I guess this is a night, for tomorrow, we must labor...
I came to myself, a 'cold one' in my hand, shaking and shuddering on a stool, the sticky taste of honey about my mouth, and Anna standing next to me, her head slowly shaking as she surveyed first the mess upon our battle-scarred table, and then, her chalk-white hands slowly turning the pages of my ledger.
“I s-saw that happen, and I d-don't believe it,” said Sarah, her voice shaking and on the edge of panic. “He was drawing with both hands, and I could see dust flying like a windstorm, and he was turning the pages as fast as I could breathe, and, and...”
“And he fell over in a dead faint,” said Anna. “At least you were quick enough with the honey so I did not need to tube him. Now what is all of this...” Anna paused, this to touch the drawing, then that which resembled it upon the paper. She then slowly shook her head, this in wonder.
“This is old stuff on the table, and its capacity is limited,” she said. “We need better, and if what I am seeing here is true, this is better, and not a little better.”
“No, dear, 'not a little better',” said the soft voice. “It might have cost him plenty, but what he did there is needed for your survival as a people – and hence he drew up the directions for making the best to be had.”
“Inked, and such handwriting,” said Anna in tones of wonder. She looked at me as I sucked down what was in my cup. Medicine or not, I did not care if the stuff made me crazy. I'd done an hour's work in what felt like...
“It felt like hours, but I knew it wasn't hours I was taking, and I had a w-writing dowel in both hands, and was wiping pages with what seemed a third hand, or my sleeve, or something, and I was writing and turning pages as if I were a whirlwind, and the noise... Oh, the noise, it was awful.”
“What was this noise?” asked Anna, suddenly intent and utterly serious.
“L-like Old Shuck, only there was more than just the one black stinker with a keg,” I muttered. “There were lots of those things, all in this big black mass, and they were c-coming as if they all were parts of a great machine.”
“What you heard is the truth,” said Anna. “Sarah, or someone, spoke of special ammunition for those weapons we used tonight, and I'm not sure if we used any, but you will wish to take some of it tomorrow.” A pause, then, much quieter, “what did I just say?”
“The truth,” said Sarah. “We will need to bag this stuff up, and hide it well, as there is no way we can put it all back in that box quickly, and there are several more such boxes that need opening before tonight is done for us.”
“We may be able to help some, as we are nearly done downstairs,” said Anna. “I brought the last of the knives up, and they gathered frost the instant I set them down when I found you” – here, I was being spoken to – “on the floor.” A pause, then, “I hope we have another large ledger, as this one has but little room left for drawings.”
“Two more,” said Sarah. “Now what did he draw in there?”
“A great deal,” said Anna. “Here is something called a c-cap-capacitor, only it makes that thing on the table there look worthless for working, and then this is a re-resistor, and this here is so strange that I can scarce understand it, even if I know what it does.” A pause, then, “it works like one of those things there, only so much better there's no p-possible way to compare it.”
“Uh, what?” I murmured. Anna had been pointing to one of the 'acorn tubes'.
“This one has plugs in one end,” said Anna. “They're small, ten in number, arranged in a circle which normally holds twelve, with a c-ceramic...” A pause, then in a small and terror-laden voice, “how is it I can speak s-such words?”
“Your toe,” I said dryly. “You're changing. It's happening.” A pause, then, “be glad you didn't change as much as I did on the way here.”
“H-how?” asked Sarah. “Is this like out of an old tale, one that speaks of 'hairy ones'?”
Anna shook her head, then said, “those barely got a whiff of that mule, dear. He's the mule entire.” She then resumed, “the internal structures are not made of welded wire, but machined precisely in a gridwork, and the welded tabs...” A pause, then, “maximum usable frequency is one dot two 'X' ten-incremented-nine cycles p-per s-standard t-time unit.”
“What is that?” I asked, regarding the phrase 'standard time unit'. I then had an intimation.
“Did I draw a tube fit for microwave use?” I asked.
“All of those devices you drew will function up into that frequency range,” said the soft voice, “which means the following – those where you are going will be able to have equipment that works properly for the first time in hundreds of years, and secondly, those tubes aren't going to act 'funny' when you wire them up in radios for the 'common' frequencies you'll most likely end up using.” Pause, then, “only when you start needing cavities for resonant circuits will those need what that one engineer said about microwave engineering – and no, they do not have a simulator like touchstone here.” Another pause, then, “the simulator they do have needs no small amount of work, and it has no libraries for such things at this time.”
A sudden hush crashed down, and I had to speak, even in my remaining weakness. Thankfully, it was fading fast as I drained my third ice-chilled cup. I'd need to visit the privy shortly, if my guts were not lying to me. I had words to say before I visited that room, however.
“I am not going to say what he said, as that's what witches are said to do here,” I muttered. “He did not mean chanting, curses, or anything of the sort.” A pause, then in lower voice, “he meant that stuff acts weird when the frequency gets high enough, and it doesn't seem to follow anything like rules then. It means you got to experiment a lot, and you smoke a lot of parts.” Another pause, then, “I saw that one amplifier, and he told me what it took to get it working – and that thing was a piece of work, gold-plated box and all.”
“Why would he do that?” asked Anna. “It sounds like he was working on a fetish.”
“No, no fetish,” I said. “It has to do with stuff that doesn't mean much at lower frequencies. You get up that high, and everything needs to be treated like it's a transmission line, and...” I paused, then, “their computers?”
“You can use those libraries,” said the soft voice, “and the 'internal wiring' on those things isn't like anything you've seen.”
“Internal wiring?” I asked. “What, thin braided coaxial cable, each such signal signed with its complement, terminated properly, gold – no, not gold. It looks like gold, but it makes high frequencies behave themselves.”
“You are learning,” said the soft voice. “Now, once you're feeling better – you needed that beer, as Sepp's mess isn't done with you; there's some of that special salt, also, in that small tin behind the third jug, and a pinch or two is wise – you can help Sarah bag up the contents of that box and put them by the end of the stairs going up, as you'll wish to hide those in your room and the empty boxes next to your workbench.”
“Help sort them out some, also,” I said, as I went for the tin. I was stunned to find it, as it was an iridescent bright blue color, small enough to pocket readily – and it screwed apart, with a soft green gasket in the lid. The material inside was a white crystalline material, and the taste indescribably bitter when I got two pinches down. It helped to drink another cup of beer to wash that bitter flavor out of my mouth.
“Yes, if you can do so quickly,” said the soft voice as a rejoinder to my most-recent experience with bad tastes. “Keep drinking that beer, and don't mind the frequent trips to the privy. All three jugs became the full mule regarding what Sarah had those times she was 'dried out' from a nasty species of what passes for 'cholera' here – and ingesting what's in mule-dung, even if the water is carefully strained and then boiled, is not a joke.”
“You what?” squeaked Anna. “Don't you know that stuff is poison?”
“He does, but Sepp thought that water was safe,” said Sarah. “He was careful, but those witches packed that well with dried mule-dung, or so we were told.”
“Then boiling our water is not nearly enough, not when all of our well-diggers are bones-holding witches and wish to murder us,” spat Anna. “We must treat all of our water as if it came from Badwater itself, and distill the stuff entire, both bathing and drinking.” Anna then spied the small bright blue tin.
“Bathing?” I asked, as she picked up the tin and looked at it, then unscrewed it. A touch of her finger, a taste, then a sudden nodding of her head in understanding. She then promptly screwed the tin back together, and put it down.
“There is something about mule-traces that poisons the ground,” said Anna. “I am not sure what it is, but I hope those people overseas can determine what it is...” Anna looked at me in shock, then squeaked, “how is it I am now speaking as if I could read a Gustaaf and say all of its words, and how did I know that medicine I just tasted is what it is and how you'll all most likely need it in short order?”
“Your toe,” said Sarah quietly. “That, and what you are being given is needed for you to do what is entrusted to you.” A pause, then, “do not go out of the house unarmed, and always keep a weapon handy waking or sleeping, just like Esther tries to do.”
