IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 21

Aftershocks


 

Sunday, December 27, 2708, continued

(“Incoming,” Tshura murmurs in my mind.)

“Incoming,” Lufti murmurs into my hair, “But friendly spirits, afoot or in the air.”

That’s when I see another wing of Cyran’s force, looking a bit abraded by recent battle but with high morale.  They must have prevented still more government troops from joining our melee.

“Put me down, Deirdre  My little rifts aren’t all that need some healing.”

(Then we hear what we’ve all been dreading: the tramp of boots in unison, coming our way.  I’m not the only one here with boosted telepathy, though they might not know yet how to use it.  Which makes them all the more dangerous.

“This way,” I hiss, opening a door hidden by a life-sized painting of Belen in her prime.  We run down the narrow hall of a servant’s passage no longer needed, trying not to choke on the dust, but it seems to deaden the sound of our feet.)

“Betany!” I cry, running to her and embracing her.  “Oh Betany, so good to see you on your feet!”

“Thanks to you and Rashid,” she says, grinning and hugging me back.  “I’ll never forget you, Deirdre, coming to my rescue.”  She still moves a little stiffly, I see, but halleluia, she moves!

(Jake raises a shaking hand and says.  “Wait.  Something moves.  Something...oh no no no, not now, no NO!”)

(“Okay, turn here!  Now we owowowoowOWOWOW!”  Fireworks go off in my head!  Cybil grabs me by one arm, and Maury by the other and they drag me along.

“Jameel, take the lead,” I gasp, “But be ready to change course if I say so.”  I try to focus on Minerva’s black hair in front of me, but a cluster of painful light crystals blocks the center of my view, then jumps to the periphery and turns into an angry, spiky arc, flashing horrible colors at me.  Ohhh Gates but my head hurts!)

(“Zannnnne!” Jake screams, crumpling in on himself, gripping his head.

“Jake” I cry, lurching down to hold him.  Don rubs the tense muscles in the back of his neck and says, “Tell me what’s happening, Jake.”
            “Zanne...too powerful!  Headache, oh God!”)

Oh God my head suddenly hurts!  I fall to the ground with my hands on my skull.  Lufti slides from my back but then pulls my head into his lap saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay, exploding stars but I can shield you some.  Kiril!  Come over here!  Think about walls, a big brick wall around Deirdre that the devil himself couldn’t kick through.”

“What?”  she runs over, bewildered.

“Just do it!” he barks in a voice surprisingly like Cyran’s.

(“Nurse!” Don shouts  “Get down here STAT with two tabs of Propanolol HCL.”

The man calls from the infirmary window, “Are you sure...”

“Just do it!  Now!”

Wallace calls up, “He’s a doctor—fully certified!”

I hold Jake’s shuddering in my arms while Don murmurs, “General Practitioner first class, with a specialty in tropical medicine, for what it’s worth.  But I also know when an oracle needs a beta blocker.”

Jake just mumbles, “Pain...oh Christ, the pain!”

My knees get cold in the slush and I don’t care.  “Hang on,” I tell his hair, shoved up against my cheek.  “The nurse is coming.”

He finally gets down the stairs at a gallop with two pink pills and a half-spilled glass of water.  Jake can’t gulp the medicine down fast enough.  He takes ragged breaths but he can sit up again.)

The headache subsides.  I take a deep, shuddering breath as Tanjin gives me water, then Lufti and Kiril help me back to my feet.  I feel embarrassed before the newcomers as I straighten out my clothes.

Who else do I know, here?  I recognize Makhliya’s thick, blue-glossy hair, wavier than the usual run, and so I haven’t far to look before I find scar-cheeked, white-haired Romulo.  Anyone else?  Alysha, as always, at Cyran’s side, and big, lean, glowering Marduk with her.  The rest show strange faces to me: scarred, veteran-eyed old children, and newly recruited adults, looking scared but determined.  We have freed up the country enough for unprecedented numbers of adults to escape their servitude–that counts for something.  And more of the middle classes join us every day, as the army must squeeze them tighter.

“Too many,” I murmur, “too many...” the thought starts to echo through my skull.

“Kirilllll,” Lufti grabs her hand and mine.  “I’m counting on you to know what you don’t know!”

(Too many telepaths, amped up too high on magentine saturation bombard and track me all at once.  “I’m a trap!” I babble, “Abandon me!  Abandon me!  Cybil will you let go of my arm!”

“Nothing doing,” she says, and the fool keeps right on tugging me along.)

