Chapter 20

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That night, we got our first mail delivery.  I received four letters, two from Marza, and two from my family.  I read the letters from my family first, because I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to want to read anything else after I started reading Marza’s.

In the first letter, Ma gave me her love, and told me to let her know if they weren’t feeding me right, and she would complain to the Countyman.  Pa’s handwriting followed, with a terse comment about doing my best and coming home soon.  Everyone wrote a few lines, well wishing for me and little anecdotes about what had happened that day.  Granpa mentioned that he was thinking about ways to improve the bugbuster, maybe even make a horse-drawn version.  Even Abe and Molly wrote a little in their crude block letters.  They had been on duty in the newly-planted fields with their slings, keeping crows away.  Beet and radish seeds weren’t something crows normally ate, but we usually planted larger grains, which the crows would gorge themselves on, if given the opportunity.  Knowing what we typically planted, the local crows would certainly dig up a lot of seeds before they stopped looking for seeds they wanted.

I set aside the first letter from my family and picked up the second.  The next day’s letter was more of the same, the family wishing me well and telling me little things about their day.  I quickly penned a response to everyone, explaining that the first two letters had just caught up with me.  Then I told them about how the militia cooks were using meerschaum clay cooking containers, which would certainly raise some eyebrows at home.  I told them about how I had been making spoons, and using the swine to clean up construction and kitchen waste before responding to the individual things which I could respond to.  I reassured Ma that I was being fed well, though the food was plain, and asked Granpa to tell me more about his ideas for the bugbuster.

With a smile, I wrote a promise to Abe and Molly that I’d buy them one hard candy for each crow they managed to kill with their slings while they were guarding the fields, and asked Zeke to keep the twin terrors honest since the crow corpses would be fed to his swine.  I knew how much Abe and Molly treasured hard candies – that promise would turn them into crow-killing machines.  It might even be hard to get them to come to the house for meals during daylight for the next week or so while the new planted fields were in danger from the crows.

I mentioned absolutely nothing about how I was being used as some sort of violence consultant by the militia officers.  I couldn’t even imagine a way to write about it.  Ma, Pa, and Granpa all seemed quite willing to deal with me being physically violent if it brought me home alive, but how would they react if they discovered that I was apparently good at figuring out new ways to maim and kill people?

Finally, I finished the response letter to my family, and set it carefully aside and picked up Marza’s letters, grabbing one of the last few flatbreads she had made for me, wanting to engage all my senses when reading what she had to say to me.

As I nibbled on the sweet potato and blackberry flatbread, I read Marza’s letters.  They were both painful and joyful to read.  Painful because she wasn’t there with me.  I hadn’t gone more than two days without seeing Marza for at least two years.  Joyful because I was able to imagine her there with me, and forget about the horrible things I’d been thinking about for the last two days.

I read Marza’s letters several times, committing them to memory, and then closed my eyes, laid back in my bed, and imagined her sitting next to me, telling me what she had written.  With my eyes closed, I could imagine her face, her hair, and her eyes.  I was able to imagine her voice, and even imagine her leaning towards me to kiss me-

*knock* *knock*

My eyes snapped open, and I turned my head to the carriage door, speaking a little loudly.  I intentionally made my voice sound clearly annoyed.  “Yes?”

After a brief hesitation, Riko’s voice came from outside, muffled only slightly by the thin walls of the carriage.  “I need to talk to you briefly before you go to bed.  I might not have time to speak to you tomorrow morning, between taking reports from the night scouts and the morning planning meeting.”

There was no way I was going to turn Riko away without speaking to him, so I rolled up into a seated position on the bed.  “I’ll be right out.”  I was careful to sound accommodating.

About thirty seconds later, I stepped out of the carriage, looking at Riko’s face as I emerged.  He didn’t seem irritated by the tone of my first response, but I apologized anyway.  “Sorry for how I sounded at-”

He shook his head.  “Don’t apologize.  Most of us got mail today.  The whole camp is quiet.”  He tapped his chest, and I heard the crinkle of paper.  “I’ve already read my letters.  My wife knows I’m busy as a sergeant, so she was brief, and made sure everyone else was very brief as well.  Strangely enough, absolutely no problems were mentioned, only well-wishing.”  A little smile formed and then disappeared on his face.

I couldn’t help but smile a little at his reaction.  “I hope that Marza and I develop a relationship as solid as the one you and your wife share, Riko.”

He chuckled.  “It’s not as perfect as it seems on the outside, but it is a good match.  I think you and Marza can grow together strongly, though you might want to cultivate a little bit more difference between you over time, even if you have to fake it at first.”  Riko looked at me thoughtfully.  “You two are very similar in many ways.  Being different is a bit of a spice, and spices make things better, in moderation.”

“I’ll try to remember that, sir.” I dutifully responded to my future grandfather-by-marriage.

“Riko.  Not sir.  Not unless you’ve done something stupid.  I didn’t come here to talk to you about your future with Marza.  I wanted to make certain I had a chance to tell you something else before you left to forage tomorrow morning.”

I dry-swallowed.  Riko had been telling me that he thought Marza and I would grow together in marriage, so he clearly wasn’t telling me the marriage was off after he’d seen me do so well at coming up with violent ideas over the last two days.

“Remember that you aren’t here doing this voluntarily, Allen.”  Riko said, staring into my eyes.  “You are a problem solver.  You also have a tendency towards solving things a little aggressively.  I’ll be honest and tell you that this worries me about you, but I’m not worried that you might harm Marza.  After what you did to Rikard and that other boy before the Countyman jerked your chain so hard, do you think I wasn’t watching you extremely closely when you were around Marza?”

I ducked my head a bit.  “I.  I know you did, sir, and your wife and the rest of your family.  I always tried to be on my best behavior.”

“Riko.  Not sir.”  He grinned at me.  “Your behavior was nearly always excellent, and never unacceptable.  Even when you and Marza squabbled, none of us watching you ever saw any indication that you considered violence against her – and as I said, we were watching.  Closely.”

