I awoke some time later in one of dormitory buildings at the Academy, laid out on a bed. There was a certain sense of not being alone, and when I was lucid enough to turn and look around, I saw a rather heavyset man in a red robe on the other side of the room, doing something at a desk. His back was to me, but I knew who it was.
“Gerald,” I said, barely above a whisper.
The man turned, then smiled. “Welcome back, Paul.”
My throat was way too dry. “Water.”
He got up and left, then came back with a tin cup filled with water. I reached out and took it, my hand a bit shaky as I forced myself to sit up a little and take a few swallows. Then I looked over at him. “What happened?”
Gerald looked down at me as I lay there. “Apparently there was an accident with a piece of machinery, and your leg was cut up, and you passed out.”
“No, no, I remember that part. But why are you here?”
He laughed warmly. “You’re very lucky,” he said. “Before you went unconscious, you requested that they not use magical healing on you. They interpreted that as you being dysalmic. And while the healers were doing what they could, one of the researchers remembered that Mr. Stark had caused quite a stir around here a few years back when he showed up with a man who just happens to be one of the kingdom’s foremost experts on the healing arts.”
“What’s dis-armic?” I slurred, still not feeling completely awake.
“Dysalmia is a rare condition in which, to greatly simplify the concepts involved, a person’s soul exhibits severe allergic reactions to magic spells, including healing.” He chuckled. “It’s actually one of the various theories going around the Circle as to the nature of Paul Twister’s unique ability: he’s a dysalmic who has somehow found a way to control his disability and turn it into a weapon.”
I nodded slowly, not quite absorbing all that, but I could follow it well enough. “And why am I here?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Hmm?”
“I passed out from blood loss. You don’t have the science to heal something like that, and…” suddenly I realized just how badly my leg did not hurt. Combined with the slight not-quite-with-it-ness in my head, that meant I was on some sort of painkiller, or the alchemical equivalent.
He shook his head. “You passed out from shock and pain. The wound was ugly and messy, but not particularly severe. Like I said, you were very lucky. You should be back on your feet within a week or so.”
Very lucky. That’s kind of a funny thing. Having him around and having the injury be less bad than it seemed sure looked like a good thing. Getting me up and about without extended downtime due to convalescence was obviously desirable… right?
But if I’d been laid up for two weeks, rather than one, this whole mess would have never happened, or at least not to me.
“So I didn’t lose very much blood?”
He nodded slowly. “Nowhere near enough to threaten your life, but enough to make quite a mess.”
I groaned. “I don’t suppose you could find a way to procure some red meat? I’m gonna need the iron.”
“Iron?” He gave me a quizzical look. “The metal?”
Oops. I shouldn’t have said that. I blame the mental fuzziness brought on by whatever potion he had me on. “Umm… forget I said that. Just… red meat?”
Gerald scowled and leaned forward, looming over me slightly. “You know I have a great deal of respect for you, and our friendship means a great deal to me, but this habit you have of acting as some sort of arbiter, deciding what knowledge we are worthy of and what we are not, is beyond irritating at times.”
I resisted the urge to snap at him. Instead I just sighed a little. “I will tell you about iron, then, if you truly want to know, but be warned: this knowledge will be your burden to bear, and what I say does not leave this room, on pain of dragonfire.”
His eyes widened; he knew exactly what that meant. He got up and closed the door, then cast some sort of spell. “No one will overhear. What does iron have to do with… that which has been forbidden? Or with blood or red meat, for that matter?”
Might as well just get it over with. “Your alchemy has disproven the ancient notion of the four elements of matter, right?” Gerald nodded. “You understand that water is still fundamentally water, for example, whether ice, liquid, or vapor, and that substances are changed from one fundamental thing to another by reacting with each other?” Another nod. “Well, the thing you still have wrong is that elements do exist.”
He narrowed his eyes slightly. “That’s archaic madness; only substance exists.”
“And you change one form of substance into another. But has any alchemist managed to find a reaction that changes any base metal into gold yet?”
“No, but there are many formulas we have not found yet.”
I chuckled. “You may as well give up the search. There aren’t four elements; there are dozens of them, including most of the pure metals. While it’s true that on one level, only substance exists, transmuting that substance from one elemental form to another is more trouble than it’s worth. That’s the burdensome part, actually. On my world, it was less than half a century between discovering the truth of the nature of substance and elements, and building weapons based on the principles involved, terrible weapons. I once saw Patrick Hill prepare a magical device that would create a fireball large enough to destroy an entire house. But there exists a certain elemental metal with properties that, when invoked, can create a fireball large enough to destroy an entire city.”
He looked horrified at the thought. “Iron can do this?” he asked in a disbelieving whisper.
