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The Spark: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Saturday, September 16, 2017 10:20 EDT



Home, Sweet Home

    I was deep into the artifact I’d decided to fix. I’d added in silica to extend the existing structure; now I was trying to form the other bits.

    I was assuming that the portion beyond the break was identical to the piece that I had. There wasn’t any evidence supporting that; but if it wasn’t, I had nothing at all to go on.

    I’d been working on the piece all morning, coming out of my trance only to change to a different selection of raw materials and to take a swig of water from the bucket by the door. When mom was alive she’d have had a piece of bread and some fruit set out beside me, whatever was in season. I could have done that for myself, but I never seemed to get around to it.

    Buck was mostly curled up in the sunshine of the barn’s open doorway, but occasionally he’d wander over and take a look at what I was doing. He didn’t exactly get in my way inside the work piece, but it always confused him and that was likely to put me off my stride.

    I hadn’t gotten my stride yet on this and I wasn’t sure I was going to, so his nosing me mattered even less than usual. Still, when Buck began to tug my trousers with his teeth, I decided I’d been come out.

    I came back into the present, lying on the floor of the barn with a straw-filled bolster under my head and the pewter tray holding the workpiece and my raw materials beside me. I said, “What’s the matter, boy? Hungry?”

    From the short shadow outside the door it was just past noon. Buck shouldn’t need to be fed….

    Somebody–my eyes focused: Guntram–sat on the upturned wheelbarrow just outside the door. He nodded and said, “Good morning, Pal. I wasn’t going to disturb you, but I’m afraid I disturbed your dog.”

    “I’m glad he woke me up, sir,” I said. I wasn’t completely back in the present yet; I’d been real deep in a structure I didn’t even half understand. “And I’m very glad to see you. Will you stay with me? It’s not fancy, but you’ll have a bed and food.”

    There wasn’t any place on Beune that was fancy, which I guess Guntram knew already. From the night I’d spent with him, he wasn’t a man who cared any more about fine fabrics and rich food than I did–or a shepherd.

    “If it wouldn’t put you out,” Guntram said, rising when I did. “Your neighbors found me a basket for my hedgehog, and the little boy and girl brought him a handful of worms for him. Also some bread and ale for me, though I didn’t really need it.”

    “Gervaise has been a good friend,” I said. “He’s my landlord, I suppose, though it isn’t anything so formal. He’s letting me use the buildings that used to by my mom’s, and he gives me food for helping around the farm. We’ll have to figure out something more formal soon, I guess, but I’m still finding my feet since I came back.”

    I felt my mouth twist when I said that. Me using the house and barn was nothing to Gervaise, but I really hadn’t done enough to justify my keep. Food wasn’t short this year, and I’d make up for it when it was time to bring the crops in.

    I cocked my head. “Your hedgehog, you said, sir?” I said.

    “I use a hedgehog to guide me along the Road,” Guntram said, smiling. “They’re not fast, but neither am I. Nor do I intend to fight.”

    I walked out into the sunlight. “Ah, sir?” I said. “Did you have guards, then? Because there can be trouble on the Road out here.”

    If Guntram had come with an escort, I was going to have to make some arrangements. There aren’t any inns on Beune. I suppose a squad of troops could sleep in my barn, but feeding them was going to be a problem; we’re not set up for that on Beune, either.

    “There’s just me,” said Guntram. “I don’t care for company at most times. And I seem to make other people nervous.”

    He nodded to the house across the barnyard and said, “Do you have a table inside, Pal? I can show you things more easily on a table.”

    “Sure,” I said and led him in. Buck came with us for curiosity, but he padded back onto the stoop when he saw we were just standing by the table.

    That was a makeshift I’d knocked together by fitting stake legs onto a length of pine log I’d adzed flat. It was narrow but there was only one of me. Though I hadn’t bothered planing or sanding the surface, I’d done a pretty good job with the adze.

    Mom’s table was a wonder that could pull out to take eight people along the sides. It had come from her family and it was way too big for our house–she never stretched it out. I think she’d have sold her right leg before she did that table.

    Gervaise bought the table along with the rest of what I had, and he’d rightly taken it to his own big house. His wife Phoebe was as proud of it as mom had been. I didn’t think of asking for it back, and Gervaise would’ve turned me down if I had. At least he’d have turned me down if he had good sense.

    Guntram set down his leather scrip and opened it. The first thing I noticed is that it was full. It wasn’t huge, but even with its broad strap it would’ve been a good load for an old man to haul all the way from Dun Add.

