IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Tuesday, February 23, 2709
We arrive late in the evening at Merchant Caverns, for the army ox-carts climb slowly. I rouse up gradually, fighting to open my eyes, for I slept through most of the trip, with Kiril and Lufti snuggled up to me under each arm. I had feared the flak that I might get, riding with the wounded without a wound on me (though where I picked up so many bruises and abrasions I will never reconstruct) but Kiril had responded, “You have no idea what you look like, do you?” and I saw others on the cart nod in agreement.
Marduk shares the wagon with us, and he does hide his face in shame. Not that any of us would make fun of him, but of all the unheroic things, he rides with bloodied folks, some still carrying bullets in their bodies, just because, in all the excitement of coming down the cliff in a hail of gunfire and cannon-blasts, he fell and broke his stupid foot, missing the entire battle.
(Another sojourn down a country road, and I’m alone again. Picturesque, so very like so many antique Christmas-cards in my collection back in Til, but sparklier. Real snow sparkles. Some of my oldest cards try to capture it in something called “glitter”, now carefully preserved in layers of clear resin, but even that doesn’t compare to this truth, the living, breathing winter of Vanikke, the delicious-looking frosting sifting onto each dark evergreen, and the silence, the sweet muffling as if to shush me into comfort, no sound beyond my cold-pained feet dragging through the drifts.)
How painfully we climb out of the wagon! I offer to help with one of the stretchers, but people just give me weird looks and don’t answer. Soon more folks scramble down the slope, in any case, at a sort of skipping run allowing for terrain. Plenty of hands help the ambulatory among us make the ascent, and more hands lighten the stretchers.
(Ah, what’s that darkness on the broad sweep ahead? I must investigate! Dire straits are no barrier to curiosity, after all. Curiosity often solves dire straits.)
For me they have no need, for Lufti already takes my right side, with Kiril leaning on his other arm, but I didn’t count on Baruch taking my left, though he won’t look at me. And I feel deep shame every time I do glimpse his swollen, purpled face. I hadn’t even recognized him driving the wounded cart (putting his farmboy knowledge of draft-animals to good use) and that makes me feel even more ashamed.
“It’s okay,” Lufti murmurs. “He’s a soldier. We’re all soldiers, the living and the dead. We’re quite used to madness, now, green or blue or deep, raw red.”
(Ah, the things an agent gets used to! Snow slopes up into the rise of hip, shoulder, and the back of a smashed-in head as if a miniature mountain range had always stretched out there, rooted in Novatierre, no evidence of road beneath at all.
I look around me, cold and weary. I can’t see far through the swirling flakes, but I do make out a tangle of wrecked vehicles, smashed and twisted metal rising up from the whiteness like tormented rock outcroppings, some pieces still strewn with broken glass trying to out-sparkle the snow. No one has moved the dead bodies inside, and they’re long past helping now.
I consider this closer corpse again. That’s no traffic injury, but blunt force trauma deliberately dealt by a human hand. Road rage, probably, escalated by magentine, irrationally bestowed on someone who probably had nothing to do with the wreck itself, considering the unscathed rest of him. He must have worn a coat at the time of death, judging by blockage of the blood flow topping his shirt, not spreading much beyond the collar, only what the cloth would wick. Obviously no coat now.
I sigh a puff, my own little cloud. No telling how long this poor, sad fellow has lain here. The cold has preserved him and the other dead unperished, with only a faint odor as I rifle the pockets. I find a car-card and some worthless money in a pale leather wallet, keys to Gates know what, and some cherry cough-drops that I gobble down despite the risk.
I check out the wreck. The cars look thoroughly looted, empty of anything except bodies; the half-clothed ones must have worn warm things not too damaged by the experience. Some people, at least, had enough common sense remaining to provide for themselves—good for them!
I go back to the body in the snow, and fish out the wallet once again. Daniel Peng, of 4754 West Orange Street. May you enjoy whatever afterlife you believe in. I pocket the wallet and keys; I have no idea where West Orange Street might be, but if I come across it, I’m ready. Why did so many people leave their homes behind, anyway? My band at least had a reason.)
The climb up from the road drags on like some dull nightmare of gloom and struggle in the dark, pain jostling around in different joints and in my head, jarred with every step, but I keep reminding myself that I chose this, I’ll jolly well go up the last few yards, at least, on my own power. I try to remember that when last I came this way it had seemed but a short stroll to me.
