IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VII: The Burning


Chapter 1

This Weapon, Deirdre Keller


Thursday, March 11, 2709

Dinner, again, Makhliya’s orders.  I try to tell her that she's the pregnant one, not me; I don't need to eat for two.  But she doesn't listen.

Kiril has laced my beans with a soft, fresh cheese, probably fermented right here in Merchant Caverns (from llama-milk, by the taste of it, really rich stuff) and sprinkled it with sprouts of cutting-celery, beets, radishes, onions and garlic (I’m happy to see that others have seen the usefulness of maintaining my sprout garden.)  I also have a hunk of fresh-baked rye bread to dip into it betimes, smothered in butter that tastes like it came out of a can–but oh, it’s good enough for me!

(Leaving bodies in supposedly inaccessible places might be good enough for some, but not for a Peshawr.  What’s the good of having a mountaineer nephew if he can’t see to your final repose, Auntie?)

“Makhliya gives her blessing, with reservations, to sending you out again,” Cyran says, pacing around my table.  “She still thinks you need to gain more weight, though.”

I snort at that, while trying to disentangle a spoonful of beans and sprouts from the long, pale threads of cheese.  “I’m a warrior, not some buxom barmaid to plump up for the customers.”  I feel quite sleek, even heavy.  It seems that I hardly turn around but they put more food before me.  (I test my weight on the line, with a fear that I haven’t felt before.  Till now I have never attempted such a long, steep descent alone.)

“I know.  Yet we have some reason for concern.  When you mentioned that levitation burns calories, Makhliya asked the smugglers if they could get any information on what levitators might require, and as some of the longer words taxed her literacy, I read to her the textbook that they brought her--and it shocked us both.  That’s why I tested your flying ability yesterday.  You seem up to it, though I wouldn’t say you have much margin.”  E eyes me up and down, and doesn’t seem to see me as sleek at all.

“Guerillas never have much margin.  We’re used to that.”

(My stomach feels queer, floating over nothingness, knowing that this time I have no margin, no one to catch me if I fall.)

“But we’re not used to you–one year doesn’t give us everything we need to know about witches of the Tilián, not by a long shot.”

I say with my mouth full, “Please don’t call me that.”

“I don’t have enough information.  The way greenfire hits you, for instance.  None of the rest of us pass out so often, or take so long to recoup.”

“Can’t help you there.  Nobody ever taught me anything about how greenfire affects levitators, either.  My teachers just assumed I’d never use it.”  I take a swallow more of beans.  “I assumed the same.”  I think uneasily of how battle-drugs left me in a coma on my first mission, but apparently I’ve adjusted, since.  I do that.

E sits right in front of me, forearms before hir on the table.  “There’s more.  You’re not telling me everything, Deirdre.”

I tense, spoon midway to mouth.  “What do you mean?”

“Come on.  I’ve done my research, every chance I get between engagements since you came on board with us.  You move too fast.  The Tilián teach many things, but not how to move like a blur, nor how to react instantly the way you do—dodging bullets, no less.  That’s something else–isn’t it?”

I stare at hir, warily blotting my lips with an unbuttered corner of the bread.  At last I say, “Please don’t make me answer you, Cyran.”

“Oh, but I insist.  I need to know the capabilities–and flaws–of every weapon in my arsenal.”

Slowly I say, “But it’s my secret–even my own government doesn’t know the truth.”

“So you said before–something to do with how you got a weakened shoulder.”  Hir eyes glint over a mirthless smile.  “Your initiation party.  You thought me too drunk to remember at the time, but I do.  I remember everything.”  E leans forward.  “I’ve watched you carefully ever since.”

I glance around, to see who else might hear.  Nobody stands close.  I drop my voice down low.  “I took part in a...an experiment.  An illegal experiment.”  I clasp hir hand and in a rush say, “Cyran, you must never tell anybody–never a soul!  The careers of a lot of people would go up in smoke–not just mine.”

“I will tell any medic who must work with you, and Father Man, but otherwise I can honor your request.  And they’re all sworn to secrecy.”

“Father Man already knows.  I, uh, told him about it in confession.”

E straightens up at that.  “Ah.  So something about it requires confession, does it?”

Again I glance around.  E sees, rises, and motions me to retreat into my “room”, bowl and all.  Once past the cork curtain (and with a final glance out to assure my privacy, I whisper to hir,  “Only at the beginning.”  I find my secret burning in me, desperate for revelation.  “The reflexes sped up too fast for the conscience to keep up with, at first.  But in time we got it under control.”  I stare at hir, searching those cold blue eyes for any kind of understanding.  “Things...happened.  But they won’t happen again.”

“Hence the dislocated shoulder?  Another guinea-pig did that to you?”

“Someone very dear to me.  Yes.  But he would never do it now.”

“Reflexes, you say.  But that’s not all, is it?”

“I perceive faster, absorb knowledge faster, adjust faster to changes in my environment, make mental connections faster, things like that.  I have an accelerated neural system, overall.”

