Strange, beautiful... What?


I vaguely recalled the taste of the widow's tincture, only this was vastly stronger, and when I looked at Hans through bleary eyes, I asked, “what was that I just drank?”

“The widow's tincture,” said Hans, “and I put in about half again as much as I would give a widow of Anna's size.”

Anna looked at Hans, then shook her head, saying, “no, Hans. Two drops...”

“That is for babies,” said Hans. “Now I expect him to be doing better in about ten min...”

The abrupt shift in 'tense' as the stuff began working was mind-sundering, for both Hans and Anna froze in mid-sentence. Hans' previous voice became a faintly vibrating subaudible rumble, and as my eyes seemed to open wider slightly – the room became noticeably brighter in the space of what seemed seconds – I took 'inventory'.

The abnormal clarity of my thoughts was of such monumental magnitude that I looked calmly at what was on my plate, and as I began eating it with due deliberation, I thought, “this stuff is weird. It feels just like what I was given in the hospital before surgery, only that didn't affect my sense of time like this does. Everyone – and everything – seems frozen in time.”

I then noted the limply relaxed feeling of my limbs, as well as a sense of growing sleepiness. The word 'calm' seemed to hang in the air and overshadow my mind. The effects of the tincture were still increasing, even as I continued eating, and I noticed I was no longer bothered by anything whatsoever, even the recollection of those uncommonly smelly 'tailors'.

As I finished my three herring fillets, I looked up to see mobile walls and changing corners, then as I stood, I noted I seemed to be listing to the right by at least thirty degrees. I wobbled to the soaking bucket, put my dishes in with exaggerated care, then turned around to wobble past the billowing light-blooming brass-encased flowers that were now brighter than my recollection of the sun.

The stairs were wiggling side to side as if a strange species of escalator, and as I walked up them, I noted I was leaning back at nearly a forty-five degree angle. I was surprised I didn't fall down, and only when I came to the top and nearly pitched forward onto my face did I realize the escalator was not working. I made a tight and wobbly turn to the left, then another such turn, and saw my landing space ahead and to my left. I brought down the flaps, then the landing gear, and as I reduced power to the howling engines, I saw the sun burn itself out as it tumbled brick-like out of the sky. I would need to land in darkness, and as the engines continued their tormenting screams, I could see myself falling down like a bomb out of the sky. I faced my inevitable end with equanimity, even as the passengers screamed like maniacs and the crash-alarm blared out its mule-like hoarse braying challenge. I was going to crash, and now, I was asleep – or more accurately, dead to the world and its witches.

Awakening was slow the next morning, and as I rose up majestic like a missile about to be launched, I noted an unusually bright room, phenomenal hearing, wiggly walls, and corners that could not make up their minds as to their angles. Those changed constantly, such that the room was not the same shape from one second to another, and the distorted aspect of all I saw made for a room that seemed bent, twisted, and...

Or was it my mind that was bent and twisted? I thought to stand up, and then saw that I was standing – on the ceiling. I leaped off, then collided with my bed and fell in a crumpled heap.

I carefully crawled out of bed, then saw that my clothing had miraculously removed itself. It had folded itself neatly by my bed, and when I reached for my trousers, they came up like a peeved cobra and hissed at me.

“Now, now, Alger,” I said. “Don't play those games with me.”

To my surprise, my trousers dropped limply and I was able to stuff my legs in them. While I only saw two legs, I had the impression I was missing a leg; I normally had three, just like a strange cartoon I had drawn long ago as a child.

The room steadily twisted more as I put on the balance of my clothing, and when I looked up slightly, the ceiling dipped down and tried to kiss my forehead while it wiggled but inches from my face. I then looked down at the floor.

The floor was mobile, with thick and rumbling waves spraying gravel, nuts – mostly Brazil nuts, but I saw several common hexagonal items and a castellated nut as well – and brass bushings, with an occasional bronze-headed hammer flipping end-over-end past my head. There was but one trouble with the floor, however.

It seemed fifty feet away.

As I watched, however, it came steadily closer, then formed bulging rounded lumps and hollows that looked remarkably like great toothless mouths frozen in the act of yawning. I then assayed standing, realized I was standing already, and began walking toward the doorway.

I was arrested by the wall to my left, however, for I was stopped by a clothing peg. The thing had grown monstrously – it was most of the way across the room, and was twisting like a hyperactive snake – and the grain of the wood now stood up from its background and seemed to faintly vibrate its dark and secretive meaning.

“Wonderful,” I thought. “I've never heard of a hallucinogenic sedative before, much less had one, and 'weird' doesn't come close to describing the effects of this stuff.”

The clothing peg now rapidly shrank back to near its normal length, and as I looked at it, I saw that it had somehow become bright green. It was attempting to tie itself into a pretzel knot, and as I gathered up my supplies – they were trying to escape, and I needed to not merely gather them, but catch and subdue them as well – I wondered what I would be able to do today. I was in no shape to eat, much less work.

I found the doorway, which seemed lined with mirrors, then came out of it and turned into the hallway. This last demanded substantial listing toward the right so as to complete the turn, and then when I saw the escalator from last night, I noted it was moving normally – for an escalator. It was not moving sideways.

While the stairs looked to be moving, I found them to be stationary when I actually stepped on them – or at least, the first two were stationary. Those afterward tried to wiggle out from under my feet, while the mobile and distorted-looking stairwell was enough to cause me to feel afraid – or rather, had I not been so 'sedated', I would have felt afraid.

