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IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VII: The Burning


Chapter 21

Abundance, Need and Illusion


 

 

Monday, April 19, 2709

I love to watch them eat.  The new kids have learned the appreciation that our veterans know, of food: the pure, simple pleasure of enjoying nourishment for its own sake, to not fuss about taste or presentation, to just rejoice in having enough.  Water tastes purer for thirst, and falling asleep on a mat upon the ground feels soft after a long and weary march.  People may pity us or fear us for our hardships, but our life also expands our joy.

(Here comes the palanquin again, the bells jingling with every step so that all the hirelings know, all can prepare.  I get a lash across my back for muttering too audibly the cusswords that every one of us think–but a light lash, just a sting, nothing to interfere with my ability to pinch the tea leaves from the bush.  Master wants to see his workers at their labor, as he disgusts us with his breakfast.)

I love the sparkle in their eyes, the bounce in their steps, as we move on down the road.  I love the smile that Chaska casts back my way, the feel of Kuchi’s hand taking mine, the clasp that Braulio gives my shoulder as he passes.  Though of course Kiril and Lufti will always come first in my heart, I have room enough under my wings for all of them.

And Baruch over there, too, as grim as ever, gun on his shoulder, gaze cast inward but his feet know where to go.  Barely a season into his new life, himself, and no older than Braulio, and already a hardened veteran.  I have watched the hardening.

Kief used to say, “All my mothers, all my fathers”, but I find myself saying, “All my children”.  People think the softhearted vulnerable, but stone hearts break all the sharper.

(I can see it now, the red and gold palanquin visible above the tea bushes that we bend over endlessly.  The tinkle of bells comes louder. The overseer cuffs me to get my eyes back on my job.  Oh, there’s no love lost on this job–who can afford it?)

Love–I’m glad to have at least that much emotion left.  I daresay that if I had to choose one feeling left to me, I’d want that one.  Maybe shrunken, maybe no longer on the world-scale of Lovequest, extending no farther than these waifs around me, but something.

(House-servants–curse their luxuriating arrogance!–draw back the curtains.  The overseer doesn’t see our eyes slide over that way, heads straight forward but not our eyes, peeking at the wizened old goat.  Look at him, with crumbs in the folds of his silk!  Sporadically he nibbles at a pastry while he watches, his eyes all a-glitter.  He went through the fat phase of that addiction years ago, but now he hardly digests any of his food anymore, and has entered the scrawny phase, his once-stretched skin as folded and excessive as all the fabric wrapping him.  He will die, soon, and who will mourn him?)

We travel up and down and around the mountain roads, but it comes to more down than up.  Already the air grows warmer and more humid.  Back to rainforest soon!  Oh, I have missed their luxury, the lush vegetation, the rich scents, the climate that stays paradisical all year ‘round.  The heat-lazy land, like living in a spa...where the tropical plantations outnumber the small farms.

(None of us know quite what he comes out here to see, but since his focus lands on us, the overseers always work us double-time to put on a good show.  Maybe he likes the sight of brown, bared muscles, polished with sweat on his behalf.  He has but the one daughter, after all.  But if he has ever taken any of us to bed, none have spoken of it.  Then again, why would they?  And we mustn’t forget the Traitor.  What does he do with her, eh?  Maybe he swings both ways.

“Back to work!”  The lash comes down; I snarl, but I comply.)

Oh, I’ll have work to do.  Already we have passed a company of laborers on the road, unofficially but quite tangibly roped together, under their overseer’s watchful eye, and he gave us an ugly, appraising look, and some few of the workers dared to raise their eyes to slip us grins, like sneaking us a present.  The overseer dares not act, when we have (illegal!) guns and he has just the whip.  But messages shall go out, as opportunity allows; we shall have to take care as to where and when we sleep.  (Thank heavens we’ve lost the instant messaging of the Ancients!)   Yet even so, my cold-scoured skin looks forward to our descent to the softer lands like I head for a vacation.

(Perhaps I should count my blessings.  We haven’t seen him out here since the Spring, after all, when we planted in earth softened by the lighter rains, all praying that the tea would take firm root before the deluge of the monsoons tried them.  And those younger bushes stood the test, and now we have other labors to bend us.)

No, we don’t go down for a vacation.  The road comes to a vantage point, one of those spectacular views that open up on the rim of a cliff.  We can all see the tanks way down there.  And that monstrosity in its own clearing, with all the wreckage left behind it:   MAT.

(The overseers could back down a little.  We receive neither praise nor blame, whatever we do, just the incessant gaze of the old addict.  Who knows what he sees, anyway, wrapped up in his hallucinations?)

The longer I sojourn here, the more I learn to trust my instincts.  I pull my children off the road, striking out into already thick foliage.  I instruct the newbies how to sway between the undergrowth, leaving no thread nor hair upon a twig, how to place their feet to leave no mark. 

I barely remember passing through these woods; everything rushed past me back then, and leaf can play havoc with even an enhanced memory, but I retrieve what scraps I can, and spot a landmark here and there, an unusual tree or a boulder’s mossy side.  I regain some confidence as we go in deep, till civilization becomes a doubtful rumor.

(There she is, the porcine slut!  That whore-plump woman, whispering in his ear, her skin as brown as us–no, not quite, for she spends more time indoors these days.  I remember her lean days, when we used to count her as one of us.  What does she tell him, anyway?  What secrets keep her in power?  How much of a lashing might I get if I ever voiced some of our nastier suspicions?)

