1634: THE BALTIC WAR — snippet 5

 

1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 5:

 

 

            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, Thorsten,” 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 sheath 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 attached their horses to the fire wagon and rode 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.”

 

About Eric Flint

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