IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 3
The Bitter Truth


Friday, October 30, 2708

(I fight to walk in the right direction.  I fight to look at the old building, the peeling paint and exposed wood of it, so out of place with the rest of the campus.  I fight to enter the door that creaks on unoiled hinges, to drag myself up the steps, to kneel before h..h..h...

Before her.  In a burst I remember her name.  I reel and grip the bed, suddenly overpowered with dizziness...and shame.  I know what I have done, now, and I know what to do.

“Dear, dear Gita, please hear my confession.”)

I didn’t want to wake up this morning, after so little sleep.  I didn’t want to do what I have to do now, crouching out here behind a bush, looking out over the enemy encampment.  I just wanted to sleep and sleep and sleep, dreaming of anything far away from here, even nightmares, so long as they’d differ from the shocks of waking life.

(“That’s the house,” Raif says, pointing to a low, rambling, pale stucco building.  “I really felt comfortable there, before Kimba started in on nightmares.”

I put an arm around Kimba.  “Well, you didn’t have me with you then, honey.  Did you know that I can enter into dreams to protect you?”

Kimba turns wide eyes up at me.  “Really?”

“Yes, if you give me permission.  Til has trained me in this.”  All telepathy lessons start with dream-entry—the easiest avenue for the beginner.

She snuggles close and says, “Okay.  Let’s go, then.”  I feel her tremble under my arm.)

They say that when a horse tosses you, climb right back on, or be slave to your fears forever.  There is nothing wrong with my reflexes.  Spring flowers fill the bush, so, as I wait, I capture a bee and release her again before she has time to sting me.  She darts around my head, buzzing indignantly, but then flower-scents recall her to her business—as I must recall my own.  I will do this.  In daylight, just to challenge myself.  I can.  I will.  I must.

(Kimba’s steps slow as we approach the house, surrounded by concrete, with a single huge conifer growing from a hole cast in the center.  Her grip on me tightens

“Come on, honey,” I tell her.  “You can do this.  I’m right here with you.”

Maury growls, “The owner didn’t fancy gardening, I take it.”

“Judging from the number of add-ons to the house,” says Lula, “I’d guess the parents had their hands full raising children.”

“Yes,” says Raif.  “They have lots of bedrooms inside, full of toys and stuff for different ages.”  His brow knits as he says, “I don’t know where they went, but they didn’t take their things with them.”  He looks up at me and asks, “Is it wrong, that till now I never wondered where they went?”)

(“I messed up, Gita.  Hulda didn’t deserve what I did.  I got confused.  I listened to the wrong spirit.  And...and I can’t reverse it!”

I feel the tears lurch up out of me, I feel the wetness slide down my cheeks, I taste salt seeping into the corners of my mouth, I hear my own sobs.  I can hardly see her dry and dusty little body through so many tears.

“I, I, I thought I’d tuned in.  But not to you.  To him.  Filthy ol’ Weatherbent!  His spirit poisons everything, this whole school, the nation, even beyond the nation!  I can feel it stretching out everywhere.”  The old bedspread rips under my clawing hands, tiny little holes, but they could snag, they could grow.  “I did soooo wrong!”

I gasp for air, still on my knees, and then humbly, more humbly than I’ve ever done in my life, I ask, “Will you take me back?”)

There’s the gap—take it.  Slither in along a tree’s long shade, in the split instant when not a soul looks this way, as the soldiers busy themselves about breaking up camp for the day.  Hide behind the army-green canvas, then slip silently to the next tent as men walk to the tent that I just left to take it down; now move on to the next, and the next, all along the perimeter.  Here, stop, they won’t get to this one for awhile.  Catch breath as quietly as possible, slow, deep breaths.

(Kimba takes a deep breath as we enter the house.  Nice place.  Lace doilies, a small electric organ in the corner, religious pictures on the wall.

Courtney makes a disgusted face at a crowned statue of the virgin Mary, but before she can say something stupid and adolescent I pull her aside for a wound-check and while I’m at it I whisper, “We’ve got enough troubles without you deciding it’s Marching Season, girlie.  Play nice with the Catholics, and I’ll make sure they play nice with you.”

She shrugs her good shoulder, her eyes downcast, muttering, “Awr, their superstitions’ no skin off my nose.”  And when I pronounce her wound clean and healing nicely, she ventures a brief smile as I bandage her up.

 Anselmo looks around, smiling, and says, “it looks like my wife decorated it!”  And then his smile turns sad.

I help him wrestle his blanket out of its compression-sack.  “Did she die?” I ask.

“No,” he answers.  “ She took the children and fled the country.  I told her I’d follow her, when I got the money.  I put her on a ship full of other Latinos, paid the captain, and I don’t even know what damn country he’s taking them to, he said it was better for both of us if I didn’t know, but I ...told...my...wife...I’d...follow her!”  The tears streak down his burn-scarred face.

I pat his arm.  “Til can find them.  We have people all over.  We watch for things like shiploads of refugees.”  Or slaves, I can’t help thinking.

 “For all I know,” he says, “I loaded them onto a slave ship and paid my last dime for the privilege.”  I look at him sharply.  Did he just read my mind?  “But Zanne, at least as slaves they’ll stay alive.”

 I feel exhausted, crowded, like so many thoughts push up against me that my shields could crash at any minute.   I want to throw myself onto that overstuffed couch right over there.  Instead I inspect the bedrooms, looking for what I fear to find.)

