The Big Gun


I could now clearly feel the press of time, even with nothing to tell its passing present, and minutes later, I finished rubbing Sarah's head. She then went upstairs and came down with some obviously 'new' stockings, and put them on, this with a degree of care that astonished me.

“I'll need to wash those pairs I used today,” she said. “Trekking boots may protect your feet well, but they hold in dampness and sweating, much more so than common shoes.”

“Hence stockings...”

“You had more of those come recently,” said Anna, “and I think you had best have all of them that are fit to wear washed carefully and then bag them up for the trip.”

“When?” I asked. I meant the new ones.

“Not three days ago,” said Anna. “That knitter has a steady business with those things for you, as you wear out stockings faster than anyone I've ever seen, and then you need a lot of them.”

“As in 'I should be changing them three times a day', or something?” I asked, as Sarah put on some odd-looking leather 'slippers'. They looked a bit 'large' for her feet, and she said, “I made these myself while I was out in the forests this last time.”

“How?” I asked.

“One of my kills,” she said as she resumed her work upon the oil-bottles, “and I tanned them myself, so I know your suggestions about how to tan leather are most likely indeed.” A pause, then, “and those people will desire leather when they first encounter it.”

“Why would they want leather?” asked Anna. She was helping with filling the small bottles, and I was more than a little surprised at not merely how careful she had become, but also, how fast she seemed to be learning – even with the oil's escapist tendencies becoming more and more manifest.

“Not the leather itself, but things made of it, Anna,” said Sarah as she 'closed' another of the small oil bottles. The level in the larger bottle was declining slower than I thought it should, for some reason; it was going down, but it should have been going down a lot faster. “They've not seen that stuff in so long it's like an old tale to us, only worse yet.”

“Stuff all got confiscated when the war started over there,” I said. “Those in charge said it was for the war effort, and they lied like they usually did then.”

“True,” said the soft voice, “and your take on them wishing leather, while it is accurate, will take some time to manifest – as even the available records of it are currently 'not visible', and mere talk of the stuff is something that currently draws those blue-suited functionaries like manure draws flies.”

“What, do they have microphones hidden all over?” I asked. I'd be quite surprised if the answer was 'no' at this stage.

“Yes, which is another reason why you'll wish to take down every network you can access,” said the soft voice. “They'll be much easier to take if they are 'blind, deaf' and 'dumb' – and not 'dumb' as in 'unable to speak'.”

“Dumb as in 'not very intelligent'?” I asked. “Do they really depend on that equipment..?”

“They will be as if they wore brass cones,” said Sarah, who closed another oil-bottle. I could see eight of them so far, all of which had been carefully wiped down with rags. The kitchen smelled good. “Now what does this do with nets? Do we have to worry about them spreading nets for us as if we were fool-hens?”

“I do not think those smelly people use such nets, Sarah,” said Anna as she put the funnel in an empty oil-bottle, one Sarah had just unscrewed. She was looking at the 'cap' with a consuming interest. “I suspect that this has to do with something like what is used in the fifth kingdom for sending information, and that term describes how they run their wires all over.”

“Got it in one,” said the soft voice. “The chief differences are these: this equipment is both far more capable than what is used in the fifth kingdom, and also vastly more reliable as a whole.”

“A lot of redundancy, also, so you got to take it all down so as to turn things off,” I said. “They'll not have that stuff to tell them what to do, so they become so stupid...” I then gasped, and screeched, “what?”

“Remember how most blue-suited functionaries are for their apparent intelligence?” said the soft voice. “Those over them are not much 'smarter' as a rule, and they tend to be severely impaired as a rule also.” A pause, then, “the people who make 'serious' decisions tend to be sober, but they're so isolated from the scene that when you take the networks down, they'll not be able to communicate effectively save by multiple layers of dumb-as-bricks messengers, and getting that arrangement set up so that it actually works will not happen at all quickly.” Another pause, then, “if you take down both the network and those interface layers of people who 'control' those functionaries...”

The soft voice let this sentence end, as if I was able to form my own conclusions – or more, I would form them soon enough. Time was wasting, and we had perhaps a few hours left in which to labor – and hence, I returned to my labors upon the machine gun I had been working on. The women were continuing to fill oil bottles, this at the rate of roughly one per minute – and the larger bottle, while needing regular wiping with various rags, was but slowly draining.

I needed to check Hans' work upon the barrel, but when I ran a patch down it and the patch came up 'clean', I was so astonished that I looked at Hans, then asked, “how many p-patches did you put through this thing?”

“Until they came out like that one there,” said Hans, as he indicated the one on the end of the cleaning rod. “Now, this blue oil. How much is needed for the barrel, or does it want oil at all?”

“A very thin coating inside and out,” I said, looking at where the barrel was machined to take the locking lugs of the bolt as I spoke. I could see five cutouts, which meant, or so I guessed, a five-lugged bolt. That was another area of difference compared to the weapon I had once had: every gas-operated weapon I had seen thus far had had five bolt-lugs, and the aspect of mechanical similarity between those I had seen so far was enough to give me the chills.

“Don't feel that way,” said the soft voice. “They came up with a system that had been battle-tested under harsh conditions, it had seen a lot of development over a period lasting nearly two decades in the case of those rifles, and until those currently in power took over, it was military all the way from initial specifications to end-users, with no politics involved in the process beyond 'we need money to do this' and the answer being 'here's a blank check', almost.”

“Almost?” I asked.

“There were no 'far-too-costly hammers' involved,” said the soft voice. “They did have to provide some indications of how that money was being used, and they could ill afford to waste either money or time.” A pause, then, “think of what was done to produce the first nuclear weapons where you came from during that second major conflict – and save for the intense secrecy used then, you'll get an idea of how military affairs ran over there before the current people in leadership took over – as the then-current leadership knew they'd have a major war on their hands some time in the foreseeable future, and they needed to bring their military and all of its equipment up to a very capable standard from 'almost nothing' before that war started.”

“A bit less secrecy?” I asked.

“Try more like 'a lot less secrecy',” said the soft voice. “At least, it was that way among that group of closely-vetted individuals actually involved in preparing for war.” A pause, then, “regarding those seen as potential enemies, secrecy was a byword – and as far as those people were concerned, the level of secrecy was 'the absolute best we can do to keep them unaware of what we are doing; and failing that, we must have them 'grabbing at horse-dung'.”

“And it changed utterly after the takeover,” I thought.

“No, not right away,” said the soft voice. “Keeping the population 'in darkness total' only became a matter of course when the war started going badly and those in uppermost leadership became truly 'paranoid'.” Pause, then, “the current level of secrecy is still high enough to remind you of places you've read about, both real and fictional.”

“And now, back to guns,” I thought, as I resumed reassembly of the one machine gun. To my surprise, it went together faster than I thought possible, and when I dismantled the other for cleaning, I had it in 'pieces' in mere moments.

I also had 'help' from Hans, though with this gun, I needed to both carefully check his work and then 'oil' the thing myself, as there were tricks I needed to learn about 'when and where and how much oil is needed'. The gas piston area needed a fair amount, as did most of the action; the chamber and barrel a light yet thin coating inside and out, with the chamber just sufficient to 'prevent' possible corrosion and the area where the locking lugs of the bolt a bit more; the bipod joints, a small amount, perhaps a drop and then careful wiping after working the 'dirt' out of the joint by moving it from 'open' to 'closed' several times; and the other areas, small drops applied with an awl in strategic places. Working the action of that gun after reassembly made for marveling, as it worked much better than I had recalled the weapon I had cleaned formerly; and comparing it to the one I had first worked on had me pull that weapon to bits once more and then oil it correctly.

“This is probably not in any of the manuals,” I muttered, as I duplicated my second job of oiling on the first gun. “These things are really touchy about the right amount and grade of oil, so much so that those gas-pistons need to have small rings turned in them to hold both oil and 'dirt', and that in addition to the other things they need to have done to them that I thought of earlier.”

“See, you're learning,” said the soft voice. “That isn't the only place that needs places to 'hold' oil – the bolt does, also.”

“I thought so,” I said. “Higher grade materials, and...”

As I watched from what seemed an unusual perspective – I had somehow gone further away from the gun, such that my head was at least three feet higher than usually – my hands did their business on the second gun, but for some reason, the gun seemed to metamorphose in front of me. The barrel grew nearly eight inches in length, as did the gas tube and its supporting 'gridwork' that both shielded it from the barrel and added rigidity to the whole gun; this intricately-machined assembly came to nearly the front of the barrel, while the receiver changed slightly as to cross-section, with odd cutouts and much else that showed a drastic difference upon the inside.

