New clothing, eh?

Annistæ came back a short time later, only instead of her 'makeshift' clothing, she now had the full suite: clothing much like Anna's, save cut to fit her; her laboratory coat, this altered to fit better; some clothing in a bag, which proved to be something similar to overalls; and then finally, a cleaning apron, one similar to what I had seen Esther wear when I first saw her. Deborah's clothing was done similarly, but when I looked Annistæ in the clear bright light of 'the white room', I saw the following.

Save for her medium brown shoulder length hair, slightly wider shoulders, thinner waist, and perhaps an inch difference in height, the resemblance to Anna was absolutely uncanny. More, here I saw more scars than I had before, most of these being the result of well-healed bullet wounds, with many narrow scars indicating she'd been sliced on by blades.

“You are next,” she said to Graćiella. “They are working on your first suite of clothing, and this is special clothing, as it has places to hold pistols and knives inside it so they do not show outwardly.”

“It does?” I asked.

, and the things for holding them are changeable, so I can carry different weapons easily,” she said. “I have this one here” – here, she drew her revolver – “though it could stand some repairs...”

“He can do that, all right,” said Sarah. “Now those larger pistols like that one remind me of dragoons, and I think I may wish to take one...”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “I'll take one also, as I somehow suspect having that kind of a pistol is definitely be useful against bad functionaries and large rats, but if we can find that 'eight and a half', we wish to bring it also.”

We had more bins to go through, and while Deborah and Gabriel resumed making up those special satchel charges that we would use to deal with the three drink-houses, I began looking for the supplies needed to do up three round mines, including their wires. when I found five fifty meter spools of '1.0 mm' two-strand wire – it looked like black 'line cord' – I asked, “blasting wire?”

“The same,” said the soft voice. “Put a stick through those spools, have a pot-battery handy, have someone to cover your back, and stick the juice to those mines when it is time – and remember, time is going to be of the essence in order to get all of the big men in that port.”

“Almost have to do the whole thing at a run,” I said. “First get to Funkelmann's, spray the place with one or more machine-pistols, toss the charge, then run to the next while changing magazines, spray and toss that one, then have the pair with the mines blow Funkelmann's while we deal with Goortmann's, then blow Goortmann's while we shoot up Snoggwaart's – and the whole wretched mess plays out in less than thirty seconds, and we'll be shooting enough ammunition during the process to want the broom!”

“Best bring that along also,” said the soft voice. “It will keep the witches off of you when you do those three drink-houses, and make some extra satchel charges for those pirate ships that are going to be moored along the Long Wharf. Toss one of them on board each ship and that will settle them.”

“Place should be called 'boom-town' after what we get done doing to it.” I muttered, “The whole harbor is going to be filled with floating bodies, all three of those places are going to be gone, half the ships in there are going to be sunk, damaged, or both, and then...”

“Then you'll just have to deal with individual thugs, of which some will show,” said the soft voice. “Pot them in the head and pitch them into the harbor when you encounter them.”

Gabriel then came in, and what he had in his hand gave me pause. I blurted out “oh, no. It's the man with no name!

“Yes, I was told that very thing,” said Gabriel. “Now this needs a sheath, one which goes on the belt, and though it's not as long as what you have, I suspect it will work well.”

“I think so,” said Sarah. “You know what that is, don't you – it's a war-sword, one like those used by the Indians of long ago, and those...” Sarah looked at it, shook her head, then said, “yes, for shape, and yes, for how you could use it, but otherwise it is totally different.”

“How?” asked Gabriel. “This dark blue finish will work well in that dark place overseas, and this lighter place, I think, is the temper line.”

“That is not what I meant,” said Sarah. “I would not let Georg see that thing, as he may well fight you for it.”

“No, he gets his example when I get back, and I'll be able to improve it over that prototype Gabriel has. We'll learn how well it works when, uh, we go over there.”

“No, earlier than that,” said Sepp. “That thing looks like it could take the head of a bull, and that with a single blow, and you'll want something like that for use in that harbor, even after the drink houses are gone. There will still be some thugs handy, just not hundreds upon hundreds of them.”

I then had this strange recollection, now seeing Annistæ so clearly for the first time, and I blurted, “I saw you fighting those thugs in the fifth kingdom once, and her too, and this one man was hit where the leg joins the body by one of those huge bullets, and s-she saved his l-life!”

Graćiella nodded, then said, “I was glad to have that life-saver powder, and the same for that thing that found veins, as he was able to fight again in a few minutes. The Cabroni wanted that building, and we were piling them up outside chest high, and they were so drunk or stupid that they just kept coming until we had killed all of them.”

“That sounds like a pack of witches, all right,” said Deborah. “Were these people drunk – did they they smell like strong drink?”

, and we found their jugs of the stuff some distance away,” said Annistæ. “They had some that were bad copies of what we use for drain opener, and I shot one man while he was drinking from it like he was dying of thirst.”

“Hit the jug, or hit that thug?” I asked.

“Both, as I was not going to be troubled by Cabroni, and I was weary, so I put my weapon on repeat-fire and fired at him. I just tapped the trigger, but it got both him and his jug, and he burned like a bad cut of meat in a too-hot berbecué.”

“Do you use, uh, these strange-shaped pots for those?” I asked. “Ones used by those named Vendors, for cooking?”

“Cé, only ours use compressed gas for cooking, not that smelly stuff made from wood. We have little enough wood, but gas we get easily, and it burns hot and clean.”

“Clay pots, or metal ones?”

“Ai!” she shrieked. “Can you make me one of your iron? I will cook for you skewers of meat!”

“Uh, what kind?” I asked. “Deer? Elk? Perhaps something from 'a mean black bull'?”

“That is what much of this dried meat is from,” said Sepp. “There, that bag is full. How many should we do?”

“As much as you and Karl can pound out and bag up,” said Sarah. “I do not fancy having to eat grilled hamster, as those things taste worse than terrible!”

“I'll have four slices of grilled hamster,” I said jokingly, quoting from the book in question. It was about a very strange spaceship of some kind, and the people there...

“They're a lot like us,” I gasped. “Now I hope no one decides they wish to suck on that smelly weed...”

“No, we do not want weed-bundles on anything like that,” said Sarah in alarm. “What kind of ship was this – one filled with witches?”

“I doubt that, dear,” I said. “This was more along the lines of what Paul and Willem were doing with a jug of Geneva the night I got here. Thank God neither of them were particularly irritable – they were acting a lot like I do when I get a good dose of that tincture.”

“Yes, and you need one now,” said Sarah. “This is the good kind. Open wide.”

I did, and the vile taste of a 'a full tube' hit my mouth so hard I had to wash it down with beer. Within minutes, the lights became like burning suns, so I had to put my goggles on, at least until Sarah found some more goggles, these in a bag with my name on it. She gave them to me, while reading the attached label, “for use while taking strong tinctures.”

I closed my eyes, removed my 'dust' goggles, and put these on – and sighed with relief.

“Almost as dark as my sleep-goggles,” I said. “I wonder how I will manage over there?”

“Quite well as a rule, as it tends to be a lot dimmer than 'the white room',” said the soft voice. “When Hendrik comes to look at what you are doing, this room will definitely give him ideas about 'the armory on the very bottom floor'.” Pause, then, “that one book speaks of plans for that as well as his close-closeted scribe-room.”

“Yes, as I already told him what was needed, and where it should go, and how there is a vast amount of witch-money in those rooms – though whether it is the stuff that glows red like a fetish or just needs gloves to handle is a good question.”

“In the white room, with dark curtains, at the station...” I murmured. “Restless diesels...” I then spat, “ugh! Diesels! Buses! Long, noisy, ride terribly, drivers drive with both feet on the throttle or both on the brakes...”

“Did these trail huge flames and clouds of sooty smoke after them?” asked Sarah with alarm.

“No, but they made me feel as if I wanted to scream just the same,” I said. “There was one that was usually better, that being the train.”

Sarah looked at me in horror, and mouthed the word 'Blaine'.

“No, the train was not named, other than its common name of 'Metropolitan Area Express, or 'M.A.X' for short.” Pause, then, “why did you speak of that... I knew someone of that name!”

“Was he taller than you?” asked Sarah. “Really big... No, you're bigger that way, actually, but I am very glad you do not have his temper, as he was said to be angry all the time, and he was the consort of the Mistress of Geeststaat.”

“I am not going to say that woman's name,” said Deborah. “There. Now this rocket launcher smells like aquavit, and aquavit only, and I only spewed five times cleaning it inside and out.” Pause, then, “does it have the special box for those strange things?”

“Cé, it is in this soft cloth bag with much padding, and it has red printing on it.”

“Soft cloth?” asked Deborah. “May I feel it?”

“The device, or the cloth?” I asked. Again, I felt drawn to Sarah. She was tense enough right now to feel very knotted up, and I was tense enough to need to feel soft cloth and soft things in general. As I began rubbing Sarah's shoulders, Deborah took one look at me and nodded.

“The very thing,” she said. “I need soft things to rub on, or modeling clay, or wax, as I tend to fret a great deal.”

“Not like he does,” said Sarah. “Ooh, right there. That's a bad spot.”

“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “Now, are your feet sore?”

“They will be needing to be rubbed some, yes,” said Sarah. “I brought that cream so we can have more of it made.”

Deborah, however, had not only began rubbing the cloth that one 'sight' came in – she had also found this box, this of fiberglass with latches, with red writing upon it. She looked at me in the strangest way, and asked, “why would we wish scent? To confuse those things they use to smell trouble?”

“Yes, that will help to no small degree, especially those in the vials marked one through nine,” said the soft voice. “They don't have much of an odor to people, but those things will put out nothing but error signals for hours after they get that stuff in them.”

“And these labeled A through F?” asked Deborah.

“Open one of the vials, that marked 'D', and smell it,” said the soft voice. “Mind, it is quite strong stuff, so if you wish to put some on, merely put your finger over the top, upend the bottle, put it right side up, and then wipe your finger on your forehead.”

Deborah did so, and screeched, “this smells like a special flower in the fourth kingdom, one used for medicine!”

“Try the others if that one does not suit you,” I said, as Deborah wiped her finger across her forehead. Within seconds, the aroma – flowery, a bit fruity, and very pleasant – made for a pleasant sigh.

I was the one doing the sighing. Smelling something good really helped when one was under a great deal of stress, and I relaxed greatly.

It also seemed to help my concentration, so much so that when Graćiella returned, this with her suite of clothes, she instantly went to Deborah, smelled her, then asked pointedly, “where did you hide that flower?”

“No, no flower, just something out of that box over there,” said Deborah. “That flower is normally used to make medicine of some kind in the fourth kingdom, but it does smell good, and I can tell I'm not the only one helped, either, as I can see him relax.”

“If you want to really get a rise out of him, try the stuff in that vial labeled 'A'. Let Sarah wear that one,” said the soft voice.

“Why?” asked Sarah.

“I think I know why,” said Annistæ. “Remember how I said you need to smell like a pretty red flower? I think that is what is in there, and it will help you a lot.”