“Your cousin doesn't try to do that, she does it,” I said. “Now for another box, I think... No, need to clear this table off first, as those things are all packed like that one was.”
“I'll get the bags,” said Anna, as she laid my near-filled ledger down and shot into the kitchen. She stored her used – and laundered – bags there. She'd been washing those things a lot lately, for some reason. I suspected dumping the things in a spare tub with a chopped up piece of laundry soap, dousing them with hot water from the stove, stirring them now and then, soaking them for a while in more hot water, then hanging them up where they'd fit didn't take much added time in the course of her busy day.
As near-frantic labor bustled about me, I idly flipped though the hundreds of pages that had somehow become clearly drawn, carefully inked in multiple colors, and all of it astonishingly detailed, and as I looked about the table to compare what I was seeing in the ledger and what I was seeing on the table, a clear difference, one starting from the very subatomic foundations of matter and going up into the odd 'macrostructure' of the devices themselves, became more and more apparent.
“This isn't an improvement,” I murmured. “This here borders on a revolution.”
“True, it does,” said the soft voice. “They need one overseas, and one is needed here as well.”
However, when I found three 'ledger' batteries, these with their ampules of electrolyte present in intact form and tied to them with that dark 'string', I set those aside in my workbench. I would want several of those, I knew, and I would have a use for them in short order.
I was going to take that small radio with me, and see if anyone was transmitting. I had a hunch someone was, and us knowing about their transmissions might well save our collective hides.
The eerie sense of 'absolutely right' I felt made up my mind, and I knew the radio, a suitable set of batteries, and the charger...
I then saw the glistening blue-black sides of the things. “They'll charge up in sunlight.”
“True, but you don't have a week for them to entirely charge, and then that place overseas is like twilight for darkness when the lights are on,” said the soft voice. “While you will wish that one larger generator, just keep looking in the other rocket boxes, and keep your ledgers handy while you do so.”
My hands had been busy otherwise, and as the table became cleared off passably, I wondered: would it be simpler to just have a new table made entire at the house proper, or would it be faster to salvage the current one? I thought to ask Sarah as she cleaned up the last of her side and made ready for business once more, but I found it unneeded to speak. She'd either read my mind, or had been thinking likewise.
“I suspect I was thinking likewise,” said Sarah – whose speaking made the conundrum I had posited worse and not better. “This table is not merely badly damaged, but it is quite old and badly made, and losing its finish showed me many rotten areas as well as those places where shot and balls tore the wood.” A pause, then, “it may be faster for those people to just make a new one, and while doing so make it a foot or more for longer and nearly the same for wider.”
“And run the remains of this piece of scrap through a shredder,” I muttered. I then squeaked, “what?”
“One of those machines will be coming over on the second or third trip once their dock is built in its place on the river,” said the soft voice. “It's needed for paper production – and those people want paper nearly as much as they desire wolfram and silver.”
“Toss your old furniture into the thing and get something you can use instead of just burning the stuff,” I muttered. “Perhaps some cooking fuel – decent recent-formula stuff, not that solidified Benzina called 'military cooking fuel'.”
“There is that,” said Sarah. “It isn't particularly rare in that market town, even if it took me much of a year to learn when and where to go so as to find it consistently.”
“Consistently?” I asked.
“One must know who is likely to receive it for sale before it should arrive, and then when a lot will arrive, and then camp upon the seller's doorstep for at least an hour before dawn, which is when most shops open in that market town,” said Sarah. “If one has ready coin and is the first to go in their shop when a new lot has come in, then getting some is not difficult.” A pause, then, “if one arrives an hour or so after sunrise, which is when that market town truly wakes up, then it is very difficult to get, and the price is commonly much higher as well.”
“Scarce?” I asked.
“Not merely scarcity,” said Sarah. “If you have camped out upon the doorstep of a shop for a period of hours so as to be the first one inside such a store when it opens, and you are dressed like a student, then the shopkeeper most likely knows that you will be traipsing into dangerous areas, and that their survival depends upon you receiving a supply of what they have.” A pause, a long drink, a demure belch during which I passed the salt tin to Sarah, then, “it helps if you are recognized, also.” She then looked at the tin.
“Recognized?” I asked, as she unscrewed it. All the while, she seemed astonished at the color, at least until she tasted the salt and then put two pinches in her cup before screwing the lid back in place. She nodded, both in stunned shock and surprise, or so I thought until I all but read her mind: 'we needed that, and now we have it. I'll make certain it's packed in our medical satchels'.
“He did not believe me to be who I said I was until I showed him the ribbon,” said Sarah, as she pushed the tin back toward me. Its eerie blue color seemed to have a rainbow aura. “He asked no more questions then, and sold me what I needed at the usual rate for that stuff, not the variable rates which depend upon who is tossing pouches of coins at those selling scarce materials.”
“Ribbon?” I asked. “What did it mean?”
“If one is first in one's class, one wears a bright red ribbon upon one's clothing, one pinned just below one's shoulder with a special pin,” said Sarah, “and that ribbon confers some unusual treatment in much of the fourth kingdom.” A pause, then, “in and around that market town, you can and usually do get the pick of most anything a student might wish, but outside of it...”
“Outside of that area, to show it often means death,” I squeaked, “and you needed to be careful to not wear it openly anywhere save among your classmates at the west school!”
“True enough,” said Sarah, as she sat down. I had one bag left to fill, and I filled it quickly, then took both of the bags I had filled and put them at the foot of the stairs going up before fetching another rocket box.
The heft of this box seemed greater, but when I opened it the smell – not merely a preservative packet with a green label – 'got to me' in the worst way imaginable. I first took out a device that looked too much like an old pencil sharpener for me to wonder much, even if the thing had a handle to hang onto for the hand not turning the too-long folding crank.
“Thing needs three hands to use, though,” I muttered, as I set it down. I was about to reach for the next rag-wrapped article when I saw first the switch plate hidden under the holding handle, and then the binding posts above it, these also hidden – and then, the carefully-wrapped wires with their plugs held inside that folding handle. The whole was obviously a very well-thought-out piece, and it was small and light enough to easily pack, even when needing to make real time for several long and arduous days.
“What is that thing?” I gasped.
“A rather unusual portable generator, one stolen from the 'hoard' of a recently-deceased witch,” said the soft voice. “It was not made in this area, but overseas, and how it got out of that particular laboratory and into his hands is something of a 'great-secret' at this time.”
I clicked through the half-dozen switches once, then tried turning the fold-down handle's knob. To my surprise, it was but a little 'sticky-feeling', and when I saw what looked like oil-holes in several locations, I knew exactly what to do.
Droplets of oil, courtesy of my awl, went into those holes; and with succeeding applications of oil and wiping of the 'mess' that ensued as I continued turning the crank, the thing seemed to both free up and become noticeably quieter. Finally, as I gave it another dose of oil – it wanted one each time it was used, and would need due care and protection if we took it overseas – I asked, “how much is this thing good for?”
“Figure if you set it for 'pot batteries' and you start with a flat one, you'll need to crank for an hour steadily to put a decent charge in that battery and two hours of steady cranking to get a full charge.” A pause, then, “granted, not terribly hard work, but still, it is work.”
“It's small enough to pack readily, so I would take it,” said Sarah. “Now, is this thing one of those things that needs frequent dismantling and cleaning?”
“No more than what he's been doing to clean it out,” said the soft voice. “By the way, there are no 'sleeve' bearings in that device, and it's far more capable than you might think for a device of its size.”
“What kind of bearings does it have?” I asked. The gears in the thing had gone utterly silent with the third dose of oil, which made for wondering as to just how good they were. “Needle bearings?”
“Imported-from-Vrijlaand needle bearings, shafts, and gears,” said the soft voice, “and otherwise, that device is one of the first good copies of a much-used Vrijlaand generator to come out of the overseas laboratories.” A pause, then, “keep dosing it every time you use it, wipe it off periodically, and you'll keep it running quiet and smooth.”
“No seals?” I asked.
