Loading Up, Part four.

Sepp had been busy during this time of speech, and as we turned to go to our next stop, he showed me something else, this with a clearly-visible grin. The roughly-spherical screw-and-nail studded item seemed an enigma, at least at first, as I could see a whitish ball of that less-smelly explosive at its center.

“Now if I was not so familiar with eggs,” said Sarah as she tried to puzzle out where I was leading our 'wagon train', “I would say he made a bad copy of a quoll's egg.”

“An egg with screws in it?” I asked. I did not mention the obvious 'dint' where the cap would normally go, and Sepp had otherwise been most thorough with both screws and nails. He'd found a sack of those smaller nails I had noticed, which permitted more of them to be used.

“That was why I named it a bad copy,” said Sarah – who then turned to Sepp. “I think we may wish more of those, unless we find these things that I've had dreams about somewhere in here.”

“Yes, and what are those?” asked Sepp.

“They look a bit like pears, or like something in this one picture we have at home,” said Sarah. “They're green with a black stripe about their middle, and they have this handle, much like that one bomb I put to Iggy's backside, only they're a good bit smaller than those things, and about half their weight – which is a good thing if one must toss them.”

Real squibs,” I muttered, as I recalled their mention. “I think those are next, dear – and we will need to teach Hans about those, as while they are a good bit safer than witch-jugs, they are also...”

“Those things were trouble,” said Sarah with vehemence. “One must toss them one's very hardest, then dive for the ground in a hurry lest one be scattered when they explode.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Just what I said,” said Sarah. “Only that thing we put to Jonas' field tossed its rocks further, and only what we used on Iggy's door was worse for noise – and I'm not sure if one of Willem's shells is as bad for splinters.” A pause, then, “that special powder he sometimes uses is probably worse if he stuffs them well, but a distance-shell is not an easy toss, and these are, at least for their weight.”

“So then I have a name for this egg I made up,” said Sepp.

“What will you call it?” asked Sarah.

“What put that hole in that man's field you spoke of was said to sound like lightning,” said Sepp, “and what blew up that moldable stone Iggy had for his door was worse than lightning hitting close-by, so I think these things made of that dough will be like thunder for their noise.” A swallow, followed by a cork's noise as it went back in a jug, then, “and then, I have gathered a lot of eggs, so I think these eggs will be thunder-eggs.”

“Or screwballs,” I said.

“Best be careful saying that to those people overseas,” said the soft voice. “That's an old word from the front-lines that's still in common use there – and if Sepp shows some of those people what he just made, he'll have a fight on his hands, as he just made one and they've been wanting those things for ever so long.”

Our feet had continued moving along the aisles, however, and as I closed in 'relentlessly' upon the first 'real squibs' I'd ever seen – those grenades I had tossed at Iggy weren't in the same class for either blast or lethality compared to these things, and I wasn't certain if there were devices of their potency where I came from – I could feel other matters in the general area, and I made notes as I found them. Two pallets west, three north, and we were in the middle of 'boom-town', as I wanted to call it.

This area had a lot of things that went 'boom', hence its 'name'.

“Best not say that name out loud,” I thought, as I reached for the top of an untouched-looking pallet stacked nearly as tall as my head. “This is one heavy box.”

I got it down to the floor successfully, however, and after carefully checking it for traps, I opened it with a soft and cushioned thumping noise. Inside the box, sectioned apart row and column by thin interlocking pieces of that 'good' hardboard, were twenty-five small globular devices of a deep and slightly mottled green, each with a black stripe about its midpoint; each with its small gold-toned ring; and each device possessing a conformally-shaped gray-green handle coming down perhaps an inch past that black stripe. Gingerly, I removed one by its upper portion, and Sepp's startled outburst nearly made me drop the thing in fright.

“Th-that looks just like a pear!” he shouted. “What is it?”

Trouble,” muttered Sarah. “It may look like a pear, but you do not wish to make it into bad brandy, or it will scatter you worse than four sticks of drippy mining dynamite gone smoky and brown.”

“What is this about pears?” yelled Katje. I could tell she was coming at the quickest speed she could prudently manage. I then noted the soft piece of cloth that had 'cushioned' the grenade in its cubicle, this having a fuzzy nap and a downy sensation, and I handed the piece of cloth to Sarah.

“I would not mind some of this cloth,” said Sarah – who then looked at it and muttered about the stuff being impossible to sew due to its loose weave.

“You'll need some unusual equipment to deal with that material,” said the soft voice. “It cannot be conventionally sewn, as it is closer to what comes out of coons than a conventional fabric.”

“And now, the instructions,” I said, as I gently replaced the 'pear' where I had removed it. The terms 'deadly' and 'destructive' didn't begin to do these things justice, as they made that one mortar shell seem weak and feeble if one made allowances for their respective sizes. These didn't need to stand the shock of firing, and hence their filling was a good deal 'hotter' – about as hot as could be used under less-controlled conditions, in fact. “This sheet here... Oh, the usual thing.”

“That is not the usual for those,” said Katje as she came up at a breathless run and nearly tripped over the box. “Good, I'm about due for some fruit, and those there look likely. What are they, wine-preserved pears?”

“They are not pears, Katje,” said Sarah. “They may look like pears, but they are not fruit – unless you are inclined to desire to sup with Brimstone in a great hurry.”

“Then I think I had best read what I can of them, if they are not as they seem to be,” said Katje – who then thought for a moment. “Are those things like what Sarah put to that lizard's bottom?”

“Remember what we heard about 'real squibs'?” I asked. “I think these are what was spoken of.”

Sarah turned about to her rear, then appeared to go chalk-white before speaking in a voice that seemed to reek of fear. “There's a whole stack of these things, one taller than my head and nearly as wide as I am tall, and each box has a twenty and a five of those things there in it.”

“Good,” said Katje – who sounded a trifle oblivious, or so it seemed. “Now are these fit for placing, or are they Tossers?”

“You'd best be in a good hole when you toss them,” I muttered, “as I think what Sarah was saying about these things being 'trouble' was the smell of that mule.” My voice went up an octave. “What? Fifty meter lethal radius?”

“They were a bit optimistic in their assessment of just how deadly those 'squibs' are, but they're a lot worse than you might think them to be.”

“Bad enough that you'd best... Are the pills we made worse?” This question was an honest one, as now I was 'getting the fear' regarding these particular grenades. That one witch-grenade that had tried to wreck the stairwell wished it could do as well as what I had been holding but a minute earlier.

“They are, and not a little worse,” said the soft voice. “The soldiers on the front lines liked these things, at least when they could toss them from cover.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because their fragments were both very numerous and very deadly,” said the soft voice, “and the blast, to put it mildly, was fully as bad as what Sarah implied.” A brief pause, then, “there weren't many 'Tossers' able to reliably 'drop' witch-soldiers wearing plate-type body armor, but this type of grenade was known for doing so if it detonated within five to ten paces of the smelly thug in question.”

“I know about that part,” said Sarah. “One wishes a hole fit for a large hare if one is going to toss these things, unless one can toss both long and fast.” Sarah then became quiet, for I was reading the instructions aloud.

“Usage and cautions... Do not allow grenade to activate and attempt to count before throwing... Toss grenade immediately after removing pin, and seek effectual cover....” I paused, then added, “inadequately debugged fusing?”

“Not with these things,” said the soft voice. “Recall the 'safety-first' mindset in the designers of this equipment? You're seeing it in black and white, as those writing the literature tossed their share of these things and some of them died in the process.”

“D-died?” I asked.

“They got some of their information from unusual sources,” said the soft voice, “and while that information may have worked with those devices, it was utter foolhardiness to attempt such techniques with these.”

I resumed reading, “or throw grenade from an area that provides substantial cover, then duck back into cover to avoid grenade-splinters....” I paused, then thought, “duh, these things might as well be something out of science fiction for how bad they are. They probably destroy buildings...”

“More than one 'Villa' was wrecked by one of these bombs,” said the soft voice, “and they were especially preferred for bunker-clearing, as if the splinters didn't get the occupants, the blast tended to at least stun them.” Pause, then, “it usually killed them and dropped pieces of the bunker onto them.”

