“Come on, Nick. What’s bothering you? You’ve been like a—what’s the American expression?—like a bear with a sore tooth. All day, I might add, even at work. You can tell us; we’re your house mates. And best friends. If you can’t trust us with your secrets, who can you trust?”

Nicki Jo Pricket sighed. Tobias Ridley was a shrewd judge of character. It had been a mistake to let him be the odd man out in the three-handed game of gleek that Katherine Boyle, Solomon des Caux and she were playing. It gave him way too much time to ponder.

Katherine smiled. “Better tell them, Nick. They’ll find out soon enough, as it is on Monday.”

Nicki Jo nodded. “I suppose you’re right Katy.” Then she looked at Tobias Ridley and Solomon des Caux. “But don’t talk to anyone until Monday, do I have your promise on that?”

Both young men nodded solemnly and Nicki Jo shook her head.

Almost three years since the Ring of Fire. How could she have suspected how much her life would change in those three years? Right after the Ring of Fire she had been nearly all alone in a hostile Grantville where she had effectively burned all her bridges by “coming out,” exposing to the world her lesbianism by bringing her Fairmont lover to the Senior Prom. It hadn’t seemed that important at the time. She’d gotten a full ride at WVU in Morgantown because of her grades in science, especially chemistry. She’d never expected to return to Grantville except for rare—very rare—trips home to see her dad and sister. Her dad hadn’t been that concerned that one of his daughters was a lesbian, but her mom . . . her mom had stopped talking to her for good.

When her sister had called her the Friday before the Ring of Fire and told her that Mom would be out of town visiting relatives, she had seized the opportunity to get in a last trip home to pick up her few remaining belongings. Amy Kubiak, her best friend throughout her years in Grantville, despite being a class behind, had come home with her from Morgantown that weekend. And been caught like she was. Fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes was all that had separated them from being on the other side of the Ring of Fire.

At first Nicki Jo had blamed Amy and her bitterness and depression had lasted months before she finally made up with her friend.

But when she finally did, it had been Amy who had saved her, just as she had saved her in high school, by introducing her to Colette Modi who had hired Nicki Jo to help develop the Essen Chemical Company.

For months after the Ring of Fire Nicki Jo buried herself in her work for the biogas plant and in studying chemistry. At WVU Nicki had been taking both organic and physical chemistry her sophomore year, giving her as good an academic background in chemistry as almost anyone else caught by the Ring of Fire. But she needed more, especially practical experience, if she was to achieve her goal of getting a patron outside Grantville. She had been relieved to discover that seventeenth-century Europe was not as hostile to lesbians and homosexual men as she had thought. True, there were cases of women and men being tried for sodomy in Europe, but the cases were rare and usually involved women and men who were already on the margins of society.

It was odd, really. Right after the Ring of Fire Nicki Jo had cursed her luck thinking that she had wound up in a universe where Grantville, filled with her enemies, was the most tolerant town in the world instead of just a hick little village. Only gradually had she learned that homosexuality in the seventeenth century was tolerated, even ignored, except in certain rare cases. Of course, you didn’t want to actually go out and flaunt your sexuality, but that was as true of heterosexuals in many ways as it was of homosexuals. So long as you kept things discreet and didn’t go out and parade around for gay rights, people were willing to look the other way. It helped, of course, if you were rich and powerful, or had friends who were rich and powerful.

But even that wouldn’t help if you weren’t discreet.

The case of Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven in England, had been a cautionary tale in the value of discretion.

In 1631 the earl and two of his retainers had been beheaded for sodomy. But the case would never have come before the courts if the earl’s family life hadn’t been highly dysfunctional. Besides being a sodomizer, the earl had also allowed—even encouraged—his retainers to rape both his wife and his new daughter-in-law. That alone would still not have been enough to draw the attention of the courts if he hadn’t also threatened his son with disinheritance. In the end, it had been his son who had brought the case before the courts. Other noblemen, disgusted at the earl’s inability to control the chaos of his manor—a chaos that they loathed even more than the earl’s sexual barbarities—had applied pressure in the right places to ensure his conviction.

With that tale in mind, Nicki Jo and Katherine Boyle had invited Tobias Ridley and Solomon des Caux to share a house with them in Essen. Gossips would assume that they were living in sin, but the more normal and recognized sin of a heterosexual relationship between unmarried couples.

Only the couples themselves, and Colette and Josh Modi, knew that the relationships were homosexual ones.

“Okay,” Nicki said, “This is the situation.” Nicki thought for a few seconds and then continued. “We’ve been making toluene so we can methylate morphine to produce codeine efficiently, right?”