“Remember, this was a Vrijlaand design,” said the soft voice. “That means they expected it to need dosing with oil regularly – as in each time it was used – and the leaky 'seals' ensured that it would be wiped down regularly with the oil used – again, each time it was used.”
“Which would keep it from rusting or things worse yet that happened with metals we no longer have,” said Sarah. “That place was bad for rusting then, and the sea as it is now may and may not be worse.”
“Hence wiping down what is in the pot on the stove,” I said.
That seemed to remind Sarah that the pot's contents needed a brief stint of stirring, and when she added a bit more shaved-up wax, she put a common spoon in it, removed it, then touched the cooled 'grease'. “It's a bit sticky still, and somewhat slimy to the touch, but it is not like that grease that makes me wish to bathe in that soap with the herbs so as to get it off of me.”
“Kills the worst of the tormenting aspect,” I said. “Just needs packing up... No, gently cooking it overnight before we do that. That stuff needs time to mingle – not much stirring during that time, but it needs that steady low heat to, uh, change the molecules in a most-subtle manner. It'll be a good deal better then, both for preventing rust and how it feels to touch it.”
I then took out another example of 'battery torch', this one showing such signs of obvious newness that I knew it had been looted and then packed away immediately for use when they 'left in a hurry'. In this much better light compared to the darkness of the Abbey's 'armory', I noted not merely the instructions much better, but also a host of details that I had not seen at all in the dimness of the Abbey.
The 'flashlight' portion now showed its 'texture' this to give a better grip under the grime and mess of a gore-splattered battlefield, much like the hall had been, or the laboratory when Iggy was trying to set us alight; then the cable connecting the two main portions, this somewhat thicker and 'slicker' than I recalled, its weave finer and more 'covering'. Looking at this latter, I had a strange impression indeed.
“Stuff probably is mean to cut,” I thought.
“Try closer to 'it ruins untreated files almost as fast as your latest batches of tool-steel',” said the soft voice. “It isn't even close to what you used for critical parts in your car, both for strength and hardness.”
“That stuff was still awful to machine,” I muttered. I was glad I had constructed a computer-controlled wire-fed EDM machine: it may have been slower than molasses chilled with dry ice and burned power like a bad nightmare when I needed to use it, but it did cut titanium passably while giving a smooth finish – and it cleaned out broken-off taps fairly quickly with minimal damage to the tapped portions in the workpiece.
“Almost want to make one of those things for here,” I thought.
“There are three of them at the Abbey, though they'll wish 'going through' before you use them,” said the soft voice. “Yours worked better, to put it mildly – even if it was something of a makeshift.”
“It did?” I gasped, as I traced out the carrying straps of the battery box and lifted its lid. Within was another of those electrolyte ampules, and in this case, I read the writing upon it with care, then began to try to first draw and then write the words. After the third mangled word, though, I flicked my hand in a fit of pique across the scrawled letters – and suddenly, the drawing of the entire 'torch' blossomed across the page, this accurate and in full color, the drawing itself surrounded by text and numbers of arrow-tipped lines connecting text to details.
“Now to put the electrolyte in this one,” I thought. “I might not be able to use this thing overseas, but I'll bet I can use it in the basement here and in the dark places at the house proper, and having a spare example is a good idea.”
“I think so,” said Sarah, as I put in the electrolyte. I touched the battery, asking it receive a charge, then tested the light. It would need repeated uses to become fully capable, which meant servicing the other charger before we left. “I know Anna will wish it, as Hans has but started on that mess down there, and the two of them will be spending much time putting that place right while we are gone.”
“Started?” I asked.
“I think she is finding a great deal he missed,” said Sarah. As if to confirm matters, I heard Anna yell, her voice as high-pitched and pure as the scream of a violin, “Hans! I found a whole box of drugs, and all of them made by the Veldters!” Grumbling replies, then Anna again: “No matter. We'll have people here soon enough that can read this language, and I hope I can learn enough of it to know what these things are good for.”
“I'll try to teach her what I can tomorrow,” said Sarah. “I knew there was some of that stuff down there.”
“Some of that stuff is fit for injection, or..?” I asked.
Sarah looked at me in the strangest way, then asked, “how would they do that?”
“Boiled water, then put some of those, uh, tablets in it, let them dissolve, then suck up the liquid in one of those Spraetzen,” I said. “I suspect some of that stuff is used for treating pain.”
Sarah looked at me in horror, then gulped, “I hope not. It would make people crazy for certain unless they have...”
“They do, and in similar form,” said the soft voice. “More, those are 'emergency drugs', ones used 'out in the field' so as to get people to where they can receive definitive treatment – and the usual for 'long-hairs' is to carry enough of such materials to keep badly injured people alive for some days.”
“Blood-extenders?” I asked. I was thinking of things that were used where I came from, one name being 'Dextran'.
“They wish they had what's available where you're going,” said the soft voice. “What they do have works fairly well notwithstanding.”
“Fairly well?” I asked.
“Better than anything currently available where you come from, and not a little better,” said the soft voice. “Where you are going, though... That stuff works fully as good as whole blood, and you don't have to worry about anything beyond 'pumping it in' – and they can pump it in rapidly enough to stabilize injuries that would kill in less than a minute where you came from, even given the best care available.”
“Stabilize?” I asked.
“That's not including the other 'medicines', by the way,” said the soft voice. “Recall about reading about how certain major arteries, if damaged badly, cause rapid death from loss of blood?”
I nodded mentally. Sarah, however, did more than nod.
“I hope we can get some of that stuff then, as those injuries are commonplace when fighting swine and those people that come with them,” she said. “I've seen a number of people bleed to death quickly, and I think those northern people know what parts to hit or stab so as to cause death in a great hurry.”
“They do, dear,” said the soft voice. “They might not receive much formal training, but between what they do receive from their 'battle-masters' and the near-constant warfare that goes on among them, any branded northern thug is a capable fighter when it comes to edged weapons.”
“Twin teeth,” I murmured, with the recollection. “That isn't the only brand they get, is it?”
While there was no answer, I made a brief note on the current page of my ledger, and absent-mindedly wiped it with my left hand. The note grew with a sudden abruptness to cover much of the page in neatly printed black letters, almost as if a good fourth-kingdom print-shop had done what I now saw. I then saw the illustrations.
“No...” I murmured. “Those people get inked up a lot more than most people think they do, and they start inking them the day they get tinned!”
“More than that,” said the soft voice. “I'd put that document in the 'rat-catcher's manual' along with anything else of a similar nature that occurs to you, as you just learned some critical issues that will supply many answers to those overseas and why their leadership acts as they have been doing for quite some time.” A pause, then, “now for a surprise. Keep emptying that box there.”
As I snapped the light into the clip proper, I noted once more the two rings, and saw, this for the first time, the letters 'FOCUS' and 'POWER' on their respective rings. Feeling them again, this time in good light while not feeling half-smothered and sick from food best fed to black dogs in lieu of poison, had me notice their feeling much better, as well as noting the waterproof aspect of the whole flashlight. I then looked closer at what had been packed in the device.
“My, such filters,” as I noted green, red, blue, and a color that reminded me of 'darkness', save it passed a certain frequency. For some odd reason, I thought to ask for 'a special filter, one that permits us to see passably while their sensors will have trouble picking it up.”
The filters shook, and I took out a strange yellow-green one, and snapped it on the front of the flashlight proper. A flick of the power ring, and the whole room seemed bathed in a sickly yellow-green, one oddly 'modulated' such that one felt ill upon seeing it.
“What gives with that light?” squeaked Sarah.
“If you use that filter on one of those lights, those monitoring devices will give an error signal, rather than trigger that software used in those monitoring computers,” said the soft voice, “and those watching will ignore such signals and chalk it up to an overhead light that needs replacement.”
“Which they will eventually get around to doing when those functionaries have nothing better to do,” I muttered.
“Years,” said the soft voice. “Years which they do not have.” A pause, then, “before you put that 'Torch' away, look closer at that battery, as they are most-common devices overseas.”
