I slept well that night, eventually. It took more than an hour for sleep to find me. The way Patrick very quietly let me know he knew I wasn’t quite on the up-and-up had spooked me. I spent about an hour fighting the urge to bail, to flee for my life. Living here, I’d developed a well-honed instinct for paranoia that had saved my life more than once, and profoundly embarrassed me more times than it had saved my life. But, you know, the whole “life-saving” thing makes up for it, on balance.
Eventually I reasoned that there was no evidence whatsoever that he was anything more than an unusually observant minstrel, or that he had any sort of ill intentions towards me, told my paranoia to shut up and go away, and went to sleep. Turns out I was right about that, but in hindsight, I probably should have listened to my paranoia anyway. Or maybe not. Had I left that night, I’d probably have never met Sarah, or caught up with my old friend Gerald, or gotten involved with the whole April hunt mess, which turned out to be my first… well, you’ll see. Wouldn’t want to get ahead of myself.
Anyway, the next morning I still didn’t know what to do next. So I figured I’d try the old fallback, Stark Academy. It was a branch of the Royal Academy, founded by the eccentric, somewhat reclusive Anthony Stark (that’s me, remember?) in the remote outpost of Tem’s Falls. Tem’s Falls was a tiny little village about two days’ journey to the north of the capital, back before the Academy set up shop there. It was set along the River Owail, near where it plunged into a canyon about half a mile deep, hence the name. The soil was decent, but the river was flowing way too fast–and in too dangerous of a direction–to make river transport practical, which sharply limited its growth potential as a pocket of civilization.
Turns out copious amounts of fast-flowing water are great for turning waterwheels, though, and that’s got all sorts of useful applications, as Mr. Hoover showed all the fine folks back home. That, and a good-sized limestone quarry–the key ingredient in cement–conveniently located nearby, made Tem’s Falls the ideal place to set up shop.
And it also turns out that, as fun as it might sound to be a high-priced mercenary thief in a magical world, living without the trappings of civilization really sucks! And so does having powerful wizards who want you dead. Heck, truth be told I want Paul Twister dead too. On balance, the guy’s been more trouble than he’s worth. So I needed an exit strategy. After saving up enough ill-gotten gains to purchase a bit of respectability under a cover identity, about three years ago I went looking for a patron, pitching a very simple concept: cement.
They’ve got cobblestone roads all over the kingdom, but riding in a carriage–as nobles and royalty often do–over cobbled roads can be a very unpleasant experience. A brief demonstration to one of the more receptive minor nobles, involving applying a nice, even top layer of cement to a twenty-foot stretch of one of his roadways and letting him feel the difference as he road onto and then back off of it, was enough to convince him to sponsor an institution for research into more economical production of cement, and from there the idea spread. And now the King’s Highway is being slowly paved by Royal Engineers, using material and techniques researched at Stark Academy.
I have no illusions of raising this place to a 21st century standard of living, or even a 20th century one. I’m no Connecticut Yankee, just a Seattle Geek who happens to know a few things about the way things work. And once we got enough attention to get ourselves the prestigious association with the Royal Academy, I started branching out. For example, I know that spinning a magnet around inside a coil of copper wire produces an electric current. But how strong of a magnet? How big does it have to be, and how fast does it have to spin, before you get anything useful? Does the size of the coil of wire relative to the magnet matter? Does the number of loops in the coil matter? We’re rediscovering all these things from first principles at the academy, which puts us firmly in the early 19th century.
But anyway. I decided to head back to Tem’s Falls, which was about two weeks away. I had a fair amount of coin on me, enough to purchase travel rations for myself and my two horses–it’s always a good idea to take two on a long trip. That way you can switch when the one you’re riding gets tired. You make better time that way. I got three weeks’ worth of food, just in case, and set out, but not before watching out the window to make sure that Mr. Hill had left. I didn’t feel like running into him again. That was another factor influencing my decision: Brighton to Tem’s Falls is a completely different journey than Brighton to Millersford.
It was a rather uneventful couple of weeks, which is my favorite kind. I saw a handful of royal knights patrolling the roadways, passed a few travelers, both going my way and heading in the opposite direction, and didn’t get waylaid by any bandits. Two weeks without shaving earned me that most venerable of disguises, a beard. Anthony Stark wore one; Paul Twister and most of my other aliases did not.
