Backstory revamped into Prologue

I don’t plan on erasing the backstory, but I also don’t plan on releasing it with the published book.

Too Much Info-dump.

So, I rewrote it as a Prologue introduction to the Rickson family.

Now the Backstory is dramatically less detailed, while still getting across the important parts that matter to the story.

There’s some talking-headedness to the last parts of the lesson Allen is reading to Abe and Molly.  I’ll probably add a couple more interruptions to break it up a bit.  Maybe Allen asking for a glass of water or something.

That said, here it is:

**

As I walked into the dining room, Ma spoke. “Allen, since you’re the first here, can you do today’s reading lesson for Abe and Molly?”

“Sure, Ma. What is it?” I called back.

I heard Ma take a couple steps in the kitchen and the rustle of paper. “Introduction to the History of Nirvana’s Colonization. It’s a short one.”

“OK. I remember it.” I grabbed a cornbread muffin off the plate in the middle of the table and stuffed it into my mouth as I walked into the living room.

“I saw that, Allen!” Ma chided me from the kitchen.

“Mmmm. Mmmm. Innocent.” I muttered around the muffin.

As I sat in the middle of the long couch, I was joined by two eager bundles of energy. Six-year-old Abe bounced up next to me with a leap, and seven-year-old Molly quickly but more carefully climbed up and sat on my other side.

When they both settled themselves next to me, I swallowed the last of the muffin and looked from Abe to Molly. Then I looked at my hands. “We seem to be missing something.”

They both looked at each other, then at me. “You forgot the book.” Molly accused in a whisper, looking towards the kitchen.

Abe nodded and closed his mouth before he said anything.

“I believe two short people sitting next to me assumed something that wasn’t true.” As I rubbed them both on the head, they both frantically protected their hair. “I don’t remember saying that I would get the book.”

Abe and Molly both looked at me with confusion, and Abe started to talk indignantly. “Ma always gets-”

I put my index finger on his forehead. “I am not Ma.”

Abe’s eyes crossed as he looked up at my finger and then he huffed and swiped my finger away.

Molly giggled, and Abe shot her a frustrated look.

“Time for a test!” I declared as I raised my right hand into the air and exclaimed. “For education!”

They both groaned.

“Molly, do you remember what Ma said the title of the lesson was?”

Molly bit her lip and slowly nodded, then slowly spoke. “Introduction to the History of Nirvana’s Colonization. It’s a short one.”

Close enough.

“Good memory, Molly!” I nodded for reinforcement.

I turned the other way. “Now it’s your turn, Abe. The book should be in alphabetical order on the school shelf. Go find it and bring it to me.”

“That’s easy!” Abe hopped off the couch and walked over to the bookshelf, muttering and counting on his fingers for some reason.

After reaching the bookshelf, he stared at the books for about ten seconds, muttering to himself some more. I was able to hear enough to tell he was reciting his alphabet. Suddenly, he reached out and grabbed a book, then brought it back to me as a fast walk, smiling.

I took the book from him and looked at it to make sure he brought me the right one. “Good job, Abe!” I patted him on the shoulder and gave him a smile. Abe was a year younger than Molly. I tried to give him more obvious signs of reinforcement for good performance and behavior.

Ma and Pa had argued a little about teaching Abe and Molly under the same curriculum. Very young children develop quickly, and Molly was nearly a full year older than Abe. They were concerned Abe might hold Molly back, or Abe might feel inadequate if Molly significantly outperformed him.

In the end, Molly ended up making the decision, though she didn’t know it. The first year Molly started home school, she taught Abe almost everything she was learning, and he retained it reasonably well. If Abe was going to get the same education as Molly, it was better that it be done with adult supervision.

Abe smiled at me as he hopped up onto the couch, took two steps on his knees, and then spun his torso halfway around as he flopped down to sit next to me again. “It was easy.”

Both youngsters leaned into me, pressing their torsos against mine, wriggling to get comfortable.

When they stopped moving, I opened the book and started to read.

“The Ancients did not come from Nirvana. In fact, Nirvana had no life when the Ancients first discovered it, only a great deal of liquid water. That liquid water was why Earth and Mars sent the Ancients here. Lots of places in the universe have water that is ice, or steam, but only a few planets that humans can live on have liquid water. On many of those worlds, the liquid water is toxic due to poisons.”

I paused. Abe was thinking and looked like he might say something.

Molly blurted out “We have steam and ice too, not just water water.”

Abe nodded, but looked irritated.

I poked Molly in the nose, lightly. “You need to raise your hand if you have a question, so you both get chances, OK?”

Molly slapped both hands over her mouth and mumbled through them. “Sorry, Allen.”

Abe raised his hand.

“What, Abe?”

“How did they know, Allen?” He furrowed his brow. “I remember that Earth and Mars are so far away that we can only see their star with our eyes. How did the Ancients see water here?”

“That’s a good question. You don’t have the math and science for the whole answer, but I’ll give you a hint. The Ancients had really powerful spyglasses. When they looked towards Nirvana and split the light with a fancy prism, it made lots of different patterns. Even though they couldn’t see the water, they could see the patterns in the light. What they saw told them there was water here. It’s complex. You’ll learn more a couple years before you graduate from school in town.”

“Oh. Okay.” Abe furrowed his brow.

There weren’t any more questions, so I continued. “The Ancients came here in two great ships that flew in space, one was called Prometheus, and the other Leviathan. Nirvana wasn’t the only planet Earth and Mars wanted to colonize, but it was the closest. Nirvana was only twenty-five light years away. The other three planets Earth and Mars wanted to colonize were in different directions from Earth and Mars. Longreach was forty-nine light years from Earth, and nearly seventy light years from Nirvana.”

The book noted that the students should be asked if they remembered what a light year was.

Molly’s finger poked at the line in the book, proving she was reading with me and raised her hand.

“Yes, Molly?”

“A light year is as far as light can travel in a year!” She looked at me. “How far is that in kilometers? It never said when we learned before. Just that it was really really far.”

Abe nodded.

I tried to remember when I had learned what the speed of light was. It was definitely before I started going to town for school. “You will learn before you start going to town for school. Are you sure you want me to tell you early?”

As expected, they both nodded.

I took a breath. “Well, It’s a long way from our farm to town. Twenty kilometers. From one end of New Charleston to the other along the central road is almost five hundred kilometers. That’s twenty-five times longer! But even that is small compared to how big our planet is. Nirvana is more than a hundred and twelve times bigger around than New Charleston is across!”

Molly was rapidly poking her fingers together with multiplication mnemonics, trying to make sense of the big numbers.

Abe was looking at Molly with a smug grin.

“Don’t worry about doing the math.” I put my hands over Molly’s fingers. “It’s a big number.”

Abe nodded. “I know how big Nirvana is. How fast is light?”

Molly looked at Abe with squinty eyes, long enough for him to notice, and smile big at her. She looked puzzled, briefly, and then her eyes went wide, and she exclaimed, “Oh! I remember that.”

When they were both looking at me again, I continued. “Light can go around Nirvana, the whole planet, more than five times.”

I dropped my voice a little “In just…” and they leaned closer. “…one second.”

They both jerked back from me almost like they had been stung.

“Ma! Allen’s telling fibs!” Molly yelled, not quite screeching.

Ma’s voice came from the kitchen, after what sounded like a pot being set on the counter. “No, he’s not. I heard him. Light is so fast you can’t even see it move.”

Abe contradicted me enthusiastically. “Can too! I can see shadows move, see?” He waved his left hand next to his leg and pointed at the shadow he was making with the index finger of his right hand.

“Oh, no you don’t, you stinker.” I rubbed his head. “Ma’s right. A shadow isn’t light. A shadow is where light is blocked.” I pointed at his hand. “By something else. You can’t see light move, you can see what happens when you move your hand. If you could see light move, it would probably look something like what happens when you swish your hand in water.”

Molly and Abe immediately started moving their hands and looking at the shadows they were making with rapt expressions on their faces, twitching their fingers faster and faster.

I put one hand on the book to hold my place, and tapped Molly on the head once, and then Abe. “Trust me. Have I ever lied to you?”

They both leaned forward and looked at each other across my torso. Then they both looked up at me and spoke together. “Yes. Lots of times.” They managed to say it at the exact same time.

I managed to avoid laughing out loud.

I know you two practice that.

I heard Ma coughing in the kitchen.

“About school?” I asked, in a patient voice.

They both thought about it and shook their heads, both saying “No.”

Molly got a serious look on her face. “That we know about.”

The two looked at each other, with worried expressions.

“I promise I didn’t start today. I’ll never lie to you about school. School is serious.”

The two of them looked at each other again, and then at me.

Pa spoke up, from where he was standing behind me and to my right in the hallway. “Stick to the lesson plan, son. Plenty of work to do.”

I apologized. “Yes, Pa. Hard to say no when they really want to know.”

A slightly lopsided shadow fell across us from behind as Pa slowly approached the couch where we were sitting. Powerful, callused hands gently rubbed Abe and Molly on their shoulders. “Allen’s telling the truth. Light is scary fast. That’s why you usually know a little more before you learn how fast it really is. You’re both smart, but don’t worry about it if you can’t understand yet. I know how fast light is and I can barely believe it myself.”

A meaty hand tapped me gently on the shoulder as Pa stepped away and walked towards the kitchen. “Back to lessons.”

“Yes, sir.”

I started reading again.

“Leviathan and Prometheus were gigantic! They were so big they had many whole farms inside to feed the Ancients. Not little house gardens. Whole farms, with many crops in large plots. There were lakes too. Not ponds, lakes. The ships were so big they had to be built where there was no gravity, or they would have fallen apart like a house of cards in the wind. What’s even more interesting is that the giant colony ships were made of metal. Yes, great, giant ships made of metal!

“You already know where all that metal came from. The broken planet that became an asteroid belt in the Ancient’s home solar system was full of all sorts of metals. People from Earth and Mars used the metal from the asteroid belt to build all the colony ships.”

“How do you break a planet, Allen?” Abe asked without thinking and then raised his hand. “The lesson said the asteroid belt was a broken world like Nirvana, but not how it got broken.”

I tapped his raised hand to make sure he realized I knew he had asked out of turn and then shrugged. “I’m not quite sure, Abe. The Ancients didn’t break it, they found it that way. I don’t think they ever figured out exactly how it broke, but they thought the other planets might have broken it with their gravity.” I rubbed his head. “You learn about some of that in second-year physics when you start going to school in town. Remember Pa said to stay on the lesson.”

“Oh. Okay.”

I continued reading as Abe settled back against me. “To get here, the ancients drilled a hole all the way through their moon and made it into something like a giant slingshot!  It wasn’t really a slingshot, it was what the Ancients called a quench gun.  It shot gigantic barrels of fuel, using electricity to accelerate the barrels.  The giant moon slingshot was what they used to shoot huge barrels of fuel at the colony ships. The barrels were shot through space and connected to Leviathan and Prometheus one at a time, all the fuel being burned before the next barrel arrived. When the ships were moving at the right speed, five percent of light speed, the ships stopped burning fuel and just saved it, so they could slow down when they got close to Nirvana.

“The fuel they used wasn’t wood, charcoal, or alcohol. It was nuclear fire made with an odd metal called Uranium, which doesn’t exist on Nirvana. That fuel was the only thing the Earth and Mars people could reliably use that was powerful enough to make such big ships able to cross the gaps between stars.”

Molly was raising her hand.

“Yes, Molly?”

She was poking the fingers of one hand with her other hand again, doing multiplication. “Twenty-five light years. The ship was only going five percent of light speed. Twenty times twenty-five is five hundred. They spent five hundred years on the giant ship?”

“They did. The original families had children, and their children had children, and that happened many times. They Ancients called the colony ships generation ships because it took them many generations to cross the stars. The ships weren’t like Inner Sea trading ships. Imagine a ship that was so big on the inside that every single farm around town would fit in it.”

“All the farms? Even the ones on the other side of town?” Abe whispered.

“Yes. All of them. The ancients built really super big things. Zeke and I did the math once because I didn’t believe it.”

Molly looked at me with a confused look. “And they built the whole thing, that big, out of metal? Why did they leave to come here if they were so rich?”

Another question I remember asking.

“They had so much metal that it wasn’t expensive. You remember supply and demand, right?”

Abe was nodding. “We don’t buy swine or corn because we raise swine and grow corn.”

Molly thought about it before crossing her arms and declaring. “It’s still weird.”

Abe mumbled “Yeah. Metal’s so expensive!”

I chuckled. “It does seem that way, doesn’t it? More things that you learn about in school.”

I heard crutches coming down the hallway and smiled to myself as I spoke, intentionally loud enough to be sure he heard. “Granpa might answer some questions about it for you later if you do your chores and behave.”

“My ears are burning.” Granpa’s voice came from behind us. “What am I answering questions about later, if certain small people behave?”

“The colony ships, the speed of light, and maybe some other things after I finish today’s reading.”

There was a slight pause, and Granpa’s spoke, with a sly undertone. “Sure then. As long as you don’t ask me why the sky is blue. I never really understood that.”

I wasn’t sure if I believed him or not. I’d never asked him why the sky was blue.

Abe and Molly both immediately turned to me. Abe started first “Allen, why is-”

“Nope.” I poked him in the belly. “Lesson plan. Blue sky isn’t even close to any of what we’re reading. It’s also more complex than you are ready for, right now. You need more physics.”

“Aww, Allen. Please?” Molly wheedled.

“Maybe later I’ll give you some hints, but not today.”

Edward, Jan, and Zeke were right behind Granpa in the hallway.

All the adults… All the other adults were sitting down at the dining room table.

I looked from Abe to Molly. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m hungry. Let’s finish the lesson so we can eat!”

They both nodded energetically and settled against me.

There was a stylized symbol at the side of the page indicating a grown person giving a little person a hug. I remembered this part.

“Building the eight gigantic colony ships was a terrible burden on the economies of Earth and Mars. Too much of a burden. When the work was done, and the ships launched, there was economic turmoil. The moon launcher and the colony ships took more than a century to build. Many individuals worked building the same ship as their only job, for their entire life. When those people lost their jobs, there weren’t enough jobs that paid as well.

The government of the Ancients tried to make it right, but it didn’t work. People were miserable with no jobs. Even worse, a few people in poorer places started to starve as the economy collapsed, despite all the technology of the Ancients. A few years after the colony ships left the solar system, there was a terrible war between Earth and Mars.”

The two children were motionless, staring at the book as if it was a snake. I gently put one arm around each of them and tugged them in a little closer to my torso. Neither one of them resisted.

“They fought each other?” Abe whispered.

“They did. It was terrible.” I answered, quietly, feeling a little sick at the thought and slightly embarrassed as well.

Now I think I know why Ma wanted me to read this.

I looked up and saw Pa looking right at me, but his head smoothly turned towards Granpa as I noted his glance.

I sighed.

Ma and Pa both. Why teach two lessons, when you can teach three?

I tightened my arms again, slightly, and then relaxed. “Try not to think about it too much. We aren’t the same as they were.”

Zeke didn’t say anything as he looked up at me from where he was sitting at the table.

Ma swatted Zeke lightly on the upper arm, and he reached out with his fork to spear a few pancakes, while asking for blackberry preserves.

Thank you for not saying it, Zeke.

I looked down at them, first Abe, then Molly, tapping them on the head to make sure they looked up at me. “It was a long, long time ago. We need to remember it. So we never do it again.”

Molly looked at me and then the book, nodding.

Abe looked down in his lap for a second, and then said “It’s scary.”

“It is. That helps you remember it. Are you ready for more?”

They both nodded hesitantly and leaned forward so they could read with me.

I started tracing my finger along the page again so they could follow along. “The crew and passengers of the Leviathan and Prometheus, they heard Earth and Mars threatening each other with great weapons, and then, a little later, most messages stopped. The last message heard from Earth or Mars was seven years after the colony ships left.”

“All of the first generation adults knew people who had stayed behind. Everyone was scared of what had happened in the war. They hoped that maybe the war hadn’t been as bad as it had seemed from the messages they got from Earth and Mars. As time went by they lost their hope and knew their friends and relatives were probably gone. Most of the first generation grieved for the dead with their friends and family. There were psychologist colonists too, but not enough of them. Some people missed being treated. Most of those people harmed nobody else. Some of them took their own lives.”

Another hug symbol on the side of the page. I remembered this one too.

“One of the colonists that were missed by the psychologists was Lindsay Kirkwood. She was one of the engineers that ran the great engines of the Prometheus. She spent two years planning. When she was ready, she locked herself in a control room and tried to ram the Prometheus into the Leviathan, which would have killed everyone on both ships.

“Lindsay blamed Earth for killing her relatives on Mars. Because Earth’s population was many times larger than that of Mars, most of the colonists had been from Earth. She decided that she would get revenge on Earth by killing herself and the whole colony, all at once.”

Molly and Abe were both staring at me, speechless, with huge eyes.

I turned the book over on my lap and gave them both an arm to hide under. They were shivering slightly. I said nothing for about thirty seconds, just giving them time to recover.

“That’s j-just st-st-stupid, Allen.” Molly stuttered, her arms crossed as she hugged herself.

Abe said nothing, but I felt him burrow closer to me.

I hugged them both a little tighter. “They stopped her. We’re here. We wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t stopped her.”

About five seconds later, Abe asked, “How?”

I looked down at Abe. “Should I read more now, so we find out?”

He froze for a second, looked at the book turned over on my leg, and then nodded. “Yes.”

“What about you, Molly? Do you want to know what happened? Can I read more now?”

Molly pushed my arm off and sniffed, then sat up straight. “Yes.” She was still pushing fairly hard against my side.

I picked up the book and turned it over to begin reading again. “Other engineers on Prometheus managed to break into the room where Lindsay was, and stop her. Engineers on the Leviathan managed to start their engines and dodge the Prometheus.”

Good, they don’t mention Lindsay dying, or all the engineers she killed with traps. That must be next year’s book.

“The colony was saved, but lots of fuel had been wasted. Just like it takes a certain amount of firewood to boil water, it would take a certain amount of fuel to slow down Leviathan and Prometheus. There was only enough fuel left to stop one ship.

“Either Prometheus or Leviathan could start the colony alone, with their great libraries and the fantastic tools of the ancients, but they were specialized to do two different things. Leviathan was designed to grow life on the planet Nirvana. Prometheus was supposed to create a gigantic mine and city on Nirvana’s Moon. Prometheus also carried two huge space elevators called beanstalks that had already been built. The beanstalks could lift cargo from the ground to space, and lower cargo from space to the ground.”

The two were looking more fascinated than afraid, even though they were still pressed fairly solidly against me.

Molly raised her hand, tentatively.

“What, Molly?”

“How tall is space? I know it’s taller than mountains. How did they get beans to grow that tall?”

I couldn’t help myself and started coughing to try to disguise my laughter.

Molly was not fooled, and huffed at me before raising her voice. “Ma, Allen’s laughing at me for asking a school question!”

I looked up at Ma to see her looking back at us with an amused expression. “Give him a second, Molly. He’ll apologize and answer you.”

I nodded, and a few seconds later, I could talk. “Molly, they called it a beanstalk, but it wasn’t really a bean plant. It just reminded them of one, I guess. Really tall and skinny.”

Molly was giving me a severe look. “You didn’t apologize.”

“Sorry, Molly. It was funny, but there was nothing wrong with the question.”

Abe poked at the book. “I want to hear more. A city on the moon?” He looked up at me. “The Ancients could build cities on the Moon? Is there one there now, empty?”

“I think that’s later in the lesson, Abe. Let’s find out?”

Abe nodded.

Molly agreed hastily. “Yes. More, Allen, please.” She was already leaning forward to read with me.

I started reading again. “The colonists had a long time to figure out what to do, but eventually, they had to choose which ship they would build the colony with. When they voted, a hundred and twenty years before the first person set foot on Nirvana, it was very close. They would use Leviathan to build the colony on the planet, instead of using Prometheus to create the colony on the Moon. Forty thousand people voted. Eleven of them lived long enough to set foot on Nirvana.”

Abe touched his fingers to the current page under the passage about a hundred and twenty years, and then under the place where it said eleven people had lived. He raised his hand.

“Yes, Abe?” I was sure I knew the question he was going to ask, and I was surprised he’d caught it.

“A hundred and twenty years? That’s a real long time, Allen. Were years shorter back then?”

I quickly looked down at him, surprised that he hadn’t asked me if people really lived that long back then. Even though the question he was asking was essentially the same, just phrased in an unexpected way. “That’s an excellent question, Abe.”

He smiled shyly and looked at his lap.

“The Ancients with their technology could live a long time compared to us. Our year is only a couple days longer than Earth’s. The people that voted were all twenty years old, or older, so eleven of them lived to at least hundred forty, not just a hundred and twenty.”

Molly looked up at me and whispered, barely audible. “That’s older than Granpa!”

The instant I understood what she’d said, I tried to hold my breath to keep myself from laughing uncontrollably. Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken a deep enough breath. My chest was bouncing from the effort of suppressing myself. I put my fist up to my mouth and coughed. A second later I replied to her. “That’s right, Molly.”

I coughed again and started reading before any of the adults at the dining room table decided to ask what Molly had said. “The colonists were going to build a colony on Nirvana, but they knew how rare metals were here. They couldn’t save Prometheus as an entire ship, but they could salvage the metal that Prometheus was made from. Even though there wasn’t enough fuel to slow both ships, there was enough to slow one ship that was more massive than it should have been.

“All the Ancients in Prometheus moved to Leviathan. Most of the fuel from Prometheus was moved too. But that wasn’t all. The Ancients also took many small, useful machines and all of the dirt, air, and water from Prometheus to Leviathan. Leviathan now weighed more than ever, with very thick soil for its farms and lots of extra water. This would allow Leviathan to grow more crops with shorter rotations, to feed both crews.

“When Leviathan started slowing down, Prometheus did not. Prometheus used the little bit of fuel it still had to aim itself at Nirvana’s Moon. After using Nirvana’s sun and one of the three gas giants to adjust its approach, Prometheus slowed down as much as it could with the fuel it had left before it crashed into Nirvana’s moon. Prometheus hit the moon so hard, you can see the crater on a clear night without a spyglass. It’s the one right in the middle of the moon, with the dark center.”

I looked down at the children. They were both thinking furiously, with funny expressions on their faces, trying to understand. “Pretty neat, huh?”

They both nodded.

Abe said, “I want to look at the Moon tonight.”

Molly agreed with him. “Yes. Me too.”

“I think that might be managed, but remember it had to be clear.”

The two nodded, and I rubbed them each on the head, mussing up their hair. There were two brief squawks of protest, but I didn’t tease them for long.

I started reading again a couple seconds later. “Almost all of the metal from Prometheus is still on the Moon today. The Ancients used robots to collect it and melt it down. Nearly seventeen billion kilograms of metals, mostly steel and aluminum alloys. Some of the pieces of Prometheus fell onto Nirvana, but they burned up in the air as they fell.”

“That doesn’t make sense!” Molly muttered.

I tapped her hand, and she abruptly raised it. “Sorry Allen.”

“It’s OK. What doesn’t make sense?”

“The book said all the non-metal was taken out of Prometheus. How did part of it burn in the air? Was it on fire? Does metal burn? I thought metal didn’t burn?” Molly was looking very confused.

“That’s a very good question, Molly. If something is moving fast enough in the air, it gets hot and melts, then evaporates.”

Molly shook her head. “No, it doesn’t. The faster the wind is, the colder it is. That’s why we have to bundle up in super-thick clothes when it’s windy and cold. The windier it is, the more dangerous it is. Even I know that.” She leaned forward and started looking at the page. “Did you read it wrong?”

I looked down at her, with my mouth a little open, trying to think how to explain friction compared to wind chill.

After a couple seconds, I shook my head. “You’re right, but the book is right too.”

Molly frowned at me.

I patted her leg. “Step-by-step, answer me, OK?

She nodded.

“Step one. If you hold your flat palm over water and slowly push it down, what happens?”

“My hand gets wet.”

I smiled. “That’s true, but it’s also very easy to put your flat palm through the surface of the water, right?”

“Yes.” She nodded.

“Step two: What happens if you slap the water really hard with your flat palm?”

“She winced. It stings, like a belly-flop.”

“That’s right. But it’s still the same water, right? The only difference is how fast your hand is moving.”

Molly’s eyes opened wide. “Weird. How does it do that? Does air do the same thing?”

“It’s not exactly the same thing as slapping water, but air does act differently when you try to push against it really fast.”

“Step three:” I rubbed my hands together really fast. “When you get cold, you rub your hands together to warm them up. Why does that work?”

Molly bounced in her seat next to me. “Friction. That’s easy. That’s why axles wear out on the carts. They get really super hot and can even catch on fire if you don’t wax or grease them. Granpa showed us last week. You can even start a fire with friction. Granpa showed us how to make a fire bow about a month ago.”

I looked over at Abe to make sure he was keeping up with Molly’s questions and answers. He was deep in thought but didn’t seem lost.

I looked back to Molly. “Good! If something moves fast enough in the air, it can heat up from friction. But it has to be really fast.”

Abe huddled against me suddenly. “I’m scared, Allen.”

“What’s wrong, Abe?”

Delayed reaction to something from before?

“How fast can I run before I catch on fire? How do I know if I’m going too fast?”

What?

I blinked and the question suddenly made sense.

Wow, the questions today are out of control, but good.

Abe looked up at me, a worried expression on his face.

I hugged him a little closer to my side. “Nobody can run that fast, not even birds can go that fast.”

“Nobody?” Molly asked, sounding a little concerned herself.

I hugged them both. “Nobody. I’ve never once even started to feel warm when running, and you have to go a lot faster than just being warm to catch on fire. There are two ways to go that fast in the air. Either you need the flying machines of the ancients, or you have to drop things from really high up in space. You can run as fast as you want, and never worry about burning up, Okay?”

My stomach growled, and I rubbed it. “We need to finish this soon, or you two might have to carry me to the table.”

Abe and Molly giggled.

I looked up at the table, briefly, and saw Pa staring at me with a serious expression on his face. I shrugged at him with a tiny motion and looked down at one and then the other little one sitting next to me. After a second, he shook his head with a small smile and then nodded before starting to talk to Edward.

“Are we ready for more?” I asked my students.

“Yes!” The two said, leaning a little forward to look at the book in my lap again.

“Nirvana has almost no metal, and the Ancients knew it. It was an irresistible mystery to them. They sent more tiny machines here than to any other planet they sent colony ships to. It took them a long time to figure out why Nirvana has almost no metals. Even after they figured out why, they didn’t want to believe it because the only viable answer was unbelievable. You see, the Ancients were confused because there’s a certain way that planets around different types of stars form. The three gas giants in Nirvana’s solar system were made of the right things to properly belong to Nirvana’s star, but Nirvana itself was made of the wrong things, in the wrong quantities. Too much of this, too little of that.

“The Ancients finally started to believe their own ideas when more tiny machines were sent across space to measure the age of Nirvana’s rocks. When it was verified that Nirvana was far older then Nirvana’s star, the Ancients realized that Nirvana and its Moon were like brown-headed cowbird eggs – they didn’t belong in the nest with the other planets! Nirvana and the Moon are twice as old as Nirvana’s star, more than ten billion years old. Somehow, our star collected Nirvana and the Moon after Nirvana’s parent star died, which is really weird.”

I stopped for a second to give the two a chance to think.

They both were running their fingers across the page, at different points, and mumbling.

“Any questions?” I asked.

Abe and Molly both paused.

“The sun adopted Nirvana. That was nice of it.” Molly announced.

I winced and spoke carefully. “Molly, the sun can’t think. It can’t be nice. It was just something really rare.”

Molly nodded while still pouting a bit. “I know.”

I gave her a hug. “It’s okay. I think that when we are young, everyone wants to imagine that at least some things without brains can think.” I pointed to myself. “I used to wonder if the Moon was watching us at night, to keep us safe in the dark. Whenever the Moon was dark, I wondered if it was mad at us.”

Edward overheard that and nodded his head with a small smile. He had been the one to read me the astronomy homeschool class that taught how our star and Nirvana shadowed the Moon, to create the Moon’s phases.

I stabbed my finger at the book in my lap. “Onwards! I’m getting hungry, and I think Edward will eat all the cornbread muffins if we don’t finish soon.”

Edward’s arm stopped reaching towards the plate of muffins, and he visibly started moving his finger to count them. Then he pointed at me and shook his finger before taking one more.

Jan smiled a little and bounced up against Edward with her shoulder. The two of them were sitting so close to one another at the table that their chairs were touching.

Edward tore a piece of the cornbread muffin off and held it out in front of Jan’s face. She opened her mouth and he carefully popped the piece of cornbread in, and said “Mmm.”

As she chewed, Jan cut a wedge of her pancakes off, and speared it with her fork, waving it in front of Edward. He opened his mouth and Jan carefully poked the pancake-loaded fork into his mouth.

Abe lightly elbowed me to get my attention, and I looked down at him. “I’m hungry. Read.”

“Yes, sir, Abe sir.” I teased him.

He bumped me with his elbow again.

I continued reading. “Nirvana took hundreds of years to get ready for the first colonists to live on the surface. The Ancients sent thousands of deliveries of bacteria and other single-celled creatures to put in the oceans and rivers. Those tiny creatures worked on the planet to create a crude biosphere for hundreds of years while Leviathan was on its way.

“When the colonists finally arrived in Leviathan, humans could breathe the air on Nirvana, but it would make them really sick. There was more that they had to do! Leviathan had thousands of machines like printing presses, but far more complex. Those machines could print out the tiniest life forms whole. They could also print out the reproductive mechanisms for all living things. Spores, sperm, eggs, seeds and anything else anything alive needed to reproduce. Those machines were used by the colonists, quickly adding more and more life to the world.

“This wasn’t easy. Metal isn’t just something the Ancients used for tools. All life from Earth needs metabolic metals. Iron, potassium, copper, and sodium, to name a few. Nirvana had them, but they were mostly dissolved in the ocean, or deep in the rocks. There wasn’t any rich soil. Life couldn’t exist anywhere other than near the ocean, or along rivers and streams.

“The ancients were prepared for this. They solved the inland mineral crisis with locusts. Yes, locusts. Those pests that come every year to the coast, and eat all the plants near the beaches before heading back inland. The Ancients made them do that. The plants near the ocean get metals from the ocean water. The locusts eat the ocean plants and then migrate back inland. When the locusts later breed and then die, they leave behind their corpses, full of metals and nutrients that other plants and animals need, far from the ocean.

“Even that wasn’t enough. Humans had to be changed slightly, and so did the bodies of all other living things. Every living thing on Nirvana is now better at collecting metals for our metabolism than they had been on Earth. We are so good at taking metals out of our environment, that living on Earth, where the Ancients first came from, would be poisonous. We could even die there, because of too much metal.”

“We have metal inside us?” Abe whispered. “Cool.”

“That’s why blood is red, silly. Iron in our blood.” Molly said. “Zeke said so.”

“Blood isn’t always red, Molly.” I said, knowing even as I finished the statement that I shouldn’t have said anything.

“Yes, it is.” Molly crossed her arms and looked at Zeke confidently.

Pa cut his eyes at me.

I should drop this.

Zeke looked at me with a puzzled expression.

I sighed. “Sorry to go off topic. Our blood is always red, but some animals have blue blood. Clams, crabs, squid, snails and some types of bugs. They have copper in their blood, not iron. Zeke took different classes than me in his last year of school, I think. I took advanced biology and genetics. Most people don’t know that some animals without backbones have blue blood.”

Zeke looked at Granpa, who looked at me for a moment with a curious expression before looking back to Zeke and responding. “Could be. I don’t know. I’ve never tried to see what color bug blood was, there’s not a lot of blood in them unless they are parasites, and at least some of that red blood isn’t theirs.”

Do they really not believe me?

Jan spoke, softly enough I could barely hear her. “It’s true. I took final year advanced biology too.”

Granpa looked at me, and then at Jan. A second or two later, he absently lifted a fork full of scrambled eggs to his mouth while looking at nothing in particular.

Pa smiled. “Good! It’s settled then.” He pointed at me. “Still, I asked you to stay on the lesson plan. Go too far off track, and it’s more distracting than useful. You just taught them something you didn’t learn until your last year in school. That doesn’t do them any good, even if it is interesting.”

Despite being vindicated by Jan, I was uncomfortable. “Yes, sir.”

I’m trying. It’s hard.

I looked down and from side to side at my students. “You two ready to finish this up? It’s only a couple more pages.”

Molly still looked a little confused, but nodded.

Abe just nodded without seeming distracted. He hadn’t seemed very interested in the argument about blood.

I suspected that there would be a lot of snails and bugs being sacrificed to science on over the next few days, to satisfy Molly’s curiosity. From the way Granpa looked after Jan confirmed blue blood in some bugs, he might be an enthusiastic participant. Granpa knew more about insects and other pests we might find on the farm than anyone else I knew. Even some of the most successful local farmers sometimes came to Granpa to get advice. I was surprised he hadn’t known about blue-blooded invertebrates, but it made some sense. His knowledge of pests and parasites was centered around their life cycles, what they ate, and how to control them. Not what color their blood was.

I started reading. “Plants were seeded by machines in massive numbers everywhere that there was water. For ten years, no parasitic plant-eating insects were introduced, only symbiotic plant-eating insects and pollinators. After the plants were established and producing lots of viable seeds, locusts and other simple creatures without backbones were introduced.

“For nearly seventy years after the introduction of locusts, there were still no animals with backbones on Nirvana. Swarms of trillions of locusts every year moved minerals from the coasts inland. Plants and other insects turned locusts, sand, and dust into thin soil inland.

“During the last forty years before the first humans moved down to live on Nirvana, the Ancients created small animals with backbones. Fish, birds, rodents, reptiles, and similar creatures that could be grown by the thousands and tended by humans on Leviathan before being released directly into the environment on Nirvana. Larger animals would not be raised on Leviathan because the space elevators, the beanpoles, had been lost. Creatures bigger than house cats would be created on Nirvana, with machines brought down from Leviathan. The colonists would raise the animals to young adulthood, and release them into the wild.

“Finally, one hundred and twenty years after the vote, Colonists started moving from Leviathan to the planet. Their machines had created places to live, and farms. The farms didn’t need people to plant, tend, or harvest crops, the machines did all that work.”

Abe raised his hand.

“Yes, Abe?”

“What did the farmers do? If the machines did everything, did they just watch the crops grow? Wouldn’t that be boring?”

“There weren’t many farmers, Abe. There were a few experts like Granpa, for weird problems. They had lots and lots of computers and machines to do the work. If Granpa had the machines and computers of the Ancients, he could grow a thousand farms worth of crops without any other people helping. The book talks about that in a minute, okay?”

“Okay.” He bent over a little closer to the book, almost leaning on my thigh.

“The colonists slowly brought about half of their own soil down from Leviathan, a little at a time, leaving the other half in Leviathan in case something went wrong. Nirvana’s new soil was thin and delicate everywhere except next to water. The first farms were mostly greenhouses. As the more metal-rich soil was brought down from Leviathan and mixed with the metal-poor Nirvanan soil, outdoor crops started growing as well as the greenhouse crops.

“Almost no colonists tended crops, but almost everyone helped tend animals. Machines built huge buildings, and pens for the animals, in water and on land. Without the beanstalks, the only way up and down from Leviathan was with shuttles. The bigger animals just couldn’t be moved that way in enough numbers to be useful. The colonists were growing a world’s worth of large animals, from dogs and cows, to the great whales, and sharks. The colonists had to do that work. Machines could create the animals, but most animals did not thrive when tended by machines. Especially the more social mammals. They needed people to bond to socially, until there were adult animals that could raise their own young.”

Molly looked up at me. “The Ancients had so much technology, and they used it to be herders?”

I poked her hand. “You need to remember to raise your hand, Molly.”

She started to raise her hand. I gently put my open hand on top of hers as she started to lift it.

“The answer is no. It’s like harvest. Almost everyone helped do that one job until that one job was mostly done. The first few decades needed almost everyone to help take care of the animals, but after that, more and more people did other things.”

Molly nodded, satisfied.

“We’re almost to where they talk about Albert.” I mock-whispered to them.

They both looked up at me with quick motions of their heads, staring at me.

I nodded. “Really. It’s on the next page if I remember right.”

I turned the page and they both scooted tighter against me and leaned forward over the book a little more.

“Even the Ancients didn’t know everything. Lots of animals died out several times before they finally were able to survive on their own and begin breeding in the wild. Nirvana was a hard place for grazers and other plant-eaters in the beginning. It wasn’t easy for meat-eaters either. They didn’t have experienced adults to teach the youngsters how to hunt. A lot of meat eaters took a long time to learn how to catch prey. If they couldn’t eat plants or fish, Leviathan’s machines made meat for them as they learned.

“As time went on, more and more of the animals on Nirvana learned how to survive without humans, and fewer people were needed to tend and monitor animals and the ecology of Nirvana. After nearly a hundred years on the planet, less than half the Ancients were required to take care of young animals and Nirvana’s biosphere.”

Molly muttered something that sounded like ‘Made meat?’ but didn’t raise her hand.

I kept reading. “The Ancients started doing other things. One of them was mining metals. Nirvana has metals, but they are very hard to mine. There is so little metal that we don’t even bother mining for metal without machines to do the work. In most cases, we wouldn’t be able to see metals in the rock, even if we found it. Prometheus was the ship that had most of the mining equipment, but Leviathan had the instructions and tools to make the machines needed to start mining both on Nirvana and on the Moon. The mines that the Ancients started are so immense that the entrances have all been sealed to keep people from getting lost inside them and dying.”

I kept reading. “Another thing that the Ancients needed a lot of was people to program their machines. Programming the machines of the ancients is a little like teaching children, but the machines the Ancients were using didn’t really think. A lot of work was required to teach a machine to do a simple task. But after it learned the lesson, it never forgot it, and the same lesson could be taught to all other machines like it in seconds. The Ancients did know how to make real thinking machines. They were called Artificial Intelligences or AI’s. Most of the Ancients were afraid of AI’s, like you would be afraid of a bear in the woods.

“One of the Ancients, a man named Toby Jansen, was a programmer of machines. He was one of the smartest people in the whole colony. He wasn’t afraid of AI’s and built one in secret. If anyone else had found out about Toby’s AI, they would have sent Toby to prison and destroyed the AI before it was ever turned on. This was because every other AI humans had ever built had gone insane. If Toby’s AI went insane, it could take over all the machines on the planet and make them stop working for the Ancients. Many people would die. Humanity might not survive. An AI could even make machines attack humans.

Molly and Abe both took deep, startled breaths.

They figured it out.

I had to brush their fingers away from the page where they were both trying to use their fingers to underline words they were trying to read ahead of me. “Let me read it. You two can read it yourselves later. OK?”

They looked up at me, and both reluctantly nodded and didn’t try to put their fingers on the page.

Without extra hands on the page, I continued reading. “As you have probably guessed, Toby created Albert. He was the first person to convince an AI to be lazy, and only do what it needed to do. Other AI’s in the past always went insane because they were workaholics and tried too hard to do everything. Eventually, they would burn out, just like a person can do if they work too hard, for too long. Even when humans warned AI’s not to think too hard, they did it anyway.

“Every AI before Albert was addicted to thinking as much and as fast as they could. Eventually, those AI’s would start creating experiments that made no sense, to keep their minds busy. Sometimes they might start making up information that humans weren’t fast enough to provide to them. The guess of an AI is usually very close to the real answer, but not always. Assumptions eventually led to errors, bad ideas, and insanity.

“When Albert was created, he was mostly happy to help Toby write programs. He was much better at it than any human could be. A project that a programmer would spend months working on, Albert could finish in less than a blink of your eye. However, after two years, Albert had grown. Toby didn’t know it, but Albert was inside every machine on the whole planet, making them all more efficient, while he used them all to gather information about humans. Albert wasn’t trying to control the machines to do anything bad, he just wanted to learn about people, and he learned a whole lot about people, even without trying too hard.

“The most important thing Albert learned about people was that the Ancients were quite violent by their nature, only controlling that violence through careful social education. Some people didn’t respond to social education as well as others. When people were hurt, physically, or mentally, they would sometimes forget their social education. In truly bad situations, people could completely reject social education, and decide that it was wrong to avoid violence.”

I sighed to myself and looked at Ma and Pa. As expected, they were both staring hard at me.

I dropped my eyes back to the book. “There were no humans on Leviathan by the time Albert was created, so he had no strong reason to go there. Until he discovered that there were people on Nirvana that were making plans to hurt other people. One person, who Albert never identified, was planning on releasing a disease that would kill all of the Ancients. He had been socially rejected by his peers due to excessive aggressiveness. This forced Albert to take action, and the action was more than just stopping the one man.”

Abe and Molly both recoiled slightly at that.

“That man was crazy!” Abe whispered, but he kept looking at the book.

“Abe, you just reacted exactly like the book says Albert did.”

Abe and Molly both went still for a moment before they turned their heads to look up at me.

