Full steam ahead, and straight on until morning... Or something like that.

While I had never run up a 'complex' coal-fired powerplant before, this one seemed easy enough, even though about half way through the process of doing so Deborah found what looked like a rather unusual 'book-rack', this arranged so that one could leaf through the thing and learn whatever there was to know about this intricate assemblage of machinery.

Including, it seems, all of the parts needed to duplicate it, as the rear portion of this sizable document had full and complete blueprints, all of these inked, coated, and detailed in the extreme. I was paging through these when a sudden 'Whoomph' startled me.

“What was that?” I gasped.

“The boiler, I think,” said Deborah. “I can see this pretty blue flame in this window here, and the gage here is climbing into the green range quickly.”

“Any numbers?” I asked.

“Yes, an eight, two zeros, and then a dot, followed by a two,” said Deborah. “This is a strange thing here, as it puts it out in squared off numbers, not like those from a printing press.”

“A digital gage, then, and that temperature is probably coming from a pyrometer,” I said. “Anything else, like some weird, uh, monuments I need to look at?”

“This equipment has a few electronic gages, most of which are both laboratory grade and self-contained, and that's one of them,” said the soft voice. “Everything else is either mechanical or electro-mechanical, so any 'semiconductors' are going to be small and not very hazardous. It's about the safest power plant you're going to find on the continent.”

“Steam pressure yet?” I asked.

“Cé, two bars, which is not yet green,” said Annistæ. “It wants five to be entirely green, and six is yellow and seven is red.”

“So we start our loosening at three,” I said. “It will build up to five by the time the engine is freed up, as this one is new and it might be a bit tight.”

“Cé, you are right,” said Annistæ. “Now were Graćiella here, she could tell me much more, as she ran things like this much.”

“She did?” I asked.

“Cé, much like you do, only I think you could teach her some things,” said Annistæ. “Now I hope they put that clothes-man back together soon, as I think I wish to practice my knives also, once we get this jeniradoré running and then turn it down so it frees up properly.”

“Three bars on the gage now,” said Deborah. “Oil shows full. This valve here?”

I nodded. Deborah opened it slightly.

There was a faint hiss, then suddenly a jolt and a smooth humming noise came from the engine's casing. I put my hand atop the thing, and to my complete astonishment, it barely vibrated.

“This thing is balanced good,” I murmured.

“That's because it's at 'idle',” said the soft voice. “Let it warm up and break in, then run it up to specification speed under no load for an hour, and then it will be ready for running pots and other things – and you can start bringing those up then.”

The pressure gage quickly came up to five over the next few minutes, and with each minute, I could feel heat and speed building in the engine. I could see the oil flowing in the top 'bubble', which made me wonder as to the use of a dry-sump for a steam engine, until I realized that this engine was intended to not need much in the way of knowledge or training to actually use. Only if one had to keep it working under extremely adverse conditions would it need that level of knowledge, and when I next felt the top of the engine, the sense of smooth near-vibration-seeming motion was now much more prevalent.

The engine 'revolutions' were also a good deal higher, this near 'one dot eight'. I adjusted the steam valve a trifle higher, and then the revolutions instantly jumped to two dot five – where they then stabilized.

“Almost want a steam whistle for this thing,” I murmured.

“Why would you want one of those?” asked Sarah from the doorway. “Anna seems to have become a decent seamstress, as she's doing a lot better than I recall her doing, and Sepp's not bad.”

“Uh, me?” I asked.

“You'd better keep an eye on that thing in there,” said Sarah. “It might not even look close to what Machalaat does for appearance, but I would just as soon it not let go.”

“Oh, boiler pressure,” I said. “Five bars?”

“A Machalaat boiler would burst at one bar,” said the soft voice. “That one's rated pressure isn't five bars, but seven – and it takes twelve to burst it.”

“Red?” I asked. “As in redline?”

“Got it in one,” said the soft voice. “You can run it at that level for some time, but you'd better figure on working on it some when you get back to port – and you'd better not try it if that engine's new or been neglected unduly.”

“How much power does this thing have?” I asked.

“About as much as that engine did in that white car after you went through it from top to bottom and added the things it needed to run well, and that's when it's running in the green. Figure about half again as much more if you redline it.”

“And a ship-sized one?” I asked.

“Twice that much and then some, each,” said the soft voice. “Remember, these aren't 'huge' ships, they're fairly streamlined for the less-good ones, they have sails, and they're not planning on routinely going faster than ten to twelve kilometers an hour – which means you do not need a huge engine.” Pause, then, “you put two of those in Pieter's boat, and figure half again as much faster.”

“Uh, cuts a day or more off of a good trip?” I asked.

“If you speak of the shorter distances, yes,” said the soft voice. “Going up the back side of the continent, where the winds tend to be very light when they're present – cut the time in half easily.”

“Need a lot of coal, though?” I asked.

“Less than you might think, given that there are at least two coal-pits on the northeast shore within an easy day's trip of the main port there,” said the soft voice. “Now, look at the fuel flow meter – that one there, that indicates numbers one through ten over the scale. See how little coal this engine is actually using?”

I nodded mentally. The needle was between one and two.

“It's getting the system primed, which is why it's using so much,” said the soft voice. “Once it's broken in, then it will need but a bit more at full load than it does now.”

As I watched the 'machinery' – I could tell Sarah was a lot more worried than was justified, as in my experience, if an engine was going to let go it would do so within minutes of starting or when worn enough to make 'noise', and this one was one of the quietest examples of any engine I had ever heard – I found that I needed to answer some questions of both Deborah and Annistæ. As they would be running this equipment predominantly while the five of us were gone, I thought most of their questions very good ones – at least until Deborah sniffed, then said, “now why did you speak of pollution raining down out of the sky?”

“A rather bad joke,” I said. “This type of powerplant was, at least at one time where I came from, a notorious generator of smoke, bad smells, and a lot of trouble – just like one of those horrible things made by Machalaat.” Pause, then, “though it seems, however, that song is – and has been for a very long time – quite popular overseas. More, there's more than one version of it.”

“This is not about Madame Curoue, is it?” asked Deborah.

“No,” I said. “It's intended to be amusing, actually. Want to hear it?”

Deborah indicated she did, and in a low voice – this equipment was growing quieter by the minute, such that soft conversations could be readily heard if the speakers could hear reasonably well – I said, “it's called 'Toxic Lady', and the original song never made sense to me.” A pause, then as I looked at Sarah supervising the mending of a pile of unusual-looking 'rags' so as to make another of those clothes-dummies I had destroyed in what seemed like three seconds to me and 'instantly' to those watching, I added, this while looking at Sarah still, “no, I take that back now. I do have some idea as to what was meant now.”

“Her hair, no?” asked Annistæ. “She is smelling like she should now.”

“Yes, that also,” I said, turning back toward the two women and the humming machinery in the room, then looking at Annistæ herself. “You'll most likely get this version quite well, seeing as how it deals with chemicals and those things used to produce them.”

Annistæ shook her head as if I were out of my mind, then came to my right side as I examined the 'book' so as to hear better. I then found a blank sheet of paper handy on the 'workbench' next to it, and after putting my right hand on that sheet, I asked that it show the whole of the 'poem'.

The sudden bluish-white flash made me jump – I had not expected anything to happen, much less a flash worthy of a small bolt of lightning – and when Deborah looked at what had so suddenly been printed and 'treated', she asked, “now what is a reactor?”

“He was right, it is about chemicals, as I saw a lot of those, many of them big ones, in that one room two doors away that makes fuel,” said Annistæ. “Now, read it for me, as his speech can be a bit strange yet, and there is much that I need to learn still.”

Deborah 'gathered herself', much as if to read a proclamation of sorts, then in a clear voice, she said:

Toxic, Toxic, (how toxic?)

You know, you a cute little poisoner,

Toxic, Toxic (how toxic are you?)

