According to his aching hip, it was going to be another cold snap. Maybe not the last one of the winter, but hope springs eternal. Big Jake “Grunt” Sedlacek stretched his six-foot-six frame, flipped the axe so that it stuck in the chopping block, and took a long, slow look around before stooping to pick and carry one last armload of firewood into the house. From the set of the stars, it was still another three hours before sunup. His was the only lit window, the antique coal oil lantern holding lonely vigil in the valley’s lower reaches. Fortunately, his cabin sat well apart from his neighbors, the separation sufficient to keep any of them from waking to the sound of splitting wood. Excepting only the perimeter watch, including Sentinel Peak outpost and whoever had drawn the short straw at Marshal Bledsoe’s office in town, Fort 24 slept in peace.
Would that such peace might find the abode of one Jacob Sedlacek, he thought grimly. Lying wrong on the slowly healing butt muscle might have launched him abruptly from his bunk a little after midnight, but it was the need to make a decision that kept the man awake thereafter.
Not that there was really any decision to be made.
Still, he could pretend to procrastinate until the great copper tub was filled with near-scalding water. Though the bathing facility was banked all around with rammed earth to keep the heat-conducting copper from cooling the water untimely, Grunt still yearned for a mate, a helpmeet, someone to keep a fresh kettle on the stove until it was needed to bring the tub back up to temperature. Not that there weren’t plenty of applicants for the position. Despite his age, despite the two small black marks on his cheek that marked him as a Survivor of Capriosi vilify, females from all over Fort 24 were interested. To them, Jacob Sedlacek was a catch.
It had taken the former Fort Steel slave, Gloria, to explain the matter. Not interested herself, or perhaps simply not considering herself worthy, she’d felt free to let the big man know where the bear dropped his scat in the woods.
“You’ve got all this mystique,” she’d explained. “Some of the ladies would up and marry you just to get your name, to be able to get listed as the wife of a Founder. Or of the most productive Trader the Fort has ever known, whether or not you ever go out again. Or…heck, Jake, there’s a ton of reasons. But the biggest thing is your charisma.”
“Say what?” He’d honestly had no idea what she was talking about.
“You’ve got this magic to you, Sedlacek. Shucks, I’m all dried up and not looking for no man, believe me, but even I feel it. One look at you and any girl with a hormone left in her body wants to fly into your bed.”
His eyebrows had risen at that; surely she jested.
But no. She was as serious as Fear Trace, that one. It had taken a time for him to see that she was right. He didn’t understand it, but now that Gloria had opened his eyes some, it was obvious that women tended to smile at him more than they did at most others. Smile, and flip their hair, stuff like that he’d never paid any attention before. How many signals had he missed over the years?
Not that he was ready. Not yet. Maybe never would be. Lord, Merry, how I miss you.
Not that all women cozied up to him. Not by a long shot. Now, that Michael, even when his face was still all pruney and he hadn’t near gotten his growth–probably still hadn’t–there was a fellow with charisma. Guy could have a harem in a heartbeat, if he wanted. Good thing he and Julia Gunderson are so wrapped up in each other, I guess. Those two were both disturbances in the Force when they were on the market.
He sighed long, deep, and hard as his body settled down into the steaming water. His clothes were piled on a wooden deck to his left, a short barreled shoot gun on a similar deck to his right, and the door was barred. For a man with his aches and pains, this was as close to Heaven as it got.
With relaxation came acceptance. His Trading days were over. Getting shot in the ass made for a functional excuse, one he finally admitted he appreciated. No one would question his retirement from the endless summer forays. That was important, not because he gave a rat’s bony behind what anybody thought about him personally, but if the rabble rousers in the valley could have accused him of staying around just to “babysit” the Native Americans at Weeping Widow Waterfall, they most certainly would have.
Curse their narrow minded bones to dust.
