IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
The Policy of Til
"Stop. Stop. Stop."
Justín jerked straight up in his seat, back up from the cushions that supported him in trance. He slapped off the music, letting in the cries of seagulls as he pulled the psychometric band away. "Okay, it's stopped," he said. He dipped a handkerchief into his water-glass and swabbed at his face, struggling to wake up the rest of the way. "So what's up, Hon?"
Deirdre clenched the arms of her chair. "I don't know how it happened."
"Joining the rebels. I didn't know it till now, but I'd already joined before we even reached the base, before I'd heard a single word of their ideology." She looked at him as if a sharp enough stare could rip the answer out of him, like she could read it in his entrails or something. "Would you call it Stockholm syndrome? Did Cyran and Alysha brainwash me?"
He folded his hands thoughtfully as he considered the question. "I can certainly see some element of that. Having to depend on your captor's goodwill for..." Then he saw Deirdre's stricken face.
"That's it? I killed people, did t-terrible things, overthrew an entire government for a mere syndrome?"
Justín leaned over to her. "No, Deirdre," he said gently. He wanted so badly to hold her hand, but after their psychometric linkage it would sear him so hideously that not even an overdose could protect him--and she had to bear all that alone? "Stockholm syndrome's only part of the answer. Think. What did you see as you traveled the countryside? What did you absorb from the children's minds?"
"Hor...horrible injustice." Her eyes watered. "But did e want me to see that?"
"Of course e did. As much as Jonathan wanted you not to. You had the free will to choose between the viewpoints of two would-be brainwashers. And wanting you to see something didn't make it untrue, not on either side. And so you chose."
She swallowed and smoothed the hair out of her eyes. "I chose," she said throatily. "And people died."
"Before you got there people died. Starvation. Execution. The knock at night from the secret police."
"The Purple Mantles," she said. "But they were no secret."
He sipped water, then refilled Deirdre's glass. "Did any of Soskia's friends know how they kept the peace? Did they want to know?"
Deirdre shook her head slowly.
"Secrets can lie right out in the open and wear bright colors."
Her eyes narrowed as she sipped her own water. "Til's official policy backs me up--now. Doesn't it?"
“Even my condoning of child soldiers?”
“Cultures vary quite a lot as to how and when one attains majority.”
Deirdre stared at him, aghast, and gave a short, almost whispered laugh. Faintly she said, “I remember when I used to believe that.” Then, more sharply, she asked, "Would you give me this reassuring speech if I had failed, if the old regime remained?"
He smiled despite himself. "I'd probably reassure you that you couldn't help getting brainwashed under the circumstances."
Her hands twisted in her lap as she stared into them. "It felt so real. I mean it was, but…everything in the Charadoc, before the revolutionaries...I liked it, but it scared me. I…I wanted to agree with Jonathan, to make him happy. And yet…I sensed insubstantiality, pretty curtains hiding horrors. Cyran whipped the curtains all away."
Justín sighed. He'd seen this time and time again. No one ever told young agents everything, like how two may both serve Lovequest, and believe one thing, and yet oppose each other. It didn't matter if they loved each other, too.
"You're right. It was real." He reached again for the band, trailing wires like his personal thorns. "Your dyslectic telepathy added everything that they didn't want you to see to everything you saw, no matter who did the brainwashing." The band sank onto his forehead and he tightened it there. Both right, and both wrong, he decided, but no need to tell her that. Debriefers learned to live with paradox. "Policy aside, Deirdre, I think you made the right choice."
She looked darkly on him. “You don’t yet know all my choices.”
He shrugged. His hand hovered over the music switch. "Shall we resume?"
* * *
In the room next door the transcriber typed in the last page, and then stopped. She lifted the book off the holder and into her own hands, to read the final lines:
Done. No more to it. She won't come back with me. Rebel. The old order decays. She doesn't need me anymore--and neither do I.
Cyran's all right. She left me with enough of the deep brown potion to die with. At least I can finish something I started.
But first I shall seal up this diary. I shall hand it to the first illiterate peasant I come across, tell him its value, that Til Institute will pay a heavy ransom for its safe return, no questions asked. Only then will I open the bottles, one by one, to see which of us can finish the other first.
Gently the transcriber laid the fragile old book down on her desk. Job done, and she could expect good pay for what no one else could do. She ran a finger along the cracked leather binding and made herself touch the red-black streak along the sides of the pages--did that come from the battle of Giant's Clap, or did he just cut himself shaving? She thanked God once again that she had no psychometric gift and couldn't read a thing in that dark stain.
She got up and put everything where it belonged, then shouldered on a sweater and her purse. Tonight would definitely be a single-malt night--she sure could use a good strong belt of...no. Maybe not. Not that kind of night at all.