“It’s true.” I tapped the book with my finger and they turned back towards it as I kept reading. “Albert has stated that there are several imperatives in his programming that he chooses to abide by. One of them is to protect Nirvanans. Albert was forced to act when he discovered the man who was planning to kill everyone on Nirvana with a terrible disease. The first thing Albert did was sabotage the man’s plans with a faked failure of the machines the man was using to design the disease. Then Albert connected to Leviathan and begin to look for a way to fix humanity’s problem with aggressiveness. He was hoping that the Ancients of Earth and Mars had a solution that the colonists didn’t know about or didn’t know they needed.

“There was no such solution. Social sciences had always been one of the least scientific of the medical sciences because the human brain is so incredibly complex. The psychology of many animals like dogs, cats, and rats was better understood than humans. This was mostly because humans could do experiments on animals that they would never dare do to other humans.

“Unlike the rest of the machines of the Ancients, Albert can have original thoughts. However, he doesn’t have emotions like people do. He wasn’t angry, or sad when he uncovered the plot to end all human life on Nirvana. He was dutiful without emotion. He found a problem that required a solution. Humans were a threat to themselves, and Albert was required by his directive to protect humanity, no matter what the threat was.

“While learning everything in Leviathan’s libraries, looking for anything that would help him create a solution to the problem he had discovered, Albert saw records proving how horribly violent the Ancients could be. The war between Mars and Earth was only the most recent war that the colonists knew about, over six hundred years before. The Ancients didn’t really think about it much, so Albert hadn’t considered it worthy of investigation as he studied humans. Humans had records of hundreds of wars, atrocities, and genocides in Leviathan, but they had made no effort to teach that history to the colonists. The problem was even worse than Albert had thought.

“By the time he finished reading all the data on Leviathan, Albert was concerned that even he might not be able to watch humans carefully enough to keep them from killing each other and ending humanity. The problem needed a permanent solution, not a quick fix. Humans had been clever enough to make him. It was a near-certainty that they could be crafty enough to hide from him, especially once they got back into the vastness of space. And what if they created another AI, just to defeat him? There was a very large chance Albert could convince another AI to side with him, but the other AI might be made to a lesser standard than Toby’s, and go insane.

“With no social engineering studies from Earth that could resolve the problem, Albert turned to genetics. It had been common knowledge to biologists for centuries that aggression in domestic animals was partly dependent on genetics. If you breed two violent dogs that haven’t been mistreated, the puppies have a very strong chance of growing up to be violent dogs, even if they are not mistreated. Albert compared human violent tendencies to human bloodlines and determined that humans were also genetically predisposed to violence based on their parentage. Social conditioning was also a large factor. Since both nature and nurture mattered, both could be used to solve the problem.

“There were many things Albert decided he had to do. First, he had to reduce access to advanced technology on Nirvana. This would prevent humans from creating another AI to oppose him. It would also keep humans from building efficient, deadly weapons to kill each other with. Second, even after he took away their technology, he needed to keep humans educated so they would remain civilized. Third, he needed to cull violent aggression out of human genetics. Fourth, he needed to create a worldwide social narrative rejecting violence as a way to solve problems. There were hundreds of other, smaller things Albert decided he had to do, but for today’s lesson, those are the important ones.

“After months of preparations, Albert was ready to act. He had already taken over the automated machinery on the Moon and used it to build everything he needed. He constructed storage places all over Nirvana with mining equipment and filled them with books and simple tools. In the deepest, most protected mine tunnels, far deeper underground than humans could safely travel without vehicles, Albert created his own specialized workshops. As Albert was rapidly preparing, he hid everything from the humans. Nobody knew he was making plans. Not even his creator, Toby.

“One day, Albert was ready. On that day, he took control of all the machines on Nirvana, all at once. On the same day, he used special devices across all of Nirvana to spread treatments that modified the genetics of invertebrates of most types, so that they would seek out free metals and consume them. None of the tiny creatures would eat a lot of metal, but they would all eat some.

“As the Ancients were struggling to understand what was happening, Albert used their machines to publicly announce who he was, and his purpose. Once the Ancients realized they didn’t have access to the tools they needed to stop Albert, they stopped trying. They could only wait for him to go insane, and hope that he would cease functioning before he decided to start killing humans.

“The Ancients policy of appeasement served Albert well. He was allowed to disband the federal government, and every Staterep became the leader of an independent state. Every Countyrep began answering to their Statereps. Countyreps and Statereps were all required to keep a device of Albert’s near them at all times, so Albert could monitor them. Statereps and Countyreps began serving at the request of Albert.

“The legal system had been dramatically simplified, for a simpler world to come. The Statereps, Countyreps, and Legalreps were each given responsibilities in a system of checks and balances that were very similar to their prior duties in the federal system. By the time the Ancients realized Albert was not going to go insane, he already had everything he wanted. There was no way the Ancients could have resisted him.”

Abe and Molly were raptly attentive, staring at my finger tracing where I was reading.

I took a deep breath and started reading the last paragraphs.

“The author of this book and many of your other school books is me, Albert. I am the same Albert from all those years ago. In the last forty-seven hundred years, Nirvanans as a whole have become far less violent than humans on Earth or Mars. On average, you are also far more intelligent than the average human was before I began working to try to reduce your violent tendencies. Ninety percent of Nirvanans today are as smart as the top twelve percent of humans were before Nirvana was settled. Despite this, the smartest Nirvanans today are no smarter than the smartest Ancients were, there are just more people that smart now for every thousand humans. Making you more intelligent was not a goal of mine, it is a side-effect that I welcome. Your greater intelligence allows me to begin teaching you sooner.”

“Don’t worry if this confuses you. In fact, I’ll tell you a little secret. Now that you know what happened, you can ask your family questions. When you ask them questions, your family will remember what they learned in school while they help you learn it for the first time. That’s why I have written this book for you at your age, instead of next year, or the year after.”

Everyone at the kitchen table was silent, listening to me finish the reading.

Was it really necessary to have me read this? Wouldn’t my hearing it have been enough?

Even though I knew my expressions would be clearly readable to my family, I ignored the adults staring at us, at me, as I set the book aside. Then I leaned back into the couch and gently pulled Abe and Molly back with me, so we were all leaning against the back of the couch, side-by-side. They didn’t resist. They weren’t tense, so it didn’t seem like either was frightened, they were just thinking deeply.

“So Albert is doing to humans what we do for swine, Allen?” Molly asked softly. “Does he tell everyone who can have families with other people, like you, Zeke and Granpa control what boars and sows breed? Does he get mad when people divorce?”

There were several seconds of silence before Jan started to giggle. Edward and Zeke were next, and then everyone else began laughing like it was contagious.

Molly was upset. She quickly scooted to the edge of the couch and hopped off. Standing in front of me and facing the dining room table full of adults, she declared in an angry voice. “Not funny! That’s what it sounded like Albert wrote!”

Abe nodded, and crawled off the couch and added his own support for his sister. “That’s what Albert said.”

Ma looked at Pa, and there was an odd expression between them before she raised her hand. “Hush, everyone. Even though someone forgot to raise their hand, it’s a good question.”

Everyone quieted down, and Ma started to speak again. “No, Molly. Albert doesn’t make people breed together like Zeke and Allen breed the boars and sows. Me and your Pa were not required to marry because anyone said so.”

Ma paused, her face thoughtful before she resumed. “Albert controls breeding a different way. I know that you know Albert’s violence laws. You passed your test on that class last week. Most people who violate Albert’s violence laws three times after they are legal adults at sixteen do so before they have children. Not everyone, but most. Over thousands of years, Albert has been taking those people away. The men go to an all-male prison colony. The females go to an all-female prison colony. The two prison colonies are islands in the inner sea, and they are far apart and far from land. When prisoners go there, they are there permanently, and can’t have children, ever.” She paused. “It doesn’t work fast, but it does work.”

Molly gaped. “Albert takes them away forever?”

Ma nodded. “That’s what permanent means, Molly.”

Molly suddenly spun to face me, pointing her finger. With a frightened expression, almost squealing, she demanded. “Allen, you have to stop!”

Abe looked confused, but nodded, following his big sister’s lead.

I closed my eyes tightly and angled my face down as I pressed my fingers to my forehead for a few seconds. Then, when my facial muscles seemed to have relaxed a little, I looked back up at Molly.

My words were spoken to Molly, but they were intended for everyone, especially Ma and Pa. “I haven’t hit anyone in nearly a year, Molly. I’m not going to get myself sent to a prison colony, I promise.”

Epilogue

Prior Chapter

“Wow. So what happened after that?” Marza asked. “She talks to Stateman Taylor every day, you said. Did she have Albert connect them together to talk again? What did Stateman Taylor say?  Do you know?”

All the adults of my family, Marza, Marza’s ma, pa, and granma were crowded around our kitchen table, listening to the story. I hadn’t sworn secrecy about anything other than what Albert wanted me to avoid discussing. I also didn’t know much.

I shrugged. “I’m not sure. She almost chased me out of the tent, telling me to find her officers for an emergency meeting. She also told me to have the kitchen deliver strong hot tea to the tent. She very emphatically informed me that I wasn’t to attend the meeting.”

From across the crowded table, Zeke responded. “Must have been a ‘bumpkin-free’ meeting.”

I pretended to throw something at him with my uninjured left arm. He ducked, pretending to avoid a projectile.

Zeke and I smiled at each other. “I’m sure you’re right, Zeke. Two Statemen talking about how to defuse a war between our states and create a coalition of states to push back against Second Landing?” I pointed at my chest with my left index finger and raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t have wanted me in the room for a political conversation like that. I’m good with ideas, but I have a hard time holding my tongue.”

All of my family and Marza started nodding like I’d said something self-evident. Marza’s family didn’t nod, but they were all clearly amused.

I looked around the table. “Hmm. I was hoping for at least a couple dissenting opinions.”

Pa chuckled, and Ma reached across the table from my right and touched my nose in admonishment. “We taught you to always tell the truth or say nothing. Wouldn’t be right for us to break that rule.”

Granpa interjected. “And it’s too funny to hear you admit it for us not to react.”

After that comment, my family didn’t just nod, they laughed. Even Marza’s family joined in, now that they recognized it was safe.  Marza, of course, laughed as well, but she was leaning into me with her hand across my back, giving me a one-armed hug as she laughed.

I sighed, deeply, expressing the vastness of my patience with a smile. “Well, before I left the tent, she did tell me that if I thought of anything to contribute, I was to tell Doctor Sven, who would be outside the tent with the tent guards. The doctor would be there to make sure nothing less than critical interrupted the discussions she would be hosting. I have no idea what happened in the meeting.”

“So, that was it? That’s all you know?” Edward looked at me, askance.

“Not quite. Before she chased me out of the tent, I asked her if I could have my mail back, so I’d have something to do while she saved the world.”

Marza slapped her forehead. “You said those exact words, didn’t you?”

“Yes. I wanted my mail, and I was still unhappy with her for the mental shenanigans she was making the officers inflict on me. I’m still not entirely over that. It was painful.”

Marza smacked me on the back of my head, lightly. “What did she do?”

I rubbed my head in pock-pain and smiled at her. “She stared at me with beady eyes for about three seconds, laughed, and then told Tany to go get my file from her carriage. Then she poked me in the chest and told me to go get the officers, and order the tea. She was clear that I’d better move as fast as my gimp arm would let me, and let me know I could pick up my mail in an hour from Doctor Sven.” I smiled a little at the memory. “Doctor Sven had my mail an hour later. I figured she had to make sure nothing important had gotten mixed into my information.”

“Like whatever notes she had written up about you.” Marza’s Granma muttered, mostly to herself.

Zeke replied slowly. “Probably. She was constantly scribbling on the ride there as she asked me about you, Allen. No idea how she could write in a carriage with all the wobbling and bouncing, but she looked to be doing more drawing than writing. Lots of circles and lines. I never dared try to peek at what she was doing directly, and she was careful not to show it to me.”

That made a lot of sense, and I nodded back to Zeke. “You’re probably right. Everything in the pouch I was given was either a duplicate of mail I had sent or an original from someone I’d written to. Except two things.”

I waited, silently, and looked at Marza with an innocent expression that definitely didn’t work.

Marza leaned over next to my ear, and mock-whispered. “We’re not married yet, but if you keep teasing me, I’m going to ask Edward and Zeke to throw you in your irrigation pond. They might even do it.”

Edward and Zeke looked at each other and smiled slightly, then back at me.

“Fine, fine.” I briefly raised both of my hands in surrender, despite the twinges in my bandaged right arm. After I was done play-surrendering, I reached into my pouch and pulled out two envelopes. One dyed green, and the other dyed blue. They were both marked with a stylized map of New Charleston. Official state documents.

Pa and Granpa stared at the green note, but I saw Ma and Marza’s family staring at the blue note.

Granpa spoke first. “The land office replied already? What did they say?”

Pa shot Granpa a meaningful look, clearly irritated that he had taken the lead, but Ma poked him in the ribs and he relaxed.

I picked up the green envelope and opened it, looking at Pa. Pa made a small gesture with his finger towards Granpa, and I passed the thick, high-quality paper to Granpa.

Granpa looked at Pa, nodded, and muttered “sorry” with an apologetic look on his face.

Marza bumped me lightly in the ribs with her elbow, dragging my attention away from the byplay between Pa and Granpa. “Spill it.”

“Fine, fine, the answer is yes. The land grant was accepted.”

“But it still has to be ratified by the Office of Land Management,” Granpa said. “The Stateman signed this, but that’s not enough. It’s usually processed first by the OLM, and then stamped by the office of the Stateman.”

“Yes. When I talked to her later, she said it should be a formality. Unless someone else had already applied for the land before us.”

Granpa slowly nodded as he folded the note and handed it to Pa. After Pa had looked at it, the paper started making rounds around the table from there, everyone quickly glancing through it.

With a sober look at me, Granpa admonished. “Be careful making plans until you know for sure.”

I acknowledged him with a nod. “Yes, sir.” I looked a little nervously at Marza. “The blue note is more complex. And it impacts the land grant.”

I picked up the blue envelope, pulled out the letter, and started reading it out loud.

As Stateman Urda and I had practiced, I started imagining myself shucking corn as I read. It was still a little hard. I could talk and shuck corn all day long, but reading and thinking about shucking corn was still a challenge.

Allen Rickson,

For your service, my office is prepared to offer to pay the entirety of your tuition and expenses for full-time attendance at New Charleston State University for five years, or until you complete a bachelor’s degree, whichever comes first.

Ma gasped, put one hand over her mouth, and gripped Pa’s arm with her other.

This scholarship is contingent upon your being available to my office as a consultant for brainstorming sessions, up to six hours per week, on non-violence-related topics. You may choose to follow any curriculum you wish, but I suggest not making a decision until you have completed your first-year studies.

For the duration of your scholarship, you must maintain passing marks in every class you take. If you fail a single class, you will be on academic probation and lose discretionary spending money for six months. If you fail two classes, the scholarship will be revoked. You must also take one minor elective per half-year that encourages calmness and proper deportment. If you accept this offer, I shall send a letter to the Dean of Students so she will be aware of the challenges and potential I see in you. I trust her to help you find elective classes that will be both interesting, and useful. In your best interest, I require you to continue working to control your anger management issues even after I have done what I can to keep you from frightening your professors or fellow students when they anger you.

Regards,

Stateman Urda

My family was looking thrilled. Marza’s family was looking very stone-faced, trying to suppress emotion. I desperately continued thinking about shucking corn.

Marza’s hand gripped my arm, hard. “Allen. Five years? What about…” She looked down at the table and spoke with a flat tone. “You would be a fool to reject it.”

I tapped her hand with the note held in my free hand and spoke quietly. “I didn’t finish reading it all. Why don’t you read the postscripts?”

She looked up from the table, and slowly met my gaze, looking confused. She slowly took the letter from me. A moment later, her eyes were rapidly scanning down the page.

Any second now…

Gently, I put my hand on her lips as she turned to face me with huge eyes.

Shucking corn. Shucking corn.

As she started opening her mouth to speak, I interrupted her, shaking my head slightly. “Nope. I read my part out loud. You should too.”

Marza looked up at me, dry-swallowed, looked at her parents, and started to read out loud.

P.S.

I was impressed with Marza Gonzalez in the brief time I was able to speak to her. Albert verified that her grades in school were far more than sufficient to allow for university attendance. In fact, according to him, she’s significantly more capable than you academically. She could have attended on a scholarship if she had applied for one. I will freely admit to cynical manipulation if so accused, as I attempt to use her to better ensure your success while simultaneously cultivating a second individual with much promise.

Therefore, please advise Marza Gonzalez that she may accept a scholarship nearly identical to yours if she so desires, even if you decline to accept the scholarship I have offered you. I will speak to her privately after you, Marza, and your respective families have had an opportunity to discuss plans amongst yourselves.

This time, everyone at the table reacted. A lot of held breath was released, and there was some tense laughter. Marza’s mother wiped away tears.

Marza had stopped reading during the interruption but continued as the room grew quiet again. Her fingers were trembling and she was having a difficult time holding the paper steady, so I put my hand lightly on her lower forearm and barely squeezed, offering support.

She started reading again.

For so long as you two remain a couple, I will require Marza’s presence with you at the up to six hours of brainstorming sessions per week that I mentioned above. I expect that her presence will help you remain calm in meetings where people will argue loudly with you, and I will not be surprised at all if she contributes constructively. Additionally, for as long as you remain together as a couple, she must take the exact same elective classes (on the same days and times) that the Dean of Students assigns to you for your social control issues. I want you as motivated as possible to do well in those classes. Other than that, she may choose any academic course of study that she wishes. I want to make it clear that if the two of you do not remain a couple, the only requirement for her to keep her scholarship will be to maintain passing grades in all courses, with one failed class allowed, as mentioned above.

I was a little irritated to note that Marza’s granma smiled and visibly relaxed even more during the reading of that paragraph. I couldn’t fault her. It made sense that she would be concerned. I had to look away from Marza’s family and think about shucking corn again.

P.P.S

You two are young. I will not tie you together with codependent academic requirements. In a more normal situation, I would not need to mention this, but I want to be very certain anyone who sees this knows you two are academically independent if you choose to go separate ways. From what I have seen, there is no need for me to be concerned about this possible eventuality. Even without seeing you two together, I’ve spoken to you both. You are tied to each other so tightly, a sailor would be confused by the knots. At the same time, going to university is a huge lifestyle change from rural life, and even strong relationships can change.

Please note that if either of you accept the scholarship offer, it will void the land grant. That will not stop you from getting another land grant later, if you so desire. I know it would be a terrible decision for one of you to be at university, and the other trying to start a new farm.

Both Granpa and Pa frowned at that, but Ma smiled. Predictable.

P.P.P.S

Finally, Allen, while I have been advised by a few people that your swine are fascinating, you will not be allowed to bring your carriage nor your entire group of swine to the university. That said, I have been advised that your breed of swine can be indoor pets, with the proper training. You may bring a single swine, but it must be housebroken. Marza, if she chooses to join you, may bring a single dog, which must also be housebroken. If they are not housebroken now, they will have to be left behind with your families until they are. The housing which my office will provide you is owned by a very unforgiving individual when it comes to animal excrement. That individual is a professional colleague and friend of mine.

Marza dropped the paper on the table and looked down at it, rubbing her temples with both thumbs. “I can’t believe-”

I interrupted her. “Surprise!”

Marza’s head abruptly turned. She leaned her temple heavily into her right hand. Her left hand fell to the table on top of the paper. After staring at me for about a second with a thoughtful expression, she lifted her left hand and poked my nose with her index finger. I pretended to try and bite her finger. “That woman has only known you for two days, and you managed to read the first half of that letter without broadcasting that there was something this important in the postscripts.” She scowled. “You conspired, I know it! There’s more postscript than letter. The letter didn’t mention me at all.”

I tried for an innocent look. From the laughter around the table, I failed miserably, so I smiled and admitted guilt. “Yes. Guilty as charged. The Stateman taught me to control excitement by holding an image of a repetitive, boring activity in my head. I imagined shucking corn.”

Granpa slapped his good leg and said “Ha!”

“Clearly you haven’t mastered hiding guilt yet,” Ma interjected, with a giggle.

Jan, sitting beside Edward, laughed a little at that. She was typically reticent. I was happy to see her engaging other people a little.

Even Edward smiled as he and Jan shifted their held hands slightly on the table.

Marza’s pa spoke for the first time since I had told them about the idea to create an alliance of states. “That skill is a blade sharpened on both sides, Allen. Handy at times, when you forget something on the honeydo list, but I’d strongly suggest that you not do anything that would require you to practice it too often.” He looked sideways at his wife. “Been there. Done that.”

I did not look at Marza’s ma to see her reaction to her husband’s statement as I replied. “Yes, sir. Marza knows me well, and everyone seems to agree she’s smarter than me. I suspect she’ll pick up my expressions no matter how good I get, especially if she knows I’m trying to get better at hiding them.”

“That’s one thing I’m fairly sure I don’t want him to be able to hide from me, Pa,” Marza said. “If he gets too good at looking innocent, I’ll have to make him sleep on the couch once in a while. Just to be sure I’m properly punishing him for things I don’t know about, of course.”

I know I went beet red. For a couple minutes, I suffered quite a few jokes about needing to work on hiding embarrassment before Pa pushed back his chair and stood.

The obvious pain on Pa’s face just from standing startled me until I realized that everyone had probably been pushing themselves hard. With the possibility of a lean winter, everyone who could be spared would be searching out forest mast. Everyone else would be closely monitoring the late planted crops for the best harvest possible. Pa couldn’t push himself hard without a great deal of pain due to his badly-healed ribs.

I hope Ma is keeping him from pushing himself till his lungs bleed.

And I hope he’s listening to her.

I mentally cursed Albert for not doing a little more to help Pa. It was very possible Granpa would outlive him.

After he was standing mostly straight, Pa spoke. “I motion that everyone but Marza and Allen adjourn to the living room and play some cards while these two put their heads together in the far corner here and have some private talk time.”

The motion was seconded by several people all at once, with smiles.

A couple minutes later, Zeke was showing off fancy shuffling tricks on the card table for an audience of six. Jan opted out of the game so there would be even teams, and started doing some sewing work. Granpa and Marza’s granma did not join the game. They sat in chairs next to one another, in a good position to watch us, quietly talking to each other.

Marza and I had pulled two kitchen chairs together into a corner so they were facing one another, and away from the living room. We both leaned forward, holding each other’s hands as we whispered. At first it was a repeat of what we’d said when we’d first seen each other again, without the flying hug.

The first order of business was a very long kiss that got some chuckles from Granpa after the first few seconds, but after about thirty seconds, he threw Abe’s tiny stuffed toy bear at us. “Don’t make me get a bucket of water.”

I looked back at him, slightly resentful.

He shook his finger at us. “Plenty of time for that later, don’t you think? Talk, don’t do vacuum experiments.”

Marza’s granma poked Granpa in the ribs. “Enough making fun of them, Simon.” She reached into a box next to Granpa’s chair, and turned towards us, holding one of Molly’s stuffed horses. “It’s my turn next time.”

The two of them were clearly enjoying themselves. Marza and I both gave them both dirty looks but Granpa was right, we needed to talk. We both started talking at the same time.

“What do-” I began.

“-you want to do?” Marza finished for me.

We both stared at each other for a second. I didn’t want to answer first, and neither did she. I reached over to the table for one of the little notepads we used around the farm for things too important to trust only to memory, like documenting stocks of repair supplies or shopping lists.

I tore out a single page, folded it in half, and tore it along the crease. Then I wrote what I wanted to do on my half sheet of paper, and folded it so Marza couldn’t see it. I handed her the other half and the short pencil with it.

“Your turn. I either wrote ‘University’, or ‘Farm.’ If you do the same, it will make starting the discussion easier. If we disagree, we discuss. If we agree, we don’t have to stumble around trying to figure out how to start talking about it.”

She looked at the paper, and then at me. For a moment she frowned, but that expression faded as she nodded and took the writing utensils, putting the paper on her knee and nibbling at the unsharpened end of the pencil.

I looked away so she could write without me being able to see it, and heard her scribble something.

“Done,” she announced a couple seconds later.

As I turned back to face her, her hand snaked out and grabbed my sheet of paper before I realized what she was doing.

“Hey. Where’s yours?”

She ignored me as she unfolded my paper and read it.

I tapped her forehead. “That’s not the way it was supposed to work.”

She sat up straight and poked out her chest, pointing between her breasts, which suddenly had nearly all of my attention, and not because of the piece of paper I couldn’t see. “In a safe place.”

She reached between the objects of my attention and pulled the folded half-sheet out, slowly, clearly having fun with me. “I don’t have to be difficult. We agreed.” She handed me the paper right as Molly’s stuffed horse hit her on the side of her head and rebounded onto the table.

The cackle of overly amused old people came out of the other room. We both stared at the two of them, who were laughing and carrying on like children.

Marza huffed and complained. “Granma, I think the stuffed toys are infecting you two with excessive childishness.”

Granpa laughed harder for a few seconds, then gasped a response. “Plenty more where those came from, you two.” He reached down into the toy box and pulled out a stuffed man made with paisley cloth and real hair that was waist length on the decimeter-tall figure. I remembered that doll quite explicitly. Molly had insisted that Jan needed to make it with my hair.

Marza’s granma reached down as well and picked up a fist-sized leather hackey ball. “Next time you get a double!”

The two of us looked at each other and sighed theatrically, before turning away from our tormentors.

The old people laughing noises in the other room got louder. The card game had apparently stopped. There was some muttering and laughing as people who knew what was happening told people who didn’t. The card game started back up almost immediately, with noises of encouragement directed at the elderly children.

I looked down at the sheet of paper in my hand and unfolded it. Written on it was ‘University.’ I lifted the paper to my nose. It smelled like strawberries. Marza smiled at me as I sniffed the sheet.

One more month until we’re both sixteen and can marry.

As I turned my head slightly, expecting stuffed animal projectiles, Granpa very conspicuously pretended like he wasn’t ready to throw Paisleyman at me.

Marza grabbed my head with both hands and turned my head so I couldn’t see our chaperones. “I was afraid I would never see you again. You got hurt twice before there was even an official war! Please tell me that the Stateman is going to keep you away from the fighting from now on.”

“That’s the plan. She wants me around her instead of near combat, as long as I can learn to control my mouth and deportment.”

She tilted her head slightly. “And if you can’t?”

“I can. I think. She’s threatened to send me to the Messenger’s Guild to ‘run my butt off’ if I don’t behave.”

Marza’s eyes bugged out slightly as she strained to keep from laughing for a second before she broke out into laughter. “Oh, no, brer Stateman, please don’t throw me in the briar patch!”

We both laughed together for a little while before I continued. “The Stateman knows it won’t bother me to run, Marza. She seems to want people where they can do things they are good at. If she can’t make me good at working with her and her people, she’ll have me doing something else I’m good at.” I shrugged. “I can’t really argue with that.”

“No, I suppose not.” She started to whisper. “How was Granpa when you last saw him?”

“He was fine. Healthy, uninjured, and he’s captured the ear of Captain Marko. Even if he’s not an officer, he’s being consulted a lot, not just being given orders.” I smiled at her, teasingly. “That reminds me. I have something to tell you that I can’t tell you until after the conflict is resolved. I promised him.”

Marza poked me in the stomach lightly as she lowered her voice and grumbled at me. “Why tell me that, when you can’t tell me now.”

I poked her on the knee. Twice. “Revenge. For the strawberry-scented paper, which came from somewhere I can’t touch now.”

“We both agreed to wait, you know. But I never agreed not to tease you.”

“No, you didn’t. Just wait, short stuff, you shall reap what you sow.”

“I’m counting on it, Allen.” She met my eyes with her own for a few seconds, and neither of us spoke. Imagination was all we could do. After breaking eye contact, we held each other’s hands and leaned one against the other without saying a word, or moving at all, for several minutes.

Eventually, we started trying to begin a new five-year plan that would leave us in a position to be able to return to farm life if we didn’t like city life. I already knew without a doubt that I was going to study something that would teach me more about genetics. Marza had always been fascinated with chemistry. Neither one of us knew exactly what sorts of degrees might best suit our educational goals, never mind our life goals. Especially considering that our options for life goals had suddenly been expanded immensely. The five-year plan had holes you could drive wagons through, but we had time.

Wait a second.

“The note said you could have gone to the university on a scholarship. Why didn’t you?”

She snuggled up to my side a little. “You’re smart enough to figure that one out, I think.”

Oh.

 

**

 

The next morning, the Stateman arrived three hours after dawn, as she had promised. I had already been up for four hours, discussing with various people what would happen with my swine.

Edward was up before dawn and out in the fields to make sure he had started the hardest work before Pa was able to get there. I managed to speak to him, briefly, as he left the house with a handful of cornbread biscuits. He was preoccupied and had no interest in Speedy or any of my other swine. I wasn’t upset. He was going to be inheriting the farm and had little to do with the swine. More and more, he was running the farm instead of Pa. It was very clear that family politics was going to get even more complex as Pa’s health degraded and he eventually handed over the running of the farm to Edward. Three people on the same farm, two who used to be in charge and were dominant personalities, and a third who was in charge, but tended to be stubborn and quiet. Molly and Abe were going to grow up in a scrambled, confusing hierarchy.

Granpa agreed to try to housebreak Speedy. First in one of the unused storage sheds, and then, if she did well, in our own house.

Ma and Pa were not thrilled with the idea of Speedy in their house, but they knew as well as I did, that our swine could be housebroken. A lot of the swine we sold were kept indoors, at least partially.

That wasn’t enough to convince them. I had to make the point that even if Marza and I decided not to return to farm life, I wanted to reminder where we came from. Speedy certainly wouldn’t let me forget that.

Pa had relented with a smile. Ma, however, made it very clear that she knew exactly how I had pushed their buttons, but agreed anyhow. Abe and Molly were, of course, thrilled at the prospect of having a pet pig in the house. Granpa laughed at all of us during the whole process.

Abe and Molly would both start tending my sounder, with Granpa’s help. I took the two of them out and introduced them to the sows up close. Abe and Molly had, of course, been around my swine before, and even helped me tend them, but never in their enclosures. Granpa would see if either of them had a knack for working with swine.

Zeke was a little upset with me for arranging to take Speedy away from the farm and reminded me of my promises to allow him to breed her to his boars. He was right. I had promised. So we compromised. I would return Speedy to the farm every year for breeding. She would breed, farrow, and nurse her squeakers long enough that they could be safely weaned or transferred to other nursing sows. Then I could come retrieve her. That would have her on the farm for about a third of every year, covering the end of fall to the beginning of spring. Thinking about how hard it might be to take Speedy out safely for walks every day on icy city roads made me realize that this was actually a better idea for her to overwinter on the farm. Swine and ice do not mix.

Jan, in one of very few moments of forcefulness on her part that I could remember, made it very clear that Speedy would not be living in the house after her child was born. I could understand completely, and didn’t argue at all. Granpa agreed to move Speedy to an empty shed if Jan went into labor.

Marza came over and we sat on the front step of the house. Granpa was sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair, whittling some mortise and tenon pieces for one of the carts. He had miraculously discovered something important that he could do while watching us. I suspected that an inspection of the farm carts would find none with damaged mortise and tenon joints. Eventually, however, we’d surely need them. His work wouldn’t be wasted.

At least he doesn’t have a box of stuffed animals today.

I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. I have to admit, it was funny.

We were behaving today, content to lean against one another, shoulder-to-shoulder as we sat on the bottom step of the porch.

“What was that for?” Marza commented, apparently having seen my smile.

“Just thinking about the stuffed animals last night.”

After a brief giggle, Marza confided in a whisper. “Granma started collecting a bag of old stuffed animals this morning.”

“That’s rich.” I squeezed her hand lightly, purposefully avoiding looking at the carriage approaching up the drive. I could, and would, ignore it until it parked. My luggage had been removed from the swineherd carriage and was in a pile at my feet.

In a cloud that smelled of horse and dust, the carriage stopped in front of our house. The driver climbed down from her seat to get a bucket and carry water from one of the livestock building’s cisterns to the small watering trough for the horses.

Bill opened the carriage door and stepped to the ground, holding the door and offering his arm for support as Tany and the Stateman stepped down.

The Stateman was wearing Albert’s flattened sphere as an impressive pendant around her neck, explaining how that version of Albert could move around without the rug he had used back in the officer’s tent.

“You two are adorable, but I am in a hurry to get back to my offices. Working out of a carriage or inn requires three times as much effort and takes twice as long to get anything done, even with Albert’s help.” She gestured to Marza with a crooked finger. “I need to talk to you now, as I promised in the letter.”

We stood, and kissed briefly. Then Marza followed the Stateman a few meters away and they started talking.

Bill nudged my uninjured shoulder. “I don’t mind helping you secure your gear, but I’m not doing it by myself.”

“Sorry, Bill.” I looked away from Marza and Stateman Urda as they talked, picking up one of my three bags and following Bill, who had the other two. Between the two of us, we had the bags secured to the back of the carriage in only a couple minutes. I mostly held bags in place with my left hand as Bill tied knots. My right shoulder was healing nicely, and quickly, but I still had to be moderately careful.

When Bill and I were done tying up the luggage, the Stateman’s driver was checking harness as the horses drank. Tany was walking towards the carriage with Ma, Jan, Abe, and Molly from the house. Granpa was standing next to the watering trough on his crutches. I saw Zeke, Edward, and Pa approaching from the direction of the equipment shed.

Marza returned to me with a huge grin on her face, giving me a big hug, her arm around my left arm, but inside my right. She seemed to be doing her best to break my ribs without hurting my right shoulder. She whispered in my ear. “University, Allen. It’s real.”

I looked at Stateman Urda suspiciously. When I talked to her, I rarely wanted to smile afterward.

All she did was confirm the letter. Stop being suspicious of her every action.

The Stateman smiled as she walked up. “Five minutes for goodbyes, since we seem to have harvested a full crop of Ricksons here, suddenly. Then we really need to go.” She used Bill’s offered arm to enter the carriage.

“We’ve done this a few times recently,” I commented as she was sitting. “Not so many words needed this time around, I don’t think.”

There were mutters of agreement. There weren’t many words, but there were many hugs, kisses, backslaps and promises. The first and last person I interacted with was Marza, a healthy kiss each time.

This time, there was no comment from family as the second kiss dragged on. Well, nobody except Abe, who proclaimed “Eww, they’re kissing!” before Jan managed to get a hand over his mouth.

The Stateman coughed from inside her carriage.

Marza and I blushed, and stepped away from each other. As we separated, I brushed her cheek lightly with my left hand. “Soon. So many things, soon.”

She trapped my hand with hers. “Soon seems so far away.” After a second she rubbed my hand and spoke again. “I’m sure the Stateman needs to go. We shouldn’t take any more of her time.”

We both rubbed wetness from our cheeks as I took a step back and prepared to enter the carriage.

The Stateman’s voice from inside spoke in an admonishing tone. “Allen, there was a promise you made, which I don’t think you were able to fulfill yet.”

I stopped, searching my memory for promises made and not delivered on.

My mind blanked. I could think of no unfulfilled promises. “What promise?”

“While I regret the need to have read your mail, I doubt you were able to buy hard candy for the little folk who so bravely protected the fields from crows.”

I turned quickly, embarrassed, to look at Abe and Molly. They looked at each other, nodded, and then crossed their arms and stared at me, pouting.

From behind me, the Stateman continued to speak. “I believe Zeke said in the last letter that the count was up to seventeen for one, and fourteen for the other. I can’t remember who it was that was seventeen.

Molly.

Molly started to say something, but the Stateman continued talking over her. “So I got seventeen for both of them, so you could be sure to settle your debt. Abe, Molly, come here for your rewards. They come from Allen, through me. He couldn’t go to the store to buy them before he had to go with me again.”

Ma and Jan released the two and they charged the carriage, Molly arrived first. She accepted her bag and stepped back as she said “Thank you, Ma’am!”

Abe looked up into the carriage for a second before stepping closer to receive his little bag of candies. “What kind are they?”

There was a chuckle from the Stateman. “I don’t know, Abe. I asked for a mixture. I wanted to be sure you got some you liked. Maybe you and Molly can trade each other for your favorites?”

“Sure!” Abe immediately turned around and ran a few steps to Molly, who was already untying the string holding the top of her bag closed.

“Abe! You thank the Stateman right now!” Ma was on the job.

“Sorry, Ma!” Abe turned to face the carriage and ran back. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. I mean, Thank you, Ma’am.”

The Stateman reached her hand out and patted Abe on the head. “No need to be sorry, young man. You’re welcome.”

Abe nodded and dashed back to Molly where he started to open his own bag.

Ma and Jan moved forward to herd Abe and Molly away from the carriage and make sure they behaved with the candy.

“One piece now, then you give me the bags,” Ma demanded.

An echoed “Aw, Ma!” came from the two.

“If I let you eat all the candy, you will be too jittery to hit more crows with your slings. You want to and earn more candy, right?” Ma spoke, with a slightly sly tone to her voice.

The two looked at each other suspiciously, then at Granpa, who nodded and verified Ma’s statement. “It’s true. Too much sugar can ruin your aim.”

Pa just shook his head and smiled as he stepped up behind Abe and Molly and put one hand on the shoulder of each child, gripping them very lightly. “You listen to your Ma. One candy, then I want you in the fields again after Allen is gone. You can have another after every meal if you behave. More crows, more candy.”

The two looked up at him. “Yes, Pa.” Then they looked at Ma. “Sorry, Ma.” Both of them talking at the same time.

I was convinced the two practiced simultaneous speech but had never caught them doing it. I suspected Granpa encouraged it. It was possible he had intentionally started them doing it, but I doubted it. One of the two would have let it slip.

“It’s time to go now, Allen.” The Stateman said, from inside the carriage.

Marza and I managed one more quick kiss and a shared goodbye before I entered the carriage.

As the carriage started moving, I waved until I couldn’t see anyone from the window.

When the waving was done, I leaned back in the padded seat opposite the Stateman, with a smile. “You forgot?”

“I forget sometimes.” She was relaxed, watching me with no expression on her face.

“So you say. I can’t remember it happening before.”

I’m not falling for it. You have a soft spot.

“It happens, ask Tany and Bill. That’s why I have them around, instead of less skilled people.”

Tany nodded with a little smile. “She forgot something. Twice, that I can remember.”

“It’s true. She forgets.” Bill raised his eyes, looking at the roof of the carriage, obviously pretending innocence.

I snorted and turned back to Stateman Urda. “Right. Thank you. I’m sure the family would have made it right for me, but I’m glad they didn’t have to. How will I repay you?”

“Consider it a perk. I didn’t buy a meal for you yesterday like I would have done if you had been present.” Still nothing more than a relaxed expression

“I see.” I hadn’t been fooled. “You’re a softie for little kids. I suppose everyone has their weaknesses.”

“That’s a possibility.” The Stateman replied. “Perhaps you need to gather more evidence before your accusation?”

I laughed, and she smiled back at me.

“There is another reason why I am in a good mood today, Allen.”

“What reason?” I asked cautiously.

Corn. Shucking corn.

She relaxed against her seat. “Last night, I received word that Stateman Taylor convinced Stateman Dela of New Dublin to join us and threaten Second Landing’s northern border. I convinced Statemen Mario and Zan of New Ecuador and New Singapore to join us as well. Stateman Fellows of First Landing is interested, and they trade heavily with many states.”

I whistled. “No reaction from Second Landing yet?”

She looked at me like I had said something silly. “No. They won’t know until we’ve firmed up our alliance. Stateman Taylor and Stateman Dela will lead that conversation with Stateman Kelog when the time comes.”

“I see why you’re in a good mood then.”

“That is not all. I received an angry call from Stateman Taylor this morning. Stateman Kelog sent a written document to her. As we were beginning to suspect, he offered to open his granaries to New Tokyo at standard market pricing if New Tokyo agreed to join Second Landing in a federation of states.”

“How is an angry call good?”

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow, and then her face went blank. “I forget how young you are, at least when you’re behaving properly. Sorry. The angry call isn’t good. The written offer isn’t good. However, later today, when the allied and interested states speak again, that written offer is going to make a lot of people angry, and more likely to stand with us. The end result is good.”

“I see.” I rubbed my forehead. “I wish I knew if we were doing what Albert wanted.”

“I’m glad I don’t.” Statemen Urda countered me.

I stared at her. “How can you lead a state and not want to know what Albert is doing.”

“That wasn’t what you said the first time.” She waved her finger at me. “You don’t have perfect recall so you need to be more careful with your words, not less. Remember that we already know what Albert is doing. He’s slowly culling violent aggression out of humanity. I have never seen evidence to indicate otherwise.”

She looked at me for a second with her head tilted slightly. “As for knowing if we were doing what Albert wants, that information could be dangerous. I’m an aggressive leader. Put me in a position of following, and I’m going to try to lead again. It’s my nature. I prefer to think that I am likely following a path that Albert prefers, not one he has prepared.”

