IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
An Agent's Debriefing
"This feels so good," the agent thought. She hugged herself against the wind off the ocean, ignoring the twinge in her wounded arm. "Home again--after how many years?" Self-consciously she lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, and sighed out the smoke.
The waters of Alonzo Harbor sparkled before her, white-capped in the brisk morning weather. Deirdre Keller could just make out the ancient adobe of Early Migration settlements preserved on Tower Island, while more contemporary land-side homes climbed up the hills beyond, till they reached the ancient sprawl of Heritage Prado. Hungrily she gazed to her left, where she could see the coruscation of the Glass District, made all of Istislan crystal that scintillated like the sea had cast up towers of salt. Then she looked far to her right; her eyes lingered longingly awhile on the distant stretch of Shadowdancer Beach, where she and her friends used to chase each other laughing through the water, or where she'd just stroll all by herself as the evening cooled the merriment down to a private smile, and solitude became as luminous as foam upon the waves. Familiar places, beloved places--places she had once considered boring past belief.
She shook her head, aching with her memories--how many times, these past few years, had the prospect of boredom seemed an oasis, a mirage of flickering green on an unattainable horizon!
She strolled a bit, breathing wistful tendrils of smoke for the sea breeze to destroy. Nothing left of the past but that, a burnt and bitter vapor, soon dissipated in the clean air of Til Territories like it never happened. She wondered if anybody watched her smoking from the little cottage offices all around, then decided that she didn't care. People around here didn't use tobacco--except for agents, sometimes, who'd picked up bad habits in foreign lands. She once swore she'd never become one of those. She thought she'd never do a lot of things.
Technically she hadn't quite returned. Her true home lay half a day's journey away, down the coast a bit. But when she'd signed her name on that last batch of papers she once again became a citizen of Til, safe under the wing of Til law. And half a day's journey meant so little when she had already crossed from the other side of the world.
Deirdre looked down to the clipped grass at her feet, here at the Port Authority complex on Hernandez Island. Those feet had grown knobby and rough in their handmade sandals. When had the sight of cities, of mowed lawns for pity's sake, become so beautiful to her?
She drank in the harbor winds with their heavy tar and seaweed redolence, as different from the scent of the open sea as the welcoming hearth-fire smoke from the clean breath of the woods. Truly, she didn't know what she valued anymore. She shook her head. She had seen so much ugliness--and beauty. The Mountains of Fire had opened up to her more glories than any land she had ever walked amid--a beauty too steep, too exacting for mortals--and it felt so good to put it behind her, to walk on clipped and level lawns.
"Time for debriefing," said a gentle-eyed man. He stood some distance away in the doorway of the next building that she headed to. The entire complex consisted of little white structures with homey tile roofs, as if they hoped to refrain from overwhelming returning agents who'd already seen too much of the world.
As she stubbed out her cigarette and walked toward him, Justín Mendez studied Deirdre Evelynne Keller. Far too thin, he noted, but agents came home underweight often enough for it not to mean too much (and it wasn't as if he had room to judge, in that department.) The Charadocian weather had burnt her already-brown skin to a deep mahogany, and aged her till she no longer looked like one of the youngest agents of Til. Already a couple streaks of silver sparkled in the thigh-length ebon hair. Half Mountainfolk, half Irish, she had a bit of epicanthal fold, cheekbones that made a diamond of her face, and a knobby little Celtic nose to match her rangy European bones. She might have been quite pretty, given a bit more rest and a few good meals.
Agents of the Tilián. They left their home to completely immerse into other societies, in order to change them from within as only a native could, in the service of Lovequest, for the greater good. Whatever that meant. Justín had heard so many versions, from so many agents changed from within by the divergent peoples that they had walked among, agents who no longer knew the Tilián or their training or themselves, who had learned so much that they no longer knew much of anything anymore.
