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The Spark: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 27, 2017 20:10 EDT



The Boat

    It’d been a short day up the Road and into the Waste, the same place I’d taken Guntram the first time we’d gone out. Today, though, I figured he’d had enough experience to go out alone with his hedgehog. Worst case, Buck and I could find him if he didn’t wander far. Anyway I hoped we could.

    There wasn’t any need. I won’t say, “I shouldn’t have worried,” because nothing’s certain till it’s happened, but Guntram came back in a couple minutes as pleased as punch, his hedgehog wriggling its nose and him waving the artifact he’d found. It was flat and about as big as my thumbnail.

    On the way back to Beune we probed the piece and talked. Guntram chattered like I’d never heard him before. I realized that in sixty-odd years working with things that had survived from the Ancients, this was the first time he’d collected one himself.

    “Mostly what’s brought in to Dun Add comes from professional prospectors,” Guntram said. “And generally from quite a distance away. Of course we are quite a distance away now.”

    “From Dun Add we are,” I said. I was a lifetime away from Dun Add, though Guntram could be back there in a few weeks. I’d say “back where he belonged,” but in truth he seemed fine on Beune and Beune was sure fine with him.

    We stepped off the Road. The chip Guntram found didn’t seem much, but we’d take a good look at it this evening. For now I was thinking about bacon and biscuits, washed down with some of Sandoz’ good ale.

    The first thing I noticed in the afternoon sunshine was the boat. The second thing was that there was about fifty people around it. I hadn’t seen as many of my neighbors all together since the boat landed when I was fourteen.

    Gervaise’ two oldest saw me and Guntram before anybody else did. They started calling, “Pal! Pal! They need you here to fix the boat!”

    I turned toward the crowd. Guntram came along with me. We exchanged glances but there wasn’t much to talk about.

    Buck doesn’t like crowds. When he whined, I patted him on the ribs and said, “Go on home, boy. Go home!”

    Not everybody around the boat knew me, but enough folks did that they cleared a path for me and Guntram up to the front. I said to him, “I guess you’d better handle this, sir.”

    “No, Pal,” Guntram said. “I’m a stranger here and I don’t know how long I’ll be staying. I’ll watch you, if you please.”

    He smiled–sort of–and added, “You can think of it as a further test, if you like.”

    I thought about ways to argue, but I wasn’t going to. Guntram was my guest and he’d expressed his preference clearly. What I’d prefer–letting somebody else handle the business–didn’t matter.

    “Sir!” said Gervaise at the front near the boat’s open hatch. “Sir! This is Pal, our Maker!”

    The fellow he was talking to had a beaked cap so I figured he was the boatman. He wasn’t near as tall as me, but he was close-coupled and we were about of a weight. He was in his thirties, with red-brown hair and a short beard that was darker brown.

    He looked angry and frustrated, which I could understand, but that didn’t justify him looking at me and snarling, “What the hell is this? I need a real Maker, not some hick kid!”

    I thought of Easton baiting me; and I thought of my last sight of Easton. I smiled at the boatman and said, “If you weren’t completely ignorant of what a real Maker is, you wouldn’t need one, would you? Why don’t you explain the problem and let me take a look at things. Though if you’d rather bluster like a fool, you’re welcome to do so while I go home and get outside a mug of ale.”

    A woman stood in the doorway behind the boatman. She wore a purple dress with puffed sleeves and lots of gilt embroidery around the cuffs and the high waist. In a voice as sneering as her expression she snapped, “Baga! We’re in the Marches, so all we’re going to find is hicks. Since you can’t fix the problem, we’ll see if this fellow can at least get us to somewhere that we can find proper help.”

    From the woman’s tone, I was willing to bet that at least some of Baga’s frustration came from being close quarters with her when things were going wrong. I felt a flash of sympathy, which I hadn’t felt for him earlier.

    “Baga, get out of the way and let me see him,” the woman said. When the boatman hopped aside, she glared at me and said, “Step closer so that I can get a proper look at you.”

    I was about five feet away, as close as I liked to be. She was standing on the boat’s floor, three steps up, so she’d have been looking right down at me if I did like she said. Looking right down her nose, in fact.

    “Ma’am,” I said. “My name’s Pal. Coming on like a great lady doesn’t seem to have scared your boat into working right, and I don’t think it’s going to help with me either. Now, if you want to act like a proper person, we’ll see what we can do for you.”

    In Dun Add I’d been bossed around by people who gave me little thought and no courtesy. I’d been uncomfortable from the moment I arrived, and their contempt made me feel lower than a snake.

