IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume III: Responsibility


Chapter 2

The Road to Tumblebugs


Wednesday, June 3, 2014

Together we drive up the steep grade to Tumblebugs, Damien and Kanarik and me rattling along in the dentist's old car, while Chulan and Fatima take the jeep on an alternate road, the military gear divided up between us.  Right now war does not seem hard at all.

Kanarik passes me more stapleseed biscuits, despite my protests.  "'Tima said to make sure you get extra helpings, 'cause you got mountainsick a few days ago."

"Oh all right, just one more…thanks, Kana."  The stuff must carry a lot of vitamin E, then, to decrease the body's need for oxygen.  Maybe someday a lab can analyze this grain for some purpose other than fuel.

Damien watches our back, so it prickles my neck when he says, "Uh folks, we’ve got company."  I check out my rear-view mirror--three military jeeps, and Chulan doesn’t drive any of them.

"Don't open fire unless they do,” I say.  “They might just assume that we're..."

They fire.  I slam the fuel-peddle as Damien and Kanarik scramble for the weapons.  Of course--why would a cheap car like this have any business driving to Tumblebugs?  How long have they been tracking us, anyway?  Why did I take so long to sweep out Malcolm's foreign tread-mark that I couldn't finish the job?  Or did the bioconversion smell give us away?  But only a Purple Mantle would know how to track a...

I see him.  There, in the mirror, second car back, calmly taking notes, heedless of the fierce veering of our vehicles or of Damien's returning fire.  I see the pure white sleeves beyond the mantle itself, the surprisingly young face, I can even make out the faint moustache--eyes back on the road!  You nearly missed that curve, you fool!  But I know him.  I've dreamed of him, I've had nightmares, all but forgotten except for that too young, too grim face.  I recognized his name the very first time I heard it.  Fate must mean for us to do battle with each other.

Will he also recognize me, when I kill him slowly for what he did to Aron?

"Use the hand-grenade, Kanarik!" Damien shouts.  "Pretend it's a dance move, make it land precisely where you want it."  She leans way out, young and wild, her arm makes a perfect arc and releases--seconds before the gunfire shears right through the flesh.

"Stop the bleeding!" I cry, as the lead jeep behind us blows up, roaring.  "Do exactly as I say."

"Kana, Kana, it's all right, they didn't get your leg," he murmurs in the mad firelight.  "You can dance with one arm, they didn't get your leg."

"She'll lose her life, too, if you don't do precisely what I tell you to!" I propel us around a turn that wants to fling us out into space.  "Raise her arm and squeeze the wound as tightly as you can—how’s the bleeding now?"

"Too many wounds--I can't compress them all!"  The jeeps slow behind the burning hulk of their brother.

"Try pressing the artery point I've shown you, the one on the inner side, near the armpit."

"It's squirting with her pulse, Deirdre!  What do I..."

"Listen!  Malcolm's change of clothes back there--find a rolled-up pair of socks and press it to that pressure-point."  Too bad he keeps the medical supplies in the trunk.  "Rip off a wide strip from the bottom of his shirt, all the way around, and wrap that twice around her arm, holding the socks in place."  And how did I hear Damien through that blast, anyway?--but no time to think about that.  "Spread it wide, but pull it tight." 

Oh no--the road's too broad!  The jeeps can get around the wreck.  I increase speed and duck just as a new spurt of gunfire shatters our windows.  I can barely peer over the dashboard now from where I crouch, as I race up and down the swirling mountain road, the wind blowing hair into my face.

"Knot it tight," I say.  We screech around a bend faster than anyone with normal reactions could take; we outrun shooting range.  "Put a stick--or pen or dental tool, anything--over the knot, and tie another over it."  My hand darts up to change the mirror's angle, back down again ahead of new shots--oh lord, they're gaining on us again!  "Now twist the stick a full turn."  No--I saw through fear; they aren’t that close.  Can't lose my head at a time like this.

I hear Kanarik scream in pain.  "Do it!  Finish the job--a full turn or she'll die."  I see more jeeps than I thought behind those chasing us--and yes they do gain on us!  "Now tie the stick into that position."  The car flies over bumps as we swerve on the shoulder and nearly off a cliff before we gain the road again.  "Wrap her up warm, now, Damien."

Our way narrows once more--we stand a chance.  "Damien--the grenades!  Throw another grenade!"  But it takes him forever, and by the time he does the road has widened again.  One jeep loses control on the crater and crashes into another, but the rest keep on coming, slowed but making it around.  "Damn you, Damien--you choked!"

"Kana's arm..."

"Don't give me your excuses, boy!  Next time I tell you to throw you reach out of this car and throw--or we'll all wind up dead, Kanarik too!"

"Can't," he husks.  "We only had two."

"Then take up the gun and shoot the first jeep to make it in range."

I grit my teeth and concentrate on the road ahead.  We sideswipe a sign warning us to slow for curves and tear on faster than before.  Oh God, oh God, I promised you I'd make up for all the sins that got me fast reflexes by how I used them--let ‘em save our lives today!  The torque of our twists at speed wrestles me for the wheel but again and again I wrench us back onto road, putting gut-muscle into it and cursing through clenched teeth worse words than I've ever used before.

I can hear the rifle stuttering out death, Damien’s finger glued to the semiautomatic trigger.  I can feel his fear as he leans out far enough to do it.  I can feel the fury that makes him do it anyway.  I can--watch the road!

Damn you, Merrill, and your accursed experiment--I don't feel "enhanced" at all!  Trees and rocks and cliffs keep coming at me and I dodge them just in time; my wheels kick up dirt as often as they screech over pavement.