I did so, seeing the electrolyte port, the two gold-toned screws, one showing a red dot – positive, I knew now, courtesy of the dot's 'shape'' – and the other dot a black one, this showing the '-' signifying negative.
I looked in vain for one of those 'tools', and suddenly realized their rarity then and their near-mythic status today.
“No, there are a few of them, but you'll only find the ones currently in use in the possession of those special functionaries that mingle among the commons.” A pause, then, “hit the right warehouses, though, and you'll find a good number of them – and the citizens over there will desire them.”
I noted then the braided cable hanging out still, and took my oil vial with its 'companion' awl. I saw two tiny holes, ones so small they could easily be missed in less than bright light, and when I dosed those holes, one after another, the cord seemed to 'get the message' and with a slight tug, it slithered into its 'lair' with growing speed.
“Another two drops, and it's good to go,” I thought, as I put action to my words. “Now, what is next?”
“First, look at what you wrote regarding that light,” said the soft voice. “It gives some valuable history, information you need to know. It will help you understand a number of things you find and document tonight.
“Like this strange thing I'm trying to draw here,” said Sarah. “It shows this picture of a cart of some kind like I've seen in the third kingdom's back country, but the spokes are so thin that the lines I'm using make them look like the wheels of a donkey-cart.”
“Bicycle wheels, or something similar,” I said. “They scavenged them, most likely, and...”
“The witches originally scavenged them, and the workers stole them from the witch-hoards when those witches were shot,” said the soft voice. “They did use them that way, and that cart was not left behind, as it carried most of their heavier supplies rapidly and could be readily portaged when needed.” A pause, then, “they managed to capture a group of 'draft marmots' within hours of breaking out, and those animals hauled most of their heavier supplies during that long night using that cart,” said the soft voice. “They traded the marmots off every two hours, and those six animals helped them stay clear of the witches until they were safe in Vrijlaand, where those animals were most-welcome so as to replenish Vrijlaand's depleted stock of such animals.”
“And help find forage for the group,” I said. “Rachel was not doing well during the first third of the trip.”
As I perused what I had 'written', the words 'intercept' kept cropping up. I recalled some of the good flashlights I had had in the past, and looking once more at the 'torch' made for a startling recollection.
“Better materials, closer tolerances, battlefield-tested, and steadily improved, with the whole thing done on a 'desperation-measures' basis,” I thought. A pause, then, “these people fought that whole war that way, and doubly so once they got ahold of what the Mistress of the North had for her plans.”
“More than that,” said the soft voice. “They got a lot of ideas from intercepting pictures of those flashlights like you had where you came from, and they thereby knew something of their weaknesses – which they worked hard to correct.”
“Is that why the battery is in its belt-case?” I asked. “My big one got corroded when I left the batteries in too long and they went r-rotten...”
A pause, then, “they have that picture, among others,” said the soft voice. “That will get onto them when you're examined over there.” A pause, then, “that small hand-cranked generator was normally issued with those lights when they became 'common-issue' items, just like rifles, rocket-launchers, mortars, and ammunition, and 'small-groups' commonly carried two or three of each item, in addition to their personal weapons and their own supplies.”
“Small-group?” I asked. “How many people..?”
“It varied quite a bit, actually,” said the soft voice. “They didn't have 'squads', 'platoons', 'companies', and 'Regiments' during that war,” said the soft voice, “even if the witches did.” A pause, then, “think carefully. When you were reading that one particular book by a certain individual fighting in that first great conflict, he spoke of certain people he could trust, people he knew, and picking them personally when he had to do an especially dangerous assignment later in that war.” Another pause, then, “that is the closest analogy to a 'small-group' you're familiar with.” A third pause, then, “though if most or all of those people picked were marked, then a better analogy might be an 'A-Team'.”
“What?” I squeaked. “Why?”
“You demonstrated why several times tonight,” said the soft voice. “Think if you were leading people like, say, a group of itinerant tailors, about half of which are either marked or close enough to being that way that they've been hunted like animals for many years.”
“I know about that part,” said Sarah, as she pulled something out of the box and began removing its rag covering. “We'll have plenty of rags for those people, as no rag-merchant would wish these nasty things.”
“Too old?” I asked.
“Covered with grease, also...” Sarah stopped, then drew forth a folded drawing, this of waxed paper, and looked at it in growing shock and horror. Her mouth moved silently, this mouthing words, almost as if she were chanting, her eyes growing wider by the second in terror. She then showed the drawing – it was a drawing, this done much as many of mine this evening – with her face blanched white in shock.
“An e-engine,” she moaned. “It-it's c-cursed. The witches...”
“They probably didn't want anything like that, dear,” I said. “That thing coming out of the crankcase is a carburetor, which means it isn't a compression-ignition engine.” I then began pawing through the remnants of what was in the box, and came up with an obvious two-stroke piston, this with four ready-installed rings and showing no use whatsoever. I took the drawing, then said, “that is not an injector on top of that thing, either. It looks an awful lot like a sparking plug – like some smaller ones I've used, in fact.”
“Be glad you spoke of it that way,” said the soft voice. “The common term overseas is 'igniter', but they'll understand the term you just used.” A pause, then, “if you called it a 'spark plug', though – that has an entirely different meaning among those people, and they don't speak of it much.”
“Which is?” I asked. I meant 'spark plug'.
“What they called curse-detonators, as they commonly sparked before exploding if they encountered them in the field,” said the soft voice. “The 'bad' ones gave sufficient warning that way that one could usually fall 'flat down' – hence training like you were doing with Gabriel recently, and in much the same fashion, was heavily emphasized once the war had started in earnest – and avoid most of the the splinters, but those set by the cronies of that one expert witch usually just gave one brief red flash that was joined instantly by a much bigger purplish one – which meant entire 'large-groups' being turned into 'lizard-food'.”
“Lizard-food?” I asked. I had a suspicion as to what that meant: being devoured by land-crawling reptiles – which did look like smaller and fatter alligators, with a bit of Gila monster thrown in for coloration – while still all-too-alive. It gave an entirely new and grisly meaning regarding 'save the last bullet for yourself'.
“The water-lizards commonly ate corpses when they smelled them,” said the soft voice, “and given their sheer numbers present in much of the battle-zones, more than one injured man used his last bullet on the lizard rather than himself – and thereby saved his life.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “There would be more lizards coming, wouldn't there?”
“Yes, but fresh-killed 'water-lizard' is a delicacy compared to 'fresh human', if you were a water-lizard of that time and place,” said the soft voice. “There were a lot of those lizards in the green areas, so if they could find nothing tastier, they would crawl out of their lairs and dine upon soldiers if they were hungry enough.”
For some reason, a scrap of poetry – not mine; it was much older – came to me:
“When you're wounded and sore on district nine's mains,
And the scavengers come to dine on your remains,
Just kill each one that tries, and trust to your brains,
And fight for your God like a soldier.”
It was not what I recalled; I knew that much. I thought to ask anyway.
“They have the original poem from a later prewar intercept, but as you know well from where you come from, 'there are no atheists in the trenches, and precious few that yet live upon the battlefields' – or so it was said where you came from, anyway,” said the soft voice. “Those speaking so weren't facing serious witches in human wave attacks, either – leastways in recorded history, they weren't.” A pause, then, “that version you just learned was 'made up' using that intercepted poem to describe what war was like when fighting an enemy that only respected death, and the 'old hares' sent home for training 'recruits' would speak of the new versions – and some of the 'better' versions they came up with became 'army-chants' that the recruits would sing as they did their morning 'runs'.”
“That one I just heard sounds bad enough to suit me,” said Sarah, who was putting things from the box on the table with their rag wrappings underneath them. “Now this thing here I recognize, as I've seen things like it on your workbench in recent days.” Sarah paused, then asked plaintively – a first for her, in my recollection – “I might have some idea as to what this does, but no one would ever tell me its name, not even at the Heinrich works, and those people at Machalaat Brothers were worse-yet for being close-mouthed.” A pause, then, “what is it called?”
