IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 57

The Spoils of War


        “...up, Deirdre.  Wake up, Deirdre.”

The woman gasped and leaped up, snapping a wire attached to her headband.  “What?  What?  Where’s the enemy?”  Then she blinked blearily at the psychometrist and sank dizzily back into the chair.

“You tell me,” Justín said, as he detached the broken wire and plugged in a replacement from one of several drawers built into the wall.

Deirdre took several deep breaths before she could husk out, “I thought I’d fallen asleep on duty again, and the enemy attacked.  But that didn’t actually happen.”  Her voice grew firmer.  “It didn’t happen.  It was just a fear.”

“And a sound one,” Justín agreed as he sat back down.  “It could have, all too easily.”  He sat with his elbows on his knees and chin on clasped hands, regarding her.

“Is that why you woke me up?  Just to gloat?”

He grinned evilly.  “How does it feel?  But you’re the one who wants to keep interrupting the session to discuss new insights.  I just thought I’d beat you to it for once.”

“What’s to discuss?” Deirdre growled, readjusting the band where the wires had tangled in her hair and now tugged at her uncomfortably.  “I told you from the beginning that there was a problem, that I didn’t dare use drugs for this debriefing.”

“And so this was the moment when you understood that.  When you realized just how badly you’d hurt Kiril.”  Justín leaned back into his seat and nodded, looking annoyingly satisfied.

“Glad you got that straightened out,” she grumbled.  “And when did you realize that you have a problem?”

“I don’t,” he said serenely.  “I exist in precisely the state which Til needs me to maintain.  I sacrifice my health and normal human relationships for the furtherance of Lovequest.”

She watched the slow way that he blinked.  She noted the pallor of his skin.  “Then couldn’t I say the same thing?”

“Not at that point.  At that point your state got in the way of serving Lovequest.”  He started to reach over, to pat her hand, but thought better of it.  “If it’s any comfort to you, you couldn’t help but...No!”  For Deirdre had grasped his bare hand, and gripped it hard, the other locked on the magentine.

She watched him, the eyes widening, the pinprick pupils dilating of a sudden, the sweat beading up on his brow.  “No more games, Justín.  No more flirting on the edge of other people’s nightmares.  Feel it full on–what hurts so bad that it breaks through any medication.  Just for seven seconds, feel exactly what I feel!”

She let go and he fell back gasping.  “That was more than seven seconds!”

“By a stolen fraction, perhaps.”

He rubbed his hand, glaring at her.  “You really have become a torturer, Deirdre Keller.  You no longer differ all that much from Sanzio D’Arco.”

“Perhaps.  I might as well admit it–no secrets between us, right?  And perhaps, like him, I do it to force you to face a truth.”

He settled his own band back onto his brow.  “So you admit that sometimes you agreed with him.”

She forced herself to shrug.  “Wars happen when, in defiance of all logic, contradictory things become true.  And no one can bear to admit it.  And so two sides fight to champion half the truth.” She looked him in the eye.  “But the more I live, the more I have to learn to bear.  Honesty is the worst of all.  Yet here I am–no injections, no nothing.  Before you wake me just to snicker at me again, at least consider what that means.  Now shall we continue?”

“I can hardly wait,” he muttered.  But he flipped the switch on anyway.  And the hypnotic tones became (the faint tinkling of jars, bottles and delicate metal objects in a laboratory blessedly far from the Charadoc...

 

Sunday, December 13, 2708, continued.

“What do you think?”  I ask Dalmar and Pauline, smiling with pride as I show them around the Montoya research laboratory, now that the regular staff have safely vacated, leaving behind nothing but a sharp scent of carbolic on the air.  Dalmar has already opened up the chemical cabinet and now eagerly assesses the contents, while Pauline inspects the shining tools of the trade.  I lean casually on the closed door, not betraying that I listen for footsteps, but Tshura assures me that she has my back.

Dalmar laughs.  “There’s more here than we could possibly use!”  His eyes gleam with moisture.  “Do you realize how long it’s been since I had more than enough of anything?”

“Enjoy it,” I say, pushing off from the door to head for the latex glove dispenser.  “Our Romany friends paid enough for it.”)

We get more supplies than we could possibly carry, unless we want to travel slowly and obviously by oxcart.  So we set the oxen loose, hopefully to wander home again, or if not to find their way to appreciative new owners.  With Purple Mantles in the vicinity we can’t just invite the locals to swarm in and help themselves, though.  I mull over this at the victory feast back at camp, after the birds have all gone to sleep and the bats taken over the skies.

