IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Saturday, October 31, 2708
(At our next camp I insist on unloading all the boxes, sacks, and cans of food, all of the pans and things myself. I do my share putting up the cook’s tent, too, everything, just like I used to, waving off all the helpful hands. As I work, I see Reno headed for the outskirts of camp with a shovel; Sarge has put him on latrine duty for a solid week, with no sign of let-up.)
(“I found it this morning,” Apollo says, holding back the low branches of the lone conifer to reveal a hatch. “I went looking for cones, to see if any still had seeds in them.”
“Intriguing, dear boy. Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
He fidgets in the dimming light. “Something about it just...well, it just gave me the creeps.”
I sigh. “So you thought it might be less creepy to check it out at nightfall? Procrastination rarely improves a prospect, Apollo.”
He shrugs, trying to put his facade back on. “Do you think we can pry it open with a shovel?”
“We can try,” I say. I fear what we might find down there, but better to know than not, my father always said. Miserable thing, sometimes, to worship Truth.
Shon and Ozwald soon find shovels in the shed and make quick work of it between them—and immediately choke and gag, like the rest of us, when the smell hits, confirming my darkest fears.)
(The smell’s hard to get out when Reno scrubs up under camp conditions, but I don’t let that keep me from his company. I’ve dealt with smells before.)
(“I’ve dealt with this sort of thing before,” I say, binding a kerchief over my lower face, which doesn’t actually help that much. Cybil stares at me aghast.
“You’re not actually going down there, are you?” she asks.
“Somebody has to, darling. Just fix me a nice bath for when I come back up. See if they left behind any bath oil while you’re at it—I prefer floral scents, if you have a choice. And talc; I’d love it if you could find me a bit of talc, for afterwards. I think I’ll have earned it by then.”
Apollo hands me his flashlight. I give it a quick wind-up; I’d hate to run out of power down there.
“Jameel?” I call. He lopes up, lean and full of fluid
grace. “Jameel, you used to teach Tai
Chi, am I correct?”
“Teach the others a class. They need something to relieve the stress. Go on—herd them out of here. You too, Cybil,” I say when I see her forcing herself to remain. I wink at her, saying, “You know you could use the exercise.”
She looks slapped, and loses all interest in standing by me—as I intended. I don’t suppose she’ll go out of her way to find me scented oils now, nor talc, but c’est la vie. I make myself refrain from clapping a hand over nose and kerchief till the others leave, and descend down the stairs.)
(I do some stretches that Deirdre once taught me, a long, long time ago. The muscles don’t ache so much anymore; I’m getting back into the swing of things again. Good.)
(I feel a faint thrum from the magentine sewn secretly into my belt. Not good. The narrow staircase goes down steeply, with a few curves, probably around the greater tree-roots, before it levels off into a hall that goes directly under the house. And there I reach a door. Oh Gates of Knowledge, help me face the truth!
Steeled with the convictions of my faith, I force three deep breaths to numb me to still greater stench, then open the door and walk on in.)
(I walk in on Sarge as he writes something in his report book—probably about losing ammo yesterday. He smiles and automatically pulls out the box under his bed that the dairy-folk refilled for him. This time the fudge has nuts—and why not enjoy it while I can? I’ll be doing without, side by side with my comrades, soon enough.
“Daddy Sarge,” I say, wiping my mouth before reaching for the next piece, “Could I please have Reno drive me every day? I like him.”
His face falls for a moment. “But you still like your Daddy Sarge better, don’t you?” he asks.
“Oh sure!” I say and climb into his lap. “Best of all!”
“That’s my girl,” he says as he slices me some sausage, his arms reaching around me to do it. Safe and cozy in his embrace, I stare at the pages of mysterious writing right under my nose, that could tell me everything I need to know, perhaps, to save the lives of my friends.
I really, really, really wish that I could read!)
(I really, really wish that I didn’t have to see this. Nobody should. Sprays and smears of blood mar the jars and cans, all the emergency supplies hoarded against Gates know what, when the real danger came from right within their midst. And there, strewn all about the place, lie the bodies: a man, a woman, some teenagers and children. My agent-mind catalogues all the different ways that they found to kill each other, while my Suzie-side fights hard to keep from throwing up.
Odd, how this headless woman with the cleaver died clutching to her breast a blue baby shoe, for the left foot—not of the sort that they make in Vanikke, either; more like the soft-soled yet tough footwear of Til, cracked with age and dirty in the cracks. Stranger still is my reaction—why do I want to run screaming from that shoe, when all these rotting bodies disgust but do not scare me?
