IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
A Time for Extreme Measures
Tuesday, June 16, 2708
We don't run anymore. We stalk through the jungle as the dawnlight flushes color into the shadows that crouch all around us. Pomona sleeps on her father's shoulder and it just now begins to sink in that I watched her mother die like it was nothing. Is that what comes of callousness towards the deaths of the enemy, that you can't grieve when a friend dies, either?
What's that! I spin and shoot into the branches and a monkey falls dead. Immediate gunshots break out from my own troop; I dive for cover and whistle, "Hold your fire!" As Lufti and Gaziley run up flushed and frantic, I laugh grimly. "If that's one of Meritocracy's Finest, he's out of uniform," I say, and now they laugh with me.
Only after we'd marched on for a bit does it hit me--that was meat! We should've called a halt, cooked it up, and shared it all around. But I don't feel the least bit hungry and I don't imagine anyone else does, either. Oh well, some other scavenging beast will have his fill--nothing ever goes to waste out here.
Every muscle in my body aches, especially my neck, trying to hold my head up after twenty-four hours of nonstop vigilance. But I don't dare let up; every crackle in the bush might be a government soldier. They've been sending different troops in shifts against us, I think, changing as we travel. Isn't that what guerillas are supposed to do against the regulars?
I pause to lean into a treetrunk and stretch some of the kinks out of my legs. Oh man, when is that boy going to come by with the leaf again?
* * *
Noon. We regroup in a meadow, Kief's division and mine, and the surviving Cumencians with us. A cold wind whips over us and people huddle in upon themselves, missing the bundles they'd discarded. I don't see any elders anymore, and only one pregnant woman, about five months gone and gray in the face. As we sit for awhile and pass our tobacco around, however, one grizzled old man does stumble into the clearing--the kind of elder that you figure got to that age by being just about impossible to kill. Good; I thought we'd lost them all. I survey the rest. Children--about five to one of them are children. I wonder how many parents leaped between them and bullets?
Lucinda looks around her in bewilderment. "How'd we get to be so many?" she wails suddenly. "This ain't no guerilla unit--it's a fornicatin' stampede!"
"Luci..." Kief warns.
She hangs her head like a chidden child. "I know. Time for my medicine."
Ambrette looks anxiously at Kief. "More leaf, or happy pills?"
I leap to my feet. "You gave her leaf? She could’ve had a stroke!"
In a reasonable voice Kief said, "Well, she has to keep up, Deirdre. The concussion makes her sluggish."
"The medicine, you mean. She’d have recovered days ago if you hadn't messed with her."
"You don't want to withdraw her all at once at a time like this, do you?"
I sit back down, unsure of myself. "No," I finally say.
"I've been mighty patient with your challenges to my authority," he tells me evenly. "Don't expect my patience to last forever."
"Incoming!" Lufti shouts and we all leap to our feet. Kief and the village herbalist frantically hand out fistfuls of leaf from a sack before we scatter, even as machinery growls into hearing range.
"Where will we regroup?" I call out while most of us remain in earshot.
"The manor where the gardeners hid us before," Kief called back. All of us? Impossible! But we have no other plan, and my mouth just went too numb to shout back, anyway. I run with desperate speed back into the forest, dragging Kiril by one hand and Lufti by the other, letting the greenfire power me.
I hear the woman cry out in premature labor; I double back just in time to see the trees crash down loudly, branches flailing, before the blade of the biggest bulldozer I ever laid eyes on–I’ve slept in smaller houses! The men look tiny beside it, little tin soldiers.
Gunfire flashes and roars right at me--I dive for cover, flattening the kids with me, then we scramble back to our feet and head for a tree too stout for even that monstrosity to mow down, scurrying up the sheltered side like squirrels with a fox on our tails.
