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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Chapter 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*knock* *knock*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And people aren’t really hungry yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t have designed it better myself.

After a moment, I chuckled out loud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone knew it, but it wasn’t true.

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

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

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

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

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

I nearly had a heart attack when the voice spoke.

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

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Chapter 19

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After explaining my worries about the barge wagon and its load of gunpowder to the officers, nearly a hundred people were dispatched to dig a covered pit to store the gunpowder a hundred meters south of the main encampment.  They wanted it on the east side of the road, but I would have preferred it on the west side of the road.  I couldn’t really argue too much, unfortunately.  There wasn’t any good reason for the pit to be on the west side of the road, as opposed to the east.  I only wanted it on the west side of the road because I was planning to own the land on that side of the road.

After one attempt to get the location of the pit changed, I said nothing else.  Having a cistern close to the road would have allowed me to easily establish a little roadside market where carriages and wagons could water their animals, and people could buy seeds, produce, eggs, or perhaps even swine culls.  It wasn’t critical though.  Whatever Gonzalez family members moved in across the road from us would probably like the idea of a market by the road just as much as me.  Neither of our families currently had a permanent market stall next to the road because neither family had invested in a water cistern by the road.

I wasn’t in any condition to help dig, haul dirt, or place stones as part of the high priority project, so I gathered my swine and went back to the clearing I’d found in the woods.  I spent several hours letting my swine root in the clearing while I made another hundred or so spoons.

When I led my swine back to my carriage before I went to eat dinner, I crutched close enough to the pit to see what had been done.  The pit was dug, the loose walls of broken, flat paving stones inside the pit were built, and the raised platform to keep the gunpowder dry was placed.  Carpenters were building a wooden frame inside the pit to help support the loose stone walls and support an oversized roof to shed water.  All in a period of only a few hours.  It was pretty amazing what a large group of people, three elefants, and several teams of horses could do.

After eating the evening meal of rice and beans with Anu, Ely, Sara, and Kelvin, they went back to various manual labor jobs, and I went back to Doctor Sven and the hot water boot.  The soaking felt really good, and Doctor Sven continued to stay happy with the leg.  He wanted me to soak it three more times the next day.  After that, he might stop treatment if it looked good.  Following that assessment, he dosed me with more willow bark tea, and then went back to the officer’s tent.  Of course, I made more spoons.

It was beginning to be a challenge to keep my mind on my work, as I’d made an absurd number of spoons in the last day.  Still, carving spoons was marginally useful, and didn’t require someone else to take time to teach me a skill or process.

While struggling to keep a safe level of attention on my knife, I started considering how we could set up the roadside market so that people could summon us with a horn if they wanted more than water.  We would need dogs to protect the unattended, stored goods from thieves, which might make the horn unnecessary if we kept loud dogs there.  Marza’s border collies might do, but they would get restless.  She had mentioned several times that her dogs become very difficult to manage if they weren’t allowed to exercise at least every other day.  We’d probably need a different breed to watch the market, more lethargic but attentive and territorial.  It would have to be a small breed – preferably a breed that could defend the stored foods against pest animals.  Perhaps dachshunds?

The end of the day came slowly.  By the time it was dark, I’d made somewhere around another hundred spoons while sitting on the step of my carriage.  I could only guess how many spoons I had jammed into my nearly-round pouch – probably around two hundred fifty.  I could have counted them, but decided that I’d just tell the quartermaster that there were more than two hundred of them.  I hoped that would be enough spoons for the people that hadn’t made their own.  I was very tired of making spoons.  I wouldn’t say no to making more, but hoped I wouldn’t be asked to.

Before it got dark, I wrote a letter to Marza and my family while slowly savoring a caramel and blackberry flatbread.  Then, I crawled into bed in the carriage and instantly fell asleep.

 

**

 

The quartermaster was happy with the spoons the next morning, and I was happy that he didn’t want any more for the time being.

I spent the following two days helping brainstorm tactics with the lieutenants, Fobi, and Riko.  It was horrible on so many levels.  I was constantly being reminded that I was helping to figure out ways to maim and kill people.  Add to that the fact that I was being forced into close proximity to Rikard, and that we were required to interact with one another.  Perhaps the worst part was that I occasionally lost myself in the problems presented to us, and started enjoying myself, especially when I had a chance to tear down one of Rikard’s ideas.

At one point, late on the second day, I snapped back into reality after I started imagining a new idea on how to use gunpowder to fight. On returning to my senses, I realized that I had been laughing while discussing an idea to pack cement-grade lime in pits, with gunpowder underneath, to detonate in advance of an enemy charge and create a cloud of lime powder.  Laughing about potentially blinding people, permanently.  Even Riko was looking at me a little oddly, with an uneasy expression.

“Beginning to sound like Brad there, Allen.”  Rikard said, staring at me, without a smile.

My head swiveled to Rikard and I pinned him with a glare.  He dry swallowed.

Everyone else went dead silent, and Fobi edged a little closer to me.  It felt like Rikard had stabbed me in the back with a knife, and everyone else’s silence just made it worse.  I closed my eyes and counted to ten, while turning so that when I opened my eyes I wouldn’t be facing him.  The last thing I wanted to do was attack him and get myself knocked on my rear by Fobi, who had demonstrated twice already that she was watching us both closely, though she hadn’t had to knock either of us down to protect the other.  Yet.  It would be extremely annoying to be back on crutches again if she knocked me down and I fell badly.

The worst part is that I have to agree with Rikard.  I was laughing!

After I finished counting, I opened my eyes and turned to Lieutenant Davis.  “I understand that Rikard and I have been of value to the militia, but I need to get away from this.  I also need to get away from Rikard, or he needs to get away from me.  For at least a day or two.”

The lieutenant looked up from where he had been scribbling on his pad, frowning, but serious.  “Lime mines are an extremely unpleasant idea, and could backfire if there’s a dramatic wind change, but it’s potentially useful.”  He paused, and tapped the pad with his pencil as he stared at me thoughtfully.  “Your idea of tying brightly-colored ribbons to the end of our spears to distract enemies was also very good, and immediately useful.  You aren’t coming up with as many ideas as yesterday, but they are still good ideas.  I realize this is uncomfortable, even mentally painful, but we really need your input.”

I gathered my thoughts, clenched my fists, and then relaxed them.  “Sir, as much as I dislike agreeing with Rikard about anything, he’s right in a way.  I was actually enjoying myself as I came up with an idea that could cripple people.  I don’t think it’s healthy for me to continue considering how to hurt people.  What if violence is like depression or addiction, and some people are genetically predisposed to it?  If I keep thinking about how to hurt people, I’m afraid I might actually become something like Brad.”