“Bunker?” I asked. “Like that one place...”

“That was built some few hundred years ago as a 'hiding place' for marked people,” said the soft voice, “and had one of these 'pears' gone off inside, it would have had its roof blown off, its walls tumbled and scattered, and its occupants turned into pie-filling.”

I then read, “nominal filling is fifty grams of composition B2A-93CF, whatever that is,” I murmured. “It must be some strong stuff.”

“It is that,” said the soft voice. “The current equivalent is about two-thirds stronger for the same weight, has substantially greater brisance, a much higher flame-temperature, and is about forty percent denser – and that nominal figure means 'at least fifty grams'. The reality, at least at the time these were made, was 'fill the thing as full as you possibly can, as anyone desperate enough to be tossing one of these things wants it to do the job.”

I continued reading, “an internally-scored high-strength casing of exceptional hardness.”

“What does that mean?” asked Sarah. She was looking at the still-open box of grenades, and I suspected she was looking at them in a new light – as in she might wish one or more handy should she encounter a witch-run fabric shop and had a way to get clear in time.

“Bad splinters, most likely,” I said. “Probably just the right size to be real numerous, and... These things cut like knives, don't they?”

“That, and they tend to whirl about their long axes end over end, which means they can either penetrate like bullets or rip holes worse than that blade of Sam Brumm's did when he'd just sharpened it up for shaving – and these things made lots of those splinters.”

I then read something about 'fully waterproof' as well as 'a rubberized textured outer surface for better gripping'. Finally, I noted something truly unusual.

“What?” I asked. “These don't smoke ?” I was recalling the comments about 'smoking like a bad pie', to be exact. I had had my hands full when tossing my pair at Iggy – and hence had not noticed smoke when tossing them.

“No, they don't,” said the soft voice, “which made them unlike any grenade other than those of Vrijlaand.” Pause, then, “however, for sheer deadliness, no one – and I mean no one – did better.” A pause, then, “this design was one of a very few that Vrijlaand actually licensed once the test results became known.”

“And, then there's something called a rigging fuse,” I muttered. “Now I wonder... No, I don't. Right over there, in that pile.”

“Correct, and those are useful for not merely these devices, but are also useful for other situations that warrant a reliable detonator.”

“Those other detonators..?”

“Are in another area, one over closer to that former drink-house,” said the soft voice. “These won't need nearly as much work to use, and there are a good many more of them anyway.”

“Then why should we use those tricky things we heard about earlier?” said Sarah.

“Because they're better for tricky traps,” said the soft voice. “The trapping detonators for 'grenades' require a fair amount of force, so much so that you'll wish fishing string for them, while those troublesome things Rachel had to work over were of a new design then – so new, in fact, that the machines needed to make them in quantity still had their share of worms present – worms in both the machines and the programming needed to make the parts.”

“Worms?” I asked. I did not wish to be reminded of worms, as I'd had enough of those recently to last me the rest of my natural life – and that being so even if Iggy was called something other than a worm.

“What they thought that one insect was,” said the soft voice. “Recall where the term 'bug' came from, and the woman who found the very first one?” Pause. “They actually have an intercepted copy of that picture, and since they didn't have such insects there at that time, they thought what was stuck in that relay was a worm.” Another pause, then, “that was then. They now have a much-better idea as to what it was, as the returning soldiers brought enough insect eggs and larvae back with them in their gear that their insect population became far more varied in nature – as well as a great deal more numerous, at least for some years.”

“Insects?” I asked.

“Especially those called bugging-flies in this area,” said the soft voice. “They have a different name for those nuisances, but they're the exact same insect as to size and color – if otherwise a good deal more persistent in their searching for food, due to them being more or less as they were long ago.”

“They have clothes-bugs there, don't they?” asked Katje – who was wondering if she should secure some of these evil 'pears' 'just in case'. “Are you going to take some of these pear-shaped bombs on that trip?”

“Y-yes, some, but I hope we can avoid being scattered by them,” I said shakily.

“I know you can toss them far enough,” said Katje. “I think I had best have my hiding-hole dug deep before I try tossing one, and the same for anyone else that thinks to toss them.”

“Perhaps your cousin?” I asked Sarah.

“She might wish some,” said Sarah. “I'd carry two of them with me in my satchel, if I could find a way to do so where they'd stay near to hand, while keeping them from being jostled overmuch.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I was thinking of that one particular cloth-merchant's place, for some reason. It needed some 'livening up', and I was thinking about a smaller nail-bomb, to be exact. I'd seen some smaller nails on that one pallet, these like those six-penny things I had used by the pound in renovating the first and only house I'd ever 'owned'.

“She's not the only cloth-seller who I wonder about,” said Sarah. “There is another such place, only it's in the kingdom house, and I'm wanting a certain color of thread that I've not been able to find anywhere else outside of the fourth kingdom's market.”

“Need to finish sewing something?” I asked, as I gingerly removed one of the bombs. I then had an idea, and asked for a 'clean' rag. I folded the rag in half diagonally, then laid the grenade on it such that it sat with the 'tab' or 'spoon' facing downward atop the rag, and began folding the cloth's bottom corner up so as to capture it under the two long portions.

“That...” Sarah was speechless. I continued 'padding' the bomb.

“I think he might be able to help you with children,” said Katje, “or rather, I should say, 'a child'.”

“Yes, when we have time for such...” Sarah again was speechless, then said in a 'tiny' voice, “one?”

“Were you to have only what is available on the continent for medicine,” said Katje, “I would give serious thought about avoiding relations entirely, as you...” Here, Katje paused, then said, “no, not just you, Sarah. Him also – though he will try his best if you ask for one.”

“Uh, I...” I made gasping noises, then had to sit down on the cart next to what I was trying to 'coddle'. I was very glad it didn't go off, as saying 'I had the fear' regarding these things was calling a bad situation 'very good indeed'.

I was scared of them worse than any device I had yet encountered here, and that included my initial encounter with what I was now using to breathe with.

“Why..?” asked Sarah.

“Because I suspect it would injure him,” said Katje. “It might hurt you, but I fear for his safety.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It has to do with being as marked as you are,” said Katje. “Marked people were said to be commonly sterile in what few tales I've read, though I now know that to be a lie – but I suspect those tales were speaking of a certain kind of marked person, and you're the first one present here in a very long time.” A pause, then as Katje took up the instruction-sheet, she said, “these have two g-gaskets.” Pause. “I could barely say that word.” Another pause, then, “what is a gasket?”

“A seal that, uh, prevents leakage,” I said. “Now why do they have two gaskets? Insurance?”

“To ensure they remained waterproof no matter how they were mistreated,” said the soft voice. “You may have heard 'jokes' about grenades, but these devices are intended to endure rough treatment.”

“As in 'Mr. Grenade is not our friend once his, uh, pin has been removed'?” I asked. I was still trying to 'coddle' the bomb, and was having trouble tying a knot that remained tied. I was wondering if Sarah had a spare diaper-clip, in fact, as putting 'diapers' on these things for cushioning sounded like a very good idea.

“Just like with those two you tossed at Iggy,” said the soft voice. “By the way, had you demonstrated that across the sea prior to the war, you would have been removed from initial training.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Too dumb for my own good? Get my teammates killed?”

“No,” said the soft voice emphatically. “Recall how you were nominated for a service academy where you came from? All those questions they asked you – including the question where they asked you if you could kill someone? That physical test where you were tossing those balls while kneeling, and then the physical itself with those horrible eyedrops that made you crazy and half-blind for a day and a night?”

I nodded dumbly.

“Demonstrating that type of initiative while 'under fire' was so rare in that country then that such a stunt meant 'automatic promotion' – and not just to the top of the enlisted ranks, such as they were then,” said the soft voice. A pause, then, “you would have been put in what passed for the service academy, and not as a plebe, either – and then once you'd finished that school, you would have been put on 'the fast course' as well to ensure as rapid promotion as was feasible.”

