133. At Castle Inter Lucus
Creating hairs of glass was deceptively easy. Isen and Ernulf needn’t blow anything; they had merely to touch a molten gather with an iron punty rod and draw out a string. They quickly learned to make flowing curved patterns with such glass filaments. With glass strings of contrasting colors, they could create art: a butterfly brooch or a flower hairpin.
The glass hairs demanded by Alf’s dream would have been easier than art pieces, since they were only line segments, except Alf insisted they be literally thin as hair and absolutely straight. Isen found a way. Ernulf would hold a hot gather very still while Isen pulled two or three glass strings down from it. Each tiny filament had a molten drop at the end, providing enough weight to straighten the hair. Later, after the glass strings had been “cladded,” the drops at the end could be clipped away.
Lord Martin’s explanations of “cladding” mystified Isen repeatedly. Martin talked about “internal refraction” and the “chemical composition” of different kinds of glass, and Isen understood that this meant different batches of glass were made of slightly different materials. But every glassmaker and apprentice knew that! How else could glasses of various colors be produced? Isen grasped the notion that two batches of glass could have the same color and yet be made of differing materials. For example one could use differing amounts of beech ash while keeping the quantity of pure sand the same. And, naturally, “pure” sand dug from one location would not be exactly the same as sand from another. Lord Martin thought that “chemistry” could explain all these facts and that a thorough knowledge of chemistry would allow one to produce all sorts of wondrous effects in one’s glass. Unfortunately, Lord Martin admitted frequently that he personally had nothing like a thorough knowledge of chemistry. Privately, Isen suggested to Ernulf that it might have been better had Lord Martin never mentioned chemistry at all.
In the end, they had to experiment. That is, they tried to obey Alf’s dream by “cladding” glass hairs with a variety of vapors. On one occasion Martin said that what they were doing wasn’t a real “experiment,” because their work lacked “control.” Isen and Ernulf decided that “control” was as useless a concept as “chemistry,” unless a real expert should explain it to them.
Over the course of a week, Isen and Ernulf fashioned eighty glass hairs, five to six inches long, and each straight as a sunbeam. Alf said they resembled those in his dream. They “cladded” them by suspending them, one at a time, over a crucible of molten bubbling glass. With the heat of the furnace so intense, the glassmakers could expose the tiny filament over the steaming crucible for only a few seconds at a time. After many repeated exposures, they hoped that the hair had collected a sheath of the vapor. Looking at them, Isen and Ernulf couldn’t say with confidence that the cladded glass strings were any thicker than before. Lord Martin insisted that they make trial with different batches of glass in the crucible. So the glassmakers heated ten differing batches and exposed eight strings to the vapor of each crucible.
When the fifty glass hairs had been “cladded” and the droplets at the end clipped away, Isen laid the tiny filaments in a bed of soft white matter prepared by shredding and grinding clean cotton threads. He then bundled the whole, wrapping the glass hairs and their cotton fiber padding in a piece of tightly woven linen. He clipped off the longer glass strings, so that the final product looked like a non-metal rod, five inches long and about half an inch thick, with the outer layer of cloth constituting much of the bulk.
Alf’s dreams hadn’t shown him how the glass strings were supposed to fix the CPU. He just had the feeling—“the way it happens in dreams, when you are sure of something but can’t say why”—that his vision related to Centralis Arbitrium Factorem. When Alf saw the wrapped bundle of glass strings lying in Isen’s hand, he said, in complete transparency, “It’s not like what I dreamed. I never did think this would work.” Lord Martin, in contrast, praised Isen and Ernulf for their painstaking odyssey in glassmaking: “If anyone can make fiber-optic cable with eighth century tools, it’s you two. We may as well give it a try.”
The residents of Inter Lucus gathered quickly from their afternoon labors as they excitedly passed the word: Lord Martin will try to repair the violet block in the CPU, using the glass strings dreamed by Alf. What new magic might be released if Centralis Arbitrium Factorem were whole?
Lord Martin told Ernulf to bring the smallest pair of shears from the glassworks—with the blades buried in a bucket of hot coals from the furnace. Martin carried the “cable” to the castle, where he and Isen descended the stairs from the great hall down two levels to the lowest floor of Inter Lucus, and then proceeded south and west through the corridors. As always, castle lights came on ahead of them.
Once in the CPU room, Martin walked to the south wall, where the mysterious violet hexagon stood under its six-sided tube that reached down from the high ceiling. Around the room, ten other blocks rose from the floor, each a different color and different height, and each one was connected to its tube by a flashing strip. Only the violet block lacked the connecting “cable.”
The violet hexagon was second tallest in the room. Lord Martin had to reach above his head to measure Isen’s creation against the gap between block and tube. From his pocket Martin pulled out a wooden handled razor and flicked it open. Isen recognized the razor as the one Ernulf’s father had given to the new lord of Inter Lucus months ago—last summer when the castle had only begun to heal. Isen had a sense that the next few minutes could be as momentous as Martin’s original peregrination from Lafayette to Inter Lucus.
Martin gently cut away bits of linen sheathing from both ends of the cable. Holding it up to the gap, he said, “I think that’s about right.”