You know, you a sick little proliferator,


I want to set you up, yeah,

I won't cause you no harm,

That money got to be all mine,

All mine.

Oh, Toxic Lady,

Toxic, Toxic!”

“There is more to this,” said Deborah. “This sounds like it was written about these noisy people who make ink down in the fourth kingdom, and all of what they do!” She then continued.

Now I see the pollution, rain down from the sky,

Oh, how Toxic,

It makes everybody want to fall down and cry,

Oh, how Toxic,

Oh reactor, listen now:

I've made up my mind,

I'm tired of wasting my catalyst's time,

That money got to be all mine,

All mine!

Ooh, Toxic Lady...

Here I come, money..

Coming to get some!

Ooh, Toxic Lady,

Ooh, Toxic Lady, pffupft!

You look so deadly,

Oh, yeah, toxic,

Yeah, give some of that green stuff, Toxic,

Toxic, Toxic,

Toxic, Toxic,

Toxic, Toxic...”

I was not prepared for Annistæ's reaction – she was laughing so hard she nearly fell down, and Deborah was barely standing as it was, with both hands over her mouth trying to hold back laughter, with the sheet now back on the 'workbench'. The printing was bold, neat, clear, and seeming to blaze in wavering neon colors before going back to an 'eerie-looking' shiny black upon stark bleached white shiny paper.

“P-pffupft?” I asked. “That noise?”

“That is exactly why you want clothing for chemistry,” said Annistæ. “Chemicals are like that, and I know about the other things, especially the money, as many chemicals are expensive, and there are some really bad ones that have a green color to them, and then many of them are poisonous.” Pause, then, “now where is that big smelly rat that that man cut in two pieces? It needs to start its boiling to make farolcumbusteblé, as rats like that have much oil, and...”

“I wondered for a while where to put that thing,” said Sepp from where he was sitting trying to repair a patch on a pair of badly-worn trousers that might have come from Karl's 'clothes-bag', “so when I found this room marked as being for making 'lantern fuel', I found this great big pot just inside it and put both pieces of that thing inside that pot. It had a lot of this smelly liquid in it already, and...”

Annistæ ran out of the door, then one of those high-pitched screams came to my ears – only this time, I could tell she was laughing. She came back, and asked, “now how is it he knew about where to put rats to make farolcumbusteblé using fats?”

“Not sure, dear,” I said. “Is it labeled as being so? If it is, then he might well have read the label and did what it said to do.”

She went back, then upon returning, “I must not have seen it, but that pot has a big label on it saying what is to go inside it, and then there is another one on the wall behind it, and it too says what to put in that one, both for when it is not running, and when it is, and how to prepare what is to go in that pot for when it is running or not.” Pause. “Now, I hope I can get some fish-nets, as much of this place has too little light and it needs a lot of it.”

“Uh, those lanterns,” I said. “Down this one hallway here, in this one room that no one has been in about eighty years, give or take a few, and there you'll find about twenty or so of them.” Pause, then, “they'll just need a bit of cleaning and then they can most likely be used.”

“Not quite,” said Gabriel. “I found this one strange-looking lantern in one of those bins already, only even I can tell it is not something any witch would give a guilder for – as it looks intended to give light, and that only, and all it has on it for printing is what to put in it and how to run it.” Pause, then, “had I no better idea, I'd guess whoever came up with these must have had one of those small heating lamps in front of them, as it looks to work more or less like one of those, and I can use those.”

“Is this lantern painted with red paint?” asked Annistæ.

“It is that, and looks to be as new as anything I've seen recently,” said Gabriel. “Now, candles will be very scarce in here for quite a long time, and I think those lanterns, and ones like them, if used carefully, can do much of their work regarding keeping the place lit.”

“I think he's right,” I said. “Wax is going to be short, if the witches find out about us having it they'll do anything they can think of to get their hands on it and then hurt or kill us for stealing what they think is theirs, the animals in the forest and fields are just starting to get fattened up, and we have an absolute plague of nice fat rats starting in the house proper.” Pause, then, “those rats? The ones in the barrels that we shot earlier?”

“They're still finding lots of dead ones near where that mine of them showed up,” said Hans. “Now this place is a laboratory. I wish mine at home was half this good, as then it would suit me good.”

“Did you bring food up here?” asked Anna of Hans. I could smell some nearby.

“Yes, two loaves of bread in this bread-bag here, a jug of beer, and then I need to be off to get more lead soon, and you do too. “ Pause, then to Sarah and the others sewing on the rags, “the cooks are wondering what you all want.”

“A crock of herring, please,” I asked from the powerplant-room doorway. “Oh, and some more Kuchen too.” A faint hissing noise came from somewhere nearby, and as I quickly turned and looked in vain for it in the powerplant room, Annistæ came back inside beaming.

“That rat is cooking down now,” she said. “I can see the little gas flame in that firebrick place that is under that pot, and it is steaming in the place where one can look to see what is happening in that big pot, so that rat will make good fuel, fuel that does not smell or smoke.”

“Pressure-cooking rats?” I asked. “Hot rats?”

“You'd best not say that one overseas, unless you want to hear a lot of oaths,” said the soft voice. “They've never been able to figure out any of those intercepts, and 'hot rats' is one thing everyone over there does not wish to encounter.”

“Why?” asked Sarah from where she was sitting, her hands moving rapidly as ever. “Are they on fire?”

“No, but they tend to do fairly good, if otherwise smaller-scaled, imitations of Iron Pigs regarding damage absorption,” said the soft voice. “More than a few functionaries become rat-food, so they're viewed as a mixed blessing by those named 'commons' over there.”

There were still lots of rats on the premises, and a thwap followed by a screech had Karl lay down his slingshot and return with a mostly-dead common-sized rat, carrying the plump arm-long animal by its hair-covered tail. It too went in the 'cooker', though how he had done so made me wonder: there was this brief grumbling noise, then he came back grinning and speaking about this 'other mouth' for rats that weren't too big. It was attached to 'the big pot', and had a lid that one closed and latched, then pressed a large round 'button' of some kind.

“Other mouth?” I asked silently. “Button?”

“It grinds up the animals and feeds their 'mangled' remains into that reactor while its lid is dogged down and what is inside is 'cooking',” said the soft voice. “That 'liquor' in the bottom is being constantly churned, and the heat needed to break down the fat and other matters feeds what is in that liquor so as to both renew it and produce emulsified fats for the next stage of the process. The non-fat remains of the animals are 'evacuated' into a container under that reactor every so often, when they start taking up too much room in the pot.”

Annistæ went into that room briefly to 'start things', and by what she was doing, I was suspecting the use of burnt-coal being used somewhere in that room. I then knew more.

That material went in one of the reactors downstream of the 'autoclave' so as to hydrogenate the fats after they'd undergone a certain level of catalytic reduction, and several steps later, a strange and oily 'hydrocarbon-and-long-chain alcohol mixture' would form, that being 'prime' Veldter's lantern fuel. More, it would not be the crude brown material that I had heard of, but a slightly yellow-tinted odorless material – a liquid that could pass for boiled distillate thickened with a little fourth kingdom grease and a bit of added cooking. This thinking done, though, had me ask a panic-filled question.

“Pressure-cooked rat?” I asked audibly, regarding the rendering process. “What about that one, uh, pig?”

“Toréo said he would bring it here, though I expect he will fetch it along once he is done with that lead,” said Annistæ as she came back into the room where I was examining the generators and feeling their slow-growing warmth. They were definitely under some kind of load now, if I went by their gages, and that for all three of them. “It and some other swine are sitting in salted water at that settlement so they do not go bad as quickly.”

“And how will he bring that pig and the others up here?” I asked. “Later tonight, when it's too late for anyone to be out, he and several helpers leading donkeys with the boned meat of that thing in small kegs stacked in donkey-carts – they're mostly lard at that size, but lard means oil and swine have lots of lard in general if they've been eating well – and then sneak in the rear way?” I wanted to add, “but I rigged that way with a grenade and wedged the door shut twice over!”