“Looks like it would be a bear to make that way,” I thought, as the full-forged pieces showed themselves one by one, this in odd glowing colors with enhanced contrast, then as an assembly with small red dots showing special 'plated' regions where hardness needed to be especially great. I then saw a small circle on one of these red dots enlarge to the size of a dinner plate, and as letters circled about it to form 'documentation', I saw this shape as if the area in question was under an unusual microscope.

“That thing has no roughness at all,” I said. “It's almost as if the atoms that formed it were aligned specially in neat rows, all of them interlocked carefully with their electron-shells intermingled – almost like a fishnet, with the electron shells 'tied' together in a special fashion so as to achieve both unusual strength...”

Somehow, the technical terminology listed 'changed' into a language I knew something of, and seeing “Rockwell 'C' 72” followed by “1.3 X 10^6 yield number” and then “Fc = Nil” made for mental head-scratching. I then thought to ask.

“What does all of this mean?”

I was speaking as in a dream, for now I saw details of the feed mechanism, and calling this portion 'overkill' seemed grossly inadequate. Not merely did this weapon have an 'exponential' feed ramp, but also a shutter that one could retract to close the action and three small rollers to help the ammunition belts slide in smoothly – one long one underneath the belt as it came into the gun, and one on each end – while underneath the belt in the gun's receiver was a sprocket-roller and working on top of the belt were a group of five claws that pulled in the ammunition. The whole mechanism, intricate yet extremely rugged, worked in a peculiarly coordinated fashion to positively control both feeding the belt into the gun and then positioning the ammunition prior to chambering it, and then the sprocket-roller took the expended cartridge in an equally-controlled fashion and spat it out of the flared ejection point in the bottom of the receiver – which also had a reciprocating cover which only opened when it was 'time' to spit out a fired case. My viewpoint then went to the trigger group, and here, things became 'a bit much'.

The first portion was an unusually large trigger guard, one with not merely the trigger inside it, but also the safety, this accessed by flicking the thing with the tip of one's trigger finger. So far, things made sense completely, but when I saw the trigger itself, I gasped.

“That shape may be vaguely familiar, but all of that stuff inside of that machined piece of metal..?” I gasped again. “Ain't nothing on this thing that's stamped! Nothing!”

“Mostly because what presses you have will be very busy,” said the soft voice, “and you'll have a lot of machining centers. Then, you'll also have a lot of close-tolerance 'forging centers', and finally, this: if you must have a weapon that will work as intended no matter what, does it pay to cut any corners in its construction?”

“Of course not,” I said. “Why am I seeing this now, though?”

“Because you'll still need to fill in the blanks,” said the soft voice, “and more, when they read your mind overseas, what they will see will build a large and hot fire under them – which will really make them pay attention regarding what they need to do in the months to come.”

I then came back to the present, and to my astonished eyes, I had not merely reassembled the gun, but I had somehow found some of the 'spools' we had for them. Hans was holding a plastic-laminated three-folded piece of paper and looking at it intently, and Anna was looking just as intently at one of the 'spools'. She seemed to be admiring the shiny brass piece as if it were a piece of jewelry.

“You will need to make more of these things,” said Hans, “as according to this sheet here, they get bigger with use and cleaning, and so you want to put in a fresh one of the right size whenever they get too big.”

“Did they include, uh, gages?” I asked.

Anna held up what looked like a pin-vise, then said, “this one is for the gages. There is another like it that has things that look like reamers, only they're the smallest ones I've ever seen, and then there are a package of what might be drills, only these things have a shape that reminds me more of a strange screw than any drill I have seen you use.”

“Twist-drills?” I asked. The earliest drills I had seen in use here were what I had read of being used hundreds of years prior to my birth, and their resemblance to 'spades' here was enough to raise the hair on my head, while the ones that arrived with Albrecht's supplies had been both needing the lathe and a lot of special tooling to make harder and more-wear-resistant copies – someone had included the needed tools, thankfully, even if I had needed to first clean the various fixtures up, then replace some of the more-worn portions of the tooling and then make new cutters to replace the too-soft examples that had come in jumbled profusion – but also that type of bit worked much better for materials harder than the common types of wood used in the town's carpenter's shop.

They still had me longing for real drill-bits just the same – both real for their material, and real for functioning.

“At least I can make the material now,” I thought. I then realized just what Anna had found.

“Did they include any small, uh, pieces of brass?” I asked.

“There is a tin filled with them,” said Anna – who then held up a smaller 'tin' and shook it. The rattle spoke of 'hundreds' of 'spool-blanks'. “They seem to have holes started in the right places and are the right shape on the outside, so all I think you need to do is actually ream them to the correct sizes and shapes, and then the used ones can be cleaned up, gaged, and then reamed again – or so what Hans is reading seems to say.”

“It does say that, Anna,” said Hans. “Now, make sure none of that stuff that is like soot comes out of that pill there, as that will stick the gun when they cannot afford it.”

I came over to where Anna had the armorer's satchel, and looked at what she was indicating with her eyes. I held up the 'gages' and noted that not merely were they of a most-peculiar shape, but also that there were three portions to each such 'gage':

First, the actual 'gage' part. This was a ball-pointed mirror-polished 'wire' section nearly an inch long.

Secondly, a portion of the 'same' diameter, only this part was almost like an impossibly fine file, one cut much like a strange species of 'screw' or single-cut 'round' file. It was for 'cleaning up' spools – first removing 'carbon', and then any 'burrs' raised by the passage of hot powder gases. The latter were not particularly rare, which is why the usual for spools was to make them in the smallest size of a set and then progressively enlarge them into the next-largest size of a set according to either a schedule or by regular gaging – and the latter situation, while time-consuming, was preferred.

The third section went in the handle's 'collet', and was substantially larger, large enough that one could speak of it as being the gage's 'handle'. A milled flat portion on the 'handle' indicated its size, though the number of zeros after the decimal point told me this device was not measured in millimeters. It used some other unit of measurement, and I would need to use one of the micrometers I had 'confiscated' today to learn just how large it actually was.

The 'reamers' were laid out similarly: a ball-ended and slightly tapered 'starter' section, the reamer portion itself, and then a handle, while the drills had the drill portion and a 'handle'. These were indeed real twist drills, even if their overall dark green color looked very familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time. I wondered if the then-available 'chucks' could not hold the 'true' size of the various tools, and when I looked at the lathe, I suddenly knew.

“They used things like that!” I squeaked.

“Closer than you might think,” said the soft voice. “Theirs were a bit larger, quite a bit more rigid, significantly heavier, and driven by electricity of one kind or another – but in principle, yes.” Pause, then, “you could make 'spools' from scratch on that one, but I would wait a month or so before attempting to make any.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

There was no answer.

“I can give you something of an answer, possibly,” said Anna. “There are a lot of these things here, and Sarah tells me this is not the only one of these pouches.” A pause, then in a voice I had not heard Anna use before tonight, “these colors, and done this way?” She was indicating the satchel itself. “Is this for trying to hide oneself while traipsing out in the woods?”

“I think it might work, though most woodlots around here want lighter colors now,” said Hans. “I think those colors would work as they are if one was running around at night, though.”

“Or if one was in the woods of long ago,” said Sarah, as she came out of the privy. “Is Georg settled?”

“I think so,” said Hans. “I have him on a cot in the basement, as he needs looking after, and...” Hans looked at me, then said, “now, did you shoot out his door and window also?”

“I c-can't remember,” I said. “It's kind of hard to see his place from the street anyway, and...”

“Of all the people in this town,” said Anna, “I doubt there are many who are less full of themselves than he is, if one does not speak of those marked.” A pause, then, “I want to look at him closer before I send him off, as I had to bandage one of his fingers especially carefully after I cleaned it, and it looked strange then.”

Strange?” I asked. I then recalled what had happened to one of my fingers long ago. “What happened?”

“It looked like a bullet had taken the very tip of it off,” said Anna. “He was fighting for all he was worth until the witches were done just the same.”

“Not like what I saw that one time, Anna,” said Hans. “That is when your finger is missing a lot more, so much so that you no longer have a place for a fingernail.”

