IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Thursday, April 23, 2708
Sunset. Time for a break. The sky changes colors overhead, but I can’t see its full splendor, hemmed in by the trees. I stand by the fresh-turned dirt in the little cemetery, reading the name that Alysha carved into the fresh-cut wood, aware that in a few years the humidity will rot the letters away and nobody but God will know where we buried Mischa.
We can’t save them all.
I move on, arms crossed, eyes down to make sure that I don’t step on any graves. I only know that I’ve left the graveyard when the trees cast shadows all around me. I almost thought I could save Mischa. I thought that when her fever broke we stood a chance with her. But by mid-afternoon the next day a new fever took over where the last one left off.
Wearily I sit down, nestled into the fragrant shelter of some curving roots. Haven’t I felt that way before? Thought I’d actually saved someone, only to...no. It doesn’t always work out. (No. Not that memory. Never again, that memory. I am an old man, now, and it happened a long time ago, a long ways away from the iron safety of this school.) I lean my head back against the trunk, close my eyes, let the twilight and the past wash over me...
"This is splendid!" I couldn't help but say as I walked about the clean little room. The floorboards could use some polish; they felt uneven underfoot, but they also felt so solid, with nary a chink between them. The genuine window had genuine glass in it, and the sunlight just poured right in. The whitewashed walls even had some decorative tiles here and there, blue and red-violet flowers, set in diamond-style. The landlord, a burly, balding man with a bushy, black moustache to match his bushy, black eyebrows over burning eyes, threw open the window, and the air didn’t smell too bad.
"You're gonna need help getting that fancy bed up these stairs," the landlord growled. "I can find you some boys sober enough for the work, but they'll cost you."
"That's okay. I've got the cash."
"Til credits, I suppose."
"I can get it exchanged for whatever form you prefer."
He just grunted and gazed out the window, arms crossed. "Naw, Til credit's fine with me. I'm just wondering what your kind's doing in these parts."
I went over and stood beside him. "My mother won't stay anywhere else." Outside lay a street, a genuine, paved street of locally gathered cobblestones, kept in some repair, and surprisingly little litter blew through it, while people with self-respect walked by. Granted, the dampness had done its damage to the paint and wood and plaster, yet even so, thriving shops and tiny gardens lined the way, with apartments like this over the shops. "I do have to admit," I remember saying, "that I can hardly believe we're still in Rhallunn."
He grunted again, irritably, and turned away. "You'll have to put the hospital bed over against that wall, so it won't interfere with the closet or the bathroom door." He looked over his shoulder at me. "It's not spacious like you get in Til Institute, you know."
"The pharmacy next door..."
"It's a real pharmacy. Dispenses Til-approved medicines and toiletries. Your Mom'll get what she needs; I'll carry it up myself." Hands on his hips, he turned to me. "And the ice-cream parlor downstairs is safe--milk comes in inspected from Alonzo Valley. I haven't killed a customer yet."
"I have a lot to learn about Rhallunn," I said humbly.
He softened a bit, looking out the window again. "Most people don't know about this corner of Rhallunn," he said, "And we like it that way. Artists hang out here, get ideas from each other, you know, folks just starting out. And sometimes folks born and bred in Rhallunn find a step up, here. If they make it, either sort, they move on up to the big cities and bask in their reputations. If they don't..." he shrugged.
"They drift westward towards the rest of the neighborhood," I finished. The real slum.
"And sometimes they come back from the cities with their arses whupped and drift there anyway. We’re in border country, here, really; you could go either way." He looked at me with more intelligence than any professor I'd ever studied under; I noticed the different colors of paint under his nails and in the cuticles. "But they’ve got to come here, every generation of artists sooner or later, or someplace like it. 'Cause you just can't do it without a little bit of both worlds mixed together. Artists need border-country, like corn needs a sunny field lashed by the rain now and then."
Is that where I’ve found myself? Border country? Some border between despair and hope, where rebellious young artists try to paint a new kind of future in fire and blood? Will we succeed, I wonder?
I open my eyes. It’s all night, now. Time to get back to the clinic and finish my work.
(It’s night, but my labor doesn’t end. Stacks of papers clutter up my desk. Teacher’s lesson-plans for summer, awaiting my approval—as if they didn’t submit the same plans every year. And applications for the next round of students in the fall. And catalogues of stationary supplies, veterinary supplies, bulk goods and large-scale appliances for the kitchen or laundry or sanitary facilities of any institution you could name.
And it’s good—good to have work, early in the morning until I finally drop into bed. It does a man profit, this plenitude of work. It staves off mischief, morbidity and…remembering.)
Friday, April 24, 2708
"No, no, Lufti! When I grab you, don't keep trying to pull away--I'm bigger than you." I dash the sweat from my eyes. "Make a feint--pretend to pull away, just enough to make me confident about yanking you towards me. Then, as I do, add my strength to your own and punch me in the stomach." The padding on me already stinks of my efforts to train the recruits on how the small and weak may win a fight. "We steal guns and other weapons from the government, right? Well, think of strength as one more weapon we can steal."
"I'm strong, Deirdre, very strong." He makes a muscle and tries to look fierce and all he looks like is a little boy caught up in make-believe.
"Ooh, that's nice, Lufti." I feel his muscle obligingly, playing along. Children absolutely have to play a role before they can gain the confidence to work the role--if they ever get a chance to grow up for it. I remind myself that children—even toddlers!—fought in The Tribe’s war, on my rookie mission. An agent must come to grips with such things, in cultural immersion.