I drank some more water. “No, nor any common metal our smiths would know. But it does exist, and I’ll speak no further on the subject. Substance and the elements are not to be trifled with, and I have no desire to introduce those principles here until I’m convinced that it is safe to do so.”
“Then… what of iron?”
“It’s one of the elements, and necessary in small amounts. You know how iron, left exposed to the air, will rust? The body produces a certain material, made from iron and other materials, that is kept in the blood. It gathers air from the lungs and transports it throughout the body to be used as needed. If I’ve lost blood, I need to replace the iron in order to recover. Other materials can be constructed from the food I eat through my body’s internal alchemy, but as iron is an element, it can’t be built, only reclaimed.”
He chewed on his lip. “This is quite a lot to take in all at once. And red meat contains iron… because it has blood of its own? But herd animals do not eat meat; where do they get it from?”
“Plants. There is a certain small amount of iron in most soils, and cattle can absorb it from their food better than we can. Their guts are able to digest fibrous material far more efficiently than ours.”
He nodded slowly. “So, a diet rich in red meat will help victims of blood loss recover more quickly. That’s one good thing to know, though I’ll agree I’d like to not know the rest.” He hesitated, then looked at me. “You use weapons such as this?”
“We built them. They have only been used once. My nation destroyed two great cities of an empire that waged war against us, to force them to surrender and lay down arms quickly. It was believed that that was actually less horrible than the deaths that would be caused by continuing the war and fighting it out to its natural conclusion. Or at least, that was the reason they gave when called upon to justify their acts. Since then, we build them only to have them, so that no other nation would dare to wage war against us.”
“Gods, spirits and demons!” he whispered under his breath. “Never have I been so glad of our success against Ken’tu Kel’s plan. He would have united our peaceful realm with a world gone mad!” He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. “I will find some steak for you… and some strong brandy for myself!” I looked over and noticed his hand shaking slightly.
I nodded. “And can you send in the researcher who built the device that injured me? I’d like to speak with him.” He looked hesitant, so I said, “I’d like to speak with him. I’m not going to cause him any trouble.”
He left, and after several minutes the young researcher walked in, looking very nervous.
“What’s your name, lad?” I asked him. “I don’t believe I caught it, before.”
His hands were shaking too. “Simon Jacobsen, Mr. Stark. And I- I must beg your forgiveness for what happened.”
I nodded slowly. “I bear you no ill will, Simon. So tell me, what happened?”
“One of the blades fractured–I don’t know how–and the unbalanced rotation caused the device to fall, and it cut you.” He bit his lip. “The blades weren’t particularly sharp, so it must have been the jagged edge of the broken one that sliced into your leg.”
“Perhaps,” I mused. “But even a relatively dull table knife can cut flesh if there’s a bit of force behind it. So, what can we learn from this?”
He thought about it for a few moments, still looking nervous. “It’s important to check the blades for material wear before subjecting them to stress?”
“That’s a good idea. But even then, accidents will happen, and things will go wrong. What then? How to prevent an accident from becoming a tragedy?”
He thought some more, considering ideas. “Make the material of the blades from something softer, such as well-dried parchment. But that would be less stiff and less resilient against stress as well. Or devise a way that the effects of a failure would be reduced.” I stayed silent, letting him work his way though it. “The obvious answer is to contain the blades, but enclosing them would restrict the flow of air, rendering the device useless. A cage, then?”
He looked over at me and I nodded slightly. “Go on.”
“Placing the blades inside a… birdcage of sorts, made of steel bars, would ensure that air can flow, but large pieces of metal could not escape.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” I said. “If I may offer an additional suggestion?”
He just nodded.
“Make the bars close enough together that a person could not stick a finger through them, and then also make the cage large enough that, even if a person could squeeze a finger inside–if a bar came loose, for example–he would have to slide it deeper than the length of one finger before he could touch the spinning blades. That way, you have two distinct methods of keeping a person safe, either of which on its own ought to be sufficient to protect people.”
He nodded again. “That’s a good idea.”
“It is. In fact, I think that should be a principle for all our engineering. Anything potentially dangerous should have at least two distinct safety principles built in to keep the unwary from harm.”
Simon chewed on his lip. “The cage could not be permanent, of course. It would need to be removable so that the blades could be serviced. What if someone turned it on with the cage opened?”
I rolled my eyes at him. “I think it’s a bad idea to try to engineer your way around willful stupidity. The world will simply out-engineer you and produce somebody stupider than you planned for. But preventing easily foreseeable problems is our honor-bound duty as engineers. However, having said that, perhaps the cage could have some latching mechanism that closes an electrical circuit, without which the motor will not engage? That would be tricky to do without electrifying the entire cage and making it unsafe to touch, but if you can work it out…”
Simon nodded, and I could see he was thinking something over. “What is it?” I asked.