Even if you make me stay, I’m not participating any longer.  I didn’t say it out loud, but I met Lieutenant Davis’s eyes and did not turn away.

After he met my glare for several seconds, Lieutenant Davis looked at Lieutenant Baker and beckoned to her as he walked away from the rest of us.  All of the experienced spear-using scouts that were present carefully avoided looking at me.  Rikard, was staring at me with a faint smile, Riko was looking at me with a little frown, and Fobi was not fooling me by pretending she wasn’t looking at me.

Fobi spoke loudly into the silence while the lieutenants walked a few meters away and spoke to one another quietly.  “Doesn’t really matter what job you’re doing, sometimes you need a break from it.”  She paused.  “As experienced law enforcement officers, I know you both have seen what I have.  Violence can run in families.  Both nature and nurture.”  She poked her left index finger into the air.  “If it doesn’t, Albert has spent almost five thousand years wasting his time with us.”

Both lieutenants turned to face Fobi, briefly, thoughtful expressions on their faces, and then turned back towards one another and continued whispering for several seconds before walking back over to us.

“We’ll end this brainstorming session now.  Allen, Rikard and Emerald will go to the quartermaster and get work assignments for the rest of the day.  The rest of us will stay here and work on the verbal movement commands for the rest of today.  Once we have a unified set of commands, we can start teaching them to ourselves tomorrow and smooth out the inevitable problems.”  He looked at Riko.  “That was your idea, Riko.  I definitely want your input on it.”

Rikard spoke suddenly.  “We probably want to figure out a way to give movement commands with flags too, or horns.  I suspect a battlefield will get very loud.  It gets fairly loud with just two lines of five people facing each other.”  He smiled a little.  “That’s before we consider gunpowder or nitrocellulose explosions, and people screaming in pain.”

My fists clenched, as did my jaw.  I looked away from Rikard and slowly forced myself to relax.  I wasn’t sure if I was more upset that he had barbed his idea with an insult to me, or that he had come up with an idea that made sense, that I hadn’t thought of first.

Lieutenant Davis stared at Rikard for several seconds before starting to scratch on his pad again.  “On second thought, Rikard and Emerald stay here.”  He looked at me.  “Allen, I want you back in two days.  When you return, we’ll let you see what we’ve come up with while you are gone.  Quartermaster Brown will certainly have something for you to do.”

I nodded to Lieutenant Davis.  “Thank you, sir.  I’m sorry I had to ask to be excused.”

“I have to admit you’ve been worrying me a bit.”  He paused.  “One Brad is enough.  Rest your mind a couple days doing other things, and then come back.”  He looked at me sternly.  “I will be checking with Quartermaster Brown.  You had best make yourself useful.”

What?  I clenched my jaw to prevent myself from saying something without thinking.  The lieutenant’s expression seemed to indicate he really wasn’t concerned about me shirking, so I unclenched my jaw and responded.  “I will, sir.  With the rations reduced today, and with fine-ground wood pulp being added to the morning bread, presumably to help stretch out the wheat, I suspect any forage I bring in from the field will be very welcome.”

Lieutenant Baker sighed loudly.  “You noticed the wood dust in the bread, Allen?  Mrs. Zeta told us that she was fairly sure nobody would notice, at least on the first day.  I wasn’t able to taste it.”

Riko spoke slowly, in a carefully neutral tone.  “I warned you that someone would talk.  When the cook asks for wood chips and has a dozen sacks of them brought into the kitchen, it doesn’t take much to figure out what’s happening.  Especially when the morning bread tastes a little like cedar.”  He paused.  “From what I’ve been told by my scouts and Don’s guards that have overheard some conversations, nobody really minds much, yet.  Captain Marko was probably right to keep everyone on full rations until we had some sort of sleeping quarters with a roof for everyone.”

Lieutenant Baker looked at me.  “Did you hear about it, or taste it?”

I shrugged.  “One of my friends heard the rumor from someone else.  After they mentioned it, I was able to taste it.”  I didn’t mention that Anu had been very unhappy, especially after three of us had confirmed the taste.  She hadn’t acted like she was going to complain to anyone other than the five of us that regularly ate together.  “Mixing in a little wood dust into bread stretches out the supply in a long winter.  My family has done it two years that I can remember, and we’ll certainly do it this year.  I might have tasted it without being told, but probably not, since Mrs. Zeta was smart enough to add a little cedar to the fires this morning.  The taste was pretty faint compared to the smell of cedar in the air.”

Riko, Emerald, several of the scouts who were working with us to practice ideas, and even Rikard nodded.

I turned away from Rikard again.  Every time I stopped thinking about it, I turned so I could see him.  I apparently considered him a threat on a subconscious level, and was automatically turning to keep him in view if I forgot that I was trying to avoid looking at him.

“I see.”  Lieutenant Baker frowned.  “I don’t remember us ever doing that, but in lean years, we tended to cull the herd a little more, and eat more meat.  The bread this morning wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  I’ll have to ask Mrs. Zeta for a recipe and send it to my ma.”

Your ma probably already knows, and probably used it in lean years but never told the kids.  You were likely not taught about it because you moved to the city.  Saying that out loud was probably not a good idea, so I didn’t.  I’d been getting a little better at disconnecting my thoughts from my mouth in the last few days, especially around the officers.

I suspected that more wood dust would be added over time to bread and perhaps even the rice and beans until the food became borderline edible.  After all, the whole reason we were here was because of a food shortage and potential famine.

Riko looked at the two lieutenants, slapped me on the shoulder, turned me around to face the camp, and then shoved me off gently.  “Go on, Allen.  Get away from this for a while.”  He continued speaking to the lieutenants as I walked away.  “I doubt many people will complain seriously about some wood in the food, when they think about it.  A lot of us were expecting rations to be reduced and wood dust to start being added to the bread.”

Riko paused and called out to me.  “Allen, Dana mentioned that the tributary stream to the west about fifteen kilometers was blocked by beaver dams, and there was a substantial swamp there.  He mentioned seeing a lot of cattails.  I’d rather eat bread made with cattail root than ground wood.”

I nodded as others agreed vocally, though I suspected we’d be eating wood powder, even if we had a huge supply of alternate foods.  The whole purpose of using the wood was so we used less of other foods, no matter what those other foods were.

As I walked off, I heard Riko again.  “In fact, I need to make sure that Mrs. Zeta knows that she needs to use other wood than red cedar for the bulk of the cooking.  Cedar has an aromatic taste, but too much of it and people will get sick.  Other woods are safer.”

Lieutenant Baker coughed, and I faintly heard her response.  “Doctor Sven has already had that conversation with her this morning, in the officer’s tent, Riko, when you were taking reports from the overnight scouts.”