Both men nodded.

“Well, after we provided some codeine to the Essen Intelligence Service, the director must have mentioned it to someone, because the ordnance team for Essen Steel is now breathing down our necks to make tri-nitro toluene, TNT. Colette and I have been putting them off for a month, but they finally went to the Governor-General and he’s starting to put the pressure on. So we’ve got to produce some explosives to get them off our backs.”

Nicki Jo wrinkled her nose in exasperation. “Not that I want to. I want to save lives, damn it, not make boom toys.”

Tobias laughed. “Boom toys are fun, Nick. Besides, the Republic can’t afford a very large army, so we need to keep a tech edge.”

“I know, Toby,” Nicki Jo said, “but our feedstock situation isn’t that great. Until we can get a steady supply of nitrates from Peru or Asia, we’re limited in how much nitric acid we can produce. We can’t produce it with electricity like Grantville can. At least, not profitably. And every ton we use for explosives will cut into our profit on stuff we can get higher margins on.”

Tobias looked at Solomon. “Let me and Solomon work on it. We’re good at nitration, aren’t we you old catamite?”

Solomon gave Tobias a mock scowl. “Catamite am I? Who was on top of who last night, you sodomite?”

“Sodomite? Sodomite am I? Buggerer!”

The two men looked at each other and grinned. Nicki Jo laughed. “Please, guys, I don’t want to hear about it. Male sexual bonding is not my thing.” She smiled at Katherine, who smiled back.

She knew she shouldn’t do it, of course. Tobias and Solomon just weren’t quite ready to be on their own yet. Oh, they were good chemists, but they still didn’t understand, deep down, how dangerous some of the processes were that they were dealing with. But it would get De Geer and the ordnance team off her back.

“Okay, I’ll let you guys have building number one. But you’ve got to be careful. That was our original pilot plant and it just doesn’t have the safety features we’ve built in to the major production facility. Remember . . . “

Tobias and Solomon laughed, then chorused together, ” . . . it’s hard to make miracle drugs when you’ve blown up the chem lab.” Nicki Jo had had that sign posted in three different languages at all entrances to the Essen Chemical Company’s facilities and laboratories. It seemed to have worked because they’d had no major accidents except for some minor burns, spills, and inevitable glass cuts. But there was always a first time.

Nicki Jo shook her head and wagged her finger at them. “I’m serious, guys. Watch your damn purity. Distill, distill and then distill again. If you even suspect you have too many impurities, destroy it. And for God’s sake, make small batches. Just telling the ordnance team we’re starting to work on it will keep them satisfied for a few months. Understood?”

Both men nodded solemnly again. Nicki Jo sighed. Now she knew what it felt like to send children off into the world where you couldn’t watch them every step of the way. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. She resolved to drop in as often as she could to check up on them.

“Okay, Toby, your turn to play gleek. You still owe me two guilders from last week.”

****

Three weeks later, Nicki Jo was deep in conversation with her head chemist, the Hungarian Banfi Hunyades, when Katherine Boyle came hurrying through the door of the Essen Chemical Company’s main research lab. The lab was an impressive assemblage of glassware, earthenware and stoneware. Alembics, retorts and ovens were everywhere and the building had been designed to take into account the needs of a down-time chemistry lab that had to depend on seventeenth-century materials and apparati. The majority of the glassware, thermometers and other instrumentation was manufactured by the Essen Instrument Company, a separate subsidiary started up by Colette Modi, Nicki Jo and Katherine, with financial backing from Essen Steel investors. Stoneware came from the Raeren workshops south of Aachen. Ovens, alembics and other metal apparati were built to spec by metalworkers in the Steele area who worked for or contracted with the Essen Steel Company. To the eyes of a twentieth-century chemist, the lab would have seemed a dangerous Rube Goldberg mishmash filled with safety hazards. In the down-time universe it represented the best state of the art chemical research lab in Europe, outside of Grantville.

When Nicki Jo saw Katherine’s face, her guts began to twist inside her. Normally there was nothing that could get Katherine Boyle upset. So the worried frown on her face was not a good sign.

“What is it, Katy?”

“I really don’t know if it’s that much of a problem,” Katherine said, “but Tobias and Solomon have kept it a secret for a week, so I thought I better tell you as soon as I could.”

“What?”

“According to Franz Dubois, Tobias and Solomon decided they weren’t getting enough toluene out to work with, so they decided they’d try distilling out phenol and nitrating that for an explosive instead.”

Nicki Jo’s face turned white. “Oh shit.”