    There wasn’t room for food, either. Guntram had money or I suppose he did, but having a full purse wasn’t safe for an old man at most inns or on the Road generally.

    “This,” said Guntram, touching a silvery half-dome with a strap attached, “is why I didn’t need guards. On the Road, I can’t be seen while I wear it on my head. It doesn’t work Here, and it doesn’t work in the Waste–but it doesn’t have to because I didn’t go into the Waste.”

    “I wonder if it would work in Not-Here?” I said, just because I was curious. There’d be no way any human could test that, but if Guntram understood the mechanism he might know the answer.

    “The device came to me almost complete,” said Guntram. “Which is good, because I don’t think I could have repaired any major damage.”

    He shook his head, smiling ruefully. “As it was,” he said, “I was lucky that there was cadmium in the sample of zinc that I added as my last try, and the cadmium atoms filled the gap where lead had not. I wasn’t deep enough into the piece to get any idea of the mechanism, but it seems to interact with the structure of the Road itself.”

    I felt my lips purse. “I’ve never been able to find a structure in the Road,” I said.

    “Nor have I,” said Guntram. He smiled wider and handed the cap to me. I probed it lightly, marveling at the delicacy of its structure, but I didn’t spend any real time in it.

    Even a peek showed me that Guntram had downplayed his accomplishment by a lot. His repairs were lacework, almost indistinguishable from the original, and I was pretty sure he’d suspected that cadmium or another of the traces in powdered galena might be the needed extra in a chain of lead with occasional zinc crystals.

    “Sir,” I said. I set the cap on the table. There was nothing I could say to do justice to the work. “It’s an honor to know you.”

    “I’ve had a long time to practice,” Guntram said. His smile was slight, but I’m pretty sure he understood the praise and liked it. “I wonder, Pal…? Would you take me to some of the places you find objects? I’m particularly interested in pieces from Not-Here, a whim–but I understand completely if you want to keep your sites private.”

    I shook my head. “I wouldn’t understand hiding them from you, sir,” I said. “I think giving a Maker like you all the help I can is the best thing I can do for Mankind.”

    It still hurt, what’d happened to me in Dun Add, but I don’t argue with the way things are. I said, “About all I can do for Mankind, I guess, but I’ll sure do it. You want to go out right now?”

    “Not right at the moment,” Guntram said. “I’d sooner not walk anywhere for a while. I wonder–in Dun Add you said you had a variety of pieces that you hadn’t been able figure out the use of. Could I see some of them? A fresh pair of eyes, you know. And in the morning, we can go prospecting.”



    “You sit right down,” I said, pointing to the closest thing I had to a chair: the round of tree bole I was using as a stool. “I’ll be back with a load from the barn as quick as it takes me to walk twenty feet!”



    We wound up sitting cross-legged on the floor with the table and stool pushed back against the north wall. We were working on the third load of pieces that I’d stored in the barn because I didn’t know what else to do with them. To me they were just so much ballast, but to the Ancients they’d been–I couldn’t even guess with most of them. But they’d been wonders, that I knew.

    I was using the linen tote that I hauled split wood to the fireplace in colder weather. I’d picked up more artifacts than I’d realized over the years, and some of them I hadn’t looked at in, well, years.

    “Do you gather these pieces personally?” Guntram said as he set down what might as well have been an acorn for any use I could figure out for it. “Or do most of them come from specialist searchers? Almost all of what we see in Dun Add is brought by people who make their living searching for artifacts instead of farming.”

    I laughed. “This is Beune, Guntram,” I said. “Nobody’s a one-trick pony here. There’s people who’re blacksmiths and weavers–and there’s me, who’s a Maker. But we’re that and farmers. Come harvest, you’ll find everybody pitching in, and if somebody decides to raise a new barn it’ll be him and all his neighbors.”

    I gestured to the spread of items Guntram had been sorting. “Three quarters of this I found myself. A few pieces travelers brought in, things they’d noticed as they were walking along and they were close enough that they brought it here. I trade them a meal for what they found, and maybe once or twice I’d go beyond that if something looked like it might count for something. I gave a fellow a brand new tunic once, for….”

    I fished around and found the piece I’d been working on when Guntram woke me out of my trance.

    “For this. Which seeing that piece in your room at Dun Add, I thought might be a color projector too.”

    “Did you?” said Guntram, turning the piece around in his hands. It was a round rod about the thickness of my index finger. “Did you indeed!”