“If I had a way…” he held up one hand, making vaguely circular gestures in the air. “The fan unbalanced, but it kept spinning until it wobbled, then toppled. If you or I were off balance while walking, we would feel it and compensate. It would be good if the motor somehow could feel that, and lock itself or disconnect its electric power. That would be a third point of safety.”
“That’s a very good idea,” I said, reaching out and clapping him on the arm. “Why don’t you get together with some of the others and find a way to do that?”
Now he actually smiled. “Yes, Mr. Stark! And… thank you.”
I smiled back at him. “Failure is its own success, remember that. I just hope we don’t have any more failures of this variety.”
He nodded, then took his leave and headed out. My steak arrived not long after, with a side of fries. That amused me. The simple recipe for deep-fried potato strips I’d shown Gerald’s housekeeper a couple years ago had really caught on since then!
* * *
It was a bit of an odd friendship, a mercenary with a penchant for breaking magic and ripping off wizards, and the guy in charge of the Circle of Magi. But Gerald had seen more than that in me back when we met–and he hadn’t been the Archmagus of the Circle back then–and we’d both grown to respect and care for each other quite a bit since then.
I didn’t see him again until late the next afternoon. One of the local healers brought me a potion to dull the pain that was starting to reassert itself, that he assured me would be safe with my condition. But Gerald eventually came back to check in on me, looking a bit the worse for wear. He really should have listened when I said he didn’t want this knowledge! He checked out my leg and changed the bandages on it, then said everything should progress well with my recovery. He brought a wooden crutch and told me not to use it until the next day, and then took his leave, saying that he had Circle business to attend to.
I thanked him for all his help, then lay back and got down to business, doing precisely nothing. Convalescence can be really hard work sometimes, especially when you’re used to an active lifestyle! It sucked. A few times, one researcher or another would come in and brief me on some project, either just reporting or looking for feedback from me. A few of them wanted to drop off a written report; I asked them to deliver the report orally instead so that I could ask questions. But most of the day passed in abject boredom.
Until the evening, that is. Then I had another visitor, but not someone from the academy. Two, actually: Sarah, and her mother.
Sarah looked a little bit taller and more slender than usual, and she had her long blonde hair pulled back, apparently to show off her pointed ears. Looks like she was half-elven today. April was half a step behind her, looking a lot better today. She looked more or less like an older version of Sarah, about an inch or two shorter, and her hair was that medium brown color that natural blondes get as they age, but the family resemblance was very strong, especially when Sarah was in one of her more human-looking forms.
Of course, Sarah immediately ran over to the bedside and tried to hug me. I was certainly glad I was wearing my ring! I squirmed a little, then looked over at her. “You really have to be careful doing that, Sarah!”
She rolled her eyes at me. “Hello, good to see you too,” she deadpanned.
April just sighed at her daughter’s antics. “How are you holding up?”
I groaned a little. “It’s torture,” I said. “I have to lie here in this bed and do nothing. For hours and hours.”
Sarah giggled softly and raised herself up a little, sitting on the side of the bed. “You could snuggle!” she grinned.
I looked up at her mother, a bit wide-eyed. She just rolled her eyes. “Sarah! Behave yourself!”
Sarah pouted. At me, not at April. “Oh, if you insist.” She slipped back down to stand beside the bed.
I nodded at her. “Having someone pressed up against me would be kind of painful right now.” A lame excuse, but it at least had the advantage of being true.
She winced a little, imaging it. “Oh. All right.”
So instead we talked. Not really about anything important or consequential but just to keep each other company and pass the time. One interesting thing that did come out, though, was Sarah making an offhand remark about some spell her mother had done.
“Wait,” I said, turning to look at April. “I thought your magic was gone.”
“My gift is gone,” she said. “The power of the void, that was infused into me when I crossed the worlds. But everyone has at least a small spark within them. It’s a lot harder now, and I’m having to re-learn most of what I knew. My power was a bonfire before and now it’s a taper. But I have some magic still.”
I felt really bad for her. Just about everyone who had been involved in the incident with Ken’tu Kel, their stock had gone way up, so to speak. Sarah came into her own power, Gerald ended up as the new Archmagus now that the position had suddenly been vacated, Anthony Stark got a lot of notoriety for his academy, and Aylwyn apparently got a lot of brownie points within the Paladins. Patrick… got his wife back. He didn’t really rise much, because he didn’t have too much further to rise; he was already counted as a Master among the Bards.
But then there was April, who had been an archmage and now… was apparently “a taper,” her power stolen and burned away before we could put a stop to it. She was regarded today as a wise adviser to the Circle, very knowledgeable and a councilor with the ear of the Archmagus… but not really one of them anymore.
