The morning incarnation session had again proven futile. Will floated down the town thoroughfare, lost in thought. He was so distracted that he nearly drifted straight through the man standing in the middle of the road, with legs spread and arms akimbo, staring straight at his heartlight.
“You the fast ‘un?”
Will’s spirits picked up considerably; it was the first time in ages that someone had asked him a question he could actually answer. Lifting off, he projected himself down the street, past Big John’s smithy and Ben’s apothecary, and then upwards on a trajectory over the livery stable. He charted a U-shaped course that carried him out over the sheep pens and past the tannery, then back down towards the street and finally to a stop directly in front of the rawboned figure, whose face bore sparse patches of reddish beard.
The man’s expression never changed. “Reckon that answers that. Been meanin’ t’ have a word or two wit’ ye. Name’s John Ammerman. Reckon y’mayya heard tell o’ me.” He was tall, lean, his face craggy, his leather garments patchy and worn, his jaw in constant motion, chawing away on nothing at all. He wasn’t dirty so much as unkempt and frazzled; he exuded the impression of a man too occupied with other tasks to make hygiene a high priority. His diction suggested either a lack of education or a tongue actively at war with the speech centers of his brain.
If Will might otherwise have thought him stupid, though, a single look into his eyes was enough to dissuade him. They were the eyes of a raptor, crystal blue and calculating. To say he saw right through Will was, of course, faint praise given Will’s condition; nonetheless, Will thought that this might be a man to whom a lot of fully incarnate people would prove equally transparent.
“Reckon ya might notta heard much about me that pleased ye. Ben likes to warn off the new arrivals. Get ‘is hooks in early. Make productive lil’ cogs out ‘o ‘em, in ‘is machine. His ‘community.’” In his mouth, the word sounded like a curse. “But yer a free man. A free man can make up ‘is own mind. Matter o’ fact, a free man hasta. Figger ya wanna decide fer yerself, join me in my workshop fer a spell.” He gestured towards an expansive oaken building with a large porch, then marched off towards it. It took Will a few moments to untangle the stranger’s syntax and figure out that he’d been invited inside.
The door opened directly into Ammerman’s showroom, which was neatly organized, spacious, and spotless. Sunlight streamed in through large windows, each of which bore stout oaken shutters. Abundant shelves displayed bows, crossbows, and ammunition of various sorts. A dark-skinned boy of roughly Will’s own age sat on a stool, threading crow feathers into the end of an arrow shaft; seeing Will’s heartlight trailing behind Ammerman, he glanced up with interest. “Keep workin’ th’ counter if ye would, Dion, least ‘till Milton’s back,” Ammerman growled. “Got company. An’ don’ fergit t’ file away them new receipts. Remember, boy, it ain’t about trust, it’s about th’ contract. Always keep the receipt.” The boy nodded and went back to his work. Ammerman strode to a door behind the counter, which he unlocked with an iron key. This came as a surprise to Will; he couldn’t recall seeing a lock of the same quality―a lock of any kind―anywhere else in town.
The inner room was windowless, lit only by the embers in a small hearth, the smoke from which filtered out through a small chimney. Ammerman lit a brand and touched it to a pair of oil lamps hanging near the door. It was, as he’d stated, a small workshop, and by Haven standards, a formidable one. Will recognized several carpentry and leatherworking tools―a framed push-saw, a wood plane, several chisels, an awl, as well as other instruments the purpose of which he could only guess at. Long, threadlike strands of plant fiber and sinew dangled from a small rack not far from the hearth. A massive cabinet dominated the wall opposite the hearth beside the door with the formidable iron lock. Ammerman seated himself on a three-legged stool with his back to the fire.
“I’d offer ye a seat, but not much point, I reckon,” he began. “Ye may be wonderin’ bout certain things, such as how come I ‘m jes about th’ only one in Haven with a last name. Here’s th’ first thing y’otter know. I’m a man what remembers things. I don’t let things go easy. I remember m’ pa’s name. Lot else besides. Here’s another thing I remember.”
When Ammerman spoke again, it was in a different voice than his previous strangled tenor. It was deeper, stronger―and his diction was suddenly perfect. “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He paused again; when he continued, his voice had returned to its usual rusted-saw squawk. “Fine words. I believe them words ‘r true, mostly. Back on Earth, I lived my life in a country that believed ‘em, ‘til people forgot what they meant.”
His mouth tightened for a moment, thin lips puckering, as if he’d bitten down on something sour. “Lotta folks in Haven don’t remember them words. I’m a man what died believin’ in the truth o’ them words, an’ in the lord an’ savior Jesus Christ. Lotta folks in Haven fergot him, too. I didn’t. I died believin’ Jesus would welcome me with open arms t’ his heavenly kingdom, that I’d be brought home by firey chariots while choirs o’ angels sang.” Ammerman glanced around theatrically. “Funny. Jesus done made himself scarce, dinnee? Ain’t no chariots neither. Not sure what I believe ‘bout that no more. The angels?” And there was the piercing glare again, with a hint of a smile for seasoning. “Might be I still believe in th’ angels jes’ a bit.”