“No, just the very tip, as if the bullet had touched him but did not bite him much,” said Anna. “Now I am glad most of that lead is bagged up, but I hope we can dig it out of the walls soon, as this much lead in a house is most-unhealthy.”

“Uh, I think I can...”

“I think you'd best get to cleaning your pistols,” said Sarah. “I'll need to watch what you do closely, as I've a number of them to clean also before we start looking at some of what we brought home.”

Accordingly, I did so, though with the 'clockwork marvels', I did as I had done with those pistols earlier. The best method seemed to 'douse them with aquavit', let them sit upon rags, then dose them thoroughly with motor-oil, let them sit longer, then wipe and dose alternatingly while working the action until they came 'clean', and then dose them liberally with that blue oil and give them a final wiping – which made for a weapon that faintly glistened with oil and oozed a fair amount more of it if one worked the action.

“That should make them less inclined toward rust,” said Hans. “Now, if you can make up that other stuff, I would rub it on their outsides some before you get into the sea, as that place is bad for rusting.”

“Not merely, uh, iron things?” I asked. I suspected that place ate metal, for some reason.

“It rusts everything that is not wood,” said Hans. “It may not look like iron-rust for copper and things like that, but it acts like rust, and your metal goes to powder if you do not protect it good.”

“Goes to powder?” I squeaked. “What?”

“That is what it does,” said Hans. “I might have only gone on the ocean once, but I have talked to enough sailors in the last ten-year or so in the fourth kingdom market, and they spend every spare minute they have rubbing this stinky oil on things, that or cutting off the gum it makes so as to get at the metal beneath it when it has dried too thick.”

“Sounds familiar,” I murmured. “No paint, correct – mostly because there isn't any to be had that's worth the bother?”

“The stuff I have might be, and then it might not,” said Hans. “I am not sure what they use, as I have never seen it actually used, but it looks like that bad fish oil stuff.”

“It is that fish oil,” spat Sarah. “Now how did you do that?”

I had carefully untwisted the barrel bushing on the hand-howitzer, and with a second turn, the thing seemed to suddenly lever itself up in the strangest fashion – or so I thought until I saw what looked like a very coarse-threaded groove on the recoil-spring guide. I removed the bushing, looked inside of it – and there, I saw what not merely looked like a number of small fingers for where the barrel bore, but another longer projection for the recoil-spring guide itself.

“So that's how it locks in place,” I murmured, as I then slid the slide off forward, complete with the barrel and much else. “What?”

“Wait until you try to put it back together,” said the soft voice. “You'll want the manual then, and the same for those smaller pistols, also.”

“What..?”

“They were changed to that design, essentially,” said the soft voice. “The chief differences between the two are related to the size of the ammunition now.”

“Those smaller ones can be troublesome to hang onto,” said Sarah, “even if they point well and are easy enough to carry.”

“Try that hot-loaded stuff before you speak that way,” said the soft voice.

“I'll use that when I must,” said Sarah. “The other type is bad enough...”

As if in a dream, Sarah suddenly took up her pistol of that type, then went into the kitchen. She had not attached the suppressor for some reason, though when I heard a faint noise, I opened my mouth and my fingers found my ears. Anna was looking at me strangely until an ear-shattering roar seemed to make my brain rattle – a roar that was followed by the much-fainter screech of a rat.

“I think you might want to stop up that hole as soon as you can find rocks and mortar, Hans,” said Sarah. “I think that rat was a mother one, as it seemed very swollen in the after parts.”

“Yes, and where is it now?” asked Hans. “I have the manure-spade just outside the door here.”

“I am not sure, beyond it is not in here,” said Sarah. “I hit it, as I saw some blood, but I am not sure where I hit it, or how solidly.”

“Thing's probably kicking in its death-throes,” I mumbled.

“No,” said the soft voice. “It's just inside the hole, and it's dead as a corpse-box,” said the soft voice. “You'll wish tongs to remove it, as its head is a mess.”

“Best use the suppressor next time, dear,” I said quietly. “My ears are still ringing.”

Anna looked at me, then shrieked, “what?”

“He meant this, Anna,” said Sarah, as she held up the device in question.

“My ears have bells in them, Sarah,” said Anna. She was not only speaking louder than usually, but also in a markedly higher pitch – at least until she took up the 'muffler'. “At least I can read this... 'Rat poison'?” Anna turned, still holding the device in both hands; she then looked into the kitchen. She turned once more and put down the suppressor. “Hans, fetch that spade. This thing is making a big mess in here!”

While Hans 'vanished', Anna looked frantically, then ran out of the kitchen at a dead run and headed for the basement, her steps receding with a rapidity that astonished me. She was clearly after something of an important nature. Sarah then looked at me, then glanced in the kitchen, and shook her head when she once more looked at me. “We will need lye to clean up that mess, and I will be in the privy on account of it.”

“Uh, why?” I asked regarding the lye, as I suspected washing soap would work well enough. “Blood?” Hans was gone, obviously after the spade so as to deal with an oversized rat. What Anna was after seemed an utter mystery, at least until I heard steps coming up the basement stairs at a surprising rate.

“That and some gray stuff,” said Sarah. “That rat squirmed a bit out of the hole just after I shot it, or something else pushed it out.”

“Probably another rat that's interested in what we have in here, and uh, 'Big Momma' is blocking the way,” I said quietly as Anna showed with a sizable and somewhat stained cloth sack. “Best reload the shotgun in case we have trouble.

I put actions to my last words, swabbing out both barrels of the shotgun with aquavit before reloading the fired barrel and setting aside the empty shell in a small cloth bag, and as I laid the weapon down within easy reach, I resumed dismantling the pistol I had been working on. Hans and Anna had gone in the kitchen, Hans holding some odd-looking sizable tongs and Anna with the shotgun so as to provide 'cover' in case more rats showed.

While this pistol wasn't a 'clockwork marvel', it was sufficiently complex that I wanted the manual sooner rather than later; and once that portion dealing with routine maintenance of the book in question was in front of me, I realized that there were a number of places on these weapons where one wished to examine them with a magnifying glass, not only to ensure the parts were truly 'clean', but also to keep an eye out for any cracks or other damage that might be developing. I was glad the armorer's kit had a small one that folded up inside a metal 'shield', as I quickly put it to use a minute later.

“Given how hot these things seem to be loaded, that isn't surprising,” I thought, as I finished 'pulling the thing to bits' and then began carefully cleaning it with various rags dampened with aquavit. The aspect of 'hardened and ground' as well as 'aerospace-level precision' regarding its parts was so strong that I spat, “no wonder they did these things this way. They've got to handle rounds that would scatter ordinary pistols, and...”

And work as intended when a failure could mean death on the spot,” said the soft voice. “It isn't every day when you can hold in one hand a weapon able to stop a charging full-grown elk with one shot.”

“What?” I asked – and then wish I had not opened my mouth, for I seemed to be seeing a massive revolver of a most-unusual species, one made essentially one-at-a-time, a weapon intended for ammunition of an especially potent nature. Most people could not handle the recoil of these things where I came from; and while I had fired a 'lightly-loaded' version of what most – myself included – thought of as 'hand-held artillery', these pieces made those look weak and feeble.

My experience firing the revolver in question, even with that ammunition, spoke of it being anything but weak and feeble – even if that long-barreled piece was a bit more manageable than the hand-howitzer commonly was, at least when the revolver was loaded with those rounds. Both pistols wanted a firm grip with both hands, elbows slightly flexed, one foot slightly in front of the other, that forward knee bent ever-so-slightly so as to better control a weapon with substantial recoil. This stance was named after a species of triangle, its precise name forgotten even if that manner of firing pistols now seemed utterly burned into my brain. I'd used it when firing that hand-injuring pistol earlier, in fact – and while I had regretted the sensation in my hands for some time afterward, each time I'd fired, I'd hit the thug I'd been aiming at – and hit each one of them solidly.

The ghostly revolver I had just seen, however, was what was wanted – and needed – in locations where one might well encounter hungry bears, especially the huge and grizzled silver-tipped brown-furred giants known to found in places to the far north. Only one type of bear was clearly worse – and that varmint was a sickly yellow-white over most of its body, huge beyond imagining, and always hungry – and as for food, those ate anything they could catch in the far wastes of their icy home.

The first type of bear, on the other hand, tended to either have specific dietary preferences, or it tended toward indigestion when and if it tried to eat people. It merely turned them into pie-filling with its claws when and if it got wind of them, and saved its teeth for more-toothsome prey.