“A connecting rod,” I said. “That one there looks like it belongs in a two-stroke engine,” I murmured, as I took up the waxed paper again, and spluttered, “that's exactly what this thing is! It's a little motor like some I remember, and...” I paused, then asked, “why were they carrying all these parts to one of these little smoke-billowing noise-makers?”
“Because firstly, every witch worth his curses had at least one of these things, and then they were very common in most of the green area districts,” said the soft voice. “That district – number nine – spoken of was in a hard-fought green area region, and not only did it have a lot of dykes and canals, but also a lot of shot-up places that had made parts for these things.”
I removed the half of a crankshaft, noting that its crankpin was of the 'keyed and bolted' type, then looked hard at the thing. The aspect of 'fetishism' was remarkable in its high polished finish.
“No, nothing about this engine was intended to be a fetish, and those who planned to leave with Rachel knew finding parts to this thing, enough to get it working and keep it operational, would be an easy matter, or so they thought as they finished up their plans during their 'last' days at the Abbey.” A pause, then, “those flying daggers coming after them had them going through a part of 'district nine' while a high-intensity conflict was raging between those from overseas, a pair of other nations holding the south flank of the battlefield, and the witches trying to roll up the northern flank using heavy enfilade fire from artillery and machine guns – and the escapees were going house to house, using cover when and where possible, and shooting the witches in those houses when and where they showed themselves – and using – and taking – knives when and where they could.”
The unsaid part was 'the soldiers most likely left them be, especially as they were killing witches as if they were a 'heavy' scout-team, and every person shooting shot like an expert marksman' – one who seldom missed his target and wasted not a single second's time in the process of killing.
Given what they had endured in the last few years in apparent time, those shooting were expert marksmen, as they'd been trained in the hardest school there was – one where your first mistake was invariably your last, and you died screaming and wreathed in flames upon a witch's altar as a sacrifice to Brimstone – while the witch laughed at you between chanting rune-curses at the top of his lungs.
“What was all of that?” asked Sarah. “Traveling through a burnt-out village is a good way of throwing scent-hounds and swine off of your scent, as both of those things get sore noses from sniffing hot ashes.”
“Same idea, only they had prewar wasps after them,” said the soft voice, “and the corpses drew a lot of those things – and then the soldiers shot down most of the rest of them anyway, as they knew all about 'wired wasps' and how they were commonly used by witches then.”
“For killing?” I asked.
“A commonplace 'warhead' was something resembling a medium-sized pipe-bomb for size and shape, only it was much worse for destruction – and the wasp acted just like a dive-bomber to unload it.” A pause, then, “not a normal dive bomber, either – the wasp usually flew right into the middle of the group before detonating that charge, and it went up along with the bomb so as to poison the bomb-splinters.”
“Stinking divine-wind wasps! I spat. There was no word for 'Kamikaze' in this language, and it was likely to be impossible for the majority to pronounce anyway.
I then realized my error, as there was nothing 'divine' about these particular curse-conjured 'bugs'. “Divine? Try more like 'brimstone-breath' wasps! The soldiers probably kept loaded shotguns handy for downing them, and not just the double-barreled types, but pump-action shotguns with detachable magazines loaded with sizable shot.”
“That was the other main reason soldiers carried shotguns,” said the soft voice. “It soon became a mandatory matter – at least one soldier in three carried a shotgun, preferable a repeating example, and those men commonly scanned the air overhead and to the sides so as to spot wasps coming in, either as 'remotely piloted spy vehicles' or as 'intelligent weapons'.” A pause, then, “a swarm of those things coming at wood-pigeon speeds, each with a one-pound high-explosive fragmentation bomb – those wasp-swarms caused tremendous casualties until tactics and weapons were developed to defeat them.”
As more and more engine parts came out, I noted a definite trend: these parts reminded me of some I had once seen, these parts – both those I was seeing now and those of recollection – being marginal for 'real' use: too-loose tolerances, bad materials, poor heat-treating – the whole being so infernally blatant that when I found a leather-bound 'manual', this of 'wax-treated' leather and having perhaps a dozen hand-sewn waxed-paper treated pages, I noted first the somewhat blotchy nature of the paper itself, almost as if the stuff had been made by hand, then what was written upon it in crude-looking black block letters. A wipe of my hand not merely cleared up the lettering, but the 'manual' changed so drastically that it was no longer the same book. I then noted I had Sarah by my side, and closed the thing to see its title.
“How to keep your generator engine running.”
Leafing through this manual – it was no longer a 'slim' piece now; the thin paper of the inch-thick book slick, glossy, and possibly 'treated' – spoke of not merely how the parts were made – mostly by hand using jigs and fixtures, though with a level of care that astonished me – but the book also spoke in detail of the poor materials available to the firms in question, and what was done to cope with a poorly-designed powerplant so as to make it a truly dependable power source. A lot of firms – mostly small shops with a handful of employees, though a few had enough people and business to have 'engineering' departments – had writ in substantial detail as to what they did to try to make the 'miserable' materials available work after a fashion, and the uniformly poor results they had received for all of their time and labor.
Not merely did they labor long and hard upon this type and size of engine, even if that was commonly seen as the chief troublemaker. The engine was most commonly connected to a Direct Current generator, this with a long shaft of soft slaggy metal that wore readily when under 'real' loads; special 'tapered-roller-bearings' that required constant attention to avoid undue friction, with shims of varied thickness being used to compensate for the wear of the 'soft' steel; poor lubricants – that green smelly plant oil was especially coveted, and there was a black-market of sorts for it – and finally, finding a suitable fuel 'mixture' that worked through the marginal 'mixer' that would both give good consumption and help the engine live longer than a handful of hours when pushed 'moderately hard'.
There was a lot of experimentation regarding fuel mixtures, oils, and 'jetting', due to the paucity of fuel available in the green areas; and stolen high-proof 'grain alcohol' figured prominently, that and another species of alcohol – undrinkable, deadly poisonous, evil-smelling, and easily made in chemistry laboratories – were preferred fuels, with heavy distillate added in varying amounts to help the poor lubricants available actually 'work'.
“This thing sounds like a piece of work,” I muttered, wondering why I was bothering to read it. I then recalled a certain pair of 'engine' sounds, one quiet and refined, and the other an earsplitting roar-scream-howl that made the brain shake like a tree in a hurricane.
“And I'll need to make both of them, hence this is telling me what not to do, and more, what they had for such engines...”
“They have little readily available information on spark-ignition engines overseas, as they were seldom used once the current leadership took power, and their use was completely discontinued during the early phase of the war.”
However, as I looked over what had once filled the now-empty box, I noted a number of critical engine parts that were obviously missing, enough that while carrying these parts to such an engine might work out, those carrying them would have to take time and effort hunting for both intact versions of the missing items, but also then assemble them and the other parts into a working powerplant – and then find a suitable species of fuel for it – fuel mixed with a lubricant of some kind, with the ratio depending upon the lubricant being used. That 'smelly plant oil' wanted twenty parts of fuel for one of oil with a run-in engine, and those lubricants of lesser effectiveness wanted both more oil and larger jets – jetting rich enough to billow clouds of blue-gray smoke when the engine was running under a load.
“Not for a generator, though,” I thought. “What would they have used it for?”
“Powering that cart, for one thing,” said the soft voice. “The marmots proved a better deal, even if the idea of a cart traveling at the pace of a rapid jog for hours at a time with but one person to lead it and most of the others running behind it with lightened packs seemed very attractive during those periods where speed mattered over all else.” A pause, then, “and of course, if they found generator parts, they would have kept those also.” Another pause, then, “keep reading that 'pamphlet'. Sarah can draw these parts well enough, but you need to read that thing.”
Again, I encountered a drawing showing not merely the generator's engine, but also the generator, and I noted the armature of the generator provided the engine with a most-weighty flywheel. Reading further, I started seeing a lot of crucial matters as to assembly, with an emphasis upon especial care and cleanliness, as well as an astonishing degree of selective fit-up of the various parts so as to achieve 'just-right' tolerances – much as if one were building a racing kart motor, one which turned at speeds more appropriate to model airplane engines running expensive fuel.
