IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
An Icy View
Saturday, July 25, 2708
Cyran wakes me before dawn and already has steaming-hot pilaf ready to feed me quickly before the others rise. “We need surveillance,” e tells me, and leaves the rest for me. Of course.
My muscles still ache from the last time. Psychic levitation works on a different principle from wind streaming over wings, but with this kind of primitive body-flit you still have to maintain certain postures to direct that flight, for extended periods of time, for the most part without support, sometimes fighting the torque of your momentum. It can wear you out after awhile, and I’ve gotten out of shape for this sort of thing.
But Cyran’s right. We need to know about those soldiers. Do they guess that we’re here? Do they even linger in our vicinity? If so, what kind of terrain lies between them and us? If not, do they have friends who follow fast behind?
I fly to the height of the road that we abandoned. Nothing. Higher. Still nothing. Best to go even farther, to get the panoramic view. I soar higher than I’ve ever flown, up to where ice-crystals form in my hair as I shoot through clouds to survey the slopes that they hid. And still more road spirals up, so now I go so high that the ice-air makes rags of my lungs and all the wind in my face can’t feed them, though it burns my cheeks and brow. And higher still, to where the cold bites so fiercely clean through wool and leather that I feel naked before its force, till my eyes water in pain and then the lashes freeze together, so that I cannot tell quite when I break through the last of the clouds.
Back! But slowly, cautiously, estimating by the sound of wind against rock where barriers might lie, flying blind by beating heart and prayer, in a world of silent cold, not near enough sound to guide me, but ghosts surely sail before and behind, above and below, to my left and to my right pray God grant it so!
I circle and circle to the brink of exhaustion till I hear my own troop risking their lives to shout me the way down. I home in on their voices and tumble through the air towards them, fighting to exert some control over gravity barely in time to turn my fall into a proper descent till I land in a bruising stumble. Children run to me and unstrap me from my flit. On Rashid’s orders they thaw my eyes with moist rags that burn like they boil the blindness away—I scream! Malcolm grips me in place with those big, soft arms of his, until they finish with me, saying, “It’s only lukewarm water—it won’t injure you. It only feels that way.”
I can blink at last. I see a blur of Cyran and Alysha bending over me; I laugh with relief. Now I know that I’ll get the rest of my sight back soon.
“Did I just see what I thought I saw?” Alysha asks me. Her hair shines too brightly—strands of sun that I can barely look at. “Did you just fly?”
* * *
(“Time to fly,” Merrill says, and kisses me. Hand in hand we climb up the stairs into one of the few airplanes in existence capable of transoceanic flight, a behemoth that one can hardly imagine taking to the air. I remember how it astonished me, the first time I ever rode one of the Shuttles. I yawn, pleased with myself. I’m quite jaded to it by now.
“You’re right, Durmarya,” Merrill says. “In the end I think you’re always right. The thing we really need is a second honeymoon.”
I settle into the comfy upholstery, letting him have the window-seat, as he likes. I prefer quick access to the aisle, myself. “Especially,” I murmur, “since the first one was nothing more than frantic studying on our way to the mission in Greystone.” Then I sit up straight, seeing his sudden blush. “Merrillllll,” I growl, squinting at him. “Tell me you didn’t pay extra to ship a crate of books with us.”
Apologetically he says, “They’ll take longer than us to clear customs. They won’t even arrive on the same shuttle. We’ll still have some days free.”
I sigh, pull on my eyeshade and lean back.)
* * *
Down and down we wind on the mountain trail that leads from the river, the almost-vanished route that only Damien knows, more dangerous but more direct than the road we abandoned, dipping down towards a warmer stratum between the cold-sink canyons and the permafrosted peaks. It draws us through some of the most precipitous country that I have ever imagined, deep through a narrow gorge between two peaks, cliff scaling upwards to our right. A river rushes far, far below our left, as birds drift on the air both above us and below. I think I hear water closer, too, on the right, but acres of rock must lie between us.
Damien leads the way, of course, and we watch carefully to place our feet exactly where he places his. Malcolm brings up the rear, carrying Kiril’s pack and mine with his own, and I march somewhere in between, Kiril’s bone-light weight upon my back, as she gasps the thin air.
Rashid doctors her on the march; I smell the sharp liniment that he rubs upon her chest, stretching to reach up under her shirt from a barely safe position. Its eucalyptine oil reminds me yearningly of home. I think of Kief and all his muscle, sturdy Lucinda, Miko with his army-honed body—and frail little Kiril has outlived them all. Who can predict?
"Down there," Damien says, and stretches out his hand. The gorge opens up to reveal a great shelf thrust out into the sun like an anvil over our convergence with a still deeper, steeper gorge, which runs east to west, maximizing sunlight. A waterfall spills to its right, armored in spikes and fangs of ice like some protector. "My village—all that's left of it," says Damien.
We descend into the ghost town. Moss blankets the ruins as if to tuck the pain away and make it go to sleep. Saplings pry up the plaza stones. Ferns, inflamed by frost to fire-colors, curtain empty, staring windows. Something skitters away at our approach into winter-hardy weeds. The snows scarce touch the land; the farms must have given generous harvests here.
"The water's good," Damien says. "There's probably feral potatoes galore all over those slopes on the north side, and the infrastructure's mostly all here, just unused, needs a little work to clean things out and set them up. They didn't have tanks, in those days, to plow the buildings down. They blew a few up, but we don’t need the town hall." He sighs as he looks around, hands on hips. "And one thing's sure—the ghosts here are all on our side."
I walk over to a canyon rim and look down. But I don't see any stones that look like a broken jar or the body of an old woman. Maybe they're over on the other side. And maybe I just don't know how to look.
* * *
(So. The woman of Til can fly. And spy. Maybe that will take some of the pressure off me.
Not good. That means that Cyran might see me as a soldier instead. After all, when they ran out of officers, Deirdre stopped being a medic.
That gives me an idea. I survey the rocks still standing of this village, the old houses that could become snug again. Not a bad place, with the refreshing sound of running water, nearby, just as I remember from my home. And it’s not so cold as some places in the mountains, though chill enough. I could make a career change here. I could stay on to help Rashid. Somebody who picks things up quick, the way I do, could become a medic in my own right, if Cyran no longer needs me, or at least a medic’s assistant.
Yes. I might like that work.
No. E will always need me. Seeing from the air’s not listening from the ground. E’ll need both of us in the days to come.)