Not only did I not feel worried, I did not feel 'crazy' either, and my mental clarity and focus was hard to believe, even as I came to the end of the stairs and wobbled out of the stairwell toward the kitchen. Again, I needed to really lean into the turn, and when I came to the kitchen proper, I saw a student's lantern being loaded with a candle. Anna was loading the thing, and when I came to a stool, I checked to see that it was indeed a stool, and that it was on the floor. I sat on it, half thinking it might be on the ceiling, then once I had sat down fully, I said under my breath the following:

“Thank God I sat down without falling on the floor or the ceiling.”

“I told him about how you were likely to be affected,” said Anna, “and now you look like you got into the Geneva.”

“Do I sound impaired?” I asked,

“That was why I said that,” said Anna, “and this candle does not wish to go in, for some reason. Can you look at it?”

Anna handed me both candle and lantern, and I carefully inserted the candle. It went in with such shocking ease I burped.

“I thought so,” said Anna. “Are you all right?”

“Uh, I'm not certain,” I said. “I slept much better than is usual for me. Am I sick to sleep like that?”

“I doubt it,” said Anna, as she lit the lantern. “Hans is in the basement checking on something, and we should have breakfast soon. I just got up.”

I sat down, and then noticed the bareness of the table. As I wondered what to do, I recalled the need for paper, and thought to ask about it.

“Did either of you get the paper?” I asked.

“That and a great deal more,” said Anna. “The paper should be on your bench, along with some more supplies for drawing.”

I stood up and dodged a herd of frisky stools, then found not merely my bench, but also a sizable cloth bag. Looking inside showed not merely my original ledger, but also the other one that had been brought, and along with the two ledgers, I found a slim stack of what looked like grainy and somewhat mottled paper. Bringing the stuff back to the table had Anna helping me remove the stuff from the bag.

“I asked for at least five sheets,” she said, “but given who I talked to, I might well have gotten more.”

“Who did you talk to?” I asked.

“The librarian,” she said.

“A library?” I asked.

“There isn't enough to have someone who just looks after books and manuscripts,” said Anna. “He does that, keeps track of all the older documents, does what printing that needs doing, secures printing supplies...”

“And he should be getting a fresh supply of ink soon,” said Hans, “as I looked at that stuff, and suggested he bury it in the manure pile and get some from Korn.”

Hans then came around to look at me, then said sheepishly, “you were right, Anna. He looks like I dosed him with three tubes of the bull formula, and not one and a half of the widow's stuff.”

Hans paused, then said, “and it should have worn off some, too.”

“Hans, that stuff worked much faster than anyone I've ever seen,” said Anna, “and then, he ate all of those herring before I could count to two, and went upstairs before I could count two more.”

As the plates were set out, I wondered how I was going to manage to eat, as they were moving all over the top of the table. I knew I could talk – my tongue was not in a knot, and I felt it carefully with my hands to make certain, which resulted in Anna looking at Hans and shaking her head – and after eating two slices of bread, I said, “this is much less bothersome than beer.”

“It is?” asked Anna. “Why were you feeling your tongue, then?”

“Beer usually ties my tongue in a knot,” I said, “and I wanted to be certain this stuff didn't do the same.”

“Yes, and now what happened when it began working?” asked Hans.

“Everyone stopped moving completely,” I said, “and I felt so relaxed I wondered if I could move at first.”

“Is that still the case?” asked Anna.

“You both seem a bit slow for moving,” I said, “and the walls are still really strange, the corners are moving, and I still feel very calm and relaxed.”

“You look like you got into the Geneva,” said Hans. “Anna was right, you need a dose for a baby. Now what is it like?”

“Geneva is fine topically, but the smell turns my stomach, and forget tasting it,” I said. “I feel very calm, abnormally clear-headed, the confusion I usually feel is completely gone, and I feel very relaxed.”

“Yes, and you look a lot better,” said Hans. “I think you need to take that stuff daily, though in smaller amounts. Did you rest good?”

“I slept much better than is usual for me,” I said. “I doubt I rest well, especially given how many witches seem to be in the area.”

I took out one of the pieces of paper, then found a pencil. I looked carefully at what I had fetched, then said, “speaking of witches, I know exactly where that one particular witch-hole is hiding. I can draw you a map to show where everything is.”

“Which one is this?” asked Hans.

“The one with the bull,” I said, as I began drawing and 'looking' – and within moments, my sketch reflected what I was seeing. I also was wondering if I was indulging in sorcery.

“Now you are less worried, and are not distracted,” said the soft voice, “so you can look much better. Worry and distraction do not help with being self-controlled and alert.”

“Is this what that means?” I thought.

While there was no answer of a specific nature, my sketch grew apace, and as it did, I became aware of just how distracted and fearful I normally was – and how I'd had much of this information some time ago and had been 'filling in the holes' in some mysterious fashion for weeks past. I had been too fearful of censure, witches, thugs, and other things to think about anything other than staying out of trouble, and too distracted – that was a given, I now realized; I was abnormally distractable – to try to put down the information in a usable format. I now could, and with an abnormally clear head...

“I normally don't think this clearly, either,” I thought, “and it isn't just the demands and stresses of life. There's something else happening on top of those things, and I do not know what it is.”

Within perhaps ten minutes, I had a decent map drawn, and I showed the thing to Anna first, then Hans, and as I did, I noted how strange I felt – and how bothered I was by feeling as I did.

