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Sepp was as good as his word, as he had been cooking up something on that stove as we talked. What Sarah had brought me had been cooking on another stove entirely, and while the 'porridge' she brought – sweetened heavily with honey – was both tasty and helping, Sepp's 'masterpiece' helped even more. I soon found out what Sarah had been using, that being one of those small pots we'd found earlier and one of those pocket-sized stoves.

“I cleaned those off with some stove-fuel, then used a few small pieces of that stuff we found earlier under it on that tray,” she said. “That pot worked decent at the least.”

“When..?”

“While you slept,” she said. “The stove fuel got all that grease off, then those people outside were cleaning their things, so I used some lye-water they'd just done up to get the greasy taste off. It just took some boiling water then, and they had that – that and some porridge-grains, which I had bagged up in my satchel.”

“Grind those up at the house proper?” I suspected that location wasn't the only one in the area now, as two more of those particular grinders had gone out since my return from the trip. I had a batch of three more in the 'casting' stage, and was hoping to machine the pieces at the Abbey after the next trip. The patterns for casting the things, as well as the gages I'd made with the first one, were now entirely proving their worth; and with good machines, I'd most likely be able to make both larger examples and better-working examples as well.

“They did before that last trip, though I think they do much better now that they have one of your grinders,” said Sarah. “It might be a small thing as such grinders go, but it is faster than many burr-stones used by millers up here.”

“Those things are no good for flour,” said Karl's mush-mouthed voice, “even if they are good enough for this.”

“And beer,” said Sarah. “The one at home does short work of the mash needed for a ten-jug batch, which is how much beer we make now when we make it.”

“T-ten jugs?” I gasped. I'd been far too busy since the trip's return to even help once.

“I help out more often than not, now that you've been as busy as you've been,” said Sarah. “I'm glad you left such notes as you did in your ledger, even if the handwriting I saw is much better than yours usually is.”

“Where?” I asked.

“I think Anna had this copied out of your notes,” said Sarah, “as I saw the original writing, which was done with a writing dowel, and then her copy, which was done with ink at the house by Kees – or so I suspect, anyway.”

“It was him,” said Katje. “He made three copies that I know of, as Maria showed me one of them and told me of the other two.”

After first eating, then visiting the privy, I found my vial of Geneva – and asked that the stuff become what Sarah's relatives were now making with the new still they'd gotten recently. Uncorking it nearly caused me to spew upon the instant of my doing so, as the reek, while it resembled that which I recalled, was in another class entirely when it came to causing both the desire to vomit...

And comment on the part of those further away. I let Sarah take charge of the vial, then as I removed the upper portion of my shirt, I heard gasps on the part of both Sarah and Katje – as well as indecipherable muttering on the part of Karl.

“Now that is what a roer would do,” said Sepp confidently. “I've seen what those things do.”

“That is not a roer's bruise,” spat Sarah. “I've no idea what would cause a bruise like that, but that is not the work of a roer.” A pause, then with teeth gritted, “I know what a roer can do to one's shoulder.”

“A p-pig-load?” I muttered through gritted teeth as Sarah uncorked the vial and saturated a rag. She then turned away, set the vial down, and sank to her knees after giving the rag to Katje – who did much the same after laying the rag on my shoulder. It was obvious I would need to rub myself, and the ghastly fumes made me choke back vomit – at least until something blew the fumes away, or rather, into the horrible bruise.

“I think that is, urgh, working,” said Maarten. “You will want some of this, Karl, as it...” Maarten paused, then looked around in a bewildered fashion. “Karl?”

“He ran for the privy,” said Sepp, who had just befouled a rag with his own vomit. “That stuff could make a dead pig spew at both ends.”

“Yes, and I think it could, urp...” Maarten turned, then pitched forward to vomit into a rag he'd gotten from somewhere, then staggered to his feet to run into the maze.

I was having my own struggles with trying not to vomit, so much so that only when the fumes had further dissipated to a degree did I notice the near-complete sense of 'I'm a lot better, even if I do feel really nauseated'. Touching my shoulder, however, showed a total lack of pain, and when the but-slightly-damp rag came off my shoulder to then fall into my lap, I looked at my shoulder in the hazy glow of a lantern set upon the floor.

“Where did they all go?” I asked.

“Everyone except you is now crowding that privy,” said the soft voice, “or rather, water-closet if you name it as they say overseas, and while that one cannot 'flash', both of those bowls can hold and drain vomit.”

“Shouldn't that be, uh, 'flush'?” I asked.

“Those did that where you came from, and took their time doing it as a rule,” said the soft voice. “Wait until you use one in that place, and you'll understand what's meant by 'flash' – especially if it's a bad one.”

“Sounds like trouble,” I muttered, as I stood shakily. I was off to find one of those assembled carts left in the maze.

I quickly found Karl's string that he'd left behind him in his haste to visit the 'water-closet', then began branching off of it to find those already-assembled vehicles that I had noted earlier on the map. The first and furthest-from-the-string example proved to have three tall round tins laying on it, these labeled as having 'ready-mounted cart tires', and I was glad I'd brought my broom, as I'd found more of that nasty tungsten, this scattered thickly all over the floor in the region around the cart.

I 'blasted' it, and while I kept my 'bursts' short – three 'burps' that melded into one, nearly – I could audibly hear not only the screams as the tungsten 'died', but also yells coming from behind me. I put the broom on the cart, swapped ends such that I had the towing handle in my hand, then began to tow it back to the string so the others could pick it up.

Sarah got there before I did, though. Her voice shook audibly when she next spoke.

“That time I saw what you did, and it looked like lightning flashing,” she said, “and then it sounded just like my dream!”

“The one of a, uh, machine-gun?” I asked, as I let her have the cart and took up my broom. “Those things in the tins there tires for these things, even if I think the ones on this cart here are decent still.” I then noticed I hadn't oiled the thing, and got out my oil vial from where I'd laid my possible bag on the cart.

“These will wait for oil until we can get them to where there is room,” said Sarah. “I can hear no noises, so I think if you get them out to where there is room, then those of us with that oil can dose their wheels.”

I hunted down the other four 'loose' carts while the others returned one after another following along Karl's string, and when I brought back the last 'loose' cart I could find, the string was gone. I was momentarily confused, so much so that when I nearly 'banged into' a pallet draped with a dark green cover-cloth, I wondered what it was. After taking the cloth off, I knew why it had been so draped, as that drapery had hidden a pair of metal poles hung thickly with rubbery-looking 'suits', these with long dark-cloth-surrounded brass zippers amid billows of thick and rubbery-seeming 'cloth'. I threw the cover back over them in a hurry.

“G-gas clothing,” I spluttered, as I moved the cart along toward the doorway at a shambling stumble. The pallet next to what I had just recovered, however, was stacked with large boxes that looked like huge ammunition containers, but proved much lighter than expected when I hefted one. I laid the first one I grabbed onto the cart, then undid its four latches. I could tell by its feel that no witch had ever touched this particular box, for some reason – and when I opened it and the faint light of my lantern dimmed drastically, I closed it again in all possible haste.