From there we watch it all--a rough road cut right before our eyes, following the unmistakable trail that an army our size can't help but leave. No, not just a bulldozer after all, but armored and spiked with gun-barrels in all directions. One of dear ol' Soskia's innovations, it looks like--just because Peshawr Productions lost their military lab doesn't mean that they didn’t already build this before we got there. Pray God they only have one like it!
We watch the men who march upon that new-made road behind their machine, shooting everything that moves with a systematic sweep. I see a soldier, dwarfed by the behemoth, gaze up at it and laugh, saying, “Good ol’ MAT! You won’t believe who invented...” We don’t hear the rest, but I can guess.
They keep on shooting. I see the laboring woman get it where she fell, and no one steps from the line to see what they've done, no one probably even guesses her condition. And I don’t dare shoot back, don’t dare reveal the children hiding with me. I press Kiril and Lufti's faces into my body to hide them from it all; their silent tears soak cold into my shirt. But I see the rest of it, I watch the others fall--people I never knew except as silhouettes in windows and voices in the dark, on my nightly sabotage runs, and then briefly, so very briefly, as neighbors in a feast.
We wait there, crouching on our bough, scarce daring to breathe, till the last boots tramp past. Then cautiously we slip from branch to branch in a tangential direction, till we can drop to the ground and resume our run.
Wednesday, June 17, 2708
(I have to hand it to you, Layne. Or General Aliso, I should say. Yes, you have definitely more than earned the stars upon your shoulders, my dear, for your plan has worked admirably. The rebels took the bait and now we close upon them—and more than them, all the outliers rushing to the rescue to become prey in their turn. The government, also, rouses to boost our funding, having seen the rebels grown so bold.)
I have learned how to recognize greenfire growing wild; we have enough of the leaf to keep us going all through the night and on into the day. We have mostly run out of bullets, though, having all too often shot at what you'd swear must be a soldier, only for it to turn out to be a tall weed nodding or a crashing stag. Missed the stag, but we still feel no hunger, anyway. I force the kids to eat the few berries that we find, though the little red orbs appeal no more to me than them. (But oh Layne, Layne, Layne, what does it say about you, that you can come up with something that revolts a torturer?)
But it’s not all delusion, I swear. Sometimes we hear real machinery in the wild places. Sometimes real shots ring out. No matter where we go soldiers seem to have gotten there ahead of us. What have they done--turned the entire Charadocian army out after us? Brilliant move, Kief, to wipe out a whole garrison at once like that and turn us into Target Number One for the nation! (Still, who am I to argue with success? This war makes us all do things that we thought we could never bear.)
At least we've finally fully scattered. Just about the only way to defeat a guerilla force is to tempt them into trying to act like a regular army. How could we have forgotten that? I'd almost swear ol' Whitesleeves set it up, let the discipline go slack on purpose, sacrificed his own men to make a trap for us, to hand us an easy victory and then close in. And if we don’t get some kind of relief soon, he’ll win this round.
(And it seems right that we should launch this horror from Cumenci, that village of horrors. Thus I may punish the villagers for ruining their children, and the Master of Cumenci for driving them to it, and avenge poor, hardhearted Aron, all in one blow. And still stand by my government!)
Mostly run out of bullets, but not quite. I told them that we had, but I've hidden a few about my person, and keep one in the chamber at all times. Can't trust the children with them; Kiril's a lousy shot with anything that kicks back, Gaziley’s hopeless with anything projectile and Lufti's just too damned trigger-happy for my tastes. (Even so, Layne, even as I respect you as my general, do not expect me, ever again, to respect you as a woman.) Even now he eyes me with something that I don’t like in his glare.
“Malcolm fell behind miles ago,” he tells me. “Did you notice?”
* * *
("Boy, what's taking you so long?" I hear him. These tiled rooms of Tumblebugs bounce voices straight at you, making them sharp and clear.
I stare at my hands, feeling faint. I always knew that the order would come, carried by that elfin little Mountainfolk boy who blends so easily in and out of the kitchen help—Cyran’s favorite spy and messenger. I thought I always knew, anyway, but now that the order has arrived, I don't believe it.