“And now for a change of subject, this being on how damp-proof these things are,” I muttered. Hearing the last bit did not do my nerves much good. “Obviously, we cannot fish with them, but were they, uh, used...” I was thinking of depth-charges, for some reason. I wondered if witches tried swimming now and then so as to cause trouble without being caught.

“They were,” said the soft voice. “Read the other side of that instruction sheet, and you'll see about what not to do with them.”

Katje turned the sheet over, then said a moment later, “no, you do not use these for fishing, as the fish will become unsafe to eat.” She looked up, then said, “assuming you could find edible fish in the watercourses around here back then and then keep them away from the snakes and lizards long enough to retrieve them.”

“L-lizards?” I asked.

“Yes, lizards,” said Sarah. “There was one especially unpleasant type that no longer lives here, and I'm glad it no longer lives here, as it looked too much like Iggy for me to like it, at least as regarding its teeth.”

“Lizard?” I asked again. I had the impression that this 'lizard' could pass for an alligator, and I briefly recalled several pictures I had seen of such reptiles.

“It was not one of those things,” said Sarah with a shudder.

“What was this?” asked Sepp.

“They have b-bad lizards where he came from, and I just s-saw one of them,” said Sarah's fearful voice. “The ones that lived here looked a bit like these things, but they were maybe as long I am, and that for a large and fat one.”

“One that had devoured a number of people,” said Katje knowingly. “I've heard tales describing those lizards they had then, and calling them 'a mouth with legs attached' is close enough to suit me.” A pause, then, “those were bad trouble. You said those where he came from were worse?”

“Y-yes,” said Sarah. “They were large enough to look like a smaller version of Brimstone, and they ate anything they could bite – and they were most cunning, also, so if one was in the area, often the first one knew of it was when it had set its teeth in you – and you were dead then, as it would drag you under and drown you in the watercourse it lived in, no matter how much lead you put into it.”

“That sounds like an...” I then realized there was no word for 'alligator' in our language, and the best words available to describe one was the phrase Sarah had used. We then had further news regarding the underwater use of these particular bombs.

“There were a fairly large number of attempted infiltrations by witch-soldiers that were stopped by tossing these grenades in the water,” said the soft voice. “It became 'standard operating procedure' to toss one or more grenades in a stretch of water that showed any sign of movement, and that no matter how large or small that body of water was.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because witch-soldiers were more or less 'waterproof',” said the soft voice, “and they could and did use watercourses, lakes, ponds, and rivers for movement so as to afford 'maximum surprise' and 'escape detection'. Hence, the liberal use of explosives often resulted in blood-red bodies of water littered with the fast-bloating carcasses of dead and dying witch-soldiers.”

“Now that is for these 'metal pears',” said Sepp. He was looking at what I was doing, and helped me with a wooden clip that looked well-used. Where he'd gotten it was a mystery. “Now that one is fit for carrying.” A pause, then, “I think someone was in here who knows some of the people around here, as I found these metal boxes, and they have writing on them using something like chalk.”

“Where?” squeaked Sarah.

“Over here,” said Sepp as he walked to the place in question. “See, there is Willem's name, and then that of his neighbor, who taught me some about bombs when I was up his way with my nets, and his name is Paul.” Sepp looked at me, then said, “now how could someone know those two men, seeing as how this stuff is a lot older than either of them?”

“Perhaps those two names were common then,” I said, as I moved over to where Sepp was. I had tucked my 'baby' into my possible bag, which remained on the cart in a 'safe' place. “Maybe...”

I had come to Sepp's side, then as I looked at the box in question – this was a 'divided' stack, with the other side having something else that went 'boom' on it – and saw the neatly-'chalked' letters. A touch showed the 'chalk' to be something closer to paint, however.

And for an instant...

My eyes blinked. Instead of 'Willem', I saw 'Willie', and superimposed over the four letters of 'Paul' I saw the five letters spelling 'Peter'. I then nearly screamed with the recollection of what those two dread names meant when combined – and the dread word that described what I was seeing seemed to ring out as if I'd somehow yelled into a microphone connected to a huge PA system.

Flaamenboemben!” I yelled.

“Is that what they are?” asked Sepp. “That box isn't near big enough to put a jug of distillate in, not unless that jug is like what you use for that really bad Geneva.” Sepp then levered up the lid, and there, in all their 'glory', sat twenty-five 'fluff-coddled' firebombs, complete with a two-page 'instruction manual' and a bright-green-lettered desiccant pouch. I picked up the 'instructions' and began reading rapidly while sitting on the cart. I was glad Katje was holding the light for me, as my hands were shaking uncontrollably due to something akin to raw terror. I'd heard of things like these, and seeing the common name for those I had heard of before coming here like I had didn't help much.

“T-they b-burn underwater,” I gasped upon reading the effects section, “and explode violently, and...”

“They look like little jugs,” said Sepp. “I've seen jugs of Geneva done this way for color, in fact, though that stuff tends to be worthless for both sicknesses and rubbing – and forget drinking it.”

“They probably burst like witch-jugs,” said Sarah, as she picked up one. “I've seen such things on tapestries before.”

“Wrong,” said the soft voice's emphatic tones. “These bombs not merely burst like 'damp squibs', but both the casing and the filling burn with explosive violence – and neither can be readily extinguished, as more than a few witches learned when they were caught in the bursting radius of such 'firebombs'.” A brief pause, then, “those witches eventually burnt to ashes.”

I was about to speak of the colorful paint on the bomb Sarah was holding when my thoughts were once more overwritten.

“Those colorfully-painted devices show a well-known warning code, one that is still in some use overseas,” said the soft voice, “as they have a special alloy casing having profound incendiary properties, a phosphorus-impregnated pyrotechnic filling – one that's just barely stable enough to permit 'rough' handling; it's a good bit 'hotter' than that in those shells to those smaller 'cannons' – and a surprisingly potent bursting charge.” A pause, then, “there were a lot of common soldiers – hiding in bunkers, no less – that were either asphyxiated or burnt to ashes by the use of these things.”

“S-smothered?” I asked. I could think of a much-larger species of aircraft-delivered bomb that did that, and also a marginally-portable device worn on one's back that flamed nearly as bad as Iggy. The latter piece of equipment was rumored to be especially dangerous to use, and that apart from what happened if an enemy soldier put a bullet in it.

“Just as if their bunkers were hit solidly with those bombs you were thinking about,” said the soft voice, “though unlike those weapons, these devices didn't leave 'crispy critters'.”

Yech,” said Sarah. “I'm having a bad daytime nightmare just hearing him say that, as I can see a witch I put soot on while wrecking the hall, and he's a walking mess of smoky charcoal and...” Sarah ceased speaking, and 'got a dose' from that one vial, following it with a frenzied gulping of beer.

“Instead, they left mounds of ashes, just like the remains of witches you've found in here,” said the soft voice, “and that happened no matter how small the fragment that touched them happened to be, assuming a lack of adequate protection.”

“Adequate protection?” I asked.

“Suffice it to say none of the common soldiers had it,” said the soft voice, “and it was a rare witch-soldier indeed, one who was exceedingly wealthy, who could get and then maintain that level of protection.” A pause, then, “with these bombs, it only took a piece the size of a carrot-seed striking unprotected flesh – or the 'garments' of witch-soldiers – to cause a 'slow' yet utterly certain death.”

“That sounds like they were poisonous,” said Katje.

“While the bomb-filling was poisonous,” said the soft voice, “that aspect took its time in regards to killing, at least compared to the portions that burned.” A pause, then, “if the fragment was the size of a carrot-seed and it hit a vulnerable region, it burrowed its rapid-flaming way into the flesh of the stricken person – and then the soot-billowing fire spread in all directions, where it burned flesh, blood, clothing, skin and bone in a relentless fashion at the rate of nearly six inches per minute.” Another pause, then, “man or witch, it did not matter, for this material was utterly immune to the effects of curses – and for every person so touched by that particular fire, their lives were measured in minutes and filled to the brim with pain, for that fire only ceased its burning when the person so touched was consumed entirely and their bodies turned to soot, smoke and dust by their own private burn-pile.”