He put an arm around her (careful about the bandages) and led her to the debriefing room. She leaned into him like she'd accept any refuge at all, no questions asked. As she took The Chair she kept her eyes affixed on the window, watching the waves like they could save her soul. Her fingertips barely brushed the handle carved in magentine that she soon would have to clasp. But when he swabbed her wrist with alcohol she started at the cold and said, "No."
"No drugs. Please." Her earlobes pinkened in a dark woman's blush. "There was a...problem."
He sat back and put the kit aside. Kindly he asked, "Did this have to do with cultural immersion?"
She nodded and stared out the window.
"The problem is far more common than you realize," he said. "We train agents from birth for compulsion; nobody can limit such drive to the service of Lovequest all the time."
She ventured a glance his way. "You'll know all about it soon enough," she said.
He nodded and reviewed her file. "Your records say you've been through debriefing a number of times before. Have you ever attempted it without sedation?"
In a tiny voice the agent said, "No."
"Few can," he said gently. He bared his own arm to expose a portal installed in the forearm. "I myself am a licensed addict, because without cushioning, the burden..." He stopped, took a breath, "...the tremendous burden of transferring an agent's concentrated memories to Archives would psychometrically burn the brain." He rolled back his sleeve again. "We all do what we must in the service of Lovequest."
She looked at his sleepy face in horror--horror at realizing that she must've always known. "Why does doing good have such terrible consequences?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. The alternative is worse." He took his own turn at gazing out the window to the sea. "Everyone asks me all these philosophical questions, every time they return--scorching questions from agents with souls like cinders, come home to try and put their lives together again." He glanced down at his arm again with a brief, sad laugh. "Yet all that I've learned from hearing all their tales is that I can't bear it."
Silence hung between them till Deirdre said, "We'd better get this over with." She gripped the purply-rose crystal handle as he thumbed deeper into her records.
"Oh dear," he said. "You've got dyslectic telepathy along with your levitation abilities--that can make this even rougher than with a full-blown telepath. Excuse me." He left the room briefly, and only now did Deirdre realize why debriefers always did that. Only now did she note the fluidity of his movements when he returned, the careful way he sat, the cloudier eyes.
"We're going to compromise," he said. "We'll take this as far as you can bear without sedation, then I'll step in if you seem ready to go over the brink."
Deirdre halfway laughed. "After all I've been through, I hardly think I'm going to crack up in your office."
He set up the cable that connected her magentine to his own. "You really don't understand. You've never tried this uncushioned before." He made some adjustments on his console, watching the graphs that played across the screen, then slipped on the psychometric headband that would enable him to convey everything to Archives. "We trigger a hypnotic signal that we planted in you when we certified..."
"Yes, yes, I know all that."
"...certified you as an agent. Do you know, really? It makes you relive, in full detail, in hours, everything you did on your mission, which..." he glanced at his printouts, "...in your case covers three years. That's three years concentrated." He flipped a switch. "Now wasn't it hard enough the first time?"
"I still want to..." but just then those tones that Archives only played here in this room went off, the eerie music that they could never after remember, quite, and she tumbled back into the past, to that luxury cruiser in the first days and the warmth of Jonathan's love...
(CRAAASH! Shards skitter all over the dark boards when the bowl slips from my hands; I jump away before they hit my bare feet, but the splattering food makes my ankles wet. Glass gleams in the dim light as I hear the clomp! clomp! clomp! of Cook's feet on the deck and she's about ten feet tall and her hand clamps onto my shoulder...)
"What was that?" Deirdre cried, jolting Justín back into seeing the room.
"You really don't remember, do you?"
She shook her head, stunned.
He sighed and switched off the trance-tones. "Ever feel, say, crowded in your head?"
She blinked at him. "That's exactly how I feel, all the time. How'd you know?"