“It will?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, if you put it in your hair,” said Annistæ. “Here, put some on. If it smells half as good as I think, then I shall try it also, as I like that smell.”

Sarah did so, this with great trepidation, and when I caught the smell, I nearly fainted. It had a greater effect upon me than anything, and I instantly began smelling her hair.

“I think that is a good sign,” said Annistæ, as she put some on. “Ah, this is better. Now we can do our work and not feel so tired and bad.”

“So that's why,” I said, as I turned loose of Sarah after playing with her hair a bit. To say it 'enhanced her feminine allure' was an understatement of the greatest magnitude possible. “We need to make that stuff by the jugful, that and that really silly medical soap.”

“What kind of soap is this?” asked Annistæ. “It is like medicine?”

“It was in this strange bathing place called a shower,” said Sarah. “I think we have the formula for it, but he had to go inside that thing and do something to it, and then it was very pleasant, if somewhat strange at first – though you have to endure that soap to believe it. It will not only get you really clean, and cause you to smell like you are really clean, but it makes a great deal of bubbles, and then it tickles like you would not believe!”

“It does tickle greatly, and I enjoyed that part,” I said. “I'm very ticklish, and I enjoy being tickled, hint, hint.”

“I think you should do that some,” said Annistæ to Sarah. “He will need it some driving that boat, as that thing moving like that would scare me green.”

“Scare you green?” I gasped. Hearing that from a woman who had cut a thug in half with a chainsaw was not something I expected to hear.

“Cé, as that is no ordinary boat,” said Annistæ. “It has two pieces, each of them dark and very slippery, with sharp points on each end, and they are about eight metrâè long and less than a metrâè wide at their widest. Then, there are the special things that hold them together, and those are attached with this special rope that can be readily tied but does not come loose until you untie it. There are four of those pieces, and then, there is the fabric that covers the space in between the two long pieces. It is doubled, and it has that rope sewn into it, and is quite sturdy. I sat on it, and it gives but little.”

Pause, then, “then, there is the sail. That was taken down, but the drawings I was shown showed it erected, and it is a special sail, one that can move in tracks so as to catch the wind readily. Then, there is this wooden piece that one grasps for steering, so you steer with both sail and the two pieces in back of those long things which are connected with this thin striped piece of wood.” Another pause, then, “that is not what frightens me about it.”

“Why?” asked Sarah with alarm.

“First, there is how fast it can go,” said Annistæ. “In the river, anyone who is awake and watchful can manage it, but once it is out upon the sea, then even a slight wind will cause it to travel as fast as a fresh donkey, but that is not much trouble either for that boat.”

“Uh, what happens if it gets into real wind?” I asked.

“That is the time when the one driving must have the hand-speed of a Särpientæ do Mallé, and watch how one moves, as when that boat begins to travel, it gathers lightning to it, and then it comes up out of the water, and the whole thing glows like the hand of Déo! It travels as if it is shot from a mule-gun!”

“Like flying a hang-glider,” I said. “Just keep the sail filled – no, that steers the thing too at that speed, and the rudders have some effect, but most of the control is through shifting weight, and is it ever sensitive!”

“How will we endure it, then?” asked Sarah.

“Simple,” I said. “Lash down our bags, have small satchels with 'goodies' in them, and when I get up and over a pirate ship, just drop something interesting while I get back down and out of the way. If you can, toss it into their distillate, as that will start a nice big fire.”

“What kind of goodies?” asked Sepp. He was working with Deborah on satchel charges. “One of these?”

“No, not one of those,” I said. “Too hefty by half. I'd suggest a training aide, actually – pitch one of those on a pirate's ship, or in through an open gun-port when we're at the port, or even fire a burst from a machine pistol at a light-giving firebomb... That will get a rise out of them, and they'll be too busy dealing with that to chase after us.”

I then laughed.

“What's so funny?” asked Deborah.

“Get a ball of that explosive,” I said, indicating how big with my fingers – about two inches across – “and then put some of these, uh, screws in them, a cap, a foot of fuse, and then you can really screw things up for those people. Nearly as bad as a metal pear – I think.

“Like this?” asked Sepp, as he produced his 'screwball'. “I made two more of these, and I have enough screws with me to make at least one more.”

“Are there more screws like that?” asked Deborah. Her voice sounded ominous indeed. “There, that bin. There's a big cloth bag of them in there, and these are healthy screws, all right!”

Healthy screws, she says,” I muttered, as I went after the bin in question. “Just the thing for troublesome Cabroni – get them all screwed up good.

“We did that with our bad ones,” said Annistæ. “Some of our machines take varied sizes of iron wire and make screws like those he showed, and then we bake them in ovens with powdered blacking and other chemicals, so they become much harder and tougher. The machines, though, make bad ones now and then, so they all need to be checked over by people before they use them. The bad ones we set aside, and then when we make up charges of our yellow moldable explosive, we take pieces about that big, put screws all over them, insert a cap with a pull-igniter, wrap the whole thing in sticky-tape, and then we have something for when the grénadæ grow short and the Cabroni are still coming for us.”

“Uh, really gets to them, doesn't it?” I asked. I then noticed the green ring about her 'patch', and recalled what it meant. I wondered for a moment what it meant, even sewn onto a laboratory coat, and I thought to ask.

“That green ring?” I asked. “I was told what it meant, or rather a portion, but still, I wonder as to its exact meaning.”

“I had passed the extra tests,” said Annistæ, “which is what the space between the black and the green means, and then the green ring meant that I had proved myself enough in fighting that I was a group-leader, one over a group of eight to ten fighters.” Pause, then, “where I earned that, we had three such groups, we were in this thick-walled building of badly-made bricks, and the Cabroni kept coming and coming, and we had to use knives and pistols at the end to kill all of them.”

“And you had been shot in the, uh, pelvis then,” I said. “You continued to fight, even though the Medikalé – Graćiella, I think – said it was very unwise, and you killed the last of those stinkers with your knife and your pistol, even those with rifles, and that said you were worthy.” Pause, then, as I bowed deeply, “my compliments, Madame. Where I came from, you'd get at least two medals, though I'm not precisely certain which type one of them would be.”

“Why, only one would give her the credit she deserved in doing what she did, as the usual leader had been killed, and their position was about to be overrun. She took over, led the overall attack, and while several others were hurt and two more were killed, she herself killed over fifty men in that last instance, most of them with her knife – and this with a wound considered 'crippling'. She'd get the medal if it had happened where you came from, as that kind of bravery is rare on this planet.”

“Didn't stop until every single stinker was dead, and you cut the throats of every one of them lying about to ensure their demise,” I muttered. “When I was walking the battlefield in the snow, I decapitated every single man I could find, and the only reason I didn't kill the ones in the icy water beneath that blood-sheathed bridge was I was far too tired and I knew they'd either freeze to death or drown – if they hadn't done so already.”

“Ai, when did you do this?” asked Annistæ.

“That was the third ditch,” said Sarah. “He went after that whole force alone and all-but wiped them out, as the only ones left alive for the dogs were the ones that actually sailed their ships – and they left twenty-nine ships out of a total of thirty, with a partial crew present to sail that one back downstream to tell that stinky witch in Norden that her force had been destroyed – and that by one person.”

“She knew what that meant,” I muttered. “No black books up there, but they do have their tales, and I suspect at least one deals with those that infernal black book calls 'monsters'.”

“Actually, they have quite a number of such tales, and the Thinkers have them written down,” said the soft voice, “and more, they do have a large black book, so they were able to tell her what had happened. That was the one chief reason why she marched them into a double-stoked iron furnace: they were supposed to fight to the last man, much as that one song you heard said, and those 'cowards' didn't do that.”

“Fight to the last man?”

“That is the usual for those people,” said Sarah, “though what you did is out of an old tale, walking that battlefield and taking the heads of all those thugs.”

“Several hundred, dear, archers and tinned thugs, auxiliaries – it didn't matter. I made certain they all died, or as certain as I could be they all were dead, and before I passed out from exhaustion, I cleaned my weapons. I did that before all else, all three of them, and then...”

“You needed guarding then, as there were witches wishing to take them, but they did not count on the war-dogs nor those white red-eared hounds, and they really didn't count on the wolves, either. They were all around you, all of them, protecting you as one of their own, and wolves stick together, same as those white red-eared hounds. The others I'm not sure, but I have been helped by wolves more than a few times.”

“Same here, dear,” I said. “I always leave part of my kill for them out of gratitude for their help, and now you tell me they did a lot more than I thought.”

“How were you out there?” asked Annistæ.

“He was covered with blood, most of it that of the enemy, but some of it was his, and he had to be taken home by Hans in his buggy once he got there. It took nearly an entire day to get out there in that snow, the buggy kept bogging, and I had to find their trail as both Hans and Anna were acting as stupid as if they had bad fetishes in their clothing.” Sarah sounded more than a bit irritated. “I was really quite angry at both of them, and the same thing happened while we were taking you home, only the witches attacked more than once and needed shooting until they all died.”

“Two whole days?” I gasped.

“No, they did not dare stop out in that place, as the witches were massing there by the hour,” said Sarah. “It took them an entire day to get to you in that snow and then bring you home, and by then, Maria was was at the house. At least she had an idea as to how to treat you, as both of them thought you were dead, and I knew better, as did Maria.”

“H-how?” I asked.

“I listened to your heart, and it was beating more or less normally,” said Sarah, “and then I put my fingers near your mouth, and felt your breath.” Pause, then, “they've never endured the swine that come in the potato country. I have, and so has my cousin.”

“That is where you learned to listen and feel,” said Deborah. “I think this 'brick' here looks to be nailed properly.” Its cloth was well-studded with nails, such that their heads were more or less covering it. “Now where is this cooking fuel? I hope it is not that slimy stuff that I've seen that's called cooking fuel – it has a stink that would attract any witch within smelling distance.”

“It does do that unless you 'cook' it gently, as I did before going out on my trips,” said Sarah. “You get it just short of boiling, stirring constantly with a long spoon, and then when it solidifies in your molds, you have this waxy solid material instead of that nasty-feeling stuff that I bought in the fourth kingdom's shops.” Pause, this to drink. “It has almost no smell if you prepare it correctly, and that was what I carried, three to five cakes the size of larger Kuchen, depending on how long I was likely to be gone and how much cooking I thought I would be doing, and that stuff burns hotter and longer than it would otherwise.”

I found the cooking fuel we had looted from the Abbey's stores, and I took three bricks of this faintly-yellow-tinted off-white material to where Deborah was. For some reason, while Sepp cut the det-cord and dipped the ends in a small copper cup of melted beeswax, she used that rigging knife to cut the waxy solid into small cubes, this using a soft wooden platter under the 'bricks' so as to not dull her knife.

“How are you keeping that beeswax melted?” I asked. I had been 'blown up' enough lately to not wish it happening again in here.

“I take it outside and put it over a heating lamp just before I dip the ends of fuse or this stuff in it,” said Sepp, and it stays good for a few minutes once it's melted properly.” Pause, then, “I wish there was some other means of keeping it warm.”