“This is a very good map,” said Anna. “What are these marks here?”

“Those little square boxes with the letter 'k' – it means Kofen – indicate where current coven members are, while these labeled with 's' indicate people on the waiting list.” I then pointed at one of the 'k' houses, and said, “the person living there is out looking for things right now, and he's using a pointed stick. He thinks the forked portion helps him see better, but he is, uh... He's looking for scrap metal?”

My voice indicated questioning and disbelief, especially as this person wasn't 'dowsing', but using the forked piece of wood as a type of 'magnifier', and he was looking through the forked portion while chanting a rune-curse.

“Now that is strange,” said Hans. “Witches do not go looking for scrap metal.”

“This is not ordinary scrap metal,” I said, “but some kind of an old piece of pipe, that, uh, went to a rocket.”

“That makes more sense,” said Hans, as he sipped from a mug. His 'oblivious' voice made me wonder for a moment, at least until he said, “now why would a witch want parts to a rocket?”

“This rocket was really old, really big, and really, uh, cursed,” I said. “The witch thinks his power increases with every such cursed object he finds. While that isn't true, those lying spirits speak of it as being so, and most witches believe such lies avidly.”

“What is this part here?” asked Anna. “The one labeled 'w'?”

“That is the, uh, doom-room,” I said. “They have the ceremonies in there. Here, let me indicate the precise nature of the doorway... 'under handbreadth of leaves, ten paces from knife-marked tree and five from big gray rock'. There, that should help them find it.”

“So you have found the witch-hole,” said Hans. “They have had no luck finding anything over that way since that day we dropped off that man. Now, have they done much in that place lately?”

“It's been shut down since that time,” I said, “and they've been curtailing those activities in that area.”

“Have they quit?” asked Hans.

“Not really,” I said. “They lost three important members, which meant they had to initiate three supplicants, or rather, get them ready to be initiated. Then, they were rebuilding the wreckage when those three houses burned, and finally, the usual coven-business proceeded as though little had happened.”

“What is this of business?” asked Hans.

“What witches do to get money, supplies, and things witches want,” I said, “including, in this case at the least, swine. They have a hidden swine-pen next to that witch-hole.”

I paused for a moment, then said, “now why would witches want to have those stinkers nearby? Do they enjoy roast pork on the table?”

“Not much is known about pigs, other than witches like those things,” said Hans. “Is there more?”

“Here is a hidden datramonium patch,” I said, “and in this shed is jugged datramonium extract and distillate – oh, and not all of it's the common type. They have at least ten jugs of that really stinky stuff.”

Hans chortled with glee, then said, “yes, that is good. I'm about done with deodorizing the stuff in town, and I could use more light distillate.”

“Oh, for each jug of that smelly stuff, there are two or three jugs of heavy distillate – and that's the stuff in that shed,” I said. “Each one of these people has a firebomb masquerading as a lantern, and 'well-dried' heavy distillate to fuel it.”

I paused for a moment, then asked, “now why would witches hoard powder and lead?”

“Those black-dressed people like fowling pieces,” said Hans, “so...”

“These people only wear black when they're in that stinky room or out chasing down sacrifices,” I said. “The only really good reason they might want that much of the stuff is to deny it to those with legitimate uses.”

Anna looked at me, then muttered something about witches and misers.

Yes?” I asked. “These people are working on becoming misers, dear. Nearly every one of them has a lot more money than they let on, and they seem fairly prosperous compared to those around them.”

I paused, then said, “I have no idea what people are going to do with that much powder and lead, as I can see two knee-high kegs, a third one that's as big as some empty ones Willem has, and four fairly nice wooden boxes full of lead ingots. They have to have eight hundred pounds of lead, if not more, as they've been hoarding the stuff for quite some time.”

Hans gasped, then said, “I think you might be right, as that is enough lead...”

“Enough to drive up the price a fair amount locally, you mean,” I said. “Come to think of it, I do have an idea.”

“Yes, and what is that?” asked Hans.

“The witches buy as much of such critical supplies as they can,” I said, “and then hoard them until periods of great scarcity, when they sell them to the highest bidder. They might conceivably make two guilders for each guilder they spend buying the stuff if they're careful that way.”

Yet while my 'scheme' did make sense, I somehow had trouble seeing most witches doing so. I could see Georg doing so, had he the inclination – he didn't – or the resources, and perhaps some of those black-dressed thugs doing so, but the local witches were hoarding such supplies for a very different reason.

“And here is where the dynamite is hid,” I said, as I pointed to the house marked with a 'd'.

“You don't say,” said Hans. “Can you see what type it is?”

“It's in a dark varnished wooden box about so big” – here, I indicated with my hands the roughly twelve by twelve by twenty-four sized box – “with brass sheet corners, and copper or bronze nails. Then, it has a black-painted label, this being 'dynamite, five parts oil, two parts wood-dust, three parts niter. Use Jakob's Caps and Fuse'.”

“That is a weaker grade of mining dynamite, and an off-brand, too,” said Hans.

“That stuff in the haystack?” I asked.

“That would most likely have six or seven parts of oil to one of each of the others,” said Hans. “That weaker stuff will take months to go bad in this weather. Real mining dynamite, like that stick you found, would go bad faster, but the worst one is the one with the club-wielding giant on the box.”

“Club-wielding giant?” I asked.

“That stuff is made bad,” said Hans, “and it drips oil the day it is made. It goes bad in a hurry. I have seen it once, and the popping scared me bad.”