“Run-in,” I murmured. “Adjust engine's jetting until it billows black oily soot for its initial starting, run for a few minutes at a fast idle, then completely dismantle and check for undue wear...” I then mumbled, “sounds familiar – they probably had to relieve the pistons because no two of those things behaved consistently.”
“That, and the break-in rings were a softer grade of cast iron compared to the 'running' rings,” said the soft voice. “Read on.”
“Failure to do this will result in rapid wear or an explosion,” I murmured.
“I thought so,” said Sarah.
“Different type of explosion, dear,” I said. “I've not seen one of those awful things used by witches go up close enough to be able to speak of it, but I have seen engines let go when a part failed under test.” Pause, then, “I had to douse one with a fire-extinguisher once, just to be safe – I was running it up on the test stand, and a wrist-pin broke.” Another pause, then, “to set the timing correctly, do not bother with the markings on the timing disk, as they invariably are badly off. Use an accurate dial indicator on the upper sealing surface of the cylinder and measure the distance the piston is down the bore each and every time you set the timing on these things, and keep accurate records of the timing settings for each engine and fuel mix you use.”
To myself: “this is sounding more and more like an unlimited kart engine – one of those things that almost wants fetishistic practices so as to get it to hold together long enough to win a race.”
“Closer than you might think, given what they had to work with and what these people expected of them,” said the soft voice. “The next section gives the important portions.”
“For the first five to ten runs, set the timing closer to 'nominal', relieve the piston as needed, and then progressively lean out all three carburetor jets.... Main, pilot, and 'power'?” This last was a mental squeak. “That carburetor? Looks like it belongs on a lawn mower.”
“It's a lot more sophisticated than it looks, and they scrapped a lot of parts making those with their tools and equipment,” said the soft voice. “It needed to be, as these engines, especially when running that 'synthetic' alcohol, had weird fuel requirements.”
“Carefully debur all engine parts during assembly, true crankshaft carefully, replace all bearings with imported ones...” I smiled, then thought, “most of the domestic ones were junk, probably.”
“You gave them credit they did not warrant,” said the soft voice. “Now, read about the porting issues.”
“Clean up ports, but do not enlarge them,” I thought upon reading. “This next heading has the title of 'non-makeshift repairs'. I wonder what they mean?”
The rest of the book seemed to grow, as here, I saw not merely drawings, but also instructions as to how to make parts that were correctly sized of the right materials. Everything was called out, much as if this part was to go on an aircraft where failure was normally not an option, but if a part failed, it had to give ample warning and then fail 'gracefully'. The cylinder itself was as full a piece of work as anything else, with two options presented: air-cooling, with much 'heavier' fins, more 'meat' in general, more fins, and bigger fins, and the 'best' situation, that being water cooling for the cylinder, the cylinder head, and the crankcase.
“What did that do?” I asked silently, as I came to the parts where the water circulated around the bearings and other parts.
“Made those engines live a lot longer on marginal fuels and lubricants,” said the soft voice. “Look further. You'll see a lot of ideas.”
I did so, seeing 'the original bearing setup', that being little more than chopped and ground pieces of music wire for both ends of the connecting rod, being replaced with silver-plated caged individually-inspected needle bearings; special forged pistons of the proper contour-ground shape; and then an entirely different induction system, this not being the simple and 'reliable' 'case reed' setup, but a disk-type rotary valve with a tuned intake pipe. I knew what that meant, or at least, I thought I did.
“More than you might believe possible,” said the soft voice. “That 'manual' was gleaned from examining other vehicles used for prewar competition, some of which, in suitably modified form, were used for courier service on the battlefield.” A pause, then, “it takes a strong-running and reliable engine to outrun a cursed wasp-swarm, and good suspension and brakes to stay out of trouble when riding at speed through a shell-torn 'moonscape'.”
Yet still, I had a question.
“Why were these engines so commonplace, and why did these people need generators?”
“The only regions in that country that were 'on the grid', outside of the heavily built-up central portions of the 'capital',” said the soft voice, “were those areas where there were enough wealthy witches with sufficient political power to make that situation a reality.” A pause, then, “elsewhere – meaning almost all of the country – the usual was to use arrays of pot-batteries and small engine-driven generators to charge them up on a schedule – and outside of after-dark lighting, there weren't many electrical appliances that ran on batteries.” A pause, then, “most electrical appliances were utter and complete junk as purchased.”
“That one stinker probably had something to do with that,” spat Sarah. “Charged like a miser, and gave rubbish for his tall-stacked coin.”
“Charged like a miser?” I gasped.
“That is one way one can tell if one is dealing with witches,” said Sarah. “High prices are the provinces of witches, especially should they be for supplies the witches hold unto themselves alone.”
“Monopoly,” I spluttered. “They have a monopoly on certain supplies, even here, and...”
“Not quite, even if that's not too far from the truth for much of what one needs to be a tailor in this area,” said the soft voice. “More than a few places that sell cloth have had their owners and their families slaughtered when the pigs 'rooted them out' in recent days.”
“And the cloth?” I asked.
“Was commonly moved to the local Mercantile, where the owner took charge of it,” said the soft voice. “Those people, unless they're inclined toward the practices of witches, tend to 'sell' the stuff for what they paid for it, but they're most careful who they sell it to.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Witches trying to reestablish that near-monopoly?”
“Them especially,” said the soft voice. “If the person 'buying' is an itinerant tailor, though – such people get what they want without paying, as they've been robbed 'twice too long, and badly besides'.” A pause, then, “while that country's border may have been demarcated with row upon row of 'hanging trees' bearing rotten corpses and locked down tight, enough engines like this one had been imported over the years that nearly every green-area machine shop made at least some parts for them – and they did a substantial trade in such parts, both locally and to large numbers of visiting witches.”
“Collect what they want at gunpoint,” I muttered.
“Not if they wanted to keep getting parts for their engines,” said the soft voice. “Remember, while there were a great many areas where witches could act in a high-handed fashion because they had workable alternatives, this was one of a few areas where that principle didn't work – and hence, machine-shop owners and workers actually got paid real money for engine parts and not worthless 'tokens' that meant little in the green area and nothing whatsoever outside of it – and that portion of the green market was among the most-routinely tolerated by those in leadership.”
“Why?” asked Sarah. She seemed utterly unreasonable, if I went by her voice.
“Because even in Geeststaat itself, the power was none-too-reliable, and blackouts were not rare,” said the soft voice, “and hence every witch worth his curses had at least one of these generator sets hidden in his dwelling – and those witches, the Mistress of the North included, wanted to have those engines both handy and in good running order.” A pause, then, “they were so commonplace that the Veldters found enough parts and complete engines in the northern part of the Valley once they'd become established in that region that they started working with them.”
“Yes?” I asked. I was about to hear something truly important.
“And, because 'dung' belongs on the manure-pile in the Valley, they improved them to the point where such engines as they use are now reliable to the point of boredom unless they are severely abused – and their original users would have trouble recognizing them in all aspects.”
“A bit larger, also,” I murmured.
“Some, yes, but there are smaller ones as well, with the Veldters making a range of five distinct sizes, depending upon their intended use,” said the soft voice. “The largest Veldter engines of that type are about two inches larger in all dimensions, have roughly twice the displacement – and are far more powerful, as well as boringly reliable unless severely abused.” A pause, then, “that's for the air-cooled versions.”
“Most Veldter fixed-site generators are water-cooled,” said the soft voice, “which improves both durability and fuel consumption – and those tend to only need fuel and minor preventative maintenance to keep running steadily – as in nearly around the clock every day of the week – for many years.”
“And that is the end of that box,” murmured Sarah. “I have much yet to draw, but if I move many of these parts over, you can get started on another box. We might have two more to open tonight, and then we must call it an evening.”
“Hans and Anna?” I asked.