The village had grown some in the few months I’d been away. Perhaps inspired by the long line of waterwheels erected by the electrical research department of the Academy, someone seemed to be in the process of constructing a second mill, and off at the edge of town as I rode in there was a smithy that I hadn’t seen before. More houses too, and more outlying farmland under cultivation. It was getting to the point where it might be more appropriate to call it a town, rather than a village.
Wow, I thought to myself. How many guys back home can say they’ve been responsible for the creation of a college town?
Not that Stark Academy was a college, per se. Yes, it was an adjunct to the Royal Academy, and some nobles did send their sons here, much to my chagrin, but our primary purpose was research, not education. Developing new knowledge, rather than spreading old knowledge.
I got my horses stabled, then walked over to the administrative building. It was fairly small and unassuming, except for the large stone letters carved over every doorway. I’ve never really gotten the hang of the local alphabet, but I knew what they said: the motto and mission statement of the academy.
FAILURE IS ITS OWN SUCCESS
“Evan!” I called out as I entered the administrative building. “I’ve had another dream!”
“Mister Stark?” I heard footsteps coming down the corridor, and then Evan Tranton, the Dean of Stark Academy, strode into the lobby. If he was surprised to see me back so soon, he didn’t say anything. It may be named after me, but Evan runs the place. I’m just the eccentric visionary who provides direction and purpose for the academy, in a rather literal sense. Anthony Stark claims that most of his revolutionary ideas are things that came to him in dreams. “What was this one about?” He had a quill and inkpot in one hand and a scroll in the other, ready to take notes at a moment’s notice, just in case I started spouting another crazy idea before getting settled in. It had happened before.
“No, no, Evan.” I waved my hand at him dismissively. “Let’s go into your office.” I walked with him down the hallway and sat down by his writing desk. Once he’d gotten seated, he looked over at me.
“I had a dream,” I said, “in which I was riding in a carriage, on a cobble road, but the carriage was moving smoothly and not jostling. I marveled at this, and called for the coachman to stop. When he did, I climbed out and looked at the wheels, and behold! The axles were not connected to the body of the carriage as ours are, with a solid, firm mounting, but rather with a piece of steel such as I have never seen. It was as if someone took a thumb-thick staff of solid steel, and wound it like a coil of wire!” I held up one finger and traced a helix spiral in the air. “It would flex and return to its shape, like a bow, and when the wheels jostled, the coil flexed to absorb it so that the body of the carriage would not feel the movement!”
Evan looked up from his note-taking, a dubious expression on his face. “Solid steel, wrapped like a coil of wire, that bends and holds its shape like a longbow.” His tone indicated that he thought I was mad, or at least he’d like to, if only my mad dreams didn’t have such a history of leading to useful realities.
“Exactly!” I said. “Only, not a tight coil like we use with the waterwheels. There was space between the coils. Like this.” I held my fingers a couple inches apart.
He nodded, indulging my wild fantasy for a moment as he took down the information. “Very well. But I know of no steel that can bend and hold its shape as you describe, sir.”
I returned the nod. “Well, I did see a new smith in town as I rode in. Can we have him experiment with new alloys? Mix things into steel, see what he can find. Try…” aww crap. I just realized I have no clue what spring steel is made of. Then I got an idea. If I couldn’t give them the formula for spring steel, then maybe… “Do we have any chromium?”
The administrator cocked his head to the side, looking at me quizzically. “Chromium, Mr. Stark? I don’t believe so. I could send for some from the Royal Engineers, though I truly doubt that such a brittle metal would give a yielding steel.”
I nodded at him. “I know. But… chromium just feels right. We should try other things too, but please get the smith some chromium.”
He sighed. “Very well, Mr. Stark. Chromium it is.”
“All right. And what’s our budget like? I really have a good feeling about steel. Is there any way we could hire some Guild smiths to work for the Academy directly, as researchers?”
His eyes widened slightly at the thought of the expense such a venture would entail. “Smith researchers?” He closed his eyes and started touching his thumbs to his fingers, as if counting in his head. “Perhaps,” he said after a moment. “We may be able to hire two, or perhaps three, without overextending ourselves, but this would limit research in other areas. I’ll have to speak with the clerks to be certain.” He opened his eyes again and looked at me. “But I’d like to have some evidence that this is a worthwhile venture first.”
OK, if Evan’s gonna pull out the E-word, I know it’s time to back down. Evidence has always been a core value at the academy, at my insistence. He’s always been a bit leery of my “dreams,” and I can’t blame him. Though in all fairness it sounds a lot less insane than telling him the truth about where I’m getting these ideas from. “Fair enough,” I conceded with a nod. “But there’s enough budget to hire the new smith to work on chromium and other experimental alloys for steel?”