I wasn’t able to make out any of the rest of the conversation.  I walked for three minutes or so towards the camp, absent-minded, and got into the line of people leading up to the quartermaster’s wagon.  My leg, though still spectacularly discolored, was barely twinging me as I walked.  Doctor Sven had warned me, quite severely, not to run.  He had also encouraged me to walk a lot since I was healing rapidly.  Most of the pain had apparently been due to swelling as opposed to any significant damage to bone or connective tissues.

As I made my way through the line to speak with Quartermaster Brown, I started planning.  Being able to bring back large amounts of forage to help feed the militia was why I’d been allowed to bring my swine to begin with.  Fifteen kilometers was a substantial hike through the forest for foraging, but if I brought a ground cloth, a hatchet, and a blanket, I’d be able to walk out, harvest for a full day, leave the next morning early, and return by mid-day.  Walking back would take a lot more time, burdened with travois kits on both boars in the swamp and the woods, but still easily doable in daylight hours.

“I thought you were helping the lieutenants with ideas for the spear-use training program, Allen?” Quartermaster Brown spoke from behind his desk inside the wagon as I reached the front of the line.  He sounded more curious than annoyed.

“I was, sir.  Got a bit intense, and I started enjoying myself a bit too much, so I asked for a break from it.”  I shrugged.  “The lieutenants were kind enough to allow me to take two days off to get my mind back into a better place.  Sergeant Gonzalez said that one if his scouts mentioned a beaver-dam swamp about fifteen kilometers west, with a lot of cattails.  Unless you have something else for me, I plan on making a trip out early tomorrow, and returning the next day with a couple hundred kilos of cattail root, or something else if I see something better.”

The quartermaster raised an eyebrow.  “You asked to be relieved from a brainstorming job, so you could make an overnight trip to dig roots out of a swamp and haul them back through the forest.”  Pausing a second, he continued.  “A couple hundred kilos?”

“My swine, sir, the boars can haul travois behind them, about half their mass, fairly easily.”

He nodded.  “That’s right.  I won’t say no to that.”  Scribbling with his pencil as he talked, the quartermaster finished one sheet and handed it to me as he started making a copy for himself.  “Talk to Mrs. Zeta before you go.  Make sure she knows what you’re planning on bringing back, since there should be a lot of it.  Keep an eye out for other forage.  If you see enough to justify a small harvesting camp, let me know and I’ll talk to the captain.”

I hesitantly responded.  “You can probably start thinking about that now, sir.  If the beaver dam swamp is sufficiently established to have heavy cattail growth, it’s probably established well enough for all sorts of other plants, both dietary and medical, and will have a lot of prey animals too.  If we’ve got cast nets, the fishing might be good too.  Panfish, carp, maybe catfish and bass.  I should see signs of what fish are there while I’m harvesting cattails.  I’ll report to you the day after tomorrow when I return.”

“You do that.”  He paused, thinking.  “I’ll request a few cast nets and net mending supplies.  We don’t have any.  There wasn’t supposed to be a swamp or lake near here.”  After he finished his copy of my orders, he pulled out a pad a lot like what Lieutenant Davis was always scribbling in, and made a note.  Then he looked up at me as if he was surprised I was still there.  “Oh, people appreciate the spoons.  Good job.  Now go.  Unless there’s something else?”

I smiled at him.  “Nothing else sir.  I’ll see you in two days.”  I stepped to the side to get out of line, while reading the orders to make sure they said what I remembered him saying.  They did.

I found Mrs. Zeta sitting on a stool in the middle of the kitchen that smelled of fresh bread, cedar, beans, smoke, and sweat.  She was surrounded by a whirlwind of junior cooks, directing them with terse instructions that were borderline polite, very matter-of-fact.  She was satisfied to hear that I would be bringing back a lot of cattail root in two days.  She had cooked with it before, mostly the green heads and the pollen, but also the sprouts and roots.  She would be more than happy to add cattail root to the kitchen food stores.  She took a few seconds to tell me that it took a lot of time to get the starch out of the roots, but it was mostly soaking and drying time, with only a little more manual labor involved than most grains.  While she was telling me this, she was watching me closely.

As I started to leave, she admonished me, “Remember, young man, the inner root fiber should be white!  If it’s not white, it will make people sick!”

She raised a finger to me as a junior cook walked up to her side, rather than behind her.  There was a rapid discussion about when to add salt to something.  Mrs. Zeta, quickly muttered, “No.  Add it two minutes after boiling.”

I stopped leaving and turned back to her, as the raised finger seemed to indicate she wanted something else from me.

After correcting the junior cook, she looked directly at me again.  “If you can find female seed pods that are still solid, I can use them too.  That might be hard this time of year; it’s a bit late in the season.”

I smiled.  “Yes, Mrs. Zeta.  I know the root must be white, but I’m afraid the female seed pods aren’t much use for anything but tinder at this time of year.  I’ll look for male seed pods with pollen on them still, and if I see any, I’ll collect the attached female pods, but the chances are almost zero.  As for the roots, I can’t peel them all before I bring them back, but I can tell a good root by feel and the condition of the plant it’s connected to.  We cultivate cattail in our retaining pond and harvest a lot of it every year.  I’m sure there will be some bad roots mixed in, but almost all of it will be good.”

Mrs. Zeta peered at me.  “OK, you know the plant.  I’ll let Pol know to expect them, you just bring them to us.  Clean!  You don’t have to peel them, but get all the mud off!”

So many Pols.  There must be twenty of them in camp.

I laughed a little as I nodded.  Fortunately, Mrs. Zeta didn’t take offense, just smiling a little.  “They will be mostly clean, ma’am.  I won’t have my swine hauling a lot of mud for fifteen kilometers.”

“Good.  Now leave.  I am very busy here, young man, and while your news was welcome, you are now in the way.  If you and your pigs bring good cattail root back, from now on you do not need to tell me what you are bringing.  Just bring it.”  She waved a hand at me, briefly, as she turned to the line of four junior cooks that had been quietly waiting behind her while she talked to me.

I had another thought as I returned to my carriage in order to start checking tack and packing for the morning.

How much damage would it do to our ability to function as a militia if Quartermaster Brown, Mrs. Zeta, or any other logistical keystones were to be injured or killed?

It took me a couple minutes of arguing with myself before I decided I really did need to tell someone about that idea before I went foraging the next day. I eventually sighed, shook my head, walked back to the lieutenants, and mentioned the possibility of creating chaos in an enemy’s camp by taking out keystone logistical support individuals, as opposed to obvious targets like commanding officers.

Before I was able to get away again, Lieutenant Baker, after looking at Lieutenant Davis, gave me a spare pad and stubby travel pencil she had in her shoulder pouch, and told me “Write down any more ideas you have.”