“Popping?” I asked.

“That is when the oil drips off and hits the ground,” said Hans. “I tossed that stick, and it exploded when it hit. If it wasn't so dangerous to use, I would throw it at swine.”

“Figures, now those northern people carry dynamite around with them,” I thought, “and Hans complains how dangerous it is. Maybe being dense like some of them are likely to be has advantages.”

After finishing breakfast – I got two slices for my bread-bag, and checked over the map before letting Hans have it – I loaded up my 'bag of tricks' and my other things, then went to work. The 'relaxed' feeling would have made me nervous had I been able to feel that way, but feeling nervous was beyond my capacity.

I was emboldened by my ability to start the fires without setting myself alight, but only when the others had come in and begun doing their respective jobs did I think to try my hand at something more difficult than getting the forges and furnace lit.

I began to assemble one of the distilling coppers that I had been working on, and within moments, I soon ignored the strange walls and peculiar corners, for I was concentrating much better than was usual for me. Even when I began raising the pan portions of the stripper plates themselves, I noted that my 'rhythm' was more even, and the blows of the hammer overlapped perfectly.

I was now working a bit closer to a forge than normally, as I would tong the plates into the forge, let them set, dunk them into the forge-bucket, and then leave them on the edge of the forge proper to dry.

This continued throughout the whole of the first part of the day, during which time I'd finished all three distilleries, sharpened a number of knives, raised three saucepans, trimmed a number of pieces of copper to finished size, checked a small pile of billets, and piled the rework pieces in another pile.

“Now what gives with separating those things like that?” asked Georg.

“Those need rework,” I said, as I pointed to the 'bad' ones. “Were I closer to having this one thing done, I would just pile them up for melting, but that's not going to happen within the next week.”

“What would melting do?” asked Georg.

“First, we would have more 'good' metal with a lot less work,” I said, “and secondly, that good metal would be much better.”

I paused, then said, “I hope I do not sound drunk.”

“Why is that?” asked Georg.

“I had my fitting yesterday,” I said, “and those people were really stinky and ill-mannered, and that didn't help my coping with being unclothed. I was frightened out of my mind by the whole thing, and I was dosed with this one tincture...”

“Is this the tincture normally given to widows?” asked Georg. “If it is, then I have a very good idea as to what it is like, as I've had it before – and no, you don't sound drunk.”

Georg paused, then said, “you aren't nearly as tense, either. Normally, I get nervous just watching you, and I should not be surprised, given all of those witches that want you dead. You often seem to be listening for them, and you act as if you expected three Iron Pigs to crash into the shop.”

I was still feeling 'impaired' when I left for home – I left when the others did – and while I felt less tired than usually, I knew that was but the seeming. I had spoken of needing a week or more to work a full day, and while I had meant my normal day, the reality was I was having difficulty working at my accustomed pace for the shop's day – or so I thought when I came home. Anna was stirring something in the kitchen, and Hans was gone.

“Uh, the map?” I asked.

“Hans took that to the Public House after you left,” said Anna, “and they all left for that place within an hour. He should be back soon.”

“I hope he doesn't get hurt,” I said, as I went upstairs to fetch clean clothing.

While I hadn't been able to work as long or as hard as normally, I had been able to get dirty just the same, and after bathing, I began working on the steam engine. I was now at the final-fitting stage, where I needed to actually bring the critical parts to their final sizes. This involved careful reaming, filing, and fitting, as well as tapping holes – and, after an hour or so, trial assemblies of various portions of the engine. These last had Anna watching me as often as she could manage.

“That thing looks strange,” she said. “What is it?”

“A steam engine,” I said. “I'll need to make a boiler able to handle a decent amount of pressure and some other parts before I try it.”

“Is that why these patterns came recently?” asked Anna.

Which patterns?” I asked.

“One looks like a bad nightmare,” said Anna, “while the others look to make a strange box, and then the last few patterns I cannot figure out to save my life, even if I can figure out why they bring a lot of those things here and not to the shop.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Some of this stuff is so strange for looks that even Georg might get the wrong ideas,” said Anna. “I've spent enough time in the fourth kingdom to know about a lot of things that people around here don't know of, so I can at least ask questions. We both know how those people tend to be about new things.”

“Uh, they ask questions now,” I said.

“Yes, about the simpler things,” said Anna. “What you are working on there looks as complicated as a navigating timer, and there are few things well-known that are as complex and exacting.”

“I've never worked on those, so I wouldn't know what they're like,” I said. “I have worked on things like this ever since I was small.”

“How small?” asked Anna.

“I was eight or so,” I said. “Things like this are quite common there.”

Hans came home about half an hour later, or so I guessed, and as I carefully tried the fit of one of the lower connecting rods on the crankpin, he came to look at what I was doing.

“They are still finding all of those places on the map,” said Hans, “and I brought home a good amount of that distillate.”

“Lead?” I asked. “Powder?”

“I have some of each coming,” said Hans. “They found more of both of those things in each of those houses, as well as a lot of other things.”

“Did those witches get caught?” asked Anna from the kitchen.

While Hans wasn't able to answer that question in a single sentence – it took several paragraphs uttered around stew, beer, and bread – he did speak of a number of people being shot, and several of them escaping in a hail of gunfire.

“I doubt they got off easy with that many looking,” said Hans. “I dropped two right off and drilled a third in the leg with the pistol.”

“Where in the leg?” asked Anna.

“Up high, where it bleeds good,” said Hans. “I doubt he went far.”