“About the only way to save a person's life was if a fragment hit a limb,” I muttered, “and someone cut that limb off right away and moved the rest of the person well away from that burning chunk of flesh.”

“That idea never occurred to those witches,” said the soft voice. “They believed – this with absolute conviction – that such weapons were as heavily cursed as anything they possessed or had knowledge of; and hence, once a person had been 'struck', the other still-living men and witches moved well clear of 'the chosen meat of Brimstone'; and the man or witch gave himself up to a horrible and agonizing death, as that was the sole permitted reaction among them for one who had been shown so conclusively to be a Disgrace.”

“What next?” said Sepp. “We'd best take some of these things, as I know we'll want some.”

“You know?” I asked. I wondered how he knew, beyond the dreams we had all had.

“Yep, same as some boxes of those pear-shaped things,” said Sepp. “Now I had best tell Karl about being careful around metal pears, as he has trouble with common ones, and that's when they're just pears and not cider.”

“And I Maarten, though he's only had pear-cider once,” said Katje. “He may have liked it somewhat, but it did not like him at all.” A pause, then, “they might not have Kuchen dough that acts like mining dynamite here, but otherwise, I have a name for this part of the room.”

“What?” asked Sarah.

The Kingdom of Boom,” said Katje. I could tell that at one level, she thought this very funny, even if she was working hard at not sounding funny at all.

“That...” Sarah let out a piercing howl that segued into laughter, then in a softer voice, “this may be the local one of those places, but I know of another place that needs to be called that, and I shall tell Willem that his-own-self when I next see him.”

“What, dear?” I asked.

“You've never been where he lives, have you?” asked Sarah. “He might not live in a powder-mill, but he's got enough things in that place to make it most inclined to act like one were he not so careful and inclined to listen to Esther – and I am not sure which of those things is more important where he lives, but I do know he does listen to Esther a lot.” A pause, then, “I do think you're overdue to see that place, as I know he'll listen to you should you speak on a matter.”

“And perhaps see Esther...” I was wondering just what this amazing woman actually looked like, given the descriptions I'd heard from a number of people.

“Yes, if she's not sick,” said Sarah. “Keeping honey handy helps her more than anything...” A pause, then, “were I not knowing you better, I'd say you have either the same trouble, or one that is similar to hers, and if those people come here, they need to look at her as soon as they can.”

A pause, then, “now this is a fine mess.” The speaker was Katje.

As those of us towing carts came closer, I wondered what Katje was speaking of, at least until she held up a coarse-looking piece of paper obviously rubbed well with wax and then 'pressed' with a heated 'copper'. It had been lying at the foot of a pallet stacked nearly to her shoulders, and I could tell that particular pallet had something we wanted.

“How is it a mess?” asked Sepp – who then looked over to his right. He was looking over at the other lanterns, and appraising the shadows left by Karl and Maarten. “They about done with that mess there?”

“Yes, and I'd best get back to watch them,” said Katje – who put what she'd found in Sarah's hands and left at a hurried walk. Sarah then looked at me, and shook her head.

“Yes?” I asked. “Is that... What is it?”

“Some very bad poetry – I think,” said Sarah. “It uses some very bad language, and I think it is more oaths than all else.”

“Uh, is it?” I asked.

“That, and the handwriting is nearly as bad as mine when I'm not being especially careful,” said Sarah. “Now I hope you can endure it, as it came out of this other thing, and that is not an oath-collection. I can tell that much.”

“Other thing?” I asked.

“Yes, this,” said Sarah – who then handed me the item in question.

“Handbook of mortars?” I spluttered. “Type 59-K2? Cannons?”

“I think this might make more sense, then, if that is what it speaks of,” said Sarah. “Some of those people in that war were most fond of spitting oaths, and that is if I include people like Lukas when he's irritated to compare them with.” A pause, then in lower voice, “though if you wish to hear oaths, get close to Tam when he's had trouble with witches overmuch. Then you will hear oaths.” Sarah then paused, 'gathered herself', and began reading. I paused in opening the booklet to listen, as I could tell this portion was important.

“When am I not pissed-off,

When am I not enraged,

My heart is boiling over,

My kill-switch is engaged.

The enemy, black-dressed evil,

He needs to die today,

But I've got my price,

And my leaders roll the dice,

And I know that wretch gonna pay!”

“Sounds like that person had bad trouble with witches,” muttered Sepp. “Now how is that thing filled with oaths?”

“It looked to be that way at first,” said Sarah, “but it wasn't until I'd gotten through about half of it that I recognized who wrote it.”

“What?” I asked.

“Someone who was with Rachel,” said Sarah. “I think they must have heard this being said over that one thing, as no one talked like this then unless they were being shot at in that war, and we know Rachel and those with her were listening in on what those people were doing.”

“And so he left it here,” I muttered. I then looked again at the 'pamphlet', and nearly squeaked with the realization:

“They were in here stealing shells for that one mortar, and one of those people knew they weren't going to get any more shells, so he or she left this here to cause the witches trouble!”

“That also,” said the soft voice. “Now while that pallet and the one next to it have mortar shells, the guns themselves are just across the aisle, so I'd mark that on your map and carry the book along with you.” A pause, then, “it will come in very handy in the next week or two, as it will give you a lot of insight as to how some of those people think overseas as well as examples of how many of them still talk.”

A quick overview of what was present upon the 'mortar pallet' – the guns themselves, these with soft-metal firing pins protruding nearly a quarter inch and bent over 'like a bad fishhook' in Sarah's words; ample spare parts, save for the ones in question that we would need to make; a 'spare' gunsight; and lastly, a pair of obvious armorer's manuals, these complete with the needed tools and gages.

“Good,” I muttered. “Now...” I put down the strange-colored 'pamphlet', then looked quickly in one of the manuals. To my utter astonishment, I found an 'addendum' listing not merely a number of 'critical parts', but also a set of complete and clear drawings, these needed to make 'sears', 'firing pins', 'recoil bolsters', and 'reset springs'.

“Why are these there?” I asked.

“They hadn't yet gotten onto that subcontractor about making bad parts,” said the soft voice, “and while these people didn't believe in sending contracts out to the lowest bidder when it came to critical pieces of equipment, but rather 'the best people we can find', the truth behind why those parts were done so badly is still a deep dark secret.”

“As in 'they were done by trashed witches, or people who wished to be such individuals'?” I asked. My voice had gotten 'snide' again.

“They might not have been witches then,” said the soft voice, “but they were trashed, and that on some materials that later became very common over there.” A pause, then, “some of those materials still are very common, in fact, and if you get a chance to examine a blue-dressed thug's silver collar at all closely, or any one of a number of devices that are similar as to function, you'll learn just what those materials are.” A pause, then, “the medical people might make small amounts of those particular chemicals as part of their chemistry-schooling, but they have no use for them as medicine.”

“They are not used as medicine?” asked Sarah. “Then why do they make them?”

“Practice, I'd bet,” I said. Learning about organic chemistry involved a lot of work that way. “That, and if those blue-dressed thugs are fond of them, then they might just leave around some doctored materials so as to cause them trouble.” My unspoken comment was 'I know I would'. A pause, then in questioning voice, “I wonder if those thugs like high-octane drink?”

“They do, but it's almost impossible to get any over there, leastways for the commonplace species of blue-dressed thug,” said the soft voice. “If one speaks of those who once were such thugs and have been promoted upward several levels, then those people can sometimes get their hands on strong drink.”

“That means they have some people over there who like that stuff,” said Sarah solemnly. “I hope they aren't as nasty as drunken mining-town thugs.” A pause, then, “now that there looks likely, if it has a cover painted up like that.”

“Yes?” I asked – and I then turned the 'pamphlet' over once more to look at its actual title, this being on the side I had not yet seen. Superimposed upon its strange and mobile-seeming squiggly lines of 'camouflage' were the words 'a treatise upon the use of mortar-guns'.