“Non, he will go in the front, as many of the guards now know he is to be trusted,” said Annistæ. “Then, there is something very strange that usually happens when you get hurt much when fighting Cabroni – you can become very hard for many people to see, so they might not see him or what he is taking in, as he knows the tricks of moving quietly, as has anyone who has fought Cabroni for many years.”

Annistæ was speaking from personal experience, as she both knew Toréo and had acquired her share of injuries while fighting masses of 'Cabroni'. She then continued her speech regarding the reduction of several instances of swine.

“He has things we will need, as I told him about my plans for lantern fuel, and what they have at that settlement currently is very bad for both light and smoke.”

“Hence we might well refine what they have of their crude product, and we receive things they can make for us in trade for good lantern fuel – the best to be had, nearly?”

“No 'nearly' about what will be made here,” said the soft voice. “What you have in that 'fuel room' might not make a lot of that stuff, but it will make enough to keep the house proper lit well, several places that you know of lit well, and every lamp in that settlement burning brightly, with some lantern-fuel left over for other uses.”

Anna stood up to go, this suddenly, much as if a dire need recalled itself to her mind with the suddenness of lighting striking, and as she looked about, she said, “oh! you-all need food!”

“Yes, we do need food,” said Deborah. “Now, I'd like some jam, bread, beer, a small fryer, and possibly an egg or two that's decent for boiling...”

“Here is a list,” said Sarah. “I suspected those things she spoke of, but I added some other matters I thought of and heard, including a medium-sized pot to make soup – either that, or one of their pies, if they have one going. I've not had pie in quite some time.”

“What kind of pie?” asked Anna. “I think they're making pepper pies in the refectory, and I suspect they're working on at least two others, but it might be some time before their pies are ready.”

“Those are for later, then,” said Sarah. “If they made it in the refectory, I suspect it will not cause trouble for me.”

“I've had their pepper pie,” I said, as I ran a seam, my needle running quickly, each stitch perhaps a tenth of an inch apart and dexterously knotted. I then noticed Anna was watching me as I ran the stitches, the needle I was using working better than anything like it I had ever used. It made those where I came from look to be fetishes, and the same for the thread I was using, wax or no wax – and this thread held wax a lot better than even the best thread I had used before. It went through the cloth with a slick-sounding rustling noise as I ran each knotted stitch.

“You've gotten better, and not a little better,” she said, “and if that is not a fourth-kingdom bright-needle, one of those special ones made in one place, then I will eat a pie made of bad rags baked on a burn-pile!”

“We 'acquired' a large box of needles, one having at least three pounds of them, from that one thread-sellers' place – and that place will sell no more thread, nor needles, nor cause trouble, nor rob people,” said Sarah. “It's more or less a smoking ruin, unless I am far wrong, and every stinking witch in it is probably either dead or dying.”

“We'll learn about that soon enough,” said Anna. “Did you get enough of that strong-thread you've been wanting?”

“All that the two of us could carry, and we had to shoot our way in that place and then shoot our way out, and we used plenty of bombs in that place, including one using a lot of nails.”

“Ah, then I shall ask you for those, if they can be made safe enough for placing by people like me,” said Hans as he stood. “Now did those witches in that place get nailed with that bomb?”

“Yes, and nailed well, or so we were told,” said Sarah. “These nails were ones suitable for nice furniture, or rather furniture one wishes to use for worktables and the like – good ones. Their heads were a trifle large for a dining table's upper portion, unless you wish to see nail-heads that are eight lines across and as round as the best drop-shot to be had.”

“I would not mind such nails in a kitchen table, save that...” Anna then paused, this to obviously think.

“The food would get caught by every such nail, and the table would then be harder to keep clean,” I said. “Best fill such holes with a mixture of glass-dust and this resin Annistæ will be able to make soon, then cover the whole table with it twice more, sand the top of it so it is as smooth as a mirror, then paint it with the resin itself tinted a nice shade of brown. Then sand it again so it's like a mirror for smoothness, polish it with common red rouge mixed into a paste with soapy water, and then you'll have a table that will last a long time and be easy to clean – assuming you wish that sort of a finish.”

“I doubt I would care what it looked like, if the finish held up well and was easy to clean,” said Anna. “Now Hans and I have a lead-run to make, but if any of you can add to this list anything else you-all can think of, I'll drop it off at the refectory on the way out of there with a jug and a loaf for the two of us.” Anna paused, then, “we can eat and drink while one or the other of us drives, just like most are doing if they're driving to or from where that lead is.”

Sarah received the list, put it on a small brass clipboard that either was mine or a near-exact copy of it, wrote a few lines with a well-gnawed 'writing dowel', then handed the quartered slip of paper to Anna. She then asked a question.

“Did Hendrik get that paper that turned up?”

“He knows of it, and is glad it's in that one special room that's all entirely white inside,” said Anna. “I took a quick look inside of that room and saw what was in it, but that lock warned me to not go inside that room without someone else present who was familiar with what is in there to keep me safe.”

“It opened for you?” I asked. I then added, this with alarm, “it warned you to not go inside?”

“You have enough things that explode in there to scatter the house proper,” said Anna matter-of-factly, “and I am not sufficiently familiar with things like metal pears or those things that look like Harvest-Day squibs and act like they're large bundles of mining dynamite, much less the other things I know are in there, so that lock opened for me enough to know about the paper near the doorway and get an idea as to how much paper there is, so as to tell Hendrik he needn't worry overmuch about paper fit for inking, but no more.” Pause, then, “in time, I most likely will be welcomed into that room, and those other rooms with doors like that one.”

“Yes, once you 'get experienced',” I said with a chuckle. “We all will 'get experienced', and while there will be a lot of work then, I'll get my chance to go to something like the west school – which is a chance I would not miss for two entire worlds and all that is in both of them.”

Sarah looked at me with huge eyes, then shook her head. “The west school wishes it could be such a place for teaching, but no ordinary student could stand living in a nightmare filled with darkness and purplish fog and all manner of strange and dangerous things, and that atop all of what manner of work will need doing there – as there, one must keep what the book says in mind constantly, and pray all the time as if one means every word with one's entire heart.”

“I think that is the point, dear,” said Anna. “That place will do what the west school wishes it could do, tries hard to do, and fails badly in doing – and I have wished many times I could have gone there to be schooled, but my mother was a smelly witch and her mother was too, so I could not go.”

Anna motioned to Hans, then both of them left, pouches attached from obvious belts, these being 'guard-width' and newly 'acquired', Hans' pockets bulging with pistols and magazines, while Anna's cloth satchel – one of those innumerable things that had come from the room with the Benzina – was stuffed full of various things that went 'bang'. I could also tell she had one of the 'good' 'clockwork marvel' pistols in there, as well as magazines for that pistol and some for her rifle and machine pistol.

“We're all starting to look like archetypal thugs around here,” I murmured, as I finished the seam and started another. “Karl, who does the mending in your family? Your little sister, the one who's a year from starting her classes in the school down the road? One of those two twins you once spoke of?”

“My mother, mostly, though part of this stuff here is the bad thread and needles she has, I think,” he said. “These I am using are good enough that even I can sew passably if I work at it, though now I can see why you-all are having to redo this clothing here.”

“No, not merely redo it,” I said. “Did you see how Anna was carrying one of those suppressed pistols in her sash?”

“Yes, and she needs to wear clothing like I do, as it is much easier to put such things in it,” said Sarah. “I think they'll be making her some laboratory clothing as soon as they get the stuff done for Deborah and Annistæ.”

“Need to make a lot of sets of laboratory clothes for here,” I said. “I'll most likely need one or two sets myself, and perhaps more than just one or two, as those sound like something I want to wear routinely when I'm doing closer work in general, not just in this location.”

“They'll need to take your measurements all over again when you come back,” said the soft voice enigmatically.

