Light on Shattered Water


          "Morning and waking!"
          I groaned into the mattress.  Light flooded the room and I felt it burn through my eyelids and ricochet around in my skull.  I groaned again and pulled the heavy sheets over my head.  A second later they were yanked off completely and I cried out in protest as the shock of the morning air hit me.  "How are you feeling?"
          "Shyia," I growled through clenched teeth.  "You shit!"
          The Rris grinned at me and laid his ears down.  "That's a swear, isn't it?  Shit?" It was an English word that could have been designed for their mouths.  "I'll take it that means you are feeling better." He cocked his head then, "You don't look it though."
          "It's called a hang-over," I grimaced as I sat up and clutched my head.  Shit.  What proof was that wine?
          I've never drunk a lot.  I don't have much of a tolerance for alcohol so it doesn't take much to get me sloshed and once I am, I'm a loquacious drunk.  As Hirht had found last night.  What had we talked about?  More to the point, what had I talked about?  What had he heard?
          Had he known?  How could he?
          "Hang over?" Shyia was asking.  "What do you mean?"
          I shivered, goosebumps forming.  I rolled over and swung my legs out, grimacing as the changes in blood pressure did things in my head.  "You know... you drink too much..." I trailed off and blinked at him.  "You never feel like this after drinking too much?"
          "If you mean feel as bad as you look, then no."
          "Lucky bastards," I grumbled in English.  Hirht hadn't seemed even the slightest bit tipsy.  How many refills had I had?  A lot more than him.  I remembered him sitting and watching me, nursing his drink for hours, every now and then dipping his tongue to sip.  Had that been his intention all along?  I felt like a fool.
          And a part of me wanted to crawl back into that bottle and curl up and stay there.
          A heavy cotton tunic of Rris manufacture landed on the bed beside me, drawing me back to the now.  "Put it on, before you freeze," Shyia told me.  "Your food should be here presently.  Aesh Smither wants to meet with you and Chaeitch ah Ties first thing this morning, so you won't have much time to eat."
          God.  Work.  I felt like throwing up again.  I hunted through my meager wardrobe for pants, coming up with a pair of jeans.  The old bloodstains were still quite visible but there was nothing else available.
          "Mikah?" Shyia had flicked the laptop on and now was staring at the desktop.  I'd forgotten about the wallpaper of Lona showing her assets; both of them.  "What's this?"
          "A woman," I told him.
          "Oh.  Yours." He cocked his head at the screen.
          He looked up at me.  "Not yours.  Who then?"
          "An... actor."
          "So why did you put it here?"
          "I wanted to see a pretty face," I told him, pulling the jeans on and when I looked up again he was still studying me, then used a dainty clawtip to flip the machine off, seconds before the scratch at the door heralded breakfast.  It was fairly unmemorable: chunks of unidentifiable meat in a heavy gravy - almost a stew - along with solid, fresh-baked bread.  I forced a bit of it down, not really hungry.
          The ride to the workshops on the docks was the same.  The same coach, a pair of humorless guards I didn't recognize who watched me steadily.  It didn't do anything for my hangover, the racket of the wheels on cobblestones going right through my skull.  I tried dozing and surprised myself, waking with a jolt of adrenaline when a guard poked my knee with a clawtip to say we'd arrived.
          Things had changed in the workshop.  It was more cluttered than ever with more workers, more equipment.  Some of the new lathes had arrived and had been set up.  They were Rris-built devices, requiring two Rris to power the treadle turning the shaft, but the bits and cutting blades were of improved carbon steel.  They weren't precision devices, but accurate planes for planing machines were being worked on.  A Rris steam engine to turn the lathes was also on the schedule, but that was a few weeks off.