Red Horse’s people were salt of the earth. None better. But they were wise enough to be wary of the haters in white man country. Had one or two red men dared to ride into Lower Valley without a resident white escort, they’d have risked harassment at best, possibly assassination at worst. The Sedlacek men countered that, one or another of them, Jake or one of his three stalwart sons, visiting the Weeping Widow country nearly every day of the week. Grunt himself was needed in that rotation, but most of all he was needed as an intimidating presence in general, a force to be reckoned with throughout Fort 24. As long as he was right there, willing and able to stand up for the nomads, never more than a few hours away, the losers in town didn’t dare speak too loudly. Mutterings only, surly, slit-eyed resentment, but no more than that.
Were the old Trader and legendary Founder of Fort 24 to be hundreds of miles and many weeks away, things would go to hell in a hurry. He knew this, and as he soaked in great contentment, his skin parboiled to a pink so deep it was nearly red, Grunt faced the truth. This was his place now, and he would resign himself to his fate. He would dress in his finest buckskins later, carrying only his fanciest weaponry to the wedding. His son, Weston, and the dark haired beauty, Delana Havens, were getting hitched today at the Methodist church. The preacher was rather two faced, frowning on those who openly wore weapons inside the building while packing his own pair of Before derringers in shoulder holsters under his armpits, concealed by his coat. Grunt didn’t have much use for the man, but the Havens attended that church and their daughter did not wish to offend her parents until she was legally Weston’s.
The water was cooling all too rapidly despite the surrounding earth. Jake climbed out of the tub and padded to the stove, staying on the boardwalk to avoid soiling the soles of his feet but dripping all the way. He would pour this kettle full of boiling water into the tub and start one more to heat. His hip hardly hurt now, but he wasn’t done thinking.
Besides, slipping into hot water a second time felt almost as good as the first. He chuckled quietly. If this was the only hot water he got into from now on, he’d count himself a winner for sure.
Michael, he thought suddenly, how are things going for you?
There had been dreams of both young militants, images of this and that, but no easy interpretations. He would have to wait for news just like everybody else, Kiko and Lacey included. Both of those girls obviously had the hots for Michael. Never mind that Julia Gunderson had him sewed up tight now; they still wanted to hear he was okay. Or maybe that Julia wasn’t.
For a time, Jake Sedlacek thought no more, his snores practically rattling the cups on their hangers until the water cooled enough to wake him for Weston’s big day.
Michael threw the lever. The inner door to the William Johnson Schenk Library swung open smoothly, with remarkable ease. Wild Bill Carrington must have lubed the moving parts often; our Gunderson family’s main stable door, though sturdy and reliable, suddenly seemed mighty crude by comparison. The Before builders had really done themselves proud with this one, thick steel or titanium or who knew, anchored in the frame by five inch-thick steel bolts. An old school bank vault, basically. No one had the skill to produce something like that today.
Not that it looked much like a library.
Later, comparing notes, we would find it impossible to recall which first impression slammed our senses most strongly. Visually, we were looking at a great room with soaring arches supporting the ceiling above, floors of diamond-patterned marble in half a dozen colors, light from a plethora of narrow, tall windows that began well above head height but continued all the way to the ceiling. We’d seen those windows from the outside, of course, but their impact on the interior space was something else. Long tables of polished wood rested against both side walls between the arches, enough of them that this area must have served as the community mess hall when it wasn’t hosting a gathering of agitated residents. All in all, it made me think of nothing more than a ridiculously opulent cathedral getting ready for a potluck supper. There were no pews, but the good ladies of the faith would be arriving soon, bearing covered dishes and watching their men pull those tables out into the communal space, arranging them to hold the maximum number of sociable parishioners and plenty of casseroles.
My mate didn’t look nearly as impressed as I felt but he did put voice to Observation #2. “It’s warm in here!”
It did, and that was a mystery worth solving, one that had us shucking layers of clothing as we spoke, but it was not the most remarkable thing to strike my senses. All but one of the gigantic arches appeared to be made of rose colored granite, or some such, but the center arch…wow. Fully three feet square in its footprint, half again the size of the others even as it tapered to somewhat thinner dimensions toward the ceiling, it was…wow. “What,” I wondered, “could that be made of?”