    He set the piece back on the pewter tray I’d taken it from. “You identified this from a glance at the piece in my collection?” he said.

    I stiffened at his look. Well, I stiffened the best I could sitting crossways on the floor in a litter of things that I’d brought from the barn; I couldn’t even straighten my legs.

    “Sir,” I said. “I thought I saw similarities, yes. It gave me a direction to go with my repair. Though I haven’t gotten very far.”

    &##8220;You have a good eye,” Guntram said, “but this is a far more complicated piece. The projector in my collection puts a hue on a wall. I can set it not to color other objects on the basic surface, but nothing more difficult than that.”

    He touched the piece again but continued looking at me. “This creates images,” he said. “It would take me months to determine even the sort of images, but I suspect it has many options. Many, many options.”

    “That’s wonderful!” I said. After I found I couldn’t make head nor tail of the piece, I’d felt a bit of a fool to have given the peddler a new tunic. It seemed I’d made a good bargain after all. “Sir–Guntram? Will you accept it as a gift from me? I’d like to watch you work on it to learn, but I sure would never be able to do it justice without help.”

    Guntram cocked his head at me. “We’ll discuss that later,” he said. “For now, though….”

    As I brought odds and ends out of the barn, Guntram had been separating them into two groups. There was sort of a third group: an arc which I suspected was a continuum. Sometimes he’d commented on what he was doing, more often he didn’t.

    Now Guntram chose a hollow tube about four inches long–broken on only one end, but I still hadn’t been able to figure it out despite the relatively good condition–and with his other hand pulled a short spindle from the items in the tote which we hadn’t gone through yet. “Have you considered these pieces together?” Guntram said.

    “I picked up the little one ten years ago,” I said. “I haven’t thought about it since.’

    I grimaced, embarrassed at the situation. “I need to go over everything,” I said, aloud but really speaking to myself. “I keep learning things, but I need to go back over all the stuff I got earlier when maybe I didn’t understand what I do now.”

    “We’re looking at them now,” Guntram said mildly.

    I placed the spindle close alongside the tube and in a trance entered both at the same time. I had a hazy view of the tube’s structure extending, though probably not very far. I was sure that it didn’t connect with the spindle.

    I’d been planning to work on the tube, though I didn’t know what the device’s purpose might be. I hoped that if I completed the gross structure–silicon with a dusting of metals that I mostly had available–I’d get a notion of the purpose so that I could approach that afterwards.

    The spindle seemed complete: there was no suggestion of missing knobs or bits at the crystalline level, but neither was there any hint of life, of function, in the piece. I saw no connection between the two pieces, though Guntram obviously did.

    The pieces blurred. I’d never seen that happen. It brought me out of my trance as suddenly as if somebody’d poured the water bucket over me. Gasping, I jerked upright.

    “Oh!” I said. Guntram was holding the spindle within the hollow tube.

    “Pal, I apologize,” Guntram said. His hands didn’t move from the two pieces. “I shouldn’t have done that without warning you first. I’m truly sorry.”

    “Sir, it’s my fault,” I said, though I guess it really wasn’t. It was how I felt, though. “I’ve never had the workpiece move while I was in it, that’s all. There’s never anybody around when I’m working, you see.”

    I raised my hand. “Now, keep holding them like that,” I said. “I’ll go back in.”

    Guntram nodded and I did that, just dipping in lightly. I hadn’t been sure that’d be easy after the surprise, but it was.

    The connection was obvious when I saw the spindle nested within the tube. The pieces were throbbing with power now, but the interior of the tube was a featureless blur. I couldn’t see the structure which had kept the spindle in place when the object was complete. Was it a fluid? Even a gas, I suppose, if the pressure was high enough.

    I came out and grinned ruefully at Guntram. “It’s pretty obvious,” I said. “Now that you’ve shown me. But what’s the missing element?”

    “Any of the noble metals would do,” Guntram said. “Gold is probably the simplest. Can your neighbor’s wife replace a button for me?”

    “Phoebe?” I said, pulling out the coin I’d kept for luck. Having gold–or anyway, a mix of gold and silver–was about the best luck I could imagine right now. “Sure. Are you missing one?”

    Guntram clipped off the top button of his tunic, then used the same small knife to peel away the leather covering. The gold core gleamed in the late afternoon light.

    “I brought a variety of trace elements with me,” he said, handing me the bare metal core. “Things that I wasn’t sure you’d have access to on Beune. Gold was an obvious one, of course.”

