IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 43

Reconnaisance


Saturday, February 13, 2709, continued

“Let me handle this,” Ambrette whispers.  “I’m an old pro at this sort of thing.”  She unbuttons half her shirt and shifts it around enough for one round shoulder to poke free, and then very quietly, very carefully, rips quite a bit off the hem of her skirt.  Next she puts in several vertical rips as though thorns had done the job.  “Make yourselves as invisible as possible–and don’t move!”  She fluffs up her hair into one last dishevelment, and leaves her pack and weaponry with us.

Then she calls out, “Don’t shoot!  For the love of God don’t shoot–I’m deserting!” She emerges from the bushes with her hands up and a terrified look on her face.  Her extra long steps up the slope give the gunner just enough of a glimpse in the dark to wonder if she really isn’t wearing panties or if he just imagined it.  “Please, sir, make me your prisoner–anything!–just don’t send me back!  I promise I’ll make a really good prisoner, honest–if you give me a warm place to sleep and something to eat.  I am just so tired of living like an animal on the run!”

I can see his grin even in the dark.  But at first he does his duty, training his cannon on her.  “Halt!” he cries, and she freezes so abruptly that her shirt slides off the other shoulder.  “How do I know this isn’t some trick?”

“Do you see any weapons on me?”

“Turn around, and keep your hands up.”

She does so, very prettily.

“I’m going to have to frisk you, Ma’am.  Come up here and put your hands against the sandbags, with your feet spread wide.”

“Anything for you, honey, if you just take me in.”

She has to bend to plant her hands on the sandbags, and despite all regulations to the contrary, this makes her wide stance look anything but military.  As he frisks her he says, “Pardon, Ma’am, but people do hide things in bras.”

“Oh, I don’t bother with a bra, but I do admit that my breasts get heavy enough that sometimes I’ve tucked things under them and they’ve held there.  Do what you have to do.”  He does, with commendable thoroughness.  She wriggles a little, makes a few cooing sounds, acting like she enjoys it.  His hands go down her waist and checks the band all around.  Then they go lower, as he meticulously explores every pocket in her skirt, and pats her down for hidden ones.  Now he has to stoop to feel inside her boots, but the light has grown, and she still bends low with her legs spread wide; the view distracts him, he forgets for a moment what he’s doing...

...and she kicks him down and hooks him with her foot in a smooth, swift move, catching his head between her suddenly closing legs, and then she does a twist-and-grind so fast that it breaks his neck.  Then she rearranges her clothing, turns to us and raises one hand in the “Coast is Clear” sign.  She kicks him out of the way as she comes back for her stuff, and he rolls a little to the left of us, bumping and tumbling down the not-so-safe part of the slope till eventually the bushes catch him in a grotesque pose, his head dangling at an unnatural angle.  Something about her cold smile makes me remember Fatima with a pang.

“Let’s go,” she says.

“Wait a minute,” I say, climbing up into the gunnery.  I find the ammunition and send it rolling downslope, too, then close the box and put it neatly back.  I empty the cannon much the same way.  “Throw some brush over him,” I say.  “Let people think he went AWOL.”  Then I join the others.

Now we steal from shadow to shadow, taking note of all the installations that Aliso has established since last we came this way.  Heavy artillery also guards both roads at both ends, and a swivel-mounted weapon perches on the roof, capable of pointing straight up, if needed, or in any other direction.  I suppose I should feel flattered.

But Damien knows a hidden way to get closer.  “I used to use this path to sneak up on Kanarik,” he says, smiling briefly to remember, but that only makes the after-sorrow in his face the worse.  Behind the mansion a hill rises to protect it from the wind, but towards the kitchen it veers off and a small  but deep canyon opens up.  The ledge over which we used to dump our garbage undercuts a bit; apparently Damien discovered a path beneath that.

I expect some precarious passage by toehold and handhold, pressed against the rock.  But once I get down there the path looks clear and comfortable, at least for slender folk, a natural split in the stone.  Smelly, too–far below the buildings, it reaches odor-range of the dump, which I gather General Aliso puts to the same use as her predecessors. We feel only too happy to make it down there anyway, for a horn plays reveille and we can hear more than the birds stirring up above us.  The stink gets worse the farther along we go, for the far end approaches the kitchen, where the most and the nastiest trash comes from.  Mists still linger down here, making the mounds of garbage vague, almost like a miniature landscape.

Yet as we come up the other side, the mountains now stand sharply silhouetted against the sun’s advance-guard glow, though the shapes around us still look dim and shadowy–twilight lasts a long time when the sun has such peaks to climb above.  I scan for gunners–surely they’d have spied out this, route, too!  But the overhang looks convincingly impenetrable from above, while the stink discourages closer inspection of the seeming-obvious.  Only starving folk would attempt to find some way down here, hoping for anything overlooked in the dump below, frozen in last winter’s snow.