“Will that group continue?” I asked.

“I doubt it will do much in that place,” said Hans. “By the time I left, there were five burn-piles in the area, most of those houses were being ripped apart, and a lot of people were carting off things that had gone missing over the years.”

“You mean the witches were thieves?” I gasped.

“I am surprised I did not find some things of mine in those houses,” said Hans. “I saw entire rooms full of stuff that they had stolen, and some of that stuff had been gone for many years.”

“Why where they keeping it, though?” I asked. “Could they not dispose of it?”

“I think so,” said Hans. “If you are going to sell stolen things, you need to take them a long ways from where you stole them, and then you need to find people who are either desperate enough to take a chance, or people who do not care if the things are stolen.”

“There aren't many places like that up here,” said Anna. “The only likely place I can think of is the third kingdom port, or maybe some places in the second kingdom.”

“Uh, that one second-hand store...”

I ceased speaking, for while that location did handle 'hot' merchandise, they were very picky about what and how much – and much of what the witches had stolen weren't things that store wished to 'fence'. More importantly, the witches had visited that place with the things they could dispose of there – and over the years, they had gotten a great deal of money that way.

“Then why do they steal things that they cannot sell?” I thought. “Is their goal causing trouble for others out of pure meanness?”

While the illogic of that statement was profound, it also made sense in a twisted sort of fashion, and after dinner, I resumed with my fitting of the engine. I suspected it would take another evening or two after tonight, and as I carefully reamed a tin-lined bearing housing, I heard a tap at the door.

I came to the door, then opened it unsuspectingly – and with a bounding rush, someone leaped on me and drove me to the floor. I lay there in a daze for a second, then as my eyes focused, I saw who it was.

That girl was sitting on my stomach, and was reaching for my chest as if infatuated. I thought this very amusing, and relished the attention.

“Now I have you!” she squeaked. “I hope you like to be tickled!”

“Yes, dear,” I said delightedly. “I do.”

“Now, Sarah,” said Anna as she came from the kitchen. I could just hear the knowing tone in her voice. “You might wish to wait on that until later on, when you know him better.”

Sarah leaped from on top of me, then seemed to 'float' down into the basement. Hans came up a moment later.

“It seems she went through that place a bit after I left,” said Hans, “and they found several more of those witches.”

“How did they turn up?” asked Anna.

“Only a few of those things got away without being shot,” said Hans, “and those were the most of them that were found. Then, two more were hiding and tried to run for it, and they were shot, and then finally, someone brought a pair of those white-eared dogs. She came to tell us that.”

“She jumped on him,” said Anna, “and wanted to tickle him silly. I have no idea what has gotten into her, as she used to be more serious.”

“Anna, I like to be tickled,” I said, “and she...”

The odor of flowers was strongly in the air, and I wanted to smell her some more.

“Does she use things with flowers?” I asked.

“She never was one for scent,” said Anna, “and how you are smelling flowers is a mystery, as I cannot smell anything out of the ordinary. I know she bathes a lot, and how she lives might be the cause of it.”

“How is it she lives?” I asked.

“She has to move around a lot,” said Anna, “and while this time of year means easy beds, the warmer parts of the year tend to be otherwise.”

I took another tinned copper cup of beer with me to bed that evening, and fell into a deep sleep upon consuming it. This time, I dreamed an uncommonly strange dream.

I was lying in a hospital bed somewhere, and if I went by the location, its equipment, and the number of tubes inserted in my anatomy, I guessed it to be intensive care. A woman dressed in white – she resembled Anna to no small degree – came, and when I tried to speak, I found I was not able to.

I was on a ventilator of some kind, and felt unbelievably dizzy.

“You are desperately ill,” she said, “and badly need to rest.”

Not only did she look like Anna, she sounded like her and had similar mannerisms, even when she began looking over the equipment. She paused from her checking to say, “this is to help you rest, so that you can endure life and not be so terribly ill. You will be taken care of shortly.”

'Shortly' was but minutes later, when I slept at the prompting of some drug or combination of them – and then, to my surprise, I woke up in a similar environment. I looked around carefully, and saw that I was not connected to any equipment, even though I felt identical to when I had been rendered unconscious.

I then sat up easily, and as I did, I noticed what I was 'wearing'.

My entire body was covered with soft white knit cloth that was comfortable to wear and pleasant to the touch, while I wore a type of eyeware that darkened automatically as I looked around. I then looked at my hands, and thought it strange to have them well-padded with layers of gloves – and stranger yet to have a phenomenal sense of touch. I then carefully felt myself.

Instead of the usual give I had when feeling my body, I now felt extremely firm, and as I continued touching, I noted some light-blue cloth-covered squares on my chest, abdomen, and left side.

“What has happened to me?” I thought.

A soft voice – it wasn't gender-neutral like the one I had heard for years, this one was definitely female – said, “this is to help you. Breathe deeply.”

I did so, and my chest expanded with astonishing rapidity, then as abruptly deflated. The voice spoke of continuing to do so, and with each such deep and rapid breath, I became progressively more calm, relaxed, capable, and attentive – and with the passing minutes, I noted a pleasantly drowsy dizziness.

With half-closed eyes, I now began looking more carefully at my 'clothing', and the first thing I noted was a thick cloth-covered bundle of cables coming from the left side of my waist. This was attached with a sizable knurled connector – nearly two inches across – and next to it was a detached cap. On each side of my waist were rubber-covered metal boxes that attached with a wide cloth strap, while on my feet were some truly unusual 'shoes' of light blue rubber and cloth. The number of small shiny metal buckles these shoes had was astounding.

