IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume IV: Braided Paths


Chapter 50
A Question of Competence


Thursday,  October 22, 2708, continued

            What am I doing here, in this stall, trying not to choke on the barnyard smells, trying to feel comfortable sitting in the straw?

            (What am I doing here, rake in hand?  Oh yeah, mucking out a stable, trying to do my detention-work while remembering my rookie mission, that strange day deep underground, amid the forty-thousand year old picture-gallery of Crespus Inglorius.)

“We need the larger picture…”

Oh yeah, strategy meeting.  I lean my aching head back against a post, hoping that it props me up against the wobbles, hoping that I look halfway intelligent and attentive, but all I can do is gaze from scar to scar, on all of these children, wondering how it could get so bad, over how many centuries, how this entire gorgeous country, this paradise, could become one great cicatrix.

            (I recall how Crespus fingered a framing ridge of crystal.  “It looks rather like scar tissue, doesn't it, in its own sparkling way?  I suppose it is.  We keep it cut back from actually covering the pictures, but let it be as much as we can.”  Then he turned to me.  “And I think you can see the problem.”

            I nodded.  “Magentine is a form of calcite.  These caverns are full of it.”

            He nodded back, smiling as at an approved student in a class on horrors.  “Indeed.  You hit the nail on the head.  Do you have any idea how long it took science to discover that the magentine crystal doubled the four-sided formation into eight through a sort of interdimensional folding?”  He shook his head, his eyes still twinkling above the mask.  “Of course you do.  You must have studied all of this in that excellent educational facility which you call home.”

            I bristled, I recall.  “I'm home right now,  I protested.

            He only rolled his eyes.  “Yes, yes, you're a very good student-agent, earnestly trying your hardest to convince yourself of your faith in cultural immersion.  I took the same classes, Jake.”

            Agency classes?  But I’d thought he was the client.

            He didn't have to read my mind; I must’ve look pretty puzzled.  “Didn't they tell you that you would meet your veteran when you arrived?  I am that veteran, Jake.  I served Til as an agent for years before returning to my homeland to retire.  Did you think that every agent comes straight out of the comorrans?  And yes, I'm the client, too.  Unusual, but not entirely without precedent.”

            I stood there, feeling the humanity bled into the rock.  “You don't really know what the problem is, do you?”

            “No, Jake.  I don't.  I just feel that a problem exists, something new, something building.”

            “Not new,” I could hardly find the breath to put behind the words.  “And not old, either.”

            “And yet both.  It builds towards a future that I won't survive to see.  I have done my best to prepare my grandson for it, but I also need someone on the outside, someone in the Tilián, who...”  He stepped forward, his eyes burning, and he gripped my shoulders.  “You.  You have prepared for this.  You must spend your life...but you won't live to see all of it, either.”  He sighed and let go.  “Sooner or later you will know who will survive to see the rest, to guide it.  A most unlikely direction. Not yet, though.  We must deal with the most immediate part of the problem, in the here and now—such as it is.”

            He’d stepped back from me.  “Go ahead, Jake.  Wander.  Find whatever it is that the caverns want you to find.

            I didn't wander.  I’d felt the pull build in me ever since my foot hit the level stone.  I walked straight through the corridor to my right, took a left turn after awhile, in a diagonal, and walked to one painting in particular.)

            “I’m sorry, Bijal,” I find myself saying,  “Could you please repeat that?”  I feel like I’m repeating my own words, myself, but can’t remember what I’ve said earlier in the meeting.

            (She had big thighs.  They used to like that in women.  Round bellied, well-fed.  Icon of prosperity.  She sort of leaned into the rock, shoulders bent as though she’d fainted against it, her face turned away.  Somehow the ocher seemed to have seeped into layers deeper than the surface, giving the crude picture a strange dimensionality.  And she was not just a painting.

            “Here,” I said, laying my gloved hand on her back as Inglorius hissed, right over where the heart would’ve been.  “They marked the spot with this picture.  They tried to make a portrait of her.  Their priestess.”  I turned to him, not lifting my hand.  “She merged with the stone.  She didn't mean to, but it happened.”