    “Ah, we could use my coin?” I said, but Guntram shook his head. I was just as glad, frankly; though like Gervaise getting the table, I’d have given up the coin if I needed to. “I don’t know what pattern to use, though.”

    “I’ve seen these before,” said Guntram. “Do you think you can you complete the exterior structure if I build the interior matrix?”

    “Yes,” I said. “Yes, sure. I’ve got everything I need for that. It’ll take me several hours, though. Do you want to start now?”

    The two artifacts made a weapon. I was eager to get at it, but I also knew I was already peckish and that wouldn’t help my concentration when I worked on the piece. I wondered what I had to eat in the house.

    “What I would like to do now,” Guntram said, “is to have a real dinner. I took the liberty of asking your neighbors if they would feed us both tonight about this time. I said I would compensate them, though they seemed more excited just to have a visitor from Dun Add.”



    “Gervaise and Phoebe are about as nice as you could find,” I said. “On Beune or anywhere else. And I’m glad you thought ahead to what we were going to be doing for food, because I sure didn’t.”

    I got up and offered Guntram a hand to help. My stomach growled.

    “Let’s go take them up on the offer before it gets dark,” I said.



    “Here they come!” three of Gervaise’ children shouted together as me and Guntram came into sight along the path. They were waiting by the oak that’d been the boundary between Gervaise’ tract and my own. Now it was all his, but he–or Phoebe–must’ve told the kids to stay clear of what’d been my house now that I’d come back. “They’re coming! They’re coming!”

    “Do you get this whenever you go outside Dun Add?” I said quietly to Guntram.

    “I rarely leave Dun Add,” said Guntram. “Indeed, most of my time is spent in my quarters there.”

    He looked at me. “Besides, people don’t pay attention to an old man in a gray robe in most places,” he said. “Nor should they.”

    Gervaise and his wife stood to either side of their door. The three boys were beside him, the two girls beside Phoebe, who was holding their infant.

    We don’t get many visitors on Beune; Gervaise and Phoebe were making the most of Guntram. And of me, I suppose. I think of myself as just a farmer, but I’ve always been different from my neighbors. I was even different from dad and mom.

    I grinned. Guntram’s visit might do nothing else, but it was going to convince my neighbors that I was different in a good way.

    “Mistress Phoebe,” said Guntram, bowing slightly and holding out a package in both hands. He’d remembered the name of Gervaise’ wife. “Thank you for your hospitality. Please accept this token of appreciation from an old man.”

    “Oh, what wonderful cloth,” said Phoebe. She handed the baby to her ten-year-old and unfolded the cloth wrapper carefully. “Do you want it back, sir?”

    “It’s yours,” said Guntram. “Now, hold it firmly.”

    The object was a colorless ball an inch in diameter, resting on a square base with one white side and three black. Guntram touched the white rectangle; the ball glowed, casting a clear light in all directions.

    The girls screamed; Gervaise spread his arms and backed away, shoving the boys back also. “The Adversary!” he said.

    Phoebe closed her hands over the object; light streamed through the loose net of her fingers. “Gervaise!” she shouted in a fury I’d never heard from her. “Don’t be a bigger fool than God made you! You know Pal would never bring any evil here!”

    Gervaise’ face blanked. He lowered his arms but he didn’t speak further.

    Phoebe curtseyed to Guntram. “Thank you, sir,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything so wonderful. Please forgive my husband’s surprise; he’s really not a bad man.”

    Guntram looked uncomfortable. “I’m very sorry,” he said. “I should have warned you. I assure you it’s just a bauble, nothing to do with the Adversary.”

    Guntram hadn’t told me what he planned to give her or I would’ve suggested he do it a little different. Come to think, I’d have suggested he let me handle it, probably after dinner when it was getting dark. Thanks to Phoebe, it’d worked out all right.

    “It’s wonderful,” she said firmly, opening her fingers. “How long will it burn, sir?”

    “Forever, if you want it to,” said Guntram. “Or you can turn it off by–”

    He extended his finger, catching Phoebe’s eyes; she nodded. He touched the white portion of the base again and the light went out.

    “–doing that. I thought it might be useful to you on short winter days.”

    “It’s wonderful,” Phoebe repeated. “Now, let’s all go in and eat. Gervaise, you have something to say.”

    Gervaise nodded, then bowed. “Master Guntram,” he said, “I hope you’ll honor me by sitting at my right hand. Pal, will you please face me at the foot of the table?”

