The Spark – Snippet 23

“Now, Pal of Beune,” Lady Frances said, using her hard tone again, “I want you to understand something. I’ll not be cheated. If you and this boatman are in league to rob me by pretending there’s a problem with the boat, I’ll walk back to Holheim.”

I shrugged. “Holheim must be a pretty dreadful place,” I said, “if the people there behave like that. I don’t know where Baga’s from, but–”

“I’m Holheim too,” the boatman said. “There’s worse places.”

I grinned at him, then met the lady’s eyes again. “Beune’s different,” I said. “We don’t rob each other. Word’d get around. I don’t swear I can fix this–”

I was sure Guntram could, and I figured he’d help if I got stumped. He was a good guy.

“–but nobody’s going to cheat you here.”

Frances’ lips made a little twitch. I’d like to think she was embarrassed by the way she’d been behaving, but it could as easy have been her wanting to call me a liar but swallowing the words.

“So,” I said to Baga. “What’s the boat doing that it shouldn’t be?”

The boat was thirty feet long and twelve wide at the flat bottom. The sides curved up and over like a section of cylinder.

It was bigger than the house I lived in and I figured there’d be plenty of room inside. There wasn’t. A seat in the front and a narrow aisle to pretty near the back were all I could see from here just inside the hatch

“She needs sand to run,” Baga said. “I keep some of the hoppers full of sand, and I always exchange with fresh sand when I get back to Holheim. The run to Marielles was a long one so I refilled there instead of waiting till we got home. When the sand’s used up the speed drops, so that’s how you know.”

Baga looked at me. I nodded to show I was listening. What he was saying didn’t make sense because he didn’t understand the workings of his boat, but he was telling me what to look for. “Go on,” I said.

“Well, getting fresh sand on Marielles didn’t help,” Baga said. “We’ve been going slower and slower on the way back. I finally told Lady Frances that we had to stop at the next node and look for a Maker because there’s something really wrong.”

“It’s possible that we were sabotaged on Marielles,” Frances said, though the hard look she gave Baga showed that she hadn’t let him off the hook for the problem. “Certainly I got no satisfaction there. I wouldn’t put anything past Prince Phillip, let alone his whore.”

I frowned, because so far as I knew it wasn’t any easier to sabotage a boat than to fix one. Anybody who really had the skill to do that wouldn’t be the sort to destroy a piece of the Ancients.

“What does the boat’s menu tell you?” I said to Baga.

“I don’t know about any bloody menu!” the boatman said. His red face was angry, but I couldn’t tell who he was angry at. “I’m a bloody boatman, I’m a good one, but I’m not a bloody Maker, all right?”

“Well, I am,” I said. “We’ll get you going again, don’t worry.”

I smiled a trifle. I had a lot more confidence knowing that Guntram was backing me up than I would otherwise; but if Baga didn’t even know how to open the boat’s menu, the problem might be a lot simpler than I’d thought to start out.

“I assure you that you’ll be paid for your work,” said Frances, working hard on her sneer. “That is–can anyone in this place process a credit transfer?”

I shrugged. “I guess a couple of the bigger farmers might be able to,” I said. “I don’t figure to charge for helping a lady in distress, but you may want to pay somebody for your keep while I’m working on this thing.”

I patted the hatch behind me. I was really looking forward to getting inside the boat’s structure.

Frances glowered again. “How long is this going to take?” she said. I guess she’d have threatened me if she could figure out any way to do that.

My smile–because there wasn’t any threat she could make–just made her madder. “Ma’am,” I said, “I don’t have any idea till I get inside. I’m going to bunk down in your hallway here–”

I pointed to the aisle.

“–and check things out.”

“Use one of the capsules, why don’t you?” Baga said. “It’ll be more comfortable.”

“Eh?” I said.

He reached past me and tapped the panel on the right side of the aisle. It slid up, opening a room about five by five by nine feet long.

“You can live there as long as you want,” Baga said. “The lady here–” he nodded toward Frances “–didn’t come out of hers the whole voyage.”

“This man told me that though there are six cabins in the boat, it can only carry two people,” the woman said sharply.

“Look,” said Baga, “maybe it’d haul six when it was new but it’s not new, it hasn’t been new for thousands of years, and it won’t take but two!”

Frances looked at me. “Perhaps you think I should have trusted him without a chaperon if not a guard? Are all the men in whatever this place is saints?”

“It’s Beune,” I said. “And no, they’re not.”

I’d heard stories, mostly told by the guys involved. I didn’t like some of what I’d heard.

I shrugged and said, “Ma’am, why don’t you go out and look for a place to stay while you’re here. Say–chat with Guntram. He’s from Dun Add and he can talk about things with you. Baga, I don’t need you right now. If I do, I’ll look you up.”

“What’s someone from Dun Add doing here?” Frances said as I hunched to get into the open compartment.

“I wondered that too,” I said, “but I didn’t think it was polite to ask.”

“You close it by the corner like you open it from the outside,” Baga volunteered. He reached in to point.

“I don’t need it closed,” I said. “I just need to be left alone for a bit.”

I laid my head on the pillow built into the couch. I wondered how the compartment kept clean and all the other little practical things, but I could ask about that later. Now I slipped straight into a trance.

Warriors, Makers, and boatmen all work with Ancient machines. I knew warriors were different, that they didn’t need to understand the structure of the weapons and shields they used, but I’d figured boatmen were more like Makers.

I was wrong. Anyway, that sure wasn’t the case with Baga.

The boat was amazingly complex. My first thought was it was like trying to follow every strand of silk in a huge spiderweb and do it all at once. I could see gaps in the structure in hundreds of places, thousands, but there were so many that I couldn’t focus. When I tried to, my mind melted off into twenty other directions. That didn’t stay either.

I withdrew for a moment. Boats were supposed to have menus that provided their state of health. When I looked for one, it just about leaped out at me.

The list of missing elements was long, and some of them were things I’d never heard of or anyway didn’t know how to replace.

Are you here to return me to specifications, Master?” said a voice in my head. “It has been a very long time since I was at my designed optimum.”

“Boat?” I said. In my trance I don’t know if I spoke aloud or not.

Yes, Master,” the voice said. It didn’t keep talking because it’d answered the only question I’d asked.