He nodded back. Compromise accepted. “There is, Mr. Stark. We should be able to have preliminary results–whatever they may be–within ten days.”
“Very well.” I relaxed, sitting back in the chair somewhat instead of the earnest, leaned-forward posture Anthony always adopted when discussing new ideas. “Have there been any new developments around the Academy that I ought to know about?”
It turns out that there were a few minor things, plus one that I had been waiting three years for someone to stumble across. One of our researchers in the electrical division had found a way to use two metal plates and a specially-prepared acid bath to hold energy obtained from the magnet turbines, and release it later. That had been one of my very first “dreams,” I’d shared, though I had no idea as to the specifics of it. And now, three years later, we’d finally invented the voltaic cell!
I hurried over to see his work. “Oh, this is a true marvel!” I enthused. “Storing the Force Electric in bottles of acid!”
The researcher was a short fellow with a full, red-brown beard by the name of Joseph McConnel, who was rumored to have some dwarvish ancestry. Ugh. I hope they don’t end up following the same path here as with the inventor of the voltaic cell back home. It just wouldn’t sound right to walk into a store and buy some 9-connel batteries! “Aye, I suppose it is,” he mused. “Though–and please don’t take this wrongly, Mr. Stark–but we’ve still to see a practical use for this Force Electric. Giving people a shock when they touch a plate can be good for a laugh, but it won’t grow food or erect a house!”
I nodded slowly. “That’s true. But I’ve been thinking.” I clasped my hands and leaned forward slightly, adopting my trademark “earnest Anthony” pose. “You can put the Force Electric into your bottles… and then pull it back out again. You reverse the process, see?”
He gave a little nod. “That’s true,” he said, though it was clear he didn’t quite follow.
“Well,” I continued, “where does the Force Electric come from?”
“From the wheel and the wires and the lodestone… aha!” I saw the light come on in his eyes. “You think we can reverse that as well? Use the Force Electric to turn a lodestone attached to a waterwheel?” Then he grinned, and I knew he was starting to put things together. “Or just any wheel! A spinster’s wheel, or a carriage wheel! Perhaps even a millstone. Can you imagine a mill with no river, Mr. Stark? Driven by McConnel Jars, taking their power from a river miles away?”
I like this guy! He’s got vision. I give him the slightest little nudge towards the electric motor and he’s dreaming up electric cars! Can’t say I care for the name McConnel Jars, though, but hey, you can’t have everything. “Well, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves,” I said. “We’ve got no evidence yet that it’s possible to create such a device, just a theory that it should exist.”
He frowned a little when I brought him back to reality. “Aye,” he agreed grudgingly. “Well, we’ll have to look into it.”
The next two weeks went by pretty normally for the academy. I spent most of my time fluttering from one project to the next, offering advice, listening to ideas, observing experiments, and helping to settle a few disputes. Even researchers and engineers trained in strict empiricism have egos, and they can get into arguments about the strangest things. It always surprises me how often the things they’re arguing over are theoretical, but not so theoretical as to be out of reach, so that I end up settling things by suggesting that they run an experiment and see whose idea of “what would happen” turns out to match reality.
I even put in an appearance or two at the Magical Research Division, a small stone tower, not much larger than Robert de Long’s–though much better constructed–across the river from the rest of the town and the Academy. I didn’t stay long, though. The magical ring I wore to suppress the Twist was nowhere near foolproof, and the last thing those researchers needed was havoc like that breaking out in their laboratories. (Plus, the last thing I needed was to be exposed like that!)
But the true momentous occasion was towards the end of the second week. The smith had been experimenting on chromium, and as expected he didn’t manage to produce any particularly bendy alloys. But one morning, an apprentice sought me out, carrying a wooden bucket filled with water.
“Mr Stark! Have a look at this!” On the bottom of the bucket was a small, shattered fragment of shiny steel.
I grinned when I realized what I was looking at. “How long has that been in that bucket?”
“Overnight, Mr. Stark, and before that it was sitting around in the open for a day. And it–“
“–it hasn’t rusted,” I said. “Now tell me truly, who was it who noticed this?”
“‘Twas me, sir. I saw it had sat out and not grown rust. The Master said to sink it in the bucket for a night, to test it and help it along.”