“I think not!” squeaked Sarah. “What were those things I just saw?”

“B-b...” There was no word for 'bear' in this language, or so I suspected, though suddenly a word of such outlandish nature came to me that I blurted it out before I could think about it.

Izaegrimm,” I squeaked.

“What is that word?” asked Sarah. “I doubt that word is in the Gustaaf.”

“It is, though it is one of those words that has nothing written beyond that word being from before the war,” said the soft voice. “More, there never have been such animals here, or so it is commonly thought.” Pause, then, “they were 'drowned' due to the witches of before the flood catching all of them and turning them into their 'guardians'.”

“Ah, so they will eventually come back,” said Hans from somewhere in the kitchen. He was obviously busy with a difficult-to-extract rat, if I went by his voice. “Now what are these things like?”

“Be glad you'll have proper hunting rifles then, as you will not wish to meet an animal that makes an elk seem easy to stop – a full-sized elk while said animal is in the mood, that is,” said the soft voice. “Pause, then, “only blood-maddened Iron Pigs are worse than an irate Izaegrimm – and those, if they were awake, were usually in that frame of mind.”

“Territorial, also,” I said. “Big territory, usually clawed up lots of trees and made dung against them so as to mark up its area, could grab full-sized oxen in its mouth and jump over walls twice my height as if the walls weren't there, and then they could teach tyrant lizards how to start fires by spitting or b-belching.” I then spat, “what?” as I nearly dropped both magnifying glass and the part I was examining, this being the cammed rotating portion that locked the barrel to the slide.

“Be glad where you came from only has pale shadows of what you just described,” said the soft voice. “Were those animals present there, they'd devour entire towns overnight – and not just the people, either. They'd eat everything of an edible nature, plants and animals, fowls and insects – and whatever happened to be in the grocery stores, also.” Pause, then, “and only Iggy was worse for flame-spewing than the ancient Izaegrimm of long ago.”

“Uh, Africa..?” So far, I'd not found any cracks or wear on the parts of this pistol. It made me wonder just how often one found damage in these things that meant replacing or repairing parts, even if the small lens was essential for proper cleaning and then oiling. It made me long for the hand-howitzer of long ago and its simple cleaning – strong recoil spring and leaping head-cutting recoil-spring button included.

“They'd be the big mean ONE over there,” said the soft voice. “Cape buffalo for before-meal snacks, elephants for dinner, and lions and leopards for appetizers – and rhinos for after-dinner snacks. That's for meals.” Pause, then, “for fun, they'd go into towns or native villages and set the places alight.”

I was getting the fear just hearing about these critters, especially when the world blanked for an instant and I saw one – a bear, this thing truly deserving the name 'horrible' – nearly eighteen feet tall while standing erect. It seemed to be imported straight from the book of Daniel, so fearsome was this creature – and when it walked, this upright as a rule, the ground actually shook if the one seeing this creature was nearby. It then 'flamed' – and the flaming 'spit-ball' shot nearly sixty feet downrange to turn an entire copse into a charred ball of ash-flecked branches in an instant's time. It then belched, and I was reminded of Iggy's fire – a long, luminous flame, this nearly thirty feet from the bear's mouth to its target, a flame that was both sooty and hot enough to incinerate almost anything of a burnable nature – and unlike Iggy, this thing could flame for several seconds at a time, just like a huge brown shaggy-furred ravenously-hungry flamethrower.

“That thing must have weighed tons,” I gasped. “It was h-h-horrible.”

“Yes, and this rat here is a proper mess,” said Hans, as he came out of the kitchen with a rag-wrapped bundle held in what looked like oversized wooden salad tongs. I'd not seen them clearly before, unlike now – and Hans had not seen what I had just seen, thankfully. It was odd to be so thankful he'd not seen the positive archetype of a truly 'horrible bear', that nightmare named Latin-wise 'Ursus Horibilus'. “I am glad I got these things here recently, as we will need them a lot in here.”

“What are those things?” I asked, meaning the 'salad tongs'.

“Rat-tongs,” said Anna tersely. “I hope I do not have to use this thing much, as I looked at what you put into it.”

“Uh, shells,” I said.

“Shells marked with an 'S'?” asked Anna. Her tone was remarkable as well as questioning. “'S' as in 'strong' or 'S' as in 'stiff'?”

What?” I gasped. “I did not see that when I put those shells in the gun.” Pause, as I then recalled yet another instance of inattention that had gotten me in trouble too deep to be called mere 'dung'. The word 'shit' did not come remotely close to the word 'dung' in this language, and I was surprised I even recalled it now. “Where is this letter?”

“The front of these brass things, where they're sealed up with some kind of candle-wax,” said Anna. Her tone was remarkable, and I had not heard its like before now from anyone on the face of two planets.

I looked in the pouch where I had removed the shell from, and the first three shells came up with no markings upon their red 'fiber-reinforced plastic' disks, but the forth one plainly had an 'S' imprinted in the 'fiber'. Another two came up blank, but then I found a second example marked with 'S', and when Anna removed the two shells currently in the gun to hand them to me, I saw that both of their 'fiber' closure pieces had that infernal 'S' marking showing a quarter inch high and seemingly hazed with a meaning too strong for mere 'words'. I wasn't sure as to what that meaning was – only that speech was inadequate. I was sure of that.

“I never saw that before,” I said. “Sarah, could you fetch one of those belts? Sarah?”

“I'm getting some of that moldy Kuchen dough to show Hans,” she said. “I've got some of that stuff that's solid white-thread here, and I found that one shortened fowling piece, the one we found in that drink-house place, and...” Pause, then, “here's what came with it. Why, does Anna want to use some stiff shot on rats?”

“N-no,” said Anna with a shuddery voice. “The regular stuff tears the place up badly enough to worry me, and he put two of these things in this gun marked with an 'S', and I'm not at all sure what that 'S' means.”

“Those are probably loaded up with stiff shot, then,” said Sarah. “We were told that some of these things had that stuff. Now how many... Ooh, here's that pouch. I found it.”

Sarah then came out with one of the pouches in which we had 'stuffed' the contents of that one sizable hidden 'drink-house' cache, and when she put it on the end of the table, she first drew out one of the ammunition belts, then a pair of the 'common' grenades – which she put on the table near its north end.

“That looks like what I'd want if I was to go out after game,” said Anna regarding the belt and its ammunition. “For rats, I'll try one of those pistols you used should I see another one.” A pause, then, “what does that one thing you spoke of do?”

“It makes the use of a pistol a much quieter matter,” said Sarah, “or so we were told.”

“Screw it on and try it on the next rat that shows,” I said. “I had no idea rats would be this common in here.”

“They have started, finally,” said Hans, as he returned from outside. “The house proper is going to have lots of those things in it, so you will want one of those pistols and those other things for your postings, if they are as quiet as Sarah said of them.” He then looked at what Sarah was doing: screwing the suppressor onto the pistol. She was finding it an easy matter, so much so that when she finished, she tried aiming the weapon.

“One wishes both hands when one of these things is attached, as otherwise the pistol attempts to escape from the hands before pulling the trigger.”

“I have plenty of rubbers for slingshots, though I am not much of a wood-carver as yet,” said Hans. “By the time I get those knives close, though, I might try the pieces for one of those things.”

“Better to have the carpenters make one if you're going to use it on rats,” said Anna. “We may wish two, so as to keep one handy in the kitchen, and we have plenty of pistol balls of hard lead now.”

“Why would the witches use those?” I asked.

“They were loading up their fowling pieces with them,” said Anna tersely. “I have wondered some as why we didn't find any guns.” A pause, then, “did any show..?”

“You did not look on the stoop recent, Anna,” said Hans. “I did as I was coming inside after tossing that rat on the manure pile, and there are stacks of guns out there, along with a lot of dirty cloth bags filled with these things that most people think are fit for bird-whistles.” A pause, then, “I know what they are for, I think.”

“What?” I asked.

“For guns like you used tonight to wake the town's people up,” said Hans. “Now let me guess... I think you can put new powder and bullets to those things after they are worked on some, and then use them again at least once more. Am I right?”

I was about to answer when we heard, “Yes, save those will be good for several such loadings, not 'once' more – and when they're no longer fit for reloading, then they can be melted down and shipped overseas to make their metal into new ones.”

“B-brass melting?” I asked. I'd heard a little more – mostly from Lukas – about how bad it was. It sounded like a recipe for sickness at best.