It wasn't because of the dimming of my lantern, but another reason entirely, and I almost had put the box back on the pile when I heard careful steps slowly coming closer.

“What did you find?” asked the voice of Sarah. I could tell she was 'looking' carefully for me, as I could see the lights of two lanterns, one in each of her hands; she was pausing at each juncture in the maze to look, this in hopes of seeing me more readily.

“Here, dear,” I said softly, as I heaved the lighter-than-it-looked container back onto the pile. I hoped I would never see that kind of equipment again, at least until Sarah suddenly showed.

“What is in there?” she asked. She indicated what I had just put back on the pile. I could almost see my handprints upon it, and I wondered if Sarah could see them. I wondered for a moment if she was seeing 'red' handprints, much as if I had been 'caught while being red-handed'.

That was a most-common line in the Grim Collection, if I went by what I had heard from a number of sources – and it was used to describe the behavior of both men and witches.

“A r-respirator,” I gasped. “It l-looks h-h-horrible, and I have waking nightmares looking at it...”

“Bring it down and let me look at it,” she said. “I doubt...” She then paused, and asked quietly, even more so than before, “why?”

L-long p-pig,” I gasped, as I choked back tears. “They t-tried to s-smother me...”

“I think I need not see it then,” said Sarah. “I recall reading something on more than one tapestry about how marked people were tortured, and that...” Sarah then hitched, and squeaked, “long pig? What does that mean?”

“What some witches named their meals,” mumbled Katje, as she came closer so as to 'find' Sarah. I was amazed I could hear her so clearly. “Some called them that where he came from. Here, I have no idea as to what they named such vile repasts.”

“I do,” said Sarah. “Now was this thing black?”

“Y-yes,” I gasped, “with a b-big black mask, and a c-cylinder of gas, and-and-and...”

“Did it have much shiny piping, and a large clear cylinder full of this strange-looking purplish granular material?” asked Sarah. “Many valves, these having stranger-yet shapes and bright colors for their handles?”

“Y-yes,” I gasped – and I then shook my head and said, “no, it isn't one of those, even if the resemblance to what was used on me as a child a large number of times was close enough to feel it happening all over again.”

“How many bottles?” asked Sarah. “Those I read of had several, all of them painted bright colors.”

“N-not this one,” I said shakily. “There was a single silvery-colored one, one with a green stripe around it, and...”

“Were we not going across the sea,” said Sarah calmly, “I would almost want one of those things, as there's something in one of those medical books that was used for surgery...”

“I think they called what they did to him that,” said Katje dryly, “but those witches lied better than any of their like who ever lived here, as their goal was not what they said it to be, but another thing entirely – one that those witches found in the past here named most-clearly and most-precisely, such that they hid nothing from either themselves or their prey.”

“E-erasure,” I gasped. The word I actually said meant 'to rub out' in what I now spoke, and in at least one language spoken then by witches, the sound of that word was somewhat similar.

Its meaning, however, was the precise same thing, that being ostensibly 'to rub out' – and also 'to murder', though the latter phrase was reserved for what witches did in 'our' language.

There were a lot of far-more-common phrases used for what was done to witches, and I'd heard my share of such phrases in recent months. I suspected I'd hear more of such language in the future.

“Thank you,” said Katje. “That was the exact word they used, and I'm not certain I can say it.” A pause, then, “across the sea, though, if you see something being used like what you recall...”

“N-n-no,” I gasped. I nearly screamed., such was the strength of my tormenting recollections.

“I meant to say the commons there would not intend it the way those witches did where you came from, and I can say that for a fact,” said Katje. “Only one thing I can be more certain of, and that is that if Anna learned of what they have over there after today, she'd do anything short of become a meal for Brimstone to get one, as then she'd be able to do things she's dreamed of many times, ever since she gave oath in church as a child.”

“She might well wish this thing, also,” said Sarah. “It might be possible to make it work like what I've seen in those books downstairs at home and on that tapestry I had to bathe for.”

“They have things like that which need no such work,” said Katje, “and I suspect seeing one of those would not make him faint like he nearly did just now.” Katje then looked at me, and said, “and I think you'll want a dose of the bull formula or the nearest thing to it before you think to look at such equipment again.”

“I do have that handy,” said Sarah. “Now I think you need such a dose as well as some beer, as I can almost see heat-waves coming off of you again.”

“Best give him a full tube if you do that,” said Katje, as she took the cart from me. “I paid out my own string, as I came upon an entire pile of nothing but string on the way back from that smelly privy, and I got three thick bundles of it.”

“B-bundles?” I asked. My mouth was beginning to tingle around its edges, which was a sign I only now remembered as being one of acute and terrible danger. It meant I needed to get a dose of honey right away, and I went past the two women and blundered into an aisleway. It was all I could do to not trip over my own two feet, I had become so clumsy, and when someone grabbed me and then put a vial of thick and sticky burning liquid – it was a particularly fiendish version of napalm, most likely that type which burned steadily until its victims were ash, and that no matter what they did to extinguish it – to my lips, I seemed to 'faint'...

To then come to myself on my rump and leaning up against the wall, stickiness about my lips and the odor of beer close to hand. I looked down to see my cup with a sliced-up yellow-fruit in it, and a jug next to it.

“Now those three have gone to fetch beer, and they took all of Katje's rope with them,” said Sarah as she came next to me, “as that is the last of it there, and you needed it so as to live and not die.” Sarah sounded more than a little 'frightened'. “Sepp caught you just in time, and he must have known where I put my satchel, as he was putting the honey to you by the time I caught up a short time later.” A pause, then, “and I have no idea why Katje called those things bundles, as they are not those things, but another entirely.”

“What could I call them?” asked Katje. “I had no words for something as large for diameter as a Public House plate, as wide as my hand for thickness and with a hole in the center for a stick, and utterly filled with this thin greenish rope!”

“That sounds like a spool, actually,” said Sarah. “They're rare enough up here that they need special ordering from certain shops in that fourth kingdom market town.” A pause. “You would only wish those things filled with thread if you regularly made clothing by the numbers, leastways for that size of spool.” Another pause, then “Tam told me that some who sell thread up here buy thread on such large spools in white and tan and brown and green, and then use the usual farmer-carved sticks so as to pay one guilder to earn five by selling thread.”

“More than that, dear,” said the soft voice. “You'll want to spend some time in that pile today at the least, as what Katje found is rope, and there are a lot of different sizes of string and thread there – including some you'll find useful for sewing in the very near future.”

“Barter, also – at least where we're going,” I croaked. “There are some bagged-up spools in there that would fit in your hands readily, and those bags are the ones you want for both your sewing and trading over there.”

“Why?” asked Sarah.

“That dark thread we've seen today is but one color of thread in that size,” I said mysteriously. “There are several others, even if white is a rare color in that bag or those next to it.”

“That color is another type of thread entirely, and it's in a separate bag on a different pallet,” said the soft voice. “It and some other materials are used to repair the wearable portion of that gas equipment.”

“What is this?” asked Katje. “Gas? As in a gaseous fumigant?”