Banfi Hunyades shook his head. “Young fools. Don’t they remember the lectures? Or do they simply think they are immortal?”

Of all the alchemists and chemists hired by Essen Chemical Company from the members of the Acontian Society, Banfi Hunyades had the most experience. A man in his late fifties, Hunyades not only came from a long line of Hungarian alchemists, he had also instructed students in chemistry and chemical medicine at Gresham College in London. His experience and intelligence had enabled him to easily pick up on the principles of up-time chemistry and help adapt up-time laboratory techniques and methods to seventeenth-century materials.

“What?” Katherine said. “Is it that much more dangerous than working with toluene?”

Hunyades nodded. “Tri-nitro phenol is also known as picric acid. Many of the metal salts of picric acid are highly unstable, even more so in some ways than mercury fulminate. And you know what kind of precautions we take in its manufacture.”

“So what are we going to do?” Katherine asked.

“Tear those boys a new asshole, for one,” Nicki growled. She looked at Hunyades. “Will you back me up on this one, Banfi? Sometimes I think Tobias and Solomon are still stuck in male dominance mode. If you help ream them out, it might make more of an impression.”

Hunyades nodded. “Whatever you wish, Miss Pricket. Do you want to go now? The experiment still has an hour to run.”

“Yeah,” Nicki Jo said, “let’s shut it down. We may not be back in time and I don’t want to leave this up for someone else to stumble across.” It took them five minutes to break down the apparati and arrange for a clean-up crew.

Building one, two hundred yards away from the main research lab, had been the first coal tar pilot plant built by the Essen Chemical Company in the spring of 1633. It had been mainly a proof-of-principle plant, designed to establish the needs for a more sophisticated coal tar distilling facility.

Banfi Hunyades, Nicki Jo and Katherine Boyle were thirty yards from the plant when it blew up.

****

It all could have been much worse, of course. Banfi and Katherine were hit by non-lethal splinters from the door while Nicki Jo was knocked unconscious when a bigger chunk dug a groove along the left side of her head. The plant itself had been designed with a weak west wall in case of a hydrogen explosion and that fact helped save the lives of the ordnance team and Solomon des Caux who had also been protected by heavy equipment between them and the blast. The only serious injury was Franz Dubois, who lost an eye to a splinter.

But the three men closest to the blast, including Tobias Ridley, died.

****

It was the fourth day after Tobias’ funeral when Nicki Jo’s subconscious baggage forced itself into her fore brain. She was in the dark, alone, in her bedroom.

You piece of shit, Prickett. You knew they weren’t ready. You knew it was dangerous. And you wanted to absolve your conscious. So much easier to tell yourself you were busy, to let the oversight slide, wasn’t it?

Her self-loathing, buried for years, made her choke. Carefully, quickly, she cut her wrist with the small dagger she always carried. Not a dangerous cut, just a nice shallow cut. For the pain. Take that, you bitch. Again, another shallow cut. It had been years since she’d even thought of cutting herself, let alone done it.

It all started in sixth grade. Stephanie Baxter, the Queen Bee. Pretty, petite, popular. She’d hunted around for someone she and her friends could pick on, someone they could all hate with a passion. Her sights had fallen on big, awkward Nicki Jo Prickett. It helped, of course, that Nicki Jo was smarter than any of them.

But that still wouldn’t have been enough for Nicki Jo to turn to self-injury without her mother. Karen Prickett had had a difficult time with her first daughter, Angela. She had been bound and determined to do it right with Nicki Jo. The pressure to be perfect had been intense. Nothing Nicki did was good enough. When Nicki Jo protested, tried to rebel, her mother, a hefty woman herself, beat her, often after half-a-dozen whiskey sours. When her dad or sister tried to intervene, they were screamed at and beaten, too. She loved her dad, but he’d been too weak to deal with her mother. So he went passive-aggressive and retreated. Angela did what she could, but by the time Nicki Jo was in sixth grade, Angela had left the house to live with relatives.

So Stephanie had been the tipping point. It hadn’t helped that Nicki Jo’s burgeoning homosexuality had made her feel attracted to Stephanie. That only increased her self-loathing. By the time Amy Kubiak was in middle school and able to really help, the cutting addiction was already in place for Nicki Jo Prickett.

It was her sophomore year in high school when she finally cut a little too deep, nicking a vein and spraying blood around the girl’s bathroom at Grantville High School. It had been a big scene, with paramedics, administrators cordoning off the hallway, everything. Only then, with Amy Kubiak’s urging and the insistence of the school counselors, had she gotten the therapy she needed.