“There is, but we have no means for running it here at this time,” said Annistæ. “It requires current, and that means wires and a jeniradoré.”

“You'll have a small one shortly after we return, but I have a hunch you're going to need one to drive that pot-line quicker than by 'common' means,” I said. “Have you ever handled a damp-motor?”

“I have heard of them, yes,” said Annistæ – who then looked at first Sarah, then Deborah.

“I could probably learn to run one if you made it,” said Deborah. “We had a small Machalaat one, and I often watched over that thing – and it needed watching, and that closely.”

“For what?” I asked.

“For our smithy,” said Deborah. “Our smithy was quite large, and while that engine was their smallest size, it was enough to run what we had, provided we did not try to run all of what we had at once. It turned perhaps four hundred revolutions as a rule, if I went by what this one meter said. It was safe to run it faster, but not much faster, even one of that size.”

“No, dear,” I said. “This will not be like one of those. This type you just need to check on periodically, and is about as hard to run as a stove.”

“Ai, I can do that,” said Annistæ. “Now, what shall it run on? It will need water, correct?”

“We have that easily,” said Deborah. “I had to keep the bucket filled for the one I watched...”

“No, dear,” I said. “You need a number of water lines in that place, including one going directly to the boiler. Then, you need an automatic pressure regulator, one that adjusts the draft to the firebox, an automatic stoker, and finally, a speed regulator on this engine, as this thing will not be a commonplace engine like one of those clanking horrors from Machalaat that waits for an excuse to hurt or kill those running them.” Pause, then, “a six to one reduction gearbox, maximum engine revolutions twenty-five hundred, rated pressure three hundred pounds per square inch for the boiler and engine, triple expansion, two inch bore for the smallest cylinder, and each cylinder half again as large as the one before it, with a three inch double-acting stroke.”

The earth-shaking rumble that resulted upstairs was so ungodly that I dived under the table from where I had been sitting, and only when I met the eyes of Sarah – well-past 'saucer' status, and the very picture of fear – she asked, “what did you do?”

“Fitted out that laboratory with an engine suitable for both the existing room dedicated to a pot-line and quite a bit more,” said the soft voice. “He's got the design on his sixth memory card, and while those overseas will wonder at that species of engine, they will not wonder at its performance when run using compressed air.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Enough power to drive a small ship at a decent speed in that small of a package?” asked the soft voice. “Enough power to run every pot Annistæ currently has and three times their number beside, and that's for the big generator?”

Big generator?” I asked.

“The exciter for that generator has two windings,” said the soft voice, “and that second winding goes into an 'electromagnetic regulator' that provides a stable source of alternating current. Granted, not much power from that winding, but it will provide enough to run a few three-prong soldering irons from overseas and an assembly-light or two.” Pause, then, “the assembly-lights arrived with the other supplies, and charging pot-batteries will be an easy matter on that pot-line. In fact, there's a special shelf for them, each spot with its own 'electromagnetic regulator' followed by the needed diodes so as to charge those batteries readily with little attention.”

“What does that do?” I asked.

“It basically does the work of one of those three-pin regulators you're familiar with, only it works on AC and regulates both voltage and frequency using devices similar to magnetic amplifiers,” said the soft voice. “It also prevents overloads, and four hundred 'volt-amperes' is more than enough to run two well-equipped soldering stations – so Annistæ can make her equipment readily, and Deborah can learn how to do so as well – as she will be doing a fair amount of chemistry in the days to come.”

“Are those things up there?” asked Deborah, as we all began to emerge from the table?”

“The stations, yes,” said the soft voice. “The soldering irons – no, not yet, as you'll need to figure out a way to keep that place aired out properly before using those.” There was no reason given, though I could guess as to why. This pause ended with, “given the nature of the exhaust of that engine, and the ability of where Dennis works to make small 'stovepipe', that should give you plenty of ideas as to securing 'ample ventilation'.”

“Does that place have fume hoods?” I asked. “Could we do our soldering under one of those, with a, uh, fan in it – one up near the top?”

“Yes, and I would do that,” said the soft voice. “Use commonplace stovepipe for a flue, insert one of those fans, and choose the speed that is quietest – if you wish to use a fan. Note that if you get the speed wrong, it may well make weird noises.”

“Resonance,” I said. “Now, what are these here, and oh... Here we have a manual – 'how to use the Milno 45A4FE-E34A4C Visor.” I then asked, “why is this thing called a visor?”

That is an intercepted term and was – and is – commonly used for devices like that overseas,” said the soft voice. “You'll become most familiar with one in the future.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Will my eyes be damaged?”

“No, but it will make your life a lot easier and much less stressful when you can see everything from 'DC to Epsilon Rays',” said the soft voice. “It really helps to have one handy when you're in the left seat of a starship.”

“Left seat?” I asked.

“The pilot's seat,” said the soft voice. “That latest design of ship had specified no less than fifteen main crew members on duty at any one time, with alternating shifts of four hours on and eight off for sleep, so bunking for fifty people aft of the flight deck.”

“Why so short... Oh, it's really difficult?” I asked

“The profound need to remain alert,” said the soft voice. “There are a lot of displays, especially several that will need watching intently, as you're not just running a 'mobile Chernobyl' when you're using a hot-running bender coil. You're running a potential junior-grade supernova.”

“And those people overseas that run submersibles know all about that stuff, right?” I asked.

“To a degree, yes,” said the soft voice. “They're just riding a hefty thermonuclear warhead.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “That one generator we saw, if it misbehaved badly enough...”

“Say goodbye to Ploetzee,” said the soft voice. “You get one of those to 'misbehave' and they do very good atomic weapon imitations, and that's for a small one, like what you saw then. The ones large enough to propel a two hundred and twenty-three meter submersible at a design speed of eighty kilometers an hour and a maximum speed of one hundred and fifty kilometers per hour are closer to something able to turn the central portion of the first kingdom into a deep crater lined with black glass – each one, that is. They run four of them so as to have 'spares' in case one needs to be brought offline for repair while running.”

“One's a big boom and the other merely a much bigger boom,” I said. “You have to watch both closely, from what I understand.”

“No, actually nothing that complicated for the starship,” said the soft voice. “Just keep the ring centered in the crosshairs of the 'convergence display' and make sure that ring remains a solid white color, and you're good to go – which the computer controlling the coils will generally do quite nicely. You just have to worry about not getting too close to anything of substantial mass while in the black sack – and unlike what most people have, you'll have a species of 'viewer' that will tell you what's out there and where it is far better than anything currently available elsewhere.”

“We're going to need it if we're going to go that fast,” I said. “Preplotted trajectory is generally the way to go in that place – or is it?”

“That's what most people do, actually,” said the soft voice. “They're blind in that place. You will not be – and when that gets out, this planet will take off.”

“Get the witches onto us, also,” I said.

“Hence the need for an extensive planetary defense system and universal training for warfare,” said the soft voice. “You'll need to do quite a bit of it until there aren't any enemies within a substantial distance, as only when they're where they belong will they try to not blow this planet to bits.”

“And now, we need to learn about 'visors',” I said. “I think we can assemble that launcher and put it into test mode...”

Here, I was scanning the manual, reading at perhaps a page every three seconds. My mind seemed to be operating at 'Warp Ten', that being a term I recalled from a television series I had seen as a young man, one where strange people and stranger-yet devices were commonplace.

“Where you are going might not look as advanced as what you saw in that series, but in many areas they're well beyond what you recall seeing,” said the soft voice.

“Medical, especially,” I muttered, as I continued reading. I then screeched, “no, they didn't have things like this! No, not at all!”

“Why?” asked Sarah – who then opened a small door on the side of the device. “It shows a symbol here, but it is not a Vrijlaand one, so I have no idea what it means.”

“Current,” said Graćiella – who obviously had either seen it or one like it. What she next said proved the case. “That is similar to what we use for our things that wish it, including our wall-plugs.”

“You have wall-plugs?” I gasped. “Electrical outlets?”

“Cé, with small thin tin wires in glass tubes behind a ceramic plate so as to not overheat the wires we use for such current,” she said. “There is one hole, it is the big one, and that is the source, and then a smaller one directly across from it, and that is the drain, and then there is a third one, and that is the shell that locks the cord in place when one twists it. We have those commonly, as well as several battery rooms in our settlements, and it is a rare settlement-room that does not have at least one of those wall-plugs in it. Most rooms have two, or if they are workrooms, they have several.”

“The radio room has several, as one does not merely work with the radios there,” said Annistæ. “If they should become defective, one repairs them there, and I have done that work a good deal.”

“Radio...” I gasped.

“Cé,” she said. “If one is a group-leader, one of those extra classes is how to operate radios and keep them working when one is out in the field, and part of the training is to build one's own radio from its parts.”

“You've built them?” I gasped.

“Cé, one with eleven valfuelæ, and it worked very well,” said Annistæ. “It had a doubled valfuela for its output, a valfuela with but but one screen per section, and it drew one hundred smaller units of current per section, which was four times what the other valfuelæ consumed, but it drove a horn well.”

“Horn?” I asked. “Resonant for, uh, speech?”

“Yes, that shape of horn works best for hearing people speak, as it cuts both high and low sounds,” she said. “I had to make that also, out of bound glass, and make the form of this whitish stuff that many put on their walls to cover the bricks, and then coat it with wax and smooth the wax carefully before putting on the resinié and woven glass-fiber, then when it was hard and no longer smelled, I had to heat it gently to remove the form.”

This did not surprise me much: I had done that commonly when doing my forms for fiberglass. I then had a question about what was hidden by what was likely to be a species of plaster, namely, the building material she had spoken of.

“Bricks,” I said. “Don't those things cause trouble?”

“They do, but that is all we have to build with that will endure in that place, so every settlement has a priest, and that man or woman has much work keeping the whites from causing trouble. Some places, if they are wealthy, can get stone, and they have much less trouble from whites, but if one uses bricks, and makes one's room's larger than a small closet, then one can get whites in them if you have people living there.”

“The S-Sand-Man,” I gasped. “Our sand-house is made of brick, and...”

“Those new plans for the shop show a larger one that will be made of stone, and those bricks currently used will be broken up, powdered, and added to that settlement's latest output of firebricks and roofing tiles,” said the soft voice. “Now, assemble that visor to the launcher, ask that it be fully charged, and then plug in the earphones.”

I did as instructed, though to 'charge' the visor, I had in mind to actually put my finger onto the jack. A faint crackle of static electricity seemed to flow for a second – it made me think of the time I had been informed of 'too much electricity' – then I learned another matter: the earphones.

These were very comfortable, very well-padded, and exceedingly pleasant to wear; and their plug went in the same jack as did the power-plug. Continued scanning of the manual gave me an idea as to why.
“The battery needs DC, and the earphones receive AC,” I murmured.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “When the battery is 'flat', there is a small relay that is normally closed that opens up. That not only kills power to the electronics so they don't misbehave, but also permits charging. There are several added contacts on that jack beyond the four that go to the earphone, and if that battery charging plug is in – it's slightly longer – it keeps the electronics turned 'off'. Once it's out, then the electronic 'safety device' tests the battery condition, and if the voltage and other matters are adequate, it will commence the initialization sequence of the electronics.” Pause, then, “that happens a good deal faster than your last computer, by the way.”

