IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Wednesday, April 26, 2709, continued
He bobs right up, though I pin his arms, and screams at the top of his lungs, “That's a lie, that's a godforsaken lie!” Wetness makes him slippery; he bucks and wriggles in my arms, slapping his hair into my face again and again, but at least the water's rendered his gun unusable for now. I fight to control 45 kilos of teenage fury thrashing every which way and causing water to slop over the maze of walkways in waves from our struggle. Every time his face clears water he cries out things like, “What did he want with us, huh?” “ To lure in children without any parents, is that it?” “Is that it?””
I manage to hold him under long enough for his commotion to weaken, then let him up gasping too hard to shout anymore. “Fine!” I cry. “Bad pick. But next time you've got a bad feeling about something, tell your commanding officer what it's all about!” And I push through the water with him in tow. “Come on,” I call to the others, hearing the wail of a siren. Oh lord—their cops have vehicles here!” “Let's move before all Buning crashes down on us!”
Gravity seems to have doubled when we drag ourselves up out of the water, but we slog on anyway, as fast as we can run in our water-sloppy clothes. We make it up into the kitchen and run through the galley, out the back door while the help stares at us amid the pans and half-dressed meat, not knowing what to do. And out from there, into the amusement park—quite a complex for a supposed small town, but the rich don't report all of their getaways. We trot through fantastically sculpted architecture, reflecting scaled-down mythic landmarks of Earth, Novatierre, and about a dozen fictions, all cobbled together in mostly ivory stucco.
We shove through a rose-garden between walls, without taking the labyrinthine paths, leaving threads of our collective best clothing snagged on the thorns, but it always helps to take a route that gives a pursuer pause. From there we run down the colonnade of a play-version of Noor Mosque, a shadow-striped landscape between onion-domed towers and twisty pillars in mint candy colors—if it's even halfway accurate, we should find a hidden turn-off just a little ways ahead.
Ambush! Of course the people who run things know this park better than we do. But brooms and mops hit us, not bullets, while people shout, “We got 'em! We'll hold 'em for you!” Custodians trying to be heroes. I try to knock them all out as fast as I can without too much longterm damage, while a steel bucket rings against my head. At least I keep them off the kids, taking a thrashing in their stead, then catch up once I finish the job, where Kiril leads them down the path that I intended, no doubt picked up from my mind. Poor idiots behind us—what reward did they hope to get? Maybe lenience from the police who chase us even now, running past all manner of things that the upholders of law and order shouldn't see?
Oh yeah, the rich don't mention this vacation destination—the well-tended hedges turn out to be greenfire! I grab up a handful of leaves and stick one in my mouth before I even realize it and suddenly gravity gives me a break. Chaska and Braulio follow my example and don't ask why. Kiril snarls, “Glad I made you eat the terrine,” before stuffing a leaf in her own mouth. And then, just as fast as we can veer around a wall in a hairpin turn, the zinging in my veins turns into “Oh dear God what did I just do?” But we don't have time for that.
We dodge around a short Leaning Tower, run through a pyramid with a casino inside (Braulio brandishing a gun he can't shoot and adding no end to the excitement) and out to zigzag between flower-dripping follies representing the gardened ruins of Paradisio, while squealing call girls flee from every nook and corner like a flock of disheveled flamingos, their johns running after while desperately struggling to pull up their pants. Up ahead I see water, between plaster simulations of the Teeth of Cana'a just as I hear the sirens again and an engine roaring around trying to find a car-wide stretch on which to hunt us. They can't drive on water!
Sure enough, I find a jetty, and imitation Venetian gondolas, but the uninformed designers gave them paddles rather than poles. We jump in and row like crazy. I turn and see that a stout old man has joined us. I point my waterlogged gun at him and shout, “Who the hell are you?”
“I didn't believe my grandson!” he shouts back. “The boy ran away. I think Cyran has him.”
“I was in the restaurant. I followed you. I heard what you said about that monster.”
“You joining the Egalitarian cause?” I holler over my shoulder, prepared to shove him out at the least excuse.