He raised his hand until it touched the bottom of my chin, and then pushed my jaw up a bit before dropping his hand.  “You are not unstable.  You are not dangerous unless you choose to be.  You are a problem solver.  The officers are bringing you and Rikard into close proximity for a reason.  They know what he did and what you have done in return, and are deliberately using your relationship to put you in a mental state favorable to their needs.”  He looked away from me for a moment towards the officer’s tent.  “You are a person to them, but at the same time, your agitated mental state is a tool like a broom or axe.  They have been pushing you hard.  While you are out foraging, I want you to consider what it means that Rikard did not ask to be relieved.”

I wanted to believe what he was saying, but did he really understand?  I couldn’t stop myself, and whispered to him.  “Riko, I laughed.”  I looked at him, expecting to see disgust, but all I saw was his jaw setting a little.  “How can someone laugh at something like that?  Brad laughed when he was telling us those horrid ideas, just like-”

Riko’s right hand slapped onto my left shoulder with enough force to shake my torso, and he pulled me a little down and towards him as he looked up at me, fiercely. “Stop.  There is a difference between hysterical laughter and ‘haha funny’ laughter.  If you had heard yourself clearly, you would not have heard funny laughter.  When you laughed like that, you surprised all of us.”  He took a deep breath and then exhaled forcefully from the side of his mouth so he wouldn’t be blowing in my face, before looking back up at me.  “You are typically very easy to read, but your mental discomfort hasn’t been obvious over the last couple days, probably because you were angry that you were being kept in close proximity to Rikard.”  His hand squeezed hard.  “You are not mentally defective like Brad.  Do not, ever, consider it as a possibility.  Rikard planted that seed in your mind, intentionally, to hurt you.”

“I…”  I swallowed.  I was trying to think of how to respond, and my mind was utterly blank.  How do you respond to something like that?

The ends of Riko’s lips twitched under his mustache.  “No, don’t say anything.  Remember what I said.  Rikard is physically afraid of you, but he hurt you badly with words today.”  He pushed his hand back away from me so I was standing fully upright, and then lifted his hand and slapped me lightly on that same shoulder.  “You’ll be better prepared when you get back from foraging, I suspect.”

“I-”

“No, Allen.  Don’t say anything now.  If you want to talk later, that’s fine.”  As I opened and closed my mouth, trying to figure out what to say, Riko turned around and walked towards the officer’s tent.

I stared at his back as he walked away.  Over his shoulder, I saw Fobi stick her head out of the tent entrance and look both ways, stopping her scanning when she was facing Riko.  She started to make a hand motion in his direction.

Speaking loudly, Riko waved to Fobi.  “I’ll be in the tent in a few seconds, Fobi, I had something important to talk to Allen about.”

As I stood there, thoughts whirling chaotically, one set of thoughts forced themselves to the surface.  Is Riko right?  Is Rikard really that smart?  Could he have planned the comment about Brad in advance or thought about it fast enough to be intentionally hurtful?

After a little thought, the answer was clearly ‘yes’.  Riko’s visit certainly hadn’t answered all my fears, but it did help me realize that I’d been attacked by Rikard, and hadn’t even realized it.

As I tried to work through my mental state, I released my swine from under the carriage and took them over to the kitchen garbage pit.  There was very little there, but it was enough to keep them from being too restless overnight.

I wasn’t able to recapture that happy state of imagination where I felt as if I was with Marza again, but I was able to write her a response to her letters.  I didn’t mention my role as a violence consultant.  You don’t discuss cleaning chamber pots in polite discussion, unless absolutely necessary.  I told myself that violence consultancy seemed to be even less polite to talk about, and mostly believed it.

**

The next morning, I shrugged into my militia-issue backpack.  Before letting the swine out from under the carriage, I checked my pouch to make sure I’d brought what I’d planned.  It was all there – leashes, harness for the two boars, extra leather straps, a sewing kit, fire making kit, a small leather water-boiling bag, and a package of salt.  I had decided to bring the remaining four flatbreads from Marza as well.  The flatbreads would be good energy for me as I worked and my body continued to heal.  Breakfast today wouldn’t let me work hard and travel for an entire day even in normal circumstances, and I didn’t want to have to spend the time to cook while I was foraging.

I checked my swine treat pouch, which was half full of acorn treats.  As a last resort, I could eat acorn swine treats.  That really wasn’t anything I would look forward to though.  Acorn meal bread wasn’t bad, but my swine treat pouch was not sanitary.  It didn’t need to be.  Swine were able to easily stomach things that human digestion simply couldn’t deal with.  Still, after briefly sniffing one of the swine treats, I decided to boil the bag out that night after dark.  I should have done so some time ago.

Before I pulled my staff out of the netting suspended from the carriage ceiling, I carefully checked my cameltote for signs of dampness that might indicate a leak.  The cameltote was both full and dry.  My clothing seemed to be in order.  I grabbed a wide-brimmed straw hat, and slapped it on my head as I headed over to the kitchen garbage pit with the swine.

After I left the swine rooting around in slim pickings again, mostly burnt crusts and grain hulls, I got in a very short line for bread.  When I reached the front of the line, I asked “Any way for me to get an extra loaf or two for an overnight foraging trip?”

The man handing out bread just stared at me for a second.  “I can’t give out more than one loaf to anyone, sorry.”  Then he stamped the back of my hand with a blue dot.  I hadn’t even noticed the stamp in his other hand.

I stared at the blue dot then at the kitchen worker, and started to ask. “Why-”

“It’s so people only get one serving.  Sorry.  Rules.”

I closed my mouth and stared at the blue dot for a second before I stepped to the side.  It made sense to mark people who had been served, but if we were marked every meal, and it was an ink that was hard to wash off, we were going to look like a mad painter’s project in short order.  There would also need to be multiple colors.  I could only imagine how much this was going to annoy Anu.  I looked around but didn’t see her or any of my other friends to warn them.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t just wander around looking for my friends, or wait for them.  The swine were visible to me where I was, and would stay put without supervision for a little while, but not long after the garbage pit was cleaned out.  I also needed to be moving if I planned to get a good day’s work in at the swamp.  I was not coming back without a solid harvest of cattail root.