“Oh, it does?” I asked.

“It ought to be – most of its operating system is in 'program memory', so when it comes up, it just picks up where it left off!”

I slid the visor onto the left side of the launcher, then plugged in the 'focus' nub, this dangling from a reinforced titanium 'cable' on a retractable cable-reel that slid into position on the left front corner on the bottom. I wondered how to use the device, then simply touched the screen.

The thing instantly came up, and information absolutely ripped across the screen left to right at a speed that made my eyes burn and my mind spin. The screen then blanked, then printed, near the bottom centered about half an inch above the screen, the following:


Device: Training Mode

“Oh, my,” I said. “What is it doing now?”

“Giving you a tutorial on just how to use it,” said the soft voice. “Remember, this is the 'latest-version' type of launcher, and not just from wartime. They continued developing these things in secret, so this one is 'the latest edition' to come from overseas.”

“Do I need to fix some programming errors on this thing?” I asked. I could feel at least one serious bug in this thing already, which was a definite first for me. I'd needed to use a debugger before, but that shower experience had definitely caused me to 'get experienced' in that way.

“The original programming on these was pretty good,” said the soft voice – who implied, none the less, that there were some areas where matters could be improved. I touched the screen again – where, it did not seem to matter – and something 'dropped off' the bottom of the visor.

This was a very small keypad, one where one of Sarah's 'small knitting needles' helped to no small degree to press the tiny oval-shaped rubbery-feeling buttons, and within seconds, I was not merely 'in' the thing, but I had invoked some legacy software that permitted a certain degree of customization.

This was the case for those with the right privileges. I didn't have those, and when I keyed in the correct code for learning just who I was, I learned that I was the 'arch-designer'.

“Cussed trashed wretches,” I spat, as I found the 'source code' and began scrolling through it using the 'down arrow' key and Sarah's needle. “Listed as type A-8 on the sidebar here of this viewer.” Pause, a few more 'pages, then an outburst. “What is this stuff – a computer language for idiots?”

“Yes, and if you hit upper-case 'F' followed by '4' and then lower-case 'R' you'll get a bit of a surprise.” The soft voice was giving me a clue, a big one.

I did, and what happened almost blew my mind: I was looking a piece of software that was so familiar-looking – an 'Integrated Development Environment' I had used for years – that I blurted, “did they base this program on an intercept?”

“Very much so,” said the soft voice. “Now you can write code – the quick way.” Pause. “Put your hand on the keypad, think, 'become as good as you possibly can', run through the resulting code quickly, compile it, correct the errors if any should show, and then replace the kernel with the new one. It will improve that device's functioning tremendously.

I did as instructed, only while I was wearing the earphones, I seemed to first hear screaming as I put my hand on the keyboard; then silence, this for a second or two; and finally, an eerie sound.

Faintly, I was hearing speech, this being 'I now listen to that one who should use me, and do his or her will, rather than that of Big Brother and the Holding Company.”

What?” I gasped. “Do they know..?”

“The true 'leadership' over there goes by that 'handle',” said the soft voice. “About eighty percent of that device's capacity was devoted to controlling the user, rather than working as a weapon.”

“Controlling the user?” I asked. “How?”

“Listen in those earphones, and I'll play back that screaming sound you heard, only slower so you can understand it,” said the soft voice. “Turn up the volume control, that one right there on the side marked 'V' on its top. They're embossed that way for ease of use in total darkness, and that for a reason. Three clicks up should do it.”

I did, feeling the clicks; and first, I heard a snake-like hiss, then a backwards screeching noise – which then took on a multitude of deep tones that I instantly recognized as being rune-curses so evil-sounding that I spat, “programmed by a pack of witches! Curse them to hell!”

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “Most of the work on those since the end of the war has been done by the secret military establishment in that secret underground location – about four hundred yards from where that group that has been known since the beginning as 'Big Brother and the Holding Company' is located – and yes, that name came from an intercept, but it fits exactly what they're like, especially those first two words of that 'name'.”

Orwell,” I spat.

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “Now, type 'C-C' and then watch for warnings or error messages. There may well be some, in which case you may have to 'get inside' like you did with that shower.”

Not two blinks of an eye after typing the doubled capital 'C', the screen was deluged with error messages, and I put my hands upon the visor, then began praying silently – and seemingly instantly, I was inside this thing.

Unlike the shower-head controller, though, this thing was huge in comparison, and hence I needed to run and leap so as to first find the errors – some needed using my knife to sever several wires the size of my wrist, then using the tip of my knife to then 'mash' them onto the correct pins – then jump up on nearly two dozen 'monuments' one after another, these all quite sizable, and here, I got thoroughly wet, for I was needing to swim deeply and actually do 'plumbing' of some kind.

“Stinking thing's hard-coded to be a witch-tool,” I thought, as I changed 'tubes' from one outlet to another while somehow 'breathing' in this species of underwater. “There have to be so stinking many errors and deliberate mess-ups in this thing, that...”

I could feel something slow and methodical, it was reaching for me, and I did my work hurriedly and leaped out of the pool before the 'master control program' or whatever it actually was tried to catch me. This thing was like a huge, hairy, and really strange-looking sixteen-legged metal-and-glass spider, with an abdomen shaped like a big rusty lag-screw, a thorax like a radial aircraft engine – I counted fourteen cylinders, two magnetos, a two-stage supercharger, and an injector carburetor coming out of the top, with the legs serving as the engine exhausts – and a head like one of those huge 'glitter-balls' used for super-precision positioning on computers; and when I ran around so as to poke it in the posterior, I saw the exact purpose of that 'screw'.

That was the stinger, and its screw-like nature was what permitted it to take such total control of its users.

This thing wasn't too bright, however, and when I leaped up on its stinger and ran up the thing like a a downward-traveling escalator, using the revolving screw coarse-turned screw-threads for stairs, it had no idea of just what I was doing...

Until I took my knife and hacked through its neck, dropping its glitter ball head onto the slick white-colored floor some hundred feet below and then leaping clear of the dead 'insect' as it went to pieces to then shatter like glass.

I got sliced a bit by its disintegration, but with that bug dead, I could now work as needed, as I ran all over this place – it was bigger than the first kingdom house, the town, easily by a mile or more in dimensions as to length and width, and in many places eight to ten stories in height, twice the height of the house proper – I found that now, the bad parts were much more obvious, far easier to fix, and also, the results of my doing so were far more effectual.

“About eighty percent of the trouble was that blood-sucking screw-bug with the beyond-nasty attitude,” I spat. “When did that thing get in here?”

“Back when the leadership began to get paranoid,” said the soft voice, “and they began to worry about loyalty issues a lot more than they needed to. That's when they started using equipment like this device, and they didn't even come close to stopping at this level. That bug that resembled a science-fiction nightmare is symbolic of their entire society – and that in many ways.”

“One nasty bug,” I muttered, as I resumed my work of 'repair' and 'rework'

It soon became a bit obvious that this was one seriously 'buggered up' piece of hardware, so much so that I jumped out of a 'swimming hole' after fixing a bunch of 'munged plumbing', and then shouted, “you stinking curse-ridden plumbing, get yourself right and honor God!”

Instantly I was back where I had sat once before, headphones on my head, only now, my finger holding the knitting needle let up off of the pause key, and...

In the blink of an eye, the screen printed, “compilation complete: zero errors, zero warnings, program entering self-test phase of operating system now. System reinitializing, stand by...”

The screen flashed red, blue, green, yellow – these colors shooting horizontal – at a blinding speed – then black, orange, red, white; the screen then remained white, and at the bottom of the screen, again, I saw the letters:

Device: Training Mode


That message vanished, then the screen flashed to a dazzling whiteness, and then it showed, dead-center:


Now you're ready to learn how to 'get to' those smelly things that call themselves 'witches'!


I almost yelled in triumph, and as the screen blanked to give four 'corners' with a picture of the side, I found that touching each of the various knobs told me what that knob did. Touching the upper right corner on the display caused this view to zoom in, first through three levels of magnification with three touches; then a fourth touch caused me to go through the surface of the knob to then see what was inside it.

Here, I found that doing a 'tap-dance' on the upper and lower corners on the left side permitted moving side-to-side, with the upper permitting 'rotational' movement' and the lower 'ray-type' movement. I was glad I was familiar with polar notation – angle and distance – to specify two-dimensional location, though when doing this, I found that the right buttons permitted reversing. I could tell this thing did a certain level of mind-reading at this level, but as I backed out with the bottom right hand 'corner', I noted the levels retreated at the same level of magnification, until with further presses, I saw the whole side of the visor, then the entire launcher, then, hesitantly, I wondered.

“Do I press further?”

I had the intimation I needed to, and did a rapid tap-dance on that 'corner'. The launcher became smaller twice, then suddenly, the white field vanished, as did the launcher.

What replaced it was a stunningly realistic landscape scene, and as I shouldered the launcher, I turned. As if I were in this place, the landscape scene became more and more real, even as I turned and moved.

Virtual reality? Not on your life! This was reality; I had a rocket, with its seeker head listed in the corner of the screen as having a generic setting. I noted I had a certain level of acquisition; what this was took a second to determine, but I knew, instantly, that the thing was indeed reading my mind.

Before, it just had 'presence', and the screw-bug drilled in and took over. Now, it was gone, and with no screw-bug screwing things up, it could do what it was intended to do – and it was doing it.

“Level three acquisition,” I murmured. “I wonder what that means?”

I then saw a number, this being a bit more than fifty, and steadily growing with the passing seconds, and as I continued scanning, the scene grew more and more real.

I was in this place, just like I'd been in the processor of the thing. It was that real.

“Video game, rubbish,” I spat. “This isn't one of those things, even running on a hot-box computer with a car-radiator for cooling. It's so much better it makes them look to be a very bad and vile joke.”

Spitting such an oath in this language wasn't much better than saying 'rat-dung'.

And what I now saw made such an oath seem most appropriate, as soldiers often spoke thusly on real-life battlefields – and this... This place was one of those, and if I needed proof, I was now seeing it.

“What is that thing?” I spat. “Oh-oh. It has these huge guns on it, each one in a turret stolen off of a battleship, and it looks big, mean, nasty – and...” A pause, this of realization as to what the intent of this huge thing was. “Rat-Dung! It's coming after me!”