Over there--Chulan hurtles onto the widening trunk road ahead of us from her separate route, with Fatima on shotgun.  No way up but one from here on out.  I nearly crash into them to swing around and ahead and they curse us like the pros they are, but I can't slow down to save my life.  Let them take the fire for awhile--I've had enough of it!

I hear their share of the grenades go off.  Fools--to waste them on the broad road where the army can cruise right past the craters like nothing happened!

The car makes sickening grinding noises as I flog it up the slope.  Malcolm's jalopy has never seen a workout like this in all its overlengthy years--and it ain't seen nothin' yet!  I make 'er spin, whip past the surprised girls straight towards the even more surprised army, and loop again to give Damien a chance to spray them all with bullets before they know what hit 'em--then hightail it back again ahead of screaming Fatima and Chulan and their own gunfire.  Two can use the widening of the road.

A glance at the mirror shows me Damien's face as he spares me one quick look, all glaring eyes and gritted teeth in a blood-drenched face.  Then over the rise we fly, airborne for a dizzy instant before we crash back bone-hurting-hard down to screeching wheels and hurtle into the crater-park as patrons shriek and run before us, gunfire raining down from the government jeeps behind.

We squeal around the bowl of the arena, us and Chulan's jeep and the Charadocian army behind us, but none of us have rollbars and they don't even have roofs.  I loop back again, close enough so the troops can see me lick my fingers at them, then I lead them and their gunfire away from Chulan and 'Tima as the girls escape the crater; higher and higher up the slope I go, daring them to...

...tumble like the "bugs" built for the sport.  They can't react like I can.  Soldiers fly out of their open vehicles that soon crash down on top of them.  I make split-second choices to avoid the same fate, circle 'round and 'round till I can go straight again and tear up out of that pit, veering around the smoking hulks and dodging the bullets of diehards firing from behind the wreckage.

I think I caught a glimpse of Chulan's jeep headed for the streets of the complex itself to pick up the rest of the troops.  But I also note the man in purple and white, down in the basin still, who rolled expertly out of harm's way and now, unshaken, retrieves his notes, a few rips and road-rash on his not-so-immaculate person, but none the worse for it otherwise.

Bewildered, the rest of the army slows to a halt, finding themselves surrounded by the elite of the Meritocracy--gentlefolk interrupted in their play by fearing for their lives.  The gunfire stops and shouts exchange instead--outraged aristocrats versus defensive soldiers trapped in a different kind of battle that Basic couldn't train them for.  Meanwhile, the gears scream in the old rustbucket as I force it upslope to flee over the lip--it won't last long.  I chuckle, hoping that the crowd contains a politician or two--someone in a position to cut military funds.

In all the distraction I catch a glimpse of Lucinda and the others leaping from a wall into Chulan’s jeep like fleas onto a speeding horse...and speaking of which, who should gallop in but two red-headed imps on horseback?  Hail, hail, the gang's all here!  Then we plunge down, down the steep road of the other side, so fast it pops our ears, till we can veer off onto the third side-road that we find.

(“Max?” Beside me, at the window, my fellow hairdresser starts to faint.  A pink crystal rolls from his fingers.

“Hide that!” he husks as I catch him.  So I kick it behind a waste-pail for the moment and help him over to the nearest massage-table.

I overhear somebody say, “That Max is such a swoosh!” and others laugh—nervously, because the bullets scared us all--none of us here at Tumblebugs actually want the revolution to come this close.

When nobody’s looking I fetch the crystal again and bring it back to Max, who looks as pale as Mountainfolk can ever get.

“I need food—carbs,” he says, taking the rock from me.  “Don’t tell anybody I have this.  Don’t tell anybody I know how to use it.”  And he passes out again.)

Seriously rattling itself to death, our vehicle manages to limp into a hidden fold of forest and then chokes to a halt meters before I intended.  I think it took bullets into vital parts that we have no means of repairing right now--as if it hadn't taken enough abuse, already.  I climb out to check the damage--and look in the back instead.

Blood soaks Damien and Kanarik and every surface back there, strewn with a sparkle of shattered glass.  Damien sits hunched and staring a thousand miles into nothing, while Kanarik lies there shivering in his lap, pale beneath the blood, her lips turned blue.  "Thirsty," she whispers as I open the door.

"Damien, give her all the water she wants."  I didn't know that her slim little body could hold so much blood, let alone lose it and still live.  I seem to recall some admonition against giving fluids to people in shock, but she needs volume, at least, in her veins—and fast.  They make those rules in the land of plentiful transfusions and hospitals open to all, but I can't even guess her blood-type.  Or maybe it’s don’t try to give fluids to the unconscious.  Or…I don’t know!  I can hardly think right now.

I lean in and uncover her...her rag of an arm.  I can't save a thing like that.  Jesus, I can't do a lot of things that a real medic's supposed to do; I learn more about what I don't know all the time.  Oh, sweet Jesus, why'd you give me so many talents, only to drop me into this life where only the ones that I don't have count?  "Go ahead, Damien, give her water--we can do that much for her."  No, I gave me those talents.  In a sin.  I reap what I sow.

Dully he asks, "Is she gonna die?"

"I don't know.  Not if I can help it.”  And  with those words some of my wits come back.  “Come on--give her the water.  She needs it, bad."  Slowly he finds a skin of water, then lifts her head up and lets her suckle it like a desperate baby.

I get the oxygen bottle out of the trunk and position the nosepiece on her as she continues to gulp down fluid.  If we can maximize the oxygen in the few red cells that she has left, she stands a chance.  "I've saved worse cases, Damien--you know that."  And suddenly so do I.  I remember all the amputees that I've nursed back to health who meant less to me than this dear child.  I can do this.

"Hand me that other waterskin, Deirdre; she's finished with this one."  I don’t think I mind killing government soldiers anymore.



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