As I walked back to the kitchen waste pit where I had left my swine, I started eating the breakfast loaf.  It seemed a little smaller than the breakfast loaves of prior days.  It did not taste of cedar today, but the texture and taste was definitely a bit off.  There wasn’t even any attempt to disguise the taste with herbs.  Apparently Mrs. Zeta had given up on trying to ease us psychologically into the new bread mixture, but it still made sense to allow us to adjust physiologically.  Most people didn’t eat wood dust regularly.  If anyone had an allergy of some sort of another to whatever trees the wood dust was coming from, it would be best for Doctor Sven to find out about it after the sufferer had eaten only a small amount.

As I approached my swine, I pulled my whistle out from under my shirt by its lanyard, and blew a quick tone before calling out “Follow.”

There wasn’t anything of much interest left in the garbage pit, so my sounder didn’t even hesitate as they trotted my way, with clear expectations of treats.  I gave them all a half-treat, and walked towards the camp picket on the road at the south end of the camp.  We were only supposed to leave and enter camp by the road now.  Anyone approaching or leaving camp by any other direction risked being put on latrine duty cleaning out the jakes.

One of the camp guards looked at me, with my backpack, staff, hat, and the swine trailing behind me. I saw her clenching her jaw as she approached me, cautiously.  “What orders do you have?”

“Foraging.”  I pulled out Quartermaster Brown’s orders he had written out the prior day and handed them to her.

She looked at my orders before walking over to a little table by the side of the road and leafing through several papers.  After a few seconds she thumped her index finger on a paper and nodded.  Then she looked at me again.  “Why so much gear if you are foraging, and why take so many animals with you?”

The questions were expected and made sense.  “I’m walking about fifteen kilometers to harvest cattail that the scouts found, and will be staying overnight.  I can feed my swine in the woods, and the boars can haul roughly three times my mass in food back to camp between the two of them.”

The other three guards didn’t approach, they just watched.  They didn’t even have staves, which bothered me.  After two days of watching the sparring with spears between the officers and scouts with spear-hunting experience, it made me very uncomfortable that our camp guards had no weapons.  Just from what I had seen while watching the officers and scouts, I was fairly sure I could knock down all four guards with my staff in seconds if I wanted to.

I was cleared to leave, and given a short length of yellow ribbon and told to tie it around my wrist before returning to camp.  Yellow was today’s ribbon color.

I looked at the ribbon draped across my palm.  “I’m not coming back today.  Should I still take it?”

The guard nodded.  “You might come back today, if something unexpected happens.  We’ll leave a note that you might return tomorrow with a yellow ribbon, and note it with your order number from the quartermaster.”

I folded the ribbon a couple times before putting it in my right front pocket.  “That works.  Anything else?”

The guard I had been interacting with responded in a reasonable tone.  “Nope, good luck.  Please bring back something that tastes better than wood dust.”

When she said that, the guards all looked at my swine, and I did my best not to react.  I don’t think I was very successful, because all four of them looked up at me, clearly a bit embarrassed and apologetic.  I had been seeing a lot of people looking at my swine like that since the morning before, when it became clear that rations were being cut and the food that we were getting was going to be diluted with wood dust.

And people aren’t really hungry yet.

I swallowed, coughed lightly into my hand, and showed my blue mark from the bread line.  That got me some sympathetic nods from all four guards.

As they nodded, I made a promise that I had already made to myself.  “I’ll certainly try.  If I see water mint, sassafras, or any other edible herbs with a strong taste, I’ll collect some and give it to Mrs. Zeta for the bread.”  I paused as I realized where a lot of the herbs might have gone to.  “If Doctor Sven doesn’t collect it.  A lot of herbs have medicinal uses.  That might be where they went to.”

The guards paused for a moment and looked at each other and me with nervous glances as that idea sunk in.

After a few seconds of silence, I started walking past the guards and then turned west into the forest, my swine milling around my feet.  “Well then, I need to be moving.  The forage won’t gather itself.”

I suddenly realized what was bothering me.  “Are there no other foragers going out?”

One of the older guards, probably the one in charge, responded to that.  “A couple.  Very few, for now.  Too much work to do in camp.  Sergeant Covil says the numbers of foragers, fishers, and hunters should start going up in another two days after the rest of the important buildings are up.”

The guards voiced their thanks and well-wishes as I left the camp.  I gave a small wave with my right hand a little above my shoulder, but did not turn around.  I did not want to see the looks that my swine were probably getting.

I moved at a slow, careful walk through the woods for the first few minutes, until the sun cleared the horizon and false dawn shifted to true dawn.  When direct sunlight started to illuminate the forest floor, I increasing my pace, stretching my leg out a bit, carefully.  Every now and then, there was a twinge of pain in my calf when I put weight on it, but I never lost any control.  Everything still seemed to be working right.  It felt so incredibly good to be mobile again, and able to move with little pain.

Keeping track of all eleven swine as I travelled wasn’t hard, since the swine had eaten enough at the kitchen garbage pit that they weren’t preoccupied looking for food.  They could and would eat more if opportunity presented itself, but they were content to follow me and stop only for the choicest bits of forage.

I pulled my sling out of my pouch, and a rounded rock out of my pocket, wrapping the sling around my right forearm and holding the rock in my left hand.  If I had an opportunity to take down a bird or small animal I’d take it; if I could cook and eat it reasonably, great.  If not, the swine could have it.  It took me a couple tries to arrange the sling right so I could juggle sling, staff, and rock if I needed the sling.  Just dropping the staff would work, but it would make a lot of noise, likely startling what I was going to try to hit with the sling.

The chances of me getting a clear shot at anything was slim, but if you aren’t prepared, you can’t take advantage of a good opportunity.  Even though I was moving quickly and loudly, not attempting stealth, I or my swine might still startle something out of hiding.  Slowing down would give me better chances of bringing down game, but I wanted to get to the beaver dam swamp and start harvesting.  Other foragers could hunt the game closer to camp.