    The table was stretched full length, even though the eleven and ten year olds were serving it instead of eating. Gervaise carved the pork roast and loosened up considerably in the course of the evening. He even asked for the new light to be turned on at twilight; Phoebe did so with considerable ceremony, placing it on a wall shelf in place of the miniature portraits of her mother and father.

    We talked while we ate. They all wanted to hear about Dun Add, what sort of crops the folk there grew and what the women wore. Guntram knew as little about the one as the other, it seemed to me, but he was polite and sometimes I could add a little from what I’d seen.

    Then Phoebe said, “Master Guntram? Wouldn’t you say our Pal here is a fine young man?”

    Guntram looked at me in surprise. “Why, certainly,” he said.

    “Phoebe,” I said. “You shouldn’t–”

    “Then why hasn’t he found a girl, do you suppose?” Phoebe plowed on. “Oh, not here I mean, but in Dun Add? There must be ever so many fine ladies in Dun Add, aren’t there?”

    “This really isn’t something I know enough about to discuss,” Guntram said. I won’t say he was more embarrassed than I was–he couldn’t be–but he was sure embarrassed.

    “Phoebe–” Gervaise said, a bit of roast lifted halfway to his mouth on knife point and his eyes bulging like a startled rabbit’s.

    “I blame Ariel’s notions,” said Phoebe, paying no more attention to her husband than she had to me. “She taught the poor boy that women were as bad as poison snakes.”

    “Mistress Phoebe,” I said, “stop that!”

    I guess I’d raised my voice some, because everybody did stop. I said, “My mom was a good woman, and if she didn’t want me to grow up another Jacques the Peddler, well, that’s to the good, I think.”

    “I’m sorry, I’m sure, Master Guntram,” Phoebe said, looking down at her plate.

    “Ariel’s sister was a wild one,” Gervaise muttered. “It may be that Ariel got a bit carried away about wild women.”

    He looked around and put on a big, false smile. “I’m thinking we could all do with a little more ale, right? I surely could!”

    We stayed longer into the night than I’d hoped to, but politeness aside I wanted to make sure the whole family was comfortable with Guntram and me before we left. Gervaise embraced me when we left, saying how lucky they were to have me for a neighbor. He’d put down quite a lot of his own ale, more than I’d ever seen him drink before. That was between him and Phoebe, but I noticed she kept refilling his wooden cup every time it got low. I guess she was of the same mind as I was.

    When we were well away from the house, Guntram said, “I apologize for not being more careful with the light, Pal.”

    “You didn’t do anything wrong, sir,” I said. “We’re just not used to the same things they are in Dun Add, is all.”

    I cleared my throat and went on, “Guntram? You said the light was just a bauble. I didn’t see very many of them in the castle when I was there, though.”

    “It’s not a big thing,” Guntram said. “But–no, they aren’t very common. Even in Dun Add. It just seemed something that would be particularly useful in, well, in Beune.”

    In the sticks, he meant. Well, he didn’t have to apologize for thinking the truth.

    “Ah, sir?” I said as we reached my house. “I suppose you’re tired and want to go to bed right away?”

    “I don’t need to,” Guntram said. As we entered, he lighted the room with another lamp like the one he’d given to Phoebe. “Did you want to get to work on the weapon immediately?”

    “Well, yes,” I said. “That is, I’d like to, but if you were tired…?”

    “I think we can finish the work before I need sleep,” he said. He was smiling broadly.

    We did finish it, with luck and the help of God, though I figured from the stars that it was within an hour of false dawn before we were done. I slept with a mind full of dancing hopes.



    It was mid-morning before I awakened. Guntram was sitting on the stool, feeding worms to his hedgehog.

    I got up and said, “I’m wrung out. You look chipper, though.” The gossamer golden web he’d woven to fill the tube was miles more difficult than the simple crystalline repair that I’d done.

    The hedgehog, sitting on the table, wriggled his–her?–nose at me. Guntram lifted another earthworm from the basket of damp dirt which Gervaise’ boys had provided.



    “I’ve done this sort of thing more often than you have,” he said, His lips quirked. “More often than anybody has, it may be. And old men don’t need much sleep.”

    Buck had lifted his nose to table height, but I didn’t worry about what he was going to do. He never bothers animals that’re with a human being. I suspected he’d take a worm if Guntram gave him one, but the most he’d do with the hedgehog was sniff.

    The weapon lay on the tray where we’d worked on it. I’d been unwilling to touch it last night when I was so tired, but I picked it up now and dusted away the powdered silicon on my shirt sleeve.