“Yes, dear,” I said. I felt much better, and I now wondered if I had been dosed. As if Sarah had then read my mind, I suddenly received a nasty-tasting squirt of that one vial's contents in my mouth, and then was crowded with beer so as to 'get it into me'.

“You already gave him some, didn't you?” asked Katje.

“Yes, but when you're about ready to live in a rest house on top of nearly having that type of fit, you can use all of that kind of medicine you can stand,” said Sarah. “Liza taught me that, and those books said much the same, even if Anna knew that more by what she'd learned apart from those smelly things her mother and grandmother filled with lies.”

“T-torture d-drugs?” I asked.

“You do not want those,” said Sarah solemnly. “Only a witch would dose someone about to live in a rest-house with those things, as they were only used to punish people. They did not help.”

“They make fits worse, also,” said Katje. “They were known for doing that, in fact – and that both here and where he came from.” Katje then looked at me, and asked, “you were dosed with those things there, weren't you?”

I nodded, this dumbly – and now, numbly. I was so 'numb' that I actually felt curious as to what that respirator looked like, as I wondered if it might help someone if we took one with us.

“Do those thugs have, uh, lacrimatory agents?” I asked silently. I was having trouble speaking.

“They do,” said the soft voice, “but no thug you're likely to run into has any idea as to not merely what those strange-looking 'bombs' actually are, but also where they are currently 'locked up' – and then, none of them have any training as to how to use those things, much less the needed 'clearances' so as to get access to them.”

“Hence they'd most likely fumigate themselves if they found those things,” I thought.

“Worse than that, actually,” said the soft voice. “There are some very good reasons why those thugs use their sticks so much, and it's not just because sticks are silent and don't need reloading.”

“Are they really clumsy?” I asked. This was but on the threshold of audibility, with slow-moving lips.

“Some few are a bit worse than you are when you're tired, and those people usually get promoted in a hurry,” said the soft voice. “The average blue-suited silver-collared thug is so clumsy that he needs years of daily training and long and exhaustive exercises to develop the capacity with those clubs that you saw exhibited in your dream.”

“And if they use something they haven't spent years being trained to use?” I asked. This time it was audible.

“Why do you think they'll 'fall' for practically every trap you can dream up?” said the soft voice. “You may have 'good' results here against witches, at least thus far, but over there... It's a rare blue-suited thug indeed, one in many thousands, who won't fall for traps that most witches of moderate experience here would laugh at.” A pause, then, “though if you do find one of those 'one-in-ten-thousand' blue-suited thugs, he'll still most likely get caught out just the same, just like most witches here would.”

“I think that to be calling the pot black when it has an inch of soot to its outside and charcoal filling its inside,” said Sarah. “They may have some people in the Valley who know traps, and know them well, but most people in the five kingdoms are...”

“Finding a witch in the Valley who's decent with traps is almost as easy as finding two entire-white ravens in the same year,” said the soft voice. “A most-common and trustworthy saying there, especially among those of the Rooster Totem, is 'those who turn witch lose their minds'.”

“They become crazy?” I asked softly.

“More like they become as if they were fit to wear brass cones,” said Sarah. “That phrase translates very poorly into our language.”

“That also,” said the soft voice. “It is very rare to find someone in the Valley who practices witchcraft to any degree outside of a handful of 'occupations' – and none of them involve working with either the mind or the hands.”

“Then who are they?” asked Sarah. “Those who 'run' settlements or towns?”

“The most common post for witches, in fact,” said the soft voice, “is a position of leadership of sufficient rank that such individuals can have all of their work and thinking done for them, more or less.”

“They concentrate on what they can do well, then,” I murmured. I was of a mind to go hunting up one of those respirators now, as I suspected I would see their like again – if not here, then overseas. More, there were some other things among the 'chemical equipment' that we could use now, and we'd either want such equipment for the trip, or learn something useful from my looking at it – and that beyond what had been spoken of regarding the handling of accursed tungsten shot.

“Like some stink-bombs, perhaps,” I thought. “They have to test that gas gear somehow, and I'll bet those strange 'boxes' I saw earlier were the test-chambers.”

“Now what could a witch do well?” asked Sarah. “I've seen enough of those people in the five kingdoms to know there isn't much they're good for beyond causing trouble.”

“The ones there...” I murmured. “I'm not sure. Perhaps they do the, uh, negotiating between, uh, settlements?”

“The less-impaired examples receive most-needed help with such matters,” said the soft voice. “Those that are more-impaired...” Brief pause. “Those people mostly 'show themselves' when they need to, and otherwise stay well-hidden and thoroughly 'trashed' every waking minute.”

“They're trashed?” I asked. While 'trashed' was an uncommon idiom in the language spoken in the five kingdoms, I knew my use of it wasn't merely 'slang'. There were a lot of similar terms referring to 'severe intoxication', most of them otherwise having to do with refuse, scrap, ruined meals, various species of dung, or worthless equipment. “How?”

“Most likely weed-bundles and Snurf,” said Sarah, “and if someone uses either of those things much at all, he might endure as long as someone who drinks the very worst species of forty-chain, and that daily.”

“B-both m-materials?” I asked.

“I suspect such people do not do at all well,” said Sarah. “What's sold in fifth kingdom drink-houses is bad enough, but if they are sucking on weed-bundles and breathing in Snurf – they are well-beyond the level of intoxication common to mining-town thugs, even when those thugs have just drained full jugs of strong drink each.”

“Which is why they do little beyond show themselves when their underlings tell them to, and otherwise stay hidden in their rooms,” said the soft voice. “They aren't able to do much beyond that, save when it is time to actually do witch-work.” A pause, then, “they're not to be trifled with then, and the more-inhabited examples actually last quite some time.”

“How long would that be?” asked Katje.

“If they don't overindulge on a routine basis, then quite a few years,” said the soft voice. “If they do routinely overindulge, though – that depends on just how inhabited they are.” A pause, then, “the worst of them approach Cardosso's level of infestation, so they can last nearly as long as if they were one of their non-indulging underlings – someone who consumes nothing of an intoxicating nature, as their work demands much thinking and quick reactions.”

“I hope those trashed witches don't know as much as that stinker Cardosso did,” I muttered.

“Some of them have heard about him,” said the soft voice, “but beyond that knowledge, they don't know much at all about Cardosso.” A pause, then, “however, what they do know isn't a joke, and more than one of them has killed black-dressed witches by means of 'witchcraft'.”

“Then they are witches indeed,” said Sarah.

“As much or more by suggestion as curse-power, dear,” said the soft voice. “The sum total of the Valley's curse-knowledge might fill a shorter chapter in a smaller black book – but what the Valley's witches know that way, they know very well as a rule.” A pause, then, “be glad capable examples are so rare there, as then most of those people would be witches, rather than a small but powerful minority.”

“That...” I was speechless upon hearing this, as to my thinking, if the leaders of a community were witches, then all of those under them would wish to be like them.