Once we return to topside and fresher air, we fan out, as silent as the lingering rags of mist.  Practice has made us conform to shadows under walls or hedges, or glue close to the trunks of trees, hardly noticeable if no one looks for us.  We have just enough time before the new-roused sleepers finish their preparations for the day and the gunner’s replacement shows up.

The danger of it flickers and shivers in my veins, this horrible and wonderful fire!  I could die on this mission; the prospect terrifies and entices me.  Anything could happen! Yet we know this ground, though we last saw it frozen over.  We need only discover what The General has done to it.

Plenty, it turns out.  We already know about the heavy artillery, and that would be information enough to justify the journey, but we have more to discover.  Tents, tents, tents!  I had looked forward to seeing Deni and Hara’s garden in bloom; they spoke so often of it, and Deni had preserved its changes and its seasons, from various nooks and corners, in many an embroidery.  But now you could never tell that they’d planted anything here; in between the tents and military equipment soldiers have trampled the soil down to hard and barren clay, and I suspect that not even silk floss holds the garden’s memory anymore.

Ambrette has the hardest task, mapping out the lay of their private quarters, and estimating from activity which sectors take which shifts–useful to know who will run where first.  But we have confidence by now that, if caught, she will play the curious wanton until she can win free again.  (And who taught her how to turn sexiness into a martial art, anyway, since last we met?  I’ve been so caught up in my own journey that I have never wondered about hers.)

In the meantime Betany will check out what kind of vehicles they have, beast-drawn or machine, and where they store the fuel for either or both.  Damien will see if he can find any Achilles heels in their gunner’s nests.  Marduk will guard our exit-path and cover us with gunfire if necessary.  And I will track down their munitions.

It turns out they gave me the easiest job, perhaps for my frail health.  Like most houses in the icy altitudes below the equator, the Abojans built windowless storage on the cold southern side.  It doesn’t take me long to see a man walk out carrying a newly-filled bandolier.  Why build what already exists?  I smile to see the man surreptitiously brush crumbs off before stepping completely out the door.  If they’re on short commons, and his issue breakfast doesn’t seem enough, all the better for us.  He doesn’t look like a gluttonous man, certainly.

No, wait!  “Hold it, soldier!” a man with a corporal’s insignia barks.  “You can’t go in there anymore.”

“I just wanted bullets, Sir.  I didn’t mean to pry into anything of the General’s.”

“Well, get it from the new munitions shack on the east end.  I thought I told everybody to move all our gear over there.” Interesting!

“There’s still some left, sir.”  And the recruit holds up his bandolier to verify his words.

The corporal’s eyes narrow, searching the soldier’s clothes for evidence of something, I don’t know what.  “Why did you run out of bullets, soldier?  We haven’t seen any shooting for awhile.”

“I’ve been doing a little practice with the boys,” he answers.  “You know I could improve my aim.”

When the officer doesn’t find what he’s looking for, he says, “Hurry up or you’ll miss muster,” and stalks off with a sour look on his face.  I wonder if the soldier had carried a full bandolier in with him to provide an excuse for raiding the pantry–clever fellow; thank heavens he’s a bad shot.

Twilight in the mountains may last long, yet not forever; we have nearly run out.  I hear Damien make the new birdcall for “head back!” hardly distinguishable from the morning chorus unless you’re listening for it.  I make haste with my information: munitions in a shack, eastern end.  I wish I’d seen it with my own eyes, but anything’s better than nothing.

I hook up with Betany, first.  Enough sunlight shows now that I can make out the scar on her exposed clavicle (doubtless from the injury for which Rashid had treated her before we met.)  The hour grows dangerous indeed.  We hide in the stink under the ledge with Damien and Marduk until Ambrette joins us, reminding ourselves that greenfire can make seconds seem like hours, but she had no trouble, and really arrived practically with us.  Again we make our way along the hidden path beneath the overhang, as we listen to a sergeant’s rant, made unintelligible by distance.  It seems that some transgression among the rank and file will keep them at attention getting bawled out for awhile, further delaying the discovery of the dead gunner, thanks be to our ghosts.  Everything’s going perfectly!

Until Betany, glancing down at the now-sunlit garbage, says in that hollow voice of hers, “I see corpses down there.”

I almost missed them: three bodies half-covered in garbage as they lay, plundered of their exquisitely hand-embroidered clothing before anybody threw them overboard, pieces of which would sell very well on the black market even with the mostly washed-out bloodstains and the bullet holes.  (Somehow I know this–I do.  Something almost not quite remembered...)  So what we do see exposes the decomposition to us, the naked flesh shrinking already from the bone, the gaps widened by nibbling vermin, faces no longer recognizable.  But all four of us can see, plainly enough in the one-armed corpse, how the leathered skin splits a distended belly, enough to reveal tinier bones beneath the ribcage, including, quite distinctly, a little skull.

            Damien shoves past us, nearly knocking us off, to run back the way we came, swearing and swinging his gun to the fore.




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