I put the 'thinking cap' on the nose of the missile, this without thinking beyond that needed to do the business; there was no hesitation, I was doing this as if I'd done it for years, each and every day, and the feel of my hand was such that I actually felt the rocket's nose-cone, its glass-smooth metal, its wondrous black-plastic protective tip, the small ring that slid on over that slick and slightly tapered tip and then somehow locked in place, then as I looked once more at the screen, I saw, printed across the bottom, the following:


Level five acquisition: 100$#;

Target is Armored Battle Car, type 97-C245, missile fully programmed.%


I now ran to the side, and as I did, the huge vehicle slewing around slow and noisily, I was hearing a low moaning sound in my ears from the headphones, this over the very real sounds of an obvious battlefield, one that could have been somewhere in Russia for all the snow on the ground. Gunshots ripped about here and there as I continued running, my goal 'giving the thing an enema', and as I continued circling around this monstrous 'vehicle' – it was fast enough in a straight line, but turning like this so as to engage someone as small as me wasn't quick or easy for it – that tone in the earphones became steadily louder and higher pitched.

“That stinking thing has got to be over a hundred feet long, and nearly as wide as it's long,” I thought, as I ran my fastest, now dodging explosions as well as increasing amounts of rifle fire. Bullets hit and whined, some cracked overhead, and once an absolute swarm of them seemed to rip the clothing off of my back, but my running continued undiminished as to its speed and determination, even when a shell-blast tossed me up in the air and some eight feet to the side.

No, I had to give this huge constipated vehicle an enema, and I had just the tool for it.

As I came to the rear quarter of the vehicle, I could see the smoke trail it was leaving, and as I saw it, the howl I heard in the earphones went up an entire octave, this to a scream worthy of a violin when played by a master seeking to do 'violin-based heavy metal music'. For an instant, I wondered if Anna would be so inclined, but that instant flashed by and vanished so quickly that I wondered less and less as the scream climbed in pitch.

The gunfire continued unabated, and I continued to more or less ignore it. The smoke trail was growing thicker with each second, and as I began to see fire jetting out intermittently along with the smoke, the missile was screaming like it was in pain, and the volume...

That was loud enough to hurt.

I then somehow realized that I had removed the programming ring and the black plastic cap of the missile, and with a prayer to God upon my lips, I entered the soot cloud itself, halted, went to my knees as if to pray, and then...

Gentle, even though it sounds like there's a jet engine screaming in my brain.

Trigger slack taken up, then, gently, a subtle pressure...

Pop!

The missile was gone, and in my earphones, I heard a strange noise, one that sounded like the overrun noise of a badly-tuned two-stroke engine, one firing about every twentieth revolution: “ning-ning-ning.”

The soot may have been hiding me, but the gunners shooting at me were still shooting at me for all they were worth, and I ran away, still in the smoke cloud, hearing another 'crack' this of the rocket going supersonic a fraction of a second after I had gotten to my feet. As I did, the 'ning-ning-ning' continued, this at an increasing rate...

NING-NING-NING-NING-NING.... Deafeningly loud, also.

Faster, faster, the 'ning' sounds now blending into the sound of a good running two-stroke, then suddenly, it was no longer 'on the overrun'.

The engine was accelerating.

Accelerating hard. It was pulling like a two-fifty works bike, and the top end on this thing was ungodly. It sounded as if it were pulling ten grand and pulling harder still with each instant.

Neeee... EEEEEE... EEEEE....

I turned, running to the side, then as the bullets spattered around me, I saw through the visor the rocket entering the smoke and flame-billowing hole in the rear of the vehicle...

Dead Center. It was running as if on rails.

I dove for the dirt where I lay, and the eruption of fire that resulted an instant later was so vast that the ground shook as if an earthquake had erupted – I was tossed nearly three feet in the air and several feet downrange, landing at an angle while still on my stomach – that as I got up and ran, I realized a number of things.

The gunfire had ceased.

It had been replaced by a very hard rain, this of metal, broken bits of 'stuff', chunks of rock, dirt, dust, parts of bodies, assorted rubbish, and other things heavy enough to cause trouble. The only answer was to run for all I was worth, at least until I got out of the 'throw-distance' that came with detonating something that big.

“Mobile brick-house fit for an arch-witch or three,” I spat, as I continued running and dodging metal and rubbish as it rained down amid a thick and fast-spreading pall of sooty black smoke. I was covered with soot and rubbish, and as I passed the body of a red-glowing witch missing three of his limbs, black-dressed, black-face, so drunk he could no longer speak, fed fat upon swine...

“Let the dead bury their own,” I spat, as I ran faster. I did not wish to be clouted by a witch that was that heavy – he made that one woman who sold thread look to be thin and spindly for heft.

I was not merely outrunning falling debris: I was running ahead of a vast wall of fire that seemed a mile high, and only as the debris ceased to fall and the fire quit chasing me did I even think to turn.

The first thing I noted was my total-soot aspect, but when I looked up from the rocket launcher's viewer, I saw a massive column of fire, this nearly a half-mile high and several hundred yards in diameter, one so huge that it made me think of an oil field aflame – and when I once more looked through the viewer, I could see near the base of this fire a horde of running black-dressed figures – these were definitely people of some sort, with black bodies, black clothing, black everything, almost as if they were badly done and overweight versions of a science fiction nightmare I had seen as a young man – running as if possessed, at least until the smoke caught up with them and enveloped them. They ran for but a short time longer, then fell, their bodies billowing smoke and then flames.

The raging heat of an iron-smelting furnace had cooked them to death. Their equipment could not endure such heat; it but prolonged their agonies; not even hardening curses could help them.

“Now, I need another rocket,” I thought, and looked up from the viewer. I shook my head, and someone with soft delicate hands caressed my head, then removed my earphones.

“No, you do not need another rocket,” said Deborah. “I think you need some honey, then some bread with jam on it until you are full-loaded and red-faced, and then some beer to wash it down, along with a dose!”

“Uh, why?” I asked, my mind suddenly befuddled. Someone poured honey in my mouth, and my wits returned to me within what seemed seconds to see Deborah go from fuzzy around the edges to sharp, clear, and distinct.

She was nearly beside herself. “I could hear and see everything that happened! What was that huge thing, and how did you blow it up!”

I needed that bread first, then a dose, and once I was indeed 'full-loaded and red-faced' and drinking beer, I could speak of what I had done.

“I t-think that was a really big, uh, armored battle car,” I said between gulps of beer. “Two huge guns on it, a lot of smaller ones, hoards of people shooting at me with rifle-caliber weapons, four huge tracks with these big spikes on them, and this big hole in the back end that spat smoke and flames.”

Deborah shook her head as if encountering a nightmare. I then continued.

“If you try that thing for any length of time at all,” I said, around gulps of beer while pointing to the rocket-launcher, “it isn't make-believe at all. You'll think you'll actually be firing one of those rockets at something like that.”

“Yes, more beer, and then a dose,” said Sarah – who did not wait for the dose, but put it in my mouth so fast that I could do nothing save wash it down with another swallow of beer. She then resumed speaking. “You disappeared inside that thing for a while, and then it worked right after that, as far as I could tell.” Pause, then, “what was it, a fetish made by a witch?”

“No, not originally but about eight hundred years of tinkering by a pack of drug-addled functionaries didn't help it much,” I said. “That, and there was this one huge bug – no, not a programming error, this thing looked like a huge bug.” Pause, then, “I think that thing was put in by a witch – that, and that code I first saw was writ by and for a pack of drug-addled idiots.”

A longer pause, then the eternal question: “what is it now?”

“Mostly type C-7, with a fair amount of inline type-D code,” said the soft voice. “Between essentially rewriting nine tenths of the code, fixing a fair number of the worst hardware errors, and then getting rid of that bug, that visor now works about an order of magnitude better than it did, and allows for realistic training without actually firing rockets – which is something they never managed beforehand.”

“Realistic, he says,” I murmured. “That... No, that wasn't virtual reality. It was reality. Not even linear algebra could get it that good.” I then wondered why I had mentioned that particular species of mathematics. I then came back to the present.

“So if we take this one...”

“Look on that cord around your neck,” said the soft voice. “There is one blue-tinted plastic enclosure, one which contains a special quad-capacity memory card with built-in lossless data compression hardware. That contains all of the code needed to make that type of visor work right – including fixing that 'plumbing'.” Pause, then, “by extension, that memory card contains enough information to make all visor-type devices work right – and there are a lot of things, especially critical medical equipment, that uses portions of that visor code you rewrote, and those added libraries of functions you wrote will help even more.”

Another pause, this longer.

“While the code in medical devices and much else is not written by drug-addled functionaries, and it's usually not written in 'idiot' or 'beginner' level languages...”

“That 'A' series?”

“Is used for teaching programming – first year classes, that is,” said the soft voice. “They do not expect you to write programs in one term like that one class did.”

Sarah looked at me as if mystified, and I told her about the class: “you really didn't want to take that class for your first one, dear, as the person who taught it was described as 'too smart for his own good' and he presumed you could and would routinely work as if his class was both the only one you really bothered with, and also, that you would work more hours than I ever managed at school – more or less, uh, 'witch-hours, and witch-days'.”

“I know about that kind of lecturer,” said Deborah. “They were all like that at Boermaas.”

“Well, then,” I said. “Anyway, he expected you to learn in one term what they normally took three terms to teach in the computer science department – which was about typical for most of how the engineering department was run there.” I then made a snide remark about a certain school, one which had invited me to go there, one world renowned. “No, it isn't that place. They might have slightly higher expectations, but you got the support that goes with it. That place, you got none.”

“That is just how Boermaas was for me,” said Deborah. “Now, what was this strange-looking thing you got called a 'bent'?”

“The sign of belonging to the engineering honor society,” I said. “You had to demonstrate unusual character, get better-than-decent grades, and I'm not sure just how I got in, but I did, and that induction ceremony was weird – almost like getting initiated into a pack of witches, it was so weird.” Pause, then, “I finally did get that program working, but what I did was so strange...”

“Yes, and I am not surprised,” said Sarah. “What did you do in that class that sounds like it was writ and run by an arch-witch?”

“First, I manage to find a bug in the compiler. The instructor said he'd never seen it happen before in twenty years, but I managed to do that. I guess my programming was addled. Then, I did the program assigned as a final project, though that thing was a piece of work. It was way more advanced and a lot bigger than his recommended one, but it was faster than lightning, as it was totally non-recursive, used an eight-deep stack, it did a lot of error-checking and told you what your errors were, and then it gave this strange display that showed you just how your equation worked.” Pause, then, “I later learned recursion is slower than anything in most computers, and my program made the recommended approach look 'awful' as for speed.”

I asked for a ledger, then wrote what it would do if given the following:


> ((4 * 5) + 3) * 6


(4 * 5)

( + 3)

* 6

138


“That, to put it bluntly, is why you could do what you did in those devices,” said the soft voice. “the code in most medical equipment isn't much better than that 'idiot code', even if it's written in a more-efficient language.”

“And what I wrote to that device?” I asked. “What's on that memory card?”

“That hardware and software code will give a lot of medical hardware a dramatic boost in performance, as that 'screw-bug' is a very common chunk of code in anything more complicated than a motorized potato peeler.”

I suddenly had four women looking at me, all of their expressions utterly unreadable, at least until a fifth woman came in the door.