“They sound like they are cleaning up down there, and finishing the business rightly,” said Sarah. “They'll be bringing up the rest of those knives shortly, I suspect.”
Sarah had not only been drawing things as she was able during all of this time, as I learned when it came time for me to 'wipe' her drawings, but she had also been bagging up the engine parts as soon as she had sketched the item in question. A brief flick of my hand, this over forty or more pages – some needed some minor touch-up on my part; Sarah was more familiar with stopping engines, not running them, and forget making them as of yet – and her work was done.
I needed to fetch another box, also, and this one was the lightest one yet. A brief shake showed it was also 'as packed as a crock of herring', which substituted nicely for the concept of sardines and their more-than-mythical close-packed nature.
I could eat sardines where I came from, provided they were water-packed, eaten slowly, and chewed thoroughly. Herring here – those had almost no oil to them in comparison. They were closer to water-packed albacore in texture, and their flavor...
“Best fish I ever had, save for roast trout,” I muttered. “They don't have fish like that where I came from.”
“Given that place is a witch-hole,” said Sarah as she finished bagging up the parts to our last-explored box, “I'm not surprised much.” A pause, then, “greasier than squabs, I'll warrant.”
“What?” I asked.
“That was off of a tapestry, and it described what fish could be had in this area that weren't poisonous to eat,” said Sarah. “They looked like very small herring, and could only be found in swift-running streams. One needed small nets, easily concealed, and two sticks that had the net in one end and the handles at the other, and the sticks folded out – and one used those things like water-dippers.”
“Have you used one?” I asked.
“I made one once,” said Sarah. “I carried it on my long-trip, and I think those fish still exist on the east side of the Blue mountains, as I caught some and tried cooking them.”
“And..?” I asked.
“If ever something with fins and scales could pass for an unclean meal, those things would take the prize,” spat Sarah. “I tried cooking them up, and they dissolved into a mess at the bottom of my pot, and the top of my pot was full of this smelly oily stuff.”
“I am glad I did not toss that mess on my fire, as I found out that oil burns very nicely,” said Sarah. “I'd dipped a rag in the oily part before dumping the rest in some bushes well away from my cooking fire, wound it around a stick – and then lit that. It worked well for a torch, with little smoke and...” Sarah looked at me, then squeaked, “the Veldters! They use that stuff in their lantern fuel!”
“And for a great deal else, as those fish are farmed in certain places in the valley,” said the soft voice. “Properly processed, they can be made edible – but the resulting 'mess' isn't very appetizing.”
“How?” I asked. “Pressure-cook them, wash the resulting 'fish-meal' twice with boiling water, 'flash-dry' it, then freeze it after compressing it into cakes with, uh, spices and other things to improve its texture and flavor?”
“I'd write that one down,” said the soft voice. “There are small fish up here of a related nature, and processing them that way into what the Mule Totem carries on their trips into 'inhospitable territory' will be most helpful during the coming months. Speak to Esther tomorrow about it, in fact.”
“If anyone could make those awful things fit to eat, she could,” said Sarah. “There. I wrote that down. Now can you tell me how to flash-dry something?”
“Use a copper drum, one with ribs inside it attached with rivets, then put it over a hot fire with some already mostly-dry fish-meal in it,” I said. “Vent it carefully, then bring it over the fire while rotating it several times a second. Fish-meal dries very quickly in something like that, and if you were to use a long copper tube, tilt it at the right angle, and put properly angled fins inside it and turn the thing rapidly, you could put mostly-dried fish-meal in one end and get fully dried stuff out of the other.”
“Which is precisely what the Veldters do, and more, they collect the traces of oil which come out of the top portion of their hundred-foot long tubes,” said the soft voice. “Properly dried 'fish cakes' are a very popular food in the valley, even if such food needs careful cooking and spicing to make it palatable.”
“How could those things be that popular...” Sarah stopped speaking, as I had opened the third rocket box; and in doing so, I knew it would be the last one we would do this evening. It was late; I was tired; Sarah more tired yet; and somehow, I wondered once more about Hans and Anna.
I soon did not wonder about their fatigue, for slow and sluggish steps began wearily thumping their way up the stairs, and by the yawns I had heard, they'd utterly used up any reserves of energy they might have had. I looked, and here came Anna, a plate of knives in her hand, and behind her, yawning as if he'd worked two days without stop or rest, came Hans.
“I think we are done for tonight, whether we wish it or not,” said Anna, “and you'd best be thinking the same once you finish that box, as both of you look to be as tired as I feel.”
I wobbled over to the knives, now feeling the need for both beer and a visit to the privy, and in waving my hand over them while filling up my cup full of beer, all of the remaining knives grew thick coats of smoky 'frost'. The chill thereby imparted to the beer seemed helpful, for which I was glad, and drinking the stuff while in the privy helped with the now-horrible stench. My gaseous emissions did not help the stink much, as this stuff caused a lot of gas between squirts of diarrhea.
“Sepp's mess is finally getting out of my system,” I muttered, as I drained the cup and passed more watery dung mingled with thunderous flatus. “I should feel better shortly.”
When I came out, I refilled my cup once more, and felt markedly better once I'd gotten half a slice of a yellow-fruit in it. That helped me wake up slightly, and only a dose from Sarah's tincture-vial helped more.
“This stuff helps me wake up?” I thought, as my mind once more seemed to return to me.
“It also prevents fits to a great degree, and your blood sugar was dropping rapidly when you dumped the last of that 'poison'.”
“Poison is right,” said Sarah. “I've needed to make my own visits to the privy since we got home, and that beer that showed has helped a lot.” Sarah looked over at the frost-encrusted knives, saw their vapid fuming and how their 'smoke' enveloped the jugs of beer, then said, “I think that beer is being kept chilled so it works better.”
“It is,” said the soft voice. “Now, remove that manual there on the top of that box, and this time you read it.” Sarah had been referred to, which made me wondering as to my purpose. Opening the box, however, told me why, once I'd passed the waxy-feeling 'manual' to Sarah.
As I began taking out what were obviously band-changing coils, Sarah blurted, “this was originally written by someone other than the one who second-wrote it, as I can tell they did not understand a word of this.”
“How?” I asked.
“Firstly, their handwriting is the neatest I have seen yet, which means they most likely were selected for their penmanship and not their understanding.” Sarah was all but beside herself in saying this.
“Perhaps because that individual was one of the few who had legible handwriting by that time?” I asked. “Perhaps someone who wasn't marked would need to read this, and hence they were...” I gasped, then laughed. “Not just that, dear,” I said. “This person was a professional scribe before being drafted to the Abbey's contingent, and while they didn't understand the subject terribly well, they were used to writing fast, accurately, and taking dictation – and that from witches, who could be especially difficult to take dictation from.” I almost ended with the word 'Huh!”, this was such an astonishment.
“No witch would dictate this,” said Sarah. “It speaks of a radio, but I doubt it to be the same as we found – and then, why would they put parts to it in here, when the rest of the parts were in the other box?”
“Because they had originally planned on taking two radios, but had time for retrieving neither,” said the soft voice, “both the one you-all found, and another larger set which was in use upstairs. The larger set was a bit more fragile, and a good deal more cantankerous, but it was also much better shielded, a good deal more sensitive, and could change bands quickly, unlike the one which you found.”
“One-band only?” I asked.
“It could be changed, but it was like that small one of yours that way,” said the soft voice. “The frequency-determining elements needed the radio's partial dismantling to change, but at least they were kept inside the radio's case so they would not get lost.” A pause, then, “that other radio just required powering down, remove one set of coils, insert another, and then switch on – and because it too used direct-heating tubes, it came back up within a second or so.”
“Filament-type tubes?” I asked. “Uh, why?”
“That's one thing those people across the sea wish they currently had, as their current cathode-type devices not only have much less gain, but are a bit less reliable and have a substantially lower frequency limit,” said the soft voice. “The ones you drew, on the other hand – the only ones that could have come close to them were the secret Vrijlaand tubes, the ones they had color-level secrecy codes applied to.”
“Color level?” I asked.