    This woman in the boat was more of the same, only here we were on Beune and I was home. I had my neighbors to back me, but I didn’t need backing against a lone woman.

    She flared her nostrils at my words. Her nose was long and already bigger than fitted in her pinched face, so that didn’t help her looks. She wasn’t but a little older than me, I guess, but being so sour added twenty years to what I’d thought at first glance.

    Now she swallowed whatever was going through her mind. “Master Pal,” she said, “I am Lady Frances of Holheim. If you’ll come aboard this boat, we can discuss your offer of assistance more easily.”

    I looked over my shoulder. “Guntram?” I said.

    “You appear to have matters under control,” Guntram said. “I’ll look around the outside to see if anything strikes me.”

    “All right, Lady,” I said, walking forward. She backed inside ahead of me.

    Baga came last and closed the hatch. I hadn’t been expecting that, but after the first little twinge it didn’t matter. I guessed I could handle Baga without the weapon in my pocket–but it was in my pocket.

    I’d never been in a boat before. It was like all the best days of my life rolled into one.

    We’ve found a lot of artifacts from the Ancients, and more–more than I could even hope to guess–must still be lying in the Waste, waiting to drift to a node or to be pulled out by those of us who look for them. All are in bits and pieces, parts of what they were in the time of the Ancients.

    Boats are complete. Oh, they’re worn and they don’t work like they ought to, but they’re at least the bones of what the Ancients meant them to be. I’d always wanted to examine one, and now I wasn’t just being allowed, I was being asked to do just that.



    “Now, Pal of Beune,” Lady Frances said, using her hard tone again, “I want you to understand something. I’ll not be cheated. If you and this boatman are in league to rob me by pretending there’s a problem with the boat, I’ll walk back to Holheim.”

    I shrugged. “Holheim must be a pretty dreadful place,” I said, “if the people there behave like that. I don’t know where Baga’s from, but–”

    “I’m Holheim too,” the boatman said. “There’s worse places.”

    I grinned at him, then met the lady’s eyes again. “Beune’s different,” I said. “We don’t rob each other. Word’d get around. I don’t swear I can fix this–”

    I was sure Guntram could, and I figured he’d help if I got stumped. He was a good guy.

    “–but nobody’s going to cheat you here.”

    Frances’ lips made a little twitch. I’d like to think she was embarrassed by the way she’d been behaving, but it could as easy have been her wanting to call me a liar but swallowing the words.

    “So,” I said to Baga. “What’s the boat doing that it shouldn’t be?”

    The boat was thirty feet long and twelve wide at the flat bottom. The sides curved up and over like a section of cylinder.

    It was bigger than the house I lived in and I figured there’d be plenty of room inside. There wasn’t. A seat in the front and a narrow aisle to pretty near the back were all I could see from here just inside the hatch

    “She needs sand to run,” Baga said. “I keep some of the hoppers full of sand, and I always exchange with fresh sand when I get back to Holheim. The run to Marielles was a long one so I refilled there instead of waiting till we got home. When the sand’s used up the speed drops, so that’s how you know.”

    Baga looked at me. I nodded to show I was listening. What he was saying didn’t make sense because he didn’t understand the workings of his boat, but he was telling me what to look for. “Go on,” I said.

    “Well, getting fresh sand on Marielles didn’t help,” Baga said. “We’ve been going slower and slower on the way back. I finally told Lady Frances that we had to stop at the next node and look for a Maker because there’s something really wrong.”

    “It’s possible that we were sabotaged on Marielles,” Frances said, though the hard look she gave Baga showed that she hadn’t let him off the hook for the problem. “Certainly I got no satisfaction there. I wouldn’t put anything past Prince Phillip, let alone his whore.”

    I frowned, because so far as I knew it wasn’t any easier to sabotage a boat than to fix one. Anybody who really had the skill to do that wouldn’t be the sort to destroy a piece of the Ancients.

    “What does the boat’s menu tell you?” I said to Baga.

    “I don’t know about any bloody menu!” the boatman said. His red face was angry, but I couldn’t tell who he was angry at. “I’m a bloody boatman, I’m a good one, but I’m not a bloody Maker, all right?”

    “Well, I am,” I said. “We’ll get you going again, don’t worry.”

    I smiled a trifle. I had a lot more confidence knowing that Guntram was backing me up than I would otherwise; but if Baga didn’t even know how to open the boat’s menu, the problem might be a lot simpler than I’d thought to start out.

    “I assure you that you’ll be paid for your work,” said Frances, working hard on her sneer. “That is–can anyone in this place process a credit transfer?”