But there was no Amy Kubiak in Essen to help her now.

Nicki Jo watched the blood drip from the shallow cuts, feeling the pain, wanting it. She hadn’t cried at Tobias’ funeral. She never cried. Hadn’t cried since she was five years old. She was getting ready for a good, deep cut when the bedroom door opened.

“Leave me alone,” Nicki said.

“No,” Katherine said, “I won’t. I won’t let you do this to yourself.”

Katherine came over and took the dagger from Nicki Jo’s hand. Nicki resisted at first but Katherine’s grip was steady and unrelenting. Finally, Nicki Jo let go.

“It’s my fault. I should never have let them do it.”

Katherine shook her head. “God gives us free will, Nicki. Tobias knew what he was doing, knew it was risky. And Solomon bears as much guilt as you. He could have said something, stopped it early enough. He didn’t.”

“My fault, mine! I knew they weren’t ready, I knew it! But I let my pride, my anger at being pushed into a corner take over. Don’t you see?”

“What I see,” Katherine said, “is my friend, my lover, letting guilt destroy her. I noticed when I was in Grantville that Americans seem to love guilt. But they don’t love what should come from guilt.”

Nicki Jo looked at Katherine, a puzzled expression on her face. “What should come from guilt? What do you mean?”

“Certainly not this,” Katherine said, holding up the dagger and throwing it contemptuously across the room. “That is just indulging in self-pity. Penance, Nicki. You know that there will be pressure to keep making some kind of explosives. You know that if you don’t get involved more of our friends may die. As difficult as it may be for you to accept, you have to get involved. Consider it your penance. It won’t bring back Tobias, but at least you can say you did your best to keep others from making the same mistake.”

“What if it’s not good enough?” Nicki said. “What if other people still die?”

Katherine smiled sadly. “Then that is God’s will. But at least you will have done your best to prevent it.”

Katherine looked down at the cuts on Nicki Jo’s arm. “I think we need to get a bandage on these. Not any worse than some of the glass cuts you’ve had, but we’ll need to put some antiseptic on them.”

Penance, Nicki thought, penance. With sudden resolve she went over to her bookshelf filled with chemistry books. Somewhere there had to be an explosive that would help the Republic and yet be easier and safer to make than TNT or picric acid.

“Go ahead and get the bandages, Katy. I’ve got work to do.”

****

“Gelignite?” General De Vries said. “What is gelignite?”

The ordnance team for the Essen Steel Company, minus Franz Dubois, who was still in the hospital, was meeting with the Army of Essen’s command group. Nicki Jo had temporarily taken over Franz’s scientific advisory role.

“It’s like dynamite, General, but safer. It doesn’t sweat like dynamite does,” Nicki Jo said. “A big percentage of it is potassium nitrate, so that will ease the feedstock burden for it. It requires some soluble gun cotton, but only a very small percentage. The main ingredient will be nitroglycerin. Up-time, Nobel patented Gelignite in about 1875.”

“Nitroglycerin? I thought that was highly unstable?” De Vries said.

“That’s why we’ll turn it directly into gelignite, General. Now, you won’t be able to use gelignite in artillery shells, but you can use it for satchel charges for your engineers, and for these.” Nicki Jo pulled a short piece of wood with a metal cylinder on the top from beneath the table. “Even with the reduction in active ingredients for gelignite, the army can only afford about a ton a month. So the ordnance team and I came up with this.”

De Vries took the club-like weapon from Nicki and waved it in the air. It was light, less than three or four pounds.

“What is it?”

“Well,” Nicki said, “Up-time it was called a ‘potato masher.’ But I think down-time it needs a more martial sounding name, so I’ve suggested we call them ‘warhammers.’ It’s a grenade, General. With half a pound of gelignite in the warhead, it should be a useful addition for the infantry for both defensive and offensive battles. Once the army has enough of these in inventory, along with whatever satchel charges it wants, we can use the gelignite in construction projects. For Essen Chemical Company’s bottom line, making nitroglycerin will also be beneficial since we have to get a nice pure glycerin, which, up-time, had literally thousands of uses.”

****

After the meeting, Katherine Boyle, Colette Modi and Nicki Jo Prickett walked back to the Essen Chemical Company laboratory.

“Well,” Colette said, “General De Vries certainly seemed enthusiastic about your warhammers. And he even didn’t think to bring up TNT again.”

Nicki Jo laughed. “I know. But we give them some boom toys, and we get paid to develop a method for purifying glycerin, which will make us a pile of money, none of it related to explosives. Much better than that stupid old TNT.”

****