It becomes a dance between the government and the Egalitarians. The musicians play faster, the dancers trip faster, each side meets the challenge of the other, upping the tempo till one side must stumble.  Who shall we exhaust first?

“Kiril!” Lufti shrills.  “Raise the walls again!”

(I feel Guaril say, “Well, we’ve all got to die sometime,” as his spirit barrels full on into OHNONONONONO REDBLACK EXPLOSION IN MY BRAIN!

Gasp.  Gasp.  Gasp.)

(Jake starts trembling again.  Immediately I kneel back in the snow before him.  “You okay?” I ask, holding both his arms.

“It’s more distant now,” he rumbles back.  “I can handle it.”)

Something horrible rushes towards me, I can feel it!  And it passes right over me as I stand there embraced by Tanjin, Kiril and Lufti as if they bodily shielded me from my phantoms.  Kiril sighs, “Girl, you have got to go easy on the leaf!” and lets me go.

“I’m not chewing any now.  I haven’t for some time.”

“Good for you.  Just don’t you start up again.  You got long-term effects.  You’re shaking all over.”

I swallow down my irritation and say, “Duly noted.”  And we rejoin the march.

(“They’re dead now,” Tshura murmurs distantly, in not-quite words that flicker and fade in and out.  “All your pursuers.”  I feel her mourn the last trace of Guaril spent on our defense.  “I’ll guide you as long as I can.”  I appear to drift through the air, but I don’t dare open my eyes to confirm it.

“I’m picking up some of that,” Toni exclaims.  Of course.  Drugs appeal most to the hypersensitive; she’s probably an untrained telepath, herself.  She reels into the men who now apparently carry me.

“Take off my belt,” I mumble.  Why do I taste blood?  “Can you stand to put it on?”

“Pain and I became old friends through the last withdrawal.  I think I can stand anything, now.”

“I have my focus in my belt.”

“I know.  I figured it out.”

Tshura tells me that she’ll try to shield Toni as much as possible.  Then I feel hands pull my belt off, and Tshura becomes more distant, it all fades beyond the waves of migraine as I sink into exhaustion.)

With my loved ones at my side I fight off an inappropriate exhaustion and take pains to look normal, even cheerful.  We move on together, up the road, and this time we no longer even try to disguise that we have become an army.  Unabashed whistles go out, not caring who besides our rebels hear: “Regroup!  Join forces!”  Soon the mountains seem full of birds that never reach as high as these slopes, passing the twitter on.

(I feel cold, fresh air and hear the calls of winter birds.  We’ve gotten outside.  Someone throws a blanket over me.

The next explosion happens outside my head.  I briefly open my eyes to see, framed in a rainbow migraine halo, a hole blasted through the wall, still smoking, the air full of its dust.  Then the haywire guidance system on the guard-station cannon swings it around to point back at the pursuit inevitable with our coming into view.)

(“STOP it!” George shouts suddenly from high above our heads.  I see Aaron try to pull him away from the window, but he’s not looking down at us.  He stares off into the distance.  “You don’t need them anymore!  You got what you wanted!  Let GO!”)

(But the cannon never goes off.  Even without the belt I feel Tshura slip away from us.  I hear Maury whisper,  “They just collapsed.  Just like that, no wounds, no nuthin’, just buckled like a bunch of dropped dolls.”

Apollo says, “They’re getting up again.”

I feel the people carrying me stop.  I open my eyes, feeling the aftermath quite painfully enough, but no more active assault upon my brain.  The people behind us look confused, like those who wake up hungover in an unfamiliar place and fear to find out what brought them there.  None of them pursue us.  Eventually they clump in little groups, talking softly, trying to make sense of it all.

“Let’s go,” Jameel says.  “Whatever’s happening, let’s get as far away as possible.”)

 (I get back up, shivering some myself from my icy wet knees and shins, but Jake looks better now.  Don takes one look at me and says, “Go change your pants.  It’s not like we’re on a schedule.”

“Hi, merchant!” I call.  An enterprising tailor, seeing opportunity where others see disaster, has come by with a sleigh heaped with off-the rack regular clothes to sell to students who can’t wait to get out of their uniforms.  I push through the mob, waving a wallet in the air, and shouting out my measurements as two more loaded sleighs whoosh up, driven by younger versions of the same man.

“Oh, and Randy?” Don shouts over their heads,  “When you get back, I’m prescribing double chocolate.”)

Eventually Cyran decides to take it further.  At his signal I strap on my flit and leap into the sky, my folks cheering behind me.  I watch, from eagle-height, the boulder-forests and the heaths, for bands slipping in stealth-mode from cover to cover, invisible to all save eyes above.  I swoop down, give them Cyran’s commands, and tell them where the nearest soldiers march.  And I soar back up again, to still more cheers, heartening them by showing off my power.