            Crespus frowned over that.  “We have known such things—rarely—on Novatierre, wherever enormous magentine deposits fill the soil, if someone has lingered too long there in a trance.  But this came from Earth, Jake.”

            “Yes and no.  Magentine folds dimensions.”  I took a deep breath of stifling-hot air, feeling half-choked by the respirator.  “Consuelo Tercos must have known, or sensed it somehow, when she invented Transfer Technology.  We have no idea what all she knew.”  I paused, panting in the heat.  “But there had to be some Earth connection, when you think about it, for it to work.  Something connecting every parallel earth in existence, but leading ultimately to the hub, to here, where the magentine crystals grow.  This Earth.  This Novatierre.  The center.”  I shook my head.  “On other worlds they only see the calcite—one fold of the magentine.  Crystals don’t normally form with eight sides.”

            “Remove your hand, Jake.”

            “Think about it.  What is the probability that every single transfer-world, even the most poisonous, at some time evolved calcium-concentrating microorganisms in their oceans, so many over so much time that they could create miles and miles of limestone, chalk, and marble?  Magentine needs calcium deposits.”

            “Remove your hand!”

            “Why?” I’d snapped.  I liked the vibration.  It felt good.  It felt right.

            “You’re in danger, Jake—now do as I say!”

            But I’d turned away from him, to gaze on her.  “She didn't mean for it to happen, but resigned herself to her new role when it did.  And, down here, she has finally fully connected with all of the others.  And with Consuelo, too.  Consuelo called her, by calling Manuel, but they'd met, the old one and Manuel, years before on another planet.  She...”  It filled me, something beyond words, some great purpose, guided by the survival instinct of a prehistoric woman.  “She made sure that humanity would survive.  It was her job.”

            Suddenly I felt a wrench, a whirl, a PAIN!  And then I came to myself, kneeling on the floor of chiseled rock, clutching my hand, watching the blood bloom upon the papery glove, but none of it getting past the surface, only the filtered moisture escaping.

            “Sorry I had to knock you over,” Inglorius said, “But it tells you something that a cancerous old man could knock over a strapping young fellow like yourself.  Let's get out of here, Jake.”

            I shook my head, trying to clear it.)

            I shake my head, trying to clear it.  The words keep flowing on and on around me.

            (“Can you, Jake?”

            I nodded, and tried to stumble to my feet.  But when I would lean on the wall to help me up, he shoved his body in between, and I found myself pulling myself up by him, though he swayed and grunted with my weight.

            And so began the long ascent, mostly in silence, as we digested our shared experience.  Neither of us knew, really, what has gone wrong, let alone what we were supposed to do about it.  But something indeed had—has!—gone wrong, and needs some prep-work before we can repair it—sometime after our deaths, through some proxy.

            Before the end I had to drag myself up by the bannister, stumbling on the steps, catching myself again, stumbling again, leaving wet prints on the wood from the hurt left hand.  But I'd’ve been damned if I’d ask that frail old man to help me up the final steps!

            “Why did you even bother going to the Cave of Changes?” I rasped by the time I staggered past the first airlock, into the stairwell of wood and polished tile.

            He shrugged.  “Because Til required it, and I needed the training.  But you're right—I'd already had a more powerful experience right here.”  He pulled the respirator off with a gust of relief, and I did likewise, shivering a little with the change of temperature.

            “And why, in the name of all gods, past, present, and future, didn't you build an elevator?

            He grinned at that, though he clutched his side.  I remember thinking that his tumor must lie somewhere there, below the ribs, at least the original, largest one, before it had metastasized.  “Now Jake, some things must never come easy.  You know that.”)

“...so, with Kiril’s troop taking themselves a little vacation, we can stay here as long as...”

“I’m sorry, Bijal—what were you talking about?”  But he just stares at me, looking so worried.  Oh God—am I going the same way as Lucinda?  “Okay, I’ll say it and save us both some trouble.  I’m better, but I’m still not up to speed—is that what you’re thinking?”

“Deirdre, I...”  He can’t say more, just stares at me helplessly.  Oh, but my poor head hurts!