“In a special furnace, so you don't get any fumes or 'smoke',” said the soft voice. “The ingots will come out hot but not smoking, given the correct fittings for 'brass' or related materials.”

“Ingots?” I asked.

“Those fittings are used for processing 'special' metals, ones that either ignite upon contact with air while in a molten state, or those that give off toxic fumes – and the two groups of fittings are quite different from one another,” said the soft voice. “The one type is most useful for processing anything that uses gray-metal, as those attachments prevent the 'smoke' that's so common with 'brass' or other materials using that metal.” Pause, then, “that type of furnace isn't nearly good enough for aluminum or its alloys, and the same for some other materials you'll be using in the future.”

“F-flash-metal?” I asked. I then wondered just how I'd recalled its name, and more, just what it was. It sounded like a species of magnesium, though that metal here was probably not even close to the stuff where I came from.

It could be trouble there – I and many others been chased out of 'my' work area more than once by small-scale 'mag fires' while working at that one aircraft factory. Here, that material was probably a good deal worse.

“Is produced in a special environment, just like anything involving molten aluminum or titanium,” said the soft voice. “All of those materials are processed entirely in inert gas mixtures, which necessitate breathing apparatus and 'space suits' for those performing work in such environments.” A pause, then, “flash-metal is used in those 'firebombs', among other a number of other materials needing special environmental conditions to handle with any degree of safety.”

My hands had been busy enough while hearing all of this and asking questions of various individuals, so much so that when I once more gave my attention to the pistol parts, I found that I had not merely cleaned a large percentage of them, but that I was now ready to actually clean the barrel itself. This proved something of a conundrum, as the powder fouling in this barrel was but slowly dissolved by aquavit, and only swabbing with first aquavit and then 'motor oil' seemed to get rid of it. I looked in the barrel, and soon had an intimation as to why.

“Rough barrel?” I asked.

“That's normal with those when they're new,” said the soft voice. “The usual was to shoot a hundred rounds through such weapons prior to their being 'released' to soldiers, but since these were 'civilian' weapons at the time of their original sale, that was specified in their documentation.” Pause, then, “ask it to become 'suitable'.”

I did, this softly, and the barrel shook so hard I nearly dropped it while my vision momentarily blurred. My eyes then refocused upon it, and I gasped.

“It's got that strange 'speckled' finish on it now, and both on the outside and...”

“Look on the inside, also,” said the soft voice. “You'll not only get about ten to fifteen percent more 'punch' out of that gun, but that finish will also make the barrel a lot easier to clean and the pistol a good deal more 'reliable'.”

“T-ten to f-fifteen percent?” I gasped. It was hard enough to hold onto as it was. “M-more reliable?”

“That weapon is now done to 'late-war' specs,” said the soft voice, “save done with no shortcuts. Hence, it is now an 'ultimate' weapon.” Pause, then, “the ones you have can easily be 'treated' so as to make them like it, so I'd have that done as soon as you can manage it.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“First, they will be about ten times as durable,” said the soft voice, “then, they're 'more reliable' – as in they'll tolerate dirt and fouling a lot better – and finally, they'll give more velocity with the same ammunition.”

“This f-finish?” I asked.

“Recall what you saw involving the letter combination Fc?” asked the soft voice. “That 'treatment' not only radically increases strength and hardness, it also reduces the coefficient of friction drastically.” Pause, then, “that treatment usually gave ten to fifteen percent more velocity in pistols. The gain in long guns was significantly higher, with the greatest gains in weapons like those you found in that one cabinet.”

“Those?” I asked. “As in they shoot like ray-guns?”

“No, they don't achieve relativistic speeds,” said the soft voice. “Those come later, and you'll be glad to have them when you find them needed.”

“Ray-guns?” I asked.

“Not as you might have seen in movies,” said the soft voice. “These weapons will not merely behave quite a bit differently compared to what you might recall, but also be far more destructive.”

“How much...”

I ceased speaking, for as if my mind was a video player, I seemed to see a scene from one of the movies in question, one where one character shot at a white-garbed 'person'. He missed the individual in question, instead hitting a wall next to him. The white-garbed character had his own weapon, and uninjured by the 'shot' that made a smoking place on the wall, he shot back.

The scene vanished, then seemed to replay, at least up to the point where the one character fired at the white-garbed 'armored' person.

A sudden bolt of 'lightning' struck the spot where the white-garbed 'human tank' had been standing, and when the thick gray smoke cleared seconds later, not only was he not there, but the wall looked like it had been hit by a sizable high-velocity artillery round. More importantly, about twenty other white-garbed 'human tanks' who had been standing in the hallway behind him had been either tossed for some distance or torn apart by the 'artillery shell', and when I saw another 'lightning bolt' rip up the corridor with the crackling sound of lightning, I knew the rules of this particular game had changed so drastically that the white-garbed 'human tanks' had best give it up and run for their machine-driven lives.

“That...”

“You'll be glad for those weapons when what you just saw happens in real life,” said the soft voice, “and those 'human tanks' in the second instance were not the characters from the movie you once saw, even if they did look to be similar.” Pause, then, “you'll hear something about them in a few days.”

As I cleaned the rest of the parts that remained and then oiled them, I noted subtle – or less-than-subtle – changes wrought upon them. There were quite a few 'treated' parts in this pistol now, with some of them 'faced' with what looked to be a silver-bronze 'bearing' alloy that barely allowed my file to bite when I touched it, and in a number of other places – the slide especially – that part had received an obviously different heat-treating regimen and and overall 'treatment', as it now had that strange mottled gray-black finish the rifles had. I realized that those weapons had had 'the full treatment', and these had originally had the 'mostly' treatment, as indicated for a sidearm that needed 'absolute' reliability but wasn't intended to cope with a lot of use between cleanings.

“No, more like 'you can put enough ammunition through those things that you can clean them now and then do it again when you get home from the trip,” said the soft voice. “That, realistically, is several magazines, and the same for those smaller ones – though they'll receive more use, by and large. Those named Tossers... There's a reason you want 'a pair and a spare' with those, as sometimes having three full-loaded pistols comes in very handy in a melee situation involving a lot of dumb-as-bricks functionaries.”

I was not looking forward to the reassembly of the pistol, but the 'reworking' of many of its parts made much of that reassembly far less of an ordeal, or so I suspected. Only the last portion, that being twisting the barrel bushing into its fully-locked-in-place – it now had a mottled 'bronze' coating on the inside on the fingered collet, such that now it that gripped the barrel 'tightly' when the weapon was 'in battery' – proved truly difficult, and I had to carefully read – and then re-read – the description of how to do that task before I accomplished it successfully.

“Almost want special tools for it,” I murmured, as I slipped it into place after the third attempt.

“Keep that thought in mind,” said the soft voice. “If you can make those special tools double as portions of the weapon's cleaning kit and they make maintaining the weapon a simple and easy matter, then you'll want to include them.”

“As in use them for a cleaning rod handle?” I asked. “A general purpose handle that has places to receive shanks with drive-pins, a group of screwdriver-bits, and a ball-bearing attachment for that handle that can ratchet?” I asked. “Oh, also make that cleaning kit a universal one, one that works on all of the issued small-arms, and finally include some extra tools that are useful in general, like a small knife and a few of those escape-proof bottles, and sew up the whole thing into a tool-pouch with organizing things so that it's part of a soldier's 'kit'?”

There was a silence, this being 'upwards of half an hour', though in reality, it might have been seconds as my now-well-taught hands pulled the first smaller pistol to bits and silently asked it to become as suitable in all of its pieces as well. The pieces glowed blue for what seemed seconds, and as I picked them up, I noted that now, merely wiping them with a rag dampened in that bluish oil sufficed to clean it 'perfectly'.

“Given that I did not fire it tonight, that's not surprising,” I thought. “Sarah's will have some dirt.”

The similarities between the various weapons were of sufficient magnitude that as I reassembled my smallest pistol, it went together faster; the second weapon of that type faster yet, and when I came to Sarah's, my hands had seemed to have learned their business, such that five minutes each at the outside seemed required to bring them to a fragrant-smelling state of 'clean' and ready for more death-dealing.

In each instance, I asked them to become 'suitable', and all of their parts changed to a lesser or greater degree. However, as I put them together, I had a distinct intimation: those that could do such treatment across the sea could improve all of our pistols that way, as well as our machine pistols; and with each such weapon recovered, it could and would be 'gone through' as people had time and energy.