I wasn't sure what was meant, as there were seams that needed sewing on this 'clothes-dummy', and the straw that Karl had from his old one didn't look terribly promising for filling it.

“Karl,” I spat. “This stuff, cloth and all, needs to go in that machine that makes alcohol-based farolcumbusteblé or a paper mill for the cloth and that other for the straw, and we need to get fresh stuffing from the stable – fresh as in 'they're going to shortly put it in the individual stalls', not 'fresh off the floor of the stalls after it has been used for a while by horses'.”

“Cé, as that type is wanted for that process,” said Annistæ. “Now this clothing is bad enough for tears and things that I hope you have more of it to work with, as the stuff he tore up is fit for either that machine that grinds up the stuff for that fuel or the manure-pile, or perhaps paper if we have the things to make it here.” Pause. “If you do have more clothing, then you should go get that stuff, that and some bread and a fryer, as I am hungry and I have begun to like my bread toasted.”

“We all do,” said Sarah – who then looked at me strangely. I then knew why. “I never thought I'd see him turn into a jam-fiend, though.”

“Best get more dried cherries, then,” said Sepp with a grin. “Not if he's like that, as he'll want jam every chance he gets.”

“You'd best fetch up a jam-pot or two, as I'm always inclined toward such jam, and I'll fight him for it if there isn't enough for the two of us,” said Deborah.

“House-sized jam-pot, then,” I said. “Oh, if possible, make sure Hans and Anna have one of those, uh, double-barreled things that look like fowling pieces, and a belt of shells for close thugs or irritated marmots that try to get under their wheels while driving.”

“I know they have one of those,” growled Karl as he got to his feet. He was rubbing his hands, and an instant later when I saw what he was trying to sew on and sew with, I knew why.

Karl did not like sewing, and he found it as amusing as Anna found knitting when she was using bad yarn and worse tools. I took another look – this one a bit longer – at Karl's thread and needle, and spat, “go find a witch, you cursed things, and sew that wretch's mouth shut!”

The thread vanished – stitches and all – as did Karl's needle, and I said, as I glanced in my lump of beeswax, “that was much of your trouble, Karl – you just picked out any old needle that looked likely out of that big box of them, and I'll bet a five-guilder piece you picked a fetish-needle rather than a real one.”

“More than that, even,” said the soft voice. “About half of those needles are made in the fifth kingdom's deep places, and those things are fetishes – where the shine is all that matters.”

“Meaning witches show those, and use things like these here when they wish to sew,” I spat. “I'll let you use one of mine when you get back, and you'll most likely have better luck – that, and this thread we got from the Abbey, or something Sarah would use.” A glance at what she was using, and I spat, “I knew it. She's using thread from the Abbey, and has a lump of wax handy for waxing her thread!”

“I know I will, as I tossed that thing he said was good and borrowed one of Sarah's, and the same for what thread she was using, and a lump of wax, because she knows how to sew,” said Sepp. “Now we must get good straw, and good sawdust, and the rest of those clothes we've been hiding up here over the last few months.” This to Karl: “you left your door-string out, didn't you?”

“Yes, as that dummy wasn't that good, and him tearing it up like he did told me plenty about how bad it really was,” said Karl. I could tell he was irritated – first by a badly-made clothes-dummy being 'ripped to shreds' by a knife-wielding maniac who was not a butcher – someone, who in his less-focused moments, tended toward the clumsy when it came to commonplace tasks – and then, by a needle selected purely on the basis of 'how shiny it was'.

It made it all the more obvious that witch-thinking was very firmly ingrained in everyone who wasn't marked or close to that state.

“Which is why he needs to 'get experienced' in a place that's a lot like the way the west school is supposed to be,” I murmured, as the two of them made ready to leave. “I hope he's got more shells for that shotgun he's taken a liking to, and...” Pause. “Where's my shotgun?” I wanted to say, “I feel like an archetypal farmer saying that” – which, of course, made entire sense when one spoke of purple haze.

“It is downstairs in that room painted fit for a Téatré,” said Annistæ. “It is a white room, and brightly lit, and Téatraæ are like that, at least for color and brightness.”

“N-no,” I gasped. “They're worse. Lots worse. Lights so diabolically bright that you need dark goggles to not feel as if you're staring straight into the blinding white light of hell, then the walls are shiny like mirrors and are white enough that you can feel the blackness hiding behind them waiting to come out as that horrible thing called a mask descends upon your face for the last time, and as your eyes close due to the drugs, you can hear the white-masked witches that are sacrificing you to Brimstone speaking of 'long pig' and how tasty it is...”

“Non, they are not like that, not those I have been inside of,” said Annistæ. “I have been inside those places many times, and before they take you inside them, they give you something so you are not frightened. You sound like you would need two doses and a mask to go in one of those places, and I would make sure someone is there to hold your hand while you are going inside it until you are fully asleep, and then someone to hold your hand when you wake up.”

“Mask?” I asked.

“Yes, like I was given the first time I was hurt, this during rifle-training while I was about twelve summers,” said Annistæ, as Karl and Sepp finally left for their errands and we resumed our sewing on the clothing 'someone' had scraped up. I suspected Sarah had a hand in this portion, as her old satchel was present, and it looked as if partly emptied compared to what I recalled it being when I had last seen it earlier today. “I needed two doses with pills, one of them before they did anything to me and the other once I was calmer, then once the pills had begun working well, they helped me get undressed, and once they had my Téatré clothing on, they put me on this thing like a bed with wheels, and they gave me the mask. They let me hold it on my face until I was calmer still, and then put the straps on it, and I needed goggles then, as it made everything really bright, so I got those and some of these things for the ears, ones that are better than those used for rifle-practice – and I needed those, as everything I heard, no matter how quiet they tried to be, was really loud.”

“Rifle-practice?” I asked.

“These were not the rifles that are first used by children in their first or second term, but ones that are used for fighting, with full-loaded cârtuchæ,” said Annistae. “All students are issued their first rifles when they are of twelve or thirteen summers, and they are to keep them close all the time, even when in class, and that with four of what you call magazines filled with cârtuchæ in a belt-pouch and one of those carried in the weapon.”

“Dry chamber, I hope,” I said. I was more than a bit amazed that the Rooster Totem routinely trusted twelve-year-old children with selective-fire weapons – and then, did not feel so.

An armed society tended much toward respect and politeness toward one another, and they protected each other against their enemies – and these people had plenty of enemies.

“Yes, I did, and that from the first, but this other person did not, and when his weapon fell off of his clumsy shoulder, it fired and put a bullet through my leg!” Annistæ sounded quite angry with this person, and I did not blame her much. I was glad no one was hurt when I had my accident, even if it caused enough damage to my bed and books and scared me nearly to death.

“I hope the other students thumped him good,” I spat.

“I poked him in the same place with my knife, so he had to go with me to the Téatré,” said Annistae. “He learned about how to carry his rifle good after that, as the teacher had him sleep with his slung about his shoulder with his hands on it for two moons once he was well enough to do so.”

“Two moons?” I asked. “Oh, months.”

“Cé, ever since the time of Rachel's naming us, we have used the name moons, as then the months were like they are now,” said Annistæ. “Now I hope we do not have to chop up that straw they bring with knives, as that takes a long time.”

“No, not really,” I said, as I got to my feet. “Over in this one room next to the store-room here, down this one hall with shelves on it, and in this corner, is this strange thing that, uh, grinds up stuff that goes in this one machine that's further down this hall, and then that one has this pipe-collection, one big one and three or four smaller ones, that go to this long machine that turns out paper.”

“What?” gasped Sarah. “They can make paper here? How?”

“Seems so, though I'm not sure about how much paper – perhaps ten sheets a day, maybe, but it would be the best paper you've ever seen.”

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “Not enough to run a printing press, but more than enough to do 'special' printing jobs, like manuals.”