          Down near the slipway the hull of the test vessel nestled among its supports while Rris workmen caulked seams and seals around the driveshaft.  The prop was new, bronze gleaming like metallified fire in the sunbeams that found their way through the dusty windows up near the roof.  About half a meter in diameter it hung below the stern like a whale's family jewels.  The heart of the test shell was being fitted with an older model Rris engine.  A hoist system was lowering the boiler down to where five mechanics were waiting to connect the tubes to the engine.  Keep the thing in manageable modules had been a suggestion of mine; we were going to use the Rris engine just to test how well the screw worked while in the meantime the improved engine was locked to its testbed.
          "How long?" Rraerch aesh Smither asked.
          "That's a rather personal question," I said.  Chaeitch snorted a laugh and Rraerch's head whipped around to stare at me.
          "I think that was his idea of a joke," Chaeitch provided.
          "I hope so.  I meant," she said with a penetrating look at me, "How long until the first test."
          "Ah," Chaeitch leapt in there, I was coming to realize that this was what he lived for.  "Another two weeks.  Twenty days at the most.  I'm a bit worried about the seals on the pipes here.  With the pressure they're carrying there's a good chance they [something].  We won't let it run to exhaustion on the first trial, just lope a little.  The pipes will be changed when some of the machinery Mikah's given us designs for is finished."
          She looked uncertain.  "It's not going to explode?"
          "Shouldn't.  You want to take bets?" he smiled.
          Rraerch had a right to be worried.  There was going to be a lot of pressure built up in that thing and if it popped there'd certainly be damage, perhaps injury, hopefully not death.  The shipyard was her property and she was understandably reluctant to see it blown to pieces.  I wondered how Chaeitch had managed to swing this: partnered with someone with the industrial clout of Rraerch and backed by the financial resources of the monarchy.  He was brilliant with machinery, but as far as I could tell he had all the business ability of lint.  He must've had some lucky breaks somewhere.
          The new engine's test bed was a bulky wooden frame holding the mess of tubes and cylinders at the far end of the shed, opposite the hull.  Rraerch studied it, kneeling to study a seam we'd pegged as being particularly suspect.  I saw Chaeitch glance at her rump before crouching beside her, pointing out parts of the system's underbelly.
          "You're testing it in here?" she asked.
          "Next door," he said, referring to the other boathouse that was unoccupied at the moment.  "Out in the courtyard for the first tests.  Less to damage if something goes wrong."
          "You're expecting trouble?"
          He growled softly and rapped the boiler with the heel of his hand.  It rang with the timbre of hollow metal.  "I've learned not to expect anything with these things."
          She snorted.  "I remember that [something] with the engine you showed a few years back, the one with the loom."
          Chaeitch grinned at the memory and I had to keep reminding myself that didn't mean good humor in a Rris.  "I remember.  Did the fur on his arm grow back?"
          "[Something] if that happens with this," Rraerch said and glanced up at me, just a furtive look.  How much of my reputation was riding on this?  If the thing blew up, what then?
          "Hopefully it'll all go smoother," Chaeitch said.
          "Be easier for everyone," Rraerch grunted.
          They spent a while going over the engine.  Chaeitch was getting right into it and enthusiastically pointing out refinements, modifications he wanted to do, how it could be improved when the tools and materials became available.  Rraerch watched and listened, asked questions.  She was interested in knowing how these engines could be applied to ships and just how big Chaeitch thought they could be made.  What kind of range?  How much fuel did they have to carry?  How would that affect payload?
          They were questions we couldn't answer.  Not until we'd tested the engine to see just what kind of performance we got from it.
          "And there is no guarantee that this is the engine we'll want to put into ships," Chaeitch said.  "You've seen some of the other devices Mikah's people use.  There are a lot that are more powerful than this, but we can't build them.  We can't even make the machines to build them."
          "Will we be able to?"
          "I hope so," he scratched at his crotch.  "Problem is chemicals.  Mikah knows what they're called in his tongue, but that doesn't help us any.  Still, we've made some progress.  We've got a metal that cuts iron like you'd bite through bone.  Even cuts through steel.  Expensive to make, but worth it."
          She looked across at the lathes.  "The new tools?"
