nasi had learned very thoroughly in the many months since he’d become the head of USE intelligence and one of the Prime Minister’s closest advisers, it was not to underestimate the political acumen and shrewdness of Mike Stearns. A “radical,” the man might be—well, surely was—but he did not have a trace of the airy impracticality of so many political radicals.



    “I did not bring up the matter to thrash a dead horse, Michael,” Francisco said mildly. “Whether you were right or not, we may never know. What we do know—can be almost certain about, anyway—is that come February 22nd the Crown Loyalists will win the election. On a national level. Not in every province, of course.”

    Frank shook his head. “Christ, that’s not much more than two months from now.”

    “Well, that’s the day the election happens,” said Nasi, shrugging. “But in a country as big as the USE, and with the facilities we have available, it will take several weeks for the results to come in and be tabulated. We’re not living in your old United States of America up-time where the winner of a national election was usually known by the following day. I don’t expect a winner in our upcoming election to be definitely announced until mid-March. Then, given the realities of travel in the here and now, I can’t see any realistic way the change in government can happen before June.”

    “True enough,” said Mike. “Even in the late twentieth century, it took us two and a half months to go from a presidential election to inauguration day. When the republic was first founded, the time between election and inauguration was four months. We’ll actually be doing quite well if we can inaugurate a new government less than four months after an election on February 22nd.”

    “How sure are you, Francisco?” asked Frank. “It’s not as if we have the kind of polling capabilities that we Americans had up-time.”

    “No. But the methods and techniques we do have available are not so bad. Not when the results are going to be so lopsided.”

    “What’s your estimate?” Mike asked.

    “We will win no more than forty percent of the vote. Perhaps as little as one-third, although not any less. Wettin’s party will win a majority. Not much of a majority—somewhere in the low fifty percentile range—but a clear majority. All the small parties put together will get somewhere between five and ten percent of the vote. Most of those votes, however, will be concentrated in a few provinces.”

    Mike simply nodded. “That’s about what I figure, too, just using my own stick-my-thumb-in-the-wind hunches. How about our strongholds?”

    “Well, that’s the good news. The same strident campaign being waged by the Crown Loyalists that is stirring up fears and uncertainties in most of the provinces is having the opposite effect in regions where we are solidly rooted. It’s just making our supporters angry.”

    Nasi glanced down at his notes. That was just ingrained reflex. By now, he could have recited all of that material in his sleep.

    “The State of Thuringia-Franconia is solid as the proverbial rock. Whatever shakiness might have existed in Thuringia is being offset—more than offset—by the continuing political ramifications of the Ram Rebellion in Franconia.”

    “Ableidinger?” asked Mike, referring to the man generally considered to have been the Ram Rebellion’s principal leader. Even its “mastermind,” according to those hostilely inclined.

    “He’ll run for a seat in the USE Congress from the SoTF. There’s not much doubt in my mind or anyone else’s that he’ll win by a landslide.”

    “About what I figured. And Magdeburg province is probably even more solid than the SoTF. It doesn’t have as big a population, of course, but it’s still one of the bigger provinces in the USE. So we’ll have very solid bases in at least two of the major provinces. And three imperial cities, at least: Magdeburg itself, of course, along with Hamburg and Luebeck.”

    Jackson looked a bit skeptical. “Are you sure about Magdeburg? The city, I mean. Otto Gericke’s the mayor, which means he’ll be sitting in the Senate for it, thanks to these idiot rules we set up. He’s always struck me as pretty stodgy.”

    “We didn’t ‘set up’ those idiot rules, Frank,” Mike said mildly. “We grudgingly agreed to them in the course of a three-way compromise between us and Wettin and the emperor—with the understanding that if we won the election one of the things we’d be pushing for was broadening the Senate and making it more democratic.”

    The USE’s Senate was a peculiar institution, as things presently stood. Something of a cross between a “senate” as normally understood—by Americans, at any rate—and a House of Lords. Each province and imperial city got one seat in the Senate, but the seat had to be taken by whoever was that province or city’s “head of state.” That meant, for instance, that Ed Piazza sat in the national Senate by virtue of having been elected president of the State of Thuringia-Franconia. But, of course, since most of the provincial heads of state in the USE were hereditary positions, that meant the Senate was a heavily aristocratic institution.