    Guntram’s button was pitted all over, though it kept its shape. I put it on the table beside him. “Thank you, sir,” I said.

    “Go test it,” he said, nodding to the weapon. “I’ll watch from here.”

    I walked outside, leaving the door open. The weapon was light, much lighter than the mining tool I’d modified on my own. The delicacy made me doubt that it’d really work, though I didn’t say that aloud.

    The tube vibrated like the burr of a fly’s wings within my closed hand. Its controls were internal, the structure of a small patch of the tube’s wall. I pointed the output end and concentrated while I pressed my thumb on the trigger; the switch was mental as well as physical. A vivid blue line extended the length of my forearm from the electrode, hissing and crackling.

    I shut it off and turned. My mouth was open. I closed it, then squeaked, “Sir, it really works!”

    “Indeed it does,” Guntram said. “If you’d care to bring it along, it can protect us on the Road while we look for artifacts. Are you up for that this morning?”

    “Ah, sure,” I said. “But wouldn’t you like some breakfast first? I’ve got porridge we can warm, and buttermilk in the spring house.”

    “I have a converter,” Guntram said, holding up an iridescent loop. “Bring a bowl for yourself and we can eat on the Road.”

    He smiled. “Prospecting for artifacts is completely new to me, and I’m rather excited.”



    I didn’t argue with Guntram, not with what I owed him in all sorts of ways, but there isn’t anything exciting about looking for Ancient hardware. Sometimes the currents of the Waste throw pieces right up at the edge of the Road. Anybody can see it there.

    Mostly, though, it’s more like picking your way through a swamp and wriggling your bare feet for the stones that you want. Instead of a swamp, it was the Waste.

    I took Guntram up the Road to the first node in the direction of Leamington. Leamington was a good three days away–more like four at the speed Guntram travelled–but we weren’t trying to get there. If anything, there was less in Leamington than there was on Beune, and there wasn’t even a decent inn on the way.

    The node was just a dollop of Here, less than an acre. The trees were sumac and winged elm, mostly; useless for timber. They’d make a fire or poles to tie a windbreak to if you needed it, but Beune was only a couple hours away so nobody needed to camp here if they knew the region.

    I pointed to a couple lichen-fuzzed outcrops near the edge of the Waste. “If you line those rocks up,” I said, “and walk out about what feels like ten feet into the Waste, you’re in a spot where I find stuff pretty much every time I go out. Now, is your guide, your hedgehog, all right in the Waste?”

    “I believe so,” Guntram said, “and I’ve stepped into the Waste also; but not often, and not going so far as you’re describing. It was more for the experience, you see.”

    He coughed into his free hand; the hedgehog was in the crook of his left arm. “Will I be going alone, Pal?” he said. I won’t say he sounded afraid, but there was a degree of care in his tone.

    “Not if things work out,” I said, grinning. “But if something happens and we get separated, I want you to be able to get back on the Road and home. All right?”

    Guntram smiled. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said. The tone of his voice now made me think that that maybe I could’ve said that he’d sounded afraid.

    “Now just stick close,” I said. “All we’re doing is showing you what it’s like, then we’ll go back to Beune.”

    I slipped into Buck’s viewpoint; we walked into the Waste. Guntram was right behind me when I stepped off the Road.

    The Waste doesn’t have a feel, except that your body starts getting warm as soon as you’re in it and the more you do, the warmer you get. I’ve seen people who were lucky to get back to the Road–or to Here. It stands to reason that there’s some who weren’t so lucky and their bodies are still in the Waste.

    I wonder if they rot or they just hang there, like in a block of ice? I wonder if Guntram knows? I couldn’t ask till we were back on the Road.

    I was using Buck’s eyes. We were following a crack in the streaky gray, not a thing really but… well, sort of like a fold that caught light a little different on one side than the other. Except there was no light either, just shades that Buck’s mind painted onto nothingness.

    I couldn’t see Buck this way, but on my third step the outside of my left leg brushed his fur and I stopped. He knew where we were going.

    I squatted down and swept my hands out slowly to my sides. I didn’t really expect to find something on the first try and maybe nothing in the whole trip, but hanged if I didn’t: my left hand brushed a piece the size of my fist.

    Guntram touched my shoulder from behind.

    This was the first time I’d taken somebody else into the Waste; I’ll tell you, I jumped. There’s bad things here, and the first thing I thought was that the mate of the Shade I’d killed had tracked me down.

    Which made me feel like a dummy, though nobody but me knew what’d gone through my mind. Oh, well.

