IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Rest and Refuge
Thursday, August 27, 2708
My nerves still jangle. I lie here, helpless, in this mildewy old bed left behind by God knows who, with too little greenfire in my system to let me rise, and yet I still cannot relax.
(My nerves jangle too much for an officer or a lady. Wrong time of the month, but that’s no excuse here.
I light another cigarette; I had not anticipated the need for tobacco increasing so fast, but these pathetic soldiers take it out of me. It smells and feels like war; it reminds me of who I am, now. Only after a calming breath do I look at the lieutenant before me.
“Do you mean to tell me,” I ask, punctuating my words with stabs of the cigarette, “That AN ENTIRE REGIMENT lost track of one small band of ragtag waifs?”)
If I could just light myself a cigarette...but no. My pack lies too far away, clear on the other side of the room, out of reach.
(He looks truculent, when he ought to hang his head in shame. “You haven’t seen the terrain. Rebels know the wilds like decent people could read a city map.”
I pull on my cigarette, and my words smoke as I answer, mordantly, “Funny how I never hear that excuse from men who can actually track down rebels. As I understand it, there were only five canyons that they could have traveled through, and we had troops marching down all five.”)
And what did I accomplish? Not bloody much. Only two of my wounded and four llamas made it here alive.
(“That’s not all of it,” he grumbles.
“That’s not all of it, Ma’am” I correct acidly.
He salutes, with sarcastic precision. “Yes Ma’am!”
“So tell me, soldier. What is all of it?”
For a moment he looks unsure of himself, as if he finally realizes that he’s crossed a line. Then, in a faint voice he says, “Magic, Ma’am.”)
Everything has turned gray. Color never existed. I just imagined it, a fairytale told in the dark about rainbows and flowers to trick myself into pushing on.
(“Ohhhh indeed,” I drawl.
“Seriously—Ma’am! We have too many witnesses to discount. They jumped off a cliff like it was nothing, and landed safely at the bottom, and kept on running. Men saw it.”
I shake my head, then say, “Idiot. They have Til agitators among them, using magentine technology, that’s all. Oh, don’t look that way! Join the twenty-eighth century, for pity’s sake.” I stub out my cigarette. “It’s all quite scientific, well-known in more sophisticated parts of the world.” I needn’t tell him that I personally don’t quite grasp the science of it; I don’t have to. “They use psychic lifting powers industrially in many places. They put it to practical purposes, and have become quite blasé about it. There’s no hoodoo granny out there putting curses on the army or casting spells on rebels.”)
And here I thought I was so grand, an officer of the Egalitarian Liberation Front, leading desperate troops through danger, blah blah blah. I can’t even drag myself across the room to get a cigarette!
I look back on my behavior and I feel so ashamed.
(But he still does not look adequately shamed. “You have spent too many years outside of the Charadoc—Ma’am. I was there when we cleaned out Koboros. Uncanny things happened, long before we had any trouble with Tilián agitators. Dark powers lurk out there, and the rebels know how to invoke them.”
Magic. Isn’t that cute.)
Darkness. There is no sun. What looks like light out there, that’s the glare off the scales of the golden monster—beware. Spikes and claws await beyond these walls, I know it; better to not even try to look out the windows, keep the eyes averted.
Who was I, to think that I could bring light to the uncivilized? I have none! It doesn’t even exist.
(“Permission to speak freely, Ma’am?”
I sigh. “Oh, why not?”
“What were we chasing after them for, anyway? They were just a bunch of kids evacuating their wounded. You talk, Ma’am, about civilized people and their ways. One of those ways, I’ve heard, says not to fire on the medics.”
I stare darts at him. “Trust your general to know what you do not. Thanks to your ignorance, and the folly of your men, we have lost two major ringleaders and failed to cut off the main source of rebel funding!”)
I mean, what is the point of me? I should have died in the canyonlands, a bullet erasing the mistake of my existence. Or retreated like the monks into some sand-blown corner to do penance for my uselessness, as if God could hear my prayers.
(Finally he wilts before me. In a small voice he says, “At least we torched the monastery.”
I laugh. “Thank you! At least you shook free of superstition there! And no avenging angels stopped you, did they?”