I stared at the blank pad and pencil in my hand like they were rattlesnakes.  Somehow, I managed to put them in my shoulder pouch without throwing either the pad or the pencil back at her.  Without a word, I turned away and stalked back towards camp.

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Chapter 18

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Captain Marko was quick to respond with a short, rapid sweep of his right arm in front of him as he shook his head.  “No.  They have reserves.  If they didn’t, our envoy and their staff in New Tokyo would have seen signs of it, and told Stateman Urda.”

Even though Captain Marko was confident, I was still worried.  If I had a desperate need for food, I would at least try to pretend that my need wasn’t immediate and extreme.  Especially if charity was known not to be an option.  Bargaining from a known position of need is never good.

At the same time, we hadn’t even seen the first refugee or New Tokyo militia member yet.  That seemed to indicate that nobody was starving, yet.  I could easily imagine the New Tokyo Stateman choosing to hide the shortness of their reserves, even from the population of New Tokyo, but there had to be at least some food left, or at least some people would already be on the move.

Another thought struck me.  I considered that New Tokyo might be gathering refugees together and organizing them far enough away from the border, and from New Tokyo, so that neither we nor the envoy staff had seen them.  That seemed unlikely though, so I said nothing.

Lieutenant Davis coughed.  “Captain, I know it’s important to build infrastructure and plan, but, we really need to start training.  You know how hard it is for a lot of law enforcement recruits to learn to use tonfas and staves against people.”  He paused.  “We have already had complaints from some people when they were only sharpening and fire-hardening the spears we collected.  I’m not looking forward to trying to teach people to use them.  It’s going to be a nightmare, and the longer we wait, the less effective our training will be.  Especially considering that we have no manuals to teach by.”  He gestured at the other lieutenant.  “Lieutenant Baker and I are going to have to try to make things up as we go along.  We’ve only got about two dozen people who have any experience using a spear for hunting, and I’m not confident that hunting techniques will be much use for us in a fight.”

I nodded.  Bears and feral pigs were about the only animals that were hunted with spears in this part of the world, and it was a lot safer to hunt them from horseback with dogs and bows if you chose to hunt them at all, instead of just poisoning them.

I would definitely not want to be standing on the ground with only a spear between me and an angry Hoss or Bigboy, and they were nowhere near the size that a feral farm pig might grow to.  A farm pig could easily mass five hundred to seven hundred kilos.  Stopping that much mass with a sharp stick was close to the bottom of the list of things I would ever want to try, somewhere barely above cliff-diving in a dry gorge.  Academically, I knew how to do it.  Plant the spear butt in the soil and let the animal charge you.  Trying it with bears would be bad enough, since they might simply swipe the spear with a paw instead of impaling themselves on it.  I couldn’t imagine a spear-planting technique working with people, especially people with their own spears.  Or, even worse, people with bows and slings.

Captain Marko looked thoughtful for a moment.  “You have a point.  But we need health and food preparation infrastructure, followed by better shelter for all of us, or exposure, illness, and desertion will start to work against us.”  He thumped his fingers on the table.  “We’ve already lost six people to desertion and we haven’t even had the first training session yet.”  He paused and took a deep breath.  “Being physically ill or psychologically miserable because they are being trained to fight other people, and then having to sleep in a tent, on the ground, will almost certainly drive up the desertion rate.”

Fobi spoke after raising her finger and getting a nod from the captain.  “Sir, why not get the lieutenants together with the people who are experienced with a spear, and the three of us as well.”  She pointed to herself, and then Rikard and me with small hand motions.  “We can work together to try to test some techniques using the same method of opposition that we had planned to do over maps.  We need to know what to teach before we can teach it effectively, and these two might give us ideas.”

At that moment, Riko re-entered the tent, stating “Quartermaster Brown will be with us shortly, captain.”

After a glance towards Riko, Fobi nodded.  “And Sergeant Gonzalez as well, maybe?”

After about a second, Riko responded.  “I came into the conversation late.  What do you want my help with teaching?”  I couldn’t see his face, since I was facing away from him, but I could hear the curiosity and caution in his voice and could imagine his slightly curious expression.

“Using spears.” Lieutenant Baker said, before Fobi could respond.

Riko blew out a deep breath.  “I haven’t used a spear in more than thirty years, but…”  He paused.  “I’ll help if I can, but what I know won’t be very good against people unless they are remarkably stupid.  I only used a spear in earnest twice, both times against wolves that weren’t hungry enough to press an attack.  Mostly, I used spears as walking sticks.”

Lieutenant Baker frowned and leaned back in her chair.  “You know how to hold one, which is more than most of us can say.  I know we have experienced spear hunters in the scouts.  I asked.  The problem is that half of the scouts are out at any given time, with the rest sleeping or recovering from hard riding.”  She paused.  “More than half, after we start patrolling behind us to watch for fire starters, unless I get more people, which I’ll address at tonight’s planning meeting.  Still, sir, what you and Fobi said makes sense.”

Captain Marko pushed back his chair and stood.  “I need to speak with Quartermaster Brown about the feasibility of wall-building around the city and towns, and then make a report to the Stateman.  Lieutenant Baker stays with me.”  He turned to her with a nod.  “We need to work out how many more people you need to patrol behind us as well.  Preferably before the meeting tonight.  I also want you here for my discussion with Brown.  I seem to recall that your brother was a mason, right?”

Looking up at the captain with a nod, Lieutenant Baker answered, “Yes, sir, but I never learned much from him about the trade.  He apprenticed off the ranch to a childless mason after he fell out of a tree and the leg break didn’t heal quite right.  I rarely saw him after that, and when I did, we didn’t talk about masonry.  Our ranch was too far from town for regular visits.”

“Hmm.”  The captain was still for a moment.  “Still, you have some exposure to the trade, and I want someone here to take notes, so I can concentrate on thinking.”  He looked in Riko’s direction, over my head.  “Sergeant, send one of the tent guards with instructions to speak to the quartermaster before he arrives, and see if he knows of any masons with us.  If he does, have the guard get the name of the most experienced mason, find them, and send them to this tent immediately.  I’ll be surprised if we don’t at least have an apprentice or journeyman mason with us.  Brown would have complained to me by now, otherwise.”

“Yes, sir.” Riko spoke before I heard the tent flap open and Riko spoke a couple sentences to someone, presumably one of the tent guards.  Then there was the sound of someone running.

As I heard Riko step back into the tent behind me, Lieutenant Davis finished writing on the paper on the table in front of him before pushing all the writing materials over to Lieutenant Baker, who collected them and arranged them in front of herself.  He pushed back his chair and stood.  “With your permission captain, Fobi, Rikard, and Allen will come with me.  Riko will gather a couple scouts with experience using spears and meet the rest of us on the road, about a hundred meters behind the camp.  We’ll start trying to figure out fighting techniques that might be effective.”