    I turned Guntram’s palm up with my right hand, then brought the piece around in my other and put it into his hand. I touched Buck’s shoulder. He turned, giving me a look at Guntram for the first time: a man-high pillar of gray like a slumping snowman. We padded together back onto the node.

    “That was easier than I’d feared it would be,” Guntram said, wiping his forehead with his sleeve before taking a closer look at the object we’d found. He looked at me sharply and added, “Pal, it wouldn’t have been easy without your presence. Thank you.”

    I thought about Guntram quickly repairing the weapon he’d found in my collection of odds and ends. “I’ve done more of this sort of thing than you have,” I said with a grin. “Also, we were lucky. Pieces crop up here pretty regularly, but that doesn’t mean I find something right off the bat. And a good-sized one, too.”

    “Indeed it is,” Guntram said. He slipped his hedgehog into a breast pocket–more of a sling, really–to free both hands for the object we’d found. He knelt, then looked up at me and said, “He’s used to sleeping like this.”

    “He seems very comfortable,” I said. I didn’t think it was any of my business.

    The find was three inches long and shaped like a fat spindle. A layer of crystalline matrix ran through it the long way. Guntram slipped into the piece, then came back out only a few seconds later.

    “I think it’s a refrigeration device,” Guntram told me, “but I’d have to do considerable work before I could be sure.”

    He coughed, then looked at me and said, “Do we go back into the Waste now, Pal?”

    “We can if you like,” I said, “but I really came here just to show you what it was like. I’d as soon have something to eat and head on back. I’ve never eaten food from a converter.”

    “Yes,” said Guntram. “There’s something back at the house that you’ll want to see.”

    As I gathered twigs and leaves to feed into the converter, I thought about what Guntram had just said. He’d already shown me more than I’d learned in twenty years on my own.



    The meal which flowed from the converter had the taste and texture of porridge with spices. It was filling and I’m sure was nourishing, but I won’t pretend that it was a patch on Phoebe’s cooking. Though it was better than mom’s.



    As a choice between the converter’s output and whatever dry food I’d have brought otherwise, I gave it high marks. Also the disk ran out clear water which we cleaned our bowls with as well as drinking. It tasted better than many springs and just about all the standing water I’d found along the Road to and from Dun Add.

    Back home I placed my weapon on the table and hung the belt and my shield on the peg by the door. The new weapon didn’t have a mounting hook like my old one, but despite its high output, the electrode cooled off almost instantly after use. I’d touched it to the inside of my arm to be sure. I might make a proper holster for it, but for the time being I just carried it in the right pocket of my tunic.

    Guntram brought something else out of his satchel: a bundle of rods six to eight inches long, extending from a round black base. I expected him to set it on the table, but he continued to hold it.

    “This,” he said, “is a practice machine. We discussed them in Dun Add.”

    “I remember you talking about them, sir,” I said, amazed. “Sir, should you have taken this from Dun Add?”

    “And who is there, do you think, who has the right to give me orders, Master Pal?” said Guntram. His voice wasn’t loud, but it was as sharp as the crack of thunder before an autumn cloudburst.

    I stiffened, remembering what May had said about this man. I said, “Sir. Not I, sir.”

    “Forgive me,” said Guntram, softening back into the kindly man I’d been getting to know. “Jon and Louis are sure of their course and concentrate everything within close boundaries to get where they intend to go. I am less sure, and I think it worthwhile to cast my net rather wider.”

    “Sir, Dun Add is none of my business,” I said, wishing that I’d kept that in mind earlier. “You know what you’re doing.”

    “Yes,” said Guntram with a slight smile. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m correct.”

    He cleared his throat and added, “Let’s go outside so that you can put this device through its paces, shall we?”

    And me through mine, I thought. Well, that was what I needed–or would’ve needed if I’d been going to become a Champion.

    “How badly were you injured when you fought Easton, Pal?” Guntram asked as we walked into the farmyard.

    I finished buckling on the belt with my shield. “He didn’t break anything,” I said, “but that was mostly luck. I had the shield on low so I could move, but it must’ve helped some. The main thing is he cut behind because I was moving faster than he figured. I still feel it when I swing my left arm around, though.”

    Guntram set the unit on the ground ten feet from where I’d stopped. He looked at me. “I suppose you realize that if Easton had been even slightly more skilled,” he said, “he would have killed you?”