Watch as the men inspect the oxcart wheels in the habit that we’ve taught them.  Watch the soldiers get dusty climbing under each and every one.  Repress the desire to giggle.

 (And I find exactly what I expected.  Teddy bears and other stuffed animals, glaring with magentine eyes.

“Shon, Lula...well, everybody.  Take these toys and get rid of them.  I think I saw a shed out in the back.  Get every toy you find out of the house.”

Helping in the search, myself, a bag full of toxic playthings in my arms, coughing on the stirred-up dust, my mind goes back to that moment, before the toy store window, when I felt acutely a link to Jake.  And then, with only that connection, I suddenly remember the time when Randy got him drunk to stop a neural relapse, and he nearly beat up my husband over something harmless, till I kicked his knee out.

I sit down, right on the floor.  Why does that matter now?  And why do I get the weird feeling that in some way I’m standing in for Deirdre?  And why, on top of all that, do I feel that something has gone wrong with her?  It all tangles up in me, none of it explained, till my poor head hurts as if it’s trying to explode.

I feel Cybil’s hand on my shoulder.  “Are you okay?  Do you, uh, need that medicine?”

Yes.  No!  I squeeze her hand.  “I’m fine, Cyb.”  And then I climb back to my feet and help look for toys.)

And so the inspection moves past the carts on to other things.  Now, that wouldn’t be the cook’s cart, would it?  No, medical—I see the red cross on it.  Tempting...but I do so want to best the enemy morally as well as physically, don’t I?

What would you know about it, Killer-Virgin?

I did not hear that.  I close my eyes tightly, only to see the afterimages of men’s heads exploding into flame.  Oh Lord, we’re entering the Season of the Dead; the air teams with spirits massing for their Day, everything I do might...no.  Get control of yourself.  I clench my jaw and open my eyes again, glaring at that medical cart.  Okay—I don’t just want to best the army morally, I want to best myself morally, too.  I want to stop sinking and sinking and...stop that, Deirdre.  We all just do our best.

Real enough for you yet?  Shut up shut up I don’t hear anything.

Stop wasting time!  No one sees, so slip under the cart, creep along in its shadow to the next cart up—ammunition, guns, grenades, the tools of war.  Help yourself quickly, but don’t take too long filling up your pockets. 

Now, slip under its wooden belly, ignore the peripheral glimpses of faces in the shadows, and take knife in hand to pry out the pegs and twist loose the screws...carefully...carefully...that’s it, leave ‘em where they’ll hold for a little while, then collapse upon the road.  And the soldiers will say to each other, “But we inspected that cart!” and they will shiver, thinking also of the dead.  I almost see, in the corner of my eye, the shadow of someone nodding grimly.

 

“You concealed a memory, there.”

Deirdre roused groggily from the trance to face the serene smile of her accuser.  Which quickly frowned into a look of concern as he switched off the trance-tones.

“Getting your vengeance upon me?” she asked, shuddering from the abrupt transition.

“I’m sorry!  Really.  I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Deirdre rubbed her hand across her face.  “Do you usually talk to people you don’t mean to wake up?”

“Here?  Indeed I do.  Most people sit there nicely sedated and willing to take suggestions.  I was about to tell you to dive deeper, below the concealments.”

Deirdre tensed, her hand slipping unconsciously down to the hip where she used to wear a knife.  “What makes you think,” she said slowly, “that I’m concealing a memory?”

“It’s a common enough pattern,” he replied, not at all menaced when her hand encountered only fabric.  Gently he said, “Plenty of agents hide the early stages of drug abuse from themselves.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You remember hallucinating.  You tried to suppress that, too, but you didn’t quite make it.  Audial hallucinations particularly go with abusing the greenfire leaf over time.

“I’d had a concussion!” she snapped.

“Which causes all manner of interesting symptoms, but not, as a rule, audial hallucinations.”

“I’m neurologically different, remember?”

“You must have been nibbling the leaf now and then, trying to stir yourself out of the stupor from your injury.  It grows plentifully in the Midlands, after all.  That might also have had a lot to do with your lack of appetite.”

“Or it just might have been telepathic overlap from the Charadocian army stuffing Kiril silly!  Not to mention that concussions cause nausea.”

“Don’t get angry, dear.  We handle all kinds of secrets discreetly here.”

“I told you, I’m neurologically different.  You already know that.  Tampered with.  Permanently.  Psychoactive substances affect all of us Fireheart folks abnormally.”

He stroked his chin a moment, thinking about it.  “Could be,” he conceded.  “It might take a lot less, in a shorter time, to start affecting you, maybe even subjecting you to flashbacks from abuse past.  Especially considering how traumatically stimulant herbs affected you initially, on your Rookie mission.”  At her stare he smiled again, sadly shaking his head.  “You agents really don’t remember our faces after debriefing, do you?  And after we share such intimacy!”

“Was it you who…”

“Yes.  I debriefed you after your rookie mission.”

“Then you understand.  I could have been reacting to all kinds of things, hearing Kief’s voice like that.”

“True.  It’s possible,” he said soothingly, and switched the music back on.  Deirdre relaxed, gripping the magentine bar, just as she started to remember a bitter taste in my mouth…

…But that was hours ago, and I’ve had no help since—and boy do I feel it!  I pick myself up off the ground anyway, and dust myself off.  Agents can do without help.  And I promptly reel into a roadside tree, but push myself back to my feet as soon as the dizziness and weariness subside.  Don’t lose it, Deidre, not now.  The children need you.  But no more leaf today—don’t want to wind up like Lucinda, do you?



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