“That's generally only true here when those leaders have a populace groomed by many years of systematic training, this laid by a succession of other witches before their time – and those leaders appear to those under them such that their 'commons' wish to be as they are,” said the soft voice. “Neither situation prevails in the Valley, unlike in the five kingdoms – where both situations – in combined form – commonly prevail.” A pause, then, “on the other hand, where you came from only needed people inclined toward evil, which was – and always has been, at least for the vast majority – their natural state.”

“It isn't the usual here?” I asked.

“It once was,” said Katje. “Most of those people died in the drowning, and much of the remainder died out during that war long ago.”

“And the rest of them turned witch,” said Sarah – who implied by her tone that everyone in the five kingdoms either was a witch, or wished to be one. Given what the book said on the matter, I found that very easy to believe – that, and what I'd seen since coming here. “Now you look to be up to resuming what you were doing, but I am inclined to set tight until those three get themselves back here with the...”

Sarah ceased speaking, as suddenly Sepp hove into view. His quiet was a marvel, at least until I saw what he had put on his boots, this being laced leather strips crossing in a gridwork pattern. I wondered for a moment why he'd done so, as I suspected quiet wasn't the reason – even if what he did gave me an idea as to what would be needed for the hard floors found overseas so as to silence our footwear's noisier tendencies. I'd almost want to take a pair of common shoes for that time, save they had no traction on slippery surfaces – and blood and gore often proved very slippery indeed. He turned, then spoke into the darkness.

“Go slow down those stairs, there,” he said. “They're trouble going down, even if going up those things isn't near as bad.”

“It isn't?” I asked. I'd had trouble with spiraling stairs here no matter how they twisted, and that up and down.

Sepp then turned to me, and I saw how he'd managed to haul what looked like a sizable leather pack. I was about to ask him where he'd gotten it when he said, “now those people doing these things must have been working the fourth kingdom's hours, as they brought by all of these things 'cept the ones for you two.”

“He already has one,” said Sarah. “I had no idea one was being done for me.”

“Yours is finishing up, or so that man said,” said Sepp, “and I hope neither Maarten or Karl stumbles going down that staircase, as both of 'em's got packs filled with jugs and fresh-baked bread-loaves.” Here, Sepp doffed his pack, and laid it on the ground before undoing the flap. “They saved the drawings to yours that you made, and that new gaffer there made patterns off of 'em.”

“Strange patterns, ones of brass that have pieces which can be moved?” asked Sarah.

“He said they were like that,” said Sepp, “and he had to figure the ones for women out different, on account of them being different.”

“Smaller, slightly different shape...”

“Not by what he told me, even if you're right about the smaller and different parts,” said Maarten as he showed with a pack. “Karl is right behind me, as he is turning that thing to gather up that rope, and I had to watch my feet so as to not fall by walking on it, it is so slippery.”

“It may be slick stuff for the touch, but it holds knots good,” said Karl as he came up with an obvious 'spool' on a stout stick. If anything, Katje had sold the thing short of both size and width. “This one here had enough rope on it to get us all the way into the Upper Alley and in sight of that doorway, so I laid it down in the shadows behind one of those columns so no one would see it, as some might think it witch-rope were they to see this stuff.”

“Witch-rope?” I asked.

“Yes, its color,” said Karl. “It might not be black, but it looks black in any light that isn't strong.” A pause, then, “and if one puts a fresh lantern on it, one just brightened, then it is this strange green that changes colors, almost.”

“That is special rope, all right,” said Sarah. “Rachel made sure some went with them on that trip, and she carried some her-own-self.”

“About thirty feet or so, actually,” said the soft voice. “She reckoned it to be very important, and she was right, especially when they had to construct temporary bridges over several 'hot' streams.”

“Hot?” I asked. “R-radioactive?”

“That stream you put that bomb in while breaking out of the fifth kingdom house was a passable approximation of what they needed to cross those times,” said the soft voice, “and they were lucky to find some fuse and a few caps but hours before crossing the first one, as they foiled a tracking party of witches by setting one of those foul-smelling things alight while the witches were crossing it.” A pause, then, “now some more food for all of you, and you can get the rest of those carts.”

While I got my share of beer and bread, I also took two breaks to go on the hunt for tungsten on the way to and from the privy, and in both instances, while I kept my 'bursts' short and to the point, I came back uncommonly sore. Karl was getting nervous just hearing my moans and groans when I came back each time, even if I went off by myself close to the stairwell to first rub myself with the latest version of 'Komaet' and then spew; when I came back from the privy the second time, he said, “I hope that thing is not as bad as what you are doing, as then I will wish what you use instead, and that loaded for swine.”

“No, Karl, you will not wish that rifle loaded for swine,” said Sarah. “You would need three of those medical people across the sea working on you if you did that, as it would break your shoulder as if I'd used a flail on it.”

I could hear Karl gasp, then mutter, “I hope I do not get caught by a woman who can use one of those things.”

“You won't,” said Katje knowingly. “Other than Sarah, I know of perhaps three people in the area who know what one of those things is, and she's the only one good enough with one of those to be trouble.”

“No, I think Gustav might know how to use one,” said Sarah, “though I doubt he uses his much.”

“And you'll have the sticks for one o' them things coming after today,” said Sepp. “Now are you planning on breaking them like Dennis breaks clubs? I saw several sets of the wood pieces for those.”

“I asked for two sets, one for regular use and another in case the rope broke and I lost the fast end,” said Sarah, “but I had no idea they were making... How many pieces did you see?”

“At least ten pairs,” said Sepp. “They were drying in that room the boatwright's shop uses to make their varnish set up quick.”

“I'd probably thump myself with one if I tried,” I muttered. “I'll stick to clubs, thank you.”

“They had more of them too,” said Sepp. “They're making those things by the numbers any more, on account of how you turn those things into kindling faster than Georg than does when he's smelling pigs.”

“I'll wrap one with rags so you can try it,” said Sarah. “My cousin didn't have the time to learn them as I did, even if she did not lack for dexterity.”

“Those?” I gasped.

“There are ways that just use the handles, one in each hand,” said Sarah. “It might not be the rope trick as Tam understands it, but I've heard of people using them that way just the same, and I suspect you can manage that, even if I think you'll wish rags for padding if you want to try them otherwise.” A pause, then in drier voice, “I had best keep them clear of Anna when the rats start, though, as I fear for her safety should she find one.”

“W-why?” I asked.

“Because you have not seen her when the rats are bad,” said Karl. “I have heard about how she gets then, and calling her ready for a long stay in a rest-house is calling Georg calm after he gets wind of a pig.” A pause, then, “and I am not sure I want her using this fowling piece, not unless I can keep the stiff shot away from her.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“She will shoot holes in the furniture,” said Karl. “I somehow saw her turn the couch into a big mess with that thing, and then the walls had holes big enough to pass marmots when she got close to a rat.”

“I think she'd best stick to one of those short muskets then,” said Sepp. “She should do well with one of those.”

“N-not if they...” I gasped. The next part was silent. “Do those have fully-automatic capability?”

