IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Friday, November 27, 2708
(We wake long before the sun. Silently we dress and prepare for the morning, illuminated only by the coals of Cybil’s fire as she cooks up hamster porridge for us. I braid my hair out of the way, and then coil the braids into several becoming roselike buns, pinned with smoothed twigs, attractively asymmetrical in the latest avant garde fashion. I notice that Pauline does likewise, tightly winding her auburn locks, nary a hair out of place. Men have no idea how vanity can keep a woman going.
Her once-pale face has become freckled in our travels, but I kind of like it that way. I like how my own hands have turned as golden-brown as fresh-baked bread. Speaking of which, I wish I had some right now—with butter! Yet this porridge that Cybil hands me tastes better to me all the time. I think I like that touch of alfalfa, now.
Softly I ask Cybil, “Will you and Toni be all right staying behind with Raif and Kimba?” as she sits down with her own breakfast.
She smiles wearily back at me. “Sure. Kimba’s quieted down quite a bit these days.”
I put a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll come back or send for you soon.”
Maury says, “I’ll stay with them, too.” He smiles lopsidedly and shrugs. “I’m a bit too old for this sort of thing—living in the woods is adventure enough for me.” Jacques nods in agreement and sits down on a log, bringing out his little pocket chessboard, with all of the tiny pieces held in place by pegs in holes. As I shoulder my coil of rope I hear them explaining the mysteries of the game to the kids.
The rest of us follow Elmer through the woods. “They don’t watch the cliff-side,” he says, and chortles. “They thought me too spastic to climb up that way—that’s how I escaped. They didn’t know I’d been the 2683 rock-climbing champion of Goeddalville, and that I know these cliffs better than they know their own fathers.”
“It must’ve been hard all the same,” Pauline murmurs, “in your condition. I salute your spirit.”
“Staying was hard,” he replies. “Didn’t much care if I died on that cliff.”
Pauline nods, her face showing a surgeon’s cool determination. “A warrior’s choice,” she says.)
Briefly I wake myself by talking. I hear myself say, “I chose this. Jonathan came to take me home, but I turned away and followed Cyran. I walked across the coals. I will always walk across the coals. The damned always do.”
Tired. I can’t afford to let recriminations keep me awake. I punch my pack into a better shape for a pillow, annoyed that it carries a hard, folded up flit underneath the softer stuff, and go back to sleep.
I chose this. I chose this. Oh God it hurts but I chose this I will not let it go for I have made this who I am and who I shall always be, the burning beams falling on me for all time, the flaming silken curtains wrapping ‘round my scorching skin, the laughter turning into screams as all my followers run around in panic, deformed by my own arts but in the end they testified against me but who needs them when I declare myself the Outlaw God, supreme in crimes, because I damn well get to choose and if all else belongs to Him then all the more shall I embrace my burning! I shall force myself to love my torment because it’s mine, my one last thing, and to do otherwise would say that I made a mistake, that I have compounded that mistake for all this time by staying here, in the immolating ruin of my palace, yet here I stand, laughing or screaming doesn’t matter, I remain, unbudgibly, eternally, incorrigibly here, and that simpering, nice-guy God has to watch me burn, has to smell me forever sending up a stench, because I’d rather burn in a Hell of my own making than concede one thing! For I am myself, my own self, I am, I am, I am
DEIRDRE EVELYN KELLER! And I wake up screaming.
And after that I get up and wash my face.
(I wash my face. I don’t want to look in the little military-issue mirror. I don’t want to see if any trace remains of the blood that gushed right into my face in that last encounter. I know that I have scrubbed it too much. I know that I look like hell without my make-up, and that we stretch supply-lines too thin for any of the emollients that keep a face fresh and youthful-looking. And I also know that the lines in a man’s face that would make others look up to him just make a woman look tired and prematurely old. And that’s what people judge me on, not on any victory.
Why does it have to be this way?)
