The Spark – Snippet 29
CHAPTER 11: On the Way
Buck wasn’t best pleased when the boat’s door closed behind him. He pressed close to my leg and whined, turning his head like he hoped for a way out. There wasn’t one.
The boat reminded him of the stables at Dun Add, I guess. Dun Add hadn’t been a good experience for either of us.
Baga sat down on the padded chair fixed to the far bow. He looked back over his shoulder at me and said, “Look, I’m going to try but if the boat’s as stiff as I figure it’ll be I’m going to land right away and either you or the lady get’s out. I mean it!”
“All right,” I said. There was only the one chair, but I could sit cross-legged in the aisle if I got tired of standing. I didn’t feel like going into a compartment.
One of the six was closed up already. “Do you suppose Lady Frances wants to watch as we start off?” I said.
“You can ask her if you want,” Baga said. He’d placed his hands flat, the fingers spread on the counter in front of him. “And if you can figure out how to ask her. She went straight into the room when I boarded and said she was going to lock herself in.”
“I guess not, then,” I said. “I’m ready when you are.”
I dug my fingers into the long fur on Buck’s neck and started kneading the skin. I didn’t know how he was going to react to the boat moving. I didn’t know how I was going to feel about it either, which was an even better reason to keep close to my dog.
I could’ve opened up the lady’s compartment easy, by going through the boat in a trance. There was a mechanical bolt on the inside and Frances might’ve thrown that, but I was pretty sure she didn’t know about it. It looks like a piece of whirly ornament. I wouldn’t have noticed it myself if I hadn’t seen it highlighted in the boat’s schematics.
I wasn’t going to do that. Frances had gone from Holheim to Marielles already and then back to here. She wasn’t going to see anything new to her, and it was her business if she didn’t want to be sociable.
I didn’t see Baga do anything. Nothing felt different to me, but Buck gave a curious whine. I seated myself beside Buck and dropped into a trance.
The staggering web of connections didn’t overwhelm me as it had when I first observed them: working beside Guntram had shown me that it was all knowable, even if I didn’t know it yet and might not live long enough to understand it all.
Nothing I saw around me now was any different from what it’d been on Beune, so I said, “Boat? Are we travelling?”
“Yes, Master,” said the boat. “We are on our way to Marielles.”
After a moment, the voice added, “Here is the control panel.”
A schematic in red overlaid the linkages of the boat’s structure. A bright spot moved along a line; it was sort of like watching ants walking up the side of a building to get to the pie cooling on the window ledge. The spot didn’t move fast.
“We will arrive at Marielles in three days and an hour,” the boat said, “plus whatever time the boatman rests on the way. Based on his performance in the past, I expect that will add twelve to sixteen hours to the total elapsed time. Is there anything else you wish me to tell you, Master?”
If I’d been talking to the boat in my body, I would’ve smiled. “Baga is your master, boat. I can’t make you move. I just watch.”
“Baga is the boatman, Master,” the boat said. Then it said, “Though you cannot direct me, you are capable of seeing the display which the boatman sees.”
Before I had time to respond, I was surrounded by black and gray verticals through which I was racing. Though the original schematic had shown our track as a straight one, this image was like a stand of gray bamboo that I was zigzagging through. That was really weird, because you can’t run through a stand of bamboo unless you’re as thin as a cane yourself.
I hadn’t asked for what I was seeing. I wouldn’t have known what to ask for. I wondered if the days I’d spent working on the boat and in the boat had taught it as much about me as I’d learned about it. Anyway, it’d been volunteering information to me and Guntram since the second or third day.
I was beginning to see specks of dull red in the gray background. “Boat?” I said. “What’s the red?”
“The lights you see as red,” the boat said, “are nodes which are part of Here. If the boatman were to direct me toward one of them, as he directed me toward Beune when my systems were running down on my return from Marielles, we could land there.”
I shivered. There wasn’t any reason, it just happened.
“There are nodes which are of Not-Here in the Waste,” the boat said. “I cannot see them, but I sense them when I pass through. And you sense them also, Master.”
My brain was full of what I’d learned and what I hadn’t really learned but was hanging there just beyond what I knew, shadows in the darkness I could almost see.
“Thank you, boat,” I said. “I’m going to have something to eat now.”
But the real truth was that I needed to digest those thoughts and not-quite-thoughts. I suppose I could’ve said that without hurting the boat’s feelings, but for politeness’ sake I didn’t.
After my first meal from the boat’s converter, I decided to work on the menu. I’d requested mutton stew. The result looked like thin mud, which was all right, but it also tasted more like mud than I liked. I didn’t doubt that it’d keep body and soul together, but it seemed to me that it could taste better and still be healthy.