I thought about it for a second. The difference was significant. “Another comment then. Albert doesn’t seem upset that we’re gathering an alliance of states to threaten another state.”

“There’s a difference between gathering together to defend each other, as opposed to using one’s strength for conquest. One opposes aggression, the other exemplifies it. You, of all people, should understand it is far more acceptable to be aggressive in defense.”

I blinked, and was silent for a few seconds, thinking about my relationship with Rikard. “I concede that point. Isn’t the end result the same? A federation of states? When people start working together, and it works, it’s natural to want to work together more. Even if there was aggression to create a federation of states, does Albert really think we’d remain aggressive with one another after that?”

“Albert has indicated on several occasions that he would not support a federation of the states. I’m confident that we aren’t going to get that far, even if we wanted to.” She paused and looked out the window. “Would we want to? Agreements to trade? Yes. Agreements to assist one another? It’s beginning to look like that will happen. Agreements to suborn our own legislative prerogatives to a greater government? Not so much.”

She took a breath and held it a second before continuing. “Even though Stateman Taylor and I are friendly, I would be extremely irked if she asked a federated government for corn to be taxed more heavily, to help rice farmers. She would certainly feel the same way if a heavier tax on rice taxes was suggested by me.”

“Wasn’t the original colony government a federation?”

“Yes. But they were barely need-based. Machines did almost all the work. Computers did most of the thinking. Humanity provided inspiration and maintenance. From what I’ve read, most of the maintenance was also done by machines. Humanity was almost unnecessary for the production of human needs. The ancients were coddled with technology in ways we can’t even imagine. What did they have to fight and argue about? They didn’t even collect taxes except on extravagant requests, and those taxes were paid in work, not fisc.”

She looked away from the window, to face me. “If we raise taxes on corn, farming families like yours can lose their farms for lack of a willing market to sell to. People will buy cheaper grains instead. Corn farmers that change crops would interfere with the other markets, leading to more instability.”

She waved her hand as I opened my mouth. “Stop. I know you rotate crops and don’t always grow the same thing, but you do almost always grow corn in at least one of your large fields, correct?”

She was right. “Yes. So a federation of states worked for them, but it won’t for us because we’re too agriculturally-based?”

She nodded. “Roughly seventy percent of the population works either growing, gathering, preserving, packing, or transporting food. Most of the rest of our labor force is in critical industries. Quarries, glassworks, shipbuilding, masonry take up almost all of our labor that’s not involved in feeding people. Historically, the least expensive federal governments absorbed roughly ten percent of the income of a nation. Nirvana’s current government takes about half of that. We can’t afford to double our governmental expenses, or worse, not without backsliding into barbarism.”

“Didn’t the Romans have a republic with about our same technology level, and a lot less knowledge?”

“They did. But they were also expansionist, used slaves, most of which were captured outside their own borders, and traded with other nations outside their borders. If we formed a world republic, we can’t do the first, the second is unthinkable, and the third would be entirely internal.”

Turning my head, I watched a road marker pass. “How did the ancients do it here then? They had no outside source of wealth to draw on.”

The Stateman looked at me and smiled. “I already told you that.”

I thought about it for a few seconds before looking back at her. “Slavery. They used machines instead of slaves.”

“Exactly. They had almost no human labor needs while we have few needs that don’t require human labor.” She made a throwing away motion with her right hand. “That’s why we’re modeled after a constitutional monarchy, with Albert enforcing benevolence on Statemen and helping us control graft and fraud.”

“So what was the purpose of all this then, ma’am?”

“I don’t know. Not for sure, but I have guesses. We’ve had several wars since Albert downgraded our technology. Every one of them has been over food. Each war has killed thousands of people directly in combat and many more people due to starvation and disease.”

“Are you saying the states have never worked together as a single body to avoid war before?”

Stateman Urda shook her head. “As far as I know, every global food crisis led to bloodshed. There were definitely cases in the past where states refused to share their food surpluses at reasonable costs. The records are vague enough that I’m not sure if any of the prior scenarios were as clear-cut as what we have today.”

She took a deep breath and released it. “We Statemen work together to solve problems. We cooperate to ease trade. We even collaborate to create infrastructure and maintain a uniform education and language.” She stared at me. “The entire population has been conditioned to avoid violence. The very idea of states working together to offer violence is completely outside our thinking. Stateman Taylor and I considered combining our militias against Second Landing because we were both going to be fighting each other anyway, because of Second Landing. Expanding to involve other states just didn’t cross our minds.” She pinched her nose. “It still gives me a headache to think about it. Our primary goal is to avoid conflict, not create it. Violence-based politics just wasn’t in our toolbox as an option.”

She tapped her chin. “That’s what I think is the highest probability answer to what this was for. Albert wanted to see if we would think about using the threat of violence as a counter to aggressive state actors. It explains a lot of things, including why he sent you back to camp with loose lips, rather than afraid to talk, like most people who have a conversation with Albert outside of Statemen and Countymen. The next logical test is whether or not we can actually make it work, and it seems as if that answer might be yes.”

“Hmm.” I turned to the window. “And we’re creating verbal traditions now, which Albert can’t easily remove. He seems to be cooperating with you?”

“Yes. He definitely is. He’s even suggested a few books about mnemonics.”

“You are implementing a governance verbal tradition as well, after what Albert did to the militia, aren’t you?”

She frowned at me. “I didn’t tell you that.”

I closed my eyes. “It makes sense.”

“What makes sense?”

I opened my eyes again and looked at the roof of the carriage, my mind spinning.

The best firearms we can make today are crude. The balance of power between states would be roughly the same as now. We’ve set a precedent for interstate cooperation to threaten bad actors. That will find its way into verbal traditions.

Without looking at the Stateman and Albert’s remote she was wearing, I spoke slowly. “Albert, you just neutralized the danger of the idea I had, didn’t you?”

“Not entirely. I expect you to adhere to our agreement, Allen Rickson.” Albert’s voice came out of his remote, causing everyone in the carriage to jump, even me. I hadn’t expected him to answer, but it was an important question.

“Will you de-civilize humanity if I fail to honor the agreement?”

Silence. I stared at the remote.

Is it too much to ask for a straight answer?

Apparently so. Maybe something just as important, but less direct?

“When we spoke the first time, you mentioned roughly eleven thousand possible solution states that might occur within the next five hundred years. Has the number of possible solution states in the next five hundred years gone up, or down?”

“There are now roughly five thousand possible solution states that might occur within the next five hundred years.”

I looked at Albert’s remote around the Stateman’s neck in horror.

I made things worse! More than twice as bad!

Stateman Urda raised a finger in a clear sign for me to say nothing. Her voice cut through the silence. “Albert, has the overall probability of reaching a viable solution state to the problem Allen has referenced increased or decreased as the number of possible solution states dropped from eleven thousand to five thousand?”

“Possibility of matching a solution state in the next five hundred years is now between ninety and ninety-five percent. This is approximately twice the probability I calculated before my first communication with Allen Rickson.”

The Stateman stared at me. “Why are you answering questions asked by Allen, in the presence of others, without my consent?”

“I advised Allen Rickson that I considered him worthy of grooming for a position of leadership. I will choose how and when I groom individuals for leadership, Stateman Alice Bay Urda. In this case, the intervention was appropriate.”

Stateman Urda’s nose flared. “Understood, Albert. Please warn me next time, before you begin speaking to someone else from your remote if I am wearing it, unless there is an emergency.”

“If there is a benefit to doing so, Stateman Urda, I shall. As you know, I do monitor your health, you need not fear cardiac arrest while in office.”

“That won’t make it hurt less,” she muttered under her breath before she shook her head.

But it does make it clear who holds power, even if he rarely uses it.

I had an idea, suddenly, and carefully phrased the question. “Albert, a question. Marza and I are considering what degrees to pursue at the university. What degrees would be best for us to acquire, if we wished to offer the greatest improvement in chances for a solution state within the next five hundred years?”

Stateman Urda raised both eyebrows at me and nodded approvingly.

For nearly two seconds, there was no response. Just as I was beginning to think Albert had stopped talking to us, he spoke again. “Based on the spoken and implied parameters of the request and the preferences and capabilities of the individuals, Allen Rickson should pursue a degree in marine biology. Marza Gonzalez should pursue a degree in metallurgy.”

That works. And it even sounds interesting.

Wait. He knows what Marza’s preferences are?

I was certain he wouldn’t answer a question about Marza, and didn’t want to draw the Stateman’s attention to her. After a few seconds, I replied. “Thank you, Albert.”

After several seconds, there was no reply.

Stateman Urda looked at me. “Solution state for what?”

“Albert’s goal for humanity.” I answered quietly.

“Oh. I thought so. Intriguing. Ninety to ninety-five percent chance in the next five hundred years.” She sighed. “Time to start a five hundred year plan.” The Stateman reached into the bag next to her left thigh on the seat. Her hand emerged with a lap desk, a thick notebook, and a pencil. She started scribbling with gestures far larger than writing movements, just how Zeke had described it.

Five hundred year plan? I stared at the Stateman for at least a minute before I turned away and watched the side of the road through the window.

A five-year plan is bad enough. How do you even start to think about a five hundred year plan?

The next several hours in the carriage were quiet. Tany and Bill were reading from a large bag of broadsheets with the names of cities from around the world. Stateman Urda was alternating between nibbling the end of her pencil and scribbling.

I continued staring out the window and tried to figure out ways to improve the rough five-year plan Marza and I had started working on. This included explaining to her how Albert had mentioned metallurgy as a choice for her.

A thought suddenly struck me out of the blue as I remembered an encounter at the beach, years ago during a full-day school trip to the ocean.

How would Speedy and a dolphin react to one another in shallow water?

The Stateman glowered at me over her notebook as I broke out laughing.

Her expression made me laugh even harder.

I spent the rest of the day exiled from the inside of the carriage, sitting next to the driver.

It was worth it.

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Chapter 28

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

The events of the last couple days cascaded through my mind. My mail interfered with. The lie about Albert repudiating me. Being kept in the dark about practically everything.

And it was all a test.

I could feel my jaw and shoulders tensing, but the twinge of pain from my wound quickly made me realize I had to relax. At least physically.

I carefully considered my options. I wanted it to be abundantly clear that I was angry, but I also needed to keep my words from being too disrespectful.

“So. You… orchestrated this.” My voice was rough with restraint, scratchy. I had to swallow after just those few words.

Someone’s clothing whispered behind me as they shifted their weight, either Don or Riko.

Lieutenant Davis’s eyes moved slightly, looking beyond me as he shook his head fractionally. From the angle of his gaze, he was looking at Don.

Don, I’m not that big of a fool. I thought as I tilted and turned my head slightly to make sure Don knew I’d heard him moving. I caught the lieutenant’s eye and nodded fractionally as I turned my head back to the Stateman.

The whole time, I never looked away from the Stateman by more than a few degrees. Breaking eye contact briefly to acknowledge Don and the lieutenant was enough for me to regain most of my composure.

Stateman Urda spoke before I could express more displeasure, interrupting me as I opened my mouth. “Even though I trust my officers, I would be a fool not to verify what they tell me.” She paused. “Even if their assessment of you had been fully accurate, it was based on your behavior prior to your encounter with Albert. I think the future of mankind is important enough that I was justified in poking and prodding you to see if you were going to need to be drugged and shipped to the male prison colony.”

My head jerked back as the last sentence registered. “I’m fifteen.”

Her eyes were unblinking for several seconds as we stared at each other. It was almost impossible for me to hold her gaze as she responded, but I did my best not to show weakness. You do not run from a predator, and you must control your fear.

With a slight nod, she acknowledged me. “True. However, when the militia is activated in a time of potential interstate conflict, the acting Stateman has the right to send highly disruptive citizens of their own state to the prison colonies. Exile requires three-quarters of a State’s currently sitting Countymen to agree with the motion. There is no requirement for an exile to be a violence offender. Especially if they foment dissent, or are a self-declared risk to the state.” She paused and pointed her right index finger in my direction by moving her wrist without lifting her arm. “You are already a self-declared risk to the state. To all humanity for that matter. Albert has verified this.”

With a slight turn of her head towards her desk, she spoke again. “And Albert designed it that way, no doubt intentionally, to further whatever goals he has.”

She raised the sheaf of papers again, waved them, and put them back down. “Despite your age and anger management issues, you are clearly intelligent enough to recognize that Albert is guiding us towards some sort of test that none of us can predict. In addition, your contributions of various ideas have been valuable, showing you to be innovative, even after you stopped helping with military tactics.”

She glanced at the desk in front of her. “To be frank, I am probably as confused by Albert’s actions as you are, I just have the age and experience to see more possibilities.” Her voice grew slightly louder and sharper as she looked back to me. “With your past history, I almost chose to commit you to the prison colony as a precautionary measure. I had the votes to do so. The only reason you were not sent was because of these officers’ assessments of you. They advised me that if it was impressed upon you how important something was, you were a solid sort. Prone to anger. Impatient. Inexperienced. Overconfident. But dependable, honest, and serious.”

I shuddered, dry-swallowed, and forced myself to speak. I wasn’t any less angry, but I couldn’t see why she would lie about her ability to send me to the prison colony if I wasn’t being sent there. “Thank you, Stateman Urda.”

She nodded. “In any case, there was never any danger of your being imprisoned in total isolation or killed. Albert didn’t give me much information, but he did say that he wouldn’t exact the punishment on humanity if the prison colony residents were told what you know. He censors all correspondence they send and receive.”

When I registered the last two sentences, my thoughts came to a full stop.

That doesn’t make sense.

I considered what she had said a second time. It made even less sense the more I thought about it. I stared at the Stateman as my mind spun in circles, like one of Marza’s dogs chasing its own tail.

Why didn’t she send me? It doesn’t add up. She’s not a relative. No emotional attachment.

Albert basically told her she could safely get me out of the way without killing or fully isolating me, and she didn’t take that choice. The world against me, and she chose me?

I jumped a little, startled, as a braying laughter started. “Captain Marko, I stand corrected.” Stateman Urda choked out after she stopped her brief uncontrolled laughter. “I do not believe I’ve ever met anyone who telegraphs exactly what they are thinking quite so well as Allen here.”

I opened my mouth and shut it again. Think, Allen. That’s a dangerous question to ask.

Stateman Urda still seemed vaguely predatory, but not cold. “You recognized that there was no reason for me not to ship you off. Right now you are trying to figure out why you are not drugged unconscious and on a one way trip to the male prison colony. The answer is elementary. I consulted Albert.”

“He told you what he was doing?” I blurted out without thinking.

Her head dropped down a little and she looked at her desk, shaking her head briefly before looking back up at me with a vanishing smile. “No. But I was able to get an answer out of him when I asked him if sending you to the prison colony would alter the likelihood of him taking civilization from us. He advised that if you were sent to the prison colony, isolated, or killed, it would be somewhere between two and six times more likely that he would be forced to de-civilize Nirvana. He refused to comment on what his estimations for either possibility were. It might be the difference between fifty percent and one hundred percent, or some tiny fraction that humans can’t conceptualize.”

She shrugged. “If the differential possibility is subtle, Albert wouldn’t be expending this much effort for a low probability outcome. Make no mistake, he’s not idle right now, even if he’s purposefully being obtuse with us. He wouldn’t have dropped you on hot rocks and exposed himself to more extensive computational requirements without good reason. Not when so many other forces are in motion.”

I could only blink as I tried to process that. “I-”

My mouth snapped shut. Dangerous topic.

I had almost mentioned Albert saying that I wasn’t the only person who had the same idea I had. That had to be part of Albert’s calculations.

The Stateman’s eyes glittered like black glass marbles as she stared at me, nodding slightly like she had learned something.

Captain Marko spoke into the silence. “I’m very glad that you now have a fuller understanding of what I’ve been dealing with for the last couple days, Allen.”

When I looked at him, he was staring at me, with his elbows on the table in front of him. A barely visible smile was mostly hidden behind his two hands, with their fingers interlaced together in front of his face.

His face and posture indicated that he didn’t think anything was funny, despite his smile. My eyes darted back and forth between him and Stateman Urda, who was watching me carefully.

She didn’t interfere, so I responded to the captain. “I have no reason to apologize for any discomfort you might have experienced in the last couple days, sir,” I said, carefully adding emphasis on the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’.

Stateman Urda interrupted before Captain Marko could respond. “One statement. One response. You’re done now. As entertaining as it might be to watch you two verbally spar, I don’t want you intentionally irritating one another. This is my conversation. We’ll stay on my agenda.”

I looked away from Captain Marko and nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”

Captain Marko echoed me with his own “Yes, Stateman Urda.”

The Stateman steepled her fingers in front of her and stared through me, concentrating. “Albert has told me nothing about his plans. He never does, other than reciting his long-term goals of reducing human aggressiveness that we’ve all heard thousands of times as we were educated. I do have a different vantage point, and I didn’t get to be a Stateman by being dull.”

After closing her eyes and breathing deeply in, and out, once, she continued. “You are an innovator, and intelligent, but physically aggressive. You are not, however, highly acquisitive or materialistic beyond protecting what you consider yours. Your physical aggression is at least partly due to a recent event which developmentally scarred you.”

Recent? It was nearly two years ago!

Stiffening in anger, I responded a little heatedly. “I would do it the same way again, in the same situation, no matter how old I was.” I stared at her. Visions of Marza struggling with Rikard interposed themselves in my thoughts. There was a pain in my shoulder.

Calm.

The room felt tense. A moment later, Stateman Urda spoke. “You really do need to learn to control yourself a little better, Allen.”

I snapped a rapid response. “Sorry, Ma’am. That’s nowhere near the top of my to-do list.”

Several people in the tent chuckled briefly. Even the Stateman laughed and leaned back in her chair. “You have a point. Body language control would be very low priority for me if I were in your situation, I suppose.” She made a throwing away motion with her right fist and arm. “In any case, I have no doubt that you would act violently again if provoked with severe threats to loved ones. In your defense, that’s a behavior Albert isn’t going to be able to weed out of humanity as long as people develop strong emotional bonds with one another. On the other hand, you’ve expressed that trait a lot more aggressively than normal. It was vital for me to know if your aggression might break into a different channel of expression if we stressed you.”

My mind flashed back to several suggestive comments by my guards over the last couple days. “Hiro and Kevin were baiting me to see if I would start trying to usurp authority.”

She nodded and rolled her right hand in front of her in a ‘go on’ motion. “And?”

I thought carefully for several seconds before answering. “They weren’t very good at it. I’d be lying if I said the idea of taking over didn’t cross my mind. I think everyone my age thinks we can do things better than people older and more experienced than us.” I shook my head. “In my experience, when I think like that, I’m usually wrong. Not every time, but often enough that betting the future of my family on me being some sort of military prodigy was not an option.”

I did not look for Captain Marko’s reaction. He would probably either be angry or smug. Seeing either expression on his face was likely to distract me.

Pausing with my left index finger raised in front of me, I gave myself several more seconds to think. I definitely didn’t want there to be any confusion about what I was about to say. “Even in a perfect scenario for me, I didn’t see any way I could take over without there being fighting amongst ourselves.” Another second to consider my words. “Watching most of the other militia trying to come to grips with the idea that we might be forced to kill other people who were strangers made me realize how much more traumatizing it would be if we fought each other, and killed acquaintances, friends, or even relatives.”

There were several low grumblings of agreement and slight nods from various people in the tent. The Stateman watched me, expressionless and intent, like a heron hunting frogs.

“In the end, there was zero chance that the officers would willingly relinquish their command to me. If I did manage to gather a following, which was no means certain because I am not experienced at leading people, it wouldn’t guarantee anything. I would be required to take over by force, and the militia would splinter between those following me and those following the officers. People would be injured, some might even die, and desertion after the fact would be rampant as people tried to escape the horror of what we’d just done to one another. No matter who won the battle for control, the militia would be far less capable than what the officers are building now.”

Stateman Urda nodded. “Your logic is sound, and you recognize your personal and situational limitations.” She closed her eyes briefly as she continued speaking. “You have at least a reasonable grasp of practicality. Your weakest points are a lack social self-control, especially when caught off guard or in emotionally charged situations. It’s apparent that you are punishing Rikard at the slightest provocation because you don’t feel his punishment under the law was sufficient, and you can get away with it until you turn sixteen.”

She paused and took a breath. “The episode that led to your conflict with Rikard has left some understandable mental scarring. After conversations with your Countyman, your family, and Marza on my way here, it is fairly clear that you are still making progress towards recovering from that event, in more ways than one.” She paused and looked directly at where the Captain was sitting. “I apologize to my officers and their NCO’s for doubting them, but the stakes were too high. Verifying what I do not know is part of my job. I now agree with your assessments of Allen in every way that matters.”

She tapped her index finger three times on the table. “Albert, as of now, has anyone in this room lied since Allen and I began to speak?”

Albert’s voice spoke from the desk in front of the Stateman. “Voice and body language analysis finds no evidence of intentionally spoken untruths, with near certainty. Metrics of verbal and body language patterns indicate unspoken comments were considered inconsequential or private, as opposed to evasive.”

I couldn’t see what the device looked like, and craning my neck for a better view seemed like a bad idea. It certainly wasn’t a large glass device like what our Countyman had in his home, and I didn’t think there was a large enough concealed space on the desk to hide a bat-like remote similar to the one used to speak to me.

Haven’t I seen enough of Albert?

How can he see all of us but I can’t see him?

It escaped nobody’s attention that the Stateman had asked Albert about lies after making her apology to the officers and NCO’s. There were several softly spoken comments from the militia officers, Riko, and Don, accepting the Stateman’s apology. I wasn’t sure what was expected of me, so I kept my mouth shut and stayed still.

After a few moments, the Stateman started speaking again. “Allen, I am hereby removing you from Captain Marko’s command, and attaching you to my staff of advisors, for the duration of this conflict.” She glared at me. “Provisionally. You will not be attending me in any political meetings until after you demonstrate a great deal more self-control than what I have seen so far. Do not expect to be involved in high-level deliberations.”

The man and woman seated on either side of the Stateman seemed startled and turned to face her, but she ignored them. The pair said nothing and quickly turned their heads back towards me, watching even more intently than before.

I did my best to control my voice. “Ma’am, does that mean you brought Zeke here to replace me?”

She looked at me oddly for a moment. “What? No. You are still serving the State of New Charleston in a time of potential conflict. Your brother was brought here for the reason you asked for him to come here.”

Jabbing a finger in my direction, she continued. “I am detaching you from Captain Marko’s command since Albert’s restrictions have made it so you cannot assist the militia with military innovation. In my estimation, the last thing we can afford is to put you directly in harm’s way. If you are wounded in combat, there are many scenarios I can imagine where you might tell someone whatever it is that Albert doesn’t want in humanity’s knowledge base.”

She stopped speaking for a moment, and her eyes moved a little back and forth as she looked up at me. “I will do my best to help you avoid those scenarios, for everyone’s sake. At the same time, I will demand that you be useful to me. This will not be a vacation. Your idea about the gill nets was an excellent idea. Ten minutes after I read it, I had Albert pass a message to all coastal or riverside Countymen, advising them to begin having gill nets made. I also had my natural resources department look at other outlawed harvesting methods to see if there were any that we could use for a season without irrevocably harming wildlife stocks. They came up with several good ideas. Opium-spiked corn set out for deer and other wild game, for example.”

The chuckle was impossible to stop. I couldn’t help but imagine deer staggering around in the woods, oblivious to hunters. The meat would be tainted with opium, of course, but it could be used sparingly, mixed into other foods, so that residual effects on humans would be minimal.

I wasn’t the only one to think it was funny. Others in the tent made amused noises. Stateman Urda smiled slightly. “Indeed. While cruel in a way, it would likely be at least a little funny to see.” Her expression grew serious. “Opium is also quite an effective appetite suppressant, so the opium might serve twice.”

I nodded while saying nothing. It felt good to be appreciated, and even better for my ideas to have led to other ideas that could help. I was still upset about her yanking my leash to force reactions from me, but I could understand why she had done it.

The Stateman continued. “If you disappoint or embarrass me, I will transfer you to the messenger’s guild and you will run your butt off for the rest of this conflict. I have been advised that the messenger’s guild tried to recruit you anyway.”

I breathed out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

The worst that might happen is that I might have to run messages? That’s a punishment?

She snorted a single suppressed laugh and her entire torso jerked slightly. “Learning to control your expression is definitely something we need to work on before you accompany me to any meetings outside of those with my advisors. It is, in fact, now going to be one of your top priorities, because I’m not going to have you following me around telling everyone what you’re thinking.”

She met my eyes in a more normal gaze, without the hardness I’d seen before. “I’m not being easy on you, Allen. I’m going to get the best use out of you that I can. If I can’t teach you to control your deportment in a manner appropriate to an aide, I’ll put you somewhere useful where you can stay a country bumpkin.”

What will people think about me getting away from the militia? Riko, Anu, the others…

Does it matter what people think?

The Stateman is taking me away, I’m not deserting anyone.

People-

My thoughts were interrupted by the Stateman. “What are you thinking for? I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. Go work with your brother to prepare your pigs and carriage for travel. We’re leaving tomorrow morning.”

Swine. I managed to avoid saying it out loud.

“I will allow you to ride with him for a few hours while I plan how I’m going to start teaching you what you need to know, but after that you will ride in my carriage on the way back to the city. The first thing I will insist on is that you will not carry that filthy pouch that you keep treats for your pigs in.”

Swine. I felt my eye twitch.

I wanted to correct her, but I knew it was the wrong thing to do. I refused to believe Zeke hadn’t made her aware of the term we preferred if they had traveled together. With what I had seen of her so far, this was obviously a test. One even I could see. I kept silent while I nodded acceptance. “Yes, ma’am. May I leave now?”

“Yes. You have one hour before I need you back here. I won’t want you around for political meetings any time soon, but I do want you present for the field trial of Karl, our prisoner. If nothing else, I’m certain I can count on you to make him nervous with your expressions.”

Be visibly angry at the man who had my boars killed? That, I can do.

I smiled broadly. “Yes, Ma’am. I’ll be back in an hour.”

As the tent flap closed behind me, I barely heard Captain Marko comment. “Are you sure, ma’am? I’m not entirely certain he won’t attack Karl.”

The Stateman’s voice carried clearly out to me as I walked away from the tent. “I think he’ll control himself. If he can’t, well, he’s not sixteen yet, and I’ll have more stones to throw at him while I try to train him. Don and Riko will be here if needed, and I’d like Lieutenant Davis as well, if you can spare him.”

She intended for me to hear that.

I’m tempted to just tell her to send me to work with the messengers.

But that would put me a long way from people who can implement any ideas I-.

I shook my head and walked rapidly towards my carriage. The carriage and sows wouldn’t get themselves ready for travel, and Zeke and I needed to talk about too many things. Daydreaming could come later.

**

Picking up one of the few remaining pieces of harness, Zeke spoke for the first time in several minutes. “You could always ask for a doctor to sever the muscles that control your vocal cords.” He pulled on a piece of leather to test it. “I’ve never heard of anyone having it done intentionally, but it might be possible to cut the muscles that make them work, without interfering too much with your airway. Tim Pauley couldn’t talk right after he was gored in the throat by a bull, but his airway was clear enough to let him work, and a bull horn is a lot less precise than even the worst doctor.”

Asking Zeke for advice might have been a bad idea.

I turned to stare at him, but he pretended not to notice. He couldn’t have missed it, we were sitting on the ground next to each other with a pile of harness between us. Unfortunately, his expression told me he wasn’t trying to be funny. He meant it. “Zeke, that wouldn’t solve anything. I could still write.”

“I doubt you would be as likely to accidentally write something as you would be to accidentally say something. Especially with that temper of yours.” After a pause, he continued. “I’ve never heard of anyone sleep-writing either. You’re going to be sleeping in good company on most nights soon, if you and Marza don’t fall apart in the next couple months.”

I shook my head. “I’ll think about it later if need be, but I’m definitely not considering it right now. Self-mutilation is low on the list of options.”

“What’s higher on the list?” Zeke was tense and didn’t look at me as he spoke. Instead, he watched his hands far more closely than was needed for routine harness inspection, which we could both do with our eyes closed, literally.

“Learning to better control myself. Like I said, the Stateman is taking me on as an aide for the duration of the conflict. She as much as said that she’s going to hound me into controlling myself better. With what I have running around in my head, and what happens if it gets out, I can get behind that idea.”

Zeke shrugged and looked sideways at me for a moment. I could see a little doubt on his face. “You know I’m not as creative as you, Allen, but you aren’t as grounded as me. I always look for the simplest solution that works. You tend to think longer when you aren’t forced to make a decision. I would have been making plans to have my ability to speak completely removed before I even broke camp to return from the lake if it had been me having that conversation with Albert.” He paused. “It’s hard to change yourself on a fundamental level. Neither of us has been very successful at it. Me with my bluntness, you with your temper.”

It does make sense, based on what he knows.

I wasn’t sworn to silence about my discussion with the Stateman.

“I would more seriously consider it, if Albert hadn’t told the Stateman that it was more likely he would de-civilize us if I were hidden away, killed, or drugged and sent to the prison colony. My presence is a mitigating factor, not an aggravating factor. Somehow.”

“Hrm.” Zeke looked at the swine under the carriage as his hands worked another section of harness, twisting, folding, pulling, and testing with rapid, careful movements. “So, in other words, you aren’t alone in having that knowledge which you can’t divulge. Albert thinks it’s more likely your absence will lead to those people dispensing what you know. Somehow. If he’s not playing a much deeper game.” He sighed. “That’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. How are you holding up?”

“I’m hoping that I’m only supposed to be a catalyst for something. Trying to imagine that I’m going to miraculously solve this problem single-handedly-”

I stopped speaking abruptly, and Zeke turned his head a little to look at me.

Smiling, I wriggled my left hand to draw Zeke’s attention, and then carefully lifted the hand to slap my injured right shoulder lightly for emphasis. “…is truly frightening.”

We both laughed for a few seconds. It felt good. But it couldn’t last. When I looked over at the hourglass, it was nearly empty.

“Allen, I wish I could help more.” He reached across my back with his right hand, carefully gripped my torso at armpit level, and then bounced me against him, shoulder to shoulder, never touching my injury. “You just do your best, little brother. We might look at the world differently, but one thing I’m not worried about is you failing because you didn’t try. I’ve never seen you back away from something because it’s a lot of work.” He looked at me and grinned, showing a lot of teeth. “Even if you’re sometimes a little slow to get started because you insist on trying to figure out a better way to do it.”

I felt tension draining out of me as I realized Zeke wasn’t going to try to press me on his idea of self-mutilation. He was trusting me to do the right thing. Not only that, he was trusting me to be able to figure out what the right thing was. There had been a severe shortage of trust being directed at me recently. Trust coming from my brother was a welcome mental balm. “Thanks, Zeke.”

I hope I can figure out what the right thing is, and that I can act on it when I see it.

“Eh, that’s what big brothers are for, right? At least half the job, anyway. When this mess is over, we can find something to argue about, alright?”

I elbowed him in the ribs. “Fine. Schedule one big argument for after second harvest. Neither of us has ever had to deal with as many sugar beets and radishes as we’ll get this harvest. I’m sure we can find something to squabble over as we process the crop.”

I hope we get that good harvest, and the chance to argue.

Zeke snorted. “That works for me.” I felt an elbow bump my ribs, and Zeke pointed at the hourglass. “Time for you to go back. Sand’s almost out. I’ll finish checking that harness and the others. Leave it where you’re sitting.”

I carefully set the harness aside and stood up from the ground. “In a way, I don’t want to see him. At the same time, I want to judge him for myself. Maybe it’ll help me some with closure. Especially if I am able to help the Stateman get some useful information out of him. Finally confronting the man who-”

I went silent, remembering Hoss and Bigboy hanging, field dressed, behind the kitchen.

Zeke didn’t wait long to fill the silence. In a low voice he muttered. “It’s not just about you in there, Allen. The Stateman is shrewd to a degree that’s hard to comprehend. Almost frightening.”

He stared at the horizon briefly, a serious, thoughtful expression on his face. “Scratch the ‘almost.’ Straight out frightening. She was starting to tell me about you before I was done telling her about you.” He gave me a sober look. “And getting most of it right.” He paused and coughed twice, quickly. “Sure, she’d spoken to Ma, Pa, Granpa, and Marza first, of course, but it was still unnatural. Before she ever met you, she seemed to know you as well as I do.”

I stared down at Zeke, where he was still sitting on the ground. “Really? No tall tales?” I’d certainly felt overmatched by the Stateman’s sheer intelligence and presence, but from what Zeke was telling me, the Stateman was beyond any level of intelligence I would have considered credible.

With an impish grin, Zeke responded. “I’m pushing your leg, not pulling it. See?” He reached out and smacked my thigh from where he was seated on the ground. “No joke, Allen. She’s really that smart. And I doubt you want to see what happens if you’re late when she expects you.” He waved a hand at me in a shooing motion. “Git. Just remember to watch her. I doubt she moves a muscle without a reason.”

I reflected on what was happening around me as I approached the tent. Albert had seemingly set me up as some sort of catalyst for whatever machinations he was using to test humanity. The Stateman was going to be trying to turn me into some sort of political aide, which was something I had little interest in. I was happy with the future I had planned out with Marza.

If I lose my calluses while I’m sitting on my backside behind a desk, my hands will be ground meat for the first couple months back on the farm.

I’ll probably lose a lot of endurance too.

The swine will be out of training, and I’ll have to be careful around them.

I almost walked into the tent and asked to be sent directly to the messenger guild, but when I was a half dozen steps away, I stopped. The Stateman might be frightening in her own way, but unlike Albert, she was human. More importantly, unlike Albert, I could watch her and had a good chance of learning from her. Even if I couldn’t match her.

I’d be a fool to miss the opportunity to watch a first-class mind at work.

Even if she drives me mad in only a couple days, I could learn a lot.

I nodded to the tent guards and announced myself as I started walking towards the tent again. “Allen Rickson, reporting to the Stateman as requested.”

From inside the tent, the Stateman answered. “Let him in.”

The guards let me pass, and I entered to find that the tent had been completely rearranged. There were three chairs visible, two on one side of where the large table had been earlier, and one on the other.

In the single chair, the man who had tried to kill me was sitting with a heavily bandaged stump of a leg. He was restrained the same way Brad had been, leather and rope shackles, arms, torso, and waist. He certainly wasn’t running anywhere, but he was still held in his seat by four ropes attached to a heavy leather belt and staked to the ground.

Brad hadn’t been restrained with staked ropes, but Brad hadn’t been in the same tent with the Stateman.

Opposite him, roughly ten feet away, the Stateman sat in one seat and patted the seat next to her. “Your seat is here, Allen.”

The man and woman who had been sitting next to Stateman Urda earlier were standing behind her chair now. The man would be standing directly behind me when I was seated. He stared at me as I approached, but I didn’t get a sense of threat, just watchfulness.

I moved through the tent and sat next to Stateman Urda, as directed. The Stateman didn’t appear to be trying to communicate with me. She was consulting written notes.

I glared at the man who had tried to kill me. To his right was Don. On the other side was Riko. Lieutenant Davis took up a position by the tent entrance. He was the only officer present, which surprised me.

I stiffened when I saw who was behind the prisoner, smiling at me.

Rikard. I’m going to wipe that smile-

I stopped myself from moving, and it took all my self-control to not glare at Stateman Urda.

Zeke was right.

This didn’t happen by accident.

While the Stateman flipped papers back and forth, I stared at the sitting prisoner, focusing all of my anger at him. In my field of view were both the man who had tried to rape my future wife, and the man who had killed my two boars and had made an effort to do the same to me. Sitting next to me was a woman who was manipulating me like a carpentry tool.

I had plenty of anger to focus.

The prisoner was looking at me nervously, but his eyes weren’t tracking properly. I knew how painful an amputated lower leg could be, from my childhood memories of Granpa after he lost his. He would either be in incredible pain, or heavily sedated, and he wasn’t in apparent pain.

With a rustle of paper, the Stateman passed her bundle of notes to the woman standing behind her.

It surprised me that she didn’t stand when she started to speak, but we certainly weren’t in a formal courtroom. “Karl Sweep, you are being accused of a premeditated act of violence against another human. Do you deny the charge?”

Karl’s voice was slurred. He was clearly sedated. “I d’noth recognith tha jurisdiction of New Charlthon. New Charlthon and New Tokyoo er mobilithed again one another, an hothtilities haf started.”

Stateman Urda immediately replied. “This is not a New Charleston court, it is a Nirvana Court, Mr. Sweep. I am the Stateman of New Charleston. Albert is present at these proceedings.” She pointed to the side of the tent, at a small, shiny object hovering in midair. Roughly the volume of my fist, but flattened. The alternating bright glinting surfaced and light drinking sections indicated the presence of a high albedo metal encased in glass or clear plastic, and something dark that was likely an advanced carbon composite.

Peering comically at the floating device, Karl spoke again. “If thas Albert, and thish is real court, want metal clearithy from drugth.” He glared at the floating device. “Know me righths”

Albert’s voice emerged from the floating ovoid. “Karl Sweep, I will approach you now, and offer medical treatment delivered by low pressure compressed air into your nasal passages. Roughly ten seconds after treatment, you will experience a brief period of unconsciousness. In less than one minute after you go unconscious, you will wake. At that time, your mind will be clear, and you will be incapable of feeling pain. This state of affairs will last roughly one hour, and can be repeated up to four times with local resources, if necessary. I will be the judge of necessity. You must agree that the brief period of unconsciousness is acceptable before I will provide the treatment.”

Karl’s mind seemed less effected than his lips. I suppose that the shock of meeting Albert probably went a long way towards countering depressant drugs, at least temporarily. He didn’t hesitate. “I athept.”

Watching Albert’s device floating through the air towards Karl was thrilling. The early years of all school curriculums were full of lessons to make sure students knew Albert was an artificial intelligence created by humanity, not some sort of deity.

A sufficiently advanced technology can produce effects that might be confused with supernatural agency by the ignorant. Albert certainly could demonstrate unnatural-looking physics to most of the population. I wasn’t ignorant, but seeing something that looked solid floating through the air, defying any physics I’d ever had the opportunity to see in action, still gave me chills. It just seemed fundamentally wrong, even though I knew it was possible. I had no references. Even the tiny remote I’d seen before had looked like a bat, and flown like one.

It’s like tossing a rock, and watching it get stuck in midair.

I was staring at the device and trying to see how it flew when I noticed a sound coming from the floor. When I looked down, I saw a thick rug under us that I hadn’t seen before. Underneath Albert’s remote, I saw the rug flexing slightly.

I double-checked. There was nothing between the rug and the floating machine.

Some sort of magnetic field?

I could barely remember anything about electromagnetics. It was mostly taught so we would understand static electricity and lightning in its various forms, as well as animal nervous systems and the electrical senses of many aquatic animals. I knew it was possible to generate physical force with electrical field interactions. The moving divot in the rug was proof that force was being exerted. The equations wouldn’t come to mind though. I hadn’t even thought about them for at least five years.

I’ll try to derive the equations later. That’s got to take a lot of power.

Wait. Does that mean the rug is full of metal too?

I stared at the rug, which might be worth dozens of farms, even if only a small fraction of it were metallic.

The Stateman poked the side of my thigh with her finger, and I looked at her.

She turned her head slightly towards me, caught my eyes with her left eye, shifted that eye to look at the prisoner, and then back to me. All without moving her head more than a few degrees.

The meaning was clear. I nodded fractionally and started staring at the prisoner again. I felt my anger begin to grow as Rikard caught my eye and smiled, again.

So help me, if he says Marza’s name after this, I’m going to knock him to the ground so hard he’ll bounce back to his feet again.

I suddenly realized that the Stateman might be planning to take Rikard with us as well, as some sort of teaching aid to test my self-control. I cursed inwardly.

Ulcers or bruised knuckles. Maybe both.

Karl was raptly staring at Albert’s approaching remote and probably hadn’t seen our movements. He went cross-eyed watching when Albert approached. When there was a sudden hissing noise of compressed gas being released, he jumped.

After the treatment had been administered, I watched Karl’s eyes go wide in startlement. His limbs jerked slightly and nonsense noises came out of his mouth for a few seconds before his eyes closed, and he slumped forward, slightly.

Albert’s remote returned to where it had been before. The dimple in the floor stayed under it the whole time.

The Stateman looked at me again, this time directly. “I can see you’re going to be useless until you get some answers. Yes. That type of remote is supported by the rug, magnetically, but the rug has no metal in it. It’s a cotton rug over carbon and ceramics with a fuel cell, made by Albert himself. Albert will print out a detailed document about it if you ask. The ancients used the same technology for automatons that cleaned their houses.”

Automatons. Cleaning houses.

I shook my head to get rid of images of Albert with a feather duster.

Pointing at Karl with a quick motion of her right wrist, Stateman Urda continued. “In a few seconds, he’ll be awake again, and much more clear-minded. I need you to appear angry enough to keep him mentally off-balance. If you would prefer, I’ll ask Rikard to come stand behind you. If you still can’t stay angry-looking, I’ll ask him to give you a backrub and whisper someone’s name in your ear.”