I turn back to the shelves. Nasty business, hauling all of that topside and washing it all off, but the food inside should have serve us just fine. I hold the light closer and read the name of the company that packaged the nearest can. Uh oh. Not all of it)
* * *
I get back into the swing of things, marching at a fair pace with the others. I try to shake off a nightmare about Lucinda with half her face sagging like some Nordic Hel, a gaping emptiness in one eye-socket, her teeth showing through her cheek on that side as if the flesh had rotted back. Yet I can stay awake longer on my own these days, no more need to push myself unnaturally. The sounds of evening crickets no longer pings like sparks of pain.
We spent the whole day sleeping, venturing out in the night to catch up with the army on their turn to rest. Some of the kids joke around, calling them the Day Shift and us the Night Shift. The troops have not gone far at oxen-pace. It doesn’t take long.
What’s that, over there, glowing? Oh, okay. I recognize the pale blue bioluminescence of that lumpy fungus, hanging lopsidedly over a root. Poisonous, but they say it tastes sweet before it kills you. I could slip a little of that into…no. No I won’t. Poisoning the food would put the cook under suspicion.
Yet still I stare at it, and watch it turn into a baby’s shoe. I recoil, feeling a horrid jolt of evil in the sight. Then I shake my head, back away, and rejoin those who have gone on ahead of me. No, I certainly do not need even the tiniest nibble of unnatural means tonight!
(We hurry in the dark after Jake, all three of us carrying shovels purloined from the gardener’s shed. “I saw it in his eyes,” Jake explained in whispers. “I have no doubt about it. George has killed, and recently. I just can’t get the details because I’m not a telepath.”
Don mutters, “I wish to God we’d brought along…uh…Lisa!”
I ask, “And you’re picking up a sense of where he buried the body?”
“He buried something. I’m sure of it. I can sense a general direction, but…”
“I can feel it,” Don says, “A cold radiation in the ground, hitting my bare feet.” We glance down and, sure enough, he has taken off his slippers and sinks his feet into the soft, damp, Toulin earth. I notice that he’s also slipped one of his rings around a toe; it glitters oddly in the gloom. “That way.” Don points towards a corner of the outer wall, one half-hidden by a large rosebush. Behind it Jake sinks to one knee, and feels the dirt. “Disturbed,” he says. “Dug up, not too long ago.”
So I set a glow to bob, very low to the ground, hidden by our bodies and the bush. And we dig.
“It feels awful, here,” Don says, sweating in the night. “Great evil…like that, that thing at our initiation. And sorrow—terrible sorrow.” But he keeps on digging. “And,” he gulps, “child abuse. I definitely feel something about child abuse.” He swears, his eyes watering. “Not again!”
“Don,” Jake growls, “put that ring back on your finger. And get your slippers on.” Our scholar nods and complies.
“Is that a shoe?” I ask, poking my shovel at something yielding and pale.
“Yes—a blue one. Right foot. Not Academy issue.” Jake drops down on both knees and digs with his hands, then pulls out the thing. “I can’t find any body to go with it,” he says. And indeed, I smell damp earth but no decay.
“There is none,” Don groans. “That’s it, right there, the source of the wrongness.”
“It looks awfully small, I say.”
“It’s a baby’s shoe,” Jake says, turning it in his hand. But he blocks Don from coming any nearer. “Wait! Don’t touch it.” Then he gropes inside the shoe and pulls out a magentine crystal. “Don’t come anywhere near this, Don.”
“It’s my job,” Don argues, but not very forcefully.
“And it’s my job to say when the usual rules don’t apply.” He stares at the moldy leather in his hand with a horrified fascination. “Why do I get the feeling that this is, somehow, Alroy’s baby shoe? How could that be?”
“I feel it, too,” Don says.
Why can’t they see the obvious? “Don’t you remember what the boys said at our initiation? A rift in time and space.”
Jake’s jaw actually drops. “You mean…serious enough to transport physical objects? God, no!”)
I am not a child abuser, I tell myself as I turn away from the mushroom and rejoin my young soldiers, glimmering in whatever faint starlight makes it through the leaves. Why should I even think like that? I do what necessity demands. I do what they want me to do for them. I save more lives, surely, than I cost. I…oh Lord, I’ve read all of these arguments before, in the File of Shame!
I know a way to shed the weight of such gloomy thoughts. Bitter but good, bitter can be healing, after all. Just a little bit. Exhausted as I feel, I can’t afford to let anything weigh me down right now.