    I shrugged. “I guess a couple of the bigger farmers might be able to,” I said. “I don’t figure to charge for helping a lady in distress, but you may want to pay somebody for your keep while I’m working on this thing.”

    I patted the hatch behind me. I was really looking forward to getting inside the boat’s structure.

    Frances glowered again. “How long is this going to take?” she said. I guess she’d have threatened me if she could figure out any way to do that.

    My smile–because there wasn’t any threat she could make–just made her madder. “Ma’am,” I said, “I don’t have any idea till I get inside. I’m going to bunk down in your hallway here–”

    I pointed to the aisle.

    “–and check things out.”

    “Use one of the capsules, why don’t you?” Baga said. “It’ll be more comfortable.”

    “Eh?” I said.

    He reached past me and tapped the panel on the right side of the aisle. It slid up, opening a room about five by five by nine feet long.

    “You can live there as long as you want,” Baga said. “The lady here–” he nodded toward Frances “–didn’t come out of hers the whole voyage.”

    “This man told me that though there are six cabins in the boat, it can only carry two people,” the woman said sharply.

    “Look,” said Baga, “maybe it’d haul six when it was new but it’s not new, it hasn’t been new for thousands of years, and it won’t take but two!”

    Frances looked at me. “Perhaps you think I should have trusted him without a chaperon if not a guard? Are all the men in whatever this place is saints?”

    “It’s Beune,” I said. “And no, they’re not.”

    I’d heard stories, mostly told by the guys involved. I didn’t like some of what I’d heard.

    I shrugged and said, “Ma’am, why don’t you go out and look for a place to stay while you’re here. Say–chat with Guntram. He’s from Dun Add and he can talk about things with you. Baga, I don’t need you right now. If I do, I’ll look you up.”

    “What’s someone from Dun Add doing here?” Frances said as I hunched to get into the open compartment.

    “I wondered that too,” I said, “but I didn’t think it was polite to ask.”

    “You close it by the corner like you open it from the outside,” Baga volunteered. He reached in to point.

    “I don’t need it closed,” I said. “I just need to be left alone for a bit.”

    I laid my head on the pillow built into the couch. I wondered how the compartment kept clean and all the other little practical things, but I could ask about that later. Now I slipped straight into a trance.

    Warriors, Makers, and boatmen all work with Ancient machines. I knew warriors were different, that they didn’t need to understand the structure of the weapons and shields they used, but I’d figured boatmen were more like Makers.

    I was wrong. Anyway, that sure wasn’t the case with Baga.

    The boat was amazingly complex. My first thought was it was like trying to follow every strand of silk in a huge spiderweb and do it all at once. I could see gaps in the structure in hundreds of places, thousands, but there were so many that I couldn’t focus. When I tried to, my mind melted off into twenty other directions. That didn’t stay either.

    I withdrew for a moment. Boats were supposed to have menus that provided their state of health. When I looked for one, it just about leaped out at me.

    The list of missing elements was long, and some of them were things I’d never heard of or anyway didn’t know how to replace.

    “Are you here to return me to specifications, Master?” said a voice in my head. “It has been a very long time since I was at my designed optimum.”

    “Boat?” I said. In my trance I don’t know if I spoke aloud or not.

    “Yes, Master,” the voice said. It didn’t keep talking because it’d answered the only question I’d asked.



    I looked at the list again. Nothing stood out, but I didn’t have to depend on my own eyes any more.

    “Boat,” I said, “rank your missing elements in order of limiting factors.”

    The list in front of me shook itself into a different arrangement. It was like water spilling out of a basin the way it changed. The top of the list now was sodium.

    “I didn’t know boats could talk,” I muttered. It was a dumb thing to say and it wasn’t a question, so the boat didn’t respond.

    “Baga told me that he’d been adding sand to the supply hoppers,” I said, “and that was how he got you working again. There’s no sodium in sand, so what was happening?”

    Baga was ignorant, but he wasn’t dumb. Though he hadn’t understood anything about the boat’s insides, he did know what had worked.

    “I have been based on Holheim for the three thousand years,” the boat said. “The sand I was given there comes from the sea shore and is contaminated by salt. The most recent sand was brought aboard me on Marielles and had been mined from an ancient desert. It contained very little sodium.”

    “We’ve got salt here,” I said. I guess I was talking to the boat.

    There was a lot yet to do, but first things first. I came up from my trance. I needed to talk about things with Guntram–and maybe with Lady Frances too.

    Baga was sitting on the cockpit chair, looking back at me. That was kind of a surprise, but I guess he was just as glad to be free of Frances’ presence.