I glanced toward the engine room, stood up, and went inside. The aspect of warmth the place now had was such that one did not wish to routinely stand watch in this room, as while it was not an oven for heat, it was warm enough to cause an intense desire for beer and soft loose clothing that was cool to wear – like bed-clothing made by Sarah. I looked at the gages, felt the engine – running well, now no vibration whatsoever, oil flowing steadily from the scavenging pumps showing in the 'bubble', the muted hum now a soft soothing sound, and the faint whine of the gears in the gearbox had quieted noticeably.

I then felt that particular item, and noted that it was palpably warm. More, its oil was indeed circulating through the oil cooler, with a fan turning at a near-silent speed. I noted all the other machinery, then looked at our 'main' generator – the one needed for running machinery. I looked for a fuse panel near it, then saw what looked like a rack panel built into the wall to my right near the northwest corner. Row upon row, switch after switch, all of them looking like two-inch long metal ball-ended rods tilting down toward the ends labeled 'off'. I looked at one of these closely, and recognition came with that look as the panel and housing of the device went gauzy to show what it actually was.

“These things are circuit breakers, even if they look strange enough to belong on something that flies in outer space,” I spluttered.

“Wait until they get the new ones running overseas, especially the 'aerospace' grade examples. They'll really get to you when you see those – and those will be what will be used exclusively at the Abbey, as altered time tests everything to its limits, and only the best will endure such a regime.”

“Hence everything used must be fit for faster-than-light travel,” I said, as I found the breaker trio that activated the paper mill, and flipped those on. A brief 'hiccup' resulted, then the usual soothing chorus of humming noises went back to its former state.

I left the 'generator room', then recalled something. Weren't there 'heat-exchangers' so that place would not be fit for 'rising bread'?

I was about to return to the room when Annistæ walked past me into the room, then looked carefully at everything, the gages and meters especially, much as if she now understood the equipment and how it worked. She returned to the doorway, this with an armload of old torn-to-shreds clothing in a sizable cloth sack that I had not noticed before, and asked, “so, how is it you like a jeniradoré room?”

“Warmer than I expected,” I said.

“That is usual for such rooms, especially if the jeniradoré is a larger one,” she said. “Now, where is this place that makes paper, as this clothing here is fit for it, and that bad straw that looks like it came off of the place where swine roll themselves needs to go into that grinder for farolcumbusteblé.”

“The alkoli type of 'lantern fuel'?” I asked.

“Cé, that type, as we shall wish much of it for these lanterns in here,” she said. “The others are better for bedside lanterns, as they give a softer light, like ten good candles burning together.”

I went to that one storeroom I had spoken of earlier, and when I passed the shelves, I noted that not merely was there a grinder, but that grinder was separate from the other two machines, both of which were 'new' as far as I was concerned from the concept of technology, though in some ways, they were 'old', if referenced to the when and where I had come from. They had no semiconductors in them, even if things like some very sophisticated magnetic amplifiers were used.

“Use those things on spacecraft,” I muttered, as I found the grinder, and read its 'cautionary' labeling. “Put the stuff in this hopper, close the lid, latch it closed with this knob here, then stand to the side and turn it on with the button over there. It will stop when it's finished with that batch.”

“Why does it dump its ground-up material in that container there?” asked Annistæ.

“So we can go over it with a magnet or other things to recover metal, glass, or other materials that do not belong in 'high-class' paper fit for c-computer printers.” I then paused, gasped, “computer printers?”

“That's exactly what this printing line will make, and in substantially scaled-up form, will be used at the Abbey to produce lots of computer and book paper,” said the soft voice. “This equipment will keep all of the house's computer printers printing, and produce some paper over that amount, given sufficient quantities of old clothing – which you have enough of on hand in the house proper to last the remainder of the year. Now, flip the separator switch, set down the 'junk' bucket beside the 'junk' chute', and you'll get clean rag-stock 'dust' fit for making good printer-paper.”

I did so, not noticing it before, and asked, “wood?”

“There's plenty of that on the premises also, though more than this equipment can realistically handle,” said the soft voice. “The other portion of this equipment is a lot slower than that grinder, so adding a batch of ground 'dust' every few hours is what it takes to keep it running steadily – and that machine in front of you can make that much 'dust' in five minutes.”

I made ready as instructed, then put a small amount of Annistæ's rags in the hopper, latched it closed, ducked down and to the side, and hit the 'ON' button.

The soft moaning noise soon built to a whirling demented howl, then a screaming roar worthy of an angry lion spat 'dust' out of the main chute and sprayed 'junk' into the smaller bucket. The quantity and quality of noise was such that I felt terrified, but when the howl wound down to a muted humming followed by a soft click as the button 'emerged', I looked at the contents of both buckets.

“So there were some fetish-pieces in that clothing after all,” I muttered. “Go spice up some witch's meal, please – they want fetishes, and we don't.”

The thump was such that the 'junk' bucket flew up in the air to clang emptily upon the stones of the floor, and faintly, by some strange means, I heard terrible screams. I then thought to ask what had happened with the junk – and then, who was screaming.

“Why, that 'junk' got into some witches who were enjoying a five-course witch-meal, the main course consisting of grease-roasted Shoet, down in a witch-run district in the second kingdom house, and since they had already consumed a good deal of that pig, that 'junk' got inside them rather than waiting for them to eat it. Hence, those bad buttons and other things made by slaves are now causing them a case of severe indigestion.”

“Good,” said Annistæ. “Now here is more rags for that noisy thing. I think it might separate out that which is made by Cabroni, as if you do not send it to them, I have other ways of doing so.”

“How, madame?” I asked, as I assayed putting a bit more of what Annistæ had in the hopper and setting everything to rights again.

“By using some of that gray explosive, and putting that bad metal and things like it into its outer surface, along with bad nails and other bits of scrap-metal,” she said. “I have done things like that, and I want to do some things like that for that lead when it is put in a room near here.”

The 'paper-dust' went into the next machine over, which was as large as a commercial washing machine, appeared to be made entirely of brushed stainless steel, and had a sizable ventilation pipe of stainless steel going into the wall and several pipes running to the next machine over, which was fully as tall and wide as the 'washer', but easily four times as 'long'. I looked up, and noticed that this entire area had a fume hood for a roof, with a soft yet steady updraft running through it.

“No fan needed unless we get really stinky in here,” I said, as I latched the lid closed and made ready to press the 'loud' button. “Here goes the noisy part.”

Again, the moan built to a howl, then for a count of perhaps five or six that angry-lion scream-roar seemed to tear the world apart and turn a mess of torn-up clothing into a fine 'dust-like' substance while removing from said dust anything that did not belong in 'first-quality printer paper'. I then sneezed.

“One wants chemical clothing in here, as that thing dirties up the nose,” said Annistæ, who then blew hers. “I hope to get some quickly, and...”

I somehow had a clear and distinct mental picture of Annistæ wearing such clothing, and to say she looked strange while wearing it was not a good enough word. Her raiment, that being a suit that covered her entire body, was of a soft white fabric that was so stain-resistant that it literally did not get dirty, and more, it was entirely and fully waterproof, so one merely removed one's 'shoes' and laboratory smock, stepped into the shower, and washed off the dirt and soot without a pause. This 'clothing' dried very quickly – it was water-repellent to an astonishing degree – such that one could get right back to work once in clean clothing again, and as for help...

This stuff didn't just supply oxygen for breathing – it did a lot more than that. It was just the thing if one wished to deal with hazards such as 'an especially nasty species of Ebola that likes to spread by any means it possibly can, because it's a witch-created 'bug' that operates more by curses than all else'.

The strangest portion, however, was her eyes. Dark eye-shades, these dark enough to resemble black holes, were all that one could see of her head to indicate that it was indeed a head, and the smooth rounded aspect of her head made her look distinctly alien. Finally, under this fitted 'skin' – perhaps a better word was 'outersuit' – was a rounded 'backpack' that went from the top of her shoulders all the way to where her posterior would be, and it was contoured such that it was both form-fitting and looked completely natural. It too was covered by her 'clothing', such that it was indeed 'part' of her 'body'.