After all, even once we put down the major networks and then denied them to the enemy, and took out the multi-layered multitudes of interface personages, there were still more than enough dumb-as-bricks functionaries remaining on the premises to cause a lot of trouble for the citizens; and they would continue to show often enough for the citizens to need to shoot and kill every stinking one of those blue-suited people – and the same for those 'spy' types – they encountered. Hence, arming the citizens was a very good idea, at least until the functionaries retreated to their 'lairs' and utilized some kind of discretion.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Those people will only utilize discretion when they are on the dinner plate of Brimstone, which means all of those people on the premises that show themselves are going to need killing.” Pause. “Their weapons will be confiscated and then turned against them in addition to those that you find and distribute in the process of taking the place.

“But what if...” I was thinking that I would not find the needed weapons quickly enough to arm the entire populace.

“You won't need to actually find the caches,” said the soft voice. “If you can get inside the places where they are hidden and find a map that shows where many of the 'hidden' caches are, then enough people can be armed 'well enough' that they'll travel in packs and ambush every functionary that shows himself.” Pause, then, “after all, their growing mediums can use real fertilizer, same as the fields around here can, and functionaries work fully as well that way as do witches and the varied species of supplicants.”

“And their garments can be readily reprocessed,” I murmured, as I finished the last of the pistols and then looked for Sarah. She was 'gone' again, though if I went by the noises coming from somewhere nearby, she was after more 'moldy kuchen dough', among other things. Hans, however, had taken an interest in the 'common' grenades that she had but partly hidden at the end of the table, and he was looking closely but not touching them.

Anna, however, was looking at them also, and muttering about bombs fit for witches – as in 'these things look like what that witch-soldier was about to toss, and I don't much care for the resemblance'. She then had a question.

“What, exactly, are these?”

“Bombs, Anna,” said Sarah, as she came out with another of those satchels. “I'm onto many of the others in this pile, though I suspect many of those we must look at tonight are up in his room.”

“Why up there?” asked Anna. “The moon? It's too bright for him to sleep?”

“That especially,” I said. “Thank God for dark goggles, as I'd never sleep without them with a moon like that. I needed dark goggles for sleep where I came from, moon or no moon – and that in a darkened room.” A pause, then, “a few more weapons, some of which just need some maintenance, and others which need such work and a brief explanation.” A pause, then, “I'd best go fetch a rocket and its launcher first, and then this one rifle that I have not had a chance to test yet.”

“Before tonight ends, you'll have such a chance, as while the big groups of witches are gone where they belong, there are some individuals and small groups that are slowly moving toward the ford of the Main so as to cross it,” said the soft voice. The tone was one of 'finality', as if these were indeed the last of the witches that had once called the first kingdom their own.

“They will have their smelly hides aired out proper there,” said Hans with a tone I had but seldom heard him use prior to the last two days. “They have three twenties on each side for that place, and they have dug these places with roofs so as to hide good, and then they have bombs there that make most of what my grandfather taught me to look worthless.”

“Oh, that can be rectified,” I said. My voice was eerily calm, with a trace of a chill I had but heard a few times before – and never – no, not once – prior to my showing here. “Now, since we have a manual for lunatics in process, perhaps we need another one for catching rats.” Those rats that had shown tonight had most likely inspired my choice of title – or so I suspected.

“Yes, and I will be glad of it,” said Hans – who then did the fastest 'double-take' I had ever seen him do, and said, “now I think you were not speaking of rats that have fur to them, but another kind of rat. Is that true?”

I nodded, then said, “Rattus Brimstonicus, otherwise known as the various and sundry flavors of witch and those fools who are inclined similarly.” Pause. “The ones we will be encountering in the future will either be as commonplace as rats in spring, or they will be as tricky as those huge things were at the Abbey that had me breaking my club yesterday and cracking it badly today, and in all such cases, they'll need substantial insight into their nature and way of life so as to more effectively send them all where they belong.”

Hans nodded, this grimly while seeming to think; only then did he actually speak. “If you are stupid about your enemy, he can do with you as he wants, and do his trouble when and where he wants to do it.” A pause, then, “I got told that as I was about to drop my hair that I had grown while eating grass in hell, and since that time, I have begun to see its sense.”

“Good that you have seen some sense, then,” said Sarah, “as I have some things here that wish care, sense, and more care yet.” A pause, then, “everyone calls this stuff moldy kuchen dough, but it is not that stuff, and then these other things that were kept separate from them...”

“Yes, and what are those?” asked Hans. “Are they some kind of bomb?”

“They are that,” said Sarah, “and more, one that is easily tossed, even if they are not tossers for either function or much else.” A pause, then as Sarah looked at me with a sideways glance, “everyone except him calls those things metal pears.”

“Why do they call things made of metal as if they were pears?” asked Anna.

“Wait until you see one,” said Sarah, who then brought out a malodorous gray 'brick'. “Now here is the more-common species of dough we found. We have caps of a strange nature that need no fuses...”

“I hope they are not witch-caps,” said Anna with a trace of fear. “You did not find any, did you?”

“Yes, three old ones, though these were not cursed save by the handling of their long-dead owner,” said Sarah. “Those curses wore off when that deep-hole went, but I am thinking to present them across the sea so we can get more of those things, as they do not have liquid death and yet take fuse.”

“Ah, so they will keep good,” said Hans. He then said, “I am hoping I get that recipe before I do up much more of the usual cap-mix, as I think I want one of those suits to wear should I use liquid death again, and no mistake.”

“And I wish one for lye of any kind,” said Anna. “I shall wish to be looked at once those people from across the sea come in enough numbers, as being made that sick by lye means trouble, and more than just 'I have trouble with lye'.”

“You'll wish that kind of examination anyway,” I said.

Anna nodded, so much so that I wondered: did she know? Did today teach her of a certain matter? She then looked down at her feet, and said, “I'm glad my foot stopped bleeding when it did, as that witch-dagger removed my smallest toe where it joins my foot, and there was no time to hunt a bandage up then.”

What?” squeaked Hans. “A-Anna! What happened to you so as to be hurt like that?”

“I was fighting witches, Hans,” said Anna. “You saw how I looked when you came home, and I did not see how badly I was hurt that way until I bathed the first time and saw that my toe had been cut off. I prayed my very hardest when I saw where my foot was bleeding, and it stopped both hurting and bleeding right then, which was a good thing.”

“Y-you're m-marked,” said Sarah – who spoke as if she knew what might happen now. “I would be very careful with what I did now, and not speak about this to anyone, and...”

“Yes, I know,” said Anna. “I'll need to bandage the place better tonight, and pray again that it heals swiftly, but yes, now I am that.” A pause, then, “I just hope I can live up to what will be expected of me, and I hope I endure long enough to accomplish what I have been given to do.”

To hear such talk from Anna was so astonishing that I seemed transported, and only when an intense reek induced a churning in my gut did I 'come back to the present'. There, my eyes focused once more – and the object upon what they focused was in Anna's hands. This object was a gray rectangular brick wrapped in plastic, and it was the source of that profound and nauseating odor.

She was looking at this 'brick' as if consumed by interest, and it made me wonder: would she use it with effect upon our enemies, or merely advise Hans in its use?

“Either way, the witches are in trouble now,” I thought. Anna then surprised me again.

“This may look like moldy Kuchen dough, and bad dough at that, and even smell a bit like moldy Kuchen dough, but it is no such dough,” said Anna. “What is this stuff?”

“A most-potent explosive, much like mining dynamite, only far less touchy,” said Sarah. “More, if one works it in the hands while wearing these special gloves we found, it softens up to a degree, and then it becomes a bit sticky, so that one may apply it to things like the underside of coaches.”

“Complete with a cap and pull-igniter,” I said, “with the string tied discretely to one of the spokes on the wheels. When our witch leaves, up he goes, riding the smoke.”

“He and his fellows, then,” said Hans, “as that is not shooting a coach. That is like putting dynamite to those things, and they go up good then.” A pause, then, “and I think I saw something like that tonight, as the whole sky to the west went white for a slow count of three.”

Sarah then brought up another bag – she needed both hands to carry it – which seemed a signal. I went upstairs, this to find the large rifle and its ammunition, and while it took me some minutes to find the rifle's case and a box of ammunition, the muffled exclamations I heard – mostly involving pears, their colors, their shapes – and how seeing pears made of metal seemed a bit much for Hans and Anna to readily endure.