“Is that what this is?” I asked. “How did they get it in here?”

“That was one of the 'in-process' documents that 'somehow' got out in this shipment,” said the soft voice, “and that 'camouflage' was another experiment – only the person doing it used that place's equivalent of felt-tip pens and 'crayons' to try his ideas out, and then applied a chemical fixative to the cover and pages.”

“Do they have those?” I asked. I meant the felt-tipped pens – and perchance, the 'crayons'.

“Yes, but they're locked up tightly, and it's death to have one in one's possession, same as a great deal else that's on the 'proscribed lists',” said the soft voice. “Those thugs 'toss' a lot of people's places while the occupants are gone on one pretext or another, and if something like what you spoke of turns up, everyone that lives in that entire area usually does well to survive three days.”

“Those people sound more and more like witches, and not those here and now, but those spoken of in old tales and on tapestries,” said Sarah. “No thief I know of today would think to toss a place, as that would get him killed.”

If he's not a ranking witch living in a witch-held region,” said the soft voice. “It's not at all rare in the fifth kingdom house or portions of the second kingdom for 'ranking' witches to act so brazenly.”

“Where?” asked Sarah.

“Usually in those places a combine owns,” I said. “They get coach-loads of thugs, park those things tow-bar-to-boot in a laager around the area in question with the coach-thugs having orders to kill anyone who gets too close, then the most-experienced thugs search the place or places in question – and they take their time doing it so as to find whatever they're after, as they're usually acting under the direct orders of the combine-head his-own-self, and they heard those orders from his own mouth.” I then gasped, and spat, “what did I say?”

“The truth,” said the soft voice, “and the reason Sarah's never seen such an action is that they usually take place in great secrecy, even in those areas witchdom 'owns' on the continent.” A pause, then, “and since they do that so openly overseas, that should give you an idea as to the likely attitudes of those in charge and also what they are currently able to do with near-complete impunity.”

With Sarah holding a lantern near my head, I sat down and began reading the 'treatise', this slim pamphlet seemingly glossy-printed 'magazine-grade paper' that was as much or more plastic as all else. I recalled the poor-looking results of my sprayed-on instances of textual fixation, and I thought those long-ago instances poor indeed until I was reminded of my more-recent uses by an unexpected source.

“I thought so,” said Sarah knowingly. I'd been speaking unawares of some small matters regarding where I lived while reading the 'treatise'. “You needed to label where things were in the kitchen where you lived so you would not lose them?”

“He's worse yet now,” said the soft voice. “You've seen but a small portion of his workbench at home. Anna's seen more of his things in both home and at the shop, and she doesn't know the half of his difficulty that way.”

I marveled at my ability to 'ignore' such important talk, for what I was seeing not only did not have the feeling of 'military jargon', even if it was obviously written by people who'd actually fired mortars and things like them in anger – and that with the goal of utterly exterminating whoever they were shooting at. Such 'hard-bitten' attitudes in a country years away from doing war was a complete astonishment to me, especially when they described just how to locate the gun and how – and when – to use it.

“Who were these people dealing with to know this?” I asked

“Those who were then sited at Norden,” said the soft voice. “They didn't just come to the northern portions of the continent, but they went to that location also – at least, they did until they found the place rapidly turning into a very nasty species of deathtrap.” A pause, then, “look it over quickly, then put it in your bags, as you'll want to read that one with your ledger and a beer-jug close by and a writing instrument in your hand.”

A brief glance, however, had me learn a great deal in the minute or so I gave to it:

“Do not site the gun in obvious places, but use cover and concealment as much as possible.”

“Find one's hide, situate the gun or guns, and then wait a day while resting. During this time, observe the area carefully with the goals of trapping the surrounding region and the gun-crew's egress path once the 'shoot' was done.”

“People think like a pack of snipers, almost,” I thought, as I resumed. “That, or whatever those people were called that liked to put green paint on their faces when they'd go out to cause trouble.”

“Those people that they were facing weren't much easier to deal with than those you were thinking of,” said the soft voice. “They liked to do stuff that most long-haired Veldters contemplate with shuddering.” I then returned to my reading.

“Lay traps in a systematic manner for hundreds of yards...” I then paused, and thought, “didn't these people usually use meters for specifying distances then?”

“They did, at least until they had had some front-line experience,” said the soft voice. “After that, they didn't much care which unit was used unless it was important that they make the distinction – and those writing that manual had had as much front-line experience as anyone there at that time.” Pause, then, “it's not the only such pamphlet, by the way – there are some others in here that Rachel's people missed, and all of them need to be found and read carefully.”

“Lay your traps in all directions, save for your path of egress,” I thought, as my eyes scanned the pages rapidly. “These people do not mess around – seems about all they think about when dealing with the enemy is 'kill them when and where you find them, and don't bother questioning those stinkers unless they've got important information. If they have that, then get the 'dope' – and then kill them'.”

I then had a question, even as I continued reading quickly: “dope?”

“That word does not mean 'illicit drugs' here,” said the soft voice, “and it never did, not even in this area when it was an above-ground witch-hole.” A pause, then, “think. When did you hear that word used on the target range?”

“Uh, regarding the information needed to hit the target?” I asked. “Like the wind – how strong it was, and what direction, and was it steady or gusting?”

“It generally meant 'information' if one was speaking of military matters, but that word was used much more widely among front-line soldiers – who used it to refer to anything from the 'usual' military meanings to their meals and weapons-cleaning supplies.” A pause, then, “keep reading. You need to know enough now to stay out of trouble, even if you'll want more than one 'dead sixth' session at the house proper with your ledger in hand to learn what you can from this piece of literature.”

And here, I came to the true 'meat' of the pamphlet, this spelled out clearly and blatantly. These people might be somewhat crude of speech, and their 'military slang' most pungent, but even I could understand what they were saying readily.

“Never dump more than half the shells you have in any single engagement,” I read, “as resupply can be very difficult and unpredictable. Hence, make each shell count. Aim for command-and-control structures, vehicles, fuel containers, and lastly, important-looking members of the enemy.”

The unspoken message was 'they can replace those people easy, unlike the other things'.

“Hide yourselves especially good, as how long you're likely to live depends on not being discovered,” I read. The next portion, however, momentarily stunned me.

“When about to engage the enemy, have all 'non-essential' personnel ready to travel and the campsite sanitized,” I read. “Those personnel not needed to actually fire the gun or guns should be nearby and well-hid, holding the gun-teams' equipment in readiness, with the tools needed to take down the gun or guns present in their loosened pouches and tool rolls.”

I had to pause for a moment to let that sink in, as it was well beyond anything practiced currently on the continent by either man or witch.

“Yes, if they're not those Norden spy-groups,” said the soft voice. “Those Thinkers have learned most of the lessons in that and the other pamphlets like it – and as for the rest, you're right if you include the vast majority of people in the five kingdoms.”

“Fire your guns as the situation dictates,” I read, “then when it is time to leave, pull them down and bag them up, shoulder the gun-pouches and your personal weapons, then egress along your planned escape route with personal weapons at the ready...” Here I paused, for the print had gone bold so as to make a particularly critical point: “always keeping in mind that ambush is a real possibility and you may need to split up to then regroup at a further point on the way to the next rendezvous.

As I put the pamphlet in my possible bag – the remaining portions were mostly printed pictures that would need time, the Heinrich magnifier, a well-lit environment, and both a ledger and a jug of beer – I wondered just what next we needed to find.

“Ammunition, obviously, though what other kinds we need beyond...” I thought for a second, then muttered, “always carry as much ammunition as you possibly can, as resupply can be difficult.”

“See, I told you,” said the soft voice. “You did get something out of that quick reading, which is why you'll want to do likewise with any other documents like those you find.” A pause, then, “you'll really like what you find next, though.”

“Yes, and what would that be?” asked Karl. He sounded like he'd been working hard, and when I turned to see what Maarten was doing, I was not surprised.

“Taking back a full cart?” I asked, as he walked away toward the still-hanging pair of lanterns along an obvious 'rope' someone had laid out for him to follow.

