The Spark – Snippet 20
“I’ve done this sort of thing more often than you have,” he said, His lips quirked. “More often than anybody has, it may be. And old men don’t need much sleep.”
Buck had lifted his nose to table height, but I didn’t worry about what he was going to do. He never bothers animals that’re with a human being. I suspected he’d take a worm if Guntram gave him one, but the most he’d do with the hedgehog was sniff.
The weapon lay on the tray where we’d worked on it. I’d been unwilling to touch it last night when I was so tired, but I picked it up now and dusted away the powdered silicon on my shirt sleeve.
Guntram’s button was pitted all over, though it kept its shape. I put it on the table beside him. “Thank you, sir,” I said.
“Go test it,” he said, nodding to the weapon. “I’ll watch from here.”
I walked outside, leaving the door open. The weapon was light, much lighter than the mining tool I’d modified on my own. The delicacy made me doubt that it’d really work, though I didn’t say that aloud.
The tube vibrated like the burr of a fly’s wings within my closed hand. Its controls were internal, the structure of a small patch of the tube’s wall. I pointed the output end and concentrated while I pressed my thumb on the trigger; the switch was mental as well as physical. A vivid blue line extended the length of my forearm from the electrode, hissing and crackling.
I shut it off and turned. My mouth was open. I closed it, then squeaked, “Sir, it really works!”
“Indeed it does,” Guntram said. “If you’d care to bring it along, it can protect us on the Road while we look for artifacts. Are you up for that this morning?”
“Ah, sure,” I said. “But wouldn’t you like some breakfast first? I’ve got porridge we can warm, and buttermilk in the spring house.”
“I have a converter,” Guntram said, holding up an iridescent loop. “Bring a bowl for yourself and we can eat on the Road.”
He smiled. “Prospecting for artifacts is completely new to me, and I’m rather excited.”
I didn’t argue with Guntram, not with what I owed him in all sorts of ways, but there isn’t anything exciting about looking for Ancient hardware. Sometimes the currents of the Waste throw pieces right up at the edge of the Road. Anybody can see it there.
Mostly, though, it’s more like picking your way through a swamp and wriggling your bare feet for the stones that you want. Instead of a swamp, it was the Waste.
I took Guntram up the Road to the first node in the direction of Leamington. Leamington was a good three days away–more like four at the speed Guntram travelled–but we weren’t trying to get there. If anything, there was less in Leamington than there was on Beune, and there wasn’t even a decent inn on the way.
The node was just a dollop of Here, less than an acre. The trees were sumac and winged elm, mostly; useless for timber. They’d make a fire or poles to tie a windbreak to if you needed it, but Beune was only a couple hours away so nobody needed to camp here if they knew the region.
I pointed to a couple lichen-fuzzed outcrops near the edge of the Waste. “If you line those rocks up,” I said, “and walk out about what feels like ten feet into the Waste, you’re in a spot where I find stuff pretty much every time I go out. Now, is your guide, your hedgehog, all right in the Waste?”
“I believe so,” Guntram said, “and I’ve stepped into the Waste also; but not often, and not going so far as you’re describing. It was more for the experience, you see.”
He coughed into his free hand; the hedgehog was in the crook of his left arm. “Will I be going alone, Pal?” he said. I won’t say he sounded afraid, but there was a degree of care in his tone.
“Not if things work out,” I said, grinning. “But if something happens and we get separated, I want you to be able to get back on the Road and home. All right?”
Guntram smiled. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said. The tone of his voice now made me think that that maybe I could’ve said that he’d sounded afraid.
“Now just stick close,” I said. “All we’re doing is showing you what it’s like, then we’ll go back to Beune.”
I slipped into Buck’s viewpoint; we walked into the Waste. Guntram was right behind me when I stepped off the Road.
The Waste doesn’t have a feel, except that your body starts getting warm as soon as you’re in it and the more you do, the warmer you get. I’ve seen people who were lucky to get back to the Road–or to Here. It stands to reason that there’s some who weren’t so lucky and their bodies are still in the Waste.
I wonder if they rot or they just hang there, like in a block of ice? I wonder if Guntram knows? I couldn’t ask till we were back on the Road.
I was using Buck’s eyes. We were following a crack in the streaky gray, not a thing really but… well, sort of like a fold that caught light a little different on one side than the other. Except there was no light either, just shades that Buck’s mind painted onto nothingness.
I couldn’t see Buck this way, but on my third step the outside of my left leg brushed his fur and I stopped. He knew where we were going.
I squatted down and swept my hands out slowly to my sides. I didn’t really expect to find something on the first try and maybe nothing in the whole trip, but hanged if I didn’t: my left hand brushed a piece the size of my fist.
Guntram touched my shoulder from behind.
This was the first time I’d taken somebody else into the Waste; I’ll tell you, I jumped. There’s bad things here, and the first thing I thought was that the mate of the Shade I’d killed had tracked me down.
Which made me feel like a dummy, though nobody but me knew what’d gone through my mind. Oh, well.
I turned Guntram’s palm up with my right hand, then brought the piece around in my other and put it into his hand. I touched Buck’s shoulder. He turned, giving me a look at Guntram for the first time: a man-high pillar of gray like a slumping snowman. We padded together back onto the node.
“That was easier than I’d feared it would be,” Guntram said, wiping his forehead with his sleeve before taking a closer look at the object we’d found. He looked at me sharply and added, “Pal, it wouldn’t have been easy without your presence. Thank you.”
I thought about Guntram quickly repairing the weapon he’d found in my collection of odds and ends. “I’ve done more of this sort of thing than you have,” I said with a grin. “Also, we were lucky. Pieces crop up here pretty regularly, but that doesn’t mean I find something right off the bat. And a good-sized one, too.”
“Indeed it is,” Guntram said. He slipped his hedgehog into a breast pocket–more of a sling, really–to free both hands for the object we’d found. He knelt, then looked up at me and said, “He’s used to sleeping like this.”
“He seems very comfortable,” I said. I didn’t think it was any of my business.
The find was three inches long and shaped like a fat spindle. A layer of crystalline matrix ran through it the long way. Guntram slipped into the piece, then came back out only a few seconds later.
“I think it’s a refrigeration device,” Guntram told me, “but I’d have to do considerable work before I could be sure.”
He coughed, then looked at me and said, “Do we go back into the Waste now, Pal?”
“We can if you like,” I said, “but I really came here just to show you what it was like. I’d as soon have something to eat and head on back. I’ve never eaten food from a converter.”
“Yes,” said Guntram. “There’s something back at the house that you’ll want to see.”
As I gathered twigs and leaves to feed into the converter, I thought about what Guntram had just said. He’d already shown me more than I’d learned in twenty years on my own.
The meal which flowed from the converter had the taste and texture of porridge with spices. It was filling and I’m sure was nourishing, but I won’t pretend that it was a patch on Phoebe’s cooking. Though it was better than mom’s.