“Yes, and they're a lot more controllable than anything else you'll find in here that is that way,” said the soft voice, “even if you'll think the term 'machine-pistol' to be a misnomer when you try one.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Think,” said the soft voice. “Remember that one 'awful-feeling' weapon you fired once? They're much closer to one of those for range and stopping power than what the word 'machine-pistol' implies, which is why Sarah spoke of them like she did.”

“Best teach Anna about not putting that selector on 'R',” I muttered. “She'll really tear the place up then – probably turn loose a whole magazine at a time.”

“No, she won't,” said the soft voice. “Those are a good deal more accurate than that one weapon of that type you once tried, so she'll make one small hole should she miss.” A pause, then, “she won't miss very often, either – though Hans will be very busy patching holes in the walls just the same.”

“Why?” I asked. “Lots of rats?”

“You were not here last year,” said Sarah. “I was, and I was tossing cookware daily at those things – and when I'd ran out of cookware fit to toss, I tossed potatoes and turnips, and she made me look calm indeed for that business.”

“No loss for the turnips,” said Karl. “I've got no idea what they will do at the house proper, though, as that place has swarms of rats in places now, and it has stone walls, so one needs fowling pieces unless one wants to jump for the floor all the time for screaming bullets.”

“Perhaps common-sized shot, or some a bit smaller than that which is common in the area?” I murmured. “Now I wonder if there are more of those weapons?”

While there was no answer to that question then, I got one of sorts when I came back from a third trip to the privy. I'd thinned out that cursed tungsten shot to such a degree that I knew I would need to 'shoulder arms' but a few times more so as to get rid of all of it, and before doing so, I'd wish to bag up a sack of the stuff so as to show the people overseas who were inclined toward 'wolfram' as to just what we had to offer them on the premises.

I wondered for a minute if showing them a sack of that stuff would be called an inducement of sorts, and when I spoke of the matter to both Sarah and Katje, the former spluttered, “I think so! You'll have them come up here to get it faster than anything short of one of these weird flying things they once had that looked like long bars of green-colored soap, and when they learn how much of it's on the premises, they'll stay for the duration.”

“Much more than that, dear,” said the soft voice. “People may be giving face-down oaths in church when they leave their homes in the fourth kingdom, but compared to those where you're going, you'll think such people utter oafs and laggardly fools more interested in turning witch than all else.”

“How?” asked Sarah.

“Just wait until you see what happens,” said the soft voice enigmatically. “They'll jump so fast for the ceiling when they see that bluish fire show itself that you'll think them newly escaped from premature burial or Desmond-filled witch-holes.”

“Oh, no,” I muttered. “They don't have that one, do they?” I meant a particular story, one I had read long ago. It made for the shudders then.

“Intact and such that it can be read now, no,” said the soft voice. “They do have all the pieces to it and a great deal more of similar vein, so once they get time on their machinery, they'll set it to running in very short order once they've done something about the food troubles they've been having.” A pause, then, “I'd go fetch out those carts, as while you might not be fully recovered from 'killing' that wolfram shot, you can hand off their assembly to the others.”

“And then I can go after more of that stuff once I get some bagged up,” I muttered, as I stood up and crossed the small 'foyer', lantern in hand.

The first pallet of those I checked did not have the carts in question, even if the green-painted 'canisters' I found stacked chest-high on it spoke of a vast number of wheels and tires; and the same applied for the second pallet – which had more canisters like the first one. The third, however, had a waist-high pile of dark mottled green cloth 'sacks', these with straps that permitted ready carrying; and while each such sack weighed twenty pounds or more, I had no idea as to just what I had found until I took the first example into the clustered lantern-light shed by a quartet of lanterns hanging from those lampstands that I had used while greasing the larger carts. There, and only there did I find out that the 'carrying pouches' for these carts were once more done in that strange black-edged mottled green camouflage – and upon loosing the three button-closed straps holding it closed, I found that indeed, I'd gotten a knocked-down cart.

Inside a sealed fiber-reinforced plastic pouch, this looking like a huge zip-lock bag. The red-blue-red striping where the bag closed was clear and unmarred, indicating that these examples were yet 'factory sealed', complete with a bright-green-lettered preservative packet; while I began perusing the 'instruction-sheet' through the yet unopened 'bag', I found myself interrupted within less than a minute.

“This thing is just like those you found upstairs, only a lot less dirty,” said Sepp. “I can put these together easy, 'cause they're clean and those others had dust and dirt on 'em to hide their marks.”

“You can?” I asked.

As if to 'show me the error of my ways', Sepp – with Karl's help – began to assemble the one I had brought out once I'd indicated how to 'break the seal'; and if anything, what we had been told about these things was a misnomer as to how quick and easy they were to put together.

“They're marked here, so they're tied,” said Sepp as he noiselessly slid the three pieces of the cart's 'floor' together, “and then they have their perches already put together, so they go on each end...”

“They've got places for a hitching pole on each end, too,” muttered Karl, “and those upstairs only had one hitching pole to them...”

“These here have two,” said Sepp, as he brought out two obvious tubular 'handles'. “Look around in that pile some more, as I'll bet these things have got spades just like a regular buggy for traveling does.”

I went back to the 'pile', and while the 'spades' didn't show that trip, or the one after it, a telltale sack showed on the third trip I made. This sack showed dark in the lantern's light, but once it and the knocked-down cart were out among the pair of lampstands, I was able to read its sewn-on label.

“Heads for entrenching shovels?” I murmured.

“I thought so,” said Katje. “Now is that one knotted fit for a grandmother, or can you open it?”

The sack was removed from my hands not two seconds later – before I could check to see if it was tied closed or not, in fact – and in the light of the lampstands, I saw not merely another pair of carts going together, but also, Sepp was admiring an unusually small 'shovel-head'.

“Best shovel for digging privies I ever saw,” he said. “It's light, too, and it's got an edge as good as some swine-spears.”

“Not one of those fetishes,” said Sarah. “They're lucky if they have edges.”

“No, I meant a good spear, one of those things that Lukas said he'd seen a few of down somewhere in the third kingdom,” said Sepp. “They have some down there that were old when Cardosso was a baby, or so he said.”

“Then...” Sarah paused, flustered-sounding, then asked “where?”

“He said they kept those hidden among their wine-casks, as everyone in the house proper knows where those are,” said Sepp. “I don't wonder about that, even if I do wonder why they'd put spears among those stinky things and not where they can look after them good.”

“Spears are not fit weapons for fighting mounted brigands armed with rotten cannons,” said Katje. “I hope I can borrow one of these spades, as it might help some.”

“There are other spades in here,” I murmured. “Granted, they aren't as small and as convenient for use as these, nor do they come apart, but they do have spades in here...” I paused, then said, “or they did, anyway.” A second pause, then, “did those witches steal those?”

“No, as they were worthless as fetishes and that one witch said they'd not last three days out in the turnip patches,” said the soft voice. “He was right about the first part, and totally wrong about the second.”

“They'd not last that long?” I gasped.