I then had a question.

“How does one use the privy while in such a suit?”

“That issue is taken care of,” said the soft voice. “You've had such things before in the hospital, only the ones used overseas, especially the good ones, are a lot more comfortable to use compared to what was used on you. More, their setups do a very effective job of preventing bladder infections, and finally, they have three-way 'drains', so they can prevent and cure infections like those you are prone to getting.”

“Yes, for liquid wastes,” I said. “What about, uh, the other kind?”

“Those 'suites' she is used to were only intended to be worn during one's workday, and hence did not deal with that. They were intended for chemicals, not dealing with 'a real-life version of the Red Death'.” Pause, then, “the ones overseas are, and the best ones are those used in hospitals for one's post-surgical recovery after having had major surgery.”

“They put you in one of those?” I gasped.

“Yes, and it doesn't just keep 'hospital-borne' infections down to an absolute minimum, it prevents people who are ill from spreading their infections around to others – and then, of course, it does a good job of keeping them feeling as well as possible.” Pause, then, “for truly major surgery, though, then it gets even 'weirder'.”

“What is that?” I asked.

“Recall that dream of a 'wearable intensive care environment' with a soft voice that spoke into your head, much like mine does?” asked the soft voice. “They cannot quite manage the soft voice portion at this time, but what they do do for those who are 'extremely ill' isn't all that much less, at least from the care portion – and you'll most likely get done up that way while in their hospitals.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Frees up the people doing the care?”

“No,” said the soft voice emphatically. “The patient-to-medical-person ratio there is a lot lower than what you're familiar with – very much lower, and for good reasons.” Pause. “The reason such equipment is used is it does a better job than anything you can think of regarding patient care and comfort. Recall that one television series where that one doctor had that strange noisy device that he used to diagnose trouble in injured people? Were such people real, they would wish they could do things like they do overseas now. It's that far advanced compared to what you're familiar with, either real life or in fiction, and it will jump ahead faster than you can believe possible once the place is liberated.”

“I caught some of that,” said Annistæ. “Now, you have an idea as to what chemical clothing is like, and I think you need to wear the good kind, and that always, not just when working with chemicals.”

“The good kind?” I asked.

“Yes, where you are fed and given water by means other than your mouth, you do not need to go into these smelly places called privies at all, you are breathed for constantly, and then you are given medicines so you do not hurt or feel as if you will go out of your mind.” Pause, then, “now, here is the rest of that bad clothing. Show me how to do this, as I will be doing it a lot while you are gone so as to get rid of all that bad clothing they have here.”

“They have enough of it,” spat Sarah – who had entered the room where we were running 'a paper-mill'. “That thing is noisy. What is it?”

“A grinder for cloth, though I think this thing works on more than bad clothing,” I said. “It also works on bad furniture, or so I suspect, provided you break it up to a degree first.”

“Then we shall need to make arrangements to bring such furniture up here, though I do not think it should be brought directly into here,” said Sarah – who then paused to think for a second or two. “I think there needs to be a receiving room, one with a marked doorknob on the long and crooked passageway between it and this place, and that needs to be far enough away with enough bends in it that if the witches attempt to put a bomb in that room, it will do little save wreck that room.”

“Good idea, dear,” I said. “Perhaps speak to Hendrik about it?”

“It's already in the plans you did up for him,” said the soft voice, “and more, once more Kemikalé come here to work, then you'll see the place extended as they and their mason friends expand this laboratory into other rooms on this floor.”

“And a lot of marked doorknobs will be needed,” I murmured. “Seems I'll need to make those things from scratch.”

The pop that resulted had me feeling my neckline to find at least one more memory card case, and while the two women puzzled out the grinder, and then loaded it with its third and largest batch and Sarah dumped the 'dust' into the 'emulsifier' – that was its printed name on the wall-plaque, and reading that told me this machine didn't just turn ground-up rags into fibers fit for making good paper – it actually changed them chemically, such that what went into the 'paper-making machine' wasn't 'cellulose' as I knew it.

It was closer to a synthetic fibrous material, one that when bonded with a suitable resin, was nearly as strong as a mixture of fiberglass and Kevlar.

“Can't hardly cut it,” I muttered.

“If it's not saturated with resin, it can be – though it will wish those good shears, and they will need honing with some frequency should you cut a lot of that 'paper'. That type, however, if removed before treating and then laminated in sufficient thickness with that 'evil-smelling resin', will make a decent species of rigid body-armor.”

“Wax-boiled leather?” That had been historical where I came from – and while it didn't stand up to bullets terribly well, it did handle slices and pokes from blades 'passably'. I suspected this 'laminated paper' would give a similar result with much less time and effort, and I was astonished indeed to hear what I heard next.

“No,” said the soft voice. “Recall what you've read about body armor?” Pause, then, “think of something that's a good deal thinner, a lot lighter, and a lot harder to damage compared to what soldiers wore when you were removed from that place and taken here.” Pause, then, “you wear that stuff, and Joost could center your chest with his rifle at a hundred yards and you'd just get knocked down and bruised good.”

“Would it shatter?” I asked. I'd heard of that happening with armor plates worn in 'body armor'.

“No, it would not,” said the soft voice. “It could stand up to a number of such hits, and it would slow down 'hot-loaded hollow-points' enough to make their wounds survivable, assuming good medical treatment was given in short order.” Pause, then, “it would make the best spam-tin you've encountered thus far seem like tin for effectiveness.”

“Survivable?” I gasped, as the moan of the cloth-grinder once more built to a howl and then a roar as both women clasped their ears and more 'dust' floated up into the air from the gouting spouts as the cloth-grinder did its quick but noisy labors.

“About like getting hit with a standard rifle round from what you used to shoot at targets,” said the soft voice. “Much as if you centered someone in the chest with that rifle at a hundred yards or so, presuming the use of 'commonplace' ammunition as supplied by the military, and not the target-grade bullets you commonly shot at matches.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “If I did that with that rifle, that person would most likely drop dead on the spot!”

“Precisely, if you speak of where you came from,” said the soft voice. “That kind of wound be survivable here if given proper medical treatment 'right away' and then a quick medical evacuation to a suitably-equipped theater.” Pause, then, “you've seen what 'hot-loaded hollow points' do to people's heads and chests – and those wounds are, as a rule, not survivable given the best care currently available overseas.”

“They aren't?” I gasped.

“You saw what happened to those witches when you did 'two in the chest and one in the head' – their entire head and upper neck turned into a red mist, and their entire upper torso was destroyed? What happened when you shot that one woman with that pistol when you put the tip of its barrel up her nose and pulled the trigger twice? They cannot fix that kind of an injury, at least not the way things are now.” Pause, then, “if your entire brain is turned to a red-gray mush that's been scattered over a fifteen yard distance in a fan pattern from where your head once was, and your entire chest cavity is red 'Jello' and every bone from the base of what is left of your neck to somewhere below the base of your sternum has been turned into splinters the size of toothpicks, they cannot currently fix that – and that's by deliberate intent with that ammunition, as witch-soldiers, especially those more adept in regards to hardening curses, needed a lot of stopping power.”

“A lot?” I gasped. Sarah was dumping the bucket of dust into the 'emulsifier'.

“Recall that one shoulder-crushing rifle you fired at that one match?” asked the soft voice. “The one that was well-known for its finger-biting tendencies should one be careless when loading it?”

I nodded mentally. That thing was a bit much to ever forget, even if I'd had individualized instruction as to how to load it without getting 'bit' by that swift-slamming bolt as the clip went home.

“Someone like the Mistress of the North could take an entire eight-round clip from that type of rifle, all of those being premium-grade soft-point hunting bullets hitting 'center of mass' at less than fifty yards, and 'ignore being shot' indefinitely,” said the soft voice. “You'd need 'Big Momma' to put that witch down for good, and then achieve multiple hits on her upper torso or head as well.”