“So how come you never said anything about how you can still use magic?” I asked.
She shrugged. “It never really came up. And what I can do now is so small, I might as well not be able to use magic anyway.”
I had to wonder about that. “Are you sure? Because even with only a small amount of power, you have centuries of knowledge and experience. Surely that counts for something, right? Knowing what to do with your power?”
“To a certain degree, yes,” she said. “But that’s only half the picture. It would be like taking a trained knight’s knowledge and putting it into the head of a child. It doesn’t matter how much he knows if he doesn’t have the strength to lift a sword.”
“Maybe,” I said. But I remained skeptical. It couldn’t be as hopeless as that for her.
We talked for a while longer, but then April had to go. She said she had things back at home to take care of, and she was expecting Patrick to be back the next day. Sarah, on the other hand, wanted to stay, as she didn’t have any pressing concerns to deal with.
April shook her head. “I don’t think that would really be a good idea. You’re not a student here, or a researcher.”
“No, but I am a friend, and that’s just as important.”
April saw the look on her daughter’s face and realized she was about to completely dig her heels in. “Well… all right, I suppose you’re old enough that I can’t really stop you. Just try not to make any trouble for anybody?”
Sarah smiled brightly and hugged her mother tight. “I promise!”
I told them who to talk to about finding temporary lodging for her, and they headed out. Sarah came back, of course, to hang around me until the sun was going down and I had to ask her to go so I could get some sleep.
* * *
The next day, I was up and about, a little. I was still feeling a bit weak and in pain, but not too much so, and the crutch helped a lot. I was confined to the academy; no way I was going to try and ride a horse like this! So I spent most of the time with the engineers and researchers, and some of it with the students, discussing various concepts with them and trying to help them out however I could.
Sarah stayed by my side pretty much the whole time. She was half-gnome today, which surprised a few of the people who had seen her yesterday; she was a fair bit shorter now, and kind of pudgy, very different from the tall, slender elven form she had worn yesterday. (Apparently she had brought quite a large trunk full of clothing with her, to be prepared for any possible form.)
She was a bit hyperactive, but that’s just Sarah; not any more so than usual. Unfortunately, being all gnomish hadn’t given her any particular aptitude for engineering. It’s not like she was dumb or anything; she may act a bit ditzy at times–which irritated me to no end–but underneath it was the child of two very smart parents, and she had inherited a fair amount of brains. She just applied it in different ways. Some people are natural born artists. Others are natural athletes. Some make great philosophers, and some are just born with the ability to understand other people really well. Likewise, there’s an inborn knack for engineering, and you either have it or you don’t. She didn’t. She could understand the things people were talking about if it was explained to her–usually two or three times with a bunch of questions being answered–but she didn’t intuitively pick up on things the way a lot of the folks here did. Which was fine; it’s just not her thing. I’m pretty good at it, on the other hand, but no matter how hard I practice, I’ll never be able to draw worth crap. It all sort of balances out.
So she got bored easily, and having to keep an eye on her made my day a bit more difficult, but it wasn’t too bad. Probably the best point came soon after lunch. One of the guys wanted me to look at something he had come up with. It was a small-scale mock-up, consisting of a steel cage with a crudely carved wooden doll of a man inside. There was a metal loop at the top of the cage, and another one at the bottom, with a long piece of twine attached at either end to the loops, then going up and down over a pair of pulleys, and the top pulley had an electric motor connected to it. He was showing how he could make the motor run, either forwards to move the cage upward, or with a mechanism to interpose a gear, make it turn backwards and move the cage down: a simple elevator.
I was impressed. Then I turned and whispered something to Sarah. She looked a bit confused, but did as I suggested, projecting a tiny bit of fire against the twine, while the cage was up near the top of its range. It snapped, and the whole thing came crashing down with a loud clatter.
“This is a good idea,” I said. “Now when you can come up with two independent mechanisms that will each be sufficient to ensure that a broken cable near the top of a wizard’s tower would not result in a dead passenger near the bottom, I think we could make something useful out of it.”
“A wizard’s tower?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Who else is going to have a habitat tall enough that this would save them enough effort to be worth putting one in?”
“Hmmm. That’s a good point. I’ll have to find some ways to make it safe.”
There weren’t any other inventions of note to look at for the next few days, so I mostly took it easy. My leg was getting better, and Gerald came by each day to make sure it was all right, though he couldn’t stay for too long. By the end of the week, he pronounced it fixed. I’d have some ugly scars on my calf, probably for the rest of my life, but it was working fine and good enough to walk on.
If only it hadn’t been quite yet…