“They'd wear out fairly soon, but they would last a lot longer than three days,” said the soft voice. “They're not as tough as what you-all found in those last two rooms upstairs, as these weren't intended for long hard days dealing with either Vrijlaand's jungles or long hard days dealing with double-drunk curse-spewing witches tending true-turnips.” A pause, then, “they are durable enough to stand up to truly hard use, though, and they're a lot lighter than any tool you've seen or heard of like them.”

“Hard?” I asked.

“About what your average first-kingdom farmer would manage, actually,” said the soft voice. “Save in certain regions, the soil in this area isn't that tough to dig in – and unlike a typical first kingdom spade, these were intended to be carried a lot.”

“Hence they worried about ounces on them,” said Sarah. “I might have seen pictures of these things.” A pause, then, “I'm not sure we need them now.”

“No, but you will wish them shortly after you get back, and you can use a decent spade now where you live,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, compared to any common spade past or present, these things are most disinclined to rot or corrode.”

“What?” squeaked Katje. “How?”

“What they're made out of,” said the soft voice. “Vrijlaand's tools needed regular waxing when used down there, even if they needed no such care up here.” Pause. “These didn't need such care, even if they were battered into uselessness inside of six months when they were used to clear that place's jungles.”

“That is not trivial,” said Sarah. “I suspect no spade made today would endure as well, even if it was one made in Badwater.”

“Those would need daily 'greasing', but otherwise, you're right,” said the soft voice. “These spades would last longer, and not a little longer, given that much use – and that kind of use.” A pause, then, “up here, they'd last many years, even given complete and total neglect.”

“No spade lasts that long, even if it is looked after carefully and gets tool cleaner painted on when it is not being used,” said Karl. “I have yet to see a plow manage four years up here, and that is when it came from the fourth kingdom and was looked after good.”

“Those are not very good,” said Sepp emphatically. I suspected Lukas had told him about their true nature, until he continued speaking. “About the only real difference for plows I've seen is some cost a lot more than others and are a little easier to work on when they break, at least until those three in the shop get done.”

Those will last longer than four years,” said Karl. “I am not sure how long they will last, but they will not fall apart in four years.”

I let the conversation go, as I had more carts to fetch, and only when I'd cleaned off the pallet entirely did I resume looking elsewhere in the area. I had a suspicion that we wanted to take up at least half of these smaller carts for ferrying 'loot' to the buggies that would be waiting at or near the end of the day, and with this in mind, I thought to look at those pallets of gas equipment once more.

I wanted to do more than just look again at that respirator: I wanted some 'contamination gloves', some sample pouches, some of those plastic containers that we could use for 'canteens' – we wanted satchels full of those things– and possibly, one of those strange suits so as to look closer at it.

“Maybe it will give us some ideas,” I thought, as I went in search of that area again. “Worst case, maybe Sarah will learn how they once put together clothing intended to endure fumigation. I doubt she read much about that on any tapestry.”

I found the suits first, thinking to bring one of the things out so as to see it better, then when I went back after the other items with one of those dark green 'satchels', I could hear odd-sounding speech. I was so involved in what I was looking for – I had found two small 'bags' of obvious stamped titanium scoops which resembled small hand spades of incomparable lightness as well as strength that was utterly inappropriate to something that looked to be made of a heavier species of silvery tinfoil; and I had an idea where some of the other things were hiding – that when I heard Sarah laughing as if crazed, I dropped everything and ran back to where I had left her and the others.

While Karl and Sepp were busily engaged in cart-assembly, Sarah was doubled up with laughter; and when she was no longer laughing 'as if having a fit', I noted neither Maarten or Katje were handy. I was about to ask where the two of them were when I noted the suit I had brought out was gone.

“Where..?” I asked. I meant not merely where the two of our missing people had gone – I was worried about stray tungsten shot, to be precise – but also, what had happened to the suit itself. Sarah began laughing again.

“Dear..?”

“She got into that thing,” said Karl, “and I think she must think it is Festival Week, that or she is a child again, as she jumped on him right away.” Karl paused, mumbled something, then, “and if they are like that, then I am worried, as I doubt I would last long with someone acting like that.”

What?” I squeaked.

“She was sick during Festival Week,” said Sarah, “and I think she decided to try that thing on, as it did look likely.”

“Likely?” I asked.

“Yes, it was a good fit for her, much as if I sewed it to fit her specially,” said Sarah, “and then she started chasing him.”

“Is th-that normal?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Sarah. “You've not seen Anna go after Hans much, have you?”

As if to supply a rejoinder, I heard someone – female – yell in a muffled fashion, followed by a giddy howl of laughter.

“Where are they?” I asked nervously. “That shot...”

“You got all of that stuff around here,” said Sarah. “Now I doubt much they have anything like that small enough for me to fit in, as I'd go hunt it up if they did.”

That had me worried, and when I led Sarah back to where I had been looking, she asked to see the boxes which had the respirators. I then asked, “I hope she isn't going to smother in that thing. Will she?”

“No, because that needs this other piece for the face,” said Sarah – who seemed to be looking for the piece in question. “It most likely is in one of those boxes.” Then, after a short pause “are these those pouches used for holding samples?”

I turned to see what Sarah had found, and noted she was holding her lantern by its handle next to a bulky 'camouflage' satchel. “It says here, 'sample pouches, for toxic materials',” she said. A pause, then, “this thing has ten of them inside, if I go by what it says for their number.”

“We'll want two of those things like that, then,” I said. “Besides, that 'satchel' there looks about right for carrying your things.”

“You're right about its size and handles, but I doubt it is decent for how I did the inside of my new one,” said Sarah. “Now you'll want those containers spoken of for beer once you get that box down where I can look at it on this cart, and if it's usable, we may want to put what is in it on Katje.”

On her?” I asked. “Why?”

“That suit looked very likely for Festival Week, and I think I want to take one home for Anna,” said Sarah. “Worst case, she can wear it when she must clean much using bad lye, as I've seen her made sick from that stuff. This equipment would make it much easier on her, especially when the place gets sooted up bad.” A pause, then, “and if there's one sized for me and I must clean up a sooty house again, then I shall wish one also, and that in all its particulars – as bad lye tends to make me ill.”

I was able to get the box down, and while Sarah was looking at its contents, I went once more to look at the suits. To my astonishment, I found that there were four sizes – including one size, the smallest, that looked as if it might work for someone who was roughly Sarah's size – but also, at the ends of each rack of suits, I found a sizable pouch of 'repair supplies'. I brought back one of these pouches first, and nearly 'choked' when I saw Sarah holding the mask. I nearly dropped the pouch, I was so frightened.

“This is for a gaseous fumigant,” she said, “and I suspect you're right about how much work it would be to make it fit for use during surgery, as those pictures did not look close to how this thing is.”

“Looks, no,” I said. Looks did not help people during surgery. Even I had an idea as to what did, and when I resumed speaking, I mentioned it. “Functioning... That would be the chief trouble, as well as getting suitable gases or liquids...”

Sarah looked at me, then said in a near-whisper, “you're right. I have no idea as to what would be used, or how to use it, and I know Hans has no idea as to either of those things, and I doubt Korn does, and Liza didn't, and...”