(“Does it really have to be this way?” I ask George, bringing him his oatmeal. He has not looked well since we burned the rug.
“What way, Jake?”
“The way that fills you with horror even as it demands more horror from you.”
He glares at me as I sit down. “Keep your filthy telepathy to yourself!”
“But I’m not a telepath, George.”
“What are you, then?”
Briefly I bring out my globe of magentine. “I am an oracle.” And I slip it back into my pocket before anybody else notices. “I don’t suppose you know what that means,” I sigh, and then pay attention to my own oatmeal.
Yet he stares at me, owl-eyed. “But I do, Jake. I have read forbidden things. Books removed from the library. I know exactly what you are.”
“Yeah?” I ask with my mouth full.
“Yes. One of the damned. Like me.”)
(We reach the brink of the forest once again, which also happens to mark the brink of the high ground, some trees hanging down over the edge. I ask, “Does anyone here besides Elmer have rock-climbing experience?”
“I do,” says Tshura with a sabre grin, “and so does Guaril. We’ve gone on rock-climbing dates together.”
“Then rope up with Elmer and me. We four shall scout ahead first. The rest of you stay topside and mind our lifelines.”
And so we pass first through the easy climb of the leaning-trees and their knotted roots, then down to the rugged part, gripping cracks and protrusions, thrusting the balls of our feet where whole feet wouldn’t fit, as the first light just begins to glow above the worn-down mountains. And I feel so alive! My muscles tingle and I feel my heart pump strong and steady. A moist breeze carries the scent of autumn leaves, and birds begin to sing. Ah, but I love the life of an agent!
Still, I worry. A sick man leads us, visibly shuddering with the effort to keep his holds. Yet he manages. He manages astonishingly well.)
(Reno treats Lufti astonishingly well, carrying Lufti back from the latrine over his shoulder, performing services for him that nobody would have asked of him. I gaze on him with gratitude but he blushes and looks away, like my smile troubles him. In silence he helps me load up the wagon, then settles Lufti in with me and takes the reins.
And the wind in the trees sighs and sighs like it’s given up on words for all the sorrows that it’s seen, it has nothing more to say, and the trees don’t reply either, they just shake their boughs and watch us roll on by before Reno can find his tongue to say what’s bothering him, some ways down the road.
He looks straight forward; maybe he pretends that he’s talking to himself “There was a boy,” Reno says, “maybe Lufti’s age. I couldn’t save him. Bullet in the back. I knew it had paralyzed his legs; he tried to scrabble away with his arms, but his body wouldn’t do a thing for him below the waist. Sarge called us to get out of there before reinforcements showed up. I could tell he didn’t like it either, just leaving that kid half alive on the battlefield like that. But, you know, he was on the other side.”
I pat his knee. “I’m sure his own found him and took care of him.” Even if that meant putting him out of his misery.
I almost don’t hear him say, “I think my bullet did it to him.” And the cart keeps rolling on.)
(We reach the halfway point when Elmer gets this crazy, ecstatic grin on his twitching face. “Of course!” he shouts, and lights go on in the building below. “This was always meant to be! I’m already one of the damned, and we are all, all, all, all linked!” He slashes the rope and falls with his arms and legs splayed out to embrace his destiny, shouting, “Mistress, I have brooooought them!” And then the guns fire!
“Back!” I scream. “Back! Back! Back!” But a bullet hits Tsura’s hand. She screams like an eagle, blood spraying the rock. Guaril reaches for her, overbalances and then...
...then they don’t fall. They merge with the cliff–face. I see them sucked right into a vein of rose crystal. What in the name of Truth?
I cut the rope between me and the end absorbed into the rock, and scramble up without them as the bullets keep on coming. And I look again at the crevices I grip. Hot springs can leave veins of calcite deposits—slashes of magentine scar the whole bloody cliff!