For the next four hours or so, I walked west.  By using my fingers to judge the height of the sun on the horizon, and watching my shadow whenever I passed through a clearing, I was certain of my heading.  I saw several squirrels, and even a turkey in the distance, but nothing was both close enough and a clear enough target for me to try to hit with a stone from my sling.

The swine grew hungry enough after about an hour into the trip that I stopped by a white oak and let them eat acorns for about ten minutes before continuing on.  It wasn’t enough to fill them up, but they would have all day to graze, wallow, and root nearby while I was harvesting cattail root.

By the time I started smelling the swamp’s thick odor of stagnant water and mud, my injured calf was not bothering me in the least, though I was starting to get a little tired.  Not knowing what the terrain around the swamp would be like, and not wanting to carb crash, I looked for a good place to rest and eat a flatbread before continuing.  After a couple minutes, I found a stand of red oak next to a stone large enough to sit on.

The stone was in partial sun, so I carefully checked it for rattlesnakes before sitting.  As my swine started halfheartedly foraging for acorns, which they didn’t care much for due to the tannin level in red oak acorns being high, I sat and unwrapped the leather I’d used to protect the flatbreads in my pouch.  One of them was leaking a bit of dark juice, so I chose it to eat first.  Blackberry and mint this time.  I forgot about the rest of the world, for a couple minutes, as I imagined Marza next to me, joining me in a snack.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to imagine well enough to enjoy the kiss at the end very much.

When the flatbread was finished, I licked my fingertips and picked a few crumbs off my shirt.  Then I sighed and wished I was home before gathering my swine and heading towards the swamp.  It didn’t take long for me to start hearing frogs and the occasional sound of water being disturbed.

The vegetation was very heavy as I got close to the lake behind the beaver dam.  Moving north, following the land towards the river, I looked and listened for evidence of the beaver dam.  If the beavers were still present, they would be downstream of the swamp, and there would be a clearing near the dam.  There would also be at least some falling water noises since we were not in a drought.

After a few minutes, I found the dam and the clearing where hundreds of small trees had been gnawed off a few inches off the ground.  A large number of the stumps were fresh, and the dam was well-maintained.  There was definitely a very active beaver family present.  The clearing allowed me to look out over the lake and the swamp around it.

Alligators were extremely rare as far north as we were.  Rare enough that I’d never seen one, but Granpa said he’d seen a small one in our retaining pond once, decades ago after many abnormally warm winters in a row.  I had done some reading on alligators in school, and I doubted that the beavers would be so aggressively cutting down trees on dry land if there were an alligator in the swamp.  Last year’s winter had been bitterly cold as well.  Any alligator this far north would have certainly died.

Years later, looking back, I was fairly sure Granpa had been lying about the alligator, just to get my attention so I’d spend some time learning about them.  It was remotely possible that one might get this far north, and our swine were almost perfectly sized for adult alligators to prey on.

Looking across the lake, it was fairly obvious that this beaver dam had been here for decades.  There were no living trees in the lake, only dead stumps, some of them many meters tall.  The dam itself was huge, many meters thick, clearly the effort of many generations of beaver labor.  There was a natural water bypass that probably explained the age of the dam.  The rock to one side of the dam was lower than the top of the dam itself, and the creek was now flowing through the bypass.  Unless there was a flash flood, the water would flow through the bypass and over the rock, instead of over the dam itself.

I couldn’t have designed it better myself.

After a moment, I chuckled out loud.

Well, I could have, but the beavers did a fine job of it without me.  Possibly before I was born.

As if on cue, I heard a loud slapping sound.  One of the beavers had spotted me and sent a warning to the rest by smashing its tail on the water.  I still hadn’t seen a single beaver, and didn’t see the one that slapped its tail, but there was no reason for me to see if I could.  Beavers weren’t dangerous, and I needed to start collecting cattail root.

From where I was standing, I could see hundreds of meters of shoreline densely packed with cattail.  Nobody had harvested here anytime recently, that was certain.  That was good and bad.  Good, because there would be an abundance of cattail.  Bad, because there was no clearly established camp for me to use.

I watered the swine, and then found a small section of solid ground, a little higher elevation than most of the rest of the nearby land, and fairly close to a thick stand of cattails.  I tied the swine to trees in a circle around where I would prepare my camp.  They all immediately began eating the undergrowth, quickly clearing the area while I dropped my pack where they couldn’t reach it, and collected stones for building a fire.

Firewood would be easy.  Beavers would enthusiastically collect green deadfall after a storm, and store it underwater, but long-dead wood was of no interest to them.  The shore of the beaver-created bypass creek bed was heavily littered with pre-sorted dead wood in piles, much of it very dry.

I collected several armloads of firewood for the night’s fire as the swine ate the immediate area around the camp clear of brush.  When I had far more firewood than I should need for the night, I removed all of my clothing except for my straw hat, underwear, cameltote of water, and the whistle on its lanyard.  Then I removed the leashes from the swine, picked up my staff, and headed to the water’s edge with my sounder following eagerly, since I was walking towards water.

Before I entered the water, I slapped my staff hard on the water’s surface to scare away any snakes.  I also probed thoroughly in the water around me to check for snapping turtles.  A large snapping turtle could easily tear a piece out of a man’s leg or arm big enough to cause death by blood loss or loss of limb by tourniquet, but they wouldn’t generally stay around in the water if they were disturbed.

Fortunately, there was no excitement.  No snakes, no big turtles.  Speedy, however, was a bit of a pain to begin with.  She kept bumping up against me, trying to figure out what I was doing.  That was normal juvenile swine behavior.  Young swine learned from each other and from their human handlers if acclimated to humans.  The last thing I wanted to do was discourage her from being curious and wanting to learn, so I didn’t chase her off.  I simply kept working, gently pushing her back a bit when she got close enough to interfere with my harvesting.  After a while, she left me alone, and I was able to speed up a little.