“Which is another reason why you will wish what they have across the sea,” said the soft voice. “What he could make would need a lot of care and real skill to use, as the patient would be hovering at the edge of death the entire time he or she was 'asleep' – and that presumes you could make those particular drugs those books spoke of.” A pause, then, “what they have across the sea is not only much safer, it also is much easier to use.”

“Safer?” I asked.

“Safer than anything that was ever used on you that way,” said the soft voice. “With their preferred materials, it's actually very hard to kill the patient, unlike what was common where you came from – and most of that equipment has sufficient safeguards built into it that it prevents overdose, even if the person is more or less ignorant of what they are doing.”

“But...”

“They get students' hands 'messy' a lot sooner over there than where you came from,” said the soft voice, “even if 'medical school' currently involves eight busy years of year-round study there.”

“That sounds about right,” said Sarah. “The lower schools only shut during the rest-day, church-day, Harvest Day, and Festival Week, and the higher schools are much the same, if you count traipsing and the trips home and back most students must make.” A pause, then, “and it has been that way since the Curse if there were people fit to teach others, if the tapestries tell the truth.”

“Which is how they manage to do what they do in just eight years,” said the soft voice. “It isn't like where you came from at all.”

“Much more information...”

“That, and a wider range of study,” said the soft voice. “They don't have 'internships' there, at least the way you've heard about them.”

“What do they do?” I asked.

“One, the usual is to work on injured people in teams of three to five, with the most experienced or most able person 'in charge',” said the soft voice, “and then recall what I said about how that schooling is a lot more 'hands on' than where you came from?”

“Y-yes?” I asked.

“They might not be working on people during the first year or two, but they are doing surgery of sorts after the first month or two,” said the soft voice. “The students first 'capture' vermin, then 'do surgery' on the animals with more-advanced students 'supervising' those less-so, and instructors watching over the whole proceedings, either in person or remotely, depending on what is being done.”

“No dissection?” I gasped.

“Given the way that place is,” said the soft voice, as if chiding me gently, “they don't need to do dissection.” A pause. “They've got plenty of work to do on real patients, and the students then put in practice what their studies involve.”

“And I wonder if we can put this thing on Katje,” muttered Sarah. “I wonder if..?”

“She's getting out of that suit now,” said the soft voice. “She's had her 'spell' with Maarten.”

“And... Anna?” I asked.

“That suit will fit Anna, and you'll wish to put it and the other equipment on her when she next must use lye, as Sarah has understated the case as to how ill that material makes her,” said the soft voice. “What Sarah really doesn't know is how ill she becomes around lye.”

Sarah looked at me in horror, then spoke in a faint voice, “I've been careful with that stuff, but its smell still puts me in the privy.”

“It's worse than you realize,” said the soft voice. “It would be bad enough if you used Roesmaan's lye, but the stuff that is commonly used in this area, even if it's 'purified', is closer to something that needs such a suite to not cause illness in many people.”

“I'm glad I found a suit that looks like it might work for you, then,” I said. “I'm also glad I've only smelled bad lye a few times...”

“And every single time you used lye it made you sick, whether you noticed it or not,” said the soft voice. “Be glad you are getting appropriate care in the near future, as the fumes 'common' lye gives off might as well be the vapors of a chemical weapon as far as you're concerned.”

I went over to where Sarah was now removing the pouches so as to look at them, and took up one. As I did, I noted the oddly changing aspect of what was also camouflage-colored, and as I looked for the cords that tied it shut, I not merely found them, but also the following 'red' tag:

“Hostile environments?” I thought. “I guess that means more than just worrying about getting shot at or blown up.”

“It did,” said the soft voice. “When you use those, I would not merely put the torn-off tag – that one line next to the triangular portion indicates where to tear it – but also put the tag-end inside the pouch before tying it closed.”

“So those, uh, alert monitors don't see it?” I asked, as I held the tag. I was still looking for the cords tying the bag shut. “Shows up especially well?”

“It does, and that tag-portion does not need an alert monitor,” said the soft voice. “There's a fairly large number of 'alerts' built into the monitoring software used over there, so even an 'impaired' monitoring person will notice 'toxic chemicals'.” A pause, then, “your suspicions regarding 'alert' monitors are wise, by the way.”

“More than one of those people on duty when we arrive, eh?” I thought, as I held the bag by its closed end and the cords dropped out. They were an odd 'braided' green in the light of the lantern when I held it close, but further away, that green seemed to become mottled with darker colors, this chiefly a blue and black; and with the lantern at arm's distance, the cord – and indeed, the whole bag – blended in with the darkness so well that I could barely discern its outline. Only the red tag still showed 'well' – and I had some difficulty seeing it. It made me wonder just when one normally gathered 'samples' on the battlefield – or wherever these things were intended to be used.

While there was no answer to this latest question, what I – and, I suspected at least Sarah also – had just been told spoke volumes to me: that 'large number' of listed things didn't need alert monitoring capacities. It only needed staffing with semi-trained people who were awake while on duty, and most of those people on such duty managed that passably.

“And while dark hair is even rarer over there than it is here, it used to be far more commonplace,” I thought. “That list is mostly a matter of what once was an issue, and now isn't.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “That list works very well, even now, as firstly, the same issues have been trouble since those in charge over there took over; and secondly, they've been working nearly the entire time since then to eliminate those things the 'commons' might use to evict them from their positions.”

“Meaning everything on that list is very rare, save among the hands of those running the place,” I muttered, “and if it shows up, then it means real trouble to those monitoring the situation.”

“One difference,” said the soft voice. “They only installed that monitoring equipment when the war started going 'badly' for them, and that list therefore does not include those things made before the war – and everything you have is either from the mainland, or was made some years prior to those people getting that equipment up and operating – and in both cases, it's unlisted.” A pause, then, “only a handful of 'more-recent' additions covering things like those sample pouches were added since that list was compiled during the war's waning years, and that because they've been used more-or-less unchanged since that time in non-military applications.”

“How can it work so well then?” asked Sarah.

“Because the 'commons' could not get those things then,” said the soft voice, “and they weren't able to do much when they could get the more-recently-made things like them.” Another pause, then, “those more-recent additions are still very old, by the way – they were written in but a handful of years after monitoring began.”

“Then the new equipment...”

Newer equipment,” said the soft voice. “The main network is used for a great deal over there, and plugging monitors into it is merely a matter of making them and then installing them – and it's been in place for a very long time.”

“Just been updated, so it's more capable?” I asked.

“That especially,” said the soft voice. “That's why it's 'new', even if it was originally the first network laid out.” A pause, then, “I'd get some of those gloves and a sample-scoop, and carry your broom in one hand and a sample pouch in the other so as to get that sample you'll need to take those people across the sea.”

“Sample-scoop?” I asked. “Oh, those strange stamped things I found...”

While there was no answer to my last question, I knew when I again found the stamped titanium scoops that they were indeed what I needed; and the gloves showed but minutes later. Their sensation upon my hands was odd to say the least, and when I came back to where Sarah was still exploring matters to have them tied, she said, “now those look likely. I'll bet they go to one of those suits.”