"Boy!" I go to the towel-heater like they expect me to. The spying and intrigue here at Tumblebugs has all seemed kind of like a game, a thrill, something to chuckle over in our bunks at night. But this!
I pass Max in the hall; he carries that obsidian straight-edge that so many of the patrons prize, supposed to give them a closer shave than any commercial blade. We nod to each other in the hall. He knows. Everyone in Tumblebugs knows. Except management and the customers—of course.
I go to my client and wrap his face up in the heated towel. I hover behind him, afraid of what I must do. He has chosen the gentler, triple-edged razor, worse luck for both of us. But the army has mobilized. We must draw off as many of them as we can.
"I could use a sip of water." He thinks I linger out of solicitousness.
"Certainly, sir." I fetch him his water, let him drink it, then settle the towel back around his face and neck, softening his beard, he thinks. The army has mobilized, and besides, we host a ski-season convention of industrialists in the field of transportation, here to coordinate the widening and repair of roads that we can't afford to see improved. It all seems set up perfectly. It's as though God Hirself has dictated this day's acts.
Who am I, a mere pawn in the game, to question God?
"I think my face must be warm enough by now. Have at it." I swallow and look again at my hands. I came here to support my family back home, with the only work that I could do. Max came here, he once told me, to create beauty in an ugly world. Lilo came to learn massage, to soothe and heal, the closest he could ever get to becoming a doctor. We didn't come to...
Again he asks, "What's taking you so long, boy?"
What indeed? Slowly, I reach for the towel. God's will, I remind myself. I gather up all four corners and pull, twist and pull, while my client gags and gurgles, clawing at the cloth. His strength surprises me; he bucks and writhes on the chair till he breaks loose briefly, but I loop him again, then he falls off and I fall to the floor with him, still tightening and twisting, sweat pouring in my eyes. His body jerks and jerks and jerks—oh God how I wish that he’d chosen the obsidian blade! And I know with every jolt that God couldn’t possibly have willed anything like this, but I’m doing it anyway.
At last he lies still. Gently I reach over and drape the towel full over his face so that I don't have to see the eyes with nothing in them anymore. I say a quick prayer for him, hoping to avert his ghost from coming after me. And then I just sit there on the floor, listening to the thrashing and splashing getting louder and more frantic from the mineral baths. And I feel the tears course down my face, and still I sit there on the floor, not knowing what to do with the body. Nothing can ever be the same.)
Thursday, June 18, 2708
It must be past midnight by now. Funny thing about greenfire: even the unenhanced move faster than a rat in the beginning, but after some days you slow; the muscles resist like they keep trying to solidify. Even mine, though I still can beat the rest, if I have to. At least we only feel the ache as it wears off. Like right now.
Should I pass more around? My body says yes, please do. But maybe, just maybe, we can take the risk of sleep, if the cold and the army will let us. The loud and jangling susurrations of the Charadocian insect-life sounds exactly like the noise that my nerves would make if a person could hear them—shrill and crawly and vibrating with weariness.
This looks like a good spot, a leaf-filled circle of second-growth trees, sprung up from the rotted stump of some fallen giant. We could tuck ourselves in there, protected by all that living wood, and...
"What's that?" Lufti whispers. I motion my rebels and orphans down, then I sink to my hands and knees, to creep where the boy points, moving as though each snap or rustle were a sin, till I find myself on the brink of a road, my face masked behind weeds, watching the jeeps roll by. I had no idea that the army had so many jeeps! Peshawr Industries must have factories all over the countryside, cranking out new ones all the time.
Yes, they're definitely going all out against us--well, Deirdre, what did you expect? Sanzio D'Arco must be chuckling and rubbing his hands together now, let me tell you, just watching the funds pour in. Maybe we don't mean anything to him, maybe he feels no more hatred for us than loyalty for those soldiers he betrayed, the whole exercise just a way to get the government to finance his pet operations. Why should he care how many die, so long as none of them are Sanzio?