He grins in relief, to have finally pleased me a little. “Not for these monks. Wicked buggers, every one. It was a pleasure, Ma’am, to send ‘em all to Hell.” )
* * *
Rashid ladles out a soup that’s supposed to make everything better. The aroma smells like something that my body craves horribly, though I can’t say I know for sure if I care enough for living to eat the stuff. But then my body takes over and gulps it down anyway.
Nearby in the shadows I hear Lufti say, “If you eat it, Kiril, then I know it’s not poison. You I can trust.” I hear Rashid chuckle at that, but I can’t say whether he sounds sinister or inexpressibly sad.
* * *
(“I know I’m going to love it here,” I say to my contact, Cybil Tamor, a chubby young woman with golden-blonde hair in a pageboy cut that has just the right amount of wave to make the sparkle in her aqua eyes look saucy. (Me, I wear mine in the multiple little buns most recently come into fashion here, but her look better suits her squarish face.) She helps me unpack my fresh-bought clothing into my penthouse-suite. Because I’ve come openly as a diplomat from Til, I can enjoy a much nicer expense account than usual. After all, I must look the part.
“Don’t take it too lightly,” she murmurs almost inaudibly, “Sinister things have happened lately, and I’m afraid the corruption goes all through the system.” She snips the pricetag off of a truesilk blouse in a soft blue that matches my eyes. “Meg will show you. The paperwork just doesn’t add up.”
“My dear,” I laugh, “I’ve been in peril for my life more times and in more ways than I can tell you. But while I settle into your refreshingly sophisticated country, I plan to enjoy its amenities while I have them. And...what is this?”
“What, the telephone?”
“A telephone? How marvelous!” I pick up the pearlescent limb of it—a receiver, if I recall correctly—with its flexible spiral connecting it to the main body that has buttons on it for “dialing”. I listen to it hum to me. No viewscreen, but that adds mystery, no clue to the person at the other end except for the hints in a voice. I could be Lauren Bacall phoning Humphrey Bogart. Vanikke is full of charming touches like this, from some of the more glamorous days of long-lost Earth. “Darling, you shall have to teach me all about telephones.”
“First lesson,” she says, taking the receiver from my hand and unplugging it, “is that they’re all tapped. It’s a surveillance device, actually, and not even a well-concealed one. Remember to unplug it every time you want a private conversation in the room, and never say anything you don’t want to share with the world into it. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly.” And she has just blown my cover as a ditzy blonde. The government already knows what job I came to do—their own people sent for me. Ah well, there’s more than one way to seem slightly incompetent. “Now—you were saying something about your favorite fudge-shop, just around the corner?”
Cybil laughs. “All too favorite, yes!” The shop that I already scoped carefully before, with the surveillance cameras.
“Let’s have one more day to rest before I get to work.” Let me look like I take nothing seriously. “Let’s go after we finish here.”)
* * *
I have to get out of bed. I have to totter down the long, dark corridor to the outhouse, cold stones shielding me from the even colder winds just on the other side. I go into that place of foul smell and I feel, even down here, the icy wind that whips through the ventilation at the eaves, and I weep, I bawl my heart out, for no reason and for every reason, shuddering with my sobs and bursting into new tears every time I think I’m done with it. And so I get everything out of my system that I can.
And then, feeling empty, utterly and completely empty, I make my way back, holding onto the stones because my legs quiver under me. At the other end of the corridor lies the sink, and I cannot use it without looking into the speckled mirror bolted to the wall. And there I see what my face has become.
Old. I have become old. I think I even see a couple of strands of silver in my hair, which has grown lank and matted. I have always enjoyed being slender, but this has gone too far; my cheekbones look like they’d cut their way out of the leather of my skin. And then there’s the sores, of course. I must have noticed them; I must have scratched at them. Still, they surprise me, in a dull sort of way. But what appalls me most is the hopelessness in the eyes. Agents shouldn’t look like that. Yet they do, sometimes…the ones who end up in Rhallunn.After tottering to the pack and picking up some cigarettes for later, I return to my bed with a new resolve to take myself back in hand. And then I lie there wondering if I can. And I sink once more into dark, uneasy dreams, young dead soldiers and old dead babies and Kief laughing as if none of it could possibly matter anymore.