E blinks at that.  “Wouldn’t that kill you?”

“It nearly did!”  I pull myself up in my turn.  “You have no idea what agonies I suffered to become the agent that I am, before my body adjusted.”

E leans back in hir chair, crossing hir arms, regarding me.  “Sooooo.  This weapon, Deirdre Keller, has quite a number of advantages over the standard model–I can see that.  But also flaws, inherent in the design.  Has it occurred to you to even think of what greenfire might do to a system like yours?”

“Um...no.”

E laughs harshly.  “No weapon does much good while still in the holster–and that includes enhanced brains, apparently.  Had I known this, Deirdre, I would never have let anyone–anyone!–give you leaf.” E stands up, shaking hir head.  “I haven’t the foggiest idea how to calculate how much fuel you need.  And that disturbs me.  You must burn even more than a standard levitator.  I don’t know how to keep you properly supplied.”

I stand, too.  “I’m a guerrilla,” I say with a wry smile.  “I run pretty well improperly supplied.”

We go out again, and walk together, while I munch the last of my bread, and while others, at hir signal, pointedly occupy the far end of the cave.  “But every time you crash, Deirdre, other people have to take care of you.  That ties up resources.”

I shrug.  “Isn’t the best equipment worth a little extra maintenance?”

We come to the ledge and stare down into a great ocean of cloud, luminous under a half-moon, with peaks like islands jutting up from its slow, mysterious spume.  No road visible, today.  “Sometimes,” Cyran agrees.  “But since you happen to have some claim to sentience, I want you to take better care of your own maintenance, when you can.”  The wind feels moist against my face; I think it rains down there.  I hardly even register the sting of my burnt chest–superficial damage, thank heavens!

(Rain pounds down against the slippery stone as I make my rappel, and lightning strikes all around, in breath-shocking flashes and deafening thunderclaps too soon after.  Oh God, don’t let me die like this, with nothing accomplished!  Let me bury Aunt Soskia first, and then let me die in battle!)

“You want me to go back to Abojan Pass–is that it?”  I haven’t spent these days ignoring the talk around me, the warriors coming and going.

“No, Deirdre.  I may have needed someone special to take the pass, but the common run can hold it, now, against the waves of government troops.”  E laughs.  “They think they can beseige us again.  It hasn’t yet occurred to them that the smugglers keep us well-supplied this time.  And the ones that we escort through play up, pretending to have barely eluded starving bandits to get their goods through, claiming all the while that we stole what in fact they’ve sold us.  And then they up the price of their goods to those below, for hazard-pay.”  E laughs, then scratches hir chin.  “Speaking of which, did you know that Lufti came across a nice, fat vein of ruby-laced vermiculite?  Enough to keep the smugglers happy for quite awhile–hey, the vermiculite would’ve done the job by itself: Istislani and Paradisians buy it up like tobacco for their hanging gardens.  But no, I don’t need to tie you up in one base like that.”

“Meanwhile they tie up their own forces trying to break what they mistake for breakable.  Nice.”  Flashing glows and rumbles in the clouds below tell me of lightning striking way down there.  “So what do you have in mind for me?”

(I see most of the car, now–finally.  It has taken me all day to get here, and now its dark finish fades into the shadows of twilight.  I don’t think I would have spotted it at all if not for the lightning reflecting off of all the broken glass.  How fitting, at least, that Aunt Soskia should come to her final rest in a landscape bejeweled!)

“I can at least send you on a better-supplied mission than I have in the past–which should mollify Makhliya, at least.  Word has come to me that a tanker left Sargeddohl Harbor, supposedly to pick up a cargo of sugar from Strivane, on December 28.  Except it won’t come back with mere sugar.  We don’t know what the government wants, but it does intrigue me that they wish to disguise it as another shipment entirely.”  E turns to me.  “The ship should return by the time you make it to Sargeddohl.  I want you to find out what they have, why they have it, and do something about it–whatever you think best on the spot.”

“Sounds ambiguous enough–I like it.”

“Along the way, see if you can recruit among the upper castes.  The servant network indicates that some look ready to sway to our side.”  E smiles grimly.  “It seems that it finally dawns on them that oppression’s getting bad for business.”

“Ah–that’s what you mean by a better-supplied mission.”

“Don’t push yourself any harder than you have to.  I’ve allowed plenty of time for you to get to Sargeddohl at a reasonable pace.”  Then e turns to me, hir blue eyes dark under gathered brows.  “I do not authorize you to use greenfire on this trip, Deirdre.  For any reason.  Do you understand?”

I salute hir.  “Yes, Memsir.”

(I will not bury her tonight.  I need to recoup my strength after a descent like that. But that’s all right, I have food enough for several days in my pack–for it will take longer to ascend, of course.  And I have my foldable shovel, and atop it all my all-seasons sleeping bag, warm as a hug from home.  Aunt Soskia imported it for me.

Tomorrow I will do everything necessary.  Though we’ve gone below the perpetual snow line, she and her chauffeur will keep till then, for the nights get frosty enough.)

 




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