I make it back to the others as silently as I left. Damn you, Kief! We were doing just fine by slowly nibbling them away--we could've found some other plan to rescue Malcolm, maybe enlisted the help of the cooks somehow. But you cleverly caught us up in the emotions of the moment--you just had to have your glorious charge into the teeth of enemy fire, didn't you?
"Come on," I tell the wan-faced children as I hand them each a leaf. "We've got to put some distance between us and this place.”
* * *
The cold, clear, sunlight of dry season makes our targets clear. A troop of monkeys pass overhead, so I order Kiril to shoot a couple down with her darts. Glad that I made her retrieve the darts every time she shot at shadows, and that we still have a store of poison, I skin the little manlike things. I'm going to make these kids eat if I have to shove the flesh down their throats. The blood looks red like all the other blood I've seen these days. This is not cannibalism, and I will not think of it that way. Anyway, the little traitors deserve it.
We eat, crouched in the undergrowth, choking the meat down raw, afraid to light a fire, and we do it quickly, afraid to linger there too long. The blood tastes just like mine, too.
(I've finally gotten Jake to eat a little, but he leaves the sandwich half unfinished on the table, to rise and pace again. And that's a good fish sandwich, too; I put a lot into that dill sauce.
Lord, but he looks bad! Gaunt as Hell's street-sweeper, Deirdre's Grandma would have said. Gray-faced and shaky and thinning before my eyes.)
“Mmmhuhhh?” Deirdre’s eyelids fluttered but wouldn’t open.
(He has been good. He has exhausted himself against the punching bag, over and over; he has not thrown anything, not broken anything, just run to the punching bag to pummel it till he sags against it shaking, again and again and again. But will that hold, if he breaks himself?
“Come on, Jake,” I plead. “Tell me what's wrong, please! You haven't slept or eaten for days.”
“I can't!” he cries out. He punches at thin air, and I feel afraid. “I can't, and I don't know why!” He glares at me like I've done this to him, his eyes red and sunken.)
“Nooooo...” she moaned, her head rolling back and forth against the chair’s headrest.
(I gather up my courage, hand in my pocket. I make myself rise and go to him. “Jake, you know that I love you, don't you?” I say as I lay my hand on his shoulder.
“Yes, I...” and then he stares wide-eyed at me as I push the needle-patch that I palmed into him. Thank God for his visionary blind spot!
“Then you'll understand that I do this for your own good.”
He stumbles back, staring in horror, clutching his shoulder.
“Oh, Randy, what have you done?”
“It's a new drug, developed by the Oracular Crisis Center. It'll make you sleep, but it won't block your dreams.” I push him towards the couch and he goes docilely, if not in a straight line. “You'll wake up remembering enough to go on, but in a detached, comfortable way.” He falls back onto the couch, still staring at me. “You'll be able to log it all down in Archives, don't worry.”
He can't keep his eyes open any longer. I told the folks at the Center his size, and they gave me a powerful dose. Still, I worry; psychotropics often work strangely on us in Fireheart; we never know what to expect. This time, though, it seems to do exactly as advertised. When I know that he's gone completely under, I pull off his shoes and things, rearrange him more comfortably, and spread a blanket over him. Then I go and finish his sandwich.)
“Oh...my...God!” Deirdre whispered, coming halfway out of trance. “What did I do to Jake?” But before she could wake all the way, the insistent music pulled her back into the trance, merging with the jungle chirps and buzzes, filling her mouth with a bloody taste...
...but the meat goes fast. Afterwards we bury every trace of our repast, then listen for a brook to wash ourselves clean. With the dry season upon us it takes awhile; it's all I can do not to go frantic with delay, to take the time. Yet we mustn't come into the manor-country smeared in stinking blood. I inspect my children over and over, for the least speck of stain. And then they inspect each other. And then we march again, always listening, listening, listening for the approaching enemy.