(Keys. Dandy things to have when you feel too shaky to pick locks. And these could get me into a vehicle which surely must lie near. Not that breaking and entering would bring me any gear from this lineup of frozen traffic; looking into window after window shows me that people took with them everything worth carrying. Yet it promises at least a cozier evening than I have usually enjoyed of late.
With that in mind I try keys on every vehicle I pass, though of course I could break into any of them without it, if I applied myself. Just for once I’d like to do it the right, the comfortable way. Although who knows how long Mr. Peng wandered before falling to a fellow madman? I keep on checking anyway. It slows me down considerably, but I’ve got nowhere to hurry to anyway. And I just can’t seem to help myself. I feel as though I look for hope, patiently, obsessively; if I let one car pass by unchecked it means I’ve given up.)
Even as I stumble I see wildflowers by the path, red blood-splashes of petals. Didn’t Damien say that the red ones feed on hero’s blood? I feel uneasy; if people died on the way up here, how can we be safe at base? How can we ever feel safe anywhere that red flowers grow?
(Snow falls all around me, delicate, pale, pure petals, reminding me of luxuries past. But I recall red petals in that warm, sweet-scented bath so long ago, that Merrill let drift down on me by the handful, back in Darvinia. I’m sure the maid didn’t appreciate it, but she must’ve been used to it, considering the local customs.
The memory heartens me. It almost seems that holding onto such a thought makes finding the right car more possible. Warm baths exist. Husbands exist. Red petals surely exist somewhere in the world, and so must one special car that matches this particular ring of keys.)
We enter, after awhile, a tunnel that opens up on the cavern proper. When we reach the threshold, I hear Father Man’s gravelly voice calling out, “Welcome home.” I guess it does feel like home; I get this sense of all the responsibilities of the war sliding off of me as soon as I step into its echoing bustle, waiting outside for me to resume them later.
(There...a match! A dark blue four-door, all the way in the back of the pack. The door opens as smoothly as if it has no idea that anyone had ever abandoned it. Of course not, silly! What a thought!
Hope matters! I hold back tears; no good facing the snow with a wet face. I waste no time climbing into the snug interior.
Oooooh, to sit on, and soon to lie on, actual upholstery, with cushioning beneath it, tucking my poor, chapped face into a bubble of still air out of that dreary wind! This is more like it—tonight I camp in style!)
Too tired to figure out whether I feel good or bad. After taking off the filthy, blood-stiff clothes, and unstrapping the flit, after discovering that the flit has left worn, red galls all over me, after a much-needed scrub with real soap, sitting in a bushel-tub of hot water (and needing help to climb back out) after tending to my sores with pungent ointment, after donning the fresh, soft cloth given to me, and pattering barefoot to the sleeping area behind crates where the dim blue lamps don’t reach, and pulling on some thick and fuzzy socks, I curl up with Kiril and Lufti on two mats shoved together into one (though there’s mats enough for each of us) and a quilt floats over all three of us, and we fall back asleep together, breathing the fresh shampoo-perfume in each other’s hair.
(The cave’s perfect! We couldn’t ask for a better base-camp. There’s just enough room for me, Jialong, Mehti, and even long-legged Pawl to stretch out our sleeping bags side by side, with room left over for our gear.
Mehti gets four packets of food heating—curry for me, posole for him, Jialong and Pawl want pork and beans—as the cave fills up with fragrant steam. He soon sits down with the rest of us when I deal out cards by lantern-light. We jibe and giggle between mouthfuls of food, drunk on adventure and thin air.
“Ah dung!” Pawl suddenly smacks his knee in consternation.
Jialong says, “Not in here,” while Mehti laughs.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“I forgot my sunscreen! The snow-glare’s gonna fry me alive.”
“No you didn’t,” I murmur while discarding a two and a five. “I saw you put it on this morning.”
“Well that’s just it—I’ve almost used up all I had. I was going to pick up more at the pass, but I forgot.”
“Not a problem—even up here I have connections.” I smile smugly as I draw two new cards: another two, and a jack, both diamonds, to match my remaining three. I hope they interpret my smile as pleasure at announcing, “I happen to know the local smugglers. They have a base not too far from here, you know.” I give a stern look to my most trusted companions, saying, “Don’t tell anyone else, but my family does quite a bit of business with them.”
Jialong frowns. “But will they recognize you from a distance?”
“They’ll recognize the family crest. I’ve got it right below the Charadocian flag we’re going to plant, on the same pole. I can unpack it and wave it ahead of me.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Mehti says, “And by the way, I call.”
And as I lay down my diamond flush, I can’t imagine the evening getting any better.)