    Just to add the icing to the cake—and the cherry—there was the charming twist that Gustav II Adolf, in addition to being the emperor of the United States of Europe, was also two of its senators. Two, not one. He was officially the heads of state of both Pomerania and Mecklenburg, having appointed himself the duke of both provinces when he conquered them.

    “As for Otto,” Mike continued, “in some ways, he is pretty stodgy. All other things being equal, he’d normally be more inclined toward the Crown Loyalists. But all thing are not equal, not even close. First and foremost, Otto’s an architect and he positively adores this city, now that Gustav Adolf gave him free rein to build it up as he likes.”


    Francisco and Mike chuckled simultaneously. “Hell, figure it out, Frank. Magdeburg was sacked less than five years ago. It was only rebuilt this quickly because of us. And who do you think Otto has the most confidence will keep it from being sacked again? Us—or that feckless pack of squabbling noblemen and guildmasters around Wilhelm Wettin? The same people who didn’t do squat to protect the city last time around.”

    Mike swiveled his chair and hazed out the window. “Have you given any thought to your own situation, after the election, Francisco?”

    “Yes, of course.” Nasi hesitated, then chuckled. “Amazingly, though—I am hardly what you’d call indecisive, as a rule—I haven’t been able to come to any conclusions.”

    Mike smiled, still looking out the window. “Hard to give it up, isn’t it?”

    “Excuse me?”

    “Power. Influence.” Stearns waggled his hand. “And—at least for people like you and me—I think what’s probably even harder is giving up the game itself.”

    He swiveled his chair around. “Fortunately, however, the game itself is one thing the loser in an election does not have to concede. Keep in mind, though, that all this may be irrelevant in your case. Wilhelm may want to keep you on in your current position.”

    Francisco shook his head. “You don’t really believe that. I certainly don’t. And it doesn’t matter, in any event. Even if Wettin offered to retain me in my current post, I would decline.”


    Nasi looked at Stearns squarely. “It is perhaps finally time to say this aloud. I have become quite loyal to you, Michael. Even to your political program, although most of my allegiance is personal. I would find it difficult—impossible, really—to serve Wilhelm Wettin in this same capacity. I don’t dislike the man. I don’t even distrust him, within limits. He’s simply… not you.”

    Jackson grinned. “He has that effect on people, doesn’t he?” He hooked a thumb at Stearns. “It’s why I soldiered on as his secretary-treasurer after he got elected president of our mine local.”

    “Well, thanks,” Mike said. “But you don’t need to feel any obligation, Francisco.”

    Nasi laughed. “’Obligation’ is not really the word. The truth is, I enjoy working for you. First, because I’ve discovered that I am quite good at this work. Secondly, because I’ve eventually concluded—quite to my surprise—that I think the work itself is worth doing. No small leap of faith, that, I assure you. Not for a man like me, raised in the environs of the Ottoman court.”

    Mike smiled. “It must have been a switch, going from a prospective courtier in the Turkish empire to the spymaster of a rabble-rouser.”

    “Yes. On the other hand, it’s a lot less dangerous.”

    Jackson looked startled. “Since when is being a rabble-rouser less dangerous than being part of the establishment?”

    “When the establishment in question is that of Istanbul, a lot safer,” said Nasi. “I hate to think what percentage of the sultan’s advisers wind up at the bottom of the sea with a garrote around their neck. The odds of surviving are no better than our odds in the upcoming election—and no one expects us to actually lose our heads as a result.”

    “No—but it’s not a possibility to overlook, either,” said Mike. “In this day and age, politics is very much a contact sport. About the only difference here in the USE is that we wear gloves. It can still get very rough.”



    Mike sat erect and leaned over the desk, planting his hands in front of him. “Francisco, I think we need to give some consideration to your safety. After the election, I mean, when you’re back to being a private citizen.”

    It was Nasi’s turn to look startled. He hadn’t really considered that matter, he realized.

    “You’ve made enemies in your position,” Mike continued. “And what’s worse, some of them are not what you’d call casual enemies.”

    “Well… yes. But so have you, Michael.” He nodded at Jackson. “Even Frank, for that matter.”

    Jackson snorted. “Big deal. I’m in the army. I’ve got soldiers around me every day. Very well armed soldiers. As for Mike…”

    He snorted again. “First, as long as he stays in Magdeburg, he’s got Gunther Achterhof’s CoC people watching over him. You know what they’re like.”