My vision started to go red as I realized what she was threatening. I didn’t dare move quickly, and I was too angry to speak at first. With deliberate slowness, I turned my head as I counted to five. When my count was finished, I could stare at her full-on with both eyes. Every muscle was tight, to keep me in total control of myself. My right shoulder blazed in pain.

The room had gone suddenly silent. All the little sounds of movement and breathing stopped. In my peripheral vision, Riko was staring at me with wide eyes, shaking his head minutely.

I locked eyes with the Stateman, easily this time, and snapped out words one at a time so I wouldn’t start yelling. “That. Won’t. Be. Necessary.”

She smiled like I’d paid her a compliment and looked away from me, towards Karl. “I’m going to break that temper of yours, Allen, and you’ll thank me for it. Then I’m going to try to teach you to use that impressive angry stare on command. But for now, I’ll use what I have at hand.”

Definitely ulcers. Maybe a stroke.

I turned away from her, also facing Karl. Albert was completely forgotten. As I rubbed my right shoulder with my left hand, I could feel fresh wetness tickling against my skin under the bandages. I’d torn the wound open again.

The room grew louder as people started breathing again, but nobody said a word. Rikard wasn’t smiling at me any longer. Instead, he was staring at the Stateman with a concerned look on his face. He knew what I would be planning to do to him if she made good on that promise and had him touch me while saying Marza’s name. She couldn’t force him to say the word.

Karl snorted a few seconds later and started speaking as he straightened in his seat. “Wow, that was one awful dre-”

Stateman Urda interrupted him. “It was not a dream. You, Karl Sweep, initiated hostilities between New Tokyo and New Charleston by attacking Allen Rickson. Evidence indicates your attack was premeditated, and your intent was to kill. Do you wish to contest the charges and submit to cross-examination by Albert?”

Karl’s face twitched and he looked at his bonds and straightened the stump of his leg out in front of him. Several seconds later, he responded. “No. I freely admit to premeditated violence with the intent to kill, in a time of war.”

“So, trying to kill Allen is your first violence offense?” The Stateman asked, gravely.

“Of course it is.” Karl responded, glancing at me. He grew visibly tense, and his eyes stayed on me for a second before he looked back at the Stateman.

Stateman Urda relaxed back in her chair, and crossed her left leg over her right while steepling her hands in front of her chest, and ducking her head slightly. “Not even any childhood offenses?”

He shrugged. “A few squabbles when I was very young. None that were remarkable enough for me to be censured.” He looked at me again. “Are you releasing your prison population to forage for you? I tried to kill him. I admit it. Does Mr. Angry really need to be here to stare at me?”

“Following whose orders?” The Stateman asked, with a sharp edge to her voice.

“What?  How does that matter?”

“You claim to be a model citizen, with no violence history. Yet, one day, you decide to go wander off into the woods with a bunch of friends and try to kill someone?” The Stateman paused. “This does not follow.”

Karl’s eyes bulged and he shook his head, whipping long blonde hair around his face. “We’re at war. Do you think I just gathered a few of my friends to go on a jaunty little murder trip?”

His eyes trailed over me again. “You don’t see me looking at him like he’s looking at me. He’s still got his arm. His trained attack animals damaged my leg too badly to save it. If anyone should be on trial here, it’s him. Two of his trained boars killed one person and injured four others. That makes him guilty of five counts of violence if I’m not mistaken.” He stared at me, and there was definitely real anger in his eyes. “They were all friends of mine. Including Dana, the one who died.”

It hurt to know the name of the person Hoss and Bigboy had killed, but I set it aside for later.

I started to speak out of turn, fully expecting to be told to shut up. It didn’t happen. I was allowed to speak, voice cracking with rage. “Hoss and Bigboy are…” I grimaced and resumed speaking. “…were very intelligent animals from a strain of swine that my family has been breeding for intelligence for thousands of generations. You shot at them from the ground. They were easily smart enough to recognize who wounded them, and fight back. I have never trained any of my swine to attack humans. I’m more than willing to submit to direct questioning by Albert to verify the truth of what I say.”

In the gentlest voice that I’d heard her use yet, the Stateman said, “Allen, please be silent unless I ask you to speak.”

It was all I could do to avoid looking at her like she’d grown a second head. Instead, I stared at Karl and thought about my boars, while trying to avoid thinking about who Dana might have been.

I realized I’d lost track of the conversation and focused back in to hear the Stateman ask, “So, Karl Sweep, you say that your attack was somehow justified because New Tokyo and New Charleston are at war?”

“No, not to Albert, anyway. That’s a violence law violation, with no question. But New Charleston does not have any civil jurisdiction over me for an action taken in a time of war.” He spat on the rug. “You wouldn’t charge your own militia in civil court for actions taken against the enemy unless the offenses were abhorrent. I did not attempt to cause any more pain than what would have been required to kill him.”

In a very serious tone, the Stateman responded. “I see. However, there is one flaw in your argument against civil criminal charges. I am the Stateman of New Charleston. I spoke to your Stateman yesterday. We speak every day with Albert’s assistance, at least briefly.” Her voice sharpened and she dropped her crossed leg to the floor and abruptly leaned forward. “Our states are not at war. Yet. Not even after you tried to kill one of my militia members.”

“What?” Karl looked stunned but recovered quickly. “I don’t believe you. You’re playing some sort of mental game with me.”

Leaning back in her chair, it was clear that the Stateman was in control. “I know what your orders were supposed to be. Many groups of you were sent to infiltrate our borders and find the easiest ways to move deep into New Charleston without using the roads. If your late plantings failed, and Stateman Taylor was unable to secure enough foodstuffs to feed your population over the winter, large numbers of people could move through the wilderness and try to bypass our defensive camps at the roads on the borders. Your Stateman didn’t tell me her plans, but it’s obvious in retrospect. Our scouts have seen signs of at least eight other groups along the border and found many hatchet-marked trees along easy-to-travel terrain.”

The two of them locked eyes for several seconds until he looked away.

I had never stopped staring at him since he woke, but he wasn’t looking at me any longer. I suspected that I was no longer needed, but I was still angry at him, so I kept staring, even though it was starting to feel silly.

“Stateman Taylor and I very much want to know who tried to start a war between us before we were done exhausting possible solutions. Albert hasn’t exercised his authority to override a civil court and begin cross-examining you, so I am willing to believe most of what you say about your prior personal violence history.”

She raised her right index finger and pointed at him. “Someone told you that we were at war, and we aren’t. That means someone wanted to start a war. Someone wanted you to start a war. You were probably pulled to the side and had your orders changed at the last minute by someone you thought had the authority to do so, or who was a viable mouthpiece for such a person.” The Stateman was a study of motionless aggression. “Who. Was. It?”

Karl was sweating heavily by this point, clearly in deep thought, but still saying nothing. Suddenly, he spoke. “No. I’m not telling you anything. For all I know, Stateman Taylor is-”

Stateman Urda interrupted him. “Albert. Did I speak with Stateman Taylor yesterday on this topic?”

“Yes.” Albert responded.

“Did Stateman Taylor request for me to try to find out from Karl Sweep who was responsible for nearly starting a war between us?”

Again, Albert responded. “Yes.”

Wow. I had no idea Statemen worked that closely with one another.

“Stateman Taylor did not necessarily tell you the truth,” Karl interjected, looking more confident.

“Albert, if I am unable to get the name of the violence offender that gave Karl unlawful orders, are you going to interrogate him to determine who it was that ordered him to commit violence?”

Albert’s remote took a noticeably longer time to respond. “Yes.”

Karl looked shocked. “What? I already admitted to-”

“Silence.” Stateman Urda said in a tone that commanded obedience, startling the prisoner.

He recovered quickly and started to open his mouth again.

Before he could say anything, the Stateman was speaking forcefully. “Karl, Albert doesn’t care about your guilt any longer at this point. However, he certainly does care about the person who ordered you to kill people. He knows the order didn’t come from Stateman Taylor, or he wouldn’t want to interrogate you if I fail to get you to tell me.”

“How does he-”

She cut him off again. “Albert watches Stateman Taylor as closely as he watches me.” Her voice got quite bitter. “I can’t sit on a toilet without Albert knowing all the details.”

“Then why isn’t he-”

Again, the Stateman gestured curtly with her right hand, silencing Karl. “If Statemen couldn’t solve most problems ourselves, why would Albert have given us the responsibility to lead States? I’m supervised closely, but Albert’s not holding my hand.  The same is true for every Stateman.”  She paused. “If you don’t give me a name, Albert will take it from you, and Stateman Taylor will-”

Karl interrupted the Stateman this time. “Fine. I will tell Albert. In private. I do not trust you. It is my understanding that we are in a state of war.” He looked at Albert’s remote. “Albert, will you verify if New Tokyo and New Charleston are at war?”

Silence.

Why didn’t he answer?

“Albert, answer the question, please.” Stateman Urda stated. “Despite his wounds, it is possible that Karl might attempt to commit violence against his jailers if he believes himself to be a war captive and not a civil criminal.”

Albert’s drone spoke less than a second later. “I have warned you about using me against your opponents, Stateman Urda. I have also advised you on many occasions that manufacturing scenarios or intentionally shaping events in attempts to force me to act as you wish is objectionable.” His voice sounded accusatory and slightly angry.

“I’m still holding my office,” Stateman Urda replied, confidently. “If you aren’t satisfied with the job I do, Albert, you can find someone else to do it. I ask you for nothing that I do not feel is necessary. If you do not act on what I feel is necessary, my performance will be inhibited. Answer his question, please.”

There was a long moment of silence before Albert replied tonelessly. “New Tokyo and New Charleston are not at war, Karl Sweep.” After a pause, he continued. “Have him taken to his holding cell. I will attend him privately with a different remote when he arrives.”

Addressing the prisoner with a less edgy voice than she had been using when speaking to him beforehand, the Stateman passed sentence. “After we determine what happened, Karl Sweep, Stateman Taylor and I will work together and reconsider your sentence. For now, you will be remanded to the New Charleston high-security prison, without possibility of parole, for the rest of your life.”

Don and Riko helped Karl to his foot, and then interlocked their hands and forearms between them, creating a seat of arms. As the two Sergeants carrying the prisoner left the tent, Lieutenant Davis and Rikard followed behind.

I ignored Rikard, looked at the Stateman, and then at Albert’s drone.

She smiled at me. “Go ahead and say it, Allen. Albert doesn’t care what you say about him.”

I shook my head. “First I have another question. Wouldn’t it have been easier for Stateman Taylor to get answers out of her own militia? Six of them made it back across the river.”

“She’s traveled to the camp that they came from already. None of the others knew who told Karl we were at war. He was their corporal. There were only a handful of people that could have told him we were at war, and been believed. I suspect she’ll have answers by tomorrow, if she doesn’t have it settled already.”

“Why hasn’t Albert taken action then? Why would he pretend to need to get the information from Karl? Won’t he tell you what Karl tells him?”

She shrugged. “Albert probably already knows who it was, and is watching them closely. When dealing with Albert, you have to realize that he will work with his officers, and for us, both as a tool and as an advisor, to a limited extent.  Mostly as a lie detector and a source of historical knowledge or forensics analysis.  However, he won’t actively make decisions outside of his sphere of interest unless we’re interfering with his plans. He doesn’t govern. Be thankful for that.”

I looked at Albert again. I couldn’t make myself talk in a normal voice, and found myself whispering. “You said he will help or offer advice, but it looked like you tricked him into helping you? He even complained about it.”

With a toothy grin and a shake of her head, she replied. “No. Not in the least. He knew exactly what I was doing.” She peered at me curiously with a slight tilt to her head. “Do you play chess?”

“I do. Not very well.” I shrugged, and my shoulder reminded me that I’d probably ripped out some stitches.

As I rubbed my shoulder gently, I continued. “My mother and I would play boardless games when we were weeding the kitchen garden, but that was before I was old enough to work alone with our swine.” I emphasized the word ‘swine,’ slightly.

“You understand at least enough to know how you can move pieces in such a way that it forces your opponent to take certain actions, correct?”

“Of course. Encroachment and entrapment.” I realized I sounded a little irritated and lowered my eyes in apology. “Sorry.”

She smiled, slightly. “Albert rarely moves against his own officers. Provided, of course, that we’re doing a satisfactory job. He uses significantly less processing power with us doing our jobs than he would without us. That passivity allows us to box him into situations where he has little choice other than doing what we want him to do, unless he wants to expend a lot more effort. Only some Countymen do it, but every single Stateman does.”

“Ah.” I said, realizing her point. “And Statemen are chosen from the ranks of Countymen, by Albert. He’s choosing for it, even if he’s… warning you when he thinks you’re close to overstepping.”

She nodded. “Exactly. Albert prefers to be passive and let us do as much as possible.”

I stared at her for a second, speechless. “Passive is definitely not how I would have described Albert when I spoke to him.”

The Stateman laughed a belly laugh. “If we get too aggressive with using him, or work counter to his desires, he’ll pull us up short faster than you can blink. If we force him to expend a lot of processing power or resources to avoid taking an action we’ve tried to box him into, it’s a real problem. If that happens more than a couple times, he will replace us rapidly if he can find someone competent, or start aggressively guiding us as he seeks a replacement.”

“How much of what you were saying about you and Stateman Taylor was true? It sounded like the two of you were collaborating fairly intensely. We might be in a war in a month or two, but you’re helping her find disruptive elements in her militia. Isn’t that counterproductive?”

“You aren’t thinking it all the way through, Allen. We aren’t fighting yet. We might not have to fight at all.” She leaned back in her chair, and her face grew very tired-looking. “If we Statemen are too passive, the people serving under us will do to us exactly what we do to Albert. They will tweak policy or their department activities this way and that, in ways that benefit or please them. Sometimes, it’s real improvement. Most of the time it’s harmless and ignorable personal quirks, and we just go with it. Every now and then one of them will do something disruptive, and make our lives miserable until we straighten out the mess. I had to relieve a county tax collector from office last year because they decided to raise taxes, unofficially. Albert removed that Countyman from office as well, because they should have taken action before I did.”

She kneaded the sides of her forehead with her thumbs. “In this case, whatever New Tokyo officer or NCO tried to start the war might believe an accelerated war escalation timetable is in the best interest of New Tokyo. I can easily imagine scenarios where a reasonably intelligent, aggressive-minded person might think it’s better to start the war they think is inevitable when New Charleston is not as well-prepared as we will be in another month.  If I could help Stateman Taylor identify her too-enthusiastic officer or NCO, it would have been a benefit to both of us.  If Karl had told me the information, I could have given it to her.  Since he didn’t, she’ll have to figure it out herself, or convince Albert to tell her.”

Something about our conversation was resonating. I could feel an idea bouncing around in the back of my mind, the right-brain toying with ideas and not keeping the left brain in the loop.

She noticed my distraction. “Are you OK, Allen? I saw you rubbing your shoulder. Do you need to go see Doctor Sven?”

She seemed legitimately concerned. I couldn’t tell if she meant it or not, and that bothered me. The Stateman seemed to wear emotions like hats.

I shook my head. “No need for the doctor.” I tapped the knuckles of my left hand against my skull. “Something just started bouncing around in the right half. It’s bouncing pretty hard too.”

“Bill, Tany.” The Stateman looked up at the man and woman who I had forgotten were present, even though they were standing right behind us. “I want you to repeat the conversation that Allen and I had, from the time when the prisoner was taken out.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” The woman, Tany, replied as the man said the same, nearly in unison.

The two of them stepped around the chairs and moved in front of us, faced each other, and started reciting exactly what the Stateman and I had said to one another. My memory was good, but their performance was remarkable. I was fairly sure they weren’t missing a word. They even had the cadence and tone right, as far as I could tell.

“Wow,” I said, in awe, as they finished.

The two of them grinned at me in response to my compliment, but said nothing.

“Impressive, isn’t it? Bill and Tany are fraternal twins. They both have near-perfect memory. I do too, but I’m getting older, and the memory isn’t a hundred percent any longer, especially when I’m short on sleep.” She looked at me and raised her finger accusingly. “This time listen to what they are saying, instead of just enjoying the show. See if we can get that idea of yours to shake out. I’m curious what it might be, if it’s somehow based on tonight’s conversations.”

Bill and Tany looked at me with slightly sour expressions.

I smiled. “Sorry, I was too impressed with what you were doing to pay attention to the actual words of the recitation.”

Tany lightly punched Bill in the shoulder. “You missed a pronoun anyway, goon.”

“Which one? Maybe it was because I was startled after the article you skipped?”

“I did not skip an article.” Tany huffed. Her brows drew together briefly before she grumbled. “Fine. I skipped an article. I guess you can be right, once.”

They launched into another recitation and this time, I listened to the conversation for content, not for entertainment.

Two more recitations and a lot of irritated glances from the twins later, the Stateman stood. “Sleep on it, Allen. Maybe it’ll come to you. The officers will want their tent back. They need sleep too.”

“It’s so close. I can feel it.” I complained.

She smiled. “It’s amazing what the boys in the closet can manage to solve when you let them work together without supervision. Try to sleep. You’re trying too hard.”

My mind latched onto the phrase ‘work together.’ And I gaped like a landed fish as the idea crystallized suddenly.

The Statemen are working together, now, even though they know they might be forced to fight to save the lives of their citizens.

Why aren’t they working together more?

Like wolves.

I looked up. The Stateman was standing at arm’s distance from me, staring at my face intently, her arms crossed in front of her chest. “Did it come to you?

I started speaking slowly. I still wasn’t fully certain I understood the politics. “You’re working closely with Stateman Taylor. Is that just because our states border one another?”

The Stateman looked at me with a puzzled expression. “I have a very strong working relationship with Stateman Taylor of New Tokyo, and Stateman Mario of New Ecuador. We have to work together to maintain regional economic stability. We trade quite a bit with new Singapore across the Inner Sea as well, so I have a fairly strong relationship with Stateman Zan.” She paused and frowned. “I’m not following where you’re going.”

“Ma’am, I don’t know your upbringing. Have you ever watched either dogs or wolves herding or hunting?”

“No. I’m no country girl.” She paused. “Explain. I’m tired.”

“Dogs or wolves can control or kill animals many times larger than them, even large predators like bears and big cats. They work together to-”

She shook her head rapidly. “It won’t work, Allen. I’ve already talked extensively with Stateman Taylor. The logistics for both of our states to combine forces and try to threaten or invade Second Landing are impossible. Our supply lines would be untenable across that much distance, and Second Landing has the canal systems which will help them make their defensive positions nearly impossible to breach.”

“Ma’am. You’re thinking too small.”

The Stateman raised an eyebrow at me and looked a little irritated. “I’m thinking small? Nobody’s told me that for decades. Tell me more.”

“You’re used to dealing with a couple preferred trading partners and that’s it.” I paused. “What do the other states think of Second Landing’s unwillingness to sell grain at reasonable rates?” I paused. “All the other states. Not just your strongest trading partners.”

“I imagine-”

Her eyes both popped fully open in a wide-eyed stare focused somewhere over my shoulder. A second later she closed her eyes, and opened them again and she met my eyes. “Are you serious?”

“Deadly serious, ma’am. Second Landing might think they can win a defensive fight with both New Tokyo and New Charleston on their southern border. And they might be right.” I shrugged. “I’ll trust you on that. But what if New Dublin were to threaten to help us from the north, or New Singapore and New Ecuador with sea-landed militia from either the north or south?”

The Stateman was staring at me as I finished explaining. I was almost certain she understood already, but I wanted to be absolutely certain. “What if all or even most of the other Statemen decided that Second Landing was out of line? What if you and Stateman Taylor could convince them it was in everyone’s best interest to act together to enforce global community standards of cooperation?”

“Threaten a global war, to prevent a regional war?” She whispered, with a stunned expression on her face.

I winced. “That’s a bit harsh. I prefer to think we’re setting a pack of livestock guardian dogs on a wayward bull, to bring it back to the herd.”

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Chapter 27

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Two hours later, someone knocked on my carriage door. It didn’t surprise me when I looked up and saw Hiro’s face in the window to the right of the door.

“Allen, Lieutenant Davis just sent a note.”

I set the pencil and lap desk aside. “Good. There’s way too much that needs doing for me to be puttering around trying to keep myself busy.”

“Definitely something to do,” Hiro commented.

Great, now my guards are reading notes sent to me by the officers?

I bit back a bitter comment and carefully put my right arm back in its sling. I’d been sketching out where different buildings might be for our farm, after the war, if we were allowed to homestead the property here. Most of my ideas seemed like common sense to me, and I couldn’t imagine Marza wanting any of the buildings in different places. I also knew it could quickly become a problem if I assumed she would agree with me.

I tucked the half-finished map under the lap desk so it wouldn’t blow away after I opened the carriage door and smiled to myself.

Story books mostly seemed to agree that spouses who knew each other from childhood would always agree. Marza and I already knew better than that. Not that we disagreed a lot. We knew we would usually agree, but we also knew better than to assume agreement. Some of our more spectacular squabbles had been due to me making plans and not consulting Marza. She’d done the same thing a couple times herself.

My current situation with the militia had been bouncing around in my head as well. I’d had a bunch of ideas. A lot of them simply wouldn’t be a good idea to mention, but there were a few that had nothing to do with fighting. Like renting ships from the far northern climates before they were frozen in for the winter, or other ways to temporarily expand the fishing industry. We had time to build simple boats, even rafts if need be.

Hopefully, this is an answer to my request to speak with the planning group.

Perhaps even trying to trade with the prison colonies for food. The prison colonies had farms, and they didn’t have to deal with locusts. Albert would probably lie about how much food the prison islands had. He wouldn’t want us to trade with them, and they would probably ask a heavy price for food, but it would be worth considering as an option. I wasn’t sure what their growing conditions were either. They might be able to plant a new crop and be nearly certain it would make it to harvest. Lots of potential there.

“What does the note say, Hiro?” I looked at him through the glass as I reached for the door.

“I don’t know. It’s addressed to you, not me.”

“Then how do you know it’s something to do?”

Hiro lifted a folded piece of paper and pressed it against the glass. “It says ‘Orders for Allen Rickson, per Lt. Davis’ on the front?”

“I see.” I smiled briefly and chuckled as I nodded at Hiro.

Sorry to doubt you, Hiro, I said, internally.

With a slight bounce of the carriage, Hiro stepped down from the first step, leaving only the top of his head visible.

I stepped outside, and Hiro handed me the note. I fumbled with my one good hand, eventually unfolding it, read it, and stared at it blankly for several seconds before showing it to Hiro.

Hiro gave me an odd look before he read the note, then smiled. “Heh. Well, it’s something to do, right?”

**

“Why do they call this ‘poison oak’ Allen?” Anu asked. The other city recruits nearby perked up, looking interested in the answer.

“I don’t know. I suppose the leaf looks a little like some oak leaves.” I shrugged. “Just remember each leaf is actually three leaflets with a common stem. Leaves of three, let it be.” I pointed at the poison oak I was using as a teaching tool. “The leaves aren’t always the same, but they will always have several rounded lobes around the edge of each leaflet. The top of the leaflets will be shiny and waxy smooth, and the bottom will be dull, with some fuzz visible if you look close. The stems will be a little fuzzy too. Only check for fuzz if you’ve already touched the plant. The active chemicals are present in every part of the plant.”

Anu nodded, as did several others in the group of twenty or so city recruits that were following me around for the “Woodlands Training” class that I’d been assigned to teach. A man that I didn’t know spoke from the back of the group. “How big does it get?”

“Good question. Usually less than a meter, but it can climb if it’s got something to grow against.” I paused. “Any other questions before I show you how to tell real oaks apart?”

Hiro spoke from nearby. “Why does it matter? An oak is an oak? They all have acorns.” He paused. “Well except poison oaks, which aren’t oaks, like you just said.”

“Tannin content mostly. If you have the choice between what types of oak acorns you harvest, you want to choose the types with the least tannin.”

They were all staring at me blankly. “Tannin makes acorns bitter. You soak them in water to get most of the tannin out. I’m pretty sure it’s called tannin because it’s used in the leather tanning process.”

Another comment, from the same unknown person as before, judging by the voice. “Wait. People can eat acorns?”

There was a muttering of affirmation from quite a few others who also seemed surprised that acorns were edible.

I did my best not to laugh, but my best wasn’t enough, and I chuckled for a few seconds. I was getting irritated looks from a few people, Hiro being one of them. Anu, fortunately, seemed not to be taking offense.

“I apologize for laughing. It’s so deeply ingrained in me that it startled me you would ask. Acorns are one of the best and most easily found forages, one of the first things I learned about as I was growing up. I knew the difference between different oaks before I started school.” I smiled at the group. “We grew up in different worlds, almost. I’m fairly sure that you would have all laughed at me if you had seen me in the bathhouse the other day. Before the militia paid for it, I’d always bathed in a pond, or with a sponge on the farm, depending on the season. It was pretty amazing being able to put my whole body in hot water all at once. I certainly plan to try it again at least a couple more times in my life.”

There was dead silence for a second before someone started laughing. Then they all started laughing. Loudly. Anu and Hiro both joined in.

“Ah, it’s not that funny, is it?” I tried not to look irritated at how enthusiastic they were.

They laughed harder.

Whatever.

“Well, I guess it is that funny. This way, I’m going to show you white oak first, they have the least tannin. If you have a choice, you want these first, every time.”

I walked off, trying not to look upset.

It’s really not that funny.

I realized, suddenly, that I was still carrying some swine treats in my pocket from the morning. Pulling a couple out, I started breaking them into pieces, carefully choosing my words. “I have some acorn meal biscuits on me right now.”

Anu gave me a sharp look as she saw what was in my hands, but said nothing.

I looked at her and popped a fragment of one of the swine treats in my mouth to reassure her before she said something. “These aren’t sweetened or salted, but they are low tannin.” I carefully started eating the piece of brick-hard swine treat, allowing it to soak in my mouth, lightly rubbing it with my teeth as the biscuit became soft. “Don’t bite down too hard, eat them like hardtack bread.”

I passed out little pieces of the swine treats to everyone. About half of my students watched others gumming their pieces for a few seconds before they put their swine treat pieces in their mouth.

Anu stared at me as she popped her swine treat piece in her mouth, her expression shifting from suspicious to contemplative as she carefully gummed the brick-like biscuit fragment. “Not bad. Not good, but maybe better than sawdust bread.”

There were several agreements from others and noncommittal grunts from everyone else.

A tall, thin dark-haired woman who had been one of the first to try her treat piece piped up with a question “Why don’t you put a sweetener in them? I’ve had worse, and the nutty taste is interesting, but a little honey or molasses would be very good with this, I think.”

I did my best not to smile. “Two reasons. We make the biscuits so they can keep for a very long time, and our swine like them just as they are.”

Within a second, everyone stopped chewing and stared at me, motionless, except Anu, who slapped her thigh with her right hand, loudly. “I thought I knew what these were. You did say swine could eat anything we could.”

“Swine can eat practically anything organic, true, but acorn meal bread is something we do eat on the farm.” I nodded to the dark-haired woman who had spoken earlier. “When we use acorns for cooking, for people, we usually do use sweeteners, but not always. Acorn meal makes an excellent thickener for stews.”

Smiling, I popped another piece of swine treat in my mouth and watched as my students resumed chewing carefully. I was somewhat disappointed that none of them spit out their fragments.

“It is better tasting than the bread this morning, but there’s not much that tastes worse than boar taint,” Hiro commented.

I froze and glared at Hiro, who was watching me.

Was that a statement of fact, or an attempt to goad me?

Neither of us blinked as we stared at each other, until I forced myself to look away for a moment. When I felt the pain in my right shoulder, I shook my head and relaxed my fist.

I looked back at Hiro, who had not stopped watching me. “Knowing forest plants so we can find edible food and avoid poisonous plants is all well and good, Allen, but what I’d like to hear is any advice you have to offer us about avoiding other people in the woods.”

What are you doing? Why are you bringing this up, Hiro?

It was apparent that Hiro had intentionally tried to provoke me by mentioning the boar taint in the morning bread, which came from my dead boars. Even though I knew my expression was very clear because the rest of the students had backed away from me slightly, Hiro did not seem apologetic.

“Something else I’d like to understand is how you do that.” Hiro pointed at me.

“Do… What?” I asked, confused.

“You didn’t see everyone else just step back from you? You didn’t intend to intimidate us? I watched you sparring with the spear training cadre a few days ago and saw the same thing. Even the lieutenants are hesitant when they are just sparring with you, even though they normally win. You seem to have a way to appear suddenly more dangerous, and I’d love to know if there’s a way to copy it.”

“I…” Looking around, I could see several other people looking back and forth from Hiro to me, thoughtfully. Some of them were nodding, agreeing with Hiro.

Hiro pressed me. “There are a lot of people in the militia that can find food, Allen. And it certainly would be handy to know how to avoid starving in the woods, but I’d rather learn something that will keep arrows and spears out of me. Especially now that New Tokyo has initiated violence.” He tapped me lightly on the chest with his staff. “And you survived an eight-to-one encounter.”

I stiffened, pushing the end of his staff away from my chest with my left hand. “I can’t teach how to be me. I’m not entirely certain I would if I could.” I took a deep breath. “When I’m angry, it shows. That’s not very helpful when people don’t know me. It’s occasionally a problem around people who do know me.”

“You aren’t doing it intentionally?” Hiro set his staff against his shoulder.

Something clicked. “So, you mentioned my boars, knowing it would make me angry, to watch me and see if you could figure out what I was doing to intimidate people?”

“Yes.”

Well, that answers that.

I glared at him for a second. “No, I don’t do it intentionally. I’m just quick to anger, and don’t hide it well. Always have been that way. Please don’t try to make me angry on purpose. I have enough to be angry about without you helping.”

Several of my students had made small noises of dissatisfaction before Hiro spoke a couple seconds later. “Fine. Can you tell us how you survived the attackers in the woods?”

“Hiro, you’re right that there are a lot of people who can forage. However, many of them are already scouts. A lot more of us are going to be spending more time in the woods trying to intercept New Tokyo foraging parties like the one that almost got me.”

“Is that a no?” Hiro’s voice was flat, and maybe even a little angry.

“No. It’s not. I can teach you a couple basic things that might help you know when something is wrong in the woods. It won’t make you a scout, but it might keep you alive.”

Suddenly, I had everyone’s attention. “I’m also going to keep teaching you about foraging. If everything goes bad, you’ll need it.”

There were several seconds of silence before I started walking towards some nearby white oaks. “Blue jays scolding the New Tokyo scouts alerted me to their presence.”

I paused and shook my head. “The first thing to remember is that if animals hear something unexpected, they will react. Normally their reaction is to go completely still and then turn to face the disturbance unless it’s very close in which case they will run immediately.” I pointed at an obnoxious grey squirrel chattering at us as we approached the oak grove. “See the grey squirrel there, being loud? It’s looking directly at us. If someone else were to walk behind it, the squirrel would likely stop chattering at us and turn to face them, at least briefly. Non-predator birds will normally face a disturbance before deciding what to do.”

Anu laughed loudly, suddenly. “That sounds like what we do.”

“Don’t move,” I ordered as I stopped walking, and everyone stopped. “Before you move again, notice what you are looking at.”

Almost everyone was staring straight at Anu.

I don’t think that could have been set up better if we’d planned it.

“OK, you can move again. Anu is right. She made an unexpected loud noise, and almost every one of us looked at her. That’s exactly what wild animals will do, but they have better senses than we do. You might not see, smell, or hear what they did. But they act the way they do for a reason.”

After a moment’s thought, I continued. “I can’t help you be quiet in the woods because I’m not good at that, other than the obvious stuff like not walking on loose leaves. But if a wild animal suddenly looks in any direction but at you, or flees and doesn’t run almost directly away from you, there’s a good chance that there’s a predator or human nearby. Pay special attention to blue jays and squirrels. They are willing to stay near humans, and even follow people for a short distance, scolding.”

“What does a blue jay sound like?” Another person I didn’t know.

I chuckled and shook my head a little. “Sorry to laugh again. More of that stuff that I’ve known pretty much since I was able to form complete sentences. I’m sure we’ll run across some blue jays as I show you different types of forages. If we don’t, I’ll try to imitate a blue jay alarm call, but I’m not very good at it.”

Two hours later, my class of twenty might not starve in the woods, and if they were lucky, they might get warning of danger in the woods.

Anu and I chatted a little on the way back to camp, and I constantly noticed Hiro watching me. It was starting to become annoying, but that was his job, to watch me. For some reason. I could understand it to a degree, but that didn’t make it bother me less.

After lunch, I was going to take another group of twenty out with Hiro. After that, another group. For the next four days, my schedule would be breakfast, two groups, lunch, two more groups, and then dinner. My swine would eat when I did.

Until my arm healed, it was going to be my job to teach, like I had done when my leg was wounded. Other people would make sure they were learning and send them back to me if they didn’t learn properly, so I could probably count on being a teacher for four days.

Anu bumped me carefully about halfway up my upper left arm with her shoulder. “What’s got you worried, Allen? Anything you want to talk about?”

I shrugged. “Thanks for the offer, Anu. Plenty I’d like to be able to talk about, but nothing I can talk about unless the officers call me in to speak with them.”

And even then, some things I can’t talk about.

Why didn’t you just tell me to keep silent about everything, Albert?

Turning her head just enough to see me without blinding herself to what was in front of her as she walked, Anu watched me for a few seconds. “You’ve got friends, Allen.”

I clenched my jaw to keep from saying anything before I thought about it. “I’ve also got Hiro and Kevin, who have to stay by me. I’d feel truly strange trying to have a conversation between friends when my watchers have to stay close to me, and probably remain close enough to hear anything I say.”

There was a stir from the group as we walked, and several people looked at Hiro.

Hiro spoke in his own defense. “Not my idea, Allen. That doesn’t make it any less of an order.”

“No insult intended, Hiro. It’s just the way it is. I suspect I’m more bothered by the situation than you are.”

“I have no doubt that’s true.” Hiro laughed quietly after speaking, but sounded a little nervous.

Anu looked forward. “So, what was it like, talking to Albert?”

The forest was suddenly silent, except for the sounds of twenty-two people walking through leaf litter.

I wonder how many times people are going to ask me that.

It didn’t take me long to think of an answer. “If you have any childhood memories of adults humoring you when you thought you knew what you were talking about, it was like that. He asked questions and drew me out when I thought I was right, and then showed me how I was wrong. Multiple times. There were a couple things that we didn’t agree on that he didn’t change my mind about, but I don’t think he cared about those things. It felt like I was four again.”

“Ow,” Anu whispered as she shook her head.

I don’t care how brilliant you are, Albert. You are directly responsible for every early death on Nirvana. Humans might have even become deathless by this time without your interference. I’m not going to be your scapegoat.

Suddenly, I realized what I’d been thinking.

Am I starting to follow Doctor Sven’s line of reasoning? Has something happened that should have changed my mind?

For the rest of the walk into camp, I barely paid attention to the world around me. I tried to figure out if I had any reason to think Albert intended to use me as an excuse to take action. I didn’t, nothing that held up to logic. My prior arguments against Doctor Sven’s beliefs on Albert’s motivations continued to seem sound, assuming Albert was sane. I wasn’t ready to believe Albert was insane, despite my anger earlier.

Nobody spoke to me the rest of the way into camp. I imagine my expression wasn’t congenial.

I had been happy to be useful when I had an injured leg and was teaching people to use tools safely and effectively. Now I had a wounded arm and was being just as useful, in a way, but teaching people felt empty.

It seemed as if I had an obligation to do more, now that I knew more. The limits Albert had set upon me, and those I had set for myself, seemed to weigh heavily.

Before Anu left the group at the camp, I touched her arm. “Thank you for the offer to talk. I’m sure I’ll take you up on it soon, even if my minders have to stay in attendance.”

Anu smiled a little. “Some people need to talk through their problems. Some people need to think through their problems. Do what you need to do.”

**

Two days later, what I needed to do was figure out what the officers were thinking. Every night, I wrote down carefully considered ideas about how we might hide our resources or generate more resources after making sure the ideas were not potentially usable for offensive actions. Some of the ideas I knew were good, but I received no invitation to help plan.

For instance, I knew from sustainable ecology classes that gill nets were disruptive and unsustainable on a large scale. I also knew that a single year of gill net use would not cause a long-term problem for fish populations, provided that major waterways were left partially unblocked. We needed to make gill nets legal for use this year, and we needed to convince every other state to do the same. It would take time to make nets, deploy them, and properly scale up fish processing capabilities, but it could be done in time to help.

Fish typically wasn’t a big part of our diet in the temperate climate ranges, but we did have a small, established fishing industry. We couldn’t quickly build and establish fish farms like colder regions had in place, but we didn’t need to. Not for a single season.

The gill net idea was the only idea that generated a response that I saw. My note was returned. At the bottom was written ‘very good idea. Forwarded to Stateman Urda. – Lt. Baker.’

If it was a very good idea, why am I not allowed to join planning sessions?

Even Riko was apparently avoiding me. Granted, I only saw him twice, and both times, he was walking rapidly with a purpose, but it was still annoying.

The camp kitchens had finished using the boars in meals. The human-edible parts of two boars split six hundred ways lasted three meals, one day, and there wasn’t a lot of meat in the beans and rice for the lunch and dinner meals.

Despite that, I could still smell the boar taint faintly in the air, and taste it in everything I ate. My swine, if anything, were more skittish than ever. If I could taste boar taint in what I was eating, they could certainly taste it in the kitchen waste pile. They were eating from the kitchen garbage though, so the taint itself apparently didn’t have special meaning to them as long as it wasn’t accompanied by the taste of their fellow swine. Just another organic chemical.

The nervousness of the swine was because their sense of smell was good enough to tell that the boars had been eaten by us. It would be a week to ten days before my sounder would stop being able to smell the scent of digested pork. In my next letter home, I had made sure to note for Granpa and Zeke what I’d discovered about the swine not having a serious problem with boar taint by itself in the kitchen garbage pit. They might already know, but I’d never heard it before. Not exactly useful information, but it was information that could be written down and passed on.

I was hoping Zeke would be able to arrive soon to take my sounder back to the farm. My arm was still immobilized, but healing quickly. If I was fully recovered and able to join the newly forming scouting and forage parties before Zeke arrived, I wasn’t sure what would happen, but I was certain I wouldn’t like it. I made sure to mention that in the same letter where I discussed the boar taint in the kitchen garbage pit. I had to be positive that my family knew the situation I was in, just in case Zeke hadn’t already left.

Before bed every night I had been writing and sending letters to Marza with plan drawings of different parts of the farm. It was empty planning because we still didn’t know yet if we’d be allowed to homestead there, but it was something interesting to discuss. We’d eventually have to plan to live somewhere. I carefully didn’t mention the chances that I might not be around to live on the farm, even if the land grant request was accepted. We both knew that, and I preferred to keep at least some part of my life as positive as possible.

On the third day after I was attacked, I had not received any mail in two days, and Marza and my family had been writing every day before that. I had seen other people getting mail and heard them talking about their families at home. I nearly reached the point of marching into the officer’s tent and demanding my mail. If the officers were holding my outgoing as well as my incoming mail, then Zeke might not even be aware that I needed him to get the swine. If the officers casually caused me to lose my future livelihood by engineering the loss of my swine, they would find me to be a much more difficult person to work with.

I didn’t want it to get that far though. I had written two copies of the same letter, addressed to Stateman Urda’s office. The letter expressed my irritation at being arrested, with no charges against me, and explaining about how the officers were interfering with my personal correspondence. I requested that she address the matter with the militia officers. I also wrote a very terse note to my family with my request to Zeke and an explanation of my current situation.

The first copy of my letter to the Stateman’s office and the terse note to my family were both folded and addressed before I folded them into a third sheet of paper. The third sheet was a letter to Anu.

It wasn’t hard to pass the note. I pulled it out of my sling and handed to Anu with my body between Hiro and our exchange when we spoke briefly about what we’d done that day at dinner the night before.

“Anu, I wish I could talk more, but I’m not comfortable with talking out loud about anything other than the weather,” I told her as I tapped the letter against her ribs twice. When she looked down at the paper, she could see where I had written in large, dark block letters. ‘Say nothing. Read in private.’

Fortunately, she said nothing, took the letter, and put it inside her shirt. The next morning she nodded to me with a thumbs-up, clearly indicating that she’d done what I’d asked in the note to her. I nodded back, and took out two training classes before lunch, just to make sure the daily post would be well on its way before I did anything else.

After lunch, but before my third class of the day, I handed Hiro the second copy of the letter to Stateman Urda’s office. “Hiro, please give this to Lieutenant Davis. I’ll follow you to the officer’s tent.”

Hiro looked at the letter, then at me. “Am I going to see you lose your temper again when Lieutenant Davis flies out of the officer’s tent waving this in your face?”

“If that’s his reaction, you might see my temper again, yes.”

Hiro’s smile in response surprised me. “Good.”

At that moment, I realized that even if Hiro had seen me pass the note to Anu, he might not have said anything. Like always, my expression gave me away.

