The Spark – Snippet 21

As a choice between the converter’s output and whatever dry food I’d have brought otherwise, I gave it high marks. Also the disk ran out clear water which we cleaned our bowls with as well as drinking. It tasted better than many springs and just about all the standing water I’d found along the Road to and from Dun Add.

Back home I placed my weapon on the table and hung the belt and my shield on the peg by the door. The new weapon didn’t have a mounting hook like my old one, but despite its high output, the electrode cooled off almost instantly after use. I’d touched it to the inside of my arm to be sure. I might make a proper holster for it, but for the time being I just carried it in the right pocket of my tunic.

Guntram brought something else out of his satchel: a bundle of rods six to eight inches long, extending from a round black base. I expected him to set it on the table, but he continued to hold it.

“This,” he said, “is a practice machine. We discussed them in Dun Add.”

“I remember you talking about them, sir,” I said, amazed. “Sir, should you have taken this from Dun Add?”

“And who is there, do you think, who has the right to give me orders, Master Pal?” said Guntram. His voice wasn’t loud, but it was as sharp as the crack of thunder before an autumn cloudburst.

I stiffened, remembering what May had said about this man. I said, “Sir. Not I, sir.”

“Forgive me,” said Guntram, softening back into the kindly man I’d been getting to know. “Jon and Louis are sure of their course and concentrate everything within close boundaries to get where they intend to go. I am less sure, and I think it worthwhile to cast my net rather wider.”

“Sir, Dun Add is none of my business,” I said, wishing that I’d kept that in mind earlier. “You know what you’re doing.”

“Yes,” said Guntram with a slight smile. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m correct.”

He cleared his throat and added, “Let’s go outside so that you can put this device through its paces, shall we?”

And me through mine, I thought. Well, that was what I needed–or would’ve needed if I’d been going to become a Champion.

“How badly were you injured when you fought Easton, Pal?” Guntram asked as we walked into the farmyard.

I finished buckling on the belt with my shield. “He didn’t break anything,” I said, “but that was mostly luck. I had the shield on low so I could move, but it must’ve helped some. The main thing is he cut behind because I was moving faster than he figured. I still feel it when I swing my left arm around, though.”

Guntram set the unit on the ground ten feet from where I’d stopped. He looked at me. “I suppose you realize that if Easton had been even slightly more skilled,” he said, “he would have killed you?”

“Do you think I cared!” I shouted, surprising myself. I hadn’t known that I was still so angry about what had happened in Dun Add. “Sure, I thought he might kill me. All I wanted was to get in one stroke, that was all. Being dead just meant I wasn’t humiliated any more!”

“Personally…,” said Guntram, stepping away from the device. “I would have regretted that result. But someone of my age is well aware that men die.”

I was suddenly facing a warrior with a nondescript dog, something with more terrier than Buck, who favored a hound/setter mix though there was a lot of breeds in him besides those. He was at my side.

I switched my shield on at low level and brought my weapon sizzling live. I went in.

My opponent swung overhand at my head. Almost before he moved, I saw the blow coming through Buck’s eyes: the whole track of the weapon was a shimmering fan in Buck’s prediction. I caught it in the air with my weapon and guided it down to my right without thinking: it was all part of Buck’s world for this moment.

My thrust back toward the top of the image’s breastbone was a reflex. The dummy figure vanished with a pop and a crackle.

I backed away and switched off my equipment. “Guntram?” I said. “Did I break it?”

“No,” he said, smiling. “The target shuts off when you achieve a kill. Which you did very neatly. Let me adjust this a little….”

Guntram’s right index finger wobbled in the air. I didn’t see anything there except a shimmer like heat rising from a black rock in sunlight.

“Now try it,” he said. “I want to see how good your weapon is, so I’ve run up the target’s shield.”

I was facing another armed figure. This one had blue clothing and a modular unit, with a booster collar around his neck that turned his head into a featureless ball.

I switched on again and advanced. To tell the truth, I was feeling cocky. I thrust straight for the base of the image’s throat.

He–it–met my stroke with his weapon. He didn’t push it aside as easy as I’d done the first dummy’s, but I felt the shock right up to my shoulder and my thrust missed the center of his chest.

When my weapon hit his shield the bang! was like a wall falling over and a blinding flash. His counterstroke slashed me at the base of the neck. It felt like a bucket of boiling water.

I must’ve blanked out, because I found myself on my back. The dummy stood, glowering facelessly down at me for a moment; then it vanished.

Buck whined and licked my cheek.

I switched off my shield and weapon; I’d been real lucky not to have cut my foot off when I went flying base over teacup. The burned feeling was fading.

I reached up and felt the place where the stroke had seemed to land. It didn’t hurt to rub.

“I think the rotor of your weapon was intended for a slightly smaller stator,” Guntram said, “so the maximum intensity of your stroke isn’t as high as it could be. Still, it’s very high, as you saw. I believe you could hold that output all day.”

I got up and nudged Buck. “What happened?” I asked, putting the weapon in my pocket.

“The device is intended to improve your skill as a warrior,” Guntram said. “Not to provide you with a straw man to knock down. If you behave like a fool, it will punish your foolishness.”

That hurt worse than the slap the machine had given me. I ducked my head and said, “Sir, I’m sorry.”

The old man smiled at me. “The device doesn’t do permanent injury,” he said. “You should be able to resume practice by now.”

So I did.


The next month went about the way the first day had. Guntram watched me practice on his device early morning and in the afternoon. After I’d worked up a sweat, we generally took a trip out on the Road to one or another of the nodes where I’d found objects in the past.

Twice we even prospected new sites according to a notion that Guntram had about currents in the Waste. We didn’t find anything there.

And we didn’t find much in the spots I’d flagged either, but mostly you don’t. One short tube, more of a ring really, that Guntram thought might’ve been part of a weapon; and another thing the size of my clenched fist that had to be something, but hanged if we knew what. We spent a lot of time getting inside it in the evenings after supper.

There were about a dozen families feeding us, at their houses or more often sending hampers along for us to eat on our own. Guntram charmed them. Folk who’d always been a little doubtful about the things I did as a Maker were next thing to bowing to Guntram–who was a thousand times more of a Maker that I could ever hope to be.

Guntram gave little things to the families who helped us, some that he’d brought–like the light he’d given Phoebe–but many things he made out of my scraps, glowing balls that hung in the air or a little disk that played tunes. I never heard it play the same music twice and I didn’t much like any of its choices, but it put Sandoz of Lakeshore and the three generations that lived on his big holding over the moon with happiness.

I didn’t think much about what was going to happen next. I was learning from a Maker who had taught the best even though he claimed he wasn’t the best himself’; I was learning how to use the wonderful weapon that I’d helped make; and for maybe the first time in my life, surely the first time since mom died, I wasn’t alone.

And then everything changed.