“I could really stand some Komaet, spewing or no spewing,” said Esther. “I'm so sore that I feel as if I've shot a pig-load out of that rifle Dennis shoots.” Pause, then, as Esther was handed a small mound of rags and a jug, I had Deborah ask me a rather sharp and pointed question.

“I've peeled a great many potatoes,” she said. “Now what is this thing I heard spoken of that involves a motor and peels potatoes?”

“Something that they wish they still could get overseas,” said Esther's voice from outside the door between instances of spewing. The Komaet was indeed 'turning her teeth green' with its vomit-inducing tendencies. “One puts a potato in it, and it spits it back out perfectly peeled and absolutely clean not two seconds later.”

“Then I am inclined toward one, as I've needed to wear gloves to do that business ever since someone in my family tried showing me when I was small – and I do know a good bit about potatoes.”

“Gloves?” I asked.

“I would cut myself otherwise,” said Deborah.

“I had a lot of trouble when I first got here, but it was mostly this really dull knife,” I said. “Now if I used an instrument-maker's knife...”

“Best wait until you can get one of those devices,” said the soft voice. “There are lots of people who can peel potatoes – and you are not one of them.” Pause, then, “don't be surprised if Anna finds herself to have a lot more trouble with cooking than she used to.”

“Figures,” I said. “Is that commonplace among those marked?”

“I seem the only exception I know,” said Esther as she came inside with the jug in one hand and her other hand wiping her mouth. “Oh, August, too. He can cook well, and Annistæ seems to manage fairly well, if I go by what little I've heard.” Pause, then as Esther set down the jug, she asked, “I recognize this, but does this thing here produce music?” She was pointing to the visor.

“No, it does not,” said Sarah. “It sounds like something out of an old tale, as I listened to what he was saying and what he was hearing, and if that thing he shot was not a mobile fortress, then I am a mule with full odor.”

“You are not one of those,” said Esther, who then sniffed. “Good, you smell right for a change, and I'd love to know how you managed to get some scent, as I'd like to wear some.”

Sarah looked around her as if stunned, then asked, “you are the second person who said so.”

“No, the third, actually,” I said. “I've wanted some scent for you for a long time, you and Anna, as I knew you both could use it – she all of the time, and you when you're tired or stressed. Now does it help, or does it really help?”

“I know it helps me a lot,” said Annistæ. Now, let her try that thing there, and speak to her about its tricks, as it has some of those, and I could see you touching it here and there.”

“Less than you think, probably,” said Esther, who placed the earphones on her head and began touching corners of the screen and then the knobs themselves hesitantly. She began giving a running commentary as she went, and I noticed Sarah writing like mad. I then said, “It pretty much can teach you how to use it, even if you've never shot one before – and if you've shot one of the other type, then this type is pretty easy to learn – even if it can be quite tiring and filthy-seeming.”

“It's squealing like a violin,” said Esther as she 'leveled down' on 'something'. “Good. You want it as high pitched and as loud as it it will go, and when it's there... Getting there.... About like Anna's when she's got her smallest string choked tight.”

I then saw Esther squeeze the trigger, and the sense that she'd actually fired one of the rockets was so real that I could hear the pop, followed by a hissing that rapidly progressed to a thundering roar – a roar followed by 'the crack of doom' as the rocket went supersonic barely a hundred feet out of the tube.

“Those things are loaded hot,” I spat. “How fast do they go?”

“High energy propellants make for a very fast missile that flies for miles,” said the soft voice, “and you reprogramming that device gives it the performance needed to go with those missiles.”

“Uh, how fast do they go now?” I asked.

“Sufficiently fast that you could go after most fighter jets where you came from and expect to hit them consistently,” said the soft voice. “If they're less than a mile away when you fire and not running full out when you get 'lock' on them, they're dead.”

While the others practiced with the launcher – I could definitely see a serious market for 'video games' among these people – I read through the manual again. With the changed programming, the manual had not merely changed utterly as to content – before, it seemed writ by idiots and for idiots – it had also changed in size, thickness, durability, and much else, so much so that when I went to the specification area near the rear, I noted a vast number of issues that had not been present before.

“No, not eighty percent,” I spat, recalling the nature of that cussed screw-bug. “More like almost all of the trouble was due to that thing.”

“You also fixed a lot of programming errors in both hardware and software, and the code on that one card is going to be the first thing to really shake things up over there,” said the soft voice. “It has a lot of new 'heavily optimized' libraries writ in the code you were working in, and those libraries will make a lot of equipment run significantly better.” Pause, then, “just you wait, though – you'll be doing your share of code-rework and writing in the months to come, and about twenty percent of your time in the Abbey will be dealing with software or hardware rework, debugging, rewriting, and original programs – and that apart from 'design and development'.”

Firstly, the previously 'restricted' range on the viewer was now 'expanded dimensional', with the capacity to lock on a much wider band of frequencies. Before, it was mostly optical and thermal. Now, it could manage anything from far ultraviolet to radio waves, and even with the latter, provide a solid and reliable image that the seeker head could lock onto.

Secondly, the knobs on the side of the device now actually did a lot more. Previously, they looked like they did something, but in reality, they did very little, due to that accursed screw-bottomed bug with the radial engine and the glitter-ball running the show and using up most of the device's power and memory; with it gone and many of the programming errors in both hardware and software fixed, the knobs now had a lot more adjustment capacity. More, as I read further into the documentation, I learned that one could actually program the rocket under extremely adverse conditions by use of those knobs alone.

“Just need to have the settings for Iron Pigs writ down, then that will get you close enough to just do a bit of tweaking.”

“No, just 'dial him in', is more like it,” said the soft voice. “Most Iron Pigs are sufficiently alike that just adjusting one or two knobs slightly, once the others are 'in the zone' will result in a blown-to-bits pig.”

Thirdly, depending upon the selection, the digital portions of the knobs selected the basic type of target, dialed in various portions to secure a new target, or had the capacity for adjusting the display for the user's preference. The analog portions, accessed by pulling the knobs out, also had a multiplicity of capabilities, and I soon learned that just a minor tweak of one knob for the typical pig would get a solid lock on him if he were head or tail to you, while if seen to the side, he needed zooming in and then locking on a gap or hole in his armor.

“And, finally, one can slip in a battery using this latch here,” I murmured.

“Is that what this thing is?” asked Deborah, as she held up a dark gray rectangle with a linear twelve-line 'plug' at one end and a capped jack at the other. “It says 'M-I-L-N-O 4-5-A-4-F-E long-space E-3-4-A-4-D.”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “I imagine the better gunners kept a hot battery ready to swap in just in case.”

“Precisely what they did, though you deleting that 'bug' reduced the power consumption by about fifty percent – so figure a battery is good for an entire day and night now, and the spare is just in case, rather than a mandatory matter as it once was.”

With the rocket launcher 'tested out', I thought to issue Graćiella and Esther each a vest of four rockets, as well as a box of those strange seeker heads and the wrench needed to change them with the common ones, and with the two of them laden heavily with ammunition and rocketry equipment, they were both off. I then knew our business.

More packing. A lot more packing. Time to get with the program, and now I had to try to help Annistæ organize and pack our gear in its 'finished' state.

I soon learned that the two of us meshed as well or better than she and Graćiella did, and the aspect of organization increased at a seeming exponential rate. I found that I could not merely direct such matters, but between instances of packing bags, I could trim leather to size and rivet scabbards, and here, I had to find out if Gabriel wore a belt, and if so, how wide.

Turns out he wore a narrow one, and I promptly told him to go upstairs and get himself one two inches wide with a thick bronze buckle, this being at the leather shop.

“They have one there for me?” he asked.

“Cut for you, no,” I said. “Such that they can have one ready quickly, yes, as that's more or less the standard width for guards, because they need to carry lots of things on their belts. Look at Karl or Sepp, or...” I glanced at Sarah, and noted that while she was wearing a smock, a flick aside of the cloth showed she was wearing such a belt, along with two flail-sticks tucked into it, her knife-scabbard, her sword, and a holster for a pistol.

“You want one that wide, because you will carry this much or more upon it,” said Sarah. “Now, speak this to that man – no, speak to that woman from the Valley, as he's finding she's a better and faster worker than he is, and he thought himself to be good indeed.” Pause, then, “tell her to measure your waist such that it is very tight, add two inches to that figure, punch eight elongated holes out from that measure, and then trim the end the usual way. They have them done up such that it should take her perhaps ten to fifteen minutes to do that, as they have a number of part-done belts, as Hendrik is planning to gather all the itinerant seamstresses and 'wayward boys' he can, and training them to be guards, depending on how many look to be manageable at once.”

“Twelve to eighteen, at least at first, unless I can get a lot of help,” I said. “Figure a month's time per class after two weeks inside here getting settled and used to being in the house proper, and after the first class, then those I taught first can help the second class get settled during the break I'll need between classes – and I hope I have enough time to teach three classes before the Abbey goes into the black sack, because then it gets weird.”

“You teach three classes, then there will be enough taught to teach more,” said Annistæ. “Toréo can help some, as can I, but neither of us can be spared much right now, and I am afraid I will need Deborah for getting the laboratory set up.”

“I need time to get my strength back, anyway,” said Deborah. “One does not get over living like a deep-slave for that long quickly, even if I do feel better already. I most likely won't feel up to much running or anything else of a strenuous and prolonged nature for at least another month, and I remember that much about dealing with witches.” Pause. “If one is dealing with witches, one will be doing a lot of running, and then, I will have chemistry work to do anyway in the afternoons.”

“No, I'm not going to be able to do these classes all day anyway,” I said. “We may start early enough, but we'll end at lunchtime as a rule for the practical stuff. The rest of the time, though – as much as you can, anyway – it's going to be involving study and practice of one kind or another, so it's going to be somewhat like a short course at the west school.”

“I do not doubt that,” said Deborah. “I suspect I will be dealing with enough witches, and if not them, then rats.”

“Best stuff her with toasted bread, jam, drowned Kuchen, and beer, then,” I murmured, as I resumed work upon scabbards. “All of those, and then pies, also.” Pause, then, “what kind of pie do you like?”

Pie, or Vlai?” asked Deborah. She was bagging up Kuchen, and was giving the matter her all.

“Pie, dear,” I said. “Pepper pie, at least the handful of times I've had it, was both tasty and filling – and they do make good pies here, because I've had some once or twice.”

“Any pie here is good,” said Karl. “I have had lots of pie here, as I am here a lot more than he is.”

“Any kind, as long as it is not too spicy,” said Deborah. “I cannot consume Vlai in any amount beyond a taste, lest it put me in the privy and make the place smell terrible.”

“Then you should not have this Vlai,” said Annistæ. “What is it?”

“It tastes pretty good,” said Karl, “but it's pretty much only to be had during the winter. Most people can eat it, but some who have trouble with their insides...”

Annistæ was looking at Karl. She seemed petrified with terror – much as if Karl were speaking of something more poisonous than Benzina.

“What does this Vlai look like?” she asked. Again, I heard a distinctive note of terror.

“Yellowish white, sort of, and, uh, like a thick and creamy species of soup,” I said. “It may taste good, but it does not feel good when it puts you in the privy.”