At least, this was my thinking when I came down with the rifle in its case and one of the medium-sized camouflaged bags with some of its supplies. I had found more than just its ammunition, as I wanted to clean this rifle as well as I possibly could prior to assaying its use.

“They may look like pears for their shape, but they are not pears, Hans,” said Anna – who then turned to Sarah. “Now you said these are worse than witch-jugs, even those that Willem is now loading up – no, those things are not jugs he's doing, at least they are not jugs for size.” A brief pause. “Those are ink-globes, much like some things you-all have done and I've blundered my way through either trying to help or more likely causing trouble.”

A tap came at the door, and Sarah left off what she was doing and ran toward the sound. I could tell just who our visitor was: Tam.

Sarah opened the door, and from without, the noise – a low hum of activity, much like a far-distant mountain-sized beehive – was astonishing.

“I had to shoot some slackers,” said Tam calmly, “cause I heard about how anyone not solidly behind this work and the one who wants it done will be solid against that person later, so I whip 'em once, and if I see 'em slacking again, I shoot 'em, and that no matter who they are.”

“G-good,” said Anna. To hear her say such things was enough to nearly make me drop what I was carrying. “Those people are probably witches coming through town after the big mobs that tried to kill all of us.”

“Yep,” said Tam. “I know that.” He came closer, saw Anna's bandages, then for some reason, he looked at her feet. “I can tell you about missing toes, seeing as how I lost two of mine to an Iron Pig.”

“Y-you can?” asked Anna. “Why, w-what will happen?”

“Thought so,” said Tam. “I heard about what you and Georg did. Now him, I'm not surprised, seeing as how he recently lost family to witches, and he was an up-and-coming cannon-master when that pig near-killed him, but you – I didn't know you had that much in you.”

“She was hurt badly enough to need prayer,” said Sarah, “and a witch spiked her toe to the floor when he threw his dagger down after being shot with a musket.”

“He what?” squawked Tam – which was a new one for me. I laid my burdens upon the table, and began to find space for the rifle. I now knew it needed both the best level of cleaning I could manage and a dose of that blue oil in the right places, though I suspected the tools present in the bag would make that easy – once I managed to assemble its cleaning rod.

“I could always use mine,” I thought as I began to look for the 'cleaning kit' for the weapon. “It's about long enough to work.”

“The one for this weapon is nearly a foot longer when assembled, coated with that green coating, a good deal stronger – and a bit easier to assemble,” said the soft voice. “Just swab out the barrel and action with that blue oil, put a dry patch through the bore, wipe dry the chamber, and you're ready to see just how it works. I'd try it shortly, in fact.”

I looked up to see Hans grinning. He was looking at not merely one of the 'metal pears', but also a device that I'd but heard about. Before him was a plastic-encased sheet, and next to it, with its tag still in place, was a 'rigging fuse'. Anna was looking in another satchel, even as I put together the sections of the cleaning rod and wondered if I had a bottle of that blue lubricant handy – at least until Sarah pointed one out to me.

“Good,” I said. “Now to clean this thing out like I was told to, and then...”

“You'll want to try the fields to the east,” said Tam, as I dipped a patch and ran it into the bore. It went in surprisingly easily, and not three minutes later, I was disassembling the cleaning rod, the gun now clean and oiled, its massive five-lug bolt back in the receiver. I then reached into the bag and found one of the boxes of ammunition. It seemed to open of its own accord, the cloth blowing back in an unseen wind. I glanced about the room, my hair seeming to raise up with static as it grew another inch in length while I touched the first of these 'evil-looking' cartridges.

“Those things are strange,” said Sarah, indicating the contents of the small 'varnished' box.. “They have these blue points to them, and...”

I was now slipping cartridges into the magazine one at a time, with the bolt back against its stop. Tam was watching me closely.

“You use one of those before?” he asked, as I slipped another round into the weapon's internal magazine. I could feel something 'winding up' inside, even if each round fed in smoothly and easily.

“Exactly like this one, no,” I said. “Not here, anyway.” A pause, then, “I have used rifles that were similar to this one, however – and...”

I'd put five rounds in, and paused with a sixth in my fingers. I suspected it would not fit, and while it didn't go into the magazine, I was able to close the bolt on it. I did so slowly, feeling carefully the 'fit' of the cartridge into the chamber, and as I pulled the bolt gently down into the 'fully closed' position, the receiver and that portion of the barrel nearest it went gauzy to show me just how the cartridge fit.

“Just right,” I murmured appreciatively. “It's got about two inches of freebore, then the bullet eases its way into the rifling, and that rifling gains twist all the way to the muzzle – which is protected by that, uh, assembly on the end.” I then had a question, even if I had something of an idea as to what that assembly at the tip of the barrel did: it either reduced the flash signature, or it reduced the recoil.

“Where did they get that idea?” I meant the idea of 'easing' the bullet into the rifling as I had briefly seen. I'd do that with any breech-loading rifled weapon I had a hand in after seeing it done on this example.

“Partly from intercepts, and mostly from a fairly lengthy period of experimentation,” said the soft voice. “You'll be surprised to learn just what they got in the way of intercepted information about what you just loaded.”

“I think we might want to go out back,” said Anna. “Hans, the ear-corks. I think we shall want them.”

“Uh, this thing will be loud?” I asked. I almost wanted to say 'Duh, of course it's going to be' – though what I had meant by 'loud' was not 'rifle-loud'.

I had meant 'hot-loaded cannon-loud' – and I had not been meaning 'cannons like Willem's', either. I meant ones used in that war long ago here, or perhaps some I'd read about but never actually seen in physical form where I came from – large-bore guns, ones loaded such that their projectiles traveled at 'unbelievable' speeds and their multi-piece barrels needed frequent replacement.

“Yep, as I've read about those things in some old tales,” said Tam – who then looked at Sarah. “You read about some shooters?”

“I did,” said Sarah, “but I could never get anything close to an answer.” Pause, then, “is that what they meant?”

“I think so,” said Tam. “I found this old piece of scrap metal once about two ten-years ago, and I shot the witches who tried for me when I found it.” Pause, then, “they'd been following me for a while, I suspect, but I put some lead in all of them.” Tam then drew his knife – one that gave me the chills, as it was one of my most-recent examples.

“I wished I had one this good when I cut those people's throats,” he said appreciatively. He then looked once more at the rifle while I was 'adjusting' its stock to where it looked 'close'. I'd finish that adjustment once I was 'in position'. He smiled faintly, then continued.

“I put that thing I'd found in some smelly distillate for a week straight, another dose of distillate each day so that stuff stayed stinky the whole time, and it came apart on me once I'd done that and took a bronze-headed hammer to it.”

“Yes, and what did it look like?” asked Hans.

“Like what he just put one o' those brass things in,” said Tam. “It had these little pieces on the end, a handle like that there” – here, Tam pointed to the bolt-handle – “and then it had a cutout like that there. The wood parts had rotted away long ago, or so I suspected then.” Pause, then, “I know better now.”

“You want to try this thing?” I asked, picking up the rifle.

“I might, and then, I might not,” said Tam. “I've heard o' those things that can bite, and that there just might be one of them.”

“What I used earlier?” I asked. I meant the machine gun. Tam had most likely seen me use my club – and I suspected he'd like a copy when and if they became available, as while he wasn't nearly as 'big' as I was, he had used clubs before, and I suspected he'd broken them, also.

“I know about those from the Valley's people,” said Tam. “They might not be the most-common things there, but if you run into a bunch o' long-haired Veldters...” Tam then did a double-take, and spat, “you got hair long enough to be one o' those people!”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “Those blue-dressed thugs across the sea will not like me much for having hair that is so long, as they have their hair shaved regularly, just the same as if they were slaves of long ago.” I then squeaked, “what?”

“That I can speak of,” said Sarah. “The sign of a witch's power was in the length of his or her hair, and those slaves the witches of long ago owned were not allowed to keep any hair upon their heads whatsoever, so that it made them weak.”

“And, uh, those named m-monsters?” I asked gently, as I moved around the table. For some reason, I could readily carry this rifle now, even if it was not one I'd want to carry long distances on foot without resting on a schedule.

“Every one o' those people had hair like yours,” said Tam with another smile. “I think you're right to keep it, as if you go down into the third kingdom, those people have heard plenty about Veldters with long hair, and they might think you one o' them.”

“Not dark enough, though,” I said. “No, uh, sun-burn.”