“I brought up an empty one,” said Karl. “Now what is this about pears?”

“They may look like pears,” said Sarah, “but if you have trouble with the ones that come from trees, you will sup with Brimstone if you do not watch yourself close with the ones in here.”

“Why is that?” asked Karl. I was heading forward, and I'd 'gotten into' the rifle ammunition. Here, there were not merely empty magazines in 'cans' and bagged rounds done similarly, but laying atop the chest-high pallet was a garment so strange in shape it made me wonder if I could put the thing on over what I was wearing so as to 'try it out'. It was done in that odd-looking camouflage scheme that went nearly black in darkness – and in our current lighting, the others were piling ammunition cans on both of the carts as if they expected to fight two wars and an insurrection.

“It adjusts,” I muttered, as I figured out how to get into it. “Do these come in sizes?”

“Yes, three of them,” said the soft voice. “The rest of those vests are some ten pallets west and three north of where you currently are, and the smallest size should fit Sarah, once she's dressed for cold weather.”

“Should?” said Sarah with alarm. “Will I need to work on it so as to make it fit?”

“You might, and might not,” said the soft voice. “It's quite likely that you can adjust it so that it works passably and then have it tailored after the trouble is done over there.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “I might not be picky about the looks of my clothing, but I do wish it to not itch me over much, and bad tailoring is bad for that.”

“Itch?” I asked – which made for a sudden halt in what I was doing and then a reverse of my steps. Sarah was looking at something – the label on a box of ammunition, it being somewhat different in an important fashion – and I gently rubbed her shoulders. The response I got was unexpected.

“Now I know I did those seams wrong for this one,” she said. “Thank you. My shoulders were itching badly.”

“Yes, dear,” I said, as I continued rubbing. I needed to do this badly, even if I could not recall the term that labeled such behavior as pathological. It had nothing to do with sexual desire, and a great deal to do with the sensation itself. It was oddly calming to do so, in fact. “Are my hands slimy-feeling?”

“No, but they are a bit on the chill side,” she said shivering. “This room makes me wish I'd brought that new clothing, but there was only so much room to carry it and that stuff needs long drying in a warm room should you need to wash it.” She then turned to me as I resumed 'getting into' this odd harness. I'd seen things like it before, even if the color scheme was 'weird' to my thinking, and the arrangement of straps and pouches 'weirder still'. I noted the ammunition can's label – it wasn't 'all-purpose', but something entirely different – and nodded to the others. We'd wish some of that stuff for the trip.

“There,” said Sarah as she adjusted a portion I could not reach. “That strap needed loosening, and they will all need some padding, as otherwise they will chafe if you run much – and I know we will be doing that.” In lower voice, “I know about having to run and how it can chafe you, as I did enough of that business in the last ten-year.”

“The clothing?” I asked.

“That will help, at least for a time,” said Sarah. “I've got a busy time ahead of me, as I shall need to pad every rifle we take so they do not turn our shoulders into mush, clothing or no clothing.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I then smelled the biting stink of small arms propellant through both mask and clothing. I had really smoked up the place shooting all of that cursed tungsten.

That's exactly why,” said Sarah. “We will be lighting that dark place up as if it were filled with lightning, just like you were doing, and leaving large piles of empty bird-whistles everywhere we go, almost.” Sarah then hitched, pointed, and screeched, “what is that thing!”

“I am not sure, dear,” I said, as I came closer to the device in question. Its oddly random-looking yellow-green and orange-red coloration looked to make it stand out worse than anything imaginable, so much so that I recalled the camouflage pots we'd set aside and relaxed. It still made for a question, and that not merely as to just what someone had removed from its container.

That coloration?”

“Worked especially well on witch-soldiers and those wishing to emulate them,” said the soft voice. “It seems those making them learned of the weaknesses of witch-soldier vision and used molded-in colors that would make the devices all-but invisible – and if one is speaking of 'trashed' individuals using those particular drugs, that is still very much the case.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Those materials, er, drugs, cause visual disturbances?”

“They do, especially if one is unused to them,” said the soft voice. “Now which colors did you see most when you were exposed to the fumes of that one drug?”

“Uh, yellowish, and this orange-red color like neon, and uh, blue, and green...”

“Blue and green, in various shades, are commonplace colors here,” said the soft voice. “Now if your vision has lots of yellowish and orange-red tints to it, think about what's going to stand out and what is going to 'hide in plain sight'.”

“Th-that color scheme?” I asked.

“Got it in one,” said the soft voice. “Now, since the curses on that one wore off over nine hundred years ago, it's safe enough to handle, and the same for the rest of those like it – and while those bricks weren't jokes, they are jokes compared to these things.”

“What?” I asked.

“These devices use a much stronger explosive, one that's closely related to what is used for filling those grenades,” said the soft voice, “save it isn't granulated, but 'rocked', so it's got an even stronger blast.” Pause, “then, that device does not use out-of-spec ball-bearings, but something much worse.”

“Bearings?” I asked.

“They only started using those later, when needs became far more dire and they needed to cut corners in production,” said the soft voice. “These use something closer to those 'heavy construction' nails, only they're scored spirally so as to fragment readily, and then packed into the device with especial care.”

“What does that mean?” asked Sarah.

“Something that's like a directional 'pill' for blast and splinters,” said the soft voice, “with the chief benefit being you can carry three of these easily where you could manage one pill with care and effort, and then you need not light a fuse, but can set the thing off with that communications wire and a pot-battery – which is much safer for you, and much worse for the charging witches or blue-dressed thugs.”

“Or drink-house patrons,” I muttered. “Just the thing – kick the door in like a black-dressed thug, spray a good random-seeming burst from a machine pistol into the place, duck out and run up the 'boardwalk' they have there, and when those irritated stinkers crowd the door, someone else can set one of these things off.”

“That will clear out all of those places,” said Sarah with finality. “I think you might have to do one of them if you do that, and I would do the center one, as it was said to be the worst one of the three.”

“The w-worst one?” I asked.

“The largest, also,” said Sarah. “I've seen that place from close-by hiding, and it's as big a drink-house as I've ever seen, no matter when or where I was looking.”

“Uh, these places near the Swartsburg...”

“I never saw those,” said Sarah. “I might have heard of them from several people, and perhaps gained some idea of their size some days after they'd gone where they belonged, but I never saw them when they were up and filled with witches.” A pause, then, “I have seen the place I speak of, and that within an easy stone's throw from its door.” Sarah then looked closer at the thing, and asked, “now that is a mine of some kind, and I think I have seen them on a tapestry somewhere.”

“Where you had to bathe?” asked Sepp.

“No, this was somewhere else,” said Sarah. “They were that shape, if not that color.”

In the meantime, however, I had gingerly picked up the device in question by its wire-loop 'carrying handle', and the moment I touched it, I realized that these made those green 'bricks', even those that one expert witch had worked over, look to be sick jokes for killing. I wondered for a moment if detonating one of these in front of a drink-house was that good of an idea, in fact.

“Probably bring the whole place down,” I muttered.

“No, they won't do that,” said the soft voice. “They may kill everything inside of the place, and set everything of a burnable nature on fire, and enlarge the doorway to no small degree, but they won't bring the place down if you put the bomb a few paces from the door.” A pause, then, “if you want to collapse the building, put some of that military-grade cooking fuel in front of it, put the bomb such that it's touching the door, and then set it off.”

“What will that do?” asked Sarah.

“Blow the building down and kill everyone inside of it,” said the soft voice. “That particular explosive, in rocked form, has an especially synergistic effect when used with that old military-grade cooking fuel, such that you get something closer to a larger wine-bottle filled with doctored Benzina – with a lot of bad splinters thrown in for good measure.”

“Not sure we want to do that,” I said, “as I think the third kingdom house gets some money from those places.”

“Yes, now it does,” said the soft voice. “The honest workers in the port would not mind one bit if all three of those places went straight to hell, as they're nothing but trouble day and night.”