“But today, it’s them words I wanted ta talk to ye about. Creator or no, a man got rights. Right ta life. Right ta liberty. An’ that’s a big un.” He nodded. “Pursuit o’ his own aims an’ schemes. Big right, that. None bigger. A free man lives by his hands an’ his wits, contracts w’ who he pleases, lives his own way long as he hurt none. Lives under the thumb o’ no other man, no matter how that other man might be pop’lar, or talk fancy, or whatnot. No man owns no other man, let alone a whole town.” Another pucker. “Might be some folks locally fergit that no man owns ‘em. I’m John Ammerman. I’m a man what remembers. Might be I remember more than any other livin’ soul in Haven.”
“Livin’ soul.” In the lamplight he looked almost cockeyed, his right eye wider than the other. “Now, here’s a thing. Two new souls in town. S’pposed ta be brand new souls, what everyone’s assumin’. But folks live under a man’s thumb too long, get used to that man doin’ their thinkin’ for ‘em, maybe they forget how ta think. John Ammerman’s a man what remembers.” A lopsided stare. “One o’ them souls tears inta town like all-git-out. Faster than anyone seen a soul move, maybe two hunnert years. Now, a soul moves like that, one o’ two things has to be true. One,” and he held up a finger, “that ain’t no new soul. New souls ain’t got no legs unner ‘em. Ain’t got that turn o’ speed. Or two,”―a second finger―”that is a new soul, but not no ordinary new soul. Got a little extra somethin’ other souls don’t. Maybe a lotta extra somethin’. Either way, though, story’s the same. People ain’t estimatin’ the new fella proper. That new soul? He got somethin’ others don’t.” He lowered his fingers and gave a slow grin. “Maybe he throws folks off the scent a titch. Takes some extra time ta figger out how to incarnate. ‘Oh, nothin’ special here, can’t even build me a new body right, don’t nobody take no notice.’” The grin widened. “Sly fella if he did. Knowin’ fella, I reckon. Fella worth swappin’ secrets with.”
Ammerman leaned back on his stool, folding his fingers behind his head, the lamplight reflecting in his eyes. “Know what else I reckon? I reckon that fella, he’s his own man. Don’t reckon he’s gonna wanna be a cog in no man’s machine. Don’t reckon he’s gonna fall in line behind some fella jes cuz he talks purty. Not gonna be like some big dumb kid, follow that man ‘round like a dog, lookin’ fer a new daddy. Lookin’ fer security.”
“I’m a man what remembers. Know what I remembered best, when I came here, twenny-odd years ago? Firearms.” He savored the word as he spoke it. “I swear to God, I remembered every goddamn thing there was to remember about firearms. Might be not a body in Haven showed up knowin’ more ‘bout any one thing. If’n Huanphu remembered farming like I remembered guns, we’d have stores fer a whole winter before half the harvest came in. Mavra remembered makin’ liquor like I remembered guns, everyone in town’d carry their liver beside ‘em in a bucket.” A sad smile. “Beautiful machine, a firearm. Can’t do nothin’ with what I know, ‘course. Can’t get th’ parts. Can’t hardly even make steel here. Might be ye could manage a flintlock, but them ain’t my area o’ expertise. But here’s the thing.” Ammerman stood, and walked over to a table by the hearth. “Rememberin’ ain’t all there is. These ‘community’ folks, now? They’re willin’ ta coast on what they brought with ‘em from Earth and what others tell ‘em. Play out th’ string, go home to Th’ Light. Not John Ammerman. No sir.” He picked up a nearly finished crossbow off of the table and returned to sit in front of Will. “You can teach an old dog new tricks. Believe that. Came here not knowin’ howta hammer two boards together. Ol’ Anders, used ta run this shop, he taught me up some. So happens I’m a bit of a craftsman now. Them bows you seen, stored up in th’ Redoubt? Might be I made most of ‘em w’ these two hands here. Might be those ain’t all the bows there are, though.”
His hands caressed the crossbow; its varnish glistened in the firelight, sleek and deadly. “’All men created equal’? Not so sure. Met Lil’ Bill at the livery stable? Does some work for me, time t’ time. Lil’ squirt like ‘im, figure he could take someone like ‘at Jason inna straight-up fight? Ha!” This time the grin showed teeth. “How’s that fer ‘created equal’?”
Ammerman lowered the weapon; placed his foot in the stirrup; drew back the string, cocking it. “But can’t no man, regardless o’ size, bully a man who’s armed. Nor a woman, neither. Can’t no mob rule over armed men. An armed man or woman, that’s a free man or woman.”
Ammerman turned his profile to Will. He lifted the bow to his shoulder, pointed it at the far wall, sighted down the shaft. “Creator mighta endowed us with inalienable rights. Might even be he made men. If so, I’m right grateful. But I figger…”
Ammerman’s finger tightened. The sinew string snapped forward on an empty chamber.
“…it’s John Ammerman who’ll make all men equal.”