“J-just like that one witch named 'Irene',” I muttered. “Needed to be blown to bits almost – not done until they're cut apart and rotting in a compost heap, just like Iggy was.” I then had a question.

“What about my first rifle? If I hit them solid with that one?”

“Call 'third eye' on a witch like that at any distance less than a quarter of a mile and they'll drop for good when they're hit,” said the soft voice. “Then again, that rifle can drop anything that travels on land where you live, and anything on land you're likely to run into here short of cursed lizards that need to be dismembered and rotting in a compost pile before they're done for good.”

“And Karl and Sepp should be returning soon,” I said, as I put the last of the clothing-dust into the first of the paper-making machines. I then looked at the 'emulsifier' closer, and noted, this with alarm, that unlike I had first thought, this thing had its share of electronics.

“This thing is c-computer controlled,” I squeaked. “Just like that one thing in that generator room. It has a keyboard, and, uh, screen...”

“Just fold down the keyboard, and then look at what it's doing,” said the soft voice. “Notice how it tells you what it is doing in detail? That's what the most-common operating system is like over there, and this unit has a truncated version of it, one sufficient to operate an emulsifier and communicate with the paper-maker proper – and eventually, the network that will go in here.”

“And, uh, a compiler?” I asked.

“Of course it has means for modification of its source code,” said the soft voice. “It takes 'root' access to get to it, which you have and no one else in the house does, but it does have that – and unlike most machines over there, this one does not have hardware or software 'worms' or 'bugs' built into it.”

“Especially that big nasty one with the screw,” I spat. “That thing is so awful that I almost need to write some code that will go hunt that thing down and get rid of it.”

“You already have that code,” said the soft voice. “They'll get it when they read your mind, then figure out what it does – and then install it.”

“What will it do?” I asked.

“Spread like a virulent infection and remove that 'screw-bug' when and where it is found, and do some other rather 'unpleasant' things to the leadership's computers and equipment, as their stuff uses that screw-bug as an important part of their operating systems.”

“They use something different?” I asked.

“Yes, and it needs about five times the horsepower to give half the speed of what the commons use – and that 'master control program' doesn't just control the operator of those machines.”

“What else does it do?” I asked. This was critical information. I recognized that much: it was an integral part of taking the system down and keeping it down for good.

“Keeps the machine operating,” said the soft voice. “That screw-bug is an integral part of their machine's kernel, and if you 'zap' it, the least that will happen is their computers become inoperable until they reload everything from tape – which only a few individuals among them are smart enough to do.”

“And what is more likely?” I asked.

“The kernel starts acting 'weird' and gets into a downward-spiraling 'fault-mode' – and the usual result of something like that is either a computer panic, or a kernel panic – and with the leadership's machines, they don't scream if the latter happens.”

“What happens?” I asked.

“The computer explodes like a pallet of plastic explosive,” said the soft voice. “You can play all kinds of tricks that way if you're inclined once you 'crack in' – things like manual-override the kernel traps and then write a program that does infinite recursion while making copies of itself and sending them abroad to any system that has mention of certain words you've heard of describing people like you – using the 'scan-f ( ) function', with commas delimiting the phrases or words in question and ending with a semicolon, as you recall from your programming days.”

I had just returned from watching the 'emulsifier' begin its 'work' when first Karl came in towing one of the carts laden with supplies, then Sepp came in about ten seconds behind him. By the looks of what they'd been after, they'd been frantically busy, and when they brought over the clothing bags, Sarah looked in one and said, “good. You've gotten their cloth scraps from the tailor's shop in here. Those will help with this new dummy, as we were flogging a hooves-up mule with that other stuff.”

“Yes, and where is it?” asked Karl. He was sounding a lot like Hans for some reason.

“Being made into paper,” said Annistæ. “Now I hope you have good straw and sawdust, as we have a good grinder for both of those things, and that will make a good dummy for practice. Now where are these clothes?”

The clothing that was dumped out by Karl and Sepp proved both much more a mixed bag compared to earlier as well as in better condition overall, and when I gave Karl one of my needles, I noted that not merely had my wax-ball doubled in size, but the number of needles inserted into it had grown greatly. I looked at Sarah, then at Deborah, and the latter said, “while you two were busy with those bad rags and that worse straw, we were going through more of those needles, and I put aside those that felt bad and Sarah found those that were done by that one place.”

“Where are the bad ones?” asked Sepp. “I want to stay clear of those.”

“Bagged up with some other scrap metal, and labeled as being fit for Frankij,” said Sarah. “Now I found more good sewing and leather needles, so now he should lack for nothing on either front, as I took his ball of wax and added more to it before putting the needles I found to it.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“There is this small thing that looks like a metal plate with a ceramic center,” said Annistæ, and there are some wall-plugs here, so I plugged it in, and set it for 'wax', so it melted that stuff quick, and all she had to do was take his wax-ball and dip it a number of times until it was large enough to hold his needles. She did the same with hers, and I think Deborah is growing her ball of wax as well, as she is learning to sew.”

“And you?” I asked.

“I do passably, but she looks to best me there, given time and practice,” said Annistæ. “Now I must get my wax, as there will be things I wish to mend.”

“Such as, perhaps, a copy of what I call my possible bag?” I asked. “Smaller, compartmented, of nicely-tanned deer hide? I've wanted to give Sarah one of those for ever so long, as that kind of leather, when done right, seems to suit her especially well.”

I then looked up from my work to see Sarah staring at me, and she muttered, “you read my mind, as I do like that kind of leather when it's done right, and I've a hankering for a smaller version of your bag – one like you spoke of, as you spoke of needing another one with internal compartments compared to your first one.”

“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “Now, you also would like some, uh, boots like Annistæ has, wouldn't you? Perhaps thicker soles... No, better. They have this material overseas like this stuff I once used when I made a pair of those for wearing around my shop, and you could build up nice rubber soles on them by painting it on. Use a really bad brush for the last few layers, as then you get a textured finish that works well on floors like these.”

“I pray to Déo that you get some of this rubber, or find its formula, as I wish it for my boots, and that badly, said Annistæ. “I shall wish more of them before long, but they need special fitting, as I am missing toes from Cabroni.”

“Hence an inner sole of this special type of... Dear, I know exactly what you need, and I saw them a while ago when I saw a picture of you dressed fit for working with chemicals. They take a mold of your feet, make this delightful-feeling cushion of this soft blue rubber, put it inside these strange-looking shoes that lace up like what you're wearing, and then those shoes are treated so they are not only wear-resistant in general, but resistant to nearly anything, including fire and strong acids.”

“I think I want those instead,” said Annistæ, “but they need to be here to fit my feet, that or I must go over there to be fitted.”

“You'll be fitted once they're present at the Abbey in numbers, but I'll be able to do some, uh, work to your boots when I return – as I'm going to ask for that brushable two-part rubber, if they have it.”

“They will have some once they read your mind, as while they have no material exactly like that, they have materials that are close enough that they can readily modify them to do what you were thinking of.” Pause, then, “you'll really be amazed with their chemical equipment, and Annistæ would laugh, scream, and cry if she saw what they have over there in their medical areas.”

“Uh, food?” I asked. I was chewing on a small chunk of bread, washing it down with sips of beer, and the remainder of that bread looked to be 'done' within minutes, if I went by how the women were chewing on pieces of the stuff. Sarah was all but fighting with Deborah for the use of her knife, and I knew Deborah wished one of those also for 'daily use'. I had to lend her mine to stop that 'tendency toward fighting for resources' that seemed so infernally common, and I wondered briefly if that was due to a curse.

The answer I got was so strange I had trouble believing it, and only when Sepp spoke about what he and Karl had done regarding food did I come out of my 'funk' at hearing that this 'pugnacious' tendency was normal for here, and it was to our advantage, both now and yet more so in the future when we would be dealing with invasions from elsewhere.