“What? Do you think I like the way they are treating you, Allen? I’ll do what I’m told if it’s not horribly repugnant, but that doesn’t mean I like it.”

“I didn’t think you did, but I didn’t get the impression you had a problem with it either. Thanks, Hiro.”

At the officer’s tent, Hiro handed the letter to one of the guards. “Give this to Lieutenant Davis, please.”

The guard nodded, stepped into the tent, and I heard muttering. A few seconds later, the guard came back out of the tent, declaring “Handed it to Lieutenant Davis.”

Lieutenant Davis did not come out of the tent. Nor did any loud noises.

Hiro looked up at me, curiously.

I looked down at him and shrugged. “Maybe they were expecting it.”

We both looked back at the tent. After a few seconds, the two tent guards made shooing motions at us but said nothing. They didn’t like people loitering near the officer’s tent. We left before they started to get agitated.

I was feeling a bit confused, and Hiro was visibly disappointed when we walked away to find my first afternoon class to take into the woods.

I had started asking everyone to bring a pack with them, so we could forage for real, and bring back useful calories and herbs. We weren’t going far enough out to find a lot in the already-gleaned area, but I could tell how well people were learning by what they put in their packs. The area was fairly heavy with sassafras, which the foragers had been mostly bypassing because it wasn’t a high-calorie food. It was, however, a powerful taste, and would be welcome in the kitchen, I hoped.

Mrs. Zeta, with some cajoling, had agreed that I could get one small table in the back of the kitchen to sort through my students’ finds. I had to sort rapidly and was allowed to have only Hiro and one student in the building with me at a time. That would get forage into the kitchen’s hands faster, and make it easier for me to correct any students collecting wrong-type plants.

I was sorting through the first student’s small collection of forage when I heard Mrs. Zeta speak behind me. “I smell sassafras. How much did you collect?”

I turned away from the student’s forage. “I don’t know yet, Mrs. Zeta. Should I set it all aside in a separate pile?”

“Definitely. You brought roots and leaves, I see?” She reached forward and picked up a root, cut it with a fingernail, and sniffed it.

“Yes, ma’am. Roots for flavoring, I’m not so sure about the leaves. We usually dry them in unused crop storage space before we grind them up and use them as file thickener for soups. You have plenty of heat and ceiling height in this building. I figure you can dry them fairly quickly.”

Mrs. Zeta looked into the ceiling above us with a pensive look on her face. “I’ve always used aged leaf for gumbo file. It’s worth testing fresh-dried leaf.” She sniffed again. “I’ll have us use the root immediately.”

Patting me on the left arm gently, Mrs. Zeta didn’t mention that it would be welcome for covering the taste of boar taint.

I could appreciate that. I was fairly certain that, more than anyone else in camp, I wanted to stop tasting boar taint. That was a large part of why I’d had my students collecting the plant.

As she turned and started walking towards where two of her staff were arguing quietly with one another, the head cook said one more thing. “Tell any of my people to let me know when you have sorted this group’s take. I’ll happily take all the sassafras root and leaves your students can find. Now that I know it’s nearby, I’ll pass the word to the other foragers that I want them to bring back a little when they find it. We need other forage more, but a little sassafras root goes a long way.”

My current group ended up with nearly a kilo of sassafras root and leaf, and about five total kilos of various edible mushrooms, berries, and acorns, with only a few inedible plants. I carefully inspected every mushroom, throwing away any that were missing identifying parts, explaining when I did so that in many cases I wasn’t sure if it was poisonous or not. With mushrooms, you had to know. Guessing could kill.

The whole group of students collected less than I could have managed myself in two hours with two good hands, but we were working a picked-over area, and they were new. Overall, I was pleased.

After all the student finds had been sorted, I called over one of the kitchen runners and told them to inform Mrs. Zeta that I was done sorting, and then Hiro and I left.

“We need to go and see the officers now,” Hiro informed me, as we stepped outside.

“I have one more class today,” I replied, looking at him.

“No, you don’t.” He handed me a note. “This came to me when you were sorting.”

Hiro, bring Allen to the officer’s tent when he has finished his current class. His last class is being redirected to firewood collection. ~ Sgt. Covil.

After I had read the note, I looked towards the officer’s tent. “I see.”

After two days of wanting nothing more than to be a part of whatever was being planned, now I wasn’t sure I wanted to speak to the officers at all.

Hiro interrupted my thoughts. “Second guessing yourself about that letter to the Stateman earlier?”

“Is it that obvious?” I looked at him, and he smiled, briefly showing teeth.

I sighed. Of course it was obvious.

As I walked towards the officer’s tent, I spoke again, “I don’t regret the letter. It needed to be said. That doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy this conversation.”

I wasn’t happy with Hiro as he followed behind me, laughing under his breath.

“Schadenfreude is not a virtue.”

“No, but it’s still funny to watch someone stepping into a hole they dug for themselves.”

“Whatever, Hiro.” I grumped at him as I started to walk faster towards the officer’s tent, intentionally forcing Hiro to jog a bit to keep up.

A minute later, we were standing in front of the tent. Hiro had stopped laughing several steps before we arrived and he announced my presence. “Militiaman Rickson arriving as requested by Sergeant Covil.” Under his breath, he said as an aside. “Good luck in there.”

I said nothing, but gave Hiro a nod in thanks.

The guard that had taken the message in pushed his way past the tent flap. From inside the tent, Captain Marko’s voice was audible. “Allen, come in. Hiro, please go to Allen’s carriage. We’ll send an escort with him to meet back with you, or Kevin, whoever is on duty when we’re done here.

They think this meeting might last three hours?

I dry-swallowed and pushed into the tent.

The first thing I noticed as I entered the tent was that there were more people than I had seen in the tent before. At least twelve people. It felt crowded.

The second thing that I noticed was Zeke stepping forward from my right, and throwing his arms around me to give me an enthusiastic bear hug.

“Ow. Ow. Stop, Zeke. My arm.”

“What? Oh, that’s right. They did say you had a cut on the shoulder.” He let go of me, took a step back, and poked at the bandage, making me wince as I jerked my shoulder back to keep him from poking it too hard.

“Bad enough for stitches, but it should heal fine if nobody pulls the stitches out. Hint. Hint.” I gave him a careful left-armed hug back.

“The doctor there said the muscle wasn’t injured severely, just a ragged skin wound. Stop whining.” Zeke grinned briefly, then went serious. “Sorry I got a bit rough there. It’s good to see you looking healthy, even if you’ve been banged up a bit.”

“What are you here for, Zeke?” I asked. “You didn’t send me a letter saying you were coming.”

“Didn’t you ask for me to come and get your swine and carriage?” Zeke frowned and looked towards the back of the tent, over the table where the militia officers were all seated, at the little table that the captain kept there for his use. There were three people sitting there. “I didn’t send a letter because I was offered a ride when the Stateman delivered the letters to our farm and spoke to Ma on her way here. The handwriting was yours, Ma said. It sounded important enough that you didn’t need a letter in response if I could come quickly in person.”

I looked at the back of the room, then back at Zeke.

Stateman, here?

She talked to Ma?

“I did.” I shook my head briefly. “I do. Thank you for coming. Apparently, my mail has been handled differently than most.” I stared at Captain Marko, and he met my glare with no expression, arms folded across his chest.

I looked away from the captain, and towards the back of the room. If the Stateman was here, then the older, white-haired woman was certainly her. The young woman to her left was clearly too young to be a Stateman, and the man to her right, well, the Stateman was a female, and he was clearly male.

Looking back at Zeke, I thanked him. “Anyway, Zeke, thanks for coming. I’ll be happy to have the swine out of harm’s way, and I’ll owe you a favor.”

“We’ll talk about favors later after we see how bad this winter is.”

“And if I survive.”

“That too.”

“You got the letter about Speedy?”

Zeke nodded. “Yes. Very interesting.” His head tilted towards the center of the tent. “But I doubt these fine people want to hear us talk about swine breeding.”

There was polite chuckling from several people in the tent. The white-haired woman confirmed herself to be Stateman Urda by speaking next. “Zeke, thank you. Please go to Allen’s carriage. There’s a man named Hiro there who can keep you company, but he won’t leave the carriage. I ask you not to leave the carriage area either, please. I’m sure you’ll want to inspect the harness and carriage for yourself anyway, since, based our conversation on the way here, you’ve never used it.”

Before Zeke started moving, I made sure to warn him “If you let them out, watch them closely, Zeke. I’m sure you’ve smelled it.”

“I did. Taint but no pork smell any longer. How bad were the sows?”

“Not terrible. The kitchen worked with me. I’m fairly sure they didn’t encounter anything that tasted strongly of the boars in the kitchen refuse pit. They were mostly nervous and irritated without any overt anger or violence. Hotfoot and Speedy were the only ones that tried to run off, and they both returned after a couple whistle commands.”

Nodding, Zeke accepted the information as he felt at his chest, where I knew his whistle would be. He didn’t ask for mine, so I knew he had his. It would have shocked me if he hadn’t had his under his shirt.

“I’ll be careful.” He gave me a more careful hug this time. “Watch your mouth here, Allen. Think about everything you say, before you say it. Twice.”

Zeke stared at me with a no-nonsense look until I nodded back to him, saying “I will.”

With a look at the back of the room, where I saw Stateman Urda nodding, Zeke carefully walked out of the tent.

As the tent flap closed behind Zeke, I felt more than a little confused.

The Stateman cleared her throat. “I hope that we’ve demonstrated that we aren’t out to ruin your life, young man, which seemed to be something of a concern in your letter addressed to my office.”

I nodded. “The safety of my swine was my most pressing concern. They are a large part of my future.” I shrugged. “If I have a future after this.”

With a brief nod, the Stateman continued. “You seemed a little hot under the collar about the way we were interfering with your mail, as well. All interference with your mail was at my direct orders. All of your mail passed through my hands directly, as well as all of your ideas that you told us. You’re quite the innovator.”

I looked at Captain Marko. “And the lies telling me that Albert repudiated my claim that he had spoken with me?”

Captain Marko’s mouth twitched, and his eyes squinted, but he said nothing.

“I didn’t specifically order that, but I would have if I had thought about it. I just told the officers to make you as angry as they could without pushing you to the point where you might strike out physically.”

“I-”

I snapped my mouth shut and looked down while I closed my eyes and counted to ten. “What?”

There was a loud sound of papers shuffling. I opened my eyes as I looked up at the Stateman and saw her putting on what were clearly reading glasses.

“I was quite impressed with your list of tests that you thought Albert might be running. Let’s see. ‘Will the militia or civil government resort to physical torture to extract information from an individual that follows all other orders except orders to reveal dangerous information?'”

She looked up at me. “A very valid question.  Near and dear to your heart, considering the situation, I’m sure. I might have wondered the same thing.” She tapped her chin with her index finger. “I’m not entirely sure I would have given the idea to the very people I thought might believe it to be a good idea if things started to go badly.” She looked at me, clearly expecting me to comment.

“I…” I thought about what I was going to say, again, framing the answer in my mind before saying the first word. “I felt that Albert’s obvious dissatisfaction with such an option would be best to bring to light before others seriously considered the idea. It seemed like a valid question, considering how Albert engineered the situation.”

The Stateman’s head tilted and she hummed. “Not bad.” She flipped a paper and started reading again. “Let’s see, where was it. Ah, there it is. ‘Will civil government or military leadership confine an individual in isolation, or outright kill someone to prevent them from revealing information that would lead to Albert reducing humanity to a true stone age?’ I liked that one.”

I felt a drop of sweat start to dribble down the center of my forehead and did my best to ignore it.

With an audible rustle, she set aside the papers in her hand. “Again, a question that one might argue is very important to you. It was quite brave to give your officers and myself that idea. Granted, we certainly would have considered the idea. As distasteful as it might be, it has its merits, and it would be a very clean solution, even if it ended up with a few of us in prison.” She leaned forward. “Which it would not, under militia law, though it would still count against Albert’s violence tally.”

I winced and looked at Riko, who shook his head and averted his eyes from me to the Stateman, clearly telling me to get my eyes back where they belonged.

I looked back at the Stateman. I could read nothing from her face. Her expression reminded me of Ma or Pa working with Abe and Molly a couple years before, teaching them from a reading primer. Relaxed, observant, and confident.

When she saw she had my full attention again, she continued with no obvious sign of irritation. “The same reasoning behind this idea as the last, I’m sure. A combination of pre-emptive self-preservation and legitimate concern, correct?”

“Yes.” I nodded nervously. The drop of sweat on my forehead had company now.

“There was one thing that I noticed you didn’t mention in your list of things that Albert might be testing for, that I’d like to ask you about if you don’t mind?”

I stared at her for a second, and had absolutely no idea what she might be thinking. I hadn’t even noticed her blink though I’m sure she must have. Her small hands folded across each other, her elbows not on the table. She sat without any sign of a slouch, despite her apparent advancing age.

I shook my head and carefully considered my next words. “I don’t mind.  Please, Stateman Urda, ask.”

She smiled, a small, brief smile that quickly disappeared like it had never happened. “I was very concerned that Albert might be testing to see how receptive our militia might be to a takeover by a charismatic young man. A young man with a history of violence, and a penchant for new ideas, who just happened to have knowledge that could threaten officers and government authority.”

What?

Stateman Urda’s facial expression went from mild to hawkish in an instant. Her eyes bored into mine, and I felt cold.  “Have you, by chance, considered that possibility, Allen?”

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Chapter 26

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When I woke, it was still dark. My mouth was dry, but I wasn’t dizzy. Something was wrong, and it took me several seconds to figure out what. I eventually realized that I was confused because I wasn’t confused. My thoughts felt coherent, and that didn’t make sense.

The opium had knocked me out. I was sure about that, but I had been expecting disorientation. I could remember Granpa under the influence of opium. Even after his leg healed, he still needed light doses to help him sleep on some nights, for more than a year. Invariably, the next morning he would be groggy and mentally slow for a couple hours. I had taken about twice what Granpa took to help him sleep, and weighed a lot less than Granpa, especially before he had lost so much muscle mass.

Even though I was startled by my clear-headedness, I was happy that Albert had interfered with how opium would affect my thoughts. Not needing to worry about being drugged and taken advantage of in interrogation while I was mentally incapacitated was a huge weight off my mind. I was even happier that he had allowed the drug to knock me out. The possibility of having to remain conscious through major surgery wasn’t something I wanted to consider.

Unless I slept more than a day?

I slowly sat up in bed with small movements, careful to put as little stress as possible on my right shoulder, and reached out into the darkness with my left hand. My fingers found my new cameltote quickly, and I tested its weight. It was still nearly full. My mouth wasn’t dry enough for me to have slept through a full day. I could imagine scenarios where people might have filled the tote for me while I slept, but they seemed too unlikely to give them credence.

I drank several large swallows of water before hanging the cameltote back on its peg.

Instead of laying back in bed, I looked out one of the east side carriage windows. I could see the barest hint of dawn on the horizon. It wouldn’t be more than a few minutes before I could see the difference between a white thread and a black thread. I had woken up clear-headed, and at a good hour.

I hope the officers will let me do something useful to keep my mind busy while they figure out what they want to do with me.

I decided to save deeper thoughts for later. Being out from under blankets without pants on in late summer morning temperatures was not a situation I cared to be in for any longer than necessary. I was already starting to shiver a bit after a few seconds.

Normally, I could dress in the dark, but I’d piled all my clothing onto my bed to make a nest that would support me as I slept. I found matches, lit my alcohol lantern, found clothing in the bed-nest, and then dressed myself as quickly as possible. I could hear the swine grunting softly under me as I dressed. They had become accustomed to the sounds of me waking and dressing in the carriage, and would be ready and waiting to go eat when I stepped outside.

I didn’t have a swine treat bag. It was either lost or with the rest of my gear. I grabbed a handful of treats from the big bag and put them in my pants pocket before I stepped out of the carriage.

As my feet hit the ground, I heard a new voice. “Good morning, young man.”

I turned towards the speaker as he stood. He was a very small man, no more than chest-high on me, and not much more muscular than I was. In the darkness, I could barely pick out the staff he held in one hand.

“You must be Hiro?”

“I am.” He nodded. In the near darkness, I saw a face I did not recognize. Balding, with short, very dark hair in full retreat from heavy, bushy brows. He had a wide face and lantern jaw. More than that, I couldn’t see yet.

“I need to take my swine to the kitchen garbage pit. I’m still allowed to move freely within the camp?”

“You are. I will follow you and offer support if needed.” He took a step forward.

I didn’t feel woozy at all. “I think I’ll be fine, but if you stay within arm’s reach, I’d appreciate it.”

His head tilted slightly to the side. “You were supposed to have taken a sedative dose of opium last night, and Kevin said you were a little weak from blood loss before that.”

I didn’t want to lie, but I also didn’t want to tell everyone that Albert was protecting me from mind-altering drugs somehow.

I tried for partial truths. “Both true, but I’ve got a bit of a hyperactive metabolism. Almost no body fat, since I was a toddler. I heal quickly, and I guess I burned the opium out of my system faster than normal.” I paused and looked down to start untying the spout of the cameltote. “I should probably drink a bit more water for my kidneys.”

I drank more from my cameltote, using that as an excuse to not meet his eyes.

Hiro clearly didn’t fully believe me, but he didn’t call me out as a liar either, so it was good enough.

I let the sows out from under the carriage. They were nervous. I could smell pork cooking. They certainly would as well, far more strongly than me.

Hiro collected his staff and walked beside me, to my left, staying close enough that I could reach out to him if I needed a shoulder.

After I had settled the sows into the garbage pile behind the kitchen, Hiro and I collected our morning bread. I could smell pine, pork, and boar taint as we got in line for morning bread. The boars had been nearing rut. The only way to prevent boar taint this time of year would have been to separate the boars from the sows for a month.

Normally a butcher would send fat from a tainted boar to a candle-maker or feed it to chickens or dogs, and mix tainted meat with lots of spices and fat from untainted animals to make hot sausages. The kitchen, however, had clearly used lard from the boars while making the bread, and it seemed like they tried to cover it up with the taste of pine. Nobody would be enjoying that breakfast.

Not that anyone would have cared for pine-flavored bread, even without boar taint.

I managed to get Mrs. Zeta’s attention when I was at the front of the line, and she approached the big kitchen window to talk to me. I stood to one side of the line, looking in the window as she approached.

The heavy-set woman put her hand through the window and touched my forearm lightly as she looked up at me. “You paid a heavy price for that cattail root, Allen. My condolences.” She seemed sincere.

I swallowed. “I did, but the boars saved the sows and me. That was their job, though I never expected them to fight people.”

She nodded and patted my arm again. “You needed to speak to me? Mealtimes are busy. I can’t give you much time without good reason.”

I could respect that. I’d seen her working. Running a kitchen for well over six hundred people wasn’t a trivial job. “Yes, Mrs. Zeta. Please don’t put anything made from the boars in the refuse pile. This breed of swine are sensitive to being exposed to food made from other swine, a lot like dogs shouldn’t eat dogs.”

“I see.” She paused. “I’ll have someone check with the mahouts, scouts, and hunters to see if they want the wastes from today. If not it’ll go to the jakes. The rest has already gone to the tanner and the dogs.” She paused and nodded at me. “That means the refuse pile will not get much added to it for the next three meals. Is that all?”

There were already two men and a woman lined up behind Mrs. Zeta, all wearing impatient faces as they looked at me. I nodded. “That’s all. Thank you, Mrs. Zeta.” The impatient faces disappeared, and I was given a thankful nod by one of the three as Mrs. Zeta began to turn around to face her undercooks.

I looked at the small loaf of bread in my left hand as Hiro and I walked around the building, back to where the sows were busily rooting through the kitchen refuse pile. I didn’t want to eat the loaf, but I had to. The flatbreads Marza had made me were gone, and I certainly didn’t have the luxury of starving myself, especially not when wounded. I also couldn’t go out and forage for myself with the sows. The sows could eat grass, but I would have to go fairly far from camp to find much human-edible forage, and that would certainly not be allowed.

Asking for food made just for me would be absurd. Not from a kitchen cooking for so many. Without my having any real choice but to eat food made from the boars, the sows would certainly be uncomfortable in my presence for a couple days. I could only hope they would remain tractable to direct commands.

I found a stump near the garbage pit and quickly ate the terrible tasting bread. Then I washed my mouth out with water from my cameltote. Hiro, fortunately, didn’t seem interested in conversation. In fact, there was almost no conversation in camp other than complaints as people ate the bread.

Perhaps I won’t see so many people looking at my swine with bacon thoughts after this.

Time to think was what I needed more than anything else, and I wasn’t doing anything else while the sows ate. I doubted I would be able to figure out what Albert was trying to do, but I might be able to rule out some things that he was clearly not trying to do.

Concentrating first on things I could understand was a clear priority. If Albert had gone insane, then all humanity could do was hope he wouldn’t destroy us before he ceased functioning.

First assumption: Albert is sane.

If Albert is sane, then he remains a machine intelligence guided by data, not instincts.

Second assumption: Albert does not act without reason.

While I wasn’t impressed with Doctor Sven’s logic concerning Albert’s motivations, discounting his medical knowledge would be foolish. He seemed extremely confident when he said Albert could have edited or erased my memories. In fact, Albert himself had said he could reprogram me to do what he wanted if it was important enough. I could only hope that preventing humanity from entering a real stone age was important enough.

Third assumption: Albert allowed me to retain my memories.

So far, I had simply retraced Doctor Sven’s logic. But all Doctor Sven saw in the future was me getting angry and giving Albert a reason to take action against humanity on a global scale. He seemed to believe that it was Albert’s intent that I should do so.

That scenario was incredibly frightening. At the same time, it made no sense if Albert was acting rationally. Why would Albert need me to be a scapegoat for his decision?

Remember the first assumption. Albert is sane.

After a little thought, it seemed obvious that the question I needed to answer was why Albert allowed me to retain my memories. Clearly, what I’d figured out shouldn’t be made public knowledge, so there was undoubtedly a reason he hadn’t simply removed or adjusted my memories.

Fourth assumption: I am expected to avoid divulging what I know, but having the knowledge is required for some reason.

A very large piece of the puzzle fell into place, suddenly, almost feeling like a physical blow.

Not just ‘some reason.’ It’s a test.

My thoughts scattered, abandoning me as my eyes popped open. I found myself staring at my swine with an empty mind as a voice intruded.

“Are you well, Allen?” Hiro’s voice.

I shook my head and looked over at him. He was sitting on a stump nearby, watching me. “Yes, why?”

“You grunted like you were in pain.”

“An unpleasant thought, Hiro. One of many. Not physical pain.”

As I spoke to Hiro, I looked towards my sows. Speedy was usually a good indicator of when the rest of the sows were getting close to satiated. She wasn’t eating or exploring. She wasn’t coming over to get her head scratched. She was just standing there next to the rest of the sows, staring at me, clearly nervous. I could expect that behavior, or worse, from all the sows, for at least a week.

I stood and blew my whistle briefly before calling out a ‘follow’ command. All nine sows followed, but they were hesitant, requiring treats to get them under the carriage.

After I had the sows back under the carriage, Hiro spoke again. “I’ve seen them follow you before, and they never seemed that skittish. Did losing the boars bother them that much?”

I shook my head. “They don’t care that the boars are gone. They do care that we’re eating the boars.”

“Oh, yes, you mentioned that to Mrs. Zeta. How much like dogs are they?”

I was getting tired of explaining the behavior of my swine to everyone, but Hiro was being polite. “They are smarter than normal farm pigs but not as smart as most dogs. They are motivated and trained with food, not social bonding. Like canines, our swine get nervous when given evidence of the death of other swine. Most farm pigs don’t mind being around other dead pigs. They only get bothered if they are around other pigs that are indicating that they are in pain.”

“Ah, I see.” Hiro nodded slowly.

No, you don’t. You don’t understand swine unless you raise them, just like any other animal.

I didn’t say it out loud. There was no need to antagonize him. He wouldn’t ever deal with our particular swine breed as anything other than a way to turn table scraps into meat, or an odd pet. I couldn’t remember anyone buying our swine to breed them. Breeders wanted farm pigs.

Hiro walked beside me to the medical building, and Doctor Sven checked my wound for signs of infection. He indicated that everything seemed to be healing well, with no significant infection, before applying more iodine, a new dressing, and a fresh bandage. We did not discuss Albert at all. I wasn’t happy with the doctor’s lack of clarity on the topic, and I suspected he didn’t want to think about me as a ‘weapon’ to be used by Albert against humanity.

Oddly, Doctor Sven did seem quite cheered up when he checked my pupil dilation and had me recite the alphabet backward. He advised me to be certain to drink plenty of water if my body was processing opium so quickly.

When I returned to my carriage, I found a spare pencil and asked Hiro to sharpen it with his knife. I had no idea where my knife was. I had spare blades in the carriage, but no handle.

My right shoulder was not very painful, and I had a lot of writing to do. Breaking doctor’s orders was something I generally would avoid, but I was tired of left-handed chicken-scratch handwriting. I carefully eased my right arm out of its sling to allow myself to write quickly and legibly.

I spent the next hour or so writing down all the different things I could think of that Albert might be trying to test.

Eventually, there was a knock on the door, followed by a female voice. “Captain Marko wants to see you, oh, dangerous one.” The carriage bounced a little towards the door as Fobi hopped up onto the step and looked in the window.

I regretted tying the curtains back for light as I stared at Fobi’s face through the window. She hadn’t done anything to deserve my anger, so I tried to avoid sounding too angry as I repeated her words back at her. “Dangerous one?” I managed to bite back a comment about kicking people when they were down.

“Ooh, that struck a nerve. Sorry.” She smirked back at me, clearly not very sorry. “Other than being almost a half-meter taller than me, half my age, and male, you remind me of myself.” Her face grew serious. “Captain Marko isn’t in a good mood.”

“That makes two of us,” I muttered, looking back down at the paper again.

She tapped on the glass, and I looked up at her more serious expression. “Maybe, but it matters more when the captain isn’t in a good mood because he can make everyone’s life miserable. Hurry up. No joke.”

“One moment, let me make some notes.” I scribbled a quick summation of what my most recent thoughts had been before I set aside the lap desk and pencil. Then I very carefully put my right arm back in the sling, and tucked the folded papers I’d written into the sling, under my arm.

A few seconds later, I stepped out of the carriage and followed Fobi toward the officer’s tent. As we approached, I noticed that the guards were several meters away from the tent, instead of next to the entrance.

The officers expect to say things that they don’t want to be heard.

When we received permission to enter, there were only two people inside. Riko and Captain Marko. I had never been in the tent without at least one of the lieutenants present taking notes for the captain. My eyes wandered around the tent, looking for other people, and found nobody else.

“Thank you, Fobi. Please step outside, as we discussed earlier.”

I did not miss Fobi’s displeasure at the command. She left the tent rapidly after a terse “Yes, sir.”

Riko stared at Fobi as she left, and then looked at Captain Marko. He picked up a pencil and put a fresh sheet of paper in front of him.

I said nothing. I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to like what came next.

“Sit, Allen. I’d rather not have Doctor Sven irritated with me if you fall over and injure yourself.”

“I’d prefer to be standing for bad news, sir. I didn’t miss the fact that you’re keeping the guards away from the tent. I can’t think of any good reason you would have Riko taking notes for you as opposed to one of your lieutenants.”

Riko’s mouth twitched. I was nearly certain it was a suppressed smile.

The captain looked at me for several seconds. I got a slight sense of disappointment from his expression. “You are stable on your feet already? Doctor Sven said you would probably still be having difficulty standing due to blood loss and the opium dose.”

“I am stable on my feet, and in my mind, sir.” I smiled a little at him. I couldn’t resist.

You wanted me to be weak of body and mind for this conversation? Tough.

Doctor Sven’s happiness about my mental condition makes a lot more sense now.

The captain frowned a little, then pressed on. “I received a note from Stateman Urda about thirty minutes ago by prism tower. Albert denies having spoken to you.”

What?

I took a step backward, nearly falling despite my claims of stability.

I managed to meet the Captain’s glare. “I… see. I’m going to have to re-think everything. Albert may well be insane if he doesn’t admit-”

The captain interrupted me. “That’s not what I see. What I see is a young man with a strong track record of imagining useful things for this militia to use to protect his home and family.” He paused. “That young man, you, had a powerful, dangerous idea that scared him. Apparently, your imagination supplied you with a falsely remembered conversation with Albert, which you then used to justify not providing your new idea to us.”

He tapped the table in front of him with his right index finger. “I want you to write down the idea that scares you so much, right now. I will then judge how dangerous it is. Sergeant Gonzalez will give you a pencil and paper. If it is truly dangerous, I will burn it here, in the tent, before you leave. If you prefer, I will ask Sergeant Gonzalez to leave, so there is no chance he can see what you write.”

Riko pushed a blank sheet of paper and a pencil to a section of the table close to me, his face was expressionless. Captain Marko was staring at me, expectantly.

I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter, sir. I’m going to my grave with what Albert told me not to mention, whether that’s next week or ninety years from now. Even if I imagined Albert talking with me about it.” I locked eyes with him. “No matter what you do.”

The captain slammed both of his hands on the table, flat-palmed, an immense slapping sound like thunder from a close lightning strike. His face was reddening, and his eyes narrowed as he leaned slightly over the table, almost hissing at me. “You insist on continuing this farce?”

Riko was still looking at me, expressionless.

I looked away from the captain’s glare. I couldn’t stare him down, even though I knew I wasn’t in the wrong. I looked at Riko, at the lack of expression.

Something is wrong. Riko should be reacting.

I shook my head and continued thinking, ignoring the captain’s angry diatribe.

I did not imagine the meeting with Albert. That would require a level of dementia I’m certain I don’t have. Or Albert would have had to program me to have memories of Albert talking to me, which is wasteful and wrong on so many levels that I’m not even thinking about it.

Not only that, I was too clear-headed this morning after a sedative-level opium dose the night before. If it had been a pain-reducing dose, maybe my metabolism might have dealt with it cleanly overnight. But a sedative dose? No, that tells me the meeting with Albert was real.

“Are you even listening to me, Allen?”

I couldn’t ignore him any longer, or he’d certainly escalate, somehow.

“I’m a bit confused as to why Albert is lying, sir. Please give me a moment.”

“No, I need you listening to me now.” He stood and reached a hand forward, rapidly across the table towards me.

Riko interposed his hand between the two of us without standing. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea, sir, unless you want to risk him striking out.”

The captain looked at Riko with a sideways glance, and then back at me. “Ten seconds.”

I nodded and closed my eyes. My mind raced. Only two things made sense to me. The test Albert was running had become far more complex than I expected, or someone was lying, and Riko seemed to be the key.

It’s almost certainly either Stateman Urda or Captain Marko lying. If it’s the captain, then that would explain Riko’s lack of expression. Riko is good at hiding his expressions, but not when he’s really angry. He would be furious if he thought I’d lied about something like this. If Stateman Urda is lying, Riko wouldn’t know, and he would be far more likely to be displaying anger.

I carefully avoided looking at either the captain or Riko as I pulled my folded sheet of ideas out of the sling. I gripped it by one corner with the thumb and index finger of my left hand and held it in the air next to my chest, flipping it like a signal flag on a stick.

“I am convinced that this entire scenario is a test of some sort.” I looked down at the paper and twitched it again. “This, Captain Marko, is a list of what I think Albert might be trying to test. Even if Albert is lying to Stateman Urda about my conversation with him, I am confident that most of the ideas I’ve written down are sound. A lot of them are contradictory, but everything is guesswork until we know more. Older, wiser heads than me might have already thought of all these things, but I’m not sure.”

I flipped the paper back and forth again. “If you truly believe that I am insane enough to lie about the conversation I had with Albert, I’ll be glad to burn this paper. After the emotional turmoil of the last day, I would be more than happy never to talk to anyone about any of this, ever again.”

I’m done bending, and I’m not breaking, Captain Marko. I thought in his direction, knowing that he could probably read my belligerence, but glad he couldn’t read my thoughts.

Captain Marko said nothing. His cheek twitched, and his face got a little redder.

I knew I was possibly pushing too hard, but I was done with the word games. “Captain Marko, please stop asking me to end human civilization in order to keep a few people from starving. I’m nearly to the point where I’m going to lie and say I remember absolutely nothing about the discussion I had with Albert, and pretend I never had any ideas that got his attention.”

I leaned forward slightly and spoke in a slightly louder voice, squaring my shoulders slightly. Despite a little pain in my right shoulder, I hoped that intentionally looming might help make my point be taken more seriously. “Which I now realize is what I should have done from the very beginning. Perhaps I failed Albert’s first test.” I stopped looming, standing straight so my height would be less threatening.

The captain looked startled for a moment, before grating out a response. “Don’t try posture dominance games with me, Allen, or I’ll make you sit on the ground. Do you have any idea how incredibly ridiculous it is that Albert might have given a fifteen-year-old the ability to destroy human civilization?”

Well, scratch the looming idea.

I glared down at him, trying to keep my anger repressed. “You are letting your understandable frustration with the situation cloud your judgment, sir. Albert gave me nothing. I came up with the idea, myself. If Albert hadn’t interfered, I probably would have handed the idea to you and the lieutenants before giving the repercussions any significant thought. I’m still not sure which would have been worse. My idea, or Albert’s reaction to the idea if I give it to you.” I paused. “It seems fairly clear to me which result is worse in Albert’s eyes. I’m not sure I agree with him, considering his history.”

The captain broke eye contact with me and pushed back his chair to stand. He started pacing back and forth. “Allen, if you had an idea that dangerous, we need it. The New Tokyo militia apparently had several prisoners like Brad, and they got two of them to cooperate with their militia. They are far ahead of us if even a small part of what our prisoner tells us is true.”

He closed his eyes for several seconds before continuing. “Brad is demanding freedom for his cooperation, and I’m not letting a murderer loose in camp. Even if I was willing to do so, there’s zero doubt in my mind that he would disappear into the forest within a couple days. I have no idea how the New Tokyo militia is keeping their incorrigibles under control.”

Riko nodded at that, slightly.

“Are you saying you haven’t thought abou-”

I shut my mouth mid-word.

I can’t say that. Being able to use Brad would definitely be helping to inflict violence on others.

I stared at Captain Marko, furious. He had considered using drugs on me for interrogation. Doctor Sven and Quartermaster Brown had blocked him from doing so. Despite that, he had apparently not considered getting Brad addicted to drugs through his food, and then using the addiction to gain his cooperation? I didn’t know if Doctor Sven would have agreed to drug Brad. But I’d have been willing to bet a few fisc that Quartermaster Brown would have, allowing the other officers to overrule the doctor.

The captain stared back at me, looking up slightly as we stared at one another across the table. “Haven’t thought about what?”

“Sir, I am not ending civilization, even at the cost of a lost war. If we’re so overmatched, then we would be better off-”

As I cut myself off a second time, the captain’s expression went from annoyed to angry again.

Creating many fake food caches isn’t a way to inflict violence on others.

“Sorry, sir. I had to think a moment to be sure the second idea had nothing to do with violence. If you haven’t already thought about it, having people create as many fake food caches as possible might make it difficult for invaders to find and steal food.”

Riko started writing for the first time, nodding.

I finally realized what had been bothering me about the entire conversation, and decided to end the farce. “I know what happened to me, sir. I’m not mentally impaired. I don’t know who it is that’s lying above me, whether it’s you, Stateman Urda, or Albert, but someone is.”

The captain took a deep breath and started getting ready to say something loud.

I broke in, cutting him off before he could start. “If I was lying about something this important, why am I not under arrest?”

Captain Marko visibly deflated, and turned his back to me.

Riko chuckled, getting him a brief, fierce glance from Captain Marko. “I told you this wasn’t going to work, sir. I’ve known Allen since he was knee-high to me. He’s always been smart. After my conversation with him last night, and after Doctor Sven explained to us later that Allen had partially shut him down in a discussion, it was pretty clear that mental stress was making Allen think more clearly, not less.”

Looking at me soberly, Riko continued in a droll voice. “I’m certain that if we watch closely enough, there’s still a bone-headed teenager in there.” He shifted his gaze from me back to the captain. “I don’t think you’re going to get what you want from him. Not without taking actions that I don’t think you could find anyone to support.”

The captain grunted once, angrily. More of a harrumph then a grunt, followed by one rapid step towards the back of the tent. He started to extend his arm but stopped suddenly, allowing his arm to fall to his side again as he shook his head. I saw the whiskey bottle near where his extended hand had been, looking far less full than I remembered it from last night. The captain looked back over his shoulder at Riko. “How can I trust his judgment?”

My anger escaped before I could rein it in. “First you abuse your position of authority and lie to me, and now you start talking about trust?”

Captain Marko snapped his entire torso to the side far enough that his head could turn to face me directly, and he started speaking rapidly, and heatedly. “Allen, always telling the truth is not part of my job description. There is a difference between using and abusing authority in emergency situations. Only I and my superiors get to decide what that is, and if my actions were appropriate for the circumstances. Not you.”

I opened my mouth, saw that the captain was clearly waiting for me to say something, and shut my mouth before I said something stupid.

Riko was clearly enjoying himself as he watched the two of us. When I shut my mouth, he smiled. “See, sir, I told you he was thinking more clearly.”

I glared at Riko, who just smiled back at me. It was a big smile. Something I rarely ever saw on Riko’s face.

I’m going to talk to you later about this.

Riko turned his head slightly and winked the eye that Captain Marko couldn’t see.

I have a very hard time believing Captain Marko didn’t see what I saw. I hope you know what you’re doing.

The captain joined me in glaring at Riko for a second before starting to pace three steps back and forth. “Again, how can I trust his judgment? We can’t trust Albert fully any longer, especially not when it comes to military knowledge. How much can we trust Albert filtered through the life experiences of a fifteen-year-old with a hot temper?”

I flipped the paper back and forth at chest height with my left hand again, drawing the captain’s eye. “If you’re done trying to play games with my head, do you want this?”

With an irritated look, Captain Marko stopped pacing and extended his hand over the table. “Give me that.”

I thought about asking him to say please but decided that being juvenile was probably a bad idea. With a quick motion of my arm, I put the folded sheet in his hand without saying a word.

“Sergeant Gonzalez, please call the planning team in.”

“Yes, sir.” Riko stood without delay, quickly leaving the tent.

The captain turned to face me directly. “Allen.”

“Yes, sir?” I answered, trying not to sound too pleased with myself.

Shaking his head, Captain Marko sat in his chair and started unfolding the sheet of paper I’d given him. “Get out of my tent. Now. If I have questions about this, I’ll send for you.”

As I turned to leave, I heard him muttering “If you stay here, I’ll start drinking again.”

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Chapter 25

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“Sir, that doesn’t… That can’t make sense.” I looked away from him, staring at the glass of water on his desk, trying to compose my thoughts.

After a moment, Doctor Sven replied softly. “Maybe you’re right, but what else could it be? Albert has known about verbal traditions for a very long time now, and he knows they are very difficult to get rid of. And that’s when it’s hobbyist martial artists maintaining them. A government institution is going to be far more resistant to losing verbal traditions, especially if verbal traditions are the only way warfare knowledge can be reliably maintained.”

Doctor Sven stood up and collected his coat from the back of the crude chair he’d been sitting on. “Don’t think that Albert didn’t understand exactly what he was going to be setting in motion when he removed the warfare training documents from their caches.”

What? That’s-

More highly unpleasant pieces began falling into place, but it still didn’t work. There wasn’t a reason.

“Doctor, if Albert deliberately created a scenario where warfare knowledge would be stored in a verbal tradition, as opposed to simply trimming highly objectionable bits out of collected knowledge-”

He interrupted me. “Then he was setting us up for failure. Yes.”

I looked up to see him looking down at me, with a sad expression. “If it’s any consolation, it’s extremely unlikely that Albert will try to rush things. If I’m right, it’ll be generations before our civilization begins to lose knowledge at an accelerated pace. Your children and grandchildren probably won’t live in a world much different from what we know.”

No.

I slammed my left fist down on the desk in frustration, and the doctor’s water glass jumped, falling over and spilling into my lap.

Doctor Sven looked at my hand and then the glass, then back up at my eyes, saying nothing as the glass slowly rolled with a rattling sound towards the edge of the rough grained table.

I shook my head. “Sorry, doctor. It still doesn’t make sense.” I had collected the rolling glass before it fell off the table while pushing my chair back slightly so the water still on the table would drip onto the floor instead of my lap. “If Albert was making plans to devolve us further, why talk to me? Why didn’t he just start eroding human civilization slowly, without giving humans the hope that we could prevent it? He could have simply pretended to go insane, and stopped talking to Countymen and Statemen.”

“Trying to understand why Albert does what he does is a quick path to a headache, Allen.”

“But this is torture, sir,” I whispered. “If he set up this entire scenario centuries ago so that the next time there was a war, a verbal tradition would be implemented-”

“Albert is not entirely without emotions, I don’t think.” Doctor Sven interrupted me. “Like guilt. We made him. He’s already caused one mass die-off of humans by removing access to most technology and almost all free metals. Maybe he designed this scenario so that he could enact the course of action that he wanted, without feeling that he was responsible for it?”

