February 7, 2019 by Lyn Thorne-Alder
Never Ask An Engineer A Question Unless You Have an Hour
By the time they reached the end of the day, all of them were drooping, even Taikie. But she seemed to be holding herself afloat with a wide smile and a scribbled set of plans.
Saydrie and Enrie were both having more trouble staying awake, much less enthusiastic, as they led her lead a convoluted way – to shake off any pursuit, although he didn’t believe that they had any this time – to their new hiding spot.
Once there, Taikie began pulling pieces pof piping, gears, and various connections out of her bag. Using a plan scribbled on what looked like her Philosophy notes as her guide, she hummed as she put the pieces together until they made up some sort of Device.
“I know we’re all tired. But this, well, I was up all night trying to figure this out, and I think I have it. Of course,” she cleared her throat, “I don’t have anything to test it on, but I think Saydrie and I can find someone – there has to be someone, right? – that has the right bad aether for us to sort out if this actually works. I mean, other than Lirnilalie.” She shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t think I want to meet her again.”
Enrie looked up from the book she was almost believably reading. “I don’t either. But I think we might have to. So what does this do?”
“Well, let’s see.” She produced a wrench and tightened three joints, then hummed softly at a couple connections. To Saydrie, it looked as if she was doing some sort of prayer, but as far as he knew, she didn’t tend to pray to her machines. “All right. So, the theory is that it uses the faint ambient aether in the room to measure the extent aether, and then it tests ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aether. I used readings from my roommates and myself as the base for ‘good’ aether because I figured that Saydrie would have told me if I had bad aether, and because they both seem like very good people.” She shrugged. “It’s not very scientific, but I needed at least three readings for a base. And now -” She pointed something that looked like the bell end of a funnel attached to a long hose at Saydrie and cranked a handle a couple times.
A moment later, a noise like a very soft song heard from very far away seemed to fill the room. Saydrie looked around, but the sound seemed to have no source and neither girl seemed aware of it.
“There.” Taikie patted the machine. “And your reading comes in as ‘lots of aether, all of it good.’” She turned the machine to show Saydrie the dials, neither of which were labelled. One of them was purely in the white half of a black-and-white split circle; the other one was over three-quarters around a dial that only had the quarters marked.
“I didn’t have time to label the dials, but I think I’m going to leave them like this, because it makes it a lot less obvious what I’m doing. So there’s a bit of plausible deniability, because, ah. Engineering students are always going on and on about Devices anyway, right?” She shifted a bit, not quite looking at either of them.
“Most Engineering Students,” Saydrie answered firmly, “couldn’t do what you have already done, Taikie, much less what you’re likely to do in the remainder of your years here.”
“And those that have the skill-” Enrie’s addition was made slightly less solemn by the yawn she had to stifle “-wouldn’t have the guts, or someone would probably have made a goat peeing on Pelnyen some time long before us.”
Saydrie had to admit that she had something of a point. He cleared his throat. “There is also that. So you think this can tell good aether – humanic aether – from bad, Taikie?”
“That’s the hope. But I suppose we’ll have to find someone with bad aether to be certain.” She chewed on her lip. “I don’t like leaving things untested.”
“I think we’ll find someone,” Saydrie assured her. “I’ve encountered a couple in my life, and that was living in the enclaves, where we rarely saw people from the outside. So tell us more about this machine?”
“Oh, okay, so it’s taking in just enough of the ambient aether – did you know that there was ambient aether? I have five theories on that and two more that are just sort of junk ideas that I liked enough to write down anyway – oh, yes. It’s scooping in just enough ambient aether to ‘wake itself up’ – and the things I could do with that. If you just let something take in a tiny bit of aether from around itself and then it, say, flips a switch? So that the switch starts something else, like dropping a ball into a slot, and then that starts turning a wheel, as long as you have everything very smoothly managed, you could run something without every needing a real ‘external source’ of aether. Which changes everything! The trains we could run that way, if we could only get rid of friction- Sorry. So there’s this little gauge in here, which just, ah, ‘tastes’ the aether in an area, an area determined by the scoop on the end. In doing so, it takes in an infinitesimal amount of that aether. It would be the equivalent of one tear or less from your body. And it categorizes that ‘taste’ for strength and, ah, flavor.”
“Flavor.” Saydrie found himself a little amused by that description. “All right. So the currently problem is that you don’t have a way to test the bad flavors so that you know that they’re there.”
“I don’t suppose there’s a range of good flavors, are there? That would help.” She looked so hopeful, her braids beginning to fray and her eyelids drooping with lack of sleep. Saydrie cleared his throat.
“There’s, well. Not a range of, say, good to bad. But there’s different flavors, I guess, for different people. Everyone has their own flavor,” he added, “it’s just that they’re all very similar, unless you’ve spent your life meditating to tell the specific differences between one scent and another. And I haven’t. I know this – that was. There was a priestess of the Three in the enclave where I grew up, and she had been blind for years. She could tell who you were by the scent of your aether. And she could even tell one goat from another by scents – although she never would tell me which scent that was, if it was their stink or their aether.”
“It’s just – It just- it makes me so angry.” Enrie threw her hands up. “All this knowledge. All these things that are just true that would make everything so much easier. And what? Nothing. Not a word. Not in the books, not in our education, it’s just this giant lie-”
She fell silent as someone knocked loudly on the door behind Saydrie.
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