Michael’s head swung to look where I was pointing. How he’d not already been captured by the arch’s beauty escaped me. Stone? Maybe, but like not any rock we’d ever seen or even heard about. To my senses at this distance, it “felt” harder than granite, smoother than marble, yet could not possibly be either. There was a soft sheen to it, almost as if there were a light within, radiating outward.
And it was multicolored, like a rainbow but not exactly.
Near the base ends, it was clearly green. Not dark like jade. Emerald, maybe, yet above it a similar band of soft pink took over. Where the two colors met, they somehow blended into one another without clashing or producing a third color so that it was impossible to tell where green left off and pink began, or vice versa. Any of the few artists I knew would kill to know that secret, and still the colors continued to shift. Above the pink, a softly glowing orange, then a sky blue that shifted to the only narrow band, a strip of violet deepening to darkest purple, somehow hinting of buried secrets and hidden violence of the lightning strike sort. I would not want to live there, I thought, whatever that meant. Finally, the top band, once again of “normal” width in a pale yellow somewhere between lemon and buttercream, contrasted sharply with its purple neighbor rather than blending as the others did.
It all meant something; I was sure of it. I simply didn’t know what.
Lost in contemplation of this miracle, this Before construction our age could never duplicate, I hadn’t paid attention to what my mate was doing. He’d eased over toward the left hand side of that rainbow arch. I barely noticed as he held his shoot gun in his right hand and reached out to lay his left palm on the arch.
“Yi-eee!” Michael jumped back as his adrenaline spiked, eyes going wide, hand jerking away from the pillar as if he’d been burned. “What the–”
He’d dropped his shoot gun, leaving it to clatter loudly on the marble floor, but no more loudly than the thundering beat of my heart as it threatened to shatter my eardrums from the inside. Both of my hands were now gripping my own weapon fiercely, a pure dee death grip.
Neither of us spoke for a good long while as we stared at the stone-that-was-not-stone arch, but I was first to find my voice. “Seems to want to talk to you, doesn’t it?”
He sucked in a deep breath, oxygen circulating right down to his toes. Let it out. “Yeah.” His voice cracked a little; I pretended not to notice. It wasn’t like my own heart wasn’t still hammering my rib cage. “Looks like it does.” He was obviously nerving himself up to touch the pillar again. That the effort took all of his attention was obvious; he left the shoot gun lying on the floor where it had fallen.
Which meant it was up to me to watch for any possible enemies that might pop out of the walls while he was focused on the rainbow. I kept one eye on what he was doing but forced myself back into warrior mode, turning, shifting, ready to shoot anything that needed shooting. You know, just in case.
He touched the rainbow rock. “Greetings, pilgrims!” The voice boomed out again, starting over from the beginning. “Hah! Always wanted to say that! Whoo-ee, finally got this dadratted thing to work the way it was designed! Okay, okay, c’mon Bill, get your act together. Maybe somebody will hear this and maybe somebody won’t, but hey. If you’re listening, here’s the first things you need to know to make your life a little less miserable.”
The man’s voice–it was definitely male, a deep baritone at times but cracking now and then, sounded…old. Like the guy was eighty or something. Not that I’d seen any eighty year olds in my lifetime; our folk didn’t last that long these days. But if I had, I imagined that’s what they’d sound like.
“Okay okay okay. Here’s the deal. Man, how long’s it been since I heard my own voice? Not impressed, no indeedy, not one bit. But hey. Hey. If you’ve listening, you’ve touched the rainbow arch with your left hand, right?”
Your left hand right? Oh. Yeah.
“How do I know that? Hey, I know that ’cause that’s the go signal for this magical moment right here, see? You want to talk to me, or I mean me talk to you, whatever, you slap your left hand smack dab there on the comrite. That’s the pillar, see; it’s called comrite. I think. Or maybe comlight. Conright. Something. Anyway, ennyhoo, um, break contact with the left hand and this recording stops, but see, see, that’s gonna start from the beginning every time if you do that, and much as I love the sound of my own voice, hah! Hah! Much as all that, I’m a-bettin’ you’re the impatient sort and want to keep moving on, head ’em up, move ’em out, Raw HIDE! Now don’t go quitting on me yet, y’all, ’cause you need to know this, you see? If you put your right hand on the pillar, too, that creates or sets up or whatever, makes a current run between your two hands and oh boy I’m rambling on here. So anyway, slap your right hand on there while the left hand is still on there, see, and and then stand on your head and tickle your toes, no, that ain’t right, um, both hands on, pull both hands off simultaneously, that means at the same time, and bingo, got yourself a place marker. So the next time you want to start the old girl up, slap that left hand on there again and away you go, right from where you left off.