"Because that's what it means to be a dyslectic telepath." He shook his head muttering, "Why do they never explain these things, decide the kids are better off not knowing?" He made himself focus back on her, choosing his words carefully. (Only now did she realize why debriefers always spoke so slowly.) "You pick up random telepathic impressions constantly--especially those tied to strong emotions. You just can't retrieve them." He scratched thoughtfully. "They bump around in your unconscious mind, attached to nothing, troubling your dreams, coming out in trance or delirium or other altered states, or sometimes in hunches very close to oraclism."
He yawned and rubbed his eyes. "You know, Deirdre, the drugs necessary to get me through a mess like this are going to make it really, really hard to monitor your safety if you don't go under. And it's going to make this much worse for you, too. Are you sure..."
"Let's get back to it." Deirdre reached over and switched the music on herself.
We cruise from port to port in paradise. I lean on the gunwale and watch the parrots flit in dashes of color from tree to tree, in a forest made lush by each evening’s ocean fogs, their leaves now sparkling after a summer rain. Fragrant coastal breezes lift my hair and cool my neck (and Cook grabs my neck and throws me right onto the broken dish and I feel cuts. “It was too heavy!” I cry. “The bowl was too heavy, and wet, and it slipped!”) and I cannot remember a happier moment than this.
Everyone thinks well of Ambassador Kaskin-Drury--my own dear Jonathan--so they go out of their way to pamper his aide (“I don't want to hear excuses!” Cook shouts. Now the fists come, but I twist, but I don't twist fast enough to dodge one big, floury punch in the mouth and I taste blood as the rest beat down upon my back) because he keeps telling them how I'm like a daughter to him, that's the way mentoring works at Til (and if Papa were here he'd protect me but they won't let him leave the fields he can't stop working ever.) and I'm the luckiest agent ever to get a cushy assignment in a lush land like this, with the man I've loved ever since I was a little girl (I feel my mouth, but she only knocked out the baby-tooth that had already loosened anyway) bound for this land that he has always so lovingly spoken of, the Charadoc, where poverty doesn't exist and happiness wafts on the breeze with the scent of bursting fruit--this land to which he has always longed to retire. (I search the shards for the tooth, salt blood in my mouth. I'd better—it's probably the last one I'll get. If I put it under my pillow the tooth fairy might take it and leave me a piece of biscuit, or at least grant me my wish,)
Though the crew treats me like a princess, he says that I've seen nothing yet--the balls, the sophisticated banter, the artwork dating back to premigration Earth right there in private salons--luxury and culture like I could never find at home. (because all I'd wish for is to go home.) Not even Til Institute knows how to live like this. (I'd die to go back home, to spend one hour in Papa's shack again, then buried safe and cool in the earth right next to Mamma.)
Jonathan joins me, leaning on the sunwarmed wood, smiling in his handsomeness as the wind ripples all the Charadocian silk that pools around his body in glossy curves. "Lunch will be late," he says. "Some minor hitch in the galley, I hear."
"Just as well," I say. "They've plied me with so many delicacies that I'm scared to weigh myself."
Jonathan smiles and says, “Good. I promised your friends that I'd put a bit of curve on you before they see you next—heaven knows you could use it more than me.” And he ruefully rubs his spreading waist. "Ah, nothing matches Charadocian cuisine." The loose fabric disguises his slight imperfections; he looks almost young again. "But they could use more discipline in the galley; I like my meals on time."
Only his hands poke out from the gauzy envelope of blousing that billows over his upper body. High-caste Charadocians never show their arms (Oh, a woman might dart her limbs from her petal-dress--briefly--but women are regarded here as “daring little creatures”, so he told me--it's cute if not done too often.)
Me, I still wear the sleeves of Istislan where we'd last docked; a white and navy striped jersey, with navy pants. I kind of dread the inconvenience of a Charadocian petal-dress. And those beads that dangle from fish-spines all around Jonathan's collar--I've seen women wear them, too. I feel my hair ruffle along my back in the stirring air--will I have to pile it up on top of my head out of the collar's way--all of it? I hate when I have to "style" my hair. (Chogen grabs me by the hair as I pass. "So