By noon we reach a stand of tall and reasonably climbable pomes.  “We’re going to go nocturnal for awhile, folks, so I want you to get in a good siesta now.”  After a generous lunch (including fresh pomes!) we scale upwards to the equivalent of about three stories high and string up our hammocks there.  The new kids climb into their own hammocks with no small terror, but they calm down once they reach the safety within, and fall asleep surprisingly swiftly.  I suppose they must feel weary all the time.  I guess we all do; the rest of us have just learned too well how to ignore it.  Very softly, Damien strums the rest of us to sleep, and then falls asleep himself.  I feel my own eyes close like lead-weighted curtains.  Maybe I’ll dream of somewhere safer, better.  Maybe I’ll dream of childhood in Til...

(Well, whatever hallucinations entertain him when interwoven with the sight of work, he must have tired of it again.  The show ends, servants close the veils, and take up the palanquin.  The bells tinkle away, towards the manor house.  He’ll fall back into his dreamy, deathlike life, untouched by ours, so easily convinced that everything’s all right,  Everything’s just fine.  At least, though, as soon as we see his palanquin’s back, the work drops back to manageable levels.)

Deirdre almost woke up; she wanted very much to wake up, for it seemed that all she ever did since coming home was eat and sleep.  Everything in her cried out that she must never let the appearance of safety lull her, not here, not anywhere.

“It’s no good,” she murmured, feeling once again the crystal handle warmed by hours of her grip, feeling the chair and the balmy seaside air waft in from the open window, but unable to open her eyes.  “Even without drugs you drug me!  Til Institute itself is the worst drug of all!”

“Shhhhh,” Justìn soothed her, and he turned the hypnotic, tingling notes up a little louder.

“It’s not real,” she sobbed, trying not to listen to the tones.  “All this, this safety, this plenty, all the hallucinatory Tiliàn talk about love and siblinghood and how harmless we all are, how well-meaning!  It’s all so...so...” 

          (I hear a distant tinkling,  by fits and starts, too harsh and off, somehow, to be a bell or anything deliberately designed to ring.  I look around, but see nothing in the empty farms to either side of the road to explain the sound.  Then Ozwald comes gliding back around a hill, calling, “Check it out—a cannery!”

          Sure enough, the building stands there just around the bend, right in the middle of fields waiting for an absent hand to sow the next year’s crops.  The sound comes from a metal sign rattling in the wind against the wall.  It says “Farm Fresh Gourmet.”  I’ve hear of that brand before.  Apparently they meant it when they advertised that  they made their soups from fresh-harvested vegetables.

          “Want to check it out? Ozwald asks.  I shrug.  Beans or peas or such might have freeze-dried over the winter.

          We walk into the musty dark of the building.  Freeze-drying didn’t happen, but it doesn’t smell bad, for what’s left in the hoppers has turned by now to compost.  Somebody ate of it while they still could, and then got into the cans waiting for trucks that never came to pick them up; the empty cylinders have been stacked neatly in strange arrangements here and there.

          “Uh, Zanne...”

          “What?”  I turn to him and freeze.  It’s not that he he now wears pirate-garb that alarms me, but that he has exaggerated features, with his good eye looking enormous, blue and flat, as if painted on, and that when he speaks his mouth moves straight up and down like a nutcracker.  “You look really weird,” he tells me.

          I glance down at myself.  I now wear a princess gown with puff sleeves, although I still feel warm flannel against the skin of my arms.  Stranger than that, I appear to have metal rings instead of elbows and wrists.  Underneath lace cuffs, I now see, Ozwald has the same kind of wrist, himself, on one hand, at least.  The other ends in a hook.
          “Oh wow,” he says, seeing the hook for the first time, and holding it up to inspect it more closely.  “Oh wow!  But...but I can feel my fingers wiggle!”

          I rub my arms.  A leather coat definitely covers them, over the flannel.  “It’s illusion,” I tell him.  “There must be an illusionist nearby.”

          “You’re puppets!” someone shouts hoarsely.  “We’re all just puppets!”  I see a skeleton dart from behind a giant tank of...of course.  The tap still drips a pinkish goo.

          “Hey, that’s Crave!” Ozwald shouts indignantly.  “Farm Fresh said they didn’t use that anymore!  It’s illegal now.”  Crave: a rediscovered old formula from Earth.  A precise blend of corn syrup, oil and salt that makes people feel almost satisfied, just one more mouthful away from satiation.

          The skeleton comes out.  He also has puppet-joints and an up-and-down mouth.  “They changed the formula,” he says.  See?  It’s pink, now.”  He draws a whole mug of the gunk and offers it to us.
          “No thank you,” I say politely.  “Nice of you to offer, though.”  And we slowly back away.

          He gulps the whole thing down himself.  For a second the illusion flickers and I see an obese, very unhealthy, very unkempt man, with pink spots glowing under his skin here and there, and then the skeleton again.  He regards his bone fingers.  “I feel them all.  Everyone who starved.  The yearning, the desperation, the fear, the resignation.  I thought I could escape, but the puppet-strings tied me here.  He drops his hands and stares at me with empty sockets.  “What’s your names?” he asks.

          “I’m Zanne, and this is my friend Ozwald,” I say, still inching towards the doorway.  “Pleased to meet you...uh...”

          “Hunger,” he says with a sad skull grin.  My name is Hunger.”  He approaches and offers me his hand.  I lean forward to shake it,

          “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hunger.”  I try not to be too conspicuous about drawing back again.

          “I still feel them.  I feel them through you.”

          “I’m sorry,” I say, and shut down my shields, backing out the door.

          As soon as we get outside we revert to our normal appearances.  We hear him wailing behind us as we skateboard and jog away, “We’re all puppets!  We don’t control our own strings anymore—I can’t stop and neither can you, not really.  We’re PUPPETS!”)




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