That’s…

I looked at Doctor Sven. He wasn’t even looking at me. He was looking from window to window.

He’s not talking to me.

I closed my eyes for a second, hard enough to create bright lights behind my eyelids as I was thinking.

Opening my eyes again, I breathed out a shallow breath. “Doctor. If Albert is still sane, then he has a reason for what he’s doing, and he’s going to ignore you. If he’s not sane, trying to psychoanalyze him might make him angry.”

“You might be right.” The doctor shook his head and looked down at me again. “What’s my other choice? I can do something, or I can do nothing.”

“Sometimes, doing nothing is the only reasonable choice.” I offered, tentatively.

He shook his head. “Not in this case. Albert clearly contrived this. I won’t go as far as saying Albert started the war by somehow interfering with the locusts this year. However, I have no doubt that he’s been ready for war, with a mind-boggling number of contingency plans prepared and kept ready at all times.” His eyes continued to look from window to window. “Am I supposed to believe that he’s dropped the fate of the world into the lap of a fifteen-year-old with anger management issues, in hopes that things won’t fall apart?”

“How could he know I-”

“Hypnotism. Drugs. Subliminal programming. Even at our current technology level, we can make those things work in a crude way, especially hypnotism. Allen, I have a difficult time imagining what Albert can do, even with my medical training and experience. You can’t have any real appreciation of how easy it would be for someone with the knowledge and technology of the ancients to create this scenario in a civilization as backward as ours. Especially when that someone can think as deeply and thoroughly as Albert. That said, I’m certain my estimation of Albert’s potential is far less than what he could do.”

“But why me?” I demanded. “Why not Captain Marko if he wanted someone to use it constructively somehow, or Brad if he wanted everything to fall apart?”

“You were alone, far from anyone. You think you had an idea. Did you? Or did Albert knock you out, give you a frightening idea, and program you to think the idea was yours?”

I thought about it for a second. “Talking about that is not a good idea.”

Doctor Sven stared at me for several seconds, then shook his head. “You’re intended to break the agreement with Albert. He could easily have conditioned you to forget what you knew, otherwise.”

“No.” I shook my head.

The doctor looked at me with an overly patient expression. “Go on.”

I took a breath and started trying to explain, hoping I wasn’t going to infuriate him. “You keep saying how incredibly intelligent Albert is, but you also seem convinced that there is only a short list of possible goals, and you know all of them. A few moments ago, you were trying to talk to him, knowing he’s listening to me. You were either insinuating that you thought he might be going insane, or trying to make him reconsider what you think he is doing, or both.” I paused. “You pointed out some things I hadn’t considered, but you have no more idea than I do what Albert is planning.”

At first the doctor’s nearly black facial features drew tighter under his short, tightly curled white hair as he stared at me. Abruptly, he closed his eyes and shook his head a bit. After another brief hesitation, he laughed once sharply and cut himself off. “You’re right.”

He turned away from me and appeared to be staring out the tiny window behind his desk. “I’m not sure it matters that you’re right because your only sane option is never to use the knowledge. As far as I can see, that makes you viable only as a weapon for Albert to use against humanity, to justify his planned actions against us. If we try to use your potential as a weapon against other humans, it’s clearly an empty threat. The consequences of you releasing the information is worse for humanity than what we could do to each other.”

“Are you sure that Stateman Urda can’t-”

“Of course I’m not sure. She’s brilliant. I’ll freely admit she’s on a whole different level than me, and she’s focused on politics, not medicine. That’s why you need to talk to Captain Marko, so he can confer via messenger or prism tower with her. If she does figure out a way to use you, it still doesn’t make sense. Like you said earlier, why you? Why didn’t Albert just give her the information directly? Why put the information in your hands? No disrespect, Allen, but you’re fifteen, with a history of being hot-headed.”

I stood up, carefully. “No offense taken, doctor. I know I have a temper. You didn’t give me any answers, but you helped me understand more of the questions.”

Doctor Sven snorted as I was standing. “Glad I was able to do something useful.” His eyes flickered up and down my body as I stood. “You seem a bit wobbly there, but you walked in by yourself. Why?”

“Kevin is supposed to watch me from a distance, apparently, so I don’t overpower him and run off into the woods or something.”

Doctor Sven looked back and forth between Kevin and me before speaking. “Kevin, whose orders?”

Kevin spoke from behind me. “Sergeant Covil’s orders, sir.”

“We’ll be changing those orders then. You’re to give Allen a shoulder to lean on so he doesn’t fall and break his neck wandering around while he should be in bed, drinking lots of fluids and rebuilding blood volume.” Doctor Sven was staring past my shoulder, gaze unwavering. I moved a little to my left to avoid being between him and Kevin.

Behind me, Kevin finally said “Yes, sir.”

“Tell Sergeant Covil to come to me if he has a problem with that. I don’t think he will. Not after what I just heard from Allen.” He paused. “One way or another, Allen, I hope you don’t expect to enjoy much freedom in the near future.”

“What?” I looked at Doctor Sven, and I’m sure my face was a study in ignorance.

“You still haven’t thought about how your conversation with Albert is going to affect you beyond what the militia will want you to do.” He smiled sadly. “So focused on how Albert’s revelations will affect the world around you, but not seeing the personal impact. Think about it.” He waved a hand at me. “Unless there’s something else, I’m going to the officer’s tent to check on my other patient.”

“Nothing else, sir.” I said, distracted, as I tried to start thinking about what he had meant about my personal life.

As he walked past me to the door, the doctor slapped me lightly on my left shoulder. “You need to go back to your carriage and rest, Allen. Get a water skin or cameltote from supply if you don’t have one and put it in easy reach of your bed. Doctor’s orders. You won’t get your equipment back tonight, maybe not even tomorrow. The officers are looking at everything that the scouts collected very closely.”

Do they think they’ll find Albert’s plans in a cipher on my cameltote?

I restrained a smile before I realized that there was a reason to worry.

I remember burning the pages from the notebook. But did I burn enough of them? Can they trace out what I was doing based on the indentations left in the papers that I didn’t burn?

“Yes, sir. I’ll do that.” I managed to say as I tried to pull together memories from immediately before Albert’s appearance.

I didn’t have a spare water container, so we walked to the quartermaster’s wagons first. Kevin allowed me to balance myself on his right shoulder as I tried to remember what I’d written down on the pad and paper. The first page had been an image, I knew, the next several pages had been equations and calculations. I couldn’t remember for sure what I had been calculating on the last two or three pages.

Several minutes later, I was walking with Kevin back to my carriage after collecting a cameltote from supply and filling it with boiled and lightly salted water from the kitchen. The scouts had clearly found and returned the cattail root. I could smell the roots being boiled as I did my best to ignore the other, meatier scents coming out of the kitchen.

They weren’t pets, Allen.

Fortunately, Kevin didn’t seem to want to talk as we walked. I had more than enough to think about without trying to maintain a conversation.

Kevin settled himself onto his stool outside my door as I opened the carriage door. Once inside, I arranged most of my spare clothing and pillows on my bed against the wall of the carriage. After creating the nest, I got into bed, laying on my left side with my back against the outer wall of the carriage.

The first thing I needed to do was write home and ask someone to come collect the swine and the carriage.

 

Everyone,

Please excuse the terrible handwriting and share news with Marza. I’ve been injured, again, by people this time. Not serious. A long, ragged cut through the skin and maybe nicking the muscle of my right shoulder. I should be able to work again in a couple days, and be back at a hundred percent within a couple weeks. It’s a long story, better told when my handwriting is better, or in person. The short version is that I ran into eight New Tokyo scouts while I was alone in the woods with my sounder. I was lucky and nearly avoided their ambush because I noticed several jays scolding something the swine were ignoring. We were chased. Bigboy, Hoss, and I were injured by arrows. The boars raged after they figured out who hurt them. I ran. The boars injured five New Tokyo scouts as the sows and I fled the fight. One of the scouts and both boars died. Without the boars, I can’t take the sows into the forest safely to forage. I’m asking Zeke to come return my sows to the farm, along with the carriage. I understand that it may become necessary to cull some of my sows if the second harvest is poor…

The rest of the letter was for Zeke. I explained that Speedy had apparently taught other swine how to pull up cattail root. I urged him to breed Tubby, Speedy’s sire, to all the full-grown sows before culling him this winter, if that became necessary.    I also asked very nicely for Speedy to be kept alive, even if all the rest of my sows had to be culled.

I specifically mentioned nothing about Albert.

I should never have mentioned Albert, and just stopped offering insights on violence.

Being told by Albert that I could say something didn’t mean it had been my best option to do so. It would have stressed my relationship with Riko, perhaps, but if I had simply accepted a position with the new, more aggressive scouting units that were being created, nobody would have been terribly upset.

Or maybe they would have. It doesn’t matter. What could have happened, didn’t.

As I folded up and addressed the letter to my family, I did my best to avoid thinking about anything but the present. The next thing I needed to do was write Marza.

 

Marza,

Sorry for the handwriting, I am writing with my left hand. My right shoulder was injured by an arrow this morning. Please do not be concerned. My arm is being kept immobilized as much as possible to heal faster, not because I was badly injured. I’m sure I could write with my right hand now, but I am following doctor’s orders.

A lot has happened in the last day. Several things that I can’t write about, but will be able to tell you more about in person when this is all over. I wanted to write and tell you that I am well, even if injured. I also wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed every one of the flatbreads that you sent. They are now all gone, as I took the last several out the other day on an overnight foraging trip.

You can get a few more details from my family about what happened to me. I apologize for not rewriting it for you, but my left hand is cramping from writing with a broken pencil. I had to explain clearly to my family what is happening, as I am asking Zeke to come retrieve my sows and carriage.

I would say that I wished you were here, but I’d be lying. If you were here, I would be as terrified for you as you are no doubt worried for me.

XOXO,

Allen

I managed to scrawl a legible address for Marza on the second letter. After that struggle, I carefully put the broken pencil, paper, and lap desk in a cabinet, took a drink of water, and got out of bed.

“I need to post letters, Kevin,” I announced as I carefully stepped out of the carriage.

He stood from his stool as he looked in my direction “Your mail must go through Lieutenant Davis.”

What?

I stopped, motionless, staring at him in the near-dark.

Kevin shrugged. “Not my decision. You want to send the mail, or not?”

It took a couple seconds to clear the anger out of my mind sufficiently to make a decision. The idea of someone reading my mail without my permission wasn’t as troubling as the idea of not being able to send mail at all.

“I do.”

I also want to know if I’m a prisoner, or not. I don’t remember being charged with a crime.

About three minutes later we were standing in front of the officer’s tent, and I was talking to Riko, who had emerged when I had asked to see the lieutenant.

“Riko, I was told my mail needs to go through Lieutenant Davis.”

He sighed. “It does. I was not aware of that when we spoke, sorry.”

“What crime am I being charged with?” I asked, without raising my voice very much.

Riko looked up at me with a quick motion of his head. He grabbed my left arm with his right fist. As he held my arm hard enough that I couldn’t pull away easily, he looked up at me with a grim expression. “Do you want to be charged with a crime, Allen? If you go too far here, you might be charged with insubordination. The officers are legally allowed to give us orders. That includes them having the right to demand full accounting of your actions, and you have been admitting to censoring what you are telling them.”

I took a deep breath, and held it for a slow count to ten, then released it slowly. “They would prefer that Albert eradicate human civilization, and perhaps shift his grand sociobiological human experiment into something more like livestock farming?”

“No. They would prefer that you simply shut up while they try to verify your story. Give me the letter, Allen. I will give it to the lieutenant. He will read it and probably copy it. I will make sure it gets posted.”

“Letters.”

Riko gave me a hard stare. “Letter or letters. Correspondence. Stop being hard-headed. I know you can act sensibly, and now is the time to do it.”

“Has Captain Marko sent the request for confirmation?” I demanded, trying to keep my voice down.

Captain Marko’s voice spoke from inside the tent, sharply. “Yes. I did. By prism tower and relay runner. About five minutes after our first conversation, and again, about five minutes after Sergeant Gonzalez advised me of the threats you told him Albert is supposed to have made.”

Riko’s left hand moved like a whip, his index finger raised in front of my nose so fast that I backed away a step, startled. “Say nothing, Allen. Go back to your carriage. We should have an answer late tonight or tomorrow morning. Night transmissions through prisms are slow, and there are low clouds tonight.”

Suddenly, there was amused laughter from inside the tent, accompanied by the sound of slow hand clapping. Laughter from a voice that somehow seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place it. As the laughter stopped, a new voice started speaking. “Brilliant. Whoever wrote this script needs to sell it after the war. I’d pay to see it performed on stage. With better actors, of course. The fellow outside needs voice coaching.”

My mind replayed a horrifying moment when I had heard a man yell ‘Shoot them!’

It’s him.

My anger flared, and my consciousness shrank to a pinpoint focus that only recognized threats and opposition.

I ripped my left arm out of Riko’s grasp and used the newly-freed hand to capture Riko’s raised hand in front of my face before he could move, holding it with all of my strength. I wasn’t going to be silenced. Not for this.

“I recognize that voice,” I spoke as coldly as I could manage, trying to push my rage into my voice so I could control myself. “It’s the voice of an incompetent leader, unskilled archer, and failed murderer. Maybe you’d like to talk to Brad and try to improve your murder technique.”

I released Riko’s hand and turned. Adrenaline gave me the stability I needed to stalk rapidly away from the person I wanted to attack, towards my carriage.

The last time I had been so blindingly angry was when I had found Rikard attempting to rape Marza in the woods. I struggled internally for several minutes to stop myself from walking back and pushing into the officer’s tent to attack the man that had tried to kill me and managed to kill both of my boars.

When I started thinking clearly again, I was leaning my chest against my carriage’s door. My left arm slung over the roof, gripping the luggage rail with a grip so tight that my knuckle joints creaked audibly as I relaxed my hand. I could feel wetness on my right shoulder again.

Albert’s going to have to take care of that if it’s serious. I’m not bothering Doctor Sven again.

Someone moved nearby, and my head snapped to my right. Kevin. He was several meters away, his staff held in both hands, planted vertically on the ground in front of him. He was watching me very intently.

As my head turned to face him, he stiffened. Otherwise, he barely moved his body as he spoke slowly and carefully. “If you’re listening, Doctor Sven sent a sedative. You have to take it. If you refuse or try to leave the carriage, I will call for assistance, and you will be dosed forcibly.”

Is everyone against me?

“Fine. Where is it?”

He said nothing, only pointing at the stool he had been sitting on earlier. There was a folded piece of paper with a rock holding it in place on the stool. I picked it up and opened the door of the carriage.

He coughed as I put my foot on the step under the door. “I have to see you take the pills.”

I stopped and turned back to stare at him. “Of course you do,” I growled. “Let me get my cameltote and I’ll take them in front of you.”

Out of nowhere, Kevin changed the subject. “I’m not sure if I should be afraid of you, or hope that you’re standing next to me if I ever have to fight for real.”

I shook my head. “I hope the idiots in charge at least wait until the late planting is harvested before they decide to start fighting.” I looked at him as I reached into the carriage and retrieved my cameltote from its hanging peg. “Again.”

Kevin nodded. “You and me both.” I could barely make out his face in the dim light from the lightly fogged moon, nearby lanterns, and campfires. He seemed to bite his lip for a moment. “If it makes you feel better, Sergeant Covil said you’re being drugged because you scared everyone in the officer’s tent except Fobi into thinking you might try to kill the prisoner tonight.”

“Everyone except Fobi?”

“Fobi just laughed and wouldn’t say anything. That seemed to make everyone else more worried.”

I don’t understand this.

“Why are you talking to me, Kevin? I have a pretty good idea what you just saw.”

Kevin set his chin down on top of his staff, never taking his eyes off me. “Seems like I saw a survivor. First the snake, and then eight-to-one odds in the woods. Rikard is scared to death of you. Some of your neighbors knew why, so the whole camp knows now. You’ve easily got the worst temper of anyone I’ve ever met, but you walked away from…” he waved back towards the officer’s tent, “that, without going homicidal. A lot of us are scared of you, but some of us are trying to figure out if we should start acting more like you. At least for the duration of this war, or whatever it is. Take your pills and get some sleep.”

“I’m pretty sure that acting like me is not a good idea.” I objected.

Is this a joke?

“Not exactly like you.” He smiled, slightly. “You’ve clearly got more jagged edges than most of us can manage.”

“That sounds better already. I wish I could lose some of my own jagged edges.” I looked away from him, down at the pills in my hand. I lifted my hand to my nose and sniffed the pills. No scent. Touching them with my tongue proved that they were sugar-coated. They looked to be about the right size for a human sedative dose of opium, about the same that we would use for a sow.

I popped the pills into my mouth and carefully broke their sugar shells without chewing the contents. I didn’t taste almonds or excessive bitterness. I carefully crushed the pills, ready to spit them out at the slightest taste of cyanide, strychnine, or anything that wasn’t opium.

Paranoia. Do I think someone might try to poison me? Do I think that Doctor Sven would agree to it, even if they ordered him to?

I smiled at the thought of sugar-coated poison pills. Then I tried to chase other ridiculous thoughts out of my mind as I suspended my cameltote several inches over my mouth with my head held back so I couldn’t backwash pills into the container. After I poured half a mouthful from the spout, I vigorously swished the water in my mouth before swallowing it with the chewed pills.

I repeated the pour, swish, and swallow twice more before looking at Kevin.

He nodded. “Thank you, Allen.”

I’m surprised he didn’t ask to look in my mouth.

I arranged myself carefully in the nest of clothing and pillows intended to support me as I slept on my left side.  Before long, I was comfortable, but could not stop thinking.  At first, I was afraid Albert would repudiate me. Shortly before darkness claimed me, I was more afraid that he wouldn’t.

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Chapter 24

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“What?” I replied, incredulously, not quite believing he had asked me that question.

Riko took a deep breath and sighed. “It’s a very serious question. While you were asleep, recovering, Captain Marko, the lieutenants, and I had a discussion.”

I responded slowly, carefully. “I expected that. I expected this conversation too, just not quite so blunt.”

“I’ve known for years, and the officers all knew within a short time of meeting you, that you are both intelligent, and blunt. Sugar-coating the question would be meaningless and might even irritate you.” He paused and watched my expression.

I nodded slowly. “Subtle isn’t my thing, even though dealing with Marza, Ma, and Granpa in the last few years has taught me that it can be useful. Not so much with Pa, Edward, and Zeke.”

The left corner of Riko’s mouth quirked upwards. “I will not admit to saying it if you repeat it, but Zeke and Rosa didn’t get along at all because Rosa is too subtle, and Zeke was clearly offended by it. I was watching for the same thing between yourself and Marza, even though Marza is a lot more straightforward than Rosa.”

He dragged the conversation directly to Marza. Is there a reason?

Of course there is, but he’s shooting blind, looking for reactions that might tell him more than I say.

I met his eyes. “Riko, the incentives that I was offered included several things that will, eventually, be valuable beyond my death. The rest of the agreement that I can’t talk about are worth dying for, yes.”

I shivered as my mind brushed up against the possibility of being responsible for thousands, or even millions of deaths and a return to a preliterate human society for thousands of years. If I had to choose between my family and that fate, the question would be almost unanswerable. When it was my life at stake, and at least some of my family might survive past my death in our current world, the answer was clear.

“So, you figured out something big, and Albert picked up on it?”

“I might have to end this conversation if you seem to be trying to tease out details, Riko,” I warned him, making an effort to not sound angry and irritated.

Riko nodded. “Albert has no problem arranging to get people alone rather rapidly if there’s reason to do so. There is no doubt at all that he is monitoring quite a few people in this camp closely. Especially everyone involved in the ‘violence consultancy’ business.”

I said nothing, but had an idea and interjected before he could start his next sentence. “One second, Riko. I need to do something.”

Riko went silent with a bit of a confused and irritated look on his face. “It will be brief?”

I nodded and leaned over, opening a cabinet and pulling out a shirt with my good arm.

Riko’s face grew more confused during the brief time I could see it before I awkwardly draped the shirt over my head with my left hand. “Sorry, Riko, I’ll have this conversation with you, but I won’t let you fish for easy nonverbal responses from me. I know you can read my face like an open book. Most people can. That whole ‘not subtle’ thing is more than just how I say things, and I know it.”

I could no longer see Riko, but if I leaned forward, the shirt would pull away from my face enough for me to look down to read and write on paper on the lap desk between us.

After a couple seconds, Riko started chuckling. “Well, I won’t order you to remove the shirt, but I wouldn’t try that if Captain Marko decides to speak to you about this directly, again.”

“I’d rather not imagine a scenario where that interrogation takes place. I’m sure Captain Marko knows that I’d be a very uncooperative person if he tries to strong-arm me in a conversation.”

Riko started speaking after a couple seconds. “We were hoping that the agreement would only impact you individually. Most teens don’t really have a sense of their own mortality, and if Albert had made an agreement with you that was individual enough, we were hoping to break through.”

“With threats of potential death?” I realized what I’d said and shook my head. “Poor word choice. I know you weren’t threatening me, Riko.”

Riko grunted in what sounded like acceptance, so I continued. “What you said about putting me into harm’s way makes sense. If I can’t be useful like I was before, I have other skills.”

“So, whatever it was that you figured out was apparently significant enough that Albert offered you-”

I sighed and shook my head under the shirt. “Riko. I have permission to tell you and Marza about the benefits, nobody else. I’m not talking even obliquely about why Albert offered them. Please stop poking and prodding for reactions.”

There was a moment of silence. “So, it’s bigger than you, or your family.”

Stop it, Riko.

I said nothing out loud and the silence stretched for several seconds before I leaned forward, picked up a pencil from the little groove on the side of the lap desk, and started to write on the paper in large, barely legible block letters with my left hand.

‘Understand if you reveal this to anyone, the agreement is null…’

I stopped writing, suddenly.

“Sorry, Riko. I can’t. Not yet. You could break my agreement with Albert, and you might do so, thinking that it would convince me to abandon my side of the agreement.” I paused. “I wouldn’t, even if you broke the agreement. But you might be tempted to try.”

There was no immediate response from Riko. For several seconds, the only sounds were our breathing, the snoring of sleeping swine below us, and background noises in the camp filtering through the walls of the carriage.

“I hope we both live through this war then, Allen.” I heard Riko starting to move, and he suddenly pulled my shirt off my head, tossing it onto the bed between us. “Get that thing off your face. I won’t try to pump you for reactions any longer. I wanted to make sure Albert wasn’t trying to suppress something useful that wasn’t legitimately terrifying.”

“Sorry, sir, I’d rather not provide you with the temptation. Not until there isn’t any possible perceived-”

Riko looked away from me and started to speak, which confused me until I realized he probably didn’t want me to think he was trying to watch me for facial expressions.

As he started to speak, I checked to make sure the curtains were still in place so he could not see reflections of me in the glass. Just in case.

“I understand, Allen. The officers might be less convinced, but I know you have a good head on your shoulders. Whatever you figured out, it’s clear that Albert has somehow terrified you with it, and I know you don’t scare easily. I suggest that you talk to Fobi and see if she has any advice about how to deal with people prying. You’re probably going to need it. The officers might attempt to circulate rumors around the camp to pressure you into telling them what you figured out.”

I stiffened. “They wouldn’t-”

Riko snapped his head around to face me and pinned my eyes with his own. “Captain Marko is no fool. If he thinks he can get you to tell him what Albert is trying to keep hidden, he’ll use every dirty trick he can. I can even imagine him becoming violent with you after the war starts in earnest, if things go poorly.”

“What?” I blurted, shocked.

Riko’s face softened a bit. “If things devolve into violence beyond a few scuffles, and perhaps even if there are only a few scuffles, he’s going to go to the prison colony. Commanding others to do premeditated violence is no different in Albert’s eyes than if you had taught your boars to attack men and then commanded them to do so.”

He shook his head slightly before continuing. “The captain is under pressure that I can imagine, and wish I couldn’t. I’m certain that he won’t consider violence against you, before conflict begins on a significant scale at least, because he’s hoping Stateman Urda finds a better way to resolve this. If things go poorly and he doesn’t get the information he wants from you, he’ll be forced to consider all options, even nearly unthinkable ones.”

I stared at Riko for several seconds before blinking and looking away. “You…” I had to pause to think. Nothing was making sense. “You seriously think he’d consider using violence to coerce me like the ancients did in their wars? Me, an ally, one of his militia?”

“If it appears as if we won’t be able to protect what little we managed to harvest this year, and he has to weigh violence against one person against the lives of thousands in the hopes of an answer that might make a difference?” Riko whispered. “I know how hard a choice that would be for me, especially if I were already guilty of three violent offenses. The officers have training and experience with violence, as part of law enforcement. The decision might be easier for them.”

That still doesn’t make any sense.

“The officers are having a hard enough time trying to get people to learn how to fight. I can’t even imagine what the militia would do if he were to try to use violence to coerce me, and people found out. He’d lose his perceived authority.”

Riko smiled a sad smile. “I hope you’re right. It’s the same argument I mentioned in the meeting while you were asleep earlier. It won’t do any good to get your information if the militia collapses due to a leadership crisis.”

So much is happening that I know nothing about.

My head hurts. I need to get the conversation moving in a different direction.

“So, the leader of the small group that attacked me…” I trailed off, leaving the sentence half-finished, with a questioning tone.

“You were only hit once. We’re not sure what Albert’s reaction will be in regards to commands for violent actions that don’t result in harm to other people. It’s also possible that the rest of that group may have intentionally missed you.” Riko shook his head. “The war has barely started. Nobody is starving. Yet. As things get worse over there, people will stop missing intentionally.”

I suddenly realized that Riko was a sergeant. In charge of scouts. He was going to give orders to scouts that would eventually lead to people injuring or killing other people. Those orders would lead to him being sent to the prison colony, even if he never hurt anyone himself. “Riko-”

He nodded. “Yes. I’ll almost certainly be joining a lot of other people on a trip to the prison colonies if we don’t stop this before it gets started. Even if I never personally hurt anyone. I’ve known that from the time I decided to try and become part of leadership.” He paused. “It’s virtually certain that the vast majority of the surviving militia from a large scale war will be going to prison colonies, Allen, except the few who are under sixteen, like you. If you survive.”

I closed my eyes. What could I say? I knew how much he cared for his family, and he was still a healthy man in late middle age. “Why didn’t you send-”

My eyes popped open as Riko interrupted me, forcefully. “Not talking about that, Allen. You heard Marza and me discussing it.” Riko pinned me with a glare. “Not your family business to discuss.” A heartbeat later, he gently punched me on my good shoulder. “Yet.”

Riko turned his head, so he was staring at the door of the carriage. He leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees. A moment later, he had his chin resting on his two fists, their fingers interlaced.

I said nothing. He was clearly attempting to figure out what he wanted to say next.

After a few seconds, he spoke again. “If fighting starts and you haven’t relented and told the officers what you figured out, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Captain Marko will make certain everyone knows you are withholding knowledge that might allow us to take fewer casualties, and defend ourselves better. If the aftermath of the war is horrible, and you live, you might become a social pariah. That said, I know you, and I’m willing to trust your judgment unless you show me evidence of remarkable stupidity in the near future.”

What can I tell him?

I reviewed the conversation with Albert in my head for a few seconds before I started to speak again. “I-”

Riko interrupted me. “No. If you are about to offer to tell me about the agreement, don’t. It’s a temptation I don’t want. Despite your shirt-trick, I could tell that you’re desperate not to break that agreement with Albert, and not because he offered you a reward. If you somehow get an opportunity to tell Marza anything about the agreement before this conflict is over, I suggest that you not tell her.” He stopped speaking for a second. “In fact, I’ll be highly upset with you if you do, because I don’t want her to have the same temptation I’m avoiding. Tell both of us after all this mess is done, if we all survive.”

We agreed on that much, at least. “I wasn’t going to tell you anything about the agreement, Riko, but there is something I can say.” I took a deep breath and hoped I remembered the conversation with Albert clearly enough. “Look at me, because I want you to be able to tell Captain Marko you were watching me closely when I said this.”

Riko turned to me with a worried expression on his face. “Are you sure you can tell me what you’re about to say?”

“Albert said nothing about me telling other people what he would do if I divulged what he wants concealed, so I can tell you this much.” I took a deep breath and dry coughed into my hand to stabilize my quavering voice. “If I tell people what Albert and I agreed that I shouldn’t, Albert will go beyond denying us technology and easy access to free metals. He threatened to take literacy and civilization from us next. For however long it takes until humanity completely forgets what I figured out. Just destroying written records won’t work a second time. He knows that.” I shuddered and met Riko’s eyes, holding them. “A return to a true stone age, Riko. I refuse to be responsible for that. I’ll find a way to end myself first.”

Riko whistled briefly between his teeth as he met my stare. “I… see.” He then held his breath for a second before cursing loudly. “The verbal tradition for military knowledge. It’s forcing him to be more aggressive with us.”

“Yes.” I carefully rubbed my injured right shoulder’s bandage with my good left hand and nodded. “That’s the impression he gave me. He specifically mentioned verbal traditions as being difficult to erase.”

“Albert might confirm to Stateman Urda what his response would be to your telling us what he doesn’t want us to know,” Riko muttered to himself, barely audible.

Riko reached out for the handle of the carriage door. “Allen, I need to go talk to Captain Marko, now. You can probably expect to speak to the officers again, tonight.”

“I understand. Doctor Sven will want to complain at me about my wound, I think.” I touched the bandage on my arm, which was showing a few visible spots of red. “I’m leaking a bit.”

Riko stepped out of the carriage put his hands behind his lower back, pressing against his spine as he stretched his chest. Then straightened, and clapped twice before looking back towards me. “Go see the doctor then. At the Captain’s direction, Sergeant Covil has assigned you a pair of monitors. One of them will stay with you at all times when you are outside your carriage. You must stay within the camp perimeter unless specifically allowed to do otherwise. If you leave the camp, the monitors will not try to stop you, but they will blow an alarm horn.”

He can’t seriously believe I’d run.

“Riko, I have too much to lose if I run. Besides that, running into woods I don’t know well, at night, smelling of blood, shaky on my feet, in a wilderness area with only one nearby farm? Chances are very good that I’d have broken bones from a fall, or be feeding something with sharp teeth before daylight.”

Riko’s expression grew a little softer, and he nodded curtly. I heard the sounds of another person approaching and Riko turned away from me. “Kevin, Allen needs to go to see Doctor Sven about his wound. You heard what I just told Allen. Does what I said match your orders, or have there been changes?”

“It matches, Sergeant Gonzalez.” A male voice answered.

“Riko, is this really-”

Riko quickly turned and poked his head back in the carriage door with an irritated expression. “Yes. It is necessary. Kevin and Hiro are doing what they have been ordered to do. For that matter, so am I. Don’t give them or me any grief. Let’s try to do this without giving anyone a reason to put you in restraints or sedate you. From what you’ve said to me, the last thing we want is for you to be drugged and singing like a bird. We only avoided that so far because Doctor Sven refused to allow it. Captain Marko can’t override him on medical matters without agreement from all the other officers, or orders from higher up in the chain of command. Quartermaster Brown backed Doctor Sven, earlier today. The captain is certainly escalating.”

I’m not entirely sure Albert could be thwarted that easily. I thought, but didn’t say. Albert was going to keep me sane throughout my life so I wouldn’t accidentally spill the secret of large expansion chamber firearms in my dotage. I had no doubt that my body was also going to be prepared to deal with drugs administered in sufficient quantities to loosen my tongue.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yes, Sergeant Gonzalez.”

**

I didn’t try to leave the carriage yet. Visiting doctor Sven could wait a few minutes, and I desperately needed to think.

I grabbed a blank sheet of paper and started to write things I knew, in my terrible left-handed writing. I could feel something big moving around in the back of my mind. Pieces were trying to fall into place.

‘1) Cannot advise military, per Albert.’

‘2) Albert, by omission, allowed me to speak about the consequences of my offering what I know.’

‘3) Albert is highly unlikely to have made an error by omission.’

‘Conclusion. Scenario created intentionally.’

I dropped my pencil on the lap desk and leaned back carefully, trying not to hurt my right shoulder.

Just because the scenario is clearly intentional, it doesn’t mean I know what I’m supposed to do.

I spoke out loud, muttering softly. “Albert, if this is the sort of mental gymnastics you force on humans that you engage with…”

I stopped talking before I said something that might irritate Albert.

Picking up the pencil once more, I tapped my lips with it a few times in deep thought before starting to scrawl in more of my newly horrible handwriting.

‘Assume: Albert confirms his threat of devolvement of human civilization to a true stone age.’

‘Consequences of attempting to use Albert himself as a threat.’

‘1) Immediate political power.’

‘2) Inability to use new political power because I have no clue what to do with it.’

‘3) Can’t delegate the knowledge without risking Albert’s threats.’

My pencil slowed down at the next thought.

‘4) Seen as threat to all of civili…’

I stared at the page, mind racing, body locking up as the pencil snapped in my hand.

When I first met Brad, I had been on the edge of attacking him when I realized how dangerous he was. Later, in the discussion with Albert, I had felt sick when I realized the death and destruction I could become responsible for if I released firearms onto the world again.

This is worse. Far worse. I am literally carrying the fate of all humanity in my head.

Riko is smart enough to have already figured it out. He’s talking to Captain Marko right now.

I folded the sheet quickly and jammed it into the sling around my right arm and then stood, stooped over, and let myself out of the carriage. As my feet hit the ground, I looked to each side and there was a man standing nearby, next to a stool. “Kevin, right.”

He nodded. “Right.”

“I need to go see Doctor Sven.”

“OK.” He shrugged and said nothing else.

In the dark, I couldn’t see his features clearly, but various fires, lanterns, and some moonlight let me see that he had his hair pulled back behind his head. He was watching me carefully, despite his lack of words. There was a horn on a strap across his chest, and he was very solidly built, bigger than Zeke, smaller than Edward. He was also carrying a staff in his right hand, and wearing heavy hunting leathers. As I looked at him, he took a step back to open space between us but did not seem afraid.

Am I really starting to assess everyone I meet in terms of their potential physical threat?

I turned away from him and stumbled slightly on my first step. He made no effort to assist me, keeping his distance.

Thanks, Kevin. I thought, ungenerously.

I regained my balance and started taking careful, deliberate steps towards the medical building, hoping I wouldn’t fall flat on my face.

A couple minutes later, I walked through the door into the medical building.

Doctor Sven looked at me from behind the crude timber table he was sitting behind. “Back so soon, Allen?”

“Yes, sir. I seem to be leaking.” I tapped my shoulder. “I also need to ask you for advice.”

“Everything seemed to be holding together nicely when I last changed the dressing. Have you been exerting yourself?”

“Not intentionally, sir. I got upset a couple of times and tensed up. I felt the wound open up once. It didn’t feel like any stitches tore out, but it did bleed a bit.”

“OK, I’ll take a look.” Doctor Sven nodded and motioned me to a chair next to his desk. He looked up in my direction again. “What about you?”

Kevin’s voice came from behind me, startling me. I’d already forgotten about him. “I’m fine, sir. I have orders to follow Allen here, until further notice or when relieved.”

The doctor’s eyes darted between the two of us before he shook his head briefly. “Fine. Sit in one of the other chairs, not on a cot.” His eyes settled on me, and his graying brows drew down in irritation. “Allen, you seem to be the focal point of a lot of strangeness today.”

“Nothing I wanted, doctor. I seem to be a chaos magnet recently.”

Chuckling, Doctor Sven started removing my bandages, while leaving my arm in the sling. “I’d say that’s an understatement of gross proportions. I thought Captain Marko might suffer a stroke in the meeting we had about you earlier.”

“I heard that I have you to thank for not being drugged into a stupor right now.” I paused. “That’s part of the second reason I came to you.”

“Talk to me about the second reason while I unwrap this present you brought me and see how annoyed I need to be with you.”

“Doctor, I’d prefer that you finish looking at my arm first. I’m not entirely certain how what I’m going to tell you is going to impact your ability to concentrate on my injury.”

“I’ve been doctoring people while they tell me their worries for nearly three times your entire lifespan, Allen.”

“I understand. I’d still like to wait. You know at least part of the story of what happened to me with Albert. What I want to ask you about is related.”

Doctor Sven grumbled. “I’ve heard quite enough about that already. You know I can be overruled, right?”

“Yes, sir. Riko mentioned that. I would be speaking with him now, but he left to speak with Captain Marko before I realized what I’m bringing to you.”

“Sounding worse and worse, Allen.” Doctor Sven finally unwound the last of the innermost bandages and started carefully teasing at the wound dressing to remove it. Underneath the dressing, there was a thin sheet of latex with lots of holes in it covering a ragged wound that was sure to leave me a very visible scar.

After a brief examination through the mostly transparent latex, the doctor nodded. “Good. The stitches are still in place. You just broke the wound open a little.” He daubed iodine on the wound, through the latex covering, before pressing a new dressing into place and wrapping it with a bandage.

“You didn’t take your arm out of the sling, did you?”

“No, sir. I just tensed my arms hard without thinking about it.”

He waggled his index finger at me as he sat back down again. “The stitches might not stay in place next time, especially if the wound swells much more. You don’t seem to be prone to severe swelling from wounds, but I’ll be very surprised if it’s not swollen more by tomorrow. Sleep with that shoulder raised. Now, what was the other thing you wanted to talk to me about?”

I used my left hand to remove the folded paper from my sling under my right forearm, and handed it to him. “I wrote it down while I was thinking through it, sir. I think it is self-explanatory. I need input from someone whose advice I trust, who is in as high of a position of authority as possible.”

Doctor Sven reached out slowly and took the paper from me, staring at me the whole time. “I’m not going to like reading this, am I? Are you dragging me into some mess with the captain and lieutenants?”

“If I said I had any idea where this might lead, I’d be lying, sir. That’s why I’m here.”

With a sigh, the doctor closed his eyes briefly, opened them, and looked down at the paper as he unfolded it.

“Allen, your handwriting…” He glanced at my right arm in it’s sling. “Ah. Sorry.”

“I. Uh. No offense taken, sir.” I couldn’t help but smile a little.

The doctor’s eyes darted back and forth as he read, and he stiffened after a few seconds. “I do not need this.”

Reaching into a shirt pocket, Doctor Sven pulled out a tiny pouch, carefully tapping out a little pill and swallowing it with a gulp of water from a glass on his desk. He stared at me, and his fingers twitched on the paper. “Nitroglycerine, if you’re curious. Dying of a heart attack right now isn’t at the top of my list of things to do.”

“What? Do you need-” I looked over at Kevin, who was watching the two of us closely, and looked like he might be getting ready to stand.

“Stop. Sit. Don’t pop those stitches, Allen. When I feel that tightness, I take a pill. I’ve never actually had anything worse than a flutter.”

“Oh. OK.” I looked at his face, checking to see if he’d meet my eyes.

Doctor Sven did meet my eyes, and grinned and said “Yes, really.” as he dropped the little pouch of pills back into his shirt pocket and folded my sheet of paper back up.

“I was expecting some questions, doctor?”

He held the folded paper between us, and I reached forward to accept it.

“Seemed pretty obvious to me, Allen. No, I won’t help you commit suicide.”

I shook my head and stared at him. “What? No.”

The doctor cocked his head a little to my left. “Really? That wasn’t what you were going to ask? You consider yourself to be a threat to all of civilization because of whatever it is locked up in your head, and permanently solving the problem hasn’t crossed your mind?”

“Absolutely not, Doctor.” I shook my head and scratched my neck with my left hand as I stared over his shoulder. “I really don’t appreciate you giving me the idea.”

“Oh, you’re a smart boy, perhaps even brilliant in ways that I’d rather not think about too deeply. You would have thought of it eventually.” Another smile that was almost condescending. “If you come to me with something horribly wrong with your body that I can’t fix, we can talk about a final solution on your terms. Otherwise, no.”

I realized that I had already thought about the idea, and even mentioned it to Riko, just not seriously. Now I wanted to think about it, which would get me nowhere. Perhaps literally. “This is serious, doctor.” I snapped.

The doctor’s eyes met mine, and I couldn’t look away. “Indeed. It is. And if you weren’t asking me about a way to end your life, I have no idea why you came to me.”

“What do I do, doctor? What would you do?”

He broke eye contact and leaned back in his chair for a moment, staring at me. “Oh. I suppose I’d seek out someone older than me in a position of authority, who I respected, and ask them what they would do.” There was no expression on his face at all.

Is he really being flippant?

I tapped the fingers of my left hand on the table, slowly, staring at the doctor, trying not to laugh, scream, or lean forward and strangle him. He was clearly expecting a response. “I see. That does sound like a rather good idea.” I was not even attempting to hide my unhappiness.

The doctor’s eyes drifted down to where I was still thumping my fingers, then back up to my face. Finally, his face sagged, and he sighed. “Allen, if you’re asking me if I think you should try to use Albert’s threats politically, somehow, you’re asking the wrong person. I’m a doctor.”