Examination of the 'round mines' showed them to be quite familiar as to markings if otherwise strange as to color and shape, for the 'N intertwined with an Arrow' spoke of which direction to point the mine, while the binding posts on the back, each with their sizable red-brown winged 'nut', spoke of the mess one often encountered in war. I put that one mine on the cart, then opened an ammunition can to find four more, this with a preservative packet and a plastic-laminated 'instruction sheet' – and as I handed the latter to Sarah so as to put it away in either her satchel or my possible bag, I noted something so peculiar that I needed a near-by lantern so as to discern it better.

“What is a clock-face doing on this mine?” I asked to no one in particular, “and why does it say... What?” This last came out a tinny-sounding crushed-rat screech, and Sarah came by to look. She was carrying an ammunition can, and I suspected this was another of those 'special' ones. I wondered if there were soft-point rounds, in fact – no good on armor, but deadly beyond belief out to several hundred yards. If there were some, we'd want them for dealing with close-in thugs.

“I think whoever put that one together wished to make clocks,” said Sarah, “and while these things might be good for alarms, I have never heard of a strawberry.” A pause, then, “and that saying is enough to make me wish for both tinctures, as I can feel a sick-headache starting just thinking of it.”

“I think that is one of their strange sayings,” said Katje. I had not noticed her return. “You've got good time left on your equipment, even if you're most likely going to need to visit the privy shortly.”

“I will?”

“First, I heard it spoken of,” said Katje, “and then, that equipment that connects to your rope speaks of much more than just your breathing. It measures much else, and one thing it speaks of is you needing to use the privy a lot.”

“It does?” I asked in shocked surprise.

“That, how fast your heart is beating, how hard it is for you to breathe, and much else,” said Katje. “I really think Anna may wish it, at least for a time, as it can tell her a great deal about how sick a person is if she can get them in one of these things for a while.”

“She will receive much better things in short order,” said the soft voice. “Now read what was writ upon that one mine, and you'll get a full understanding of what was meant.”

The dread words were these: “strawberry alarm clock, for waking up the enemy” – and next to it, on the face of another mine, was the dread incantation, “them witches is always high, so this thing will take them higher.”

“Who wrote that?” I asked. I really wondered about the word 'high'. Did it mean what I thought it did, as it that word was not used on the continent to indicate 'intoxication'.

“Some of the people over there had some strong intimations that a major war was brewing, and hence began their own preparations for the inevitable conflict – and since those people who were coming from what is now known as Norden were a near-complete mystery as to their precise beliefs, their observable behavior spoke loudly as to what their likely beliefs were. Hence the 'slogans' on these things, just like some things you've heard of being written on bombs and things like them.”

“Were they trashed?” I asked.

“No, but they behaved as if they had no common sense,” said the soft voice, “and those people that lived over here were then known to be chronically intoxicated, hence the connection seemed obvious.” A pause, then, “the fact that initially that one place sent their less-good troops so as to give them experience for 'the big time' didn't help much.”

“Got them blown up, mostly,” I muttered. “The survivors had trouble getting home...”

“There were no survivors,” said the soft voice. “These people did much as you surmised when reading that pamphlet – and only their ignorance of the enemy's goals and behavior stopped them from being totally ruthless from the very beginning.” A pause, then, “and that portion, even if those in leadership think it completely gone, is still most-present in the 'commons' over there.”

“What?” I asked. “Are they, uh, like those who came for the hall?”

“No,” said the soft voice. “They aren't – and if you think Tam tends toward 'summary' and 'extreme' actions toward those he thinks to be witches, you've not seen anything yet.”

“What?” I asked again.

“They sound like some people out of those old tales,” said Sarah. “One had to daily prove that one was right, and that in all ways, or one died on the spot.”

“Closer, but still wrong,” said the soft voice. “More than a few witches fooled those people then.” A pause, then, “these people have their lists and their maps, and while they're going to be first doing those things they need to do so as to secure their own survival, you can bet a tall stack of gold-monster coins that they'll kill every blue-suited functionary and higher-ranking individual they possibly can when and if the chance presents itself – and only someone like Dennis is more ruthless when it comes to dealing with people like their leaders.”

“I am?” I asked.

“You are,” said the soft voice, “which is one reason why you're going over there – and when those people come here and those witches try to make trouble, those not witches in this area will think these 'immigrants' to all be as if they came straight out of old tales speaking of Charles' chief people.”

“Butchery?” I asked.

“No, not butchery,” said the soft voice. “Think. When do you do such things?”

“W-when I m-must,” I said – and I then admitted I usually didn't understand why I did so, as a rule. “Usually I just, uh...”

“Much as you did with that one witch you 'put soot on' in the house proper when you asked for that man to have 'real clothes-bugs' in his freshly-starched black-cloth suite, and with as little thought on the matter as you had then,” said the soft voice. “These people view those who act like functionaries as being functionaries, and there are no suspicions on the matter in their minds at all – and they deal with such summarily when and if they can.” A pause, then, “and when they come here... If they have weapons handy, they will deal with such people on the spot when and where they find them, and that with no thoughts on the matter beyond how to kill such 'functionaries' as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Another handful of steps, and it was as if we had walked into another region entirely, for while what lay ahead and to each side didn't go 'boom', it was, with few exceptions, things we needed, with most of them needed badly for the trip. The first things I found were a number of fiberglass containers, these shaped like deeper and somewhat tapered versions of the ammunition boxes and secured with a pair of substantial machined 'greened' metal latches, and upon removing one's rubber-gasketed 'lid', I found a number of carefully-padded cloth bags. Opening one of these – the bags were well-made, this of a close-woven thin cloth of silky feel and surprisingly muted luster, showed a device that took but seconds to recognize as to what it was.

“A tent-lantern?” I asked, as I looked at the small 'glass' globe with its 'faceted' back-side reflector and stamped – or perhaps, forged – metal hook on top. The whole ensemble positively 'reeked' of ruggedness, yet was compact and surprisingly light. “The battery just goes in here, clips on, and then one, uh, hangs it.”

“Try it,” said the soft voice. “Just ask that the battery you put in it have a charge first, and you'll see what I mean.”

I did so, speaking to the battery before slipping it in; and to my astonishment, the light, while not particularly bright, was not at all dim, either. One could read with it, if the print was large and one kept one's reading stints short so as to avoid eyestrain-induced headaches.

“It helps if you adjust it for best brightness,” said the soft voice. “Twist that switch-knob up some, and then you can use it for reading.”

I tried to find the knob in question, but the sole 'knob' present seemed that of the switch, and that didn't look to be able to twist – save, perhaps, to unscrew it. I tried twisting the stubby knurled projection, and the light became much brighter, so much so that it wasn't much less than a catalytically-enhanced candle lantern with a fresh candle and just-adjusted to its best brightness.

“I could use two of those things for sewing,” said Sarah.

“I would wait upon using any such lanterns, dear, as while these lanterns will find their uses here, there's been a lot of progress made in lighting since these were made.”

“They probably use something for lighting that I have no idea of,” I muttered.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “At least, not yet.” A pause, then, “most of their lighting is like that you're familiar with – it just lasts longer, gives more light, gives better light, and uses less power while doing those all of those things – and that is the case even if that light uses a filament, much like those do.” The implied yet unstated portion was 'many of them don't'.


The concept was such an outlandish one that I nearly didn't see what else lay on that pallet, these being also in fiberglass bins with latches.

“They were just trying these bins out, weren't they?” I asked, as I opened one of the other bins. I could tell at least one other tent-lantern was being picked up, with Sarah being as likely as anyone. I suspected a 'pot battery lantern' would be useful in certain portions of the basement at home, at least while we were gone – and since Anna had accepted the microscope's light source more than passably, I suspected she'd accept something like these. After all, we did have two other lanterns that acted in much the same way, and we did have two battery-chargers. I recalled both chargers being loaded on the cart, so one could stay at the house – and I suspected either Anna or Hans could spend fifteen minutes at a time to crank it if it meant some easily-added lighting in the darker places of the house.