As I lay in bed, I noticed not merely the dizziness, but also the rapidity of my deep and effortless breathing. I was deaf, enjoying the absence of auditory torment, and wondering what had happened to me.

“This is a wearable intensive care environment,” said the soft female voice, “and it is intended to keep you happy, healthy, and productive. It is unspeakably comfortable, and that by intent. No more bad dreams, insomnia, or trouble from that smelly woman to the north.”

Awakening from the peculiar dream was a mystery, and I did not speak of it. I did speak of the lessening snowfall at the shop that morning while I rammed up molds for bronze castings.

“Is it normal for the snow to still fall this time of year?” I asked.

“It seems about stopped,” said Georg. “Now I hope it does not rain, as I've put an order in for more metal.”

“What kind, pray tell?”

“That haunted stuff, especially,” said Georg. “I put in an order some time ago, and it didn't come up here, and the same for that better common iron. I hope you can do something with the scrap they're bringing from the third ditch.”

“I have plans for it,” I said, “especially once I document it properly. How much more has come?”

I needed to go out front to examine the snow-dusted stuff during lunch-break, and as I wandered around, I noted the highly variable nature of the plate and weapons. The 'good' stuff was both rare and truly usable, even if it was not close to the equipment I had stolen, while the various grades of 'scrap metal' were progressively more common as the defects increased. I picked up one of the 'worst' swords, possibly the worst one I could find, and took the thing inside. I wanted to test it for hardness.

While the others looked on in seeming shock, I began testing the edge with my files. I was more than a little surprised to learn the metal wasn't the common 'butter' softness, but was a good deal harder, and only by filing fairly deeply did I break through the case to reach softer metal. Even there, it wasn't butter.

I tried breaking the sword next, and here, I found a complete conundrum: it wasn't at all brittle. Even with visible defects, the sword bent instead of breaking, and as I hammered the thing straight, I said, “I was misled. I thought these things were utterly worthless.”

“Aren't they, though?” asked Johannes. “They look terrible.”

“You're right, they do look terrible,” I said. “They also confirm my suspicions about this metal. Try filing on this thing.”

“Why?” asked Johannes. “It's bad stuff, and I'm not going to waste...”

Georg came, brought a file, then put its edge on the blade. Two swipes, and he began muttering, then said, “these have a better edge than most knives I've seen. Are they brittle?”

“No, they aren't,” I said. “They may do things worse than the common around here, and they don't spend two minutes on appearance issues, but when it comes to actually working... How many people get cut with these?”

“I've seen my share,” said Georg. “They might look terrible, but they do cut.”

“Have they?” I indicated Johannes and Gelbhaar.

Both of them shook their heads to indicate 'no', then Gelbhaar said, “I have been lucky, as I have not needed to go after the swine.”

“And hence, all you have to go by is hearsay and superficial appearances,” I said. “Supposedly my clothing was cut to pieces, and I acquired a fair number of scars, some of which I've seen. Then, this was one of the worst swords I have found so far. More than a few are significantly better, as I suspect they rework these if a person comes back in one piece with blooded weapons – and we all know what happens with multiple weldings.”

Georg looked at me with goggling eyes, then said, “file my teeth and call me a saw!”

“Now, why don't I try a little experiment with this metal,” I said. “I'll cut a piece off, forge-weld it and then cook it some, and then see what happens. Given our reduced stock, if we can clean that stuff up, it won't hurt our supplies of metal. Or will it?”

Cutting the last four inches off of the sword in question proved another matter: the metal was not merely riddled with slag, but also much tougher than all save that 'haunted' steel, and when I had the piece off, I put it in the forge and began heating it. For some reason, I had an impression, and when I dredged up one of the off-cuts made with the better-quality iron, I thought to forge-weld the two and homogenize them carefully.

The forging process took much longer than I recalled, with lengthy stays in among the coals between the periods of welding due to my growing fatigue. I was recovering slower than I thought I might, and by lunch, I had welded the two metals three times – and each time, the billet had sprayed slag madly.

I then began forging the thing into a knife-blade, and once I had it to shape – I thought to try one of those 'bowie' knives – I let it cool slowly. It was time for my lunch, and as I joined the others, I needed to answer questions.

“I've seen those once or twice here,” I said, “and I thought to try forging one to see if I could do it.”

“If it comes good, then I can sell it,” said Georg. “Butchers supposedly like those, and I know several butchers.”

After lunch – three mugs of cider, both bread pieces, and several pieces of dried 'peppered' meat – I began grinding the thing. As it was an experiment, I didn't spend much time with smoothing. I knew the usual pattern-welded stuff needed a smooth surface to avoid cracking.

“Why is that one so rough?” asked Gelbhaar.

“I want to see if it's as sensitive in heat-treating as the usual metal,” I said. “The pattern-welded stuff tends to be that way, with that 'haunted' stuff being especially bad for cracking.”

Quenching in oil followed by cleaning in lye gave a file-hard blade – as well as a profound species of nausea – and after drawing the blade back to a dark straw color, I thought to try breaking it with a hammer.

After several hard blows, I was again exhausted, and the thing showed no sign of either breaking or bending. I then handed it to Georg, saying, “please, try to break this thing.”

He looked at me, then said, “now why do I want to do that, and why is this thing so rough?”