While harvesting, I was careful to keep alert for water moccasins, watch the shallow water for movement that might indicate a snapping turtle of significant size, and, of course, make sure the swine weren’t sneaking in to grab the roots I’d harvested.

The process was simple, and I was able to do it without much conscious thought.  Find a solid stalk, follow the shaft down with my hand to the connected roots, pull the roots up, and then break them off about a hand-length from the stalk.  A quick inspection to make sure there wasn’t any obvious damage to the root.  Then I would verify that there were signs of green shoots on the root where next year’s growth would have come from.  The stalks with good roots went onto the shore, the others, I threw out into the lake a few feet, into deeper water.  The mud still on the roots would drag the plants down and allow some of them to re-root, if the roots weren’t too damaged.

I worked steadily for nearly an hour, unbothered by Speedy, occasionally blowing on my whistle and calling the swine closer out of habit to keep them from wandering.  The swine weren’t trying to eat the cattails I had thrown on the bank, so I didn’t pay particularly close attention to them.  They would wallow and forage for themselves as they liked.

A couple minutes later, I heard a loud splash and turned quickly to see Speedy righting herself in the water where she’d fallen over.  She had a cattail plant in her mouth.  She had an expression on her face that looked so serious that I busted out laughing and had to brace myself on my knees.  As Speedy struggled to her feet in the water and looked up at me, clearly puzzled over my laughter, I was startled to see all of the rest of the swine behind her, pulling cattails out of the mud.  I instantly stopped laughing and started staring.  That behavior was something that the adult swine had never learned from me.  I had never taken the swine to our farm’s pond when harvesting cattail, and certainly never taught them to pull cattail roots like weeds.

As I stared, a little in shock from the sheer strangeness of what I was seeing, I tried to figure out how it had happened.  Speedy had been paying attention to me when I was harvesting cattail root.  I understood that she might have been copying my actions; rewarded mimicry was one of the ways to reliably teach swine.  Especially after I saw her eating the root of the cattail she had pulled out of the mud.  What was startling was that the adult swine had somehow learned a new behavior from Speedy.  That was strange to a degree that was difficult to comprehend.  Adult swine generally ignored juveniles at best.  The juveniles learned their behaviors from the adults, or from handlers, not the other way around.  It was a matter of social hierarchy in the sounder, and that was part of why it was critical for me to maintain dominance.  Without dominance, the swine wouldn’t obey me, or pay attention.  Yet, somehow, ten adult swine had learned a new behavior from a juvenile.

I considered coaxing them all out of the water so they would stop eating the roots that I was going to be harvesting, but I wanted to see if they would keep pulling up plants after they had eaten their fill of roots.  I turned back to my work for another half hour or so, frequently looking over to see what the swine were doing.  It was very hard to concentrate on harvesting.  I had a genuine mystery in front of me.  It was very rare for my swine to surprise me individually.  I’d never had them all surprise me with a shared activity.

Nobody is going to believe this.  Nobody that knows swine, anyhow.

I was probably fortunate that no snakes or turtles decided to bother me while I was watching the swine and trying to work, because I completely forgot to watch for them.

Soon, only Hoss and Bigboy were eating what they were pulling out of the mud.  The females were just pulling the plants out of the mud and then grabbing the next plant.  They weren’t really fast about it, but there were nine of them.

I stayed away from the boars, since they were still eating what they pulled up, and I certainly didn’t want them to think I might take away food they had foraged for themselves.  Not without a very good reason, anyway.  I followed behind the sows, checking the condition of the plants they had pulled up.  Plants with good roots got thrown up on shore, bad roots, I just tossed out into deeper water like before.  A lot of plants were coming up with no roots, or with one root instead of two, but the swine were doing the work with their mouths, and the piles on the shore were growing much faster than me working alone.

I started laughing when I realized that I was trying to think of a way to literally teach the swine how to ‘hold their mouth right’, which was one of a few common phrases that my Granpa and Pa used when they meant to concentrate and pay attention to details.

After I stopped laughing, I spoke out loud, in a resigned tone, but with a little smile.  “I suppose you’re doing quite well, for having no thumbs.  I’ll take what I can get.”

All of the swine paused and looked at me, but there was no recognized command word, so they went back to what they were doing.

I started moving around the females, one at a time, scratching them behind the ears and saying “cattail” every time they gripped a stalk and pulled it up, followed by a small bit of acorn treat dropped in the water, which they would quickly snap up with a mouthful of water.  The pieces were so small, I usually saw them escape the efforts of the sows.  It didn’t matter.  The treats were more mental than physical in their current satiated state.

It didn’t take long to reinforce the new behavior and command word with all of the sows.  If I refreshed it with them a few times over the next couple weeks, I would be able to command it when needed – even years later, though they might need reinforcement after a year without hearing the command.  Considering how much root they had eaten, in the future, ideally, I would feed them to fullness on pasture or less energy-dense forage first.  Cattail was one of the most calorie-dense forages, if you considered ease of harvesting.

I did not try to reinforce the boars and teach them the command word.  I didn’t use them in fields because they were too large to fit between most rows of crops without damaging leaved and stalks or stems.  I really didn’t have any desire to use them in the ponds either.

The sun cleared the tree tops a few minutes later, and I took a break to slather myself with a protective layer of mud.  The air had warmed up quite a bit by that point, and the biting bugs were out in force.  Sunburn from combined direct and reflected sunlight could be extremely bad, especially for my low-melanin skin.  I had a little tan after the summer, but I could and would still burn easily.

As I expected, when the boars became sated, they didn’t keep working.  Instead, they found some deep mud in very shallow water, wallowed to get themselves well-covered, and then went to sleep.

For another three hours, the sows and I harvested cattail root.  It felt very strange to be allowing animals to actually perform harvesting actions.  With their lack of dexterity, I definitely couldn’t use them to harvest normal underground crops.  Cattails, however, propagated through roots as well as seeds, so a little messy harvesting was good for next year’s growth.  Best of all, the lake was only a few kilometers west of where Marza and I would be homesteading.