    Gunther Achterhof was perhaps the most ruthless of all the CoC leaders—which was saying something, in an organization that had Gretchen Richter as one of its leaders. He more or less ran the Committee of Correspondence in the USE’s capital city, and he had what you might call “pro-active” notions when it came to security issues. That there were enemies spies in Magdeburg, no one doubted. What no one also doubted was that those spies worked very, very, very carefully—and stayed well away from any activities which the city’s CoC might perceive as a direct threat to its people or those they supported.

    Mike stirred in his chair. “I probably won’t be staying in Magdeburg, though. I’m almost certain, by now, that once I lose the election Gustav Adolf is going to ask me to become a general in the army.”

    Frank shook his head. “That still seems just plain nuts to me. Meaning no offense, old buddy, but you’ve got as many qualifications to be an army general as I do to be a brain surgeon. Zip. You served exactly three years in the army, back up-time—as a grunt. That’s it.”

    But Nasi agreed with Mike’s estimate. “It doesn’t matter, Frank. You even have the same tradition in your own history, if you go back far enough.”


    Francisco still found it amazing how many Americans—even otherwise intelligent ones like Jackson, holding important positions—knew practically nothing even of their own nation’s history. Much less the history of the rest of the world.

    Mike provided the explanation. “In the twentieth century, generals in the American army were almost all professional soldiers. But if you go back to the Civil War, Frank, you’ll find that Abe Lincoln appointed lots of civilians to generalships. In some cases, men with no military experience at all. The most famous is probably Ben Butler. He had a post as an officer in one of the state militias, but that didn’t mean squat in military terms. He just got the post because he was a prominent politician. When the war started, Lincoln made him a major general in the U.S. Army.”

    “In God’s name, why?”

    Mike shrugged. “Pretty much the same reason that Gustav Adolf is going to offer me a position as general. Ben Butler was a very prominent Democrat, but one who stuck with the North when the South seceded. He supported Lincoln’s prosecution of the war. So Lincoln made him a general.”

    “You could refuse,” pointed out Nasi. “You even have a good excuse, since you’ll be the leader of the opposition.”

    “It’d be stupid for me to do that. If we were in peacetime, yes. But we’re going to be at war again next summer. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. Gustav Adolf is coldly furious with Saxony and Brandenburg and come hell or high water he’s going to bring them to heel for their treachery in the Baltic War. They’ll put up a fight and he’ll overrun them.”

    For the first time, Mike’s placid countenance became somber. “Mind you, if I thought I could persuade the emperor to leave it at that, I’d stay a civilian. But I don’t. The Poles and the Austrians are bound to come in on the other side. In and of itself, that wouldn’t be a problem. But Gustav Adolf thinks—and so do I—that he’s going to hammer all of them on the battlefield. And that being so, unfortunately, I’m almost certain he’s going to try to conquer Poland itself. Big chunks of it, anyway. And then all hell’s going to break loose. A smallish and self-contained war—really, more in the way of suppressing a rebellion—is going to turn into an ongoing nightmare. Gustav Adolf is simply biting off more than he can chew, even if he won’t accept the fact.”

    Jackson looked at Nasi. “You agree with him?”

    “Oh, yes. On both counts. First, that the emperor will make the mistake of turning the war into a full-scale war with Poland. Second, that the Polish resistance will be ferocious.” He made a face. “Unfortunately, the Poles are so feckless in their politics that people tend to forget what they’re like on the battlefield. Especially when they have a Grand Hetman with the military skills of Stanislaw Koniecpolski.”

    Jackson looked back at Stearns. “All the more reason, that would seem to me, to stay the hell out of it.”

    Mike spread his hands. “I can’t, Frank. Agree with the emperor or disagree with him, it doesn’t matter. If I was just a private citizen, it’d be different. But I’m not. I’m trying to lead a revolution—all across Europe, not just here. Under the circumstances, if Gustav Adolf offers me a post as general in the army on the eve of a new major war for the USE and I refuse, I’ll just marginalize myself politically. Besides…”

    He paused, for a moment. “Being cold-blooded about it, I expect Wilhelm to screw up as the new Prime Minister. Screw up badly, in fact. On his own, he might not. But he’s made too many promises and owes too many favors to too many people, many of whom are stone reactionaries and dumber than bricks. So I think there’s likely to be some real political explosions after he takes office. Which, being blunt about it, is fine with me—especially if I’m not around where people can try to force me to play fireman.”