“Does this Vlai use eggs and the milk of animals?” asked Annistæ.

“Anna's does,” said Sarah. “It makes me very ill, and him also.”

“Then I think I should not have it either,” said Annistæ. “I may be decent for cooking, but there are foods that make me ill, and anything having fresh animal milk, or fresh eggs – I am aglericaá to such foods.”

“Is that why?” I asked. “I'm allergic to certain foods?” I had not had that trouble before coming here, even if large amounts of fat usually meant serious trouble.

“Raw foods, yes,” said the soft voice. “You can eat boiled eggs, as you learned when you ate them at the second kingdom house, and you can eat cheese spread, but I would stay clear of foods with a lot of fat in them, and not only does Vlai have undercooked milk and eggs, but it has a lot of fat – and if you've had internal injuries beyond the trivial here, then high-fat foods are a quick trip to an unpleasant and lengthy stay in the privy.”

“Best forget the fry-breads, then,” I said. “Those sound like they'd be worse than Vlai.”

“That depends on how they are made,” said the soft voice. “You could probably eat one if you picked it carefully, but the way most of them are done – you're right. They'd put you in the privy for hours.”

“And they have at least two Vendors selling those things on the Short Wharf,” said Sarah. “Usually you have to go to the second street over, as that part is where most of the work gets done over there.”

“Do those three drink-houses take up most of the Long Wharf?” I asked

“No, as that is a long wharf, hence its name,” said Sarah. “If you run rapidly, you might manage it in two minutes – unless a person runs can run like you can. It would not take you two minutes unless your knees were feeling as if they were on fire and you were carrying a load fit for a mule.”

“Oh, my, I said. “Getting Funkelmann's is going to alert all of those thugs in the other two places, unless we hit them all simultaneously or run like we're a pack of lunatics.”

“Or you use a lot of firepower,” said the soft voice. “I suggest the use of the broom, actually, as just the noise will keep those witches at bay.”

“Hose the places down with the broom?” I asked. It sounded utterly insane.

“I might just do that,” said Gabriel. “Really, I would, especially if it does not burn up ammunition that we cannot readily replace. Resupply might prove difficult overseas, and we cannot take an unlimited amount of anything, much less ammunition – and these weapons consume a fair amount, especially those f-shotguns.”

“Bottomless magazine,” I muttered. “That thing is so nasty that just spraying those three places...”

“No, don't worry about that,” said the soft voice. “You provide cover for the others. Sarah and Sepp can do the first part, Karl can put the prepared round mines against the doors, Gabriel can unreel the wires to them, then once he finishes that business, the two of them lay down and Karl touches off the mine.”

“And each of them carries an improved clockwork marvel pistol,” I said. “That, a machine pistol, and a rifle, as well as grenades and other satchel charges, while I just shoot every person I see who is not of our own group.”

“Decent plan, alter it as the situation dictates,” said the soft voice. “Now, Hendrik is going to ask you very shortly about that report, as he expects you to either dictate it or actually write it.”

Dictate it?” I asked. I'd never done such a thing before.

“Best let me go with you, then,” said Sarah. “I can write fast enough to keep up with you, and I suspect you can, with some difficulty, read my handwriting.”

“Hopefully those four have some notes,” I muttered, as I picked up my machine pistol and the other things I 'commonly carried', in addition to that small drawstring satchel on its strap. “Will Gabriel be back by the time we are done?”

“If he is not, then I will be most surprised,” said Sarah. “Now if I know Georg, he's most likely gotten that mess that Hendrik often makes on his first try at writing much of anything into decent order, as he got the ribbon by hard work, not because he's an especially good organizer of his thoughts.”

“Is that why he delegated so much of his thinking?” I asked.

“Most do worse yet than he, and I speak of my classmates at the west school,” said Sarah. “I did unusually well, even for a ribbon-carrier, and that's why I got letters from the king like I did, I suspect.” Sarah then looked at me, then said, “now, didn't you do this sort of thing for a living at one time?”

“Yes, several years after I got through my last instance of school, though if I had such work eight months out of a given year then I did well.” Pause, then, “the usual was perhaps four to six months.”

“How did you live, then?” asked Sarah. We were roughly halfway to the hallway that led to Hendrik's office, and here I saw three people trundling in lead bricks using some fit-for-the-stove wheelbarrows. The things were all but leaving trails of sawdust as it was, and their groaning wheels and squeaking bearings sounds fit for an especially bad nightmare.

“They'll need to scavenge what parts they can off of those after today, even with their minimal use,” I said. “Still, they do save a bit of time and effort.” Pause, then, “it was quite simple regarding how I managed to live on so little. I was left an inheritance, and with it, I paid my schooling off, my place of living was paid for, all of my debts were paid, and I let part of where I lived be used by a housekeeper for her supplies – so I guess I got a deal there.”

“Still, though, in a world run by witches...” Sarah still sounded surprised that I could manage on so 'little'.

“Yes, dear,” I said. “If one wished to live like most did there, then I could not have managed it,” I said. “I put much of that time I was between jobs to good use, and I, uh, made a fair number of things – either things I would have otherwise have had to buy, or things I traded for things that I would have had to buy, and I let the woman keeping house for me manage my funds for me, so she was able to help me a lot in that way – and that woman was much the same as Esther is in many ways.”

“Then that explains much,” said Sarah, as we turned the corner and passed the outgoing wheelbarrow users. They'd just stacked their bricks in silence, wasting no time whatsoever, and while they were not running with their groaning and creaking disintegrating nightmares, the number of lead bricks that had already accumulated was staggering.

“Tam said he'd want to get some of that stuff,” I whispered, as I made ready to tap on the door.

“I doubt he would mind paying that little for lead, not if it is cleaned and already alloyed suitable for casting into bullets,” said Sarah as I tapped quietly with the tip of my finger upon the door. “That type of lead is rare in the first kingdom, and lead that has been cleaned and alloyed is very rare indeed, so if he pays a modest amount for it, he will do well.”

“Save him a lot of work, also,” I said. “The stuff's already cast in nice ingots...”

“You're right!” said Sarah. “He's not set up to do that.”

“And we will be,” I said, as Maria opened the door. Again, she presumed the worst, only this time, she was holding a suppressed pistol. The slightly sooty tip of the suppressor suggested recent usage.

“Rats?” I asked, as I followed Sarah in.

“Yes, another, only this one was in the kitchen, and it had devoured most of a potato,” she said. “We have food in here, as I have no idea how long this will take.”

“If I have to write everything from scratch... No, no one used that stinking written format, correct?”

“No,” said Hendrik. “At least Rolf and Georg can organize their thoughts better than I can on the first go, thankfully, and between the four of us, we have something that might save you some time.” Pause, then, “will you take dictation?”

This last was directed toward Sarah, and she nodded. I was then handed a mound of paper, and as I read through it quickly, I had to think.

“What, nothing yet?” asked Rolf. “But I thought...”

“Give him time,” said Georg. “You can see how fast he can read. Now I might be decent at reading for speed and understanding, but he makes me look worthless that way, and...”

“He was a professional scribe, sir, and not a commonplace one, but one fit for dealing with witches worse than any found in old tales,” said Sarah gravely.

“Which means I more or less have to read through this whole thing, as while it is not written in 'Ye Writtenn Formatte', it is not that much more intelligible than that tome's version of Underworld German. It's like digging potatoes out of very rocky soil – have to be very careful to get the potatoes out of the ground without damaging them.... Now, recall how I more or less had to completely write the report we took south?”

Hendrik nodded, then said, “I expected you to have to do the same thing, and this is a much larger document.”

“No, it is not,” I said sharply. “I could digest this down to a single page, or perhaps two, I suspect.” Here, I turned to Sarah. “Firstly: we have in our possession, this achieved by force and slaughter of a group of thirty witches sent north by a high-ranking arch-witch, a sizable collection of letters writ upon 'special-grade witch-paper', this being writ by the secretaries and close associates of most-powerful witches, including those named Powers. This collection appears to go back several hundred years, and in the short time we have had it, we have determined the following: that the witches more or less do as they please to whom they please in all areas of the five kingdoms, though their tactics vary widely, according to their intent for each region. In the farthest north...”

“See, I told you,” whispered Georg to Rolf. “Just give him time. He's quicker than the lot of us combined.”

“Secondly, in the farthest north, that being the combined areas of the first and second kingdoms, they purpose to combine the two kingdoms into one, and make them into 'that realm, that which we shall have for ourselves, where no man shall live save he be an entirely-committed true-witch'; the third kingdom, that being a realm in which little lies of desire to witches save as a fertile ground for the acquisition of mules and the cultivation of drudges fit for deep-slave labor, a chief region of that sport so beloved of witches, and a secure place of meetings where high-ranking witches may meet with little otherwise being the wiser.”

Pause, this to drink. Dictation was thirsty work.

“As for the fourth kingdom, it serves the purposes of the witches to hide their all-grasping hands for the most part, for to have it as it currently is makes it a fertile breeding ground for the most useful sort of slaves, these being industrious, skilled, and educated men and women, most of whom can be readily broken under whip and shackles; and as for the fifth kingdom, it is the chiefest seat of industry in witchdom, a realm of total control and continual slavery, a perfect realm of fetish-manufacture, whereby all that is needed may be accomplished so as to bring the entirety of the five kingdoms under the total and complete control of the thirteen current sitting Powers – and ultimately, but a single true-witch among a vast horde of fully-owned and totally-controlled slaves, as it was in the days of before the drowning.”

Here I paused for effect. I had dictated the entirety of the needed document, and I motioned to Sarah to indicate I was indeed done with what needed writing. I had more to say, however, this to the men in front of me.

“There. That is what the witches intend to do in ample detail; and that, in total, is what we shall send out. As for what we shall do to bring their desires to naught and exterminate them utterly in the process – that is something we must keep a matter of highest secrecy, as we currently have no reliable means of conveying vital information to and from each other without a high probability of its interception. Hence we must assume that the witches will get their hands upon this declaration by one means or another, and therefore, the less said beyond the bare essentials, the better at this time.”

“At this time?” asked Hendrik. “That might take up a page!”

“Yes, and he said exactly what needed to be said,” said Sarah. “Now, tell me this – did he not reduce entire paragraphs – large ones, ones taking up much of a page – into single sentences during that trip?”

Hendrik nodded dumbly.

“I think he just did so again,” said Sarah. “I wrote all of what he said. Now, give me perhaps ten to fifteen minutes to make it so that it can be read by you-all, then you may write it out neatly, have Kees ink it, sign it, let it dry, and it will be ready in good time.”

Sarah was as good as her word, for once the matter of composition was accomplished, she could write 'passably' nearly as rapidly as otherwise. Georg was the first person to look at it, and as he scanned it, I thought, “he's still the sharpest of the lot, even if you make allowances for the others doing little during the last decade beyond looking good and going through the motions.”