“I've seen plenty of those people who looked like they worked indoors a lot,” said Tam. “That don't mean much at all with those people, as they do lots o' their work at night.”

“Just like I do,” I said. Again, I wondered at what I was saying, and more, just why I was saying it in that particular way, especially as I wasn't trying to do so deliberately.

While my voice had occasionally had a measure of chill before – now... Now, it was so far beyond 'cold' that it was again making my hair seem to raise up in the air like Rachel's had when I had seen her write with both hands.

My hand was upon the bathroom door, the rifle now in the other. It seemed to have lost more weight, such that now, I could not merely carry it for miles if I had to – at a rapid pace – but also...

“I wish I had a third hand, as I could use some, uh, ear-corks right now,” I thought.

“Hans should show with some ear-corks shortly,” said Anna. She was right behind me, and for some reason, I knew she'd picked up one of the rifles we had leaning against the wall of the kitchen. I hoped it was one we'd cleaned and oiled, though when I opened the outer door, I heard a noise that nearly made me jump.

A chorus of bolts were drawn back and released, almost as if I was going to have company on the firing line.

“That was not a good idea, Anna,” said Sarah. “Did you see him..?”

“Yes, and I'll be sure to speak before I do that again, Sarah,” said Anna. “I just hope I can do my part.”

I then heard another such noise, this one singly as I softly walked upon the stones of the pathway. I wanted that one particular spot I had used long months ago when I had tried out another rifle, and as I came to that spot, I turned to see Hans silhouetted in the doorway.

He had a rifle in his hands, and something else in his teeth, this being the leather thong of a bag. He came quickly, handing his rifle to Anna, and then opened the bag.

“Hans, you'll need to put those in my ears,” said Anna. She was barely whispering, and for some reason, I thought the door closed.

It did so like lightning, though I could hear nothing as the light from within the house suddenly shut off as if by a switch.

“Good that you did that,” said Tam. “I'll spot for you-all, as I think I want some teachin' before I try one of those there.”

“Come to the house proper when it is time,” said Sarah cryptically.

“Oh, I will,” said Tam. “I got that planned good.” A pause, then, “they're out here. I can feel 'em.”

I leaned the rifle against the wall, my bare foot under its stock, then took a pair of the 'ear corks' Hans gave me. As I inserted them, I asked silently that they become 'suitable' – and for some odd reason, I could clearly feel a change happening.

“I hope I can get these back out after this,” I thought.

“You'll be able to,” said the soft voice. “They now have small 'handles' on them, and will need careful orientation prior to insertion from now on.”

“J-just like that one...”

“Similar in concept, different material, and a lot more effective,” said the soft voice. “Show those to the people overseas when you get a chance, and they'll make more of them.”

“Only good for one use?” I asked. I then wished to say 'Duh'.

“In your case, no,” said the soft voice. “They'll last long enough.” A pause, then, “normally, given proper formulation and sizing, that type of earplug was good for some months of daily use prior to the war.” A pause, then, “they'll still need sizing that often now, but they'll last much longer – so much longer, in fact, that only loss will mandate their replacement once those people are able to make them.”

“Able as in 'permitted',” I thought, as I once more took up the rifle and nestled into that one special spot I had used twice before since I came here. After adjusting the stock carefully, I reached my eye toward the eyepiece of the 'scope', and placed my hand atop it, much as if I were gently caressing it.

The darkness fled to be replaced by a bright-as-noon scene, one where the targeting crosshairs seemed to both find everything I was looking to see in sharp focus. I could see a line of witches, these people moving slow, cautiously, using cover when and as it became available, much as if they realized that now they were indeed hunted.

“Not even animals,” I whispered, as I gently took the safety off and the crosshairs found what looked like a pack of some kind. “Things.”

My finger touched the trigger, knowing that this one would break readily, cleanly, and most of all, predictably. I found my face against the upper beam of the stock, the rifle becoming one with my body, focusing down into a single task.

That was what I did best. Here, it actually was an advantage.

I'd had enough practice shooting by now that I didn't have to think about anything beyond keeping the crosshairs on what I was aiming at, and with the slightest trace of a smile, I took up the tension in the trigger. I could feel the mechanism 'set', such that now it would take but ounces of further pressure, and suddenly, I felt – and heard – a roar unlike anything I'd ever endured before as the rifle recoiled hard against my shoulder.

I was somewhat prepared for that.

I was not prepared for what happened by the time I'd recovered from the recoil, however.

A sizable white flash suddenly erupted where the 'line' of witches had been, and then, from what seemed everywhere, other white flashes blasted forth like tiny flashbulbs. I could feel concussion waves to each side of me as I worked the bolt and the cartridge came out onto a rag that someone had put under my hands.

“How did that get there?” I asked.

“Sarah put it under you while you were getting ready,” said the soft voice – who implied that she'd been told to do so. “I'd get ready, as there's another witch-party that's now running about thirty degrees to your left.”

I turned in that direction, and again, under the bright-as-noon full-color glossy picture the scope showed, I could see a straggling mob of witches, these people running. Again, I found another pack on the back of a witch, this witch perhaps being one of the 'leaders' of this sizable mob, and fired.

This time, I had a chance to actually watch this particular mob of witches be 'blotted out' as the three sticks of fused dynamite detonated, even if the flash was far smaller – and much redder – than I had expected it to be.

The witches still dropped as if scythed down by the grim reaper himself.

“That wasn't dynamite,” said the soft voice. “That was a bottle of smelly distillate – smellier than that which is common on Houtlaan, in fact, as it was not intended for lanterns, but for starting fires as a diversionary tactic.”

“It exploded?” I asked. “Then why did...”

“It was a sizable, thick-walled, and heavily-cursed bottle of distillate,” said the soft voice. “Recall what happened when you hit that buggy with that first bottle you tossed? How it was just a common wine-bottle filled with water? Then, do you recall what can happen if distillate is hit by a high-velocity projectile – especially if it's smelly distillate?” A pause, then, “the splinters from that bottle might as well have been those of one of those 'pills' you filled regarding how deadly they were to the witches and supplicants of that group.”

Again, I could feel the steady 'thumping' of concussions from both sides. Everyone with a rifle was shooting, though I could tell all of those doing so were taking their time and aiming their shots. I then noticed how much I was hurting.

“I thought this would hurt more,” I thought.

“You aren't shooting pig-loads,” said the soft voice, “and then, that stock is designed to spread the force of recoil especially well, and finally, that 'thing' on the end isn't merely a most-effective flash-suppressor.”

“It reduces the recoil?” I asked. “A muzzle brake?”

“It does, though far less than what you might think,” said the soft voice. “By the way, that second shot was nearly three miles away, and the first one more than two miles.”

I nearly fainted upon hearing this, and only my sense of 'movement' to the right caused me to not actually 'drop' what I was doing. Here, I saw another straggling swarm, this one the largest yet; and once more, I aimed at a pack on the back of a witch.

One pack among a great many, as these people were like mules for load-carrying, and their unusual 'wobbling' gait had me wondering until I once more fired.

The wait this time was long enough that I could count to 'five' slowly before a sudden eruption of brilliant white light 'washed out' the view through the scope. It cleared an instant later, and as I took my eye away from the eyepiece, I muttered, “I must have hit something really cursed out there, as I can see a big purple mess.”

“A cache of 'big ones' went up right under that dynamite-carrying individual,” said the soft voice, “and all of those thirteen shells were especially cursed.” A pause, then, “that 'group' of witches had three of those smelly Thinkers from Norden in it.”

Three?” I gasped.

“There are no more Thinkers in the on the continent at this time,” said the soft voice, “and that group of Norden's people was the largest one north of the second kingdom port.”

“How many..?”

“About half of them for the first kingdom,” said the soft voice, “and most of the remaining datramonium went up when they did, as the existing areas planted with that plant are sequestered closely behind tall stone fences in the second kingdom.”

I was surprised to hear this. I was more surprised yet to hear the next portion.

“Datramonium does not exist in the third kingdom, due to a long-standing royal edict,” said the soft voice, “hence the first kingdom's plants must supply all of the datramonium to Norden's people.” A pause, then, “figure on the vast majority of the remaining people from Norden north of your initial destination becoming too sick to move before you leave for the trip.”

“They'll, uh, die then,” I said.

“That happens later,” said the soft voice, as the concussions slowly petered out to each side of me as the last of the 'migrating' witches within range found their true homes – that particular place where they truly belonged.