Do I look like Lucinda did at the end?  Glassy-eyed and troubled?  “Promise me something, Bijal.”  My voice sounds hoarse with emotions that I didn’t intend.  “If I put you in charge, will you give command back to me as soon as I know I can handle it?”

“Of course!”

“Swear it on your mother’s grave.”

“With my mother’s rebel ghost as witness I do swear it.”

Swear to what?  Think, Deirdre!  Has to do with...my incompetence?  I’m sitting here silent too long; he must wonder.  Am I becoming like...Lucinda!  Yes, that’s it—he swears not to do me like Kief did her.  “I promise, in turn, that I’ll be honest about my own ability...I...I won’t return myself to duty till I’m ready—can you trust me?”

Earnestly he says, “I’ve already trusted you with my life.”

“Good, then.  I hereby...”  What words?  Think!  I raise my voice so that all can hear.  “As commanding officer and medic both, I hereby declare Bijal in charge until I...”  Blink.  Blink.

“Get your full wits back?” he prompts.

“Yeah.  Uh...judge myself fit to resume command.”

He clasps my hand, his eyes watering.  “You were honest enough to admit it in the first place, Deirdre—how can I not trust you?”

“Thanks,” I say, and clap him on the shoulder, then struggle to my feet, feeling a weight slide off my soul.  I can walk without help, now, slowly and with rests.

(The cart stands full of filthy straw, the earth bare before us.  Randy and I sprinkle fresh straw as Don pushes the cart over to the compost heap, and then we join him, glad of the outdoor air even as our breath puffs on the chill, the barn behind us as we pitch it all back out into the compost heap.)

I make it as far as a fence just outside the barn.  I lean on it and smell spring upon the air, and the sweetness of the orchard no longer makes me want to gag.  I can think okay, too, really, allowing for the gaps as I lose and recapture my train of thought.  (Yet wasn’t there some other, distant, thought?  Mine and yet not mine, or…)  It eventually works out to coherence, so long as I don’t need to explain myself to someone else, or have to make quick decisions on a battlefield.

I watch child-veterans help to plant the earliest frost-resistant crops in the new-turned soil.  Good clean mud dirties them now, not the grime of homeless wandering, and certainly not blood.  The hard, old squint has nearly left their eyes, the jaws almost unclench.  They could pass for innocent, if I didn’t see the scars.

I walk the perimeter of the field, steadied by the fence, needing the exercise.  I get better rapidly—faster than nature.  I may not be a real doctor, but I know that it’s a bad look-out if a concussion patient stays stuporous for longer than twenty-four hours; I lost close to two days.  I hadn’t expected that the neural changes wrought on me—what is it, a month or two shy of eight years ago?—would have this effect, but it makes sense.  My brain speeds to form new synaptic connections to replace the damaged ones.  I should tell my old friend, Don, if I live to see him again—the medical possibilities look promising.  And all you have to do is damn your patient to hell.

And now I remember that I already told him.  I had suffered a concussion a few years ago, in the tempest of Alroy, and I bounced back surprisingly well from that, too.

I gaze out at the peaceful peasants, planting their turnips and kale and the tough, mountain-bred corn.  Most of them have killed before they reached puberty, and think nothing now of taking human life—why do I feel wickeder than all of them combined?

My headache won’t relent.  We performed a terrible experiment, my friendclan and I.  We accelerated the brain’s capacity to make new connections and zip messages faster through old ones, despite the banning of the research a century before.  We unleashed agony and madness to do it, we momentarily released the hold of conscience and compassion and plain good judgment...until murder happened.

I want to say that it’s all a blur, that I can’t remember precisely what occurred that day, that it all happened too fast.  (Hah!  Yeah—too fast.  Right.)  But right now those memories stand out clearer before my bruised mind’s eye than anything going on today.  I did not, personally, raise my hand against Tom Czenko or Jesse Vrede, but my presence there, my complicity in the crime that lead to those final crimes, stains me as surely as if I’d pointed the gun myself.  These children arrived at birth to a culture that has never allowed them the luxury of innocence—what excuse do I have, privileged daughter of Til?



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