(Oh how I wish that I could sleep!  It seems like we’ve slogged through snow for days, not the few hours since lights-out.  But Jake says that every sacrifice we prevent gives us that much of an edge, reducing the power that Changewright builds up in little, crucial ways that he can’t see, cracks in the spell.
            So far we’ve saved four chickens, a goat, and a goose.  The chickens we let loose without anybody knowing how it came to pass.  Don’s psychic nudge caused the galoshes of two boys to slip under them, releasing the goat that they led.  The goose held her own against three boys trying to corral her long enough for us to get there and knock the kids out in the dark and confusion.  But we came too late to save the pig.  I may never eat ham again.

Now we carry the boys inside.  Children did this.  Children.  Children.)

I had forgotten how delicious real ham can taste.  I see all the faces lit up around me by more than the glimmer that our small fire can cast.  They laugh with delight, almost like children.  Almost, not quite; real children in other lands don’t take such care to keep their voices low, their chuckles to themselves.  They look so tired, my young ones, my darlings; we had a hard day’s work on into night, after the battle.

(Most regular people, when you ask them, can’t clearly picture the smell of blood.  Agents know the smell too well.  And right now this entire campus smells like a battlefield.  Even here, in the closeness of the dorm, even with the windows shuttered down against the snow.

Don, Jake and I quietly tuck the unconscious boys into bed.  While it’s always dicey to knock a minor out cold, Don managed each punch carefully and with medical precision.  That’s three, at least, who did no torture tonight.

I know that still more terrible things go on our there, in the cold, under the thick night clouds.  I know that terrible things go on indoors, too.  Every so often I hear some animal scream and scream.  Yet the boys around me all sleep soundly.

But God forgive me, I feel so dead-tired that I want to sink into my own bed, just a few yards away.  Instead I turn around and follow my friends back out the door, slippers making little sound on the stairs, and then to our galoshes still crusted with snow from the last trip out, and then back out into cold and darkness and fear and a biting wind that moans for human sin.  I know that I can’t stop every atrocity, not without blowing the whole mission and ruining our chance to stop something even more horrific.  Which makes absolutely no sense to my heart, which also screams, in the silence of my breast, every time an animal cries out in pain.

And I keep listening for a human sound amid the squawks and squeals and bleats.  Will he make a human sacrifice tonight?  Has he already?  On a work of this scale, how can he not?  Who will we miss tomorrow, from our classmates?)

We all miss Nayal.  When we get back to Abojan Pass we’ll tell Damien all about him, about the boy with no officer’s training whatsoever, who leaped into the breech the best he could, and Damien will sing the song of many nameless, underage officers just like him, and he will give them all the name, Nayal, and the next kid to find the weight of the world suddenly on his shoulders will remember the song and draw a little courage from it.

(But take courage, man.  I’ve got Jake back.  He won’t be sacrificed tonight, at least, and that I feared the most of all.  And what a selfish consolation that is!  Somebody’s going to be missing a son by morning, I’m sure of it.

And why didn’t the Changewright invite us into this monstrosity?  Why didn’t he assign us places to be and animals to kill?  Aren’t we officially part of his cult?  Does he suspect that we’re not quite what we seem?  And yet he has brought Jake even deeper into his confidence.

Aw, I’m too tired to deal with this, too tired to think or move in more than a stumble after the next crime, and the next, almost too tired to pray.  But not too tired to feel.)

Lufti, of all people, comes up with the idea that I myself am too tired to think through, of everybody scattering, carrying as much loot as they can in different directions and stashing it away, then regrouping at Zofia’s.  He makes up a rhyming code for all of the different natural features that might mark a place—“broken free” for oaken tree, “fairy tush” for berry bush, etc.  Then he teaches us weird tunes like nothing that anybody sings in this country.  He tells us to make up verses in the code, sung to these tunes that we know belong to no song but code-songs.  When we spread these around, other Egalitarians will know where to find what they need.

I look over to him with hope in my heart, his young face shining in the firelight; he looks so sane right now, full of the promise of his intelligence, polished with literacy.  But then in the same earnest tone he tells us that the dead taught him those tunes and that all we steal really belongs to them, so be careful lest the stars find out.  Gradually I watch his lucidity crumble into fragments of speech muttered to the embers that he pokes, staring into the glow like he tries to rekindle something there.

I glance over at Kiril.  She has not touched one mouthful of the food that she has won for us.  She just sits and stares at the fire, too.

            (I know what Sarge said.)




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