    “Oh.” Frank pursed his lips. “To put it another way, you figure the CoCs are going to be running amok sooner or later, and you’d just as soon not be around when they do.”

    “Not… exactly. I want to be close enough—hopefully—to be able to guide the thing a bit. Turn an explosion into a shaped charge, you might say. But, yes, not so close that Gustav Adolf or anybody else can expect me to squelch anything right away.” He leaned back, his complacent expression returning. “I figure a military camp somewhere on the Polish border is about right.”

    Frank shook his head. “God, you’re a scheming bastard.”

    Mike smiled. “Speaking of which—to get back to the topic—even assuming I leave Magdeburg, I’ll still have plenty of protection. And it won’t just be ‘well-armed soldiers’ in the abstract. I’m quite sure I can get Gustav Adolf to let me bring all the Warders into the army with me, as… oh, we’ll call them some sort of ‘special unit,’ just like we do with Harry Lefferts and his wrecking crew. But what they’ll actually be is my bodyguards.”

    He swiveled the chair to face Nasi squarely. “None of which will apply to you, Francisco. Not if you leave Magdeburg, at any rate—which I imagine you’d like to be able to do, at least from time to time.”

    “Actually, I’ve been thinking of moving to Prague. Leaving the USE altogether.”

    “Why?” asked Frank.

    “Various reasons. Some of them, purely personal.” Francisco hesitated. But… these two men were good friends, in addition to everything else. “If nothing else, I am getting to the age where I need to get married. And where better to look for a wife than Prague? It has the largest Jewish community in Europe—probably the whole world—and, even better for me, its most cosmopolitan and sophisticated. Well, except for, in some ways, the Jewry of Istanbul. But I think the Ottoman Empire is now too dangerous for me.”

    “Okay, I can see that. You’ll need a real bodyguard, then.”

    Nasi winced. “Please, Frank! The nature of my work—which I will certainly continue, even in Prague, even as a private citizen—does not lend itself well to having great hulking brutes shuffling along after me.”

    Mike laughed. “God, the Warders would love to hear that description of them!”

    “Oh, I admit the Warders are different. But how many bodyguards of that caliber are available?”

    “Warders, none,” said Frank. “But I have somebody who’d probably suit you even better.”

    Nasi cocked an eye at him.

    “Cory Joe Lang,” said Jackson. “Know the fellow?”

    “His name, yes. I don’t believe I’ve ever met him, though. He’s one of the military intelligence people attached to your… ah…”

    “Special unit,” supplied Frank, smiling. “Which means, among other things, that I can assign him to do pretty much anything, anywhere, for any length of time—and neither General Torstensson nor anyone else is going to ask me any questions or raise any objections.”

    Francisco thought about it. It was certainly true that having a man familiar with intelligence work as a bodyguard would solve some of the problems involved. On the other hand, “intelligence work” covered a lot of ground. For all practical purposes, most “spies” were really just clerks. In many cases, what the Americans would call “outright geeks.” Hardly suitable for the possible ramifications of the job of being a bodyguard.

    “Ah… that would leave the issue of this Cory Joe Lang’s… ah…”

    “Physical qualifications?” said Frank, grinning. “Don’t worry about it.”

    Stearns was back to his very comfortable, slouched-back-in-his-chair, hands-clasped-over-his-belly posture. “Yeah,” he said. “Really don’t worry about it.”

    Francisco looked from one to the other. “What are you not telling me?”

    “Let’s put it this way. Harry Lefferts was known to say that the one man in or around Grantville he’d cross the street to avoid getting into a fight with was Cory Joe Lang. Not—he’d always add this, right off—that he and Cory Joe didn’t get along just fine so it was all a moot point anyway.”

    “Ah.” Nasi reviewed what he knew of the record of Harry Lefferts. Which was a great deal.

    The very sanguinary record.

    “Ah,” he repeated. “Yes, that should work quite nicely.”

    Frank nodded. “I’ll give him his new marching orders in a few days, when he comes back to Magdeburg. Right now, he’s in Grantville.”



    The down-time lieutenant in the tavern was petrified. His face, literally, as pale as a sheet.

    "Look, Cory Joe, I'm sorry. I didn't know -"

    The man sitting across from him at the table in the Thuringen Gardens nodded. "Yeah, I understand. Different last names. My last name 'Lang' comes from my dad. 'Hardesty' is my mother's maiden name, and it's the one she goes by these days."