“Must?” Deirdre murmured, her trance starting to fracture all around her. But before she could open her eyes the chiming notes of Archives dragged her back, by turning into the commissary bell…
As he strikes a fighting stance for the next round (looking more like a play-soldier than ever) I say, "No more for now, Lufti--listen; there's the bell for lunch. Let's go enjoy it, while we still have lunches."
The succulent aroma of stewing goat already beckons us as I strip off my gear and sigh to let my skin breathe once again--and I thought the collar gathered sweat! Now Lufti crooks both arms at once in a muscle-man pose before his reflection in a window. "I'm gonna make the Purple Mantles fear me," he says.
"Yep, you just keep right on studying and we'll make a fearsome warrior out of you." I don't dare say anything realistic when morale might be his only hope for survival someday soon.
He trots alongside me as I walk towards the main ramada. "And books?" he asks. "You gonna give me more reading lessons?"
"Yeah. Tonight. Why not?" I take his hand. "Tell you what, Lufti. You pick the book, this time. I think you've learned enough to figure out any title in the library."
"But what if it turns out to be full of big words?"
"Then we'll sound them out together, you and I. The trick is to pick out what you like. If it interests you enough, you won't care how hard it is to learn. You'll hardly even notice."
Marduk cooks lunch today; we know that even before we get there by the savor in the air. (I remember, oh how I remember, the fat landowner with his private goons always hovering nearby, the way his bulk swung around him as he waddled through the rows to inspect our work, to leer at our mother, to dip into whatever we might have fixed ourselves for lunch even after he’d had his own.) We follow Malcolm to the line, fascinated, I admit, to watch how all that weight jiggles and shifts from side to side as he moves. He joins the line and we get in behind him. (Oh, how I remember the feasts he threw for visiting soldiers, when he'd send his little private army out to loot our larders for him.)
When Marduk cooks it means meat in the stew, freshly butchered or hunted. (I remember the beating he gave me personally, for poaching a squirrel from his garden. His jowls quivered and he dripped sweat on the welts that he cut into my backside with his switch.) Then he lovingly seasons it like each bayleaf came from his personal laurel crown. (I still have the scars. Because I ate one squirrel.)
When Malcolm comes up to the cauldron, Marduk steps around him to dump a ladle of broth and potatoes into my bowl. "Excuse me," I say, "But I believe Malcolm was ahead of me."
"He doesn't need any," he says, and fills up Lufti's bowl. (He said his daughter loved the squirrel.)
Malcolm turns red and says, "It's all right, Deirdre."
"It is not all right!" Marduk stops in his tracks after ladling soup to the girl behind us. "There are all kinds of vitamins that fat can't store--you need to eat with the rest of us or you'll die."
Marduk turns slowly to me. "You got a problem with that?" He holds the ladle like a casual weapon, but his other hand rests on his gun.
"Yeah, I got a problem with that," I say as I lay aside my stew. "He became an Egalitarian on the same night I did." He doesn’t have bullets for the gun, as I recall.
“Oh really? I don't remember that. Maybe I wasn't there. And maybe you made it up."
"Oh, you were there, all right--you left your mark all over Alysha's face." Which sends the ladle lashing towards my own face. I catch it easily and twist it out of his grip. He hurls towards me, but I dodge and trip him into the big table where he smashes into any number of bowls of soup. He doesn't know, of course, about my little neural anomaly. "You don't look so worried about wasting food now," I tell him.
He stares as if dumbfounded at the soup dripping into the dirt, fixed upon a bit of carrot in the mud. Then his face turns a deep purple as he jumps on me, a shard of pottery in each hand. Now I must defend myself in earnest, the heightened reflexes I gained so illegally years ago barely a match for his berzerkergang. We tumble over the steaming mud and as fast as I can twist he still cuts my arms in three places before I manage to knee him in the groin.
I get up and try to knock the mud off myself while he curls and moans. Ohhh no--now I'll have to face him every day in the infirmary--smart going, Deirdre!
Late for lunch as usual, with so much else to do, Cyran shows up, barking, "What's going on here?"
I point to Marduk, saying, "He refused to feed Malcolm, and when I objected, he attacked me." Only now do I see the blood that drips from my arm as I point.
Unfazed, Cyran smiles cruelly down at Marduk's pain. "I see that Deirdre has already punished you as much as I could devise. Good. You deserve it."
"And what does he deserve?" Marduk whispers weakly but with so much hissing spite that he might have shouted. "At whose expense do you think he got so sowbelly fat?"
Cyran turns to the others gathered for the meal. "You all know the rule: whatever we did before becoming an Egalitarian burns up in the Test of Fire." To Malcolm e says, "I don't think you've gained a single pound since joining us, Malcolm."
"I believe I may have lost a couple," he replies. "I don't feel so hungry, anymore."
Cyran picks up a piece of bowl. "Well, Deirdre, since your lack of diplomacy in explaining things to Marduk helped cause the trouble, you'll have to clean up the table and finish serving the soup--after Malcolm binds your war-wounds, of course. As for you," Cyran toes Marduk contemptuously, "since you can't stand up, you'll have to pick up the debris you left on the ground." And grudgingly, painfully, utterly humiliated on top of his agony, Marduk drags himself through the mud to do it.
(Oh, I remember that fat landowner all right, who believed he owned us body and soul with the land. I remember him, the night that the Purple Mantles busted down our door. He came along for the show. Nothing ever went on in his farm without him getting his fill of the profits--he saw to that. He wouldn't let anyone rape my mother without him taking his rightful turn, shoving his belly up out of the way with one big hand, his fat ass jiggling in the air, right in my face, so big I could hardly see my mother under him, just a bit of shoulder and a clawing arm. He took his turn with everyone the guards grabbed up, boy or girl didn't matter to him, only the power mattered--the power to crush us all under his weight.)