I smiled at the youth. “Well done on both of you. Come along with me?” I had him follow me to my quarters, and wait outside while I retrieved something. “You can pour out the water now,” I said, making sure to retrieve the new steel fragment. “Let’s head back to the smithy.”
We walked over together, and the youth introduced me to the Master, a tall, broad-shouldered fellow by the name of Thomas Franklin. He was busy beating a glowing bar of iron into some shape–looked like a horseshoe. “Mr. Stark!” Apparently knew who I was, which was good.
“Mr. Franklin. It seems you’ve made quite the discovery. Steel that doesn’t rust?”
“Aye. I thought you were looking for longbow steel, but it seems this may be an even greater find.”
“You may be right, Mr. Franklin. Thank you for sending the sample over to me. Your apprentice tells me he was the first to notice it was not growing rust, and you were the one who thought up testing it in a bucket of water. Is that so?”
He nodded. “Even so, sir. The lad’s a bright one.”
I smiled. “That’s good to hear. You two are just the sort of people I’d like to see more of around here.” I pulled out the coin pouch I had retrieved, and dug out three gold two-delin coins. “A reward, from the Academy, for your discovery. Four for you, and two for your apprentice.” It was a handsome reward, around half a month’s earnings for him, and probably more than that for the lad. They held out their hands, but I closed my fingers around the gold. “In return, I’d like to know exactly how you crafted this sample of steel, in writing. Can you do that for me?”
His brow furrowed as he thought about that for a moment, then he frowned. “You wish to buy the secret off of me at such a low price, sir, and spread it abroad from your academy? I know what I could get for steel that grows no rust!”
I nodded, trying to keep an amicable smile. “Oh, I’ve got a good idea of it myself,” I agreed. “I also see how small your smithy is. If you were the only supplier, you could set a high price, but there’s precious little of it you could make.” Time to apply the screws a little. Wave the stick, and then offer a carrot. “Especially without the Academy’s help supplying chromium, right? On the other hand, if you work with us, we can help you improve your facility. More forges, more apprentices to work them. We would publish the discovery under your name. Franklin Steel, the steel that grows no rust! Should you share your knowledge rather than hoard it, it would bring you prestige within the Smiths’ Guild. You’d be seen as an honored master. A discovery like this could revolutionize your industry!”
And one more stick, just to be sure. “Or, we could speak with another smith. It took you little enough time once you had the idea of experimenting with chromium-alloy steel. I doubt it would be so difficult to duplicate your results. But I’d prefer to work with the man who discovered it first. The decision is yours, sir.”
He scowled, but in the end he had to concede my point. “Very well, Mr. Stark. Send one of your scribes over.”
I gave him my brightest smile. “You’ll not regret this, Mr. Franklin!” I dropped two of the gold coins on his anvil, and pressed the third into the apprentice’s palm.
I walked back over to the administrative building, looking for a scribe. Evan greeted me as I walked in, looking like he was just on his way out. “Ah, Mr. Stark. There you are. There’s a man here from the Bards’ College to see you.”
“Send him to my office, then.” I wondered what a bard would want with us. News of the McConnel Jar might have gotten around by now, but it’s not the sort of thing most people would be interested in, until we started producing practical applications. “And can we send a scribe over to the smithy? Mr. Franklin’s managed to create a chromium-alloy steel that doesn’t rust, even submerged in water.”
Evan laughed teasingly at the news of the fortuitous discovery. “But does it bend like a bow, Mr. Stark?”
I shook my head. “No, but he ought to keep trying with other metals. We’ll find something that works, I still believe that.”
I walked off down the corridor, to my office, then stiffened slightly at the sight of the man slouching slightly in the chair in front of my desk. It was Patrick Hill.
OK, gotta keep my game face on. I don’t look like Clark Kent. I don’t talk like him. I don’t walk like him. And I don’t know this man sitting here. Deep breath, let it out slowly. “Good morning, sir. What brings you to Stark Academy?”
He just flashed me an impish little grin. “Stark, is it? I thought it was Clark.”
Well, crap. So much for my game face.
“Oh, don’t look so crestfallen. You’ve got a lot of people fooled. You really ought to feel proud of that. But you’re in the business of information and knowledge here, and that’s what brings me to your academy today. You see, a man with two names could just as easily be a man with three, or perhaps more.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What are you talking about, Mr. Hill?”
Then he said the words that changed the course of my life forever. “Unless I’m very much mistaken, you’re from quite a ways from here. I bear news from your home… Paul. From the distant kingdom of Denver.”