    Lang raised one hand and, with the other, began counting off the fingers. As he did so - as surreptitiously as possible - the other three young officers at the table began sliding their chairs back. If Cory Joe's fury cut loose, they wanted to be as far as possible from the coming victim.

    "I'll explain the family relationships involved, just so you're not confused any longer. I'm the oldest of Velma Hardesty's kids. Born on January 14, 1979, up-time calendar." The first finger was counted off.

    All the more so because "fury" did not accurately describe the intelligence officer's likely behavior. There would be no insensate and unfocused explosion here. If ever there lived a man who exemplified the old American saw, don't get mad, get even, it was Cory Joe Lang. If he decided - and this seemed to be the direction things were going - to take Lt. Stammler's characterization of Velma Hardesty as a "whore" as a personal insult, then who could say how far he thought the insult extended? Perhaps the idiot Stammler's companions were guilty also.

    "She was only married to my dad for a year or so, before she broke it off," Lang continued. "Lucky for him. Then she screwed around for a few years with God knows how many guys. My half-sister Pam - she goes by 'Pam Hardesty,' not having much choice in the matter - was one of the byproducts. She was born on May 11, 1982, and she's the one outright bastard in the family. Nobody actually knows for sure who her father was. Including Velma. Might have been any one of several guys."

    The second finger was counted off. Throughout, Cory Joe's tone had remained as level and even as an iron bar. Lt. Stammler's face somehow managed to get paler still; his three fellows slid their chairs back just a little farther.

    "Eventually, though, she got married again. To a logger - poor stupid fuck must have dropped one on his own head - by the name of Carney Logsden. That didn't last much longer than her marriage to my dad, but it did last long enough to produce my other two half-sisters, Tina and Susan."

    Two more fingers were counted off, leaving only the thumb sticking up. It wasn't a particularly large thumb, as these things go. But Cory Joe Lang's reputation didn't stem from his size. He was perhaps a bit larger and more muscular than average, but not extraordinarily so. His reputation stemmed from the fact that nobody sitting at that table had any trouble at all envisioning that thumb gouging out an eye or two. Or four or five. Wolverines aren't particularly large, either.

    "They both go - or went, in the case of Tina, since she's dead now - by the last name of 'Logsden.' That was probably true enough, in the case of Tina, but me and just about everybody else has their doubts whether it really applies to Susan. She's the youngest of Velma's kids - born on December 11, 1986, almost eight years younger'n me - and by then Velma was back to fucking everything in pants. 'Course, that probably started happening the day after Carney was dumb enough to marry her."

    He lowered the hand. "The point, though, is this." That calm, level, even tone was quite frightening to anyone who knew the man. "It's fair enough to call my mother a slut or a tramp or a roundheels. But 'whore'? Well, that's pushing it. At least, I've never heard anybody claim my mother took money to screw. Gifts, presents, anything like that, sure. She's about as avaricious as they get. But I think 'whore' goes beyond the pale."

    Lt. Stammler managed to choke out a few more words. "I apologize, Cory Joe. I didn't know - "

    "Yeah, sure. I know you didn't realize I was her son when you called her a whore, right in front of me. But so what? I mean, I really think a man owes it to himself to be a bit more careful how he uses words. 'Less he wants to wind up a cripple, or dead before his time."

    There was silence, for a moment. Then, Cory Joe leaned back in his seat a little. "Ah, hell, Fritz, you don't need to shit a brick. The truth is, I could care less personally. My dad raised me, not that worthless bitch. I've seen as little of my mother as I possibly could, my whole life. Happily for me, she returns the sentiment."

    Stammler swallowed. It seemed he would live to see another dawn. Perhaps even intact.

    Lang waved his hand. "It's my sisters. Okay, half-sisters. I don't see too much of them, but I like 'em. Nice girls. I always remember their birthdays, whatever else I screw up. And either one of them might get a little upset if they heard their mother casually referred to as a 'whore' in public by a drunk soldier - not that they'd really dispute the charge too strongly, anymore than I would - so I really feel obliged to discourage that sort of thing."

    "Never do it again!"

    There was silence, again, for a few seconds.

    "Well, okay, then. We'll leave at that. But you'd better not forget."

    "Never do it again."

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