          "Ah." I saw his tail was fluffed out.  What did that mean.  Pleasure?  Whatever, he kept talking as he led her over to the machine area.  There were two lathes already there and several stacks of junk had been cleared away to make way for other tools.  The lathes were heavy beasts: the frames were single pieces of black cast iron, as were the gears and adjustment wheels.  The bits and shafts, however, gleamed with the specular highlights of polished metal.
          Chaeitch showed Rraerch the high points and listed some of the other power tools he wanted set up when the engine was put in.  The drills and saws and die presses.  Somewhere in the shed a bunch of workers began pounding rivets through sheet metal.  I winced and turned away as the hammering did horrible things with my hangover.  I sat down on the heavy wooden base a lathe was bolted to and rubbed my eyes.  Shit, I needed a drink.  The lathe had seen some heavy use recently, judging by the amount of shavings lying on the ground between my feet.  I just rubbed my throbbing temples for a while before noticing, then frowned and reached down to pick up a curled thread of metal.
          "Mikah?  What's the matter?"
          "Uh?" I looked up.  The Rris had stopped their conversation and were staring at me.  Rraerch's ears were back, the tip of Chaeitch's tail was ticking back and forth.  "Are you ill?" she asked, looking worried.
          "I'll live." I hauled myself to my feet.  "Too much to drink last night."
          Now she looked outright alarmed.  "You're drunk?"
          "No, no," I winced.  "It's called a hangover.  I just found out Rris don't get them."
          "I think I'm glad to hear it," Chaeitch said.  "Anything you need?"
          "Aspirin?" I asked.
          "Don't worry.  No, I'll live," I said.  "Just need some water."
          I knew they were watching me as I crossed the room to the water pitcher, dipped a ladleful out of it.  Still had that shaving of metal in my hand.  I sipped from the cup, weighed the metal in my other hand: We were still using mostly copper and cast iron, soft stuff.  Someone had been doing a lot of milling of a heavy low-carbon iron.
          I was pretty sure I knew what it was from.

          Warmer weather.
          Water dripped from icicles outside my window as the temperature rose above freezing for the first time in a long while in the heat of mid-afternoon.  Another heavy snowfall covered the brief melt, leaving a treacherous layer of ice under fresh-fallen powder and the next few days were freezing days of darkness under leaden gray clouds and driving snow.
          It blew itself out eventually.  One day there was blue peeking between scattered clouds, sunlight shining in my windows.  The next snowfall was half-hearted, the brief shower of semi-liquid slush spattering on the windowpanes and freezing when night came again.  In the town the roads were icy, the drifts subsided a few inches.  The metaphorical mercury rose over the next few days and when the afternoon sun shone, Shattered Water was filled with the sound of trickling water flowing along a thousand drains and streets, punctuated by the occasional crash as an icicle lost its hold.  The monochrome landscape visible from my window was changing as a few bold trees ventured forth early buds and shoots.
          My life didn't change.  I spent the days being shuttled from one place to another.  There were still questions and examinations at the university where Rris doctors all but took me apart.  The examination room was littered with charts and diagrams, sketches of various parts of my body pinned to the wall.  They gave me tests: hearing, sight, pricked me with pins to see how sensitive my sense of touch was.  Things like that.  It was impersonal and utterly humiliating.
          There were numerous interviews with Rris scholars, physicians, biologists, all trying to get as much as they could out of me.  I was asked about health and illness, diseases and healing, geography and astronomy.  They wanted to know everything they could and I tried to help, but it was like draining a bathtub with an industrial-strength pump: I just didn't know that much.  I could look it up on the laptop, then they complained that my answers didn't make any sense: they didn't have a base of reference.  For instance, the Rris who was trying to find out what governed individual characteristics - fur color, eyes.  I could tell him "DNA", but that'd be utter gibberish to him.  As would my best translation of the definition in my encyclopedia.  A lot of talking, a lot of queries and questions, but I never had many of my own answered.