“Yes, they were,” said the soft voice, “and your take on those lights being that efficient is a bit pessimistic.”

“An incandescent light being more efficient than a fluorescent one?” I asked.

“With their current techniques, yes,” said the soft voice. “Most of the existing lighting over there is done to not merely an older standard, but it's long past due for replacement – replacement as to type, if not replacement otherwise.”

“Then why do they use such lights?” asked Sarah. “Do those thugs and those over them wish those people to eat meat that is High?”

“There isn't enough meat there to go around,” said the soft voice, “at least there isn't if it's that type – and those people who wish such meat are quite a bit pickier about their meals in general than black-dressed thugs on the continent.” A pause, then, “meat-substitutes are severely rationed, with fish being available perhaps once a week to most 'commons' and somewhat more often to those 'commons' doing 'heavy work'.”

“One meal of fish?” I asked.

“No, one 'ration' of fish,” said the soft voice. “The ration in question is usually a decent-sized tin and contains enough food for several servings, much as do most currently-issued non-perishable foods.” A pause, then, “those that 'labor' there commonly eat in that place's versions of refectories, at least while they're on the premises.”

“Labor?” I asked.

“Functionaries 'labor',” said the soft voice. “There's some very good reasons why those who actually 'work' there eat but somewhat better – if one speaks of the amount of food issued to them – than many slaves in the fifth kingdom, and only because there are so many 'unemployed' people to 'scrounge' things do many of them still survive.”

A pause, then, “outright theft, while it is commonplace among those 'commons', is not an efficient means of securing much of anything there – and it invariably means certain death for an entire area should the thief attempt the theft of food.”

“They do not work them under the lash, do they?” asked Sarah.

Those thugs want to beat them to death worse than almost anything,” I said. “They love 'sport', and they don't need much of an excuse at all to use their clubs – and if they can't find one implied by the rules those over them make them memorize, they make one up on the spot so as to indulge their inclination of the moment.”

“Those people sound like witches,” said Sepp. “Now what gives with these little jugs here?”

Sepp had found some small containers – seemingly of tinned brass, though the moment I hefted one I knew it was not only not brass, but the 'solder' in the multiple seams of the thing wasn't anything we currently used – that had me puzzled until I read both sides. I then noted the inscription “No-Escape Bottle,” this in neatly stamped letters on the palm-sized 'jug'. My mumbling had Sarah bring that one 'tent-lantern' closer, such that I could see the thing better, and I began to look closer at our latest find.

“It's got this green, uh, rubber seal...”

“No, not rubber,” said the soft voice. “That's a special and – at that time – quite rare and very costly plastic, one similar in concept to some you've heard about where you came from.” A pause, then, “recall what you used for vacuum hoses on your last two cars? It's closer to that stuff.”

I could not recall the name of the thin black tubing in question, even if it was costly enough when I first found out about where to get it and nearly twice as expensive for a given quantity when I bought an entire roll some years later, this being between jobs. The original batch of tubing had endured better than anything like it I had used prior, and I did not wish to have trouble with vacuum leaks in engines as 'hot' as what went in my last car. The first car's engine would have simply run poorly with a vacuum leak, while those high-strung things would have burnt up in a great hurry.

“Then, there's two 'O' ring seals of the same material, for a total of three seals,” said the soft voice. “Now press that top bulge and gently twist the knurled portion just below it to get it started, and it will then come out readily.”

I did so, and while the first three such twists needed pressing the top 'screw' while turning – it was awkward and difficult to say the least – the remaining dozen or so twists needed to get the thing 'out' resulted in me removing something similar to a delicately machined 'carrot' of obvious titanium ringed with a pair of green 'o-rings' – and in the center of that 'carrot's' bottom, a long thin needle with a very small loop at its end.

“About perfect for that blue oil,” I murmured.

“Exactly, though that stuff will need spare o-rings should any be damaged or lost,” said the soft voice. “That type of bottle was used for a number of things soldiers didn't want escaping in the field, so it's medically treated inside as well as being chemically resistant.” Pause, then, “the spare o-rings are commonplace things overseas, but I'd bring a package with you just to be certain.”

“What did they not wish to escape?” asked Sarah.

Water-cleaning drops, for one thing,” said the soft voice. “Those were still in the laboratory then, even if they were ready in good time for that war. Then, there were the various grades of solvents used for one purpose or another, and finally, those rare instances where looted 'motor lubricant' like you have here or that but-slightly-more-common smelly green-tinted plant oil 'turned up'.” A pause, then, “every soldier wanted at least three of these things beyond the pair commonly issued, and that because of their near-universal usage.”

“Bins of them locked up still over there, I bet,” I muttered.

“The improved versions, yes,” said the soft voice. “These were the early versions, which were the best to be had over there until the war actually 'ended'. Since then, those war-time-made things were scrapped and then replaced with 'good' and then 'better' versions. That periodic-upgrade cycle has repeated for a very long time, so yes, they have 'bins' of them over there.”

“Did they test them?” I asked. I meant the 'newer' ones. These most likely had seen 'real-world' testing of a most-vigorous sort, that being done on the north coast by the 'first regiment' or whatever that modest-sized group of soldiers was actually called.

“Most thoroughly, though much of that testing was simulated until fairly recently,” said the soft voice. “Those there could be updated by exchanging the 'rubber' portions and they'd be nearly as good as the current ones.”

“How are they better, then?” asked Sarah.

“A range of sizes are currently available, for one,” said the soft voice, “and then more-precise workmanship overall, and then finally...”

“No more struggling to get the thing open, either,” I spluttered.

“That is why you'll wish to find some of the latest versions as soon as you can once you get there,” said the soft voice. “That was the single real complaint with those things, and the one problem that took them the longest to fix – and that wasn't done on a simulator, but by the people making the test examples.” A pause, then, “now, locate the pocket for that thing on what you're wearing, and slip it in – and then get a packet of spare 'seals' for it and those like it you think needful for the trip.” The unspoken portion – 'get a bunch of them for each of you' – had already been strongly implied.

I had no small trouble finding 'the' pocket, as there were a number of likely examples, and the bottle fit neatly in nearly all of those dozen or so that were of one size. On a whim, I fetched out the grenade from my possible bag and tried tucking it in one of that group of pockets – and it fit also, though a trifle more snuggly than the bottle had. I then went after the 'spare' o-rings and another three or so of the 'jugs'. The others had already 'gotten the idea', and Sarah was filling a bag with them.

“Those must be grenade pockets, then,” I muttered, as I found another cloth bag, this filled with several small tins. Removing one and opening it showed that it not merely had a dark-colored gasket as well as close fitting that needed 'unscrewing' as well as pulling, but also that the thing was filled with grass-green o-rings. The inside label specified their number as '200', and I really doubted if the witches had gotten to them.

They would prefer curses to effect such sealing, as that meant they were 'witches' and not mere 'men'. I then received more information about the 'combat vest' I was wearing.

“Grenades were commonly carried in something that wasn't yet issued when this equipment was 'current' in that military's 'organizational tables',” said the soft voice, “even if those pockets did work well for carrying grenades and 'firebombs'.” A pause, then, “now you have an idea as to not merely why each of those pockets has a place for a tactile label, but also why those small bottles were so coveted.”

“And these pockets appear to expand and contract quite a bit,” I murmured.

“They do, which also comes in handy,” said the soft voice. “The longer ones commonly held magazines of one kind or another, while some of the stranger-shaped pockets will soon have things for them.”

“Of one kind or another?” I asked.

“That was one part of training that changed a lot in a hurry once the war started,” said the soft voice. “Prior to the war, there were 'regulation' places for everything, but when that got people killed on the front line during surprise attacks by witch-soldiers coming 'out of nowhere', it was replaced very quickly with 'find the place that works best for you, and then make sure the people in your group know where you keep things in case you're hurt.” The unspoken matter was 'they used the tactile labels in a standardized fashion', which made that business take a lot less time and helped everyone in the group.

“What works in garrison seldom works well on the front-lines, and vise-versa,” I muttered.

“True,” said the soft voice. “Very true.”