“Now, you always gotta start the old girl up with the left, see, but once you put both on there, if you take one hand off rewind back or the other hand off and it’ll go forward and fooey, man, it’s a lot easier being a soldier than a teacher, I can tell ya! Not that soldiers don’t teach, but you know what I mean or maybe not. Now where was I?”
The recording stopped. Michael had done the double-hand turnoff maneuver. “Gotta be old Wild Bill,” he muttered to himself. I was reasonably certain he’d forgotten I was in the building. “Gotta be. Crazy as ten tomcats following a girl kitty in heat. Hon,” he raised his voice, “you getting all this?”
“Kinda sorta maybe.” I walked over to join him at the pillar.
“Yeah.” He grinned, shaking his head. “Me too. Ready for more?”
“Born ready.” I gave him a shaky grin. Hearing the legends about Before magic was one thing, experiencing a touch of it quite another.
Michael settled in, standing comfortably this time, feet at shoulder width and a gleam in his eye. My man was crazy. Bill started out with a coughing fit, hacking and spitting from the sound of it, old man phlegm. Nasty.
“Ah. (throat clearing sounds) Now where was I? Why yes, inputting into ye olde comrite, um, library. Whoever you are, if you exist and are hearing this, you must have seen the sign outside identifying this here building as the William Johnson Schenk library, but do you see any books? Nary a one, I’m betting, least if you’re pillar-palming this info. So where are they? Let met put it this way. There are four separate stairwells behind four separate doors, you figure out which ones. They go up and they go down and in the walls go round and round. Second floor is where you’ll find the written word, all organized alphabetical by subject matter, like apples and zebras and in between mebras. Digital’s done for, Crazy Bill saw that coming long before it hit, so it’s all hard copy. Don’t ask me how Brie done it, I’m no librarian, but done it she did.
“Then there’s the armory, that’s here on this floor but hidden between the interior walls you see before you and the fortress walls on the outside. You’ll need the keys for that, and when I die I’m laying the key ring under my bony bottom, so you’ll need to shift a few more bones to get ’em. Comm room’s on this floor, but it won’t do you much good. Satellites were all down even before Shenck shucked the mortal coil, ham radios went last but they sure ’nuff went, nothing left to comm with if you know what I mean.”
Michael stopped the recording again. “No,” he shook his head, frustrated, “I don’t know what you mean, Bill. What’s a saddle-ite? And ham radios? Pigs talk on them or what?” His expression turned thoughtful. “Teacher said something about zebras, I think. Seem to remember that. Stripey critters shaped like a cross between horse and donkey. But mebras? Dijitulls? Does all that make sense to you, Jules?”
No. Of course it didn’t. I found myself wishing Grunt had come with us. He’d know the language Wild Bill spoke.
It went on like that for an hour. Two hours. Three. Four. And still the loquacious Mr. Carrington–that had to be who he was–seemed in no danger of wrapping things up on the comrite tech. The sun was low in the afternoon sky when we called it quits for the day. Frigid outside, especially after the cozy warmth inside. One more night back at our campsite, then it would be time to go exploring for real. The last nugget of information we’d gleaned from the dead man’s voice was priceless, more than enough to keep us from worrying about how the library got its heat.
As seen from the street, the Schenk Library was barely the tip of the iceberg. Below the visible fortress, at least according to the crazy old dead man, reinforced tunnels radiated out in every direction like the spokes of a wagon wheel. Some of them supposedly led to hidden exits that surfaced in various parts of the city. We were guessing that one of those exits, if they really existed and weren’t mere figment’s of a demented old ghost’s imagination, might be somewhere inside the park where we’d camped. But could that be true?
One way or the other, but we had to find out.