1636 The Kremlin Games – Snippet 04
Vladimir had been told that the Thuringen Gardens was a good place to relax and have a beer and he was feeling in need of both. The very large beer hall was crowded and noisy. Vladimir found himself a seat against one wall and waved to a waitress, then looked around again while he waited for his beer. At the next table was what appeared to be an up-timer somewhat in his cups. You couldn’t always tell. Many of the down-timers had adopted up-timer dress. But the fellow was muttering into his beer in English with the up-timer accent. Vladimir’s beer arrived, he paid and drank. It was good beer, substantial.
“I wish all this hadn’t happened,” the up-timer muttered.
“You wish what hadn’t happened?” Vladimir asked.
The up-timer looked at Vladimir a bit blearily, raised his mug and indicated the world around him with a sweeping motion of his hand. Unfortunately, about half the beer spilled. “Damn. Something else to wish hadn’t happened.”
Vladimir chuckled. “You should be more careful. The beer is good, and should not be wasted. It’s a bit, ah, high-priced to throw around the room.”
“No shit, Sherlock.” The up-timer snorted. “Oops. Sorry. I forget sometimes that I’m not back in the world. I guess I shouldn’t say things like that anymore. Somebody might take it the wrong way.”
No and shit were words Vladimir knew, though he could think of nothing offensive about “No shit.” The term “sherlock” was unknown to him. Perhaps it was the offensive party.
Vladimir stood up. “Might I join you at your table?” He walked the two feet that separated them. “I would like to know what ‘no shit, sherlock’ means. You Americans, you have such odd expressions. Another one I don’t understand is ‘a screw loose.’ How that is different from ‘being loose’ or ‘screwing around’?” Vladimir had spent some hours reading a novel yesterday, trying to gain a better understanding of the changes in English.
“Sure, join me.” The up-timer used a foot to move a chair out from under the table. “Have a seat. I’m Bernie Zeppi”
“I am Kniaz Vladimir Gorchakov of Muscovy,” Vladimir said, taking the vacant seat. Vladimir waved at the waitress and mimed his desire for a pitcher of beer. The waitress nodded.
“Is Kniaz your first name?” Bernie Zeppi asked, which told Vladimir that even in his cups the man was observant.
“No. Kniaz is a title. It can be translated into English as anything from a prince to a duke or perhaps a count, if the Englishman is being particularly rude.” Vladimir shrugged. “I am a relatively low-ranked kniaz. So, what did you mean by ‘all this’?”
“I mean all of it.” Bernie waved at the room, this time with the hand that didn’t contain a mug of beer. “The Ring of Fire, it killed my mom, gave me PTSD. I did my part. I was at the Crapper and Jena. But there’s too many mechanics for the private cars we have running. And I don’t want to sit in a factory, babying an old engine that’s been pulled to power it. No way I’m going to tie myself down into the Mechanical Support Division working for the government. So now I’m stuck on the work gangs, trying to get by.”
“You are not in your army?” Vladimir asked. “I thought most of the young men were in the army.”
“I told you I was at the Crapper and Jena. I’m in the reserves. I go if they call, but not until. I didn’t end up covered in glory like Jeff Higgins. Imagine a nerd like Jeff Higgins ending up a hero.” Bernie paused and shook his head “Not me, though. Just the breaks. They haven’t been running my way since the Ring of Fire.” Another pause. “What’s Muscovy? Your turn to answer a question.”
It was a question Vladimir had gotten before. “Russia, but most nations of western Europe don’t call it that yet.”
“So what are you doing in Grantville?”
“Spying.” Vladimir grinned.
“Are you supposed to tell people that?” Bernie grinned back. “I wouldn’t think an espionage agent would just walk up to someone and say ‘Hi, I’m a spy.'”
“Well, it saves time. Officially I’m a representative of the czar, here to determine if the stories about Grantville are true.” Vladimir grinned again without a thought. It came easily to him. “Everyone in Europe has spies in Grantville. I’m expecting spies from China to show up any day now.”
Bernie laughed. “Yeah, China. Why not? So, what vital secret are you trying to get out of me, Mr. Spy?”
“How many planets are in the solar system?”
“How many planets are there?”
“Why do you want to know that?” Bernie looked at Vladimir with puzzled face.
Vladimir took a sip of beer. “Do you know?”
“Well, yes. Nine, but so what? Everybody knows that.”
“I’m afraid not. What people outside of Grantville know, if they know anything, is that there are six.”
“Yes. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. And they only know that if they’re educated and not too conservative. Otherwise they think that the sun, the moon, and all the planets go around the earth on crystal spheres. Now that I have done my work for today, care for another beer?” Vladimir took up the recently delivered pitcher and poured Bernie a refill. “And after that, we can do tomorrow’s work, if you like. What are the names of the other three planets?”
“Gee, I don’t know, Vladimir.” Bernie smirked. “Well, I might know. But a beer isn’t going to buy that information. A sandwich might, though.”
Vladimir pondered something Zeppi had mentioned earlier. He cleared his throat. “I do not mean to be rude, but is this ‘PTSD’ a disease I need to worry about? What do you call it? — an ‘infectious disease,’ I believe.”
Bernie stared at him for a moment and then barked a little laugh. “No, you can relax. It’s not exactly a disease. More like a mental condition. The initials stand for ‘post-traumatic stress disorder.’ I got it at the battle of the Crapper.”
Vladimir considered that information for a moment. He knew enough English to make rough sense out of the expression, but the precise meaning still escaped him.
“You were badly injured?” he asked.
Zeppi drained his beer and set the mug down carefully. “No. It was the other way around. I’m a very good shot and it turns out I don’t freeze in combat like a lot of guys do.” His face was completely expressionless. “I killed a lot of men that day. At least five, probably more. I get flashbacks about it, still.”
The term “flashback” was unfamiliar, but Vladimir thought he understood the essence of the matter.
Interesting. It seemed there were some depths to the man not apparent at first glance.
Bernie wasn’t quite sure how it happened but by the end of the evening he had a part-time job. As a spy, no less. He did make it clear that he wouldn’t betray the folks in Grantville. That didn’t seem to be what interested the Russian spy, though.
Vladimir grinned at Boris’ expression or lack of one. “I know that he’s not a trained agent or in a particularly valuable position, but that’s all to the good.”
Boris looked at him, face blank.
“Yes, I want to send him to Russia,” Vladimir said. “And not just as proof the up-timers exist. That too, but I’ve been thinking.”
Boris’ face got even blanker, if that was possible.
“I can probably get copies of up-time books and pamphlets but translations are another matter. You speak English as well as anyone I know, Boris. How well have you done translating the language the up-timers speak to the English of our time? We want him for his up-time knowledge, Boris, not his abilities as a spy. And he’s not as stupid as he seems at first. Just undirected. Remember, these up-timers have their own time of troubles with the Ring of Fire. Bernie’s mother died on the day of the Battle of the Crapper for lack of up-time medicines. He’s having trouble adjusting to the strange new world he has been thrust into. Also, his life so far has been one of privilege. I know dozens of sons of great houses who are like him. Nothing they really need to do, so they play with their horses and their hawks and ignore the wider world. Bernie has his cars, his computer, and video games.”
Boris shook his head. “I don’t disapprove, Prince Vladimir. I realize that he has value. Just access to his computer is worth more than we are paying him. I take it you mean to stay here while I take Bernie back to Russia in your place.”
“That’s an interesting way of putting it,” Vladimir said. “But I mean it more as an example of why I have to stay here for a while. We’ve talked about this a bit, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I think I have come up with a plan that will help Russia and us.”
They talked it out, Boris’ part and the part that Vladimir expected his sister to play.