    I sat up and waited a moment for my head to clear. As I climbed out of the compartment I said, “We can get you going, I promise. I want to talk with my friend about how we do it, though.”

    When I came out of the hatch at least half the crowd had drifted away, so I wondered just how long I’d been in the boat’s structure. It hadn’t seemed that long, but I guess it must’ve been. Gervaise was one of the people still hanging around, though, so I said, “Where’d Guntram go off to, Gervaise?”

    “Up to your shed,” he replied. “He took the lady there, Pal. He said they wouldn’t be disturbed.”

    A few fellows wanted to chat with me–one of them I didn’t even know by name; he lived in the far north–but I brushed past them with a smile and muttering, “I’ve got business, I’m afraid.”

    It made me think about being famous. I’d wanted that, I guess. Anyway, I’d known that being a Champion would make me famous and I really wanted to be a Champion.

    Now I was famous–in Beune, but that was where I live–for having been asked aboard a boat that’d landed here. That was just an empty thing, but the guys who were trying to cozy up to me didn’t think that. It struck me that maybe being a Champion wouldn’t have been such a great deal either.

    I grinned at myself. I guess I’m lucky that I don’t have to worry about that any more.

    Buck picked me up from the house and rubbed close to my leg as I trotted on to the shed. All the fuss bothered him. I reached down and rubbed behind his ears. It made me feel better to know that it wasn’t just me.

    Guntram and Frances were sitting on heavy baskets that I used for storing the bits I’d found. There was a trestle table set up between them with a couple wooden mugs on it. They looked up as Buck and me came in.

    “Guntram, I found the menu,” I said. “The boat needed sodium, not silicon, and the sand it took aboard on Marielles didn’t have sea salt in it.”

    I turned to Frances and said, “Ma’am? It wasn’t sabotage on Marielles, it was just a different kind of sand. Nobody’s fault, just the way things go.”

    She stood up. The dim light of the shed made her look prettier, but I think her hopeful expression did even more for them. When I came to think about it, I could see that she must’ve been scared to death about breaking down in the sticks–which Beune is, no question about that. That doesn’t help anybody’s looks, or their temper.

    “This is something you can fix?” Frances said. She wore a necklace of beads that shaded from white to violet; she reached up and caught the strand with both hands now. “You have the right kind of sand here?”

    “Well, we’ve got salt,” I said. “We can take care of that, sure. But ma’am? There’s a lot else wrong with the boat that I’d like to fix before you leave.”

    “What?” said Frances, flying hot again. “Do you think I want to stay around here any longer than I have to? Of course not! If there are problems, they can be fixed on Dun Add! I have business there.”

    Guntram drew in his lips. He said, “Lady Frances, you might consider the risk of journeying in a vessel which needs repairs.”

    “They all need repairs!” Frances said. Her head snapped back to glare straight at me. “You, Pal! Will the salt fix the boat well enough to reach Dun Add?”

    “Yes, I think so,” I said. I was twisting up inside with what was about to happen.

    “Well, do that and I’ll leave,” she said. “And get on with it! Do you want money after all? Just tell me how much.”

    “No, ma’am,” I said. I was standing straight and my eyes weren’t focused on her. “I won’t do that. I talked to the boat and I want to help it.”

    “Why in the name of God do you think I’d care about a boat?” Frances shouted, taking a step toward me.

    “Ma’am, I don’t guess you would,” I said. “But I do. I told you I wouldn’t take pay for getting you back on your way and I won’t. But I want to do what’s right for the boat. If you want to think of that as paying me, then fine, I’ll take that for my pay.”

    I didn’t speak loud, but I guess Frances heard me. Instead shouting again, she stepped back and took a deep breath. She said, “Master Guntram? Can you fix the boat?”

    “Pal,” said Guntram. “How long do you think we’d need for repairs?”

    I shrugged. “About a day to get things organized,” I said. “That’s with both of us working, sir, learning what we need. After that, anything from three days to a week to make the repairs. Some of the materials may be hard to find, so maybe longer for them. Or we’ll have to leave some things undone.”

    Guntram nodded. He looked up at the woman and said, “Lady Frances, I agree with my host. We’ll get your boat working as quickly–”

    “It’s not my boat, I’ve hired it!” Frances said. “And been cheated, I can see!”

    “We’ll get the boat working as quickly as possible,” Guntram continued mildly. He was still seated on the basket. “For the moment, why don’t you explain your situation to Pal as you’ve been doing to me. I think that will be useful in the longer term.”

    Frances opened her mouth, then closed it again. She sat down and closed her eyes for a moment.

    “I don’t see what possible difference it can make,” she muttered; but then she began to talk.

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