“Permission granted.”  The captain nodded.  “Before you go, however, I want input from you on a simple matter.  We are going to start needing a camp security presence larger than we can comfortably micromanage, or we might start losing horses and elefants to the exact same tactics that we’re prepared to use against the New Tokyo militia.”  A grimace later, he continued.  “As well as protecting the important parts of our camp infrastructure that Brad has pointed out.  A few infiltrators starting fires could be disastrous.”

Fully standing now, Lieutenant Davis nodded.  “Yes, we probably want a sergeant for handling that, and Riko’s going to be busier, with the scouts growing in size as well.”

Fobi looked from Captain Marko to the two lieutenants, squinting slightly.  “No.  I’m not taking a position of authority.  I can’t.”  She pointed a finger at Don.  “He’s in this tent for a reason.  I suspect he’s either shown some good common sense, or he’s impressed you with something he’s done.  Choose him.  I’ll advise him if you want, since I doubt he has law enforcement experience.”

Captain Marko steepled his fingers under his chin and looked at Fobi.  “After our conversation last night, I’ll accept that arrangement.”  He paused and turned to Don.  “Sorry to make you uncomfortable, Don, but unless one of the two lieutenants has seen or heard something I haven’t, you’re going to be our camp sergeant for guards.”

Lieutenants Davis and Baker looked at one another, and both shook their heads.

“No problems I know of, sir.” Lieutenant Baker said.

“Likewise, sir.”  Lieutenant Davis echoed.  “Don seems like a good match for a sergeant’s position, after what we saw through the window of the inn.”  After saying that, he looked from me to Rikard, and then to Don.

I felt my face heating up as I realized that at least two of the officers had apparently watched the altercation between Don, Emerald, Rikard, and me.  Or rather, me attacking Rikard and being restrained by Don.

Did Doctor Sven also see it, but not let me know?  Was I being somehow tested?  Was Rikard?

Rikard looked at least as startled as I felt, from what I saw of his reaction in my peripheral vision as I carefully avoided looking at him directly.

Captain Marko clapped his hands together once in satisfaction, with only enough strength to make a gentle smacking noise.  “Good.  Do you have any objection to taking the position of sergeant over the camp guards, Don?”

I turned my head a little to see Don.

There was a brief pause before Don spoke.  “No, sir.  I’ll settle Emerald into the prior duty you had me performing though, as I won’t be able to devote myself to it.”  He looked at Rikard, expressionlessly.

Rikard looked irritated as he stared at Don, but he said nothing.

The captain nodded.  “Very well, Sergeant Covil.  Fobi will be your consultant if you feel you need her assistance.  I strongly suggest you take her council for at least a few days as you get settled in, as Fobi is an experienced law enforcement sergeant.  The decisions will be yours, within the bounds of orders you are given by myself or the two lieutenants.”  He raised a finger.  “If the quartermaster or doctor ask you or the men and women under you to perform tasks that do not interfere with orders we have given, you should perform them.  Otherwise, request that they come to us and request we send you modified orders.”  He paused.  “You and Riko will be working fairly closely together on a regular basis, and may share some responsibilities and trade some personnel between you as things move forward.”

“Understood, sir.” Don said, with a nod.

With another nod, this time at Lieutenant Davis, the captain continued.  “Very good then.”  He turned to Lieutenant Davis.  “Lieutenant, I want you back here after lunch with an update.  For now, go see what you can put together to start developing a training program.  Don will be under your direct command, but for now Lieutenant Baker and I will teach him a few things about how we make the sausage, and introduce him, as a sergeant, to Quartermaster Brown and Doctor Sven.”

**

A minute or so later, all five of us who were leaving were on the road.  Four of us walking away from the camp, and Riko walking into camp to go find a couple other scouts with experience using a spear.  As I crutched along the road, following Lieutenant Davis, I carefully watched Rikard from the corner of my right eye.  I was vulnerable, unable to move properly on an injured leg, and didn’t trust Rikard to not take advantage of it.  Fobi was walking between the two of us, thankfully.

As we left the tent, Lieutenant Davis had collected six cut saplings that were leaning up against the side of the wagon closest to the officer’s tent.  Each sapling was heavily padded with leather at one end.  He walked a couple meters in front of us with the padded spears over his shoulder so he wouldn’t hit us as we followed him.

We walked in silence for a hundred meters before, without turning around to face us, the lieutenant spoke.  “Before either of you two get any ideas, I’m not going to let you spar against each other.”  He turned his head a little and slowed as he looked back at the two of us.  “By the way, I’m surprised that neither of the two of you blurted out something indignant in there when you realized we intentionally arranged for the two of you to encounter one another in town.”

There really wasn’t anything I wanted to say in response to that.  I was still trying to figure out what exactly had been intended, because it was very clear that a lot of things had been orchestrated with intent that I didn’t understand.  The officers were at least one step ahead of me.  I didn’t need to ask the first question, fortunately.

“Did the Countyman know you were planning to risk Allen attacking and possibly severely injuring me, lieutenant?” Rikard asked, angrily, his voice tense but not extremely loud.

The lieutenant turned away from us to watch where he was walking.  “Yes, he did.  He was specifically asked to provide at least two young violence offenders, and if at all possible, they were to be antagonistic towards one another.  You two are close to ideal.  We only hope that you’re going to be as much help as we imagined you might be when we first came up with the idea.  Fobi’s idea has taken it to a different level though.  We hadn’t considered using you for actual fighting ideas, just tactics.”

I was quite angry myself at this point, and couldn’t keep my mouth shut.  “I’m not entirely certain how the two of us are going to be of any assistance to you, especially if you’re expecting us to work together, somehow.  If you know our history from the Countyman, you should know better.”  I paused, realizing I’d forgotten something.  “Sir.”

Fobi and Lieutenant Davis both chuckled, but Fobi spoke first.  “We don’t want you working together.  We want you working against each other.  The fact that you don’t like each other at all makes it likely that you are going to consider things that we wouldn’t.  You’re also both young male violence offenders, so it’s fairly likely you’re going to escalate against each other in ways that would be hard for most people to follow.”

“What?”  Rikard commented before I could, though his question wasn’t what I would have asked.  “Why not use Brad for that.  The man is clearly insane and dangerous.  He’s clearly even worse than Allen.”