The trouble is, I didn’t know anything about food or cooking. Mom hadn’t been very good–chops broiled dry, over-boiled vegetables, and burnt pasties were most of what I remembered–and I hadn’t been interested in cooking myself.
I wished Phoebe was here or at least that I’d got her to help me while we were in Beune, but Guntram and I had been busy with what we thought were more important jobs. Like I say, I don’t make a big thing about food, but “importance” didn’t mean quite the same then as it did now when I was facing three and more days of drinking mud.
I wondered if Baga knew anything about cooking. It didn’t seem likely. Besides, he must be used to the boat’s converter after years of eating from it.
Frances didn’t seem like a cook either, and I wasn’t going to disturb her anyway. Let her think she was safe from me in her room if she liked.
Well, she was safe. Just not for the reason she thought.
I remembered that Guntram had done something about the wine because he’d told Frances that he would. I hoped she was pleased with it–and I wished it had occurred to me to ask him about the rest of the menu.
Still, there was one more place I could go for help. I slid into a trance again.
Boat,” I said. “The food isn’t very good and I don’t know how to make it better. Do you have other meals in your files that we can try?”
“Master, you and your fellow have returned my systems to optimum condition,” the boat replied. “You did not reset the converter menu, however. Its current settings reflect the degraded condition in which it had been operating before your repairs. Would you like me to return the menu to its original settings? You will still be able to modify it according to your personal preferences.”
“Boat, I’d like that a lot,” I said. “Thank you!”
I wasn’t exactly hungry, but the original mutton stew hadn’t encouraged me to eat very much. The new version was great, the best I’ve ever had, and Buck liked it too.
I slept in a room with the door open–that was where Buck curled up most of the time too–but when I was awake I stood or sat in the aisle. It was confining–I usually get a lot of exercise–but it wasn’t boring because I spent most of my time in the boat’s structure.
I could be inside the structure six hours out of eight–that was about what I averaged–for the rest of my life and I still wouldn’t have learned everything about it. I’d know a lot more when we arrived on Marielles than I had when we left Beune, though; and there was a lot I was learning that’d make me a better Maker generally.
Maybe Guntram’d been right when he said I could have repaired the color projector. I remembered structures that’d baffled me; now that I saw how similar structures were completed in the boat, they made sense.
Well, maybe I’d find another fragment like the one he’d gone off with. I’d like to repair one myself and give it to Guntram, to show how much working with him had taught me about how to teach myself more.
The second day out, Lady Frances opened her room. I wasn’t in a trance, though I was about to go into one. I looked at her and said, “Hello, ma’am. Is your wine all right?”
I wasn’t sure we’d remembered to tell her after Guntram tried to fix the taste. It’s the same as not doing it if you don’t tell the other guy what you’ve done.
“Yes,” she said. She stuck her head out the open side but her body was still in the room. “Quite satisfactory, thank you. And did he improve the meals as well?”
“That was me,” I said, feeling proud of myself. “Well, it was the boat, really. I just asked it for help and it fixed things. The food really was awful before, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Frances. Her tongue touched her lips. “I thought I should thank whoever was responsible. I don’t want you to misunderstand, though: even though I’ve opened my compartment for the moment, I have a knife–”
She brought her right hand into sight. The knife had a four-inch blade with a double edge.
“–and I’ll use it if I have to!”
“You won’t have to, ma’am,” I said. “And the boat says we’ll be on Marielles in two days.”
I turned my head. Buck heard us talking and came out of our room. He tried to stick his nose under my right arm; I rubbed the back of his neck.
“Ah, ma’am?” I said, looking up at Frances again. “There’s a mechanical lock on your door. See beside the upper left corner of the door? Your left. It looks like a twisty star–that’s it. If you turn it, the door can’t be opened except by you.”
She looked where I’d said, but her eyes kept flicking back to me like she thought I was trying to trick her. I kept rubbing Buck’s neck. He liked it and I figured it made me seem as harmless as could be. That’s what I was, after all.
When Frances turned the star with her left hand, paired lugs pushed out from the jamb. If the door had been closed, they’d have slid into mortises.
“But I’ve been locking it,” Frances said, frowning.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “But I’m a Maker. The mechanical lock doesn’t go through the boat’s systems, so I can’t touch it.”
“I see,” said Frances. Her voice had no expression at all in it.
She went back inside her room. After a moment, she closed the door.
It was less than two days after that when the boat told me that we were arriving on Marielles. I came out of my trance just as Baga stood up to open the outside door.