“They do,” I mumbled. “There isn't one big enough for me...”

“I would not be too sure about that,” said Sarah archly – who then had me show her the suits in some detail. She hadn't tied the gloves on yet, and when she looked at the end of one of the racks, she all-but shrieked.

“Here!” she said. “Sit on that cart, and let me help you into this one here. Katje, come here!”

The latter woman showed as if by magic not ten seconds later, and before I knew what was happening, I'd had my boots removed, my feet inserted into the legs of a suit, and both women then all-but-stuffed me into the rest of it. Once the zipper was zipped, however – Katje's help was invaluable here, as she'd learned how to get in and out of these suits without any help – I found the suit to be oddly calming. It seemed a cocoon, or a refuge of sorts, and when I thought to stand, Katje brought over some odd-looking boots.

“These might fit you, and then they might not,” she said. “If that wolfram is as bad as I think it is, and you're going to go after some that isn't 'dead', I think you'll want the entire kit to these things.”

I was about to protest when Sarah nodded, then said, “I think it might help, and not just for collecting up some of that stuff.”

“What?” I asked. My voice was preternaturally calm, for some reason.

“I think you might want another dose first,” said Sarah – who then did so so rapidly that all I could do was swallow the stuff dumbly.

“I heard that part about how lye acts as if it were one of Hans' worst gaseous fumigants,” said Sarah, “and I suspect collecting up a sample of that tungsten isn't much better.” A pause, then, “I think it might help in other ways, also.”

“H-how?” I asked. “The mask?”

“That, and this clear plate that covers that hole where your face is,” said Katje. “Sarah, he needs to get partly out of that suit so the mask can be fit, as it goes inside the suit.”

“How..?”

Again, I was unable to protest, for within less than a minute, I had the respirator put in place save for the mask itself – and now, for some even odder reason, I wanted to try it. I looked dumbly down at the twin 'leaves' of the gas equipment's breathing bag, and had a strange thought: I would be breathing pure oxygen, not the usual thirty percent or so found in the atmosphere. What I heard next was startling to say the least.

“That equipment is good for at least four hours,” said the soft voice, “and while the others can manage passably in this room, you're not really up to it.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah. “It was bad enough yesterday, but this place is worse for trouble, as that bird isn't inclined to wake up.”

“It's smothered?” I gasped.

“No, but it is sleeping a good deal more soundly than I like,” said Sarah – who I suspected had looked closely at the bird at the least. I then recalled she'd raised these birds for some years, and had been around them most of her life. “Now these instructions here are strange, and I'm having trouble understanding them.”

I glanced at them quickly, then understood: one needed to first fit the mask and its goggles, then make certain it was 'tight' using the rear straps. That done, both mask and 'regulator' valves needed to be turned to their 'vent' settings, and the respirator purged of air by several rapid deep breaths – then, and only then, could the valves be turned to 'breathing', with the mask valve being turned first, then the 'regulator' valve being turned to 'breathing'.

The respirator would function automatically then, at least until either the absorbent was 'exhausted' or it ran out of 'gas' – the gas most likely being oxygen. Finally, one wanted to 'check' the thing's functioning before finishing with 'suiting up', as the instructions put it – as 'sealing' the suit took 'several' minutes, and most people could not hold their breath that long in the event of a malfunction.

“First check the cylinder's gage,” said Katje as she took the instructions back from me and looked at Sarah. I could not see the gage – which was something I would wish to rectify had I been the designer. “It says it's full. Then, that canister's contents, which should be green. If they're not, it needs a new one.”

“They're green as grass,” said Sarah. “New grass, that which is just sprouting.”

“That's what is wanted,” said Katje – who then turned to me. “Turn the mask valve to 'vent'.”

I did so, then tentatively put the huge and clammy-seeming mask on my face. Sarah then helped arrange the two hoses, while Katje did something to the rear of my head with the mask's straps.

“Now breathe,” said Katje, as she turned 'something' on my chest. A furtive hissing sound seemed to come from everywhere at the same time, and with the first breath, I tasted a faint aura of 'rubber' and felt a sense of relief that quickly grew stronger with each further breath – until after several such deep and rapid breaths, I turned the mask valve fully in the opposite way, that being to 'breathing'. Katje then turned the valve on my chest.

“How do you feel?” she asked. Sarah was looking at me as if I had somehow fainted – or had 'died' – and had just come back to life.

I nodded, now feeling somewhat sleepy and too tired for words; and then, I absent-mindedly wiped my head.

“You were smothering, weren't you?” asked Katje.

For some reason, I agreed with her, and nodded again.

“Now we can do you up the rest of the way,” said Katje – who made me wonder for a minute, until I realized she'd been in one of these suits but a short time prior. “I think you should keep wearing that thing, suit and all, until we're done in here.”

“What if he must talk?” asked Sarah.

“Speak,” said Katje.

I did so – and to my complete surprise, I could actually speak. Granted, it was muffled and a bit distorted-sounding, but I could be heard and understood.

“This part here needs hooking up first,” said Katje. “It goes over his ears, and then it takes this... It needs a battery, and I do not see one.” Katje sounded as if she knew what the device in question was – which surprised me greatly until I recalled the pictures in what she was looking at.

“Is this it?” asked Sarah – who held up a rectangular black plastic 'block'. It was roughly as long as her hand, nearly the same width, and perhaps an inch thick, with a rubbery-looking case and a small 'strap' to hang it.

I nodded, then thought, “it needs charging, though.”

Sarah nearly dropped the thing, then in a shaky voice said, “the color just changed from black to bright red on this dot here!”

“It's charged, then,” said Katje, who was reading a plastic-laminated 'card' she'd somehow found. “Now we can hook that thing up the rest of the way and put the rest of the suit on him.” A pause, then, “he already looks a lot better – better color at the least.”

“What?” I squeaked.

“You were looking very sick,” said Katje, “and I suspect you felt as if someone was choking you, if I go by how you've been sounding lately when you talk. Now we can finish this, and you'll feel better, at least while we're all in this cold-room.” Katje then turned to Sarah, and said, “those suits might not be as warm as a good knit blanket, but they're a lot warmer than what he's wearing, and whatever is in that cylinder there seems to help him quite a bit.”

“Does it?” asked Sarah, as she helped Katje hook up the rest of what I needed before I could fully don the suit. “If it does, then we need to take at least one of them home.”

I nodded, this slow, relaxed, and now utterly calm. I had not been doing well before this, I now understood. I then had a question.

“Was it all of those preservative packets?” This came out much clearer, even if it was slightly tinny-sounding.

“No, but asking that gas to go to its component materials liberated enough carbon dioxide that between that happening, those lanterns burning at peak brightness, the lack of circulating air, and your poor health, you more or less need to have oxygen while in this room – which you are now getting,” said the soft voice. “I'd wear that suit until you're done in this room, in fact, as that cursed tungsten's 'dying' isn't helping matters much.”

“Oxides,” I muttered. “It's removing oxygen from the air.”

“That also,” said the soft voice. “This might not be the entirety of what you need, but it's vastly better than doing nothing at all.”