I swing wildly on my rope, leaping from side to side to make a poor target, but it doesn’t do much good, my fast reflexes can’t speed up the pendulum swings, and the bullets just keep coming! One hits so close that flying stone flakes cut my face and I shriek like a scared little girl and then I do a terrible thing.
Mindblast! I pour all of my fear into one great flare back at the gunners, amplified by my heightened neurology on top of magentine concentrations so great that it can do things I don’t even understand. I hear the screams of men dying of fright—I feel like they use my throat, then realize that my whole body heaves with howling out their torment with them! My own head pounds with pain from the echo of their bursting blood vessels turning their brains to mash.
Shivering as violently as Elmer used to do, I make it to the top, I claw at sod to drag myself up over the brink, trying to yell, “Run! Run!” but I don’t have any voice left, but they don’t need more than a rasp, they grab my arms and scramble with me away away away!
Over and over I keep telling myself, “I must never tell Merrill what I have done...he must never learn what I have become.”)
When you wake up in the morning and know your own damnation, the birds still sing, the sun still shines, but this impenetrable shell encases your soul, so that it doesn’t hear what your ears hear, it sees no light, it feels nothing of the warmth that touches your skin. You eat your meager breakfast, and on some level you do feel grateful for each mouthful, and you note the flavors, but you do not taste them. It means nothing to satisfy your hunger. All day long you move through beauty, and you know it, but the beauty cannot reach you.
And the scariest part is that you almost prefer it that way. You’re through with trying, with the unbearable burden of striving to be worthy of all the beauty in the world. You accept the ugliness inside you as a necessary condition of life. You surrender all your doubts as you drill your underage soldiers for the carnage ahead; you can ask anything of them and they will deliver, for they share your damnable condition. You wonder why war crimes ever bothered you.
But every so often your conscience gives a pang, as sharp and rending as a wounded child’s cry, as real as if an angel had stabbed you with cold steel. But no, it’s more like the cramp in a tight-bound limb, the circulation fighting through the bonds, trying to mingle its blood with the rest of you. Oh, then is when you hate all morality the most! Then is when you understand a monster like Sanzio perfectly.
* * *
Deirdre’s eyes flew open. She watched Justín’s sleeping eyelids tremble as his lips mouthed, “... monster like Sanzio perfectly...” She did not want to wake him. She did not want to discuss this.
But Justín stirred before she could slip back into the past. His eyes opened on her and he smiled ironically as he switched the music off. “Ah, how convenient cultural immersion must be for an agent,” he said sleepily. “You can look back on your missions and think, ‘Someone else did that. Someone from another land, with a different set of values.’ You all do that, you know.”
“Do we?” she asked faintly. And silently she asked herself, “Did Zanne?”—guiltily realizing that she now understood something that not even Merrill knew about his wife.
“Assuredly. The agents’ drug of choice. When you sign the papers that change your citizenship it works like a magic rite—in your mind you really did become Deirdre of the Charadoc. And now you’ve gone back to being Deirdre of the Tilián—isn’t that nice?”
She shook her head. “Justín, when I first met you I thought you were gentle. Kind.”
“I think I used to be.” The smile faded from his face. “Yes, I think I am, still—kind to sedated agents, gentle with their vulnerability, doing what I can to purge their souls and send them back home for a brief interval of normalcy.” He shook his head and laughed faintly. “Normalcy—whatever that means.”
“But with me...”
“I thought you cruel at first, to insist on doing this awake. Cruel to me and to yourself. Yet I find it so refreshing, now, to finally be able to say out loud the things that agents normally cannot hear from me. Most agents feel so superior to people like me.”
“So you punish me for facing what the others turn their backs on as fast as they can.”
He frowned and sat in thought a moment. “It does sound bad when you put it that way,” he said at last. “And it may be even worse. Maybe I punish you for facing what I myself cannot.”
Deirdre sighed. “I can’t judge you, Justín, and you can’t judge me. Can we leave it at that?”
“I guess we have to.”