I started seriously considering that it might be worth considering permanently staying at this location.  Even if the beavers died off or left, the dam was only about two meters tall and twenty meters wide.  Definitely not a casual project, but worth doing, considering the sheer quantity of cattail the lake was supporting.  Crops that grow themselves are the best crops.  Not only that, but I was hearing plenty of frogs, and had seen panfish as well as smallmouth and largemouth bass in the shallow water.

Grinning to myself, I looked at the piles of plants on the shore.  Things were really looking good.  After about four hours of easy labor, there were ten substantial piles of plants along the shore, with another three hours of daylight remaining.  I had been expecting to be working hard, harvesting until dark, and processing the plants by firelight.  If I had processed much more, the boars would have balked at dragging it, so the harvesting was done.

I called the swine with a ‘follow’ command before giving them each a small treat bit as they arrived, and then gave them a ‘water’ command.  That broke the sows out of their cattail harvesting, and they all settled in the mud around the boars, for a well-deserved nap.

I washed off the mud protecting my skin, checked myself for leeches and foot wounds, and put my clothes back on.  The next two hours was spent with my hatchet, separating cattail roots from stems after vigorously shaking the stems in water.  I spent another hour weaving four large, crude baskets from cattail leaves, and filled the baskets with the harvested roots.  Before it got too dark to safely work with a heavy blade, I found and chopped down a dozen saplings.

Four of the saplings, I kept long.  They would be the travois poles for the boars in the morning.  The rest I cut into many short poles, each around a meter long, sharpened at one end.  I drove the sharp ends into the ground in a circle with a flat rock, close to the fire where I planned to sleep.  Even though they were well-fed, I would not sleep where swine could approach me as I slept.  If any of them broke their leash and tried to push in past the barrier, I would wake.  Even Speedy was too large to fit between the long stakes when I was done.

After my safe area was prepared, I brought up the swine from the water, and leashed them all to one tree on the other side of me from the fire, so they could sleep in a pile as they preferred.  I also dragged up about half of the remaining cattail stalks from the edge of the water, and made a big pile of the stalks for the swine to sleep on and eat overnight, if they got hungry.  I saved a few dozen of the stalks for myself, and put them under my ground cloth, to insulate me a bit better from the ground.

The sleeping area was prepared.  Any predators thinking about attacking me would either have to get very close to the swine or the fire, and, after that, they would have to pass over or through the barrier I had erected.  Any predators going after the swine, would have to deal with both Bigboy and Hoss, who I had specifically taught to completely ignore passive restraint if faced with a predator.

I ate another flatbread, which was filled with muscadine and strawberry jam, a fruit combination that Marza really didn’t appreciate, even though she liked both muscadines and strawberries.  I got a strong mental image of Marza holding her nose while preparing this flatbread and laughed out loud while simultaneously making a mental note to specifically thank her for it.

The last thing I absolutely had to do was clean the swine treat pouch and boil water to fill my cameltote.  I filled my heavy leather cooking bag with water, emptied the foul-smelling swine treat pouch onto the ground next to the fire, and boiled the nasty thing clean.  It was ranker than I thought; I had been extremely slack about cleaning it recently.  When I got a good, close sniff, I felt lucky that I hadn’t made myself ill.

When the boiling was done, I briefly scorched both the inside and outside of the swine treat pouch over the fire to oxidize any leftover organic materials that might allow for rapid bacterial growth.  Finally, I turned the cooking bag inside out and boiled more water in it.  The cooking bag worked just as well, no matter what side was facing the fire, and I wanted to thoroughly fire-cleanse the surface that had held the water used to boil the swine treat pouch.

I decided not to put the swine treats back in the bag; they were foul.  Instead, I tossed them into the fire.  I would collect a pouch full of acorns the next morning and use them as treats until I got back to camp and could refill the pouch.

I drank all of the rest of the water in my cameltote before refilling it with a few pinches of salt and the water from the cooking bag.  Then I used leather straps to hang all four baskets of roots, my pack, cameltote, and pouch from tree limbs near the fire.  After taking the cooking bag of boiled water off the fire, there was nothing else I needed to do.

I was laying on my back, trying to think of Marza, what the rest of my family was doing at home, and future plans, but I kept coming back to the idea of gunpowder.

I could not stop thinking about gunpowder.  Every time I dismissed it, a minute later it would return.  My brain seemed to be hooked on the idea of doing something with firearms.  I kept irritating myself trying to figure out materials and methods that I could use to manufacture projectile weapons, which was ludicrous.  Stone, leather, glass, wood, and crude nylon could barely manage a low pressure steam engine, and steam engines were of far greater displacement and far greater mass with far less energy than a firearm would need to have.  Everyone knew that.

The last thing I wanted to be thinking about when I was supposed to be getting away from all the thoughts of killing people was how to recreate the weapon that had killed more people than any other weapon.  Then it struck me.

Everyone knew it, but it wasn’t true.

My eyes snapped open and I jumped to my feet, hopped over the ring of stakes, and ran over to where my pouch was hanging from a tree and retrieved the pad of paper and travel pencil that Lieutenant Baker had given me.

After that, I did some simple math by firelight.  Single cylinder steam engines easily generated far more energy and power than a firearm would require to accelerate a small stone to about twice as fast as a sling stone.  With good pulley rigging, steam cranes at inner sea docks could generate sufficient power to raise a thousand kilograms one meter in one second.  Dockyard steam cranes were workhorses too, intentionally built with extremely high factors of safety.  Larger glassworks had much smaller indoor cranes, with similar lifting capabilities.  This was possible because they were protected from the weather, and did not have to deal with boats bobbing up and down while the crane was trying to start lifting a load.