You wanted people who were 'fighting fools' then, as they'd all fight like their lives depended upon them doing their utmost, and this tendency toward fighting for resources and supplies was just part of their nature. Free lunches were merely good advertising; they did not happen in real life.

“The cooks are coming up this way with the food, and we'll return to fetch it in here once we have another clothes-dummy started,” said Sepp. “They might manage the stairs to get themselves up here fine if they take the back stairs, but if they go more than about twenty feet from the landing on this floor, they need a string to find their way back to the stairs.”

Sepp then surprised me with a comment about his way: “I'm not that much better, actually, and I'm glad Karl thought to use some fishing string he had.”

“Oh, no,” I gasped.

“This was not normal fishing string,” said Karl. “I got this stuff special once I was posting here, and it is both the thinnest string I could find, and I was careful as to its color. I had to get several sticks of the stuff before I found a color that matched the floor good.”

“You m-matched the floor?” I asked.

“If he did a good job that way, and used thin string, such as what is used for herring, then one would need to look very hard indeed to see it,” said Sarah. “I've done that myself more than once, and I recall one of the things listed for travel supplies at the west school is several carved 'sticks' of thin fishing string, each of them listed as being one hundred yards or more.”

“I was careful that way also,” said Karl, “and I used that stuff. You need to put a light right on it, and look hard to see that stuff, and that's when it's lit decent in here, not like it is now with all the candles gone and the place is too dark to see by half unless you carry a good lantern with you, or one of those special ones with the light on a cord going to a green box. I have one of those in my satchel here, and I used that with the yellow filter, so it looked like a big candle.”

“You did?” I squeaked.

“Yes, as we will be wanting to use those filters on those battery lights overseas, that and put a bit of that grease on them so those things they have that are like eyes have trouble,” said Karl. “Now, I hope I can get better string over there.”

“You mean the special string,” I murmured. “They do have some overseas that is as thin as my hair, it's so clear it's practicably invisible, and then you need both a special viewer and a light, both of them working in infrared, to see it reliably – as otherwise, you cannot see this stuff, even if you get on your hands and knees and look right at it.”

“That is only true for those who do not have 'significant' markings,” said the soft voice. “You could readily see such string, and more, you'd feel the stuff at a distance of over a hundred yards.”

“As in spies use it for traps?” I asked.

“Yes, if they're among those trained to use traps, which pretty much means one of the seven remaining 'special' spies and those in the process of being trained to be those people,” said the soft voice. “The more-common individuals just use wire like you've seen and gotten at the Abbey, only what they have access to isn't done nearly as well – and those spies will fall for that wire with a fair degree of frequency, especially if you rig things like you tend to do when you expect people to be tricky.”

“Why?” I asked. I could feel the cooks starting up the stairs, and all four individuals were carrying sizable bags of food and drink, as well as a medium-sized fryer and a 'smaller' pot.

Smaller here was 'large' at home, as 'eight people' was a lot there. This location sometimes fed eighty or more at a time during its normal meal-periods.

“The other thing about that special thread that you'll really appreciate is that not only is a special viewer and light needed for most people, but witches will not be able to see it no matter what they do.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Too trashed by half to use such a viewer – even one as simple as those things?”

“Much more than that,” said the soft voice. “Witches treat all of such gear as powerful fetishes, ones from before the war; and given that attitude, they won't bother trying to use one, assuming they manage to get their hands on one of those devices. They'll chant at it instead of pressing the button, and think that because it's not working properly, they need to chant 'like they mean it' – which means 'yell as loud as they possibly can' – and that presumes that such a witch is sober.”

“Ain't going to be a one of those in here,” said Karl, as he dumped his tied bags on the floor. “That is the rest of the clothing we brought over the last few months, and I hope it will work, as that is not just from my family.”

“I got some from mine, and I think Karl used the worst clothing he had out of all we hid up here to make that dummy, as he didn't know about those things and how they have to be,” said Sepp.

“How they have to be?” I asked.

“They make those of cow-hide in butcher-shops,” said Sepp, “and about a year before you're ready for your zuurpruef, you should have most of your knives, and that's when you get taught about dodging horns and knowing where to stab or cut to down cattle without getting hurt or killed.”

“I think he might manage that,” said Sarah regarding me. “Now, at least we have decent clothing here. I was thinking we might need to sew this stuff up from the scraps of cloth I pulled out of my old satchel.”

“How did you know..?” I asked, in regards to Sarah bringing a good portion of her cloth-scraps.

“I knew we would need to practice with knives,” said Sarah, “and the way it was done during my time at the west school was to use clothes-dummies, only the ones they use there are nearly as good as what you might find in an expensive tailor's shop, one where the clothes-dummies are wearing suits of clothing in their shop-windows.”

“That doesn't mean much,” said Deborah. “These good needles make even a person like me able to run stitches, even if I am slow and must watch myself a lot.” Pause, then, “you have the clothing. Did you get the straw and shavings?”

“Those are in these other bags here,” said Sepp. “About half of it is wood-shavings, as I told Karl that we would spend a lot of time with our knives chopping up straw otherwise.”

“That is not a problem,” said Deborah. “There is this one machine that makes a noise fit for putting people in the privy down that hall over yonder, and it turns bad cloth into this dusty stuff that is perfect for stuffing dummies like this.” Pause, then, “I never played much with dolls, as I found them boring, but those of my relatives that did used fine sawdust from the carpenter's shop for their stuffing.”

“Dolls?” I asked.

“Most girls are but slightly inclined toward such things, and those that wish those to any real degree after they're about five need close watching,” said Deborah. “I know witch-children are most-fond of dolls, but I doubt they play with them like waddlers and children but a bit older.”

“No wonder I've not seen anything like those here,” I said. “They don't have time to make them in town, and...”

“You need people who have the time, the talent, and the inclination to make those, and no one in Roos, save perhaps you, me, and possibly Anna, has the ability – and none of us have the inclination, at least right now,” said Sarah. Pause, then, “if there are to be children in our future, they may and may not wish such things, and if they are marked beyond the trivial, they'll not be interested in them at all, and that's not just from tapestries and old tales. I've seen too many of my relatives wish to do things far beyond their age, and I myself was one such – and I never had the slightest interest in such things in the usual sense.”

“You made a few, though,” said Deborah. “I do remember that.”

“Yes, as gifts for children during Festival Week,” said Sarah. “They were of the age that plays with such things, and they looked to be interested, as they'd just been privy-trained and were wishing toys to play with.”

“The straw?” I asked.

“I suspect we can handle that, given this spare bag for the dust that grinder makes,” said Sarah – who then looked at me. “I think you might wish to look at that pot-room, as I recall you being instructed to get some of those pots up and running.”

“Yes, and he might wish to be present when we put the straw and shavings in that machine, as they are not cloth and I am not someone fit to teach Makinekalæ,” said Annistæ. “That machine may need to be adjusted, or we may need to feed it differently. I know that much about many machines – they can be touchy as to what one does if one wishes a good outcome, and we need that for this thing, as it will get much practice, and not just by us.”

“Meaning each class makes two of these things for their knife-practice, and they have these things on, uh, rollers such that they move up the halls like drunken witches,” I said.

“Th-that..?” gasped Sarah.

“Good practice for knife-work, especially if we have them rolling about with a recording of that foot-pounding true-step witches so like to do,” I said, “and we have them doing so late at night when everyone is asleep – oh, and yelling like drunken fools, also, and dressed in witch-clothing. That will be realistic training, as the witches I've seen tend to do that.”

I then noticed both Karl and Sepp were gone, as were our two trailers, and if I went by the number of bags of both clothing, coarse-chopped straw, and mingled wood-shavings and fragments of scrap wood, they had used them to haul the bags when and as they could and portaged them when needed. Now, they would need them to fetch our food – and I was hoping that would arrive soon.

One did not want a hypoglycemia attack when bringing up a pot-line. I knew that much.