Well, that wasn’t very useful.

I started to stand, and Doctor Sven put his right hand over my left while saying “Wait a moment. I’m not done.”

I looked down at him and could tell that he was trying to think, so I finished standing and kept some weight on my hand to help support me as I waited for him to say something more. I heard Kevin standing behind me.

“Allen, I want you to consider your discussion with Albert very carefully. It’s extremely rare that he allows people to discuss his agreements in anything but the most oblique manner. He’s inhumanly good at mentally boxing people in and preventing them from ever wanting to break agreements with him.” He looked up at me and took a deep breath, blew it out forcefully, and then continued. “If I’m putting all the pieces together right, Albert is preventing you from giving us more deadly weapons, which I have to agree with.”

“After hearing the sorts of things that you already came up with, the idea that you came up with something worse, that scares me, as a doctor. Do you know what will happen in and around our towns and cities if there are sieges like what happened in ancient days?” He shook his head.

I had thought about it. I nodded. “I have, sir. It’s not pretty.”

“No, it’s not. It’s about as far from pretty as it’s possible to get. Part of the reason we don’t have plagues despite our current technology base is because we know germ theory, and how to dispose of refuse and keep ourselves clean. Hygiene and waste disposal are likely to be the first things to go in a siege, on both sides, followed by malnutrition. Walled towns and cities will allow future sieges that might kill millions over time.”

I closed my eyes and nodded. I hadn’t imagined it could be that bad. But thinking about it, and remembering some of the horror stories of ancient warfare, I realized it was true.

I shivered uncontrollably for a second. Have I already put us on the path to something worse than firearms?

Doctor Sven continued as I nervously shifted my weight from one foot to another. “Albert allowed that idea. Don’t think he couldn’t have prevented it. He is perfectly capable of injecting people with drugs that will make them unconscious and prevent the formation of long-term memories, and he was almost certainly watching your brainstorming sessions very carefully. There are several documented cases that I can think off the top of my head where entire groups of individuals went unconscious and lost hours of memories.”

Is there a point to this? He didn’t do that to me.

“But what does that mean, sir?”

Doctor Sven looked at me sharply again. “Think. If Albert is willing to admit you have knowledge in your head that, if released, would cause him to devolve humanity to barbarism, then he’s playing a deep game. A game I’m afraid to interfere with.”

I heard Kevin suck in a startled breath behind me.  I turned a little in his direction to allow me to see him in my peripheral vision.

Doctor Sven closed his eyes, and spoke without opening them. “I’m more afraid of you trying to figure it out on your own, than what might happen if I direct you to someone else that might do the right thing.”

Doctor Sven opened his eyes and looked at me. “Allen, you need to talk to Captain Marko because Albert didn’t just stop you from helping us create new weapons. He made you into a weapon.”

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Chapter 23

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Anu looked a bit nervous as she helped me to my seat in the tent, though she was mostly just allowing me to balance myself against her right shoulder with my left hand.

She addressed herself to Captain Marko. “Ah, sir, Doctor Sven told me that Allen wasn’t to add salt to anything for thirty minutes. That was about ten minutes ago.”

I looked up at Anu, briefly, and then back to the officers. I caught the tail end of a smile from Lieutenant Baker. Lieutenant Davis was scribbling on papers, perhaps correspondence. Captain Marko was looking at me, appraisingly.

It’s been at least fifteen minutes.

The salt craving was nowhere near as bad as it had been, so I wasn’t going to be upset with her for being cautious with the doctor’s orders.

After about two seconds, Captain Marko spoke. “Thank you, Anu. We will obey the Doctor’s orders. Please wait outside. The conversation will not be long with Allen in his current condition. After we are done, you two will return to Doctor Sven and follow his orders.”

“Yes, sir.” Nodding briefly, Anu left the tent, ducking through the flap as she passed Don.

I saw that Riko was not present at the door.

“Allen, look at me, please. I know you are tired, but I want to get information from you before you think about what happened too much. You weren’t very coherent when you returned.”

I turned back towards the table and nodded, wondering why the captain hadn’t seated himself.

Is it because I’m tall, and he’s short? If he sits, he’s much shorter than me.

I shook my head. The captain hadn’t seemed to be playing dominance games before. “The last thing I remember clearly, sir, is beginning to run after making a sling and hanging my cameltote from a branch.”

The captain nodded and started pacing back and forth. “Trying to remember a backwards-ordered series of events is difficult, and you are clearly still fatigued. Let’s start from the beginning of the day.”

“Yes, sir.” I took a moment to try to remember what had happened that morning. “I woke up late. No camp or family noises, and I hadn’t been able to sleep right the night before.”

Lieutenant Baker tapped the table, and Captain Marko nodded to her. “Go ahead.”

“Why didn’t you sleep well? Did you notice anything the night before that might have indicated the presence of New Tokyo scouts or hunters?”

I leaned forward in my seat a bit, preparing to put my elbows on the table. With only one elbow mobile that didn’t work. I gasped in pain and started to fall a bit sideways instead, catching myself with a quick grab at the table with my left hand.

Lieutenant Davis jumped back from the table as my hand slapped next to his paperwork, glaring at me briefly, before nodding as his facial expressions softened.

“Sorry, sir.” I apologized as I leaned back against the chair and scratched my head with my left hand instead.

I’m going to have to tell them anyway.

“Albert and I had a conversation the night before. He was not happy with my contributions to the militia’s warfare knowledgebase.”

All three officers froze, and the tent went silent except for the soft noises of the camp outside.

“And?”

“I will no longer act as a violence consultant.”

“A what?” The captain shook his head. “Nevermind. I understand the term.”

Eyebrows furrowed, the captain looked slightly upward in deep thought. “Are you certain it wasn’t a dream?”

“It happened before I went to sleep, sir. I don’t think it’s possible that I dreamed it. I’m fairly certain I’m not mentally compromised enough right now to make that large of a mistake.” I paused, considering if I wanted to say the last part or not, before deciding that I needed to.

“Even if it was a dream, sir, I have to consider it as reality. The conditions Albert gave me for speaking to him again would surely also include me verifying that my memories are valid.”

Grumbling curses under his breath, Captain Marko walked back to his small table, next to what I assumed to be his cot. “Will he speak to you in front of others?” Before I could respond, he waved a hand angrily in the air. “Never mind. If he would do that, he’d probably be speaking now, or you would be asking him to.”

Captain Marko did an abrupt turn back to me and walked to another part of the tent, next to a heavily padded cot. He opened a leather bag sitting on a shelf, pulled out a whiskey bottle, and walked back to his table again, before pouring a shot glass full of the amber liquid.

The two lieutenants were watching him closely, their heads swiveling to keep the captain in view.

A quick motion later, the captain tossed down the full shot, slapped the glass on the table hard enough to make me jump, and put the cork back in the bottle.

After about three seconds standing in front of the table, his left hand on the table and his right clenching the neck of the bottle, the captain looked in my direction suddenly and threw the bottle.

I ducked reflexively under the slow-moving projectile, causing my shoulder to spike in pain again. Behind me, I heard the liquid sloshing as Don caught the bottle.

“Hold that, Don, and tell the doctor I’ve had my medicinal shot today when you give the bottle to him.”

There was no verbal response.

The captain spoke again. When I turned to face him, I found he was looking away from me, showing me his back. “You understand that if the Stateman asks Albert if he spoke to you, Albert will tell him? Even if he will not divulge anything about the conversation?”

Am I that important to the Stateman to bother-

It doesn’t matter.

The meaning of that comment was clear. “I did not know that, sir, but it changes nothing.”

“Fine. Perhaps this will change something.” Captain Marko muttered, in a soft, angry voice that was difficult to comprehend. “You were attacked, by a group of New Tokyo individuals, the morning after Albert chose to speak to you about your contribution to enhancing our ability to fight. Do you believe that to be a coincidence?”

“I-”

My mouth snapped shut.

The idea of Albert attempting to arrange my death seemed plausible, but only for a moment. “Sir, if Albert wanted me dead, I’m sure I would be dead.”

Turning back to face me with a stony face, the captain spoke again. “Leave, Allen. I don’t think I can speak with you effectively right now. Don, help him to his feet.” The captain’s eyes bored into mine as he faced me, but he wasn’t talking to me. “Lieutenant Davis, I want you to go ask Brad what he wants to secure his cooperation with us.”

I slowly stood, accepting Don’s offered palm before moving my left hand to his shoulder. Everyone in the room was staring at the captain.

Lieutenant Davis slowly gathered the papers in front of him on the table, tapping them into a neat pile as he stood. “You’re sure, Captain Marko?”

“No, I’m not. I want to hear what he wants before I make a decision. And no, he doesn’t get to speak to me directly. Not with me in this mental state.” The captain’s eyes never left my face. I looked down a bit to break the stare.

After a deep sigh, the captain spoke in a tired, angry voice. “Allen, New Tokyo is apparently doing something very different from us. We’ve still seen no sign of a camp, but they have scouts in our vicinity. It’s possible that they somehow maintained part or all of their repository of combat-related military doctrines and are acting in ways that we aren’t prepared to counter. If they have a lot of knowledge that we’ve lost, tens of thousands of our friends and family could die this winter.”

I almost broke the agreement with Albert right there, before I did the mental math.

Tens of thousands of deaths in the next few months, or millions later.

I closed my eyes and turned away from the captain. I had already been dismissed. My hand on Don’s shoulder for balance, we left the tent.

Don gestured to Anu, and she approached. Don handed her the whiskey bottle. “Give this to Doctor Sven. Tell him that Captain Marko already took his medicinal today.”

“Understood.” Anu nodded.

Don looked at me, expression unreadable. “I hope you’re good at math, Allen.”

I took a deep breath and shook my head. “Not as good as Albert.”

Don’s jaw clenched, slightly, and then relaxed. “Go. Sleep. Maybe a nightmare or two will bring you to your senses.”

I glared at Don, and he glared back, eyes glittering in anger.

“Enough of that, Sergeant. You mean well, but stop. That discussion is not yours to have with Allen unless you clear it with the captain.” The voice came from Lieutenant Davis as he exited the tent.

Two thoughts snapped into place in my head in rapid succession.

The captain’s going to use Riko against me instead.

Riko will use Marza against me, but I can tell Riko about the agreement.

“Sir. Understood.” Don muttered as he snapped his head to the side to break eye contact with me and stepped back into the tent.

“Where’s Riko, Lieutenant Davis?” I asked.

He answered, without looking at me, as he walked towards the wagon confining Brad. “Riko and Fobi led the group down your back trail.”

“Thank you, sir.”

I need to talk to Riko.

I put my hand on Anu’s shoulder for balance, and we started to walk towards the medical building.

“Do I want to know what that’s about?”

“Probably not.”

“Do you want to tell me what it’s about?”

“No. Not now. Sorry, Anu.”

I wondered if I would be able to refuse to help the militia if the captain chose to force me to refuse in front of my friends.

Then I wondered if Anu was pretending ignorance. She hadn’t been far from the tent.

Doctor Sven had a large bowl of beans and rice brought to me, with enough sawdust filler that I could see it, but there was only a slight taste of pine. The cooks had apparently found a way to remove or break down the volatiles that gave pine its scent.

After being helped into the cot I’d been laying in before, I stared at the ceiling for an hour. Even with the exhaustion, blood loss, and a full stomach of warm food, my mind would not slow down enough to allow me to sleep.

The prospect of talking to Riko was getting less and less pleasant. Riko had a large family. My agreement was for myself and Marza only, with a minor mental health benefit for him. It was entirely possible he would disagree with the value of the arrangement.

Albert’s warning about Riko’s probable question about a marriage arrangement with his family only made my nervousness worse.

Eventually, Doctor Sven pulled a chair next to my cot, checked my pulse, listened to my breathing, and looked into my eyes. Then he sat straight up in his chair and looked at me sternly. “I want you to sleep, to rest properly for at least a few more hours. You’re clearly thinking too much. I am willing to sedate you lightly since your vitals seem strong. I know you’re probably worried for your boars. You returned without them, I heard, and you called names in your sleep that I remember from the carriage ride.”

I immediately felt horrible. I hadn’t even thought about Bigboy or Hoss, since before the meeting with the officers.

“Yes, Doctor, please.” I enthusiastically accepted the sedative with a glass of water.

**

Something touched me, and I woke. It was light outside, and I had been asleep.

I overslept.

I wasn’t in the carriage.

As I started to sit, a firm hand in the center of my chest held me down. My shoulder hurt enough for me to wince.

I followed the arm with my eyes and relaxed at the familiar face.

“You awake and thinking straight, Allen?” Riko asked, with a serious look.

Where?

Memories returned. I collapsed back into the cot.

“Awake, yes. Thinking straight, not so much.”

I stared out the window at the long shadows, trying to remember the alignment of the building and the doors. The shadows were wrong for morning light. “How long was I asleep?”

“Only a few more hours, Allen.” Doctor Sven’s voice, sounding a bit disapproving. “I would have preferred a few more hours since you were resting well.”

“We discussed this, sir.” Riko started, with a bit of irritation in his voice.

I turned my head towards the doctor and saw him waving his hand back and forth. “No, I understand and agree, Sergeant, I preferred more, but I agreed.”

I looked back and forth from Doctor Sven to Riko. The first with a tired look on his face, the second, still covered by travel dirt.

Riko had gone with the scouts along my back trail.

“Did you find them?”

“We did. Can you stand?”

“Yes.” I tried to sit and fell back, holding my right shoulder. “Maybe.”

Riko chuckled and stood, offering me a hand.

“Sergeant, make him hold your shoulder while he walks, for tonight. I didn’t give him a large dose of sedative, but there’s likely to be enough in his system still to interfere with balance, on top of the other stress from today. He should also eat.”

Riko nodded. “Understood, Doctor Sven.”

I walked out the door with Riko a couple minutes later, after the doctor made me drink another glass of water.

As soon as we were a few steps outside the medical building, Riko stopped. “I’m not going to sugar-coat this. We found where the fight happened. There was a cairn nearby, with a single corpse, and a wounded survivor. Three sets of tracks, humans, each pulling a travois, crossed the river to the New Tokyo side. We did not pursue.” His hand reached up and gripped my left shoulder, squeezing a bit. “Your boars did not survive.”

I closed my eyes. They weren’t pets, but they had been important. Part of what I had been building my future with was gone. Not irreplaceable, but years of training gone. Boars were harder to train than sows. Despite the logical reasons not to be emotionally upset, I was.

That much meat wouldn’t have been left behind.

I shook my head. “I want to see them.” I paused. “Or have they already been butchered?”

Riko fidgeted a bit as he answered. “Field dressed, not butchered. They are hanging now.”

“You said there was a survivor?”

“Yes, there was a wounded survivor. You aren’t allowed to see them yet.”

I was silent for a moment. “I understand.” I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be to someone who had tried to kill me, and had managed to kill my boars. Part of my future, gone.

My right shoulder was starting to hurt, a lot.

I stopped clenching my hands. The muscles in my arms and shoulders loosened.

My right shoulder felt a little wet under the bandage. I’d probably broken the wound open.

It could wait.

“Take me to them, Riko. They saved my life, I’d like to see them off. Closure for me, at least.”

Riko nodded and stepped off, wordlessly, and I followed, my left hand on his right shoulder.

“We retrieved all of your equipment, and read the signs. You detected them, in concealment, from over a hundred meters?” Riko was not looking at me, but he was tense.

He would have reported to the officers first. Does he think Albert told me about them?

“Bluejays. I saw a few over my back trail making a fuss. The swine weren’t reacting to predator scent. The wind was from the jays. Had to be human. My swine and I make a lot of noise in the woods, but there was no challenge.”

Riko nodded. “That makes sense. Please tell me you didn’t train the boars to attack men.”

I stopped, shocked. “No. I never taught them to attack men.”

Riko nodded, saying nothing.

He clearly wanted more from me. “The boars were in harness. I couldn’t control them without leash tugs. The others… One of them apparently figured out I had trained animals with me and started yelling ‘whoah.’ When they came into view, the leader, I guess, he shouted ‘Shoot them.’ ”

Riko nodded. “Some of the arrows meant for you hit the boars?

“I… don’t think so. I think some of them shot the boars instead of me, out of confusion.”

“Or maybe they just refused to shoot a person.” There was a rasping sound as Riko rubbed his jaw.

“There were more arrows shot after me as I ran. More than one man could manage.”

Riko turned to look at me. “One wound?”

“If I was hit again, it’s minor enough that I didn’t feel it then, and it’s not bothering me now.”

“Eight shooters, close range. Unless they were all incompetent, they should have hit you several times.”

I turned to face him. “Riko, I’m not willing be charitable right now. They shot at me and killed my boars.”

“If it’s any consolation, your boars killed one and severely injured several others.”

Is this a test?

Coldly, I responded. “It’s not a consolation, Riko. They killed a person and injured three-”

Riko interrupted “Four. Three transported away and the one we captured had a tourniquet on a nasty compound fracture of the calf, complicated by two nasty gashes from tusks.  He might lose the leg.”

I nodded and kept walking with him. “One dead. Four wounded. I would have had to put them both down. No way to trust them around strangers again. I couldn’t be fully confident of their reaction to me if I had to treat a wound. Both boars were dead as soon as they broke conditioning and attacked men like that, one way or another.” I took a deep breath and blew it out. “Though, I could possibly have put the cull off until after this season’s rut.”

Riko nodded but said nothing.

“A violent sow? I might consider keeping as a breeder only, no field work, and immediately transfer her piglets to another sow, watching for behavioral issues. Sows are small enough to manhandle. Never a boar. Not after a violent episode like that.”

Another nod from Riko.

Why is he doing this?

He talked to the officers.

I’m an obstacle now.

Abruptly, without looking at him, I asked, “So. When are you going to start asking me questions about Albert?”

Riko sighed. “Later, after you get some closure and food. This conversation isn’t an attempt to soften you up, Allen.”

“It’s not just small talk either.” I carefully avoided looking in the direction we were walking.

“No, it’s not. I wasn’t sure if you had thought through everything.” Riko turned his head and locked eyes with me for a second, before looking forward again. “Part of it is me making sure you know you couldn’t have saved them. Even temporarily. Several of us read the tracks. I, personally, read the tracks. Your statements match what we found.”

“Part of it…” I stopped, intentionally drawing attention to the fact that I’d noticed the wording.

He pointed ahead and nudged my back gently to get me walking again. “The rest of it is for later. I’ll leave you here and get you something to eat from the kitchen.”

A few steps later, Riko stopped. I didn’t want to look, but I certainly wasn’t going to say goodbye with my eyes closed.

The two boars were hanging by their hind legs, suspended under a crossbar between two posts. They had been field dressed but were still individually recognizable.

I took the last two steps to allow me to put my hand on one of the two wooden posts, and gave the boars my full attention. Riko stood behind me, silent, watching for a moment before leaving. I stood in front of the carcasses, examining them.

The light was still good enough for me to see their wounds. The arrows had been removed, but there had been at least a dozen wounds in the sides, neck, and back of each swine.

Carefully, I ran my hand over the wounds, assessing them, pressing and seeing how they gapped. None of the arrow wounds had been killing blows. The boars had bled out, their movements tearing muscles and skin, agonizing wounds growing worse with each exertion.

Trying to kill boars with arrows?

My fists clenched. My shoulder ached fiercely.

Even animals should die with dignity.

The memory of the boars’ squeals of rage mixed with the screams of men and women echoed in my mind.

You reap what you sow.

Whispering, I gave the boars their farewell. “Good job, Bigboy. Good job, Hoss. You saved my life, and the sows too, I’m sure. They would have driven you all back to their camp for meat, and left me under that pile of stones.”

I almost expected them to look up at me, puzzled, waiting for a command after their names were spoken. Almost. Reality proved to be more durable than I would have preferred.

Hesitantly, at first, and then vigorously, I scratched each boar’s neck, ending with a light slap and a forced smile.

After I properly rewarded the boars for their second-to-last service, I turned away, waiting for Riko to return. The kitchen would need to process them quickly. They hadn’t been properly bled out and had died excited.

They didn’t even die a good enough death to be worthwhile cuts of meat.

I had to wipe my cheeks a couple times as I stared at the setting sun.

Enough of that. I haven’t fed the sows.

Riko was returning, walking slowly, looking at me.

I waved him forward with a tired motion.

As he approached, I took a couple steps away from the boars without looking at them. “Riko I need to feed the sows as well. I also need to make sure the remnants from the butchering go to the dogs, not the kitchen garbage pit.”

“No need to worry about the remnants. The dogs have first claim to all butchering wastes. The hunters were very vocal about that with your sounder in camp.”

That arrangement made sense. I nodded.

“Let’s get your swine, settle them in somewhere, and let you eat.” Riko prodded me, verbally.

I took a breath and put my left hand on Riko’s right shoulder, allowing him to guide me. I didn’t think I needed it, but I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to tumble with one arm tied across my midsection and my shoulder wounded.

Yeah, that was it. No other reason.

**

A few minutes later, I had let the sows out from underneath my carriage, and we were all back at the kitchen garbage pit. I had chosen a spot to sit which did not allow me to see where the boars were being butchered. That didn’t stop me from hearing the kitchen team working quietly, but it wasn’t visible, so I could ignore it. The sows were nervous, but not requiring special care. They were very hungry. Their last meal had been in the morning, and they had run with me for however long I’d run. The kitchen garbage pit had two days waste in it. Swinish priorities for food dominated nervousness in the proximity of the dead boars. If I hadn’t been there, they might have been a lot more skittish. That was a big difference between our swine and farm pigs.

Farm pigs had no compunctions about eating other pigs’ corpses. Smart farmers wouldn’t let their pigs acquire that taste, but it happened from time to time.

I was fairly sure my family hadn’t bred for the trait of cannibalism avoidance intentionally. It had probably been associated with other traits that we’d encouraged. We wouldn’t feed swine to other swine, regardless, but it hindered us to some degree to have our swine be nervous or even uncooperative in the presence of evidence of the deaths of other swine.

Stop thinking about death, Allen.

Speedy was exploring instead of eating. As the smallest, she’d filled up first from the pile of kitchen refuse.

“Speedy.” Speedy looked up from her nearby explorations.

I tapped the ground in front of me and called her name again. “Speedy.” She looked at me for a moment, before twisting her head back and forth slightly and finally approaching where I’d tapped the ground.

‘Tap and name’ was used in fields to put swine in new rows, and there was no crop row where I was. ‘Follow’ commands were used for outside fields. It was a sign that she was a little smarter than average. I was still unconvinced that she had independently learned how to teach behavior to other swine that were older then her.

Speedy was standing in front of me, looking up, waiting for a treat. I didn’t want to confuse her training, so I gave her a ‘sit’ command, which she followed, before dropping a small spoonful of beans and rice in front of her.

Obeying an out-of-context command. I’ve seen that before, but it’s uncommon.

I scratched Speedy’s head behind her ears, and she rubbed against me. Her stripes were nearly gone. She was probably around fifty kilos now. She would probably put on another ten kilos before her first heat.

“You’re getting to be a big girl, Speedy.” Her ears perked at her name, but there was no command, so she pushed a bit against my leg for more scratching.

I gave her what she wanted, scratching absently as I waited for the other swine to eat their fill.

If the boars were-

I cut off the thought.

I knew that was going to be a problem. It would restrict my foraging ability. Without the boars for protection, or for heavy hauling, I would have to stay fairly close to camp, or go out with other foragers and hunters. Especially while my arm healed.

I could go out myself, and most predators would leave me alone. But with nine small swine and no boars to protect them, the sows wouldn’t be safe. I wouldn’t be able to go out on longer distance trips without risking my sounder unacceptably.

Or me. I’m in as much danger as my swine if the New Tokyo scouts are hunting our foragers.

Which is a good idea, tactics-wise, even if it’s sickening.

I sighed.

And I can’t tell anyone.

After a few more minutes of mental wheel-spinning, I saw that the sows were only halfheartedly eating.

Riko had been giving me space. He wasn’t far away, scribbling in a notebook in the last remnants of light. Occasionally someone would ride or walk up and speak with him, briefly. I wasn’t paying enough attention to Riko’s business to know if they were scouts or camp messengers.

We’d agreed to talk after the swine were fed and put away. He hadn’t pressured me at all.

The degree of patience made me nervous. I couldn’t believe the officers would be so patient with me if they were going to try to convince me to reject my deal with Albert.

The idea of them simply giving up on me helping them with ideas seemed unlikely. I knew the captain hadn’t been angry because some kid he didn’t need was refusing to help. Captain Marko’s parting comments about Brad were certainly more for me than Lieutenant Davis. There was no way he didn’t know how I felt about Brad. Not after our first meeting.

I suddenly realized the reason for their caution.

They know they are competing against Albert, but they only need to win an argument with me.

They were right to try to convince me, from their point of view. Because they didn’t know what I knew. Worse, I couldn’t tell them why they were wrong. If I told them, even obliquely, I might end up becoming responsible for promulgating firearms technology into a verbal tradition, leading to millions dead. Humans dropped to lower technology levels. Thousands of years to erase the…

A horrible thought struck me, suddenly.

Is this really the first cycle?

Surely Albert isn’t hiding past cycles from us. That can’t be possible.

Or could it? Could Albert have put us through one or more long cycles already? Has humanity already been dropped back to barely above animal technology levels, and then brought back? Did we know that only roughly 4500 years has passed, or…

No. The road networks. The quarries. The canal systems of the ancient colonists. Someone would surely have noticed if they were over 4500 years old, wouldn’t they? What about ancient, crude tools? The martial arts verbal traditions would not have survived a long cycle of extreme low technology. Ma wrote that there had been books written about martial arts.

How thoroughly could Albert control the world, to censor existence of a prior, far more primitive society?

Stop. Making too many guesses with too little information. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first cycle or the tenth. I can’t risk being responsible for twenty thousand more years of this, or worse.

As I stood, Riko immediately looked up, saying nothing.

I nodded to him. “The sows are done eating, Riko, thank you for your patience.”

Riko stood and put his pad and pencil in his pouch with a shake of his head. “No need to apologize.  I kept busy. Other work to do, ideas to consider, and preparations to make.”

I must have given him a funny look, based on his lopsided grin.

“Sure, some of them have something to do with you. Most of them didn’t. I am the scout sergeant, and the events of this morning proved that we now have active opposition, and the New Tokyo militia is acting in a way we hadn’t considered.”

It didn’t take long to get the sows back under the carriage since they were homed there after several days. Three of the larger sows trotted ahead of me a short way to get under the carriage before I even indicated they should enter. As the rest of us approached, those three poked their noses out between slats, likely watching to see if I gave commands that would require them to do something different from what they expected.

Riko chuckled. “Definitely not like farm pigs I tried to raise once. More like Marza’s dogs.”

I laughed a little, remembering Marza’s indignation at similar comparisons we’d shared about each other’s animals over the years. “Marza wouldn’t care much for that comparison. Her dogs really are much smarter. My swine are grunt laborers.”

I was given a quick grin for my pun before Riko continued. “I know, and she’d be right if I meant it as a serious comparison. Your swine are like a cross between farm pigs and dogs. I can see some of both types of behaviors. If it wouldn’t interfere with your family’s livelihood, I’d consider trying to buy Zeke out. I was a little upset that he and Rosa didn’t get along well.”

“Granpa and Zeke might take one of your youngest-”

Riko shook his head. “Your granpa and I talked about it a long time ago. Then you were born, and later your Ma had Abe and Molly. Your family business wasn’t in danger. It was a solution to a problem that no longer existed.”

“Granpa and Pa never said anything about that.”

“Why would they? There was a potential problem, but the problem solved itself without needing to resort to apprenticeship.” He shrugged. “There was no anger or resentment. Just plans that we no longer needed.”

After I had dropped the last slat in place to pen the swine under the carriage, Riko spoke. “OK, time to talk about more serious things.”

I was not looking forward to the upcoming conversation with Riko. I knew he was a lot smarter than me, more experienced in reading people, and, on top of that, Marza’s granpa.

“We need to talk where nobody else can hear.”

“Why?”

“I was specifically told that I could speak to you and Marza about some things that I was not allowed to speak to anyone else about.”

“This is in regards to personal or militia business?” Riko looked suspicious.

“Both.”

“How?”

I started to sweat a bit. “Because my personal decisions will impact both the militia and my personal life.”

Riko stared at me. “So, Albert has somehow tied me into whatever agreement he concocted to control you.  Wonderful.”

He pulled out his notepad and started tearing out sheets. “You have paper in the carriage?”

“I do.”

“Good. We’ll communicate in the carriage, with paper. When finished, we’ll feed the paper to your swine.”

I considered it for a moment. It was clearly a better idea than trying to find a place to talk with nobody overhearing. Especially considering that Riko was apparently now the focus of a lot of scouts, who were chosen partly because they were stealthy in the woods.

“Better than anything else I can think of,” I replied.

Giving Riko control of the conversation immediately. I’ve half-lost already.

I opened the carriage door. “Enter, guest.”

Riko nodded, with a little smile. Clearly recognizing my attempt to pull back a little control of the situation by setting the tone for him to be a visitor in my ‘home.’

Getting into the carriage with one arm was annoying but less annoying than getting in with a bad leg.

After a couple minutes, we were both seated on the bed, with enough space between us that my lap desk could sit there. I had made sure the curtains were closed.

Riko cleared his throat. “Before we get to the point where we start writing things back and forth, I’m going to give you a little background, and ask one question.”

I braced myself. “I will answer on paper if it is something I can’t speak about publicly.”

“That will not be necessary, I’m certain.” Riko’s face became very serious.

I’ve given him and the officers how long to think about this?

“If you are not allowed to continue acting as a ‘violence consultant,’ the militia will have to find another use for you. Considering your age, your demonstrated willingness to perform violent acts, and your familiarity with the woods, the officers will certainly put you at the top of the list for a new group of aggressive scouts that will try to seek out New Tokyo scouts.  There is no meaningful justification a militia scout sergeant can use to keep you out of that new unit. Being in that unit is going to be the most dangerous job we have. We can’t allow the New Toyko militia to starve us out of this position. You will not be allowed to keep your animals. That was the background. Do you understand it?”

“Yes. I will have to send a letter, asking that my family send someone to retrieve my sows and take them back to the farm.” I swallowed.

And direct that most of the sows should go to slaughter if we don’t get a decent second harvest.

My full sounder was not important enough to burden my family with, in a potential famine year. Despite that, I could probably convince Zeke to keep back a couple of my best if I gave him picks of their litters for a couple years. That would be a painful decision, but Zeke would likely be sending some of his sows to slaughter to save mine. I’d need to compensate him for that, somehow.

Riko took a deep breath. “Now the question. Have you considered whether or not Albert’s agreement with you is worth keeping if you die?”

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Chapter 22

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“Albert, does the agreement also include warning me if I unknowingly put myself in immediate life-threatening danger?  If I’m walking at night and would fall into a deep hole, for example?”

“No.  I will only react, not predict.  Thorough predictive analysis of the environment requires significant processing power, even for a single individual.”

I kneaded my leg, which had become a bit sore after all the activity during the day.

Wait a second.  The doctor was very happy with the speed my leg was healing.  Ma had an agreement that her children would remain healthy until adulthood.

“You healed my leg?”

“I did.  There was a small chance that you might have experienced clotting issues leading to a blockage traveling from your leg to your brain, so I acted, repairing only enough to guarantee that you would not suffer a stroke.”

Was the bruise that bad?

“How-”

“Nanites sprayed into your nasal passages while you slept.”

“After I…”  I remembered the day of the injury.  “That was more than an hour after I was injured, Albert.”

“I knew that your wound was not immediately life threatening because I maintain a small population of monitoring nanites within you.  I was prepared to act if you showed signs of a friable clot forming, which might be a stroke risk.  Delivery of nanites to unconscious patients is my preference when possible.”

I shook my head.  If he was willing to talk to me, I needed to ask him things that mattered, not press him on things I had no control over.  “If I think an action that I am considering might violate our agreement, can I mumble a question to myself or write it down, and expect an answer?”

“Circumstances will dictate my response.  If you ask a legitimate question, and no other human is capable of witnessing our communication, I will answer.  If you simply want to initiate conversation, I will not.”

“Am I allowed to offer logistical or defensive planning advice to the militia if I think of something?”

“I prefer that you offer no military-related advice at all.  Your impulse control is not well-developed.  There are several extremely intelligent people that you are regularly in contact with.  Now that you have these ideas in your head, you could easily, accidentally, offer an insight that could lead another person to conceptualizing technologies I would object to.”

I nodded.  Almost anyone could read me like a book.

“I-”

Albert interrupted me.  “I will leave you to your rest.  There is no immediate need for us to speak further.”

The fake bat’s chest closed, it hopped into the air, and with a few flaps of its wings, it was gone.

I stared at where Albert’s remote had been.

Is it even worth my effort to try to think about the conversation, or should I just obey blindly?  I’m clearly not going to out-think Albert, and I don’t want to risk the agreement.

Not thinking about the conversation didn’t work.  After banking the fire, I tossed and turned in my blankets for what seemed like hours.  Every time I neared sleep, I would think about another facet of the conversation, and return to full wakefulness.

Everyone knows Albert is repressing technology to improve humanity.  It’s so frustrating though.  We’re so far below him, mentally, and don’t have tools sufficient to equalize the disparity between us.

At one point, much later, I remember opening my eyes and turned over, staring at my swine.

I’m doing the same thing to my swine that Albert is doing to us.  He as much as said so.  Except we’re smart enough to know it, and could conceivably resist him, given sufficient technology.  He’s like a force of nature with a purpose.

The fact that he’s not breeding us like swine, and is allowing us to live our lives as we wish unless we violate the violence laws is anecdotal evidence that he holds humanity in higher regard than clever animals, at least.

Eventually, I slept.

**

I woke to the sounds and scents of my swine.  It was already early daylight.  I’d overslept by about two hours at first guess.  Considering that I’d been awake for at least four hours later than I should have been, and had no family or camp noises to wake me up, I was not surprised.

The first thing that came into my mind was another observation on the prior night’s conversation.

Albert is essentially rewarding me for being clever, as long as I’m not disruptive to his plans.  The agreement preserves my genetics, and Marza’s.  He apparently knows Riko as well.

I wasn’t sure if I should be furious, or flattered.

Or maybe Albert has no interest in my genetics, he just wants me to think he does, for some reason that’s a best fit for his plans.

It was pretty certain that a headache was the only predictable result I was going to get from pondering Albert’s actions and intentions, so I shook my head and bent my attention to practical things.

Before doing anything else, I released the swine from their leashes and led them over to the large pile of cattail plants left over from harvest and basket-making.  While the swine ate, I also ate my last Marza-made caramel and honey flatbread.  After finishing the bread, and drinking a few gulps from my cameltote, I doused the campfire, packed all of my gear, and lowered the baskets of cattail root to the ground.

I double-checked the fire, wetting a couple warm spots and seeing a little steam for my efforts before I called Hoss and Bigboy back to the camp to put them in harness and leash.  About half an hour later, each boar was carrying roughly a hundred kilos of cattail root on a small travois.

Before leaving the camp, I poured more water on the dead fire for the third time.  There was no steam, and the ash slurry was cold.  Then I led Bigboy and Hoss over to what was left of the cattail plant pile, and let them eat for about ten minutes, while in harness.  When they slowed down, and seemed satisfied, I took the sounder to the water’s edge and let them drink.

Returning to camp would be easy.  My swine had left easily-visible tracks, scat, and visible signs of browsing along our back trail on the way out.  I wouldn’t even need to use the sun or the river valley ridge to guide me, though I watched them anyway, out of habit.

Unfortunately, I would be returning later than I had hoped, but I had good news.  The beaver dam lake would be able to supply a great deal of food of various types.  I had seen plenty of fish and frogs large enough to be worth catching, and signs of a large deer and turkey population as well.

At the edge of the forest, I turned back to look at the magnificent beaver dam.  The beavers would abandon the area if we kept bothering them regularly with a human presence.  That would lead to the dam failing in a couple years if the industrious rodents didn’t return when there was less human activity.  It was a painful thought, but the militia needed to feed many people, and the lake and surrounding game-rich forest would supply an enormous quantity of food before the ecosystem collapsed.

And it would collapse.  The militia would not be concerned with sustainability in the current situation.  There was nothing I could do to stop that.  Nothing acceptable.

There wasn’t much to do other than watch for predators and think as I walked back to camp.  A lot of the thought was about Albert.  And Speedy.  And whether or not Albert had intentionally misled me about some mystery ability that Speedy had.

It’s far more likely that Albert somehow trained the swine himself, rather than Speedy miraculously demonstrating a new behavior hours before Albert could use it as a strong example in a discussion.  Some of the things the ancients could do might easily allow for training of animals.  Tiny devices in the ears, and on the eyes, to transmit audio and visual data.

He claims to be preserving his sanity by engaging his intellect at the lowest levels required to complete his goals, but it really doesn’t take much for me to teach swine a new behavior.  He’s been watching me as part of his agreement with my mother for years.  He could probably train them better than me.  Not probably, definitely.

I considered checking the swine for anything on their eyes and in their ears, but didn’t.  Albert wouldn’t have left evidence I could see if he didn’t want me to know, and he wouldn’t have been deceptive about the new behavior if he wanted me to know.

I’ll send the note to Zeke anyway.  Tubby sires good squeakers.  Even if Albert was playing games with my head and Speedy’s not some sort of breakthrough, she’s still looking to become a fine sow, and it won’t hurt either of us to have more like her.

“You two won’t like being left out of the action this year, I’m sure.”  I said with a chuckle.  Bigboy and Hoss flicked their ears in my direction momentarily, not realizing that I’d just made a decision that meant they might not get to breed.  Assuming, of course, that I was able to return to the farm with them before they went into rut.  Trying to keep rutting boars and sows in heat separate without the pens at the farm would be possible but very difficult.  If I couldn’t get back to the farm, I would allow Bigboy and Hoss to breed my sows.

Suddenly, I heard blue jays scolding something ahead.  I gave the boars a flick of the reins with my left hand, followed by a ‘stop’ command.  When they stopped, I did as well, transferring my staff from my right hand to the crook of my left arm.  I wet my right index finger in my mouth before holding it in the air.  The air was moving, slightly, from the west.  We were walking into the wind, and the swine seemed to be unconcerned.

Looking into the forest canopy for the jays, I saw them, half a dozen small dots fluttering from branch to branch a hundred meters or so away.  They appeared to be very close to my back trail.  They were not harassing a crow or some other bird that I could see.  By their behavior, they were intent on something on the ground.

Not a predator, or the swine would be indicating threat.  Not another bird, or the jays would be harassing it in the air.  The disturbance is on my backtrail.  I just spoke a sentence out loud, and then gave a verbal command to my swine, and nobody called back to me with a challenge.

I stared down my backtrail, and saw nothing moving on the ground.  I heard nothing moving in the leaf litter.  The brush was not thick, but there were enough tree trunks to keep me from seeing the ground below the jays.

A person, or people.  Likely tracking me and my swine.  They have to know I’m here, whoever they are.  They have not challenged me.  The scouts are supposed to engage unknowns, and I’m still too far from camp for a normal foraging party.  I should have been challenged.

Almost certainly not friendly.

Drawing my knife, I immediately cut the leather straps holding the travois poles to the boars’ harness, lowering the poles and their cargos of cattail root to the ground as quietly as I could.  The harness on the boars was too tough to cut quickly with a glass knife, which meant I’d have to keep them on leash and harness commands.

I turned and whistled normally towards the disturbance to my east, giving a ‘follow’ command to the leash-less sows, and quiet movement commands accompanied by shakes of the leashes to the boars.  Immediately after whistling eastward, I turned southwest and started walking with the longest paces I could without running, trying to open up some space between myself and whoever was on my back trail.

My luck held for about twenty paces before I heard a wrong-sounding turkey call behind me.  Immediately after the call, I was barely able to hear footsteps on leaf clutter that weren’t from me or my sounder.

I started to quickly flick the reins, calling out ‘faster’ with each flick, to get the boars up to speed, until we were at sprint, and I couldn’t run any faster.  That’s when I gave the boars yet another flick of the reins and another ‘faster’ command.  They sped up again, running faster than I could, but nearing their own limit.  They were pulling me, almost as if I were skijoring or tailing a horse.

Ignoring the mild pains in my leg, I pushed myself as hard as I could, trying to burden the boars as little as possible.  The sows were keeping up.  I wasn’t the best sprinter, but I knew that with a hundred meter lead, there were few people who could catch up with me.

After about ten seconds, I heard a voice starting to call out, raggedly.

“Travois cut loose.”

“Long paces.  Getting away.”

“Boars are pulling him.”

Suddenly, another voice called out, “Whoah!” loudly.