The entire population of Inter Lucus, except Caelin and the priest Eadmar, had gathered in the CPU when Ernulf carried the smoking bucket of coals into the room. Eadmar and Caelin steadfastly refused to leave their posts as guards that afternoon. Even Mildgyd Meadowdaughter and Agyfen Baecer were there, the fosterling holding close to Mildgyd’s skirt. Ernulf’s bare arm streamed sweat, and he held the iron bucket handle with a thick pad. The bucket glowed red.
Martin pushed the blade of his razor into the coals. Wrapping his hand in a cloth, he took the hot shears from the coals and cut a tiny portion from one end of Isen’s cable. Measuring again against the gap above the eleventh block, Martin cut the other end. He drew the glowing razor from the coals and touched the ends of the cable, heating the exposed glass. Then he positioned the cable between the ceramic block below and the tube above. When Martin released his hold, the cable remained in place.
“It’s done.” As usual, Ora had unshakeable confidence in Martin’s competence.
Lord Martin turned from the violet hexagon and its tube. He looked at the expectant faces gathered in the room and sighed, smiling wryly. “We have honored Alf’s dream by making an attempt.” He shook his head. “I should not have encouraged you all to hope. It takes modern manufacturing to make fiber optic cable. And even if we made real cable, there’s no reason to think it would fix an alien machine.”
“But it is done,” said Whitney Ablendan. She pointed. Lord Martin spun on his heel. Everyone present could see pulses of light visible through the cable’s linen cover.
“My God!” said Lord Martin. Then he ran ahead of the others.
As fast as Marty sprinted to the great hall, his mind raced faster. Is it really possible to repair alien technology with hand-worked glass from the middle ages? Why not? That’s no more implausible than the very existence of Inter Lucus and everything else on this planet. No, it’s not that a planet with alien machines is unbelievable; it’s the fact that I’m here, that human beings are here.
What does the eleventh hexagon do?
He rushed through the great hall, watching for some indication of change in the interface wall. Nothing. He reached towards the lord’s knob, but stopped and stood near it, panting. Hold on, old man. Think. What if Centralis Arbitrium Factorem really is fixed? Are there new “magics” waiting when I bond? Some new decision point, like choosing paper over steel?
Members of the Inter Lucus community were gathering behind Marty. They watched to see what he would do.
Could, might, possible… I could speculate forever. The only way forward is to try. Marty shook his hands for a moment and laid them on the knob.
Nothing. The interface wall was blank. With a mental command, Marty called up the familiar list.
I. Materias Transmutatio: operativa
II. Parva Arcum Praesidiis: operativa
III. Magna Arcum Praesidiis: operativa
IV. Cibum Preparatio Homines: operativa
V. Inter-Castrum Videns-Loquitur: operativa
VI. Extra Arcem Micro-Aedificator: operativa
VII. Potentia Fontes: operativa
VIII. Aquarum: operativa
IX. Intra Arcem Micro-Aedificator: operativa
X. Centralis Arbitrium Factorem: operativa
Marty considered the last item. Centralis Arbitrium Factorem was working. But the list had declared it operativa for months, when the eleventh hexagon was obviously not working. Should there be a new item on the list? Come on, alien masterminds, I need some answers.
The list of castle functions vanished, leaving a blank wall. But it wasn’t blank; it was black, a deep inky black. Then points of light, infinitesimal bits, thousands—no, tens of thousands—of them, appeared in the wall. Almost irrelevantly, Marty wondered: How many pixels did they build into this screen? Do aliens even count pixels?
The inhabitants of Inter Lucus gazed in wonder, hardly daring to breathe. To most of them the montage of lights was both incomprehensible and stunningly beautiful. In addition to the myriads of tiny lights, the picture showed faint dark blue patches near one corner, like almost invisible clouds. Thousands of lights clustered in the middle of the screen, combining into a mass, and from the center more lights gathered into paths, curved like the blade of a scythe.
“Lord Martin, what is it?” A voice behind him whispered. Tayte Graham or Whitney Ablendan, Marty couldn’t tell whose. He waved his right hand for silence, keeping his left on the lord’s knob. A carnation red dot came into view near the upper edge of the screen. Marty had no doubt what he was viewing; the dot located a point in one of the spiral arms of the galaxy. A red line began to extend from the beginning point, but not a straight line; it curved around the mass of stars in the center until it reached a terminus in the galaxy’s opposite arm.
Marty still held his hand up, forbidding speech, waiting for something more. Come on, come on. That can’t be all you meant to say.
Nothing. The galaxy photo—or map?—lingered, the red line glowing. After two full minutes, the whole display slowly faded away, leaving the interface wall genuinely blank. Marty removed his hand from the knob. His shoulders slumped. “I already knew that much.”
“My lord?” Isen, at his side.
Marty realized that he had verbalized his disappointment. “It’s a great achievement, Isen. I think your cable fixed the CPU, to a degree. Not completely. The map showed me what I learned already at Dimlic Aern. The strangers must have intended to show us more than this, but it may be that our repair is only partial.”
Ora, of course, had a different interpretation. “Lord Martin, this was your first attempt with the new power. “You will learn more of the strangers’ secrets next time.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.