          Down in the workshops things were a little easier.  I liked Chaeitch and I got the vague impression he liked me.  The workload was just as high, but it was of a more tangible nature.  Chaeitch and Rraerch introduced me to specialists, metallurgists, engineers, craftsmen and representatives from various guilds being contracted to supply equipment and materials.  There were more questions and elaborations, more problems they expected me to have the answers for.
          Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not an industrial engineer!
          I didn't have all the answers.  Not even close.  They wanted so much, so quickly: Metals, casting techniques and forges, die stamps, drills and saws... there were a dozen projects going on at once, with more springing up all the time.  When the Rris hit a problem they couldn't solve, they'd come to me.  Never-ending and frustrating; there was no such thing as a simple answer when each solution has to be explained, when you have to search for words to explain concepts they'd never heard of.  The laptop helped, but I was the one who had to go through the files and try to wrap my brain around the various subjects, trying to get enough of a grasp on the concepts that I could relay them on to the various Rris in my still-limited command of their language.  Even then, it couldn't tell me everything I needed to know.
          It rained.  For the first time in what seemed like years I heard actual rain drumming against the roof and washing snow from the streets and reducing drifts to icy piles of dirty slush.  And along with the changes in the season there were changes in the Rris I was working with: subtle things I didn't notice at first, but as days passed they got worse.  Rris workers were distracted.  There were careless mistakes, little things that several times blew up into arguments out of all proportion.  Once I asked Rraerch a question and I had to poke her shoulder to get her attention: she had the damnedest expression on her face, staring into space as if she wasn't all there.  It vanished with her laughter when I asked her what was wrong.  I didn't understand; she acted as if my question was a joke or something.
          That night was another of those restless ones:
          Night.  On the road.  Sheets of rain rippled across the windshield, battling against the wipers.  Lights from an oncoming car flickered through the car, warped and shimmering from the water, flashing across Jackie dozing in the passenger seat: pale skin and closed eyelids, an errant wisp of dark hair veiling her face.  The old radio hissed, Chaupin coming through the static.  More lights from behind.  I looked back to Jackie and screamed as the furry, misshapen shape blurred at me across the car and I saw and felt gleaming teeth closing on my face, screamed and flung my arms up and the whole car lurched:
          Woke tangled in sheets and furs.  The door was ajar, a wedge of feeble light cast across the carpet and the foot of the bed.  Outside, a gust of wind blew rain against the windows.  I jumped when a Rris silhouette moved in the darkness.  "Sir?"
          I sagged again.  One of my guards; I must've been making some noise.  Another dream.  They were getting to be all too common.
          "You were dreaming again, sir."
          "I noticed." I sat up.  I was shaking, a fine tremor in my hand.  I clenched my fist and the tremor ran up my arm.  "Shit."
          The guard hesitated, then said, "It's happening a lot.  Do you want something to help you sleep?"
          I looked up at the guard - anonymous and androgynous in the gloom - and shuddered at the thought of what a Rris-specific valium might do to me.  "No.  Thank you, no."
          A slight creaking as the guard shifted, then, "Sir, if you don't mind a question?"
          "Go ahead.  Ask."
          "What is... Jahk'hy?"
          What...?  I thought for a second, translating the Rris lisps into human consonants, then flinched.  The dark shape standing by my bed hadn't moved.  "Jackie?" I asked softly.
          "Ah... that was the noise."
          Snippets from the dream were still vivid; again I felt someone walk over my grave, "Where did you hear that?"
          "You call it sometimes, sir.  What is it?"
          I hesitated.  "A woman I knew."
          "A... woman." There was a hesitation.  "Your kind, sir?"
          "Ah.  Thank you sir." The sound of Rris feet on carpet and the light from the door was eclipsed, then a hesitation.  "Sir?"
          "Do you get... lonely?"
          Lonely.  The Rris word carries different connotations; it's as near a translation as I can come.  I looked up at the guard, a shadow backlit by the light from the door.  "Yes," I said quietly.
          "Sir," the guard ducked its head then closed the door.  I pulled the coverings back over myself and laid back, listening to the rain and wind outside.

End Light on Shattered Water 15