The cylinders for all types of cranes were frequently rebuilt, but the cylinder bodies were all made of two layers.  The innermost layer was tempered glass, with a layer of thin leather, and then a thick concrete shell.  That assembly was fitted into a thicker container of concrete.  The pusher rod was basically a hickory log, with a leather cap.  The steam was generated in a stone chamber, and transferred to the cylinder through more tempered glass tubes protected by leather and sealed in concrete.  Joints between glass tubes and cylinders were made with threaded glass and heavy rawhide between glass surfaces.  Despite the fragility of the materials used, a steam crane was far more powerful than a firearm would need to be to propel a tiny projectile.  The problem was not energy, it was energy density.  Gradual increases of pressure could be contained by nonmetallic pressure chambers.  There was nothing to say that one couldn’t use a large pressure chamber and a very long tube to slowly accelerate a projectile to a speed where it could be used as a weapon.  Gunpowder didn’t need to be used.  Anything that could create overpressure during an energetic chemical reaction could work.  Alcohol, lamp oil, even finely milled grain dust.

More misdirection by Albert. We were always told in the history of violence classes how foolish people, even recently, kept trying to create firearms and failing – but there was never any real math to explain why.  The books simply stated that without metals, gunpowder firearms weren’t possible, and challenged us to prove otherwise, if we wanted to try and earn a Darwin award.

My pencil flew over the pad as I madly generated simple diagrams, and slightly more complex equations.  Cylinders like crane cylinders attached to long barrels.  Small charges of alcohol used as a propellant instead of gunpowder.  Fully concrete construction. No moving parts. The projectile would be the piston. My very rough guess of required mass was around three hundred kilos.  That was several times more mass than most people could easily carry, but a one-man unicycle cart could easily carry one.  A wagon could carry a much larger weapon with a longer barrel length, or several weapons.

I nearly had a heart attack when the voice spoke.

“Allen Rickson, I strongly object to your current project.”

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18 thoughts on “Chapter 20

  1. Hahaha, oh boy. talking to Albert time! Can’t wait for the next chapter, it promises to be interesting!
    This was a rather good one too, just so you know.

    Also, that ending totally gave me a sympathetic mental heart attack too!

    Some interesting new swine behaviors, especially Speedy. Going to be interesting to see if after so many generations of breeding for smarts, if Speedy might be up to ape or dolphin levels instead of just clever dog levels.
    Its a pity that swine are so focused on food, I wonder if that can be bred out of them to make them safer to be around? Cus dogs and other pet animals certainly have less of a single minded focus, so what makes the swine so focused?

    Also, I didn’t realize that Allen was that level of clever/smart, to be designing these kinds of things from almost scratch. I suppose that despite the rural upbringing, they really do get a very good level of basic education even if they intend to just be farmers their whole lives.

    Probably Albert’s doing, since most humans would drift/devolve into thinking, “why waste my kids time learning stuff they wont ever need, when I could have em help out on the farm instead? They can learn the basics and then help out on the farm after they can read and write and do basic math for inventory keeping. Then we can get more crops in, and afford nicer things! Much better use of everyone’s time.”

    Obviously this is wrong, cus more educated people spread around is great redundancy in times of disaster, and allows for more flexible lives. Lets em take advantage of changing situations and to innovate small things to make life easier. And many small innovations make everyone’s lives better over time as they spread.

    So despite Albert not being pleased right now at the result of his education standards being so high, its still probably for the best. Well, except for the people who die to the invention Allen makes. 😛

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    • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the chapter. I have to admit I am both looking forward to, and dreading writing the next chapter, because the folks from /r/rational are certainly going to poke me with sharp, pointy sticks if I break things too much 🙂

      Albert has very intentionally maintained a solid education base for Nirvana, through passive means, because education is required for civil society. A lack of education leads to a lack of understanding. A lack of understanding leads to a greater propensity for irrational decisions, which can quickly lead to all sorts of horrible things.

      A strong education system is also an excellent place to start when you are trying to guide a society’s basic beliefs.

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    • It’s not that Allen could scratch build it, but he has an idea that could be built by others maybe. the gatling gun otl was based on a machine that used a rotating set of compartments to deposit seeds evenly.

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  2. Great chapter, and an awesome ending!

    I think there should be quotation marks around the following phrase where it appears in the text: What orders to you have?

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  3. This chapter brings up a couple points for me to wonder about, why jump to firearms? Why not crude rocketry? Or is that either already in common use or even more effectively suppressed by Albert? (for obvious reasons) Would practical experience of recoil and experimentation with weapons using propellant combustion break such a suppression? And a couple of issues with materials science and a number of workarounds for the lack of metals that I would think might be suppressed for the same reasons metals were rendered in-viable: Plastics, I’m not sure if a lack of the necessary fossil fuels was mentioned in the backstory but they exist, and I’m fairly sure you can make variants of fiberglass without plastic, though at their tech level getting a large number of tiny glass bits regular in size and shape could be hell and might make it expensive (something else for those glassworks to produce), and finally certain types of ceramic produced under high heat and pressure can be extremely sturdy, though I’m not sure if creating those is possible with their tech base, would be even more expensive, and doing so might require a jump straight from standard ceramic making to huge complexes designed specifically to support this process with few intermediate steps. (I do not make ceramic do not consider this information reliable)

    Also of interest is that no one has suggested shields or other protective gear. It makes sense that the main character hasn’t thought about it yet, he’s focused on the enemy’s lives as a “problem” that needs to be “solved” and has trouble at this stage mentally encompassing the idea of a large fight, much less a battle or a war. It’s possible that shields might not occur to them, and likely/certain that they wouldn’t figure out how to make the most effective type of armor someone with a modern knowledge base might think of making in their situation, but after the first couple times seeing the effects of weapons on a human body it would be surprising for rational fiction characters not to see the benefit of some kind of wearable protective gear -especially if such gear is in use for other applications in their society.
    I’ve run out of analysis to distract me from exam stress, back to studying I suppose.

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    • (I’m responding to all three of your current responses in this.)

      Rocketry and the knowledge path leading to it is definitely suppressed by Albert. However, after only a very few practical demonstrations of a projectile weapon, it’s highly likely that someone does a little action/reaction math in their head and determines that a highly energetic fuel could propel a projectile that was self fueled.