“That blade is an experiment,” I said. “That stuff from Norden is a lot better metal, so much so that even with poor processing, it's a lot tougher than what we have – that, and it tends to be much harder for a given carbon content.”

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“It means that even when they're banged out by careless lug-headed wretches that have no eye for 'beauty',” I said, “the resulting weapons actually work. I wish I could say that for ours – they need good workmanship and a decent finish to avoid becoming 'wasters' during processing.

“I am not sure even doing that makes for decent swords,” said Georg. “The ones I've seen tend to be more like knives that way than anything, save for looks.”

I resumed checking over the 'scrap metal' outside, and as I looked over the various pieces, I moved those I'd examined to the side to indicate they could be 'piled'. I managed to look over perhaps another ten pieces before I began staggering, then I came inside to collapse on a stool. There, I had to resume guzzling cider until I felt better.

At home, I resumed fitting up the engine, and as I lapped the valves, I wondered as to how readily I would cast the boiler pieces. I hoped we had enough bronze to do so, as that too was beginning to run low.

The engine was nearly finished by the time I went to bed, and the next morning, I began ramming up the molds for the boiler parts. The 'bad nightmare' parts – the water tubes – molded one per flask, and the cores went in readily. I hoped there wouldn't be significant 'core-shift'.

Thankfully, all three such tubes were good when shaken out, as were the other bronze pieces, and during lunchtime, the first of the drilling machine patterns came over. I now had a quandary: bronze castings, or iron.

After asking Georg for 'scrap' cast iron – he knew of some broken machinery, and could fetch it tomorrow or the next day – I began plotting how to actually make the thing. The rack piece still lay covered in oily rags since I last worked on it, as did the handful of other forgings, and now that I had casting patterns, I could resume work on the thing.

The engine finished up that evening, and as I turned it slowly, I wondered how to first get some uncorking medicine, and then, how to test the 'paint thinner' for its function under load. I went downstairs just prior to dinner, and asked Hans.

“I doubt you are corked,” he said, “so why is it you ask for that stuff?”

“Lubricating that engine,” I said. “Boiled distillate does not strike me as a good lubricant. Do you know what is used for those, uh, noisy things that induce insanity and deafness?”

“They use some kind of grease,” said Hans, “or so I have heard. They scatter themselves with some frequency, so it is not likely to be particularly good.”

Hans paused, then said, “now what gives with that bad knife you did recently?'

“It was an experiment,” I said, “so as to test that metal used by those people. I've since been working at cleaning it up, as Georg said that type was liked by butchers.”

“I am not sure what kind of butchers he was thinking of,” said Hans, “unless he was thinking of fifth kingdom butchers.”

“Then what do the ones up here use?” I asked. “I do know those work passably as cleavers. Should I have made a 'cleaver' instead? I've seen one of those up here.”

Hans shook his head, then returned to his grinding. I was wondering what he was attempting to turn into powder when I saw some obvious 'musket powder' in a small tinned copper cup.

“Dust-powder?” I asked. “For jugs?”

“I still have some of that stuff coming from that witch-hole place,” said Hans, “and then, the good stuff should arrive soon, that and some more large vials. I need to have them ready for when those people decide to show.”

I was able to get a cupful of uncorking medicine, and as I began to carefully load it into the engine's sump with a funnel, I noted not merely the oily nature of the 'paint thinner' – I had noted that before – but also, possible improvements.

“Nine parts of this, two of that fourth kingdom grease, and one of tallow,” I thought, “then careful cooking for a period of time, followed by straining. I wonder if I can do that at the shop?”

I did so the next day. Georg was gone, and as I worked on the usual things – the backlog wasn't shrinking; it was growing, if anything – I thought about the castings I would need to do for the drilling machine.

The end of the week supervened, however. While there was no wooding, there were ample things to do at home, and on Monday, I was surprised to find a sizable pile of broken-up cast-iron scrap. I now had to do some substantial plotting so as to make the largest casting. I suspected a larger crucible was in order, and asked Georg.

“That would be an easy thing to do,” he said. “I hope you can handle it.”

“Uh, no help?” I asked.

“It was bad enough with you getting burned by that rivet,” said Georg. “Assuming anyone in here wanted to help, they'd most likely get burned to death if they tried. I know I've learned more about this work since you came than during the whole of my seven years as an apprentice.”

While I knew I could handle the smaller castings unaided, when I indicated the size of crucible I would need for the large casting, Georg shook his head, then said, “that one will need two people. I think you'd best try teaching Johannes or Gelbhaar how to do their portion without being turned to charcoal.”

Over the next two days, I rammed up and poured the various small 'iron' castings, and with each such day, I stayed behind watching for fires in an uncommonly warm shop.

The third day of the week, Georg left to fetch the 'large' crucibles, and while he was gone, I cooked the various small castings in a forge that I otherwise used for annealing copper between raising 'rounds'. During a break, I wondered as to where the distilleries had gone.

“Hans came and picked up two of them,” said Johannes, “and that one man picked up the third.”

“Two of them?” I asked. “Did he say why?”

While Johannes did not know, Hans spoke of the matter that evening.

“One of those things went to Paul,” he said, “and the other went to Korn. I put up the balance of the money so they should be paying me back as they are able.”

Hans paused, then said, “and I hope you can make another of those things soon, as Maarten tells me he could use one.”

I'd best be making those in numbers, then,” I said. “How soon will you be paid back?”