“Yes! Anything! Anything!”
The boat whirls all over the water. “Braulio, row on my side, Chaska and Old Guy, row on the other. Kiril, call the beat.” We straighten out just in time; bullets rip up the water all around us “Left lift oars.” I call to make us turn around a bend. “All together again.” Good lord, this place has a whole maze of waterways! Kiril keeps barking out “Row! Row!” rhythmically, occasionally throwing in an occasional “Change sides,” to spread the fatigue out over both arms, while I overlay steering instructions. When the old man starts to wheeze and miss the beat she shoves into his place and growls at him to keep the tempo, and he does a creditable job.
A change in the splashing-sounds make me turn my head, and see the second boat join us from a tributary canal. “It's Chulan and Fatima!” I cry joyfully.
“Deirdre, no!” Kiril wails, and then I remember that Fatima died, and that maybe this means that Chulan has died, too. But never mind that, our ghosts sail behind us, covering our backs. I row with more spirit, chanting, “We're going to make it. We're going to make it,” in time to the old man's “Row!”
I glance back again. Fatima's wearing her boy-clothes, the kerchief hiding her hair, same as when we fled Madame's Happy House. I grin over my shoulder, then duck down as gunfire rains down on us—no, not gunfire, rocks. Plain old rocks. Good enough, though, if they hit just right.
Braulio laughs hysterically. “The bigwigs never let police come in here armed,” he tells us. “And nobody's had time to order an exception.” We stand a chance—we really stand a chance.
But then I see a burst of greenish white elongate towards us—I become aware of just how my heightened perceptions can slow things down, for at first glance it looks like a gigantic romaine lettuce coming our way. But it turns out to be a blast from a water-cannon, powerful enough to clean off stucco. We get just the spraying edge, and that stings enough, but when our sight clears we see that the boat behind us got the full force.
“Row on without me!” I jump into the water as the old man takes my place. Nobody grows up on the Altraus Coast without developing good lungs for swimming under water. I find two bodies and grab their collars, pulling them up.
Just as I surface a fireball hits the water-cannon, so I can swim, dragging Chulan and the boy who only looked like Fatima to the nearest bank, while Lufti springs out from behind a plaster “Triumph of Cupid” covering us with gunfire. I administer CPR until Chulan coughs back to life. Then I turn to the other...but I took too long with Chulan, and nobody else knew how to save him.
“My brother!” Chulan gasps, too winded for a proper scream. “What happened to my brother?”
“Joined the ghosts,” I say as I throw her arm over my shoulder and help her flee till we can run across a bend that joins the boat. Don't ask me how I know, I don't take time to question it, I just go there.
“This way!” Lufti cries, while Marduk lobs another Molotov over our heads. Of course. Lufti made the rest of my party come here. He shows us a servant's gate in the surrounding fence, the lock blasted from within. Lufti goes back and shoves the lock back into place, then concentrates till the metal crumples in a way that no key will ever unfasten again. And then he collapses. Marduk runs back and throws the boy over his shoulder and I pass him the greenfire he needs to keep going, under the weight, and I give some to Lefty and the old man, too. And Chulan just sobs and sobs as though she could weep out all the water in her dead brother's lungs.
And me? I giggle in despair, thinking over and over, “I did it again! I swore I never would but I freakin’ did it again!” The bitter taste still kisses my tongue lovingly, possessively, welcoming me back.
“Wait! Wait!” a woman’s voice shrills behind us. I hear Braulio shriek, I hear thrashing foliage and the old woman crying, “I only want to know...” but it ends in a groan and a gurgle and next thing I know Braulio runs beside me splattered in blood, his dripping knife in hand, his eyes wild on more than greenfire. “She grabbed me I didn't know I felt somebody grab me and she was evil anyway wasn't she she she...?”
I can’t answer, I just run. The chef's wife—I let myself recognize the voice. She must have circled around , knowing the only place that we could exit. She had wanted to know, wanted to face the truth at last. And we killed her. I killed her, for I put the bitter leaf in a traumatized boy's mouth, a boy I had taught the arts of war.