      Nylon is definitely possible to manufacture, as are some plant-based epoxy resins. Nylon is, however, very expensive, and used almost exclusively for bearings of wheeled transport and industrial machines. Epoxy is also extremely expensive and is used almost exclusively for what little industry exists on Nirvana.

      Fiberglass is possible, using plant-based epoxy and glass blown with compressed air and then combed, but it would not be nearly as strong as what we know today because the glass in the fiberglass would not be so carefully organized like modern fiberglass. There would potentially be niche uses for it, but I do not believe crude fiberglass would significantly outperform the strongest woods, especially if the wood is laminated with the same sorts of epoxy as would have been used to bind the fiberglass.

      Most blown glass is simply used for insulation, much like the pink scratchy stuff that you will find in walls and attics.

      Ceramics. Ah, ceramics is such a tempting solution to many things, however, there’s a catch – something that shocked me when I looked into it. Almost all ceramics contain a great deal of aluminum. Aluminum is one of the most common naturally-occurring metals on Nirvana, but it’s still rare. Aluminum-bearing clay on Nirvana is extremely rare. The easiest to collect deposits were found and utilized by the original colonists. Any deposits remaining, when found, generate a great deal of wealth. Imagine finding the Comstock Lode on your property. That would be about what a small aluminum-bearing clay deposit would be like on Nirvana.

      There is only one type of clay I was able to find that didn’t have aluminum in it. Meerschaum, and that type of clay is very brittle. It has uses – it’s heat tolerance is reasonable, and it can be glass glazed, but it’s not a structural ceramic. Glass or concrete is generally used for those applications where ceramics would be used in our world.

      About the strongest, lightest construction material available to Nirvanan engineers is fiberglass-reinforced concrete, and that is substantially expensive, used almost exclusively in industry.

      There are a great many things that are possible on Nirvana, if enough resources were to be thrown at them, however it is an agrarian society. Despite their knowledge, they are limited by their available usable power. All food production is very manpower intensive. Roughly 75 to 80 percent of the population of Nirvana make their living producing food. A substantial percentage of the remaining people make their living processing, storing, and transporting food and other goods (trade). Perhaps five percent of people on Nirvana have nothing to do with food in their professional lives. Educators, industrial workers, bankers, and the legal system make up most of the rest of these people.

      Upsetting this balance without a dramatic improvement in some sector, would result in famine and starvation. This can be seen clearly in our own preindustrial history, when emperors, kings, nobles, warlords, etc., squeezed their people for resources. On Nirvana, nearly everyone is well-educated. Even without violence against people, vandalism or arson does a fine job of jamming up the works if the government gets too oppressive. One of the reasons why Albert has enforced statism instead of federalism is that sufficiently irritated citizens of a state can simply leave one state and go to another. An all-encompassing federal system, sufficiently developed, would make it more difficult for individuals to vote with their feet.

      I hope this helps you understand where I’m coming from. If you see any logic holes, feel free to throw fruit. Next chapter will also address a couple things which I avoided discussing here.

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  4. Also I loved the chapter, am eagerly awaiting the next, and have forgotten to convey both my admiration for your writing and my compliments for its improvement over time, consider those last two things to be done by way of reference to them.

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  5. I have no Idea what the heat tolerance of fiberglass is before the resin melts, that could explain it not being used in the described steam pistons. The chapter also makes me realize that I need to learn more about steam engines to understand why double or triple expansion engines aren’t practical, but this is stonepunk not steampunk, I need to put a hold on mentally bootstrapping imaginary societies up past limits to their development. Though it’s clear that 5 thousand years of people who remember the scientific method and their past technology would have put a lot of effort into getting past these limits on their own so it’s hard to make the setting ironclad -I bet that there are a bunch of technologies that could be implemented but wont be on any scale because they’re economically unfeasible without metal parts, It might be interesting to see opinions in the distant future of the serial on these technologies by those living in the distant wake of the Albertpocalypse(it could be polarizing and might cause rationally motivated conflict between sympathetic characters) but it might not fit with the thrust of the story.
    hahahaha run-on-sentences induced by stress.

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  6. Still wondering about double or triple expansion engines, some casual research shows that the pressure burden on each succeeding cylinder is less than that on the preceding cylinder, this in turn makes me wonder how much mechanical knowledge is suppressed, or simply not taught.

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    • I have not looked at complex steam engines. Steam cranes aren’t steam engines, they are simply cylinders fed by steam from a boiler. They work with wooden blocks and tackle systems and ropes to increase mechanical efficiency. I have my doubts that any sort of high speed steam engine will be possible because the strongest materials available are all prone to fracture and weak to vibration stresses.

      That doesn’t mean impossible, but if it is possible, I’ll have to imagine a use for them which would be economically feasible. Pumping water into city reservoirs, which would then feed aqueducts, seems like a very high potential use. Water is critical enough that a city built in an area without access to high elevation water sources might utilize an advanced steam engine. It would have to be quite some distance away though – research into where Roman aqueducts sourced their water is pretty amazing.

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  7. The ending to this chapter is one really big promise that I think is going to work really well in the next chapter when it gets fulfilled. Looking forward to reading it! Also liked how you kept Marza’s letter in suspense.

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  8. Hard to believe the colonists would have deliberately introduced water moccasins, or rattlesnakes. They both serve a purpose, ecologically, but other snakes, not deadly to man, could have been chosen that would fulfill the same role.

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    • Biodiversity. I try to paint a picture here of a society that understood that they didn’t know everything. They recreated Earth’s ecosystem as faithfully as they could, because they didn’t know what pieces they might be missing if they didn’t. We haven’t even scratched the surface of biodiversity on Earth. The colonists knew more, but not everything.

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    • See above. Leeches hold a spot in the food chain. The fact that they do not overpopulate tells us that they have ecological pressure against them. If we can’t identify where that ecological pressure is coming from, then what parts of the food chain would be endangered by not including them on Nirvana? The current colonists are very happy that leeches are around – they are very useful medically in a low tech society as a source of anticoagulant.

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