“I've been able to sell nearly half of the aquavit we make,” said Hans, “and I get a good price for the stuff. Paul will be able to run three times what he does with the same work, and get more for all he does, so he should be able to pay me off quickly. Korn might take a bit longer.”

“He might not,” said Anna. “He tends to sell over a much wider area.”

Forging the 'ring shank' and 'come-out tongs' took much of the next day, along with checking the powdered coal that the apprentices were 'grinding' in a hollowed-out section of log. I was glad I didn't need much for each such run, and when the others left that day, I followed them to the door.

The black clouds overhead foretold of something unusual, and when I came home, Anna spoke of it.

“I think it is going to rain,” she said. “The snow will be mostly gone in a hurry if it does.”

The next morning, however, I nearly fell three times on the slippery slush that had replaced the hard-packed snow, and the squelching sound of soggy footwear was a given. The cold that was now entering the shop along with the furtive drips here and there seemed a matter for coal in the furnace and pouring iron. I began ramming up the big piece once everyone had arrived.

Ramming a casting that promised to be over two feet tall and nearly eight inches wide in places was a recipe for a nightmare, and when I began loading up the large crucible with its charge, I thought to use some of the pieces of 'Norden-scrap' that I had set aside.

While the stuff had been going back to the rear steadily to form wide straggly rust-streaked mounds, it had continued coming daily, and by now, I had nearly ten pages of notes and drawings. I then thought to ask about that one knife I had forged for an experiment.

“Augustus hopes you can make more of them,” said Georg, “those and the usual cleavers.”

“Who's Augustus?” I asked.

“The publican,” said Georg. “Getting that type of knife up here isn't easy, and finding a good one is nearly impossible.”

“Hans implied those were common in the fifth kingdom,” I said.

“They are common down there,” said Georg, “but most of those tend to either be poorly made or used by people I'd just as soon not get too close to. There are ones like them made in the fourth kingdom which are much better, but those tend to be scarce, and expensive when they can be found.”

The crucible took some doing to load into the oven, and after a fresh load of charcoal and two scoops of powdered coal, I resumed my work on the other things on 'the list'. Georg had somehow acquired a 'shelf' that held a number of slates like books, and the 'in-process' orders now went horizontally instead of vertically. There were still stacks of slates on Georg's desk.

Pouring the crucible went easier than expected, as the size of the thing meant I could get it out with the come-out tongs, skim the slag, then ask one of the men to pick up the 'rod' end of the shank while I picked up the 'crossed end'. The extent of what Johannes needed to do was 'lift' when I told him to, walk where I indicated, and then hold reasonably steady while I did the actual pouring. Once done, he wobbled over to the nearest jug of beer and began draining the thing, while I cleaned up the 'mess'.

The steady patter on the roof was calming to hear, and when the others left for the day, I lit my student's lantern and resumed work on the drilling machine and my other assignments.

Carrying a bag of tricks amid 'slush' wasn't the easiest thing to do, and once home, I not merely needed to dry my shoes, but also clean them. The ground still showed a great deal of snow, but I suspected 'thaw' would happen very quickly – as would the training. I needed to finish the drilling machine beforehand, and I needed to finish the bathroom drawings as well.

The days passed in a series of overcast gray periods bookended by the darkness of night, and each day, I worked longer than the day before. There were bushings to turn, shafts to hone, drawings for various wooden parts, special tools to harden, and finally, the various parts needing to be fitted one to another.

That was the most critical portion, with careful filing and chiseling needed, followed by scraping. All of the practice that I had had with tools and machinery prior now came to the fore, and as I fitted the ram and tested the gears, I was glad for bluing that did not make an unholy mess.

I came home one evening to find Anna working on the belt, and as I looked at it closely, I noticed it had but a small amount of work remaining. I then bathed, and upon returning, Anna said, “that training starts very soon.”

“How soon?” I asked.

“Most likely at the beginning of the coming week,” said Anna. “What is that machine you've been working on there?”

“A drilling machine,” I said. “I'll need it to make the sextant, as well as more equipment. Has anyone asked questions about it?”

“Mostly as to what it is,” said Anna. “I've seen things like it in the fourth kingdom, but they aren't common save at a few places.”

Anna paused, then said, “now which of those things gets that engine?”

“At this time, the buffing wheel,” I said, “but if that drilling machine needs power, I'll make it so it can be belted to that engine also.”

At night, I turned and threaded bolts and pins for the thing, and during the day, I fitted parts. I left the castings 'rough' when and where I could, thinking that I could 'clean them up' at a latter date. However, there was another reason: the castings had come out fairly smooth. They were almost the antithesis of those used for the fifth kingdom machines, and the dark gray color seemed passable for appearance after wiping it twice with drying oil.

Finally, the machine was done. It was lunchtime, it was Friday, I was tired, and as I turned the crank of the thing, I felt reminded of an old coffee mill. The whirring of the gears and the steady 'ticking' noise made by the belt splice conjured pictures of a grandfather clock, and finally, the steady rotation of the spindle spoke of a machinist's worst nightmares – as this thing had no play anywhere, and exuded a palpable aura of precision.

“Now how is that one used?” asked Georg.

“One uses this wrench here to tighten the chuck on the drill,” I said, “and then while someone else turns the crank, you drill holes.”

“Why does someone else need to turn the crank?” asked Gelbhaar.

“Even my arms aren't long enough to reach that crank and direct the drill-bit,” I said. “Besides, I have something planned fairly soon for a source of power.”