    “Do you think I cared!” I shouted, surprising myself. I hadn’t known that I was still so angry about what had happened in Dun Add. “Sure, I thought he might kill me. All I wanted was to get in one stroke, that was all. Being dead just meant I wasn’t humiliated any more!”

    “Personally…,” said Guntram, stepping away from the device. “I would have regretted that result. But someone of my age is well aware that men die.”

    I was suddenly facing a warrior with a nondescript dog, something with more terrier than Buck, who favored a hound/setter mix though there was a lot of breeds in him besides those. He was at my side.

    I switched my shield on at low level and brought my weapon sizzling live. I went in.

    My opponent swung overhand at my head. Almost before he moved, I saw the blow coming through Buck’s eyes: the whole track of the weapon was a shimmering fan in Buck’s prediction. I caught it in the air with my weapon and guided it down to my right without thinking: it was all part of Buck’s world for this moment.

    My thrust back toward the top of the image’s breastbone was a reflex. The dummy figure vanished with a pop and a crackle.

    I backed away and switched off my equipment. “Guntram?” I said. “Did I break it?”

    “No,” he said, smiling. “The target shuts off when you achieve a kill. Which you did very neatly. Let me adjust this a little….”

    Guntram’s right index finger wobbled in the air. I didn’t see anything there except a shimmer like heat rising from a black rock in sunlight.

    “Now try it,” he said. “I want to see how good your weapon is, so I’ve run up the target’s shield.”

    I was facing another armed figure. This one had blue clothing and a modular unit, with a booster collar around his neck that turned his head into a featureless ball.

    I switched on again and advanced. To tell the truth, I was feeling cocky. I thrust straight for the base of the image’s throat.

    He–it–met my stroke with his weapon. He didn’t push it aside as easy as I’d done the first dummy’s, but I felt the shock right up to my shoulder and my thrust missed the center of his chest.

    When my weapon hit his shield the bang! was like a wall falling over and a blinding flash. His counterstroke slashed me at the base of the neck. It felt like a bucket of boiling water.

    I must’ve blanked out, because I found myself on my back. The dummy stood, glowering facelessly down at me for a moment; then it vanished.

    Buck whined and licked my cheek.

    I switched off my shield and weapon; I’d been real lucky not to have cut my foot off when I went flying base over teacup. The burned feeling was fading.

    I reached up and felt the place where the stroke had seemed to land. It didn’t hurt to rub.

    “I think the rotor of your weapon was intended for a slightly smaller stator,” Guntram said, “so the maximum intensity of your stroke isn’t as high as it could be. Still, it’s very high, as you saw. I believe you could hold that output all day.”

    I got up and nudged Buck. “What happened?” I asked, putting the weapon in my pocket.

    “The device is intended to improve your skill as a warrior,” Guntram said. “Not to provide you with a straw man to knock down. If you behave like a fool, it will punish your foolishness.”

    That hurt worse than the slap the machine had given me. I ducked my head and said, “Sir, I’m sorry.”

    The old man smiled at me. “The device doesn’t do permanent injury,” he said. “You should be able to resume practice by now.”

    So I did.



    The next month went about the way the first day had. Guntram watched me practice on his device early morning and in the afternoon. After I’d worked up a sweat, we generally took a trip out on the Road to one or another of the nodes where I’d found objects in the past.

    Twice we even prospected new sites according to a notion that Guntram had about currents in the Waste. We didn’t find anything there.

    And we didn’t find much in the spots I’d flagged either, but mostly you don’t. One short tube, more of a ring really, that Guntram thought might’ve been part of a weapon; and another thing the size of my clenched fist that had to be something, but hanged if we knew what. We spent a lot of time getting inside it in the evenings after supper.

    There were about a dozen families feeding us, at their houses or more often sending hampers along for us to eat on our own. Guntram charmed them. Folk who’d always been a little doubtful about the things I did as a Maker were next thing to bowing to Guntram–who was a thousand times more of a Maker that I could ever hope to be.

    Guntram gave little things to the families who helped us, some that he’d brought–like the light he’d given Phoebe–but many things he made out of my scraps, glowing balls that hung in the air or a little disk that played tunes. I never heard it play the same music twice and I didn’t much like any of its choices, but it put Sandoz of Lakeshore and the three generations that lived on his big holding over the moon with happiness.

    I didn’t think much about what was going to happen next. I was learning from a Maker who had taught the best even though he claimed he wasn’t the best himself’; I was learning how to use the wonderful weapon that I’d helped make; and for maybe the first time in my life, surely the first time since mom died, I wasn’t alone.

    And then everything changed.

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