(And as a new snow drifts down on the towers of Montoya Manor we all feel a last wave of relief, of something awful dissipating.  Even through my pain I sense it.  The damage isn’t done, not by a long shot, and more will come, I feel, like buildings toppling in an earthquake’s aftershocks, but something has happened, and the drive behind the damage has subsided.)

(But when I come back, my clothes in my arms, I hear Alroy’s voice say, “It is complete.”  I turn in horror to Jake; the words fell from his lips.  He looks ghastly.  “Jake,” I say, gently but firmly, “Let go.  You don’t have to follow every vision that beckons.”

“He wanted it said.  As an apology.”

Still more gently I say, “Then may God have mercy on the most wretched soul that I have ever met.  But there’s nothing more that absolutely needs our attention, is there?”

“No,” he sighs, and leans back against the chair, closing his eyes, looking utterly spent.  While the others head over to the merchant, I go on indoors and change right in the hall with at least a hundred other shivering students, so glad that I’m not an oracle!)

As I fly I remember my resentment, in my minority, when others could read minds, pull memories off of objects, move things without touch, create illusions, create fire, or perceive the unpredictable–all much fancier psi gifts than the ability to fly, so much handier for agents of the Tilián.  I thought that flying would never do me much benefit at all, just provide an entertainment, a few minute’s vacation now and then up in the sky, but only among cultures that could handle it.   I see now, in retrospect, how much this had to do with my volunteering for that illegal experiment in neural acceleration.  But here in the Charadoc people scavenge anything, make use of anything, make bloody good weapons out of anything!  And Cyran scavenged me.

(I watch Randy go in, then wheel Jake towards the merchant’s sleighs, hoping they have something in our size.  I almost don’t hear Jake murmur, “It may be complete, but it is not done.”)

Now every road, from every pass, for miles and miles, rings with the tramp of marching Egalitarian rebels, some ahead and some behind armies of marching Meritocracy soldiers.  Battles will take place before the sun sets, all up and down the Charadoc.  And some of ours will win, and some of ours will lose, yet all will weaken the government force that closes in on Abojan Pass.  And though they thin our numbers sent to strengthen those already gathered at the Pass, they also break in our new recruits; all those who finally reach our destination will arrive there fire-hardened for the work.

(It doesn’t take long for me to get something warm and wooly on my goosepimply legs.  Don and Randy enter the hall just as I leave. Soon we all come back to Wallace standing tall and forlorn and dark against the snow.

I turn at the shush of footsteps.  Right behind me comes George out the door, sunk back into his catatonia after his brief outburst, Aaron’s arm around him as the nurse follows, and he doesn’t so much walk as drift across the snow to us, leaning on the young man beside him.  Everything hardened in him has melted.  I wonder if he has anything in him left...)

(...for the journey ahead?  I look up at Randy.  “We shouldn’t...”  What’s the word?  My brain still feels like a vast, misty landscape, sensed from too high up to know where to land.  “Tangle.  We shouldn’t, uh, tangle like that anymore,”  Randy nods, his eyes wide, but he understands, I think.

“No, Jake.  We shouldn’t.”  Then, looking a little strange, he asks, “Do you want her thread back?”  Do I look like that sometimes?  But I know exactly what he means.

“I...I still don’t feel strong.”  I take a breath.  “Let’s hold it both together for awhile.”)

I feel a sudden flood of relief, even in the weariness of flight, and I start weeping so hard that it almost drops me from the sky.  I feel loved!  Despite everything I’ve done, despite everything I’ve been, I feel cradled in hands of love.  Maybe all that cheering meant something.  So I pull together, feeling my last reserves of strength renewed, to fly to still more rebels, to pour out still more encouragement, to keep them going, too.

But soon the weariness of body and soul catch up with me again.  So what if fools love me?  They don’t know me the way that I do.  I have nothing left but to push penitentially onward, as the wind and miles grind away at me.  No rest for the wicked.

(“Well, you’re off duty for the day,” Randy tells me.  “You can curl up in the sleigh, when it arrives, and get all the rest you need.”

“Um...no.  My body’s not the part that needs rest.”  I grope for words...words...they come so hard right now...finding them, pronouncing them.  “I need to move, even a little bit.  I need...focus.  I need to, uh...” what’s it called?  “...the sleigh.  I need to drive the sleigh.”