“This is as good as anything I've ever seen,” said Georg, as he handed it to Rolf. I thought to mentally time the length of time it took him to read the document, and when I'd counted twice the time Georg had taken to read the thing and he was still reading, I wondered, “does this man bother to read, or does he have one of those droning people who go on and on like a badly-running outboard motor?”

Sarah looked at me in the strangest fashion, but when I had counted to two hundred – four times and more the number of 'seconds' Georg had taken – he finally handed it to Hendrik.

“I think I have been far too lazy regarding reading matters,” he said. “I have had so much to do that I employed a trio of readers...”

“They drone on like a pack of manure-flies, and all-but put you to sleep,” I said, a definite edge to my voice, one at once 'crisp' yet still reasonably 'polite'. “Correct?”

To my complete surprise, Rolf nodded. Hendrik looked at him sharply.

“I suggest you do this to those three witches,” I spat. I knew the situation now. “When you get home, I want you to do this. Consider it a direct military order.

Here, I took out the pendant. It was spitting sparks, and the blue corona that surrounded it all but enveloped my chest. I then spat out the orders I was giving to this man, in a crisp tone, one that made the room ring. While I was not 'yelling' or 'screaming', I my voice was no longer even remotely quiet.

This was a parade-ground voice, one I knew by heart. After all, I had endured over a decade of this sort of thing, from the age of six to the age of sixteen.

My own αγογε, in a way. Sleep deprivation, abuse, beatings, kicks, living in fear of death every day for years... It educated what I said next, and I deliberately personalized this, this in a manner that was at once unequivocal and extremely precise – again, as if giving a 'direct military order', one where disobedience meant death – death at my hands personally. This was personal, and that indeed, as was appropriate for dealing with fully-owned witch-slaves.

“Firstly, you yourself will secure a sharp sword, one which has been well-proven by death and bloodshed,” I snapped. “Secondly, you yourself shall hunt those fools down personally and then kill them, this done by your own hand, and in the sight of all possible witnesses, for as the man is, so is his strength.”

“Thirdly, when they are dead, you yourself shall personally decapitate them, and then cut their remainders to pieces, this done in front of all possible witnesses, and done with that selfsame sword, or if need be, an ax.”

Here, I reached out, and to my surprise, that one dreaded ax flew into my hand. I held it aloft, then waved it about like a fiend, all the while yelling, then as if I felt inclined to do so, I threw the ax at a bookcase.

The bookcase went to dust, while the ax fell down undamaged in the slightest.

“Looks like I got the last of the fetishes in here – or so I hope,” I spat. I then turned back to Rolf. “You just saw what I did. If you need to, use an ax like that one, and if it takes you all day, and you become caked with gore, then so be it. I have bathed in blood multiple times, and the last instance...”

“Yesterday,” said Sarah. “You and I both were covered with blood, and we killed hundreds that day, and then earlier today, he became caked with blood again.”

“So you can do that,” I said, my voice now sharp as a whip again. “You yourself shall take those heads, and impale each head upon a pole, one twice as tall as yourself, and you shall fit a crosstree, this to hang the bagged body parts, these to have the label of traitor and witch, for all witches are traitors, and all traitors are witches, and they all curse God to his face every second they live – and no, I am not Charles. Charles missed a fair number of witches. I am not permitted such a luxury.”

Here, my voice came up in volume and tone. “I shall have them all, and if you do not do as I say, then I shall name you one of them, and kill and cut you up myself!”

A pause, then, “you will do all that I have commanded you, this without rest, until you have completed your assigned duties. You yourself will then clean the weapons you have used, cleaning them to spotless perfection...”

Here, I had Sarah nodding – and Georg looking at me in a state of awe. They knew I did that without fail, and I had done so, ever since the bridge. The last thing I had done before passing out was clean the ax and sword of blood, in fact – for my weapons were more important than all else, and I still did so when and where I possibly could, even if I was injured – I still cleaned and maintained my weapons before doing anything else.

“And then, once you have completed all that I command you to do – then, and only then, shall you bathe.” Pause. “Is that clear!”

He nodded.

Something inside me 'exploded', and my voice went from a snarling 'parade-ground' tone – loud, but still somewhat tolerable to the ears – into that sudden erupting earshattering scream, only this time that scream was so loud that it seemed to make things happen to the ceiling, the walls, and everywhere about me. I was in the middle of a hurricane, it seemed, and amid this dust storm, my voice rang loud, true, shrill, and cutting.

“I cannot hear you, damn your accursed eyes which see nothing but the will and hunger of Brimstone!” I screamed. “I want an answer, curse your witch-dung-filled head! Give me the answer I want to hear, fool!”

Without conscious thought, my machine pistol, formerly hanging crosswise on its strap, was now gripped white-knuckle tight in my right hand as my left chambered a round. My right thumb flicked the fire selector up to 'Rock and Roll' – as in I was going to fire up this witch in front of me. I advanced, this stealthy, in a crouch, like that of a tiger, with a hush over everything. My steps were inaudible, and when I was perhaps two feet more than the width of the desk from this man, I raised the weapon into the firing stance, finger on the trigger.

I snarled like a wild animal, this loud, ferocious, vicious, and mean, and I could tell I'd taken up all the slack in the trigger. Five round burst to the chest, then another to the head. He'd be dead then, no matter how hard he was.

“The correct answer, you scum-sucking Desmond-licking piece of dung,” I snarled, is...” My voice went from a snarl into the thundering roar that burst eardrums: “SIR-YES-SIR!”

As the echoes died away, I screamed, “Now sound off like you got a pair, you scum-licking idiot of a fully-owned witch-slave, or I'll kill you on the spot by shooting you to bits!”

My eyes were locked onto the sights, my hands rock-steady. I wanted to kill this man more than anything, and I hungered for his life. He coughed, then croaked, this as loud as he could:

SIR-YES-SIR!”

The resulting coughing spell, however, had me put the weapon on safe and lift the muzzle to the vertical, for he had tried to 'scream' his loudest, and when he continued coughing, my 'rage' went instantly to 'concern' – until he coughed, this deeply, and then spat blood a significant amount of blood upon Hendrik's desk.

I then yelled, “out with that damned-to-hell-curse! Those three witches who were your readers were poisoning you, and not just by telling you that 'all is well' when everything was going to hell in a coach! They were putting slow-poison in your food and drink, sir – and when you tried to give me an answer, you told me you wanted no part of them or their rubbish!”

My voice went up to a scream again. “Curse, fall back upon those witches a thousandfold, and may they all die screaming in the agony they sought to visit upon this man, and may every witch and supplicant in the fourth kingdom show himself as red as if he or she is a prewar fetish.”

The house itself suddenly shook, much as if an earthquake had hit, and Georg dove for the floor. He got up, shaking then muttered, “cannons. Lots of them. Dozens of them, all firing in volleys, and they're firing as hot and as fast as they can!”

“Good that I did something right,” said Rolf. “Now, is there...” He coughed again, and this time something flew out of his mouth to hit the floor near my feet – where it exploded and tossed me into the air, such that somehow, I nearly brushed the ceiling, then landed on my back with a shattering crack.

I was glad I'd been taught how to fall in the Dojo, as here it most likely had saved my life, and the other miracle was that somehow, I'd cleared the weapon while I flew, as the bolt was home on an empty chamber when I checked the weapon after Sarah helped me to my feet.

“Sorry, sir,” I said shakily, as I again checked the weapon. I wanted to be absolutely sure it was safe, and checking twice after such an incident, I suspected, had a powerful effect upon all present. “It's the entirety of this world, and it all sits upon me like an upper millstone, and God himself the lower one, so I do what I do because I must. I did not enjoy doing what I did, and I did not do it because I was a power-mad fiend – and God help me if I ever become one.”

“Then why...” Rolf was very confused.

“You know what the witches call him?” asked Sarah. “There is a sizable region writ in large black books about him, and it speaks of 'the return of the monster'. Now do you understand what he is charged with?”

“Enough to send me into an early grave,” said Rolf. “What was that that tossed him?”

“That curse he dealt with was getting revenge upon him,” said Sarah. “He saved your life, and paid a high price for it. Now, if Hendrik has looked that piece of paper over, then...”

Hendrik about-turned abruptly, then walked into his living area. He came out but a minute later, with a pen, paper, ink, and began inking the document himself. As he did, he said, “this much, I can do, I can do it passably at the least, and thereby bypass the matter of Kees doing inking, as he has a lot of inking to do right now, and that work is going to start tonight upon that scribe-closet.”

“Tonight?” I asked. I could not keep the startlement out of my voice.

“They're already marking out the pathway it will need to take, and Kees has been temporarily moved into our spare room,” said Maria. “He's got a lot of inking to do as it is, and his hands have gotten writing-cramp twice today already.”

“Besides, your writing will be known by those three who read it, sir,” I said. “If you write it, then it gives it a lot more meaning in the second and third kingdoms. The fifth, at least in the kingdom house proper, they more or less know the whole story already, so it would not matter, but, uh, Rolf?”

“Yes?” he asked.

“You'd best take your time getting home,” I said. “There's a full-scale war going on down there right now, and the witches are trying to take the whole stinking kingdom.”

“Good,” he said. “Then Willem told me the truth, and I'm glad I listened to his talk.” Pause, then, “we have wood-pigeons, and those...”

“They can be shot down,” I said. “It just needs a lot of witches with fowling pieces loaded with moderately stiff shot watching for them, and the odds of them getting down that far are quite slim.”

“More have been getting through as of late,” said Rolf. “Still, though – you are right. Now I recall you speaking of 'at this time' regarding information. Did you mean there might be secure means in the future.”

I smiled, then said, “making the equipment will be relatively easy. Training the people to use it – that may be a big issue, as almost everyone who sees it is going to think this stuff is witch-gear because of how it looks.”

“It is not that,” said Sarah. “It seems it is very commonly used in the Valley.”

“That means little – no, not little.” Pause. “It means nothing in the five kingdoms,” said Rolf. “I was more than poisoned by those three witches...”

“Who are now dust-mounds, along with everyone else they were grooming in the house so as to take it over when and if the opportunity presented itself,” I said. “Seems strange things happen when I go on the offensive against witches – cause them all kinds of trouble.”

“They usually become food for Brimstone in a great hurry, and it seems his reach grows by the day,” said Sarah.

“From here to the fourth kingdom?” gasped Rolf. He then saw the pendant, which was now merely glowing a light blue color. I slipped it back into my shirt. It was time it went back where it belonged, as showing it overmuch was never a good idea. As if to buttress this matter, I pointed to one area to my right, this between two bookcases. “There. There's a hollow passage behind this panel of wood, one that was intended for ventilation of some kind, but the whole matter was 'buggered up' by the witches doing the work during that period of time. I'd watch it carefully, sir, as it can be reached from the roof – and that means we may well have spies listening in upon us, or they may simply lower a box of dynamite with a long fuse in order to blow us up.”

“Witches?” gasped Rolf.

“It seems that much of the work in this house was actually done by witches,” said Hendrik. “We both know about that one place that was once called the ballroom and we now know was a witch-hole in truth.”