IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Aunt Soskia's Warehouses
Monday, May 25, continued
We reach a fenced-off row of warehouses no different from any other such complex along the quay. Lucinda works the combination on the gate, but the door to the warehouse office needs a key.
Chulan draws a lock-pick from her hair and her braids tumble down her neck as she bends to her work. "Get over here, Kanarik," she says. "You'll need to know this." And then she whispers the mysteries of pins and tumblers to our dancer while she feverishly works the lock till it clicks open for us. We enter a waiting-room, much to my disappointment--and fear. How long must this take?
At the inner door Chulan turns to her student and say, "Now you try." Kanarik nibbles her lip with those big teeth of hers and looks helplessly at me as if I could rescue her.
"Go on," I tell her, though I dread the delay inevitable in inexperience. Lucinda nods grimly, too, so Kanarik crouches over the lock. She might as well pick at my nerves, one by delicate one, with her exaggerated care. When it finally pops open I exhale so loudly that Lucinda scowls at me.
In a flash the twins streak ahead of us into the office, but we follow swiftly behind. Now! Now comes the hour of destruction. Gleefully we dump file after file of war research, we throw ourselves into cabinets and knock them over with satisfying crashes, tearing at great handfuls of paper and laughing, overturning racks of blueprints, dumping trashcans, hurling bud vases and coffee-cups with cute sayings on them to shatter against walls.
Oh, the wild sound of the laughing, shrieking children! Aichi dives into the pile with abandon as though we had raked together autumn leaves. She tosses a shower of crumpled papers up into the air, swinging her braids around in ecstasy. Then, when she abandons it for other games Imad pisses on the heap till Lucinda slaps him.
"You dirty little idiot! They won't burn as well that way." So he contents himself with spraying obscene graffiti about the Meritocracy high up on the walls where the fire might miss. I had no idea that he'd stashed away a can of fire-red paint for the occasion, all this time; heaven knows where he even got it.
Juvenile delinquents, indeed! I smash up models--prototypes for tanks and other machines of destruction--in a gaiety of violence I hurl them into glass cabinets full of trophies and plaques of scientific achievement. Cultural immersion--Lovequest has demanded this of me, that I join up with the bad boys and the wanton girls and become myself a delinquent. I drink hard and I smoke and I vandalize and fight hand-to-hand to the death!
Now Lucinda dispatches Chulan, Fatima, and Kanarik to pick locks to all the warehouses within the compound and I join them, for Til in her wisdom has taught me this art, too. How hard to hold back, to take the time and concentration to delicately disturb each little pin without simultaneously losing all the prior ones, while my friends still romp and riot in the office and the laboratory. I listen to things smash amid appreciative laughter and try to keep focused on what I'm doing.
We find the fuel--a great cylindrical tower of it. Reverently Fatima reaches up to the spout to touch the oil, then brings a fingertip towards her lips.
"Stop that!" Lucinda snaps and shoulders her away.
Fatima's ears turn pink. "But it's stapleseed oil--it's good for you."
"Not after they screw around with it." She studies the system of valves, what sequence we'll need to turn it on. As she climbs up a ladder she explains, "They load it up with engine-conditioners and other gunk by the time it gets to the tanks. All of that stuff is poison."
I gaze up at an enormous tank of ruined food. I can smell its rich and nutty aroma, and it never goes bad. Only a heavy load of antioxidants could fend off rancidity in the Charadoc's heat--must be a veritable fountain of youth. All that--polluted for the engines of war.
With a howl of fury I break glass and grab out the axe from the nearby fire-emergency box. Then I hack through the valves so that they gush and can never turn off--each in their nice, neat, little sequence. The golden oil gurgles out across cement while we all run to pile up wicks and channels of documents and other trash, balsa model fragments, blueprints, maps, and graphs. Lucinda barks out instructions as fast as she can--thank God the oil flows slower than water--and when I get the gist of her intent I do the same. We herd it into thick snakes of fuel, rippling to every warehouse full of tanks, the finished and the prototypes, to labs, to workshops, oh how we scramble with our armloads of paper dripping crumpled trails of the work of evil men, all of it coldly encoded in black and white numbers as though it held science alone.