“As in 'well-beyond top secret',” said the soft voice. “They didn't use letters to indicate such secret levels, but colors on their normally black-printed 'letters' indicating a matter was secret, and that indicated just how secret it was beyond the 'wording' they used.” A pause, then, “it was most-definitely a 'need to know' situation with those.”
“And now, these,” I said, as I brought out two small bags. Their knotted threads proved easy to untie once I'd started them with an awl – for a change; this person had trouble with knots, only not to the degree I did – and when I dumped out the contents, I was aghast.
“S-silver,”I squeaked, upon seeing the thick age-blackened disks. “They look as if someone melted down the metal... No, not just that. They did electrolysis on the metal for these things and then melted them down under a cover flux, poured them out into ingots, and... Hammered them flat?”
I picked up one, noting what looked like planishing marks, these with an obvious hammer, and then, coarse filing that could but partly hide the careful trimming to a 'round' status with a hammer and chisel. A pause, then as I set the 'coin' down – no markings on either side, and the 'tarnish' was so different from the usual for silver it was as if I were looking at an entirely different metal – I asked, “what were these used for?”
“The 'coin of the realm' in a war-torn land,” said the soft voice. “Those were originally medium-denomination witch-coins stolen from the hoards of various witches and then processed by the workers into 'slugs' like that, as they knew they'd come in handy during the trip, and each escaping worker had at least three of them sewn into his or her clothing when they left the Abbey.” A pause, then, “that proved very wise.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“They were able to buy supplies in Vrijlaand, and at that time, such silver 'slugs' bought a lot,” said the soft voice. “That went doubly so if it was clean silver, which that material most assuredly was.”
“What did that mean?” asked Sarah. She was obviously hearing things she'd never heard before.
“Firstly, they had ample chance to rest up and have their injuries treated properly – and given the years of hardship and privation they had endured, that did not happen quickly,” said the soft voice. “Then, they were able to buy housing, and then, they were able to receive lengthy periods of specialist training – which meant decent jobs that were safe.”
“Safe?” I asked.
“No yard-long firebugs to deal with, for one thing,” said the soft voice. “Those incoming refugees that cleared the land Vrijlaand had annexed had about about a one in five chance of dying within six months due to accident, and it wasn't due to the leadership not caring about them.” A pause, then, “they simply didn't have the resources at that time to look after a population that grew by a factor of ten over a period of a very few years, and only once nearly half of that first major influx of people died from mishap did they begin to have enough medical personnel and equipment to go around.”
The rest of what was in this particular box, however, was what looked like a mixture of tools, small tins that proved full of wax-dipped fasteners of various types, coils of waxed wire – most of it thin iron or steel stuff, but some was 'three-line wire', as Sarah put it – and other matters, including what looked like tent stakes. As I went over what I saw, holding one item in my left hand and quickly sketching with my right, I was getting a distinct impression, and I began to make notes regarding it.
The workers had had some tools issued to them by the witches – they wanted their drink, and plenty of it, as well as the other foods the workers were responsible for growing – and at first, the workers' thefts of materials were 'tolerated' as the tools the witches had issued were standard 'slave issue tools'.
“Those things weren't worth the trouble of issuing,” I muttered, as I drew from impression and not sight one of the tools in question: a hoe with an unusually short handle and a narrow trapezoidal blade. “The witches wanted them busy doing their business, and that meant tools that worked well enough to produce what the witches wanted in quantity. This wasn't district twelve, where there were always more slaves coming in and the witches could work them to death with impunity – and they didn't have enough slaves to live with the drastically lessened productivity that worthless tools usually meant.”
“Did you speak of the twelfth district?” asked Sarah quietly. “I can speak about that place.”
“Yes?” I asked. “The northern region's answer to Berky, only no walls – just lots of watchtowers armed to the teeth with itching-to-kill witches that received bounties and 'leave' for each slave they killed? Being worked from well-before dawn to hours after sundown, and no rest or food that entire time? Live-action target practice when the guards got 'bored', and then whole groups of slaves gunned down just so as to feed them to the true-turnip patches?”
“Th-that...” Sarah gulped, then said, “that's more than I learned in two weeks looking at three collections of tapestries, and I was riding a donkey then!”
I continued writing, however: I knew our major time tonight was drawing to a close, which was a good thing for me, as I was not merely tired; I was sore.
“After a time and some deaths, the surviving workers learned to be both far more careful in their thievery – they made it look as if other witches had done 'the nasty deeds' – and they had learned to 'make do' to a far greater degree than the witches had thought possible. While they had a near-total lack of machine tools, that did not mean they had nothing whatsoever: they had a small foundry, a well-equipped forge, some hand-driven tools, a trio of 'crude' lathes – these last were best reserved for soft metals and substantially marked workers, as no one else could get usable results and the workers in question created plenty of scrap just the same.”
But the eventual outcome was this: the workers became, over time, almost entirely self-sufficient; while the witches never even thought to achieve a similar status.
“After all, they were 'over-men', and such thinking was below their station,” I muttered darkly, as I drew more implements from 'impressions' when I wasn't writing commentary. “Besides, predators aren't inclined to be self-sufficient, not when they've got ample meat on the hoof ready for the slaughter.”
“You realize what you're doing, don't you?” said the soft voice. “The place overseas has its own dire and plentiful needs regarding 'gardening tools', and they will wish things like you've been drawing.”
A brief wipe of my hand, and the ledger nearly erupted with the force of the power implanted into it. I began leafing through it idly, then as I came to that first 'garden hoe', I noted I had a visitor.
“I wished I had had one that good,” said Sarah. “I did enough hoeing on my cousin's farm to know much about such work, and that short handled-thing looks very likely indeed.”
I nodded, my arms now aching, and my head as well. Two cups of beer, a dose of the tincture, and still it remained; and I knew, this beyond all doubt, that I was done for the night.
“No, not quite done,” I said. “I need to find those dead-soft copper rivets so they can plate them up tomorrow at Ploetzee, and then get some dark blue filters for my sleeping goggles, and a bath, and then bed.”
This seemed to 'galvanize' Sarah, for she bagged up matters in a trice, and hurried with a speed that astonished me. Within moments, I could hear someone moving like a rat with its tail alight upstairs, then in a moment, Sarah came down with two leather pouches. She held one out to me, asking, “these are the rivets, and the other bag has the washers, and they look different enough in this light to tell me they are not ordinary rivets.”
“Any marks on them:?” I asked, as I removed one. The big letters 'EC' told me enough. “Fine. These go. Leave them out where we can find them easy, like on that table there next to the night-candle.” A pause, then, “Goggles, dark filter, black if I can get it....”
“You do not want black,” said Sarah. “There is a curse which speaks of a red door and wishing it to turn black, and it speaks of the way to hell itself.”
“Dark, dear, is what I meant,” I said. “I do not need moonlight-induced insomnia, and I am putting in my special earplugs, also.” I then paused, this silent, “now if only I could have a mask for breathing, so I can sleep better.”
“That happens very soon, even if there are some jokes in town about you making strange choking noises while sleeping.”
“Choking?” I asked. “Snoring?”
“This is the stage beyond snoring,” said the soft voice. “You've lost enough weight that the non-bone supporting structures surrounding your airway are permitting it to partly collapse when you sleep, and hence it sounds like you're choking – which is simply because you are.”
“Can I do anything for it?” I asked.
“Other than sleep on your side with your head extended backwards to a degree, not really at this time,” said the soft voice. “They can fix such matters up readily where your going, and they will do precisely that. No more suffocation then – at night or during the daytime.”
“And now for goggles, dark filters, bed-clothing, a last bath, a last drink...”
Matters happened quickly then, as Sarah seemed to have near-identical things in mind; and within moments, I was trudging upstairs, Sarah on the couch buried in blankets, and my goggles in my hand. I needed but partial rearrangement – a few bags had drifted to but partly block the moon – and once the last dose of the night was washed down with beer, the earplugs in, and the goggles on my head – I went out like a switched off-light.