Randy looks dubious.  “We’ll see.  I’ll start out, at least, till we get to the straight road.”  He gives me a wink.  “I’m still not satisfied that you wouldn’t drive us into a tree right off the bat.”

I look at him, puzzled.  “The horses won’t allow that.”)

By the time I finally glide into camp (far advanced from where I left them) I tumble in my attempt to land, and sprawl shaking in the dirt.  Makhliya runs to clean me up and minister to my little scrapes while I pant for less rarified air, my heart pounding.

“She’s just exhausted,” the medic pronounces.  “I’m authorizing a dinner for her.”  Tanjin comes to lift me up; it gratifies me to see how adept he has become at making the most of his bad arm’s limited range.  Strangers spread tarp, sheet, blankets, and quilts for me to lie upon, astonishing me with their care.  I find tears running off the sides of my cheeks.  “I don’t deserve this,” I gasp.  “I don’t.”  Words reverberate in me, saying too many deaths, too many sins, and all sacrificed to what?  Did we even have to?

Lufti nestles down against me, his head upon my shoulder.  Softly he says, “Even your sins forgive you, Deirdre.  For you have a heart as big and blazing as a star.  Sometimes you burn, but we all burn, we all go up in smoke and reach the heavens as a dirty smudge.  At least you try and try and try.”  And so I hold him, the worst of all my sins, until the trembling subsides and I can sit up and eat the food that Kiril brings to me.

(Once they’ve changed, Randy helps Aaron get George into the sleigh that Wallace rented with his severance pay.  Aaron clasps the catatonic boy’s hands and roughly, tenderly, insists, “I will find you again, George.  I’ll go to Til Institute, I don’t care if I have to steal the money to get there, I’ll...” He glares with watering eyes at George’s expressionless face.  “I’ll do it! I will!  I’ll find you!”

I have to speak.  “You won’t have to steal,” I say.  “Finish.  Growing up, I mean.  Finish growing up.  Then I will send you the money, and an invitation...” words, words... “You will need...uh....training.”  Yes.  That is it.  What the boy needs in so many ways.

“Training for what?” he asks.  I glance over at Randy.

Randy answers, “On how to become an oracle’s guardian.”)

Kiril makes sure that Lufti eats too.  I look at their travel-grubby faces and think about what a pathetic guardian I have made for these children!  Yet their parents hoped nothing more for them than that they survive.  So far at least so good.  And I stare down the ghosts that haunt my memory, all the dead, the ones I killed and the ones I couldn’t save, and all I can say is, “At least none of you are Kiril or Lufti.”  For now.

(“Too many,” George mutters suddenly, hoarsely, as soon as the school drops out of sight behind us.  “Did we have to...too many...too...did we?”

Good.  He’s finally speaking.

“Even one—too many!”  I take the reins as Randy climbs back to comfort him with words of forgiveness and hope.  I’m glad somebody remembers such words.  I snap the reins lightly and the horses plod again.

The snowy miles roll past, white striped in gray shadows from the stark, black trunks of trees upholding their gray haze of twigs.  The shadows lengthen and the light grows dim.

“Oh, isn’t that a thing of beauty, now? Don asks, “The golden lights of an inn, glimmering across the snow!”  I steer the horses towards it, but it doesn’t look golden to me, just a lightening of the gray, under a charcoal twilight.

Don glances at me.  “Are you all right, Jake?”

Thickly I ask, “What color is the sky?”

“Blue-violet,” he answers, “with a touch of coral on the horizon.”  Then he peers at me more closely.  “You can’t see it, can you?”

I shake my head.  “Whatever George did to me must’ve, um, injured the part of my brain that  processes color.”  I say it as objectively as I can, to my friend the doctor, but inside I feel horror.

To my surprise Don smiles.  “Don’t worry.  You’re getting better, actually, though it might feel like worse for awhile.  Your brain just adjusted to seeing colors cranked up brighter than normal, so regular hues don’t yet register at all.  But this will pass.”  His smile fades, sympathetically.  “And I bet you feel pretty miserable right now, don’t you?”

I shrug.

I can barely feel his pat on the arm through the layers of coat, sweater, flannel shirt and thermals.  “I’ve been through this, Jake.  Trust me—the depression will pass, too.”

            I don’t have anything to answer.)

            (And then I notice that Toni carries something besides the pack on her back: an object about the size of a jewelry box on end or a boxed book set, some squarish machine encased in leather and with a leather handle, with dials and meters on the front.  “What’s that?” I ask.

            “Tshura,” Toni answers.  “Or what’s left of her.”)






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