Seven days later

... I found myself watching a hypersonic transport lift off vertically from the grass field Bringer was using as an airport in the Contested Zone. Far above me its horizontal jets cut in and it darted off, the last link I'd have with everything familiar and normal for as much as a year.

Most of the people it had brought were fanning out, eyeing each other warily as they followed their well-prepared plans. Eventually I was left alone on the field except for an older guy who was wearing a sidearm but no backpack.

"Son, you got an angle?"

"An angle?"

"Yeah. Most people come here have something they plan to make or trade or sell. Get in tight with the winning army, or maybe both armies if you've got balls, and get a cut of the victory pie if you don't get dead first. But you look kind of lost."

"Yeah. My girl is in the Blue Army. It was come here or lose her."

"A girl, eh. Now there's a new one. Look, the reason I'm asking is that I have an angle, and while I could go it alone I could use some help. Pardon my bluntness but I don't think you'll last long without some help yourself. I've been through six wars already and I can show you how to survive."

"I have to be near the Blue Army sixth division headquarters. That's where she is."

"Well, I've been studying topo maps of this island for ten years and one of the better potential sites for my work is pretty near there. Walk with me and I'll check it out first."

"Okay, thanks. I'm Walt."

"Benny. Don't thank me, I think we can make an equitable arrangement. It's the sort of thing that will make this whole Zone go 'round while Bringer is out of the picture, and nothing's finer than a deal where both parties come out ahead."

Benny, it turned out, was a distiller. He would operate a machine that converted raw grains into nearly pure alcohol. It had never occurred to me to wonder exactly where alcohol came from, but Benny was full of lore as to how humans had discovered it and perfected its manufacture.

Benny would set up his still in some hidden place and he could do his own trading if necessary, but he could be much more productive with an accomplice who could take care of the trading for him. Also I recognized that he would be safer if someone else was doing the travelling with his valuable product. As the "go-to guy" I'd be the target for all the hijackers and thieves instead of Benny.

But if I didn't find a "gig" as he called it I'd starve, and it was the only offer in sight. So when Benny announced that the site near Cath's HQ was suitable, I found myself helping him gather his secreted components and putting together the machine.

There were farms in the Zone that had been operated by Bringer until the start of the War. Some of these would be taken over by the armies, some by individuals strong enough to hold on to them, and some would be overrun and go fallow. I had to travel pretty far to get to a field that wasn't under Blue Army control, and I watched my back nervously while hauling back two big sacks of grain.

"We have to find a closer source," I said when I got back.

"We will. But first we need trading material."

In my absence Benny hadn't been idle. He'd chopped a fair amount of firewood, cultured his yeasts, and prepared the fermentation tank. We loaded the tank up with grain, topped it with water from a nearby stream, and Benny added the yeast and sealed it up.

While our first batch fermented Benny told me in detail how the still worked, from mash to final brew. I found it fascinating. It had never occurred to me that a machine could be fully understood by a human. Most machines are far too complicated. By contrast a still would be almost too simple to be interesting, except that Benny fancied himself an artist and the refinements and adjustments necessary to bring the product up to his standards made the project interesting without making it overwhelming.

When the mash was ready we loaded it into the still and started the rest of the grain I'd brought fermenting. Then Benny showed me how to build the fire, how to tend it, and how to make sure the process was going according to plan.

Finally we bottled it. Benny had empty bottles stashed all over the Zone, and until our customers started returning them we'd have to go dig up his caches each time a batch was ready.