Fobi laughed, almost sounding like a dog’s bark, and then answered patiently.  “If we got his cooperation, he probably would be as good as the two of you.  He’s brilliant and has no empathy for the pain of others.  However, he’s not trustable in any way.  He’s smart enough that any seemingly good ideas he might give us might be somehow flawed and fall apart on us when we try to use them.  We’ll take his input but we have to be very careful with it, like poison around children.”

Looking around, the lieutenant stopped and set the bundle of spears on the ground.  “We were just going to have you two pretend to be opposing army leaders and let you role play against each other, each of you with one of us lieutenants to assist you with forming plans, and with Captain Marko officiating the contests, while he tried to pick out useful ideas for his own use.”  He paused.  “But you might have already figured that out.  Fobi’s idea takes it a little farther.  I’ll let her explain while I check to make sure these spears aren’t sharpened underneath the padding.”

Fobi, still between us as we three stopped close to the lieutenant, pushed against my right arm and Rikard’s left, gently pushing us a bit farther away from one another.  Then she stepped forward and turned around to face us.  “When Riko gets here with some experienced spear-users, we’re going to spar as a group.  The lieutenant and I are the only ones here with training about how to handle ourselves in a fight with another person, so we’re going to each lead a team.  You two will consult with the two of us and give us ideas.  Riko will officiate.  Just like we were planning to do in the tent, over a map, but with live people.

“I… What?  You want us to help teach you how to fight?”  I couldn’t quite grasp the idea.  I could imagine, in some way, that someone had to teach law enforcement officers how to subdue people, and obviously Ma had been taught to fight long ago, but I certainly didn’t know enough about fighting to teach anyone.

Lieutenant Davis’s voice cut through my confusion.  “No.  Fobi and I already know how to fight people.  The experienced spear hunters know how to fight animals.  Your job is to give us ideas about how to fight many people all at once.  There are law enforcement tactics for dealing with large groups of disorderly people, but that’s all about containment and arrest, not about defending and attacking.  In fifteen years on the force, I’ve only had to use that training twice, and the tactics we used worked, so there hasn’t been much need for me or anyone else to think about it much.”

I turned away from Fobi to face the lieutenant, and saw him removing a padded end from a blunt spear before putting it back on and tying it back in place.  He then set the spear on the ground to his left side, and picked up another from his right side, quickly untying the padded end and repeating the process.

“I think I see.”  I said before turning my head to stare at Rikard with a tight smile.

I get an opportunity to try and make a fool of Rikard?  I’ll take that.

“Will I be working with you, Fobi, or Lieutenant Davis?”  Rikard asked, as his eyes narrowed in my direction.

Fobi spoke before the lieutenant could, cutting him off and getting a bit of an annoyed look from him.  “I’ll work with Allen.  I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to work with you very well, Rikard, considering your history.”

Rikard got a puzzled look on his face, but Lieutenant Davis stopped looking irritated and nodded.  “That does make some sense.”

I smiled inside at Rikard’s confusion.  He didn’t know Fobi’s history.  Neither did I, really, but I knew enough about it from the conversation the night before that I understood exactly why Fobi wanted nothing to do with him.  I could only wish that I’d thought about kicking Rikard between the legs when he was down.  The idiot was a danger to the gene pool, and I’d missed my chance to do a good deed for society.

Fobi smirked as she looked up at me.  “You might not be so happy when you realize that the lieutenant is younger, stronger, taller, heavier, has more advanced training than me, and is probably smarter too.”

“We aren’t actually expecting you to hurt each other, are we?”  I said, shocked.  “It’s just going to be poking at each other with padded staves?”

“The lieutenant is still going to have an advantage over me.  It will make any ideas you come up with potentially less of an advantage.”  She paused and winked at me.  “I’m sneakier than he is though.  I’m still required to train as part of law enforcement, and we’ve sparred quite a few times with staves and tonfas.  Don’t think that I’m too overmatched, but I am at a disadvantage.  Spears are new to both of us, and thrusts are not attacks we are trained to use often with staves – too likely to cause permanent injury.  He’s got longer arms for longer thrusts.”

Lieutenant Davis laughed.  “I’m not falling for that again, Fobi.  I’ve sparred with you too recently.”

Fobi smiled and shrugged, turning to face him.  “It’s only the truth lieutenant.  You do win two out of every three points when we spar, usually.”

“I work hard for them.”  He replied back with a little laugh as he picked up the last of the six spears and started untying its protective cover.

“This isn’t going to be the same as a staff though, though some of the staff movements might be useful.”  Fobi frowned.  “The boys here don’t have any real idea about how to use a staff though, never mind a spear.  Should we experiment a little between ourselves and let them watch before we ask them to give us ideas?”

“Sure.  These things are a full meter longer than a staff though, it’s going to be strange.”  Lieutenant Davis picked up two of the padded spears and tossed one through the air to Fobi who caught it smoothly.

Fobi looked at Rikard, and then me.  “You two keep to opposite sides of the road, and watch us.  Say nothing to each other.  I will personally put you on tail if either of you attack each other.” She looked at me instead of Rikard.

I nodded to her unasked question, thinking to myself.  I’m on crutches.  Does she really think I’d attack him when I’d probably be slower than him in moving around?

I looked over at Rikard, who I saw was looking at me with a little grin.  Pausing a second, I had another thought.  I suppose I could use one of my crutches as a staff.

Rikard looked away from me when I smiled back at him.  “Rikard’s safe from me as long as he never says Marza’s name in my presence.  That’s my rule.”

Rikard glared at me and started to say something, but looked at Fobi with a slightly puzzled look on his face, and said nothing.

Lieutenant Davis and Fobi both looked at me with frowns before looking at each other.

Fobi turned back to me.  “You better rethink that rule, Allen, you’re going to be sixteen soon.”

I stared back at Fobi, and then looked to Rikard.  “I’m no fool, but that rule doesn’t change until I’m sixteen.  Marza and I will be away from town in a new homestead shortly after that.”  I walked over to one of the roadside markers and moved to the side so that the sunlight would fall on the small, crude sundial on the surface.  I didn’t need the sundial to check the time; I knew within an hour what time it was because of the season and the position of the sun, but I needed an excuse to look away from Rikard before I worked myself up to the point I wouldn’t be able to think straight.

After I leaned my hip against the stone post and made sure it was stable, I turned back towards Fobi and the lieutenant, and made myself comfortable against the post.

Rikard walked into the grass on the other side of the road, and stood, arms crossed, feet shoulder-width apart.  He really had put on a lot of muscle and trimmed down since we graduated.

Fobi and the lieutenant stood several paces apart in the center of the road, and started slowly showing the two of us basic staff moves, that they called forms, sometimes talking to us, sometimes talking to each other.

“A lot of spear forms are probably going to be like the long extension staff forms.”  Fobi explained.  “We use them mainly for disabling or disarming, but we have to be careful not to hurt people with them, it’s a lot of force in a small surface area.”