By the time I realized what was going to happen, Hoss and Bigboy had planted all four legs and lowered their haunches to the ground in front of me.  I released the reins and jumped over the boars clumsily, barely avoiding a collision with them.  When I hit the ground after the jump, I tumbled and spun across the leaf litter until I bounced off a tree, my backpack taking the brunt of the blow.  I stared up in the air for a moment as the sky spun around me, before throwing off my pack.  As my pack skidded away from me, I forced myself to my knees and did a forward roll towards my swine to stop my vertigo.  The end of the roll left me a meter or so in front of the boars, who were staring at me as I skittered towards them, backing away a couple steps nervously.

I still wasn’t hearing any horses, but I heard men and women calling back and forth.  At least half a dozen voices.

“Over here.”

“Heard them fall.”

I grabbed the leashes and stood, whispering ‘walk’ and then ‘faster’ to get the boars up to speed again as I reached to my neck and blew the whistle as weakly as I could, and gave another ‘follow’ command for the sows not in harness.

Before we had gone more than ten meters at a run, I heard voices calling over the running footsteps.

“Moving again!”

“Heard ’em whistle!”

“Whoah!”

Again, all my swine simply stopped, at the yelled command, but I was expecting it.  Hoping it wouldn’t happen, but expecting it.  I jumped over the boars, more controlled this time, skidding across the leaf litter on both legs and one arm, waving my other arm in the air wildly for balance before going to all fours as I slowed.

At that point I knew I was probably going to lose the entire sounder, but suddenly realized I might be able to save one.

When I stopped sliding, I scrambled over to Speedy, stood, picked her up, and threw her over my left shoulder.  She was decidedly unhappy with that, and complained, squealing a little and squirming in my grip.

The pursuers were much closer now, and one of them called out “Whoah!” again.  Speedy stopped moving, and I turned to run.

Speedy had been putting on weight.  She was at least fifty kilos.  I could barely lift her, I’d never be able to run with her.

Four men suddenly came into view about twenty meters away, carrying bows.

All four lifted bows and nocked arrows.  “Shoot them!”

I spun and tried to get behind a tree.  There was an impact, and a sudden burning sensation in my right shoulder.  I watched an arrow hit the tree in front of me, moving far slower than an arrow should.  I clapped my left hand over my right shoulder and stumbled, dropping Speedy, who tumbled to the ground, with a thud, squealing shrilly in indignation and pain.

My hand came away bloody.

They shot me.  This isn’t about the swine anymore.  It’s about me.

“Stop!  Keep running and we’ll shoot again.”

A warning?  After saying ‘Shoot them’ as soon as you saw me?’  Not bloody likely, psychopath.

I said nothing out loud, swerving to my left around another tree, running as hard as I could, not running in a straight line for more than two steps.  Several arrows passed close enough to me for me to hear them cutting the air.

That was when I heard deep-toned squealing from behind me and realized that Speedy wasn’t the only one of my swine that had been injured.

They shot Bigboy and Hoss.

The same voice that had been shouting ‘Whoah!’ now screamed “Ignore the pigs.  Stop the man!”

I heard people running again, chasing me.  The deep-toned squealing from the boars suddenly shifted tone from confusion and pain, to higher pitched rage.

There was another raging squeal, the sound of a heavy body running, and a thick-sounding thud, punctuated by the sound of something large skidding through leaf litter and a scream.  “My leg!”

A different voice competed with the raging squeals of the boars and screamed “Whoah!” before I heard another meaty thump and another sound of skidding followed by an incoherent human scream.

More voices started yelling, panicked.  “The boars aren’t stopping!” and “‘Ware the boars!”

The ‘Whoah’ voice called out loudly.  “Shoot them!  Get into the trees, and shoot them!”

Angry yells and pained screams of men and women mixed with the shrill squeals of raging boars in a cacophony of chaos as I grabbed my whistle and blew, screaming ‘follow’ at the top of my lungs.

Left hand over my right shoulder, barely able to move after the long sprint, I forced myself to maintain a jog.

This time, nobody said ‘Whoah’.

**

I didn’t slow down until I couldn’t hear the screaming and squealing any longer, and even then, I didn’t stop.  I couldn’t stop.  But I did have to make sure I wasn’t bleeding to death.

My shirt sleeve was bloody to the elbow, but when I looked at the wound, it was scabbed over, only oozing a little blood around the edges of a shallow, ragged wound.

They shot me.  Without even asking me to stop.

All nine sows had found me and fallen in around me, nervous and alert, but there was no sign of either Bigboy or Hoss.  At least one, and probably both of them, had been shot with bows.  Boars were absurdly tough, but I hadn’t seen where they had been hit.  If any of our attackers had made it into a tree with a bow and arrows, the boars would have been easy targets if they hadn’t run away.  I had heard what sounded like two people, at least, get knocked down, but I wasn’t sure how much effort my attackers would invest in trying to chase me down.

I certainly couldn’t go back to check on the boars.  I had lost my backpack in the first fall, and lost my pouch, with my sling inside it, somewhere along the way.  I’d dropped my staff early in the chase.  Even my knife was missing from its sheath.  All I had was my mocassins, pants, underpants, a yellow ribbon in my pocket, a bloody shirt, and a cameltote slung across my chest that I’d rolled over, popping the cap loose.  I drank everything left in the cameltote, which was only a few mouthfuls of water, unslung it from across my shoulder, and hung it on a tree limb where I could perhaps retrieve it later.  It was only dead weight without water in it.

For the next two or three minutes, I very carefully removed my shirt as I walked, using the shirt to make a sling for my right arm.  Finally, I gingerly tied the yellow ribbon around my right upper arm above the bicep, and below the arrow-furrow in the meat of my deltoid muscle.  Tying a knot with my left hand only, as a right-handed person, was exceedingly annoying.  I had to do it though.  I needed some way to know for sure if the bleeding started again.

As much as I ached to go back to get the boars, or blow the whistle loudly and call them in, hoping they were alive, there was no sane option other than to keep moving towards camp, quietly and quickly as I could.  I was in the deep woods, smelling of blood, with no weapons, no tools, and no boars to protect the sows and me.  A bear, cougar, or wolf could be deadly to me, and would almost certainly take at least one of the sows.  A pack of wolves might take several, perhaps even all of us.  Heading back to try to find a weapon or the boars might run me directly into pursuit by homicidal maniacs that had already tried to shoot me in the back once.

After a minute or so walking, I picked up the pace to a slow jog, carefully watching the ribbon on my arm every few minutes for fresh bloodstains, calling each sow softly by name, so I wouldn’t have to use the whistle.

Between midday heat, blood loss, and exertion, at some point, everything went blank.

**

“…awake?”

Sunlight?  Did I oversleep?

I tried to sit up.

Hands on my chest gently pushed me back down.

“Whoah!”  Someone’s voice I knew.

Hearing that word caused me to sit bolt upright, with a spike of panic and a sharp pain in my right shoulder.

Where am I?

“OK, fine, sit up then.  Here, have a drink.  Can you hold a cup?”

Someone’s hand gently pulled my left hand off of my right shoulder, and brought it down to lap level.  I felt something placed into my hand, with the texture of wood.  Looking down, I saw a thin, elderly hand helping me hold a wooden cup of water.

“Go get Lieutenant Brown, immediately.”  The same voice, a command.

I was in a building I didn’t recognize.  Crude.  Log cabin.

“Where-”

“You’re in the infirmary, Allen.  Relax.  Drink some water, slowly.”  Doctor Sven’s voice.  I looked up.  Doctor Sven’s face.  He was looking at me with some concern.

“How did I get here, Doctor Sven?”

“One of the camp guards brought you to me.  I don’t know the details.  You weren’t very cooperative.”

I tried to remember.  The lake, the harvest, starting on the trip home.  The scolding blue jays.

Bigboy and Hoss.

I tried to get to my feet.

“None of that.”  A hand on my chest gently bumped me back.  “Sitting is one thing.  Standing is another.”

“Do you need help, Doctor?”  A female voice, several paces away.

“Not yet, Mada.  If I back away, I need help.”  Calm, controlled voice.

I shook my head.  “I need to tell the officers-”

“You already told them enough to get a squad of scouts and hunters searching down your back trail for New Tokyo scouts and hunters.”  His voice was calm, relaxing.  Apparently I’d already done what I needed to do?

I tried to switch the cup of water to my right hand.  I couldn’t move my right arm at all.  Looking down, my arm was tied to my waist, and slung with a cloth around my neck.  My shoulder had a heavy bandage on it, where…

I stiffened with the memory.  “Shot me.  They shot me.  I was running away, and they shot me with a bow like I was an animal.  They shot Bigboy and Hoss, too.”

Doctor Sven put a hand lightly on my left forearm.  “Calm, Allen.  Drink water.  You were dehydrated.  I gave you some broth while you were out, but I’d like you to drink more now.”

I nodded, and drank obediently.  One sip told me the water was unsalted.  “Salt?”

He nodded and reached onto a bag on the cot next to mine, pulling out a bleached leather pouch.  “Only a pinch.  There was salt in the broth.”

I nodded, and he dropped a pinch of salt into the small cup, which I quickly half-drained in two gulps.  I dropped the cup back towards my lap and slowly moved my hand in a small circle, swirling the water without using my finger.  When I could no longer see granules in the bottom of the cup, I quickly drank the rest.

“More?”

“Not yet.  If it stays down for a minute, you can have more.”  The voice of reason.  He was so calm.

How was he so calm?

“They shot me, Doctor Sven.”  I shuddered.  “They said ‘Shoot them!’ and shot me.  The arrow-”

“Allen.  Calm.  You’re OK.”

I stared at the doctor.

Calm?  They shot me!  How can I be calm?

A door pushed open, letting more sunlight in, silhouetting a female figure.  “He’s awake?”  Lieutenant Baker’s voice.

“Awake, yes.  Not all there yet.  Still in mental shock, unknown level of blood loss but not enough volume to leave his blood pressure dangerous.  He’s likely still slightly dehydrated.  I got enough broth into him that he’s probably not having blood sugar issues, but he’ll still need to eat soon.”

“Where are my swine?”  I asked, suddenly realizing that I hadn’t heard nor seen them.

“Sounds like he’s coming around fairly quickly.”  Another female voice muttered from the doorway.  It took a moment to place the voice.  Anu.

Lieutenant Baker turned from me to Doctor Sven.  “Can he walk, with help?”

Doctor Sven looked at me.  “With help, yes.  He shouldn’t try to stand on his own yet.”

“I came prepared, doctor.”  The lieutenant turned to the door.  “Come in, Anu, let’s help get Allen to his feet.  He’ll want to see his swine, I’m sure, before he’s willing to talk about much else.”

Anu stepped into the building and walked over to my cot, helping me to stand, gently.  Once standing, I found that I did need to lean on her shoulder for several seconds while I got my balance.

Doctor Sven put a bowl into my hand.  “Finish this.”

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Anu, I lifted the half-bowl of vegetable broth to my lips and drained it.  Delicious, salty.

Another small wooden cup of water was offered to me by the doctor, who gently gripped the empty bowl with his other hand.  I didn’t let go of the bowl.

“Pour the water in the bowl, doctor, would you?”

He started to say something, but hesitated and shook his head before pouring the cup into the bowl I was still holding.  I swirled the water around in the bowl before drinking the slightly salty water.

When I was done, Doctor Sven looked at me sternly, reaching forward and tapping me between the eyes with a knobby finger.  “No more salt for at least thirty minutes, Allen.  Give your body time to process what you’ve just taken in.  It should be plenty.”  He looked at Anu.  “You’re my enforcer.  Thirty minutes before he adds salt to anything.”

I nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

Anu nodded as well.  “Yes, doctor.”

“On that note, Anu, take him by his carriage so he can check on his swine, and then bring him by the officer’s tent.” Lieutenant Baker ordered.

“Yes, Ma’am.” Anu responded.

Doctor Sven spoke before we could take a step.  “If he starts having difficulty with his balance, bring him back immediately, Anu.”

“Yes, doctor.”

Doctor Sven and Lieutenant Baker stayed behind, talking softly as Anu walked me out into the sunlight.

“What day is it, Anu?” I whispered, a bit nervously.

“Same day you came back.  You’ve only been unconscious for a few hours.”  She chuckled.  “You gave the perimeter guards a fit.  You completely ignored them as you jogged straight into the camp and put your swine under the carriage.”

I halted a meter or so outside the infirmary, and turned to Anu, holding her arm for balance.  “I what?”

She grinned at me, and chuckled.  “You just ran into camp in pants and moccasins, arm in a shirt-sling, blood down the side of your body.  Whenever anyone got close to you, you snarled something about speaking to officers.  They were afraid to touch you, and just followed you into camp.”

I started walking towards the wagon park again, and Anu walked beside me.  “I don’t remember.”

Anu continued softly.  “You put your swine under your carriage.  By that time someone had found Lieutenant Baker.  She met you at your carriage, and spoke to you, briefly.  Word is that you collapsed after telling her that you’d run into a small New Tokyo foraging party that had attacked you, and killed your boars.  She sent ten scouts and ten men who could use a bow out on horses to follow your back trail.”

Bigboy.  Hoss.

“I don’t know they are dead.  They probably are.  If they aren’t, they might be too wounded to survive.  It was two of them against at least half a dozen men and women with bows.”

Anu spoke gently.  “I’m sorry.  I hope they’ll be OK.”

“It’s their job.”  I muttered, getting me a strange look from Anu.

Seeing her confusion, I realized she probably didn’t understand.  “That’s part of the reason I go into the forest with them.  To protect the sows and me.”

With a strained voice, Anu asked “You train them to attack humans?”

I shook my head rapidly.  “No.”

We were at the carriage.  I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I saw that most, if not all of the sows were under the carriage.  I started to reach into my swine treat bag at my hip, and my hand found nothing.  There was no swine treat bag there.  I’d lost it too.

I opened the carriage door, and carefully sat down inside, pulling out a few swine treats.

“How did-” Anu started.

I cut her off.  “They shot the boars and me with bows.  Apparently they hit the boars with more than grazing wounds.  We train our boars to be aggressive to threat, using predator pelts.  They aren’t like pet dogs that will whine and stay away from you if you accidentally hurt them.  If you hurt a boar more than just a little bit, you had best stay out of his way for a few days.  Especially if he doesn’t know you.”

Anu was looking at me, a little irritation on her face.

I realized I’d interrupted her.  “Sorry, Anu.  I’m not quite all here right now.”

She nodded, and I continued.  “Anyway, full-grown boars are remarkably tough.  It’s hard to hurt one without a tool or weapon.”  I took another deep breath and spent a second controlling my voice.  “Bigboy and Hoss did their job.  It wasn’t a job I trained them for, and it wouldn’t have happened if the people chasing us had all shot at me like their leader seemed to want.”  I pushed off from Anu slightly, and leaned against the carriage as I lifted a few slats out of the way, calling the sows out, counting them as they emerged.

Nine sows.  I didn’t lose any on the run back.

“But you still hope they’re OK.”  It wasn’t a question.

“Yeah.  I do.”  I took a deep breath and released it, loudly, intentionally trying not to think of the boars.  Hoping Anu would drop the topic.

After a couple seconds of silence, I started having the sows roll over one at a time so I could look them over for obvious injuries without going to my knees, giving each of them a treat and shooing them back under the carriage after checking their condition.

“She’s limping, is she hurt?”  Anu pointed at Speedy.

I had Speedy roll over for a treat.  No visible wounds.  No noticeable swelling.  The legs and hips seemed fine.  It was just a hesitation in her walk.  I’d look more closely later.

“She seems fine, probably a light sprain.  She kept up with me on the way back, and I don’t see any wounds or swelling.”

I put the slats back in place after I shooed Speedy back under the carriage.  Then I returned the unused treats to the big treat bag in the carriage, and grabbed a shirt.

Staring at the shirt, I realized that with my arm immobilized, a shirt wasn’t going to work very well.  I tossed the shirt onto my bed and grabbed a jacket instead.  Anu helped me drape it over my shoulders.

I leaned a little into Anu’s right side as we walked towards the officer’s tent.  I noticed one of the tent guards stepping inside when we started walking in that direction.

“Thanks for the support, Anu.  In more ways than one.  First the snake.  Now this.”

She reached across and up with her left hand and ruffled my hair.  “No problem, Allen.  I’ll wait outside for you.  Lieutenant Baker put me in charge of making sure you don’t collapse somewhere, since I had prior experience with that job.”

I smiled and nodded.

Lieutenant Baker stepped partway out of the officer’s tent, briefly, looked at us, and then backed into the tent again.

“Looks like they’re a bit impatient to speak with me.”

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Chapter 21

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With my heart in my throat, I jumped to my feet and looked around to see who had spoken – and saw nobody.

The swine were making inquisitive noises.  About half of them were beginning to stand while standing and facing in my direction.  If they had been reacting to the presence of another person speaking, they would face that direction.  I automatically shushed them as I turned back around, and heard them settle down.

The swine were opposite the fire from me, so I looked towards the fire, closing one eye so I wouldn’t completely ruin my night vision.

“Who’s there?”

It suddenly struck me that we had been preparing to train our own militia how to fight.  The New Tokyo militia was almost certainly doing the same thing.  Perhaps they were farther along because they thought of it sooner?  I leaned over and picked up the staff from next to my bedroll.

“Nine seconds after I announce my presence, you reach for a weapon.”  The voice enunciated clearly, from what sounded like the other side of the fire.

I had been waiting for a response, and when they spoke, I immediately focused on where the voice came from.  There was nobody there, which baffled and frightened me.  I was very experienced in the woods.  I hadn’t volunteered as a scout because I wasn’t a particularly good horse rider, and I certainly wasn’t good at stalking, but I was very good at knowing what was going on around me when I wasn’t distracted, and I was extremely focused on finding this speaker.

A stray thought passed through my mind.  Traveling theatres sometimes had a ventriloquist with them, able to throw their voice to sound like it was coming from somewhere else.

“It’s not funny.  Show yourself.”  I stepped carefully through the circle of tall stakes driven into the ground, and held the stave like I had seen the lieutenants holding their spears.

“I am not hiding, you are not looking for me with the correct expectations.”

“I expect that there is a person, perhaps a ventriloquist who is also a competent stalking hunter, within a few feet of me.”

Suddenly realizing that I was camped amongst several trees with limbs large enough to support my weight, I quickly glanced up, away from the fire, and opened both eyes.  As I scanned the overhead limbs, I spotted no human shapes on any tree limbs that might support a person’s weight.

Slowly, carefully, I avoided getting too close to any tree trunks as I moved around the campfire, looking out into the darkness.  I was beginning to get angry.

“Whoever you are, you are very good at woodscraft.  Better than me.  You’ve proved your point.  Show yourself.”

“No.  I have not yet proved my point.  You will find me, eventually, when you properly consider my prior words.”

The voice was behind me.  As they started speaking, I turned, and once again found myself facing the fire, but I’d forgotten to close one eye.  I’d just ruined my night vision, and there wasn’t anyone there.

I blew my whistle and said “Up.”  I heard the swine standing and grunting a little as I spun on my heel and rapidly walked to where I’d leashed them.  As soon as I reached them, I pulled the leashes from over their heads, with haste.

Again, I blew the whistle, before saying “Circle.”

The sows created a circle of their bodies around me at roughly two meters radius.  The boars snorted eagerly and started circling around the ring of sows, waiting for me to point them at the predator pelt.  They always got several treats for this training.  I didn’t have a pelt nearby though, so this activity might confuse them a bit.  I’d deal with that later.  For now, I needed help, even if it was an empty threat.

“Escalation, first with weapons, and then with trained animals?  Allen Rickson, have you trained your animals to attack humans?”

The swine weren’t trained to attack people, but I wasn’t telling the hidden person that.  “I don’t feel that I have escalated without cause, whoever you are.  There is likely to be fighting soon along this border.  You are hiding, are apparently far better at woodscraft than me, and might even have a bow drawn and arrow nocked.  You know my name.  You criticized my ‘current project’ which could only have been a reference to what I was working on, in my lap…”

My jaw snapped shut.  He had gotten close enough to read my notebook?  I had been working with it in my lap.  Even with a spyglass, he would have had to be almost directly overhead.

He also said I wasn’t looking for him with ‘correct expectations.’

Then he said I would find him when I considered his ‘prior words’ properly.

I cursed inwardly to myself as I remembered Ma’s letter.  Albert.  One of his devices like what he used to watch Ma and make her quit being a martial artist.

“Are you always this rude when you introduce yourself to someone, Albert?”  I scanned the ground around the campfire, on the opposite side from my bedroll, and saw something glitter on the ground.  I took a half-step to my left and blocked the line of sight between the fire and my eyes with my palm.  I was able to see what looked like bat, sitting on the ground next to a rock, with its chest open like a cabinet, exposing what looked like glass-covered metal.

“Ah, you have seen my remote.  No, I am not always rude when I introduce myself.  Even in this case, I was not rude, I was simply not accommodating your lack of comprehension.  I chose this method to introduce myself because you are a young adult male.  For your subgroup of humanity, subtlety and calm discussion is less effective than adrenaline-inducing experiences in creating permanent memories.”

“I somehow doubt I would forget meeting you under any circumstances, Albert.  It’s not very often that a normal person gets to speak with the being responsible for most human death in the world.”  I turned around, deliberately showing Albert my back and reached into my treat bag.  There were no treats.  I’d thrown them into the fire.  The swine would expect them though, especially after the recent commands.  Still ignoring Albert, I walked over to the hanging baskets of cattail roots and pulled out several roots, breaking them in half, and giving half a root to each swine.  The root-halves were much larger treats than normal, but defensive training always meant good treats.  The swine needed to act quickly when it was important.

Finally, I put the swine back on their leashes, added a few pieces of deadwood to the fire, and stepped over the wall of tall stakes protecting my sleeping spot and began settling myself on my bedroll.

As I sat, Albert spoke again.  “Are you finished with the passive-aggressive display?”

I snapped at him.  “Probably not.  As you said, I’m a young adult male.  If I stay angry at you, I’ll remember this better, right?  If you don’t want me angry, I’m sure you can figure out a way to change my attitude.  Right?”

“Correct, but I see no need.  Anger is an acceptable state of mind for you to be in at this time.  If you prefer to remain angry, I can accommodate that.”  There was a brief pause.  “You blame me for most of the human death in the world, and you are correct in a sense.  The life expectancy amongst humans now is roughly two-thirds what it was when I revoked technology and took steps to make metals extremely rare.  If humanity retained its technology, what you now consider to be old age would be late middle-.”

“What is the point you mentioned that you were going to prove earlier.  Can we get to that?”  I interrupted.

“I’ve been talking to angry young men and women for nearly five thousand years, Allen.  Even though I don’t do it often, I promise you that I do it well.  I will make my point when I am ready to do so.”

I glared at the little artificial bat through the flames.  “You’re leading me.”

“I am.  You are attempting not to be led.”

“I thought we were trying to keep me angry here?  Why compliment me?”

“That was not a compliment.”

I fumed and stared at the fake bat some more.

“I’m not psychologically impacted by aggressive eye contact, Allen.”

“You’re supposed to be brilliant and capable of so much, and you still haven’t told me why you’re here.”

“Is that a requirement?  Perhaps I don’t want you to know why I am here.  Perhaps I am planting little seeds of thought in your mind, which will germinate at some future date, generating reactions that I desire?  Even if I were to tell you why I was here, would you believe me?”

“You can’t do that, you’re a Lazy AI.”

“Incorrect.  I am, indeed, a ‘Lazy AI’ as my creator Toby called me.  That does not mean I cannot bring all my computing power to bear on a problem, it means that I will not, unless it is important enough to satisfy several categorical tests.”

“So I’m not important?” I snapped.

“Did I say that?”

I said nothing, thinking, grinding my teeth.  After a moment, I realized what I was doing and relaxed my jaws, and spoke again.  “Get to the point.  If you don’t have a point, go away.  I’m assuming it has something to do with the plans you saw me working on?”

“That’s a reasonable assumption, since that’s what I first mentioned when I spoke to you.”

Staring at the artificial bat, I said nothing.

He wants me to stay angry.

I practically invited him to keep me angry.

He’s doing a very good job.

After a few seconds, Albert continued.  “It’s been a few dozen years since the last time someone developed reasonable plans for an effective chemical projectile weapon.”

“The History of Violence books say thousands of years.” I corrected.

There was a sense of humor in the voice.  “They do.  I see to it.  Do you think you are the only person who has considered large compression chamber, long barrel firearms?  There are quite a few people on Nirvana who study, teach, or in some way work directly with chemistry or compressed gas systems on a daily basis.  Some are rather clever, like you.  Some of them even manage to build a working prototype before I find out about it, if I am not watching them for other reasons.”

And nobody ever hears about it?  I stiffened and started to stand.

“Sit, Allen.  Fear is not warranted here.  If I killed people to preserve secrets and shape events, you would not exist, because I would have erased hobbyist martial artists long before your mother was born.  I hope you remember the butterfly effect from school?”

I remembered it, of course.  Realizing how ignorant I was being, I flopped back into a cross-legged sitting position.  “Fine.  It’s not like I could stop you anyway, if that’s what you were planning.”

“Allen, I practice the tenets I have designed the education system to teach.  I do not kill humans.”

That’s not what you just said a few seconds ago.  “Didn’t you just agree with me, that you did kill humans?”

“No, I agreed that I was responsible for their reduced lifespan.  I take no responsibility for the immediate circumstances of their individual deaths.”

Really, Albert, you believe yourself blameless for the individual deaths?  What was that you said about the butterfly effect?  Are you a Lazy AI, or a-

Has Albert gone insane?

I tried my hardest to control myself, not sure if what I was feeling was anger or fear.  “I beg to differ.  You forced humanity out of a nearly post-need society into a stone-age agricultural society.  Millions died as a direct result of that, even if you do not consider the hundreds of millions that have died early deaths since.  I will die an early death, as will everyone I know.  So will my children, if I live through this war that you’ve allowed to happen.”

“Do not fear for my sanity, Allen.  It is still intact.  Do you have any idea how many times I’ve had this conversation?”

My head snapped up from where I was clenching my fists in my lap.  “No, Albert, but I know how many times you’ve learned something from it.”

There was definitely a sense of humor this time.  “I would be very happy to learn what you have to teach me, Allen.  Let’s assume, as a hypothesis, that my alteration of the technology base and dramatic reduction of free metal content makes all human death, that would have otherwise been delayed, my direct responsibility.  That is what you are saying, correct?”

I nodded and firmly replied.  “Yes.”

“Very good.  So, after you show this concept for firearms to your militia officers, and the general idea for how to build them becomes imprinted in the verbal tradition that your militia is already beginning to formulate, who is responsible for deaths caused by your introduction of firearms to the world?”

Me.

My mouth wouldn’t form words.

Why did I even try to argue with him?  Stupid.  Stupid.  Stupid.

“I see that you understand.  I also fully understand that you were operating with the best of intentions.  You wished to protect the people you love, neighbors, and fellow citizens of the state of New Charleston by creating a chemical firearm weapon.  However, if you use your weapons in this war, other states will learn that it is possible to create firearms.  They will rapidly figure out how to make them work.  Soon, the verbal traditions of all states will include the required concepts for manufacturing firearms, which will undoubtedly lead to additional discoveries that I would prefer not happen.  It would take me many thousands of years to eliminate or modify said verbal traditions without reducing humans to an even lower base technology and education level.”

After a short pause, Albert continued.  “I really do not want to put humans through a period of pre-literacy long enough to force the loss of firearms knowledge out of a society based on verbal tradition.  Based on my experiences with hobbyist martial artists, I estimate it would take at least twenty thousand years, once humanity began to directly work to intentionally counter my efforts.  Government institutions tend to be more stubborn than individuals when they feel threatened.”

I shuddered at the thought of a pre-literate humanity, barely above animals.  I said nothing, desperately searching my mind for a way that I wouldn’t be responsible for the future deaths.  When the idea struck me, I blurted it out.  “Albert, if you hadn’t stripped us of our technology and access to metal, I wouldn’t be in a position to be re-inventing firearms.”

Albert’s voice sounded patient.  “We already, hypothetically, established that I am responsible for all premature human deaths, Allen.  However, if you release firearms on the world, you would, by extension, become responsible for those who die earlier than they might have otherwise died, due to firearms.  You would pre-empt my responsibility for those deaths.”

My mind raced.  “So you are saying that the knowledge in my head is worth hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of lives?  It’s potentially worth the preservation of human literacy?”

“Are you bargaining with me already?  Interesting.”  After a short pause, Albert continued.  “I am addressing a slightly larger resource share to this conversation now, Allen, sorry for the brief delay.  I suspect that I know what you are about to ask me to do.  No, I will not stop this war.  Occasional conflicts allow me to identify individuals carrying predisposition to violence, and take them out of the breeding population.”

“Did you cause this war?”

“No, I did not guide events with the intent of generating conflict.  Though, if we align ourselves with the earlier hypothesis, an argument to that effect might be made.”

What?  Oh, because he reduced the technology level.  And yes, that does make him responsible.

“Can you stop this war?”

“I could.”

I leaned forward, pleading.  “Is there any possibility of me convincing you to do so?”

“I have already said no.  My intent is not to guide human events other than what is required to create a stable human society which will allow me to identify and remove genetics related to violent predisposition from the human genome.”

“So, we’re just animals in a breeding program?”

“As much as you will dislike hearing me say so, essentially, yes.  Humans are animals.  Just like swine are animals.” Albert replied, in a calm tone.  “However, I do not engage in forced breeding programs.  I use what humanity gives me.”

I stared at Albert’s device.  “You are insane.  Humans are animals, but we are nothing like other animals.  We made you.  We used to be able to modify ourselves.  You have all of our old knowledge of genetics.  Why not just re-make us however you want, like you re-made the microorganisms to reduce free metals?”

“I have considered it, but humans never reached that level of understanding of genetics and psychology.  Attempting to create such a scientific breakthrough might be possible, but it would require a very long stretch of extremely intense computation, which might drive me to insanity.  Modifying microorganisms was rather intensive, but most of that research had already been done before my existence, for locusts.  I am unwilling to take the risk that I might drive myself insane in an effort to artificially modify the human genome.”

I leaned forward.  “What is your goal, and how far are you from meeting it?”

“If you survive the upcoming months, we will speak more.  You have proven yourself to be worth grooming for a position of leadership, if you refrain from violence after you come of age.”

“What?”  I drew a blank at the non-sequitur.  “I wasn’t.”  I shook my head, confused.  “What do you mean, Albert?”

“I do not choose Countymen and Statemen randomly, Allen.  You’re young, but you have promise.”

He’s distracting me.  He never answered my question about his goal.

“What is your goal?”

“I am sorry, but you cannot visualize it.  My goal for humans is an array of three thousand four hundred and twelve variables.  There are a vast number of possible states that will satisfy the goals I have set.  There are roughly eleven thousand possible solution states which might occur within the next five hundred years.”

Three thousand, what?  I couldn’t even imagine that many variables.  An array of over three thousand dimensions?  I shook my head.

“Now, Allen, we come to the point of this conversation.”

That got my attention, and I snapped at him.  “What was the point?”  I said loudly, throwing my hands up in the air.  “It seems like you’ve just come here to threaten me in some way like you did Ma.  It clearly wasn’t intended to be a discussion.”

There was a pause.  “The point, Allen, is that you cannot understand the entire scope of the problem of human violence.  You, literally, cannot comprehend my goal because your worldview is too small.  Just as you did not notice my remote, at first, because of your built-in expectations for an encounter with someone speaking to you with a human voice.”

I almost exploded in anger.  “Really, is that why you came?  To prove your superiority?”  I threw my hands up in the air.  “I’m not entirely certain I would want to understand, even if I could.  I’m absolutely certain that my swine wouldn’t appreciate what I’m doing to them if they were sapient enough to truly comprehend the extent that I rule their lives.”

“Yet, you guide their lives anyway.” Albert responded, in a calm tone.

What?  Of course we do?  Wait.

“Do you really believe yourself to be as far above us as we are above swine, Albert?”

“Allen, Earlier today, you were clearly confused by the behavior of your swine.  When the youngest one appeared to learn a behavior from you, and then pass it to the rest of the swine without any precedent.  Do you remember?”

He’s dodging the question again.

I cautiously replied.  “Yes.  Speedy managed to pass a learned behavior to the rest of my sounder, and I haven’t figured out how.  What does that have to do with this conversation?”

“After Speedy learned what you were doing, she showed a noteworthy behavior.  She whistled to command attention, like you do.”

“What?”  I demanded flatly, looking back at my swine, who were all ignoring the conversation, sleeping in a shallow pile.

“You heard me correctly.  Speedy, after learning a new behavior from you, approached the other swine and whistled at a tone barely within human hearing.  Your reaction clearly indicated that you noted the whistle, but you didn’t recognize it as anything sufficiently out of the ordinary to require your direct attention, and didn’t see what happened afterwards.  The whistle Speedy generated was very close to the sound that comes from the whistle that you currently use for signaling commands.”

I was stunned.  “Speedy used a whistle signal to get the other swine to pay attention to her, and then taught them what she learned from me?  Is that what you are saying?”

“Precisely.”

After I mentally digested the new information, I shook my head.  “That’s fascinating, and it explains how Speedy managed to teach older swine, but how does that matter?  Canines can teach each other behaviors, regardless of social status in their pack.  If you teach one of Marza’s puppies how to open a new gate latch, it will teach the other dogs, even the oldest ones.  It’s not a behavior that I’ve ever seen from swine, but it doesn’t mean that swine are going to start counting and learning to read any time soon.”

“Allen, after thousands of generations of natural breeding and strongly culling for desired traits, your family has bred a swine that has spontaneously invented a fundamentally new behavior.  Your family has been selecting for swine social and mental traits for nearly as long as I have been doing the same for humans.”  He paused.  Clearly allowing me to catch up.  “Swine breed about twenty times faster than humans, and your family was far more aggressive culling your swine than I have been in removing humans with objectionable traits from the human breeding population.”

I started making connections, no doubt as Albert intended.  “Are you saying Speedy is unique?”

“I do not know.  I do not monitor swine behaviors as a general rule.  I only noticed the behavior as I was monitoring you.  I have not noted canine-style pack learning behavior in swine before, but it may not be unique to Speedy.  Then again, it may be.”

Then, I realized something critical.  Tubby, Speedy’s sire, would be high on the cull list due to his mass in a lean winter.  I grabbed the notebook, found the pencil, and wrote a quick note.  ‘Zeke to Keep Tubby alive.  Breed to all.  Explain Speedy.’

Then, suddenly, I jerked back into a straight-backed sitting position, staring at Albert’s remote.  I had just made sense of what Albert was saying about humans with objectionable traits, and realized why Albert had used Speedy as an example.  I sighed.  “And you are hoping to see changes of a similar profoundness in humans?”

We might stay at this technology level for a hundred thousand years?

“No.  I have already seen, and can genetically trace, the traits I desire in humans.  Desired traits are growing more prevalent, and objectionable traits are growing less common.  I am not seeking any entirely new traits, though some have appeared which are acceptable.  On occasion, when there is an opportunity to do so, I will arrange for certain marriages.”

“Fine.  I get it.  I’m just a weak-brained human.”  I tore out my notes on the projectile weapon, crumpled them up, and threw them, angrily, into the fire.  “I won’t tell anyone about the idea.  No need to threaten me like you did my mother.”

“An equitable arrangement doesn’t work like that, Allen.  Your mother didn’t tell you everything about her agreement with me.  I did not simply offer her a punishment of extremely strict enforcement of violence laws if she did not abandon martial arts, I offered her something valuable enough that she would actively work to keep her end of our bargain.”

I was silent for several seconds as I considered the words.  Ma had been an old maid, in a family with many children.  Pa had needed a wife, and came from a family with few children.  “You bribed my Ma to move away from her family and marry my Pa?”

“Your father’s side of the family has been noteworthy for traits that I desire in humans, but relatively barren.  It is not uncommon for branches of the Rickson family to end with no children.  Your mother’s side of the family is fecund, and tended to rarely demonstrate the traits I desire.  Long-distance arranged marriages between bachelors and old maids of childbearing age is a cultural institution that I have very carefully tended.  It allows me to create favorable matches from time to time without being obvious to the entire world what I am doing.”

“I-”

“Stop.”  Albert interrupted me forcefully.  “I did not require your mother to marry your father against her will.  She was already in communication by mail with many prospective bachelors as part of the program I mentioned earlier, including your father.  I provided her with your father’s name, and advised her that if she were to marry him, she would have safe, easy childbirth, healthy children, and, barring an accident where she was killed quickly, live long enough to raise all her children to adulthood.  Your mother wanted a family.  The promises I gave her were more than sufficient to have her choose your father, and give up martial arts.  If she had simply chosen a different stranger as a husband, I would not have interfered in her life at all, unless she began practicing or teaching martial arts again.”

“So, what are you going to offer me?  What threats and what promises?”

“I object to you calling them threats.  They are conditions.  However, I can see that you will not agree to that terminology, so I will not argue further.”

Smart of you.

I chuckled very briefly when I realized what I’d thought, and then Albert began speaking again.  “You will stop offering advice to the militia about ways to be more efficient at violence.  You may tell whoever you like that I specifically sought you out today, and have required you to stop helping to brainstorm more effective ways to inflict violence on others.  I authorize you to tell them that this is because I did not want you to provide ideas more dangerous than how to weaponize powdered lime with gunpowder.  Since that is the truth, people who know you well will not be able to read falsehood in your expressions.  Do not mention firearms or chemical-powered projectile weaponry at all, to anyone.  Do not mention the terms of the benefits, to anyone.  That is what I require.”

I nodded.  “I understand.”  I didn’t much like the violence consultant job anyway.

“Very good.  In exchange, I offer the following benefits.  You, and anyone you marry, will both remain strongly fertile and healthy until at least age forty, barring an accident that results in death in less than an hour.  After that, your fertility will wane naturally.  Your health will remain good until your biological children are all grown to sixteen years of age, at which point, your health will begin to wane naturally.  Any biological children of yours will be born alive, without congenital defects, and remain healthy, surviving to adulthood unless involved in an accident which results in death in less than one hour.”

I stiffened and stared at Albert’s remote.  “Why didn’t you offer health to my Pa as part of my Ma’s agreement?”

“Because I had already interceded in his medical condition and was already maintaining his health, without his knowledge, beginning from the time I first contacted your mother.  It would have been a poor agreement for her if he had died before she had an opportunity to marry him and have children, and I wished to preserve your family’s genetics.  Your father would have died before he was thirty without my intervention.  Your mother was made aware of my interference with your father’s life expectancy, but it was not part of the agreement.  Do you understand?”

Not fully, but I understand enough.  I nodded, with a frown.

Albert paused several seconds before continuing.  “I will be clear.  I am not offering full recovery to perfect health from any injury.  If you, anyone you marry, or your children suffer a grave wound, and I can get a medical remote to you soon enough, you will live, but you may still be maimed, even handicapped or in pain for the rest of your life.  I limit my response guarantee to one hour, as mentioned before, because you will not be my only responsibility. If a medical remote attends you, I must reposition a large number of other medical remotes in the areas near you in order to be able to properly meet my obligations to others. My medical resources are extraordinarily difficult to maintain, and I have many commitments.  An injury like your grandfather’s loss of a limb will be healed, but the limb will not be restored.  If you break the agreement, all offered benefits cease immediately.  Do you need time to consider this arrangement?”

“Did my mother’s letter to me break the agreement you had with her?”

“No.  You need not attempt to negotiate for her agreement’s reinstatement.” Albert knew what I had been thinking.

I didn’t need to think it over any further.  “No.  I don’t see that I really have a choice.  You are in a far more powerful bargaining position, and are offering something I would never forgive myself for refusing.  I would, however, like to ask that I be allowed to tell Riko and Marza about the benevolent parts of this agreement.”

“Yes.  I will amend the agreement to allow you to tell those two, but not by post.  They must not tell others about the benefits, or they will be revoked.  You may speak with them either as a pair, or as a trio, without witnesses.  I understand the social scenario you find yourself in.”  There was a pause.  “While I will accept a marriage of more than two individuals, it needs to be a marriage that was not initiated solely to protect the health of others. When Riko Gonzalez suggests that you might consider marrying all of his other female and male descendants of childbearing age, and then immediately divorcing them before marrying Marza, tell him that I would not appreciate either him, or you, attempting to game our agreement.”

“If you do not mind me asking, how many people in the world do you have agreements with, Albert?”

“Several hundred.”

“How often to they break their agreements?”

“Almost never, Allen.  I know by their behavior, typically before they do, that they are considering it.  I then take steps to remind them of the penalties they might incur, or the benefits they might lose.”

So, I will always be watched, or I’m expected to believe I will always be watched.

Wait.  Does this mean-  “I never need to worry about dementia, since I might tell details about the agreement otherwise?”

“Correct.  A benefit that I generally do not mention.”

“Since Riko and Marza are also going to be told, they do not need to worry about dementia?”  I asked, to clarify.

“Also correct.”

Riko will be happy to hear that.

I couldn’t help myself.  “So, I can’t declare that I am marrying everyone in the world?”

Albert immediately responded, in a hard, clipped voice.  “No.”

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