"Hey! Stop! Who are you people?" A big man runs at us, so I whip around and shoot him before I even have time to think, but somehow I have time to watch him fall, in his white coat and spectacles, pens falling from his pocket and rolling all over the walk. I have time to see his blood flow into the oil before I remember that I have to hurry and herd the stuff and not let myself think about somebody who probably wasn't even armed.
So what, Deirdre? What kind of man grows so tall on what food in a country where children starve to death every day? What kind of man helps build the machines that crush those children under treads and blows their homes away? Make sure the fuel flows to each and every warehouse in this godforsaken concrete wasteland, where soulless men like him draw schematic dooms for those they will not see!
(I tell myself this, over and over and over.)
The hugest hanger stands empty—I shudder to think what it might have contained—or hopefully, what they merely planned to have it contain. We pass it by, for better prey.
"Now!" Kief shouts in triumph. He lights a cigar and deliberately tosses the match into a rivulet.
"No!" Lucinda screams, but too late. Fire flows much faster than oil, blazing streaks of death rushing all too soon to their destinations. We shrill in fear and run in all directions, but we have webbed the place in death. I grab Lufti under one arm and Kiril under another as I leap a river of flame to safety, then frantically beat the sparks out of my skirt as my legs sting.
Then I see Teofilo, slowed down, his reactions off. He tries to leap a pool of oil before it ignites, but he can't gauge timing or distances--the entire pool explodes all at once, hurling him like a ruined model of a man flailing into the air. Kief turns in horror and tries to run for him, but he slips in oil--I barely drag him free before that, too, goes up in flame. While I shove my shoulder under Kief’s, Imad and Gaziley run to Teo, and between them they grab up the charred remains that still shriek in pain. I take on half Keif’s weight as he struggles to run; he tore a muscle or something in his fall.
A maze of walls of fire light up the night in gold behind us, outrunning anything on legs as we streak towards the safety of the piers. "Boom!" Aichi shouts as we hustle her out the gate, her eyes big with fright and excitement. "Boom!"
BOOOOOM! The first warehouse goes up. Then another, then another--an entire necklace of fireballs explode while we run and stagger and slip, a hot wind half-propelling us stumbling towards the waterfront in a roar so loud that Teo's howls vanish under its weight, we can't even hear our own lungs gasp in the greasy smoke. Then the hot metal starts to rain down and we shrink against the sides of buildings, hoping for protection.
"After them!" I hear the shout behind us. Bullets whiz past my ear--I whip around, lose Kief, and shoot figures that lumber out of the smoke, one, two, three, they fall behind me, four, five, then I scramble to catch up with the others who shoot to cover me, then I run back to fetch Kief who curses me for dropping him and leaving him there.
We run through the thick, oily smoke, trying not to cough on it, trying not to even gasp too loudly, hoping that it hides us, hoping that it hides the bodies that I shot even more. Or maybe not more--my back feels naked when it comes to guns—clothes, even packs, don't mean jack to lead. Smoke can hide but it can't shield, not worth anything next to...
...bullets! Again I hear them, again I turn and shoot, shoving Kief away. Now I hear a shot smash a hole very near me into wall--fool! They'd shot at random till my return fire led them right to me! I peer through smoke, half-blinded by the roaring wall of flame that every so often belches and growls with new fury over yet another exploding fuel tank. There?...There! They move in slow motion to my speeded sight, mere eddies in the fouled air, but I nail 'em, I knock two down, then try to remember how many shots I took and how many bullets this particular brand of rifle carries.
But I think I got them all--did I get them all? Don't wait around to find out! Grab Kief and go!
I didn't get them all. I didn't get half of them. Lufti and Damien did, and Aichi. It just felt at the time that they all fell to my shots. It just felt...my God!
We make it to the waterfront. Teo still lives. Quickly I splash cold saltwater onto his burns while he gasps like dying, to stop collateral damage, but what if we got here too late for that but never mind, in haste I wrap him up in warm wool serapes before the shock gets any worse, maybe it can't get any worse, but I need to try, but he passes out from the pain of simply being touched.
"Let's get him and Kief to Madame's,” Lucinda finally says. "She'll give us shelter."
I hear everyone stop breathing for a moment—even Teofilo. Fatima quietly asks, "Is there any other way?"
"None that I can see," Lucinda sighs. "Not now. Come on, it's not far."
“I know,” Gaziley groans. “Not far at all.”