“That’s the point here though.  Seriously injure or even kill the other person.”  Lieutenant Davis continued, sounding a bit nervous.  “Swinging a three-meter spear is a lot slower than a two meter staff too, and if people are going to be close to one another, we can’t be swinging to keep space open or knock people’s legs from under them.  Even a staff is too long for close work.  Normally when we deploy multiple people to one trouble call, we use tonfas.”

The two of them faced each other and started circling and stepping forward and back, poking towards each other.

Rikard spoke up.  “Why are you circling each other?”

Fobi and Lieutenant Davis took two steps back from one another.  Lieutenant Davis scratched his head.  “You’re probably right.  If we are going to be fighting in a line so we can offer each other support, we won’t be moving much, it will all be straight-forward fighting, maybe a little to the sides.”

Nodding, Fobi agreed.  “I agree.  Good point.  Thank you, Rikard.”

I tried to not be irritated that Rikard had spotted that before me.  I had been concentrating on watching what the two of them were doing with the spears, their bodies, their eyes.  Trying to see if they seemed to be doing what Ma told me I should be doing if I got in a fight.  They certainly weren’t putting themselves off balance, and they were both making lots of fake attacks.  They were also staying very balanced.  Even when they lunged forward, they pushed a foot forward so they didn’t unbalance.

Fobi was right that the lieutenant had an advantage over her, I could see.  He was hitting her fairly regularly in the torso, but she seemed to be mostly limited to hitting him in the arms and legs.  The few times she did manage to hit him in the torso, she stepped forward into his attacks, knocking his spear away before hitting him.  I couldn’t see why she didn’t do that more often, but I suspected she was seeing something that he was doing and responding to it.

“I’m really not so sure about this, sergeant.”  I heard a man’s voice behind me.  “A spear is really dangerous.  I wouldn’t want to hurt a person with one.  They make terrible wounds.”

There was a muttering of agreement from several voices.

As I turned to face the new voices, Riko spoke.  “Nobody likes this, Pol.  Problem is that a lot of families will be starving this winter.  If it’s an early winter, or a long one, a lot of people might die of starvation.  It’ll be worse for the New Tokyo citizens.  They will be forced to come to us to take what they need or starve unless there is an amazingly good late harvest for them to eat or for us to send some to them.  You know that.  We’ve talked.”

“Knowing it doesn’t make me any happier, sergeant.  It actually makes it worse, since I know there’s no way for me to avoid it.” He responded in a bitter voice.

The speaker, who I recognized from the group of scouts Anu and I  had told the rattlesnake story to, was apparently Pol.  He was a shorter than average man, but wide in the shoulders for his height.  He had some grey mixed in with his dark red hair in a long double braid, and some fairly severe scarring on the right side of his face near his eye.  He wore full buckskins with long drying tassels along every seam, and a wide straw hat to shade his head. Despite that, I could see that he was very fair skinned, even fairer than my mother, with blue veins clearly visible through his skin.  He would never tan, which certainly explained the hat.  I’d never seen him before, and he didn’t look like he was related to any families I’d seen at harvest festivals.

That brought me up short.  Will there even be a harvest festival this year?

“I don’t think any of us disagree with you, Pol.”  Riko commented in a matter-of-fact tone, bringing me back to reality.  “But here we are.”

“Agreed.”  Pol sighed.  “Here we are.  Helping to figure out how to put holes in people with hunting weapons.  Organized killing, followed by a trip to a prison colony if we survive.”  He turned his head and spat forcefully into the grass.  “Worth it for family, I suppose.”

Lieutenant Davis spoke.  “We all hope that we don’t have to fight, but if we do, I think we agree that our families are more important than we are.”

There was a resigned muttering from the four men with Riko.

“Were there no women, Riko?”  Fobi asked.  “We didn’t ask, but if there are any women who know how to use a spear, learning how they use it will be good.  Men and women usually have different ways to use staves and bows.  I’m already seeing I can’t fight like the lieutenant here.”

Riko turned to Pol and the other three men following him.  “I don’t know any women scouts who said they could hunt with a spear, do you?”

Pol looked at Fobi as he spoke.  “Pardon, and please don’t take insult, ma’am, but women normally don’t hunt with a spear.  When a bear or pig gets a spear into them, if you don’t have a lot of mass and strength, they will keep coming at you while at the same time moving from side to side.  If they shake you off the end of your spear, they will probably maul or kill you.”  He paused, thinking.  “You have to hold onto the end and middle of the spear, keep it braced on the ground if possible, and try not get shaken around too much.  If a woman has abnormal size or strength she can hunt bear or boar with a spear.  A small man would be foolish to hunt bear or boar with a spear.  Your mass and strength help keep you alive.”

Pol looked at me, “No insult intended, Allen, but I’d never ask you to stand with a spear against a boar.  Anu, on the other hand, might be better suited to it than most men.  She was a bit overweight, but she looked like she was carrying impressive muscle by how easily she was moving.”

I was a bit irritated, but could tell he wasn’t trying to insult me or Anu.  We were just good examples for the point he was making.  There were many things I simply couldn’t physically do that a big man could, like throw large hay bales.  I had to find different ways to do that work.

Pol was clearly an experienced hunter, and I agreed with him that I wasn’t big or strong enough to hunt bear or boar with a spear.  My irritation disappeared completely when he got a bit closer and I could see that the scar on his face was several long parallel lines from his cheek under his eye going all the way back to his ear.  The individual wounds had apparently been ragged and were at least a centimeter thick each for their entire length.  Almost certainly a bear had raked him with its claws – a mountain lion slash would have been a cleaner wound.  Pol had paid for his knowledge.

Fobi looked at Pol and the other three men with Riko, and nodded.  “I don’t think we need to worry about dealing with animals many times our own mass, but I understand why most female hunters probably wouldn’t use a spear.  People aren’t as dangerous up close, but they won’t just run up on a spear like you say bears or boar will.  Still, if you’ve used a spear as a weapon, even against animals, you’ve had some sort of training, and you’re clearly not afraid of the spear itself.  We’re going to have some problems with that, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“I’m not sure about that, Fobi.”  I heard myself saying.  “Maybe not wild animals, but I wouldn’t want to try to stop a horse with a spear, or cattle.”

Lieutenant Davis spoke.  “Horses won’t approach something pointed at them unless they are panicked.  You can make them shy off just by pointing a staff at their chest.”  He paused.  “Cattle not so much, a bull will charge right into a staff if it’s annoyed, but I can’t imagine them throwing away food animals or draft animals that way.”

I countered.  “Get a bunch of horses between the enemy and you, and whip them hard enough to draw blood, and they wouldn’t stop for sticks, I don’t think.  Not unless they had a long time to run first.  I’d hate to do that to a good animal, but if you want to break through a line of spears, like we were talking about, that might do it.”

Rikard spoke up.  “Even if we don’t point spears at them, a line of people will look like a fence to any domestic animal.  Just keep people far enough apart so horses or cows can run between us.  They will.  Some people might get shouldered or stepped on, but the line of people wouldn’t get broken.”

I shot back.  “If they have more people in their line in the same length, they could overwhelm us with more spears per meter.  We can’t just leave enough room for horses to go between us.”

“Yes, we can.”  Rikard replied with a smile that made me want to hit him.  “If they drive animals at us, half of the line takes a step back and to the side.  Then we have two lines of people, one in front of the other, double-spaced.  We then have every other pairs of people step to the side one space.  That would make a line where there were blocks of four people, with two-person-wide spaces between them to let the animals pass the line.  If we shake our spears in front of us, they will head for the holes in the human fence.”

I couldn’t counter that.  It made sense.  Farm animals knew gates, and even a panicked animal would try to line up to run through an open gate if they could, rather than run into a fence.  There was only one problem I could see with it.  “That will require a lot of coordination.  Every other person steps back and to the side, and then every other two-person line steps to the side again.  After the animals pass, the line has to reform in time to be ready for the attackers who are probably charging behind the horses.”

I saw the lieutenant scratching a note on a small pad of paper.  “Good ideas, both for attack and defense against the attack.  I can’t imagine New Tokyo wasting animals like that, attacking us, but in the right scenario, I could imagine both the use of animals and the creation of pathways for animals to pass through being useful.  Training to quickly and efficiently make holes for horses so our scouts can ride through if they are being chased might be handy too.”

I looked at Rikard, and he looked back at me with a satisfied smile.  I had always suspected it, and Don had even said so himself, but at that moment it became crystal clear that Rikard was, without a doubt, much smarter than he had pretended to be in school.  That made me hate him even more.  As smart as he was proving himself to be, it was clear that his attempted rape of Marza hadn’t been some lame spur-of-the-moment idiot’s idea.  It had certainly been premeditated.

I forced myself to look away from him before I did something stupid.  Riko was looking at Rikard as well; his face was expressionless but I saw his eye twitch.  I wouldn’t doubt at all that he’d just made the same connections about Rikard’s intelligence that I had, and what it meant.

Pol and the other three scouts were looking back and forth at Rikard and me.  Pol and the other man I didn’t recognize looked a little bewildered and disgusted.  The two I did recognize, even though I didn’t know their names, seemed less confused.

Fobi clapped her hands, loudly, startling everyone into looking at her.  She was standing there with the butt of her spear on the road, and the shaft leaning against her shoulder.  She addressed the scouts.  “The boys are violence offenders, and they dislike each other a great deal.  We’re hoping for more good ideas from them, maybe some that will be useful.  Just don’t let them within reach of each other, please, and they aren’t to carry weapons.”

The lieutenant, Fobi, Riko, and the four scouts spent the rest of the morning teaching each other what they knew about spear handling and quarterstaff forms, trying to hammer some sort of useful techniques together, and figuring out how to train people.  Pol had actually trained all of his sons and several of his oldest grandsons on how to use the spear, but his style was almost useless in fighting people.

Rikard and I listened to everything; whenever either of us had an idea, the other would counter or try to improve it.  Quite a few of those ideas were dismissed by others, generally Riko or the lieutenant, but a couple ideas stuck.

I mentioned that we should carry sand and use it to try to blind attackers if the opportunity presented itself.  At first, the lieutenant said no, it would take too long to reach into the pouch and one hand would be off the spear, but Fobi and Riko convinced him it would be worth it if we trained people to quickly throw sand.

Rikard pointed out that if we wanted more spears per meter, we could put the shortest people in the front line, and tallest people behind them with longer spears.  The tall people behind the front line would have to hold their arms up high to attack, but they could.

Then it was time for lunch.  We all ate together and continued discussing ideas.  Rikard suggested we try to get a few wagons of broken glass to use to seed the ground ahead of us when we were defending.  I suggested that we could dig holes in the ground and cover them with woven sticks and sod, creating shallow pit traps that might break up a charging line of attackers.  Both ideas were not warmly received, as they would either render the ground dangerous to both us and the attackers, or require a great deal of manual labor.  The lieutenant wrote them down anyway, because there were certainly situations where those methods might be useful.  If it was possible to wall in a town or city, for example, a ring of broken grass and pit traps around the walls might make it harder for attackers.

After we finished eating, Lieutenant Davis, Fobi, and Riko went to report to Captain Marko.  The scouts went back to their tents to get some sleep so they could be ready for night patrol.  Emerald arrived at the end of the meal to collect Rikard and escort him off to whatever he was supposed to be doing.  I hoped it was something he actively disliked.

Me?  I collected my swine, took them to the kitchen garbage pit, and let them clean it out before I put them back under my carriage.  It wasn’t enough to fill them up, but the lunch food prep waste hadn’t made it to the garbage pit yet.  I’d take them by the pit after dinner, and the lunch prep trash would be there.  Tomorrow morning after breakfast, the dinner prep waste would be there.

When I reported to the doctor for another hour in the boot, he was very happy with the appearance of the leg.  “Your circulatory system is very efficient, Allen, and you’re young.  Between the two, you’re healing the bruise very rapidly.  I want you to sleep tonight without elevating your leg.”  He handed me a mug of willow bark tea, heavy with sugar to reduce the bitterness.  It was still bitter.

While I was soaking my leg in the boot, the work crew and I repeated the morning’s trade.  They cut me wood to make spoons.  I gave them five spoons, and put the rest in my pouch.  I now had fifty spoons in my pouch, and would have another twenty-five after the night soak.  Seventy-five spoons for the quartermaster tomorrow morning.

When I returned to my carriage, I saw the Finch and Krupp barge wagon on the road next to the wagon park.  The driver was refusing to take the wagon onto the grass, complaining that it would sink into turf, and the oxen team wouldn’t be able to pull it out.

I immediately had another idea that I needed to take to the officers.  If I was an enemy, and wanted to really hurt us, I’d light that wagon on fire.  If it blew up with who knows how much gunpowder and nitrocellulose in it, the resulting explosion would kill or maim dozens, even hundreds of us, start fires, and likely destroy the structures we’d been building.  If the barge wagon was parked in or near the wagon park, the officers would be almost in the epicenter.  Since my carriage was also in the wagon park, I would be too.

I had no desire to become a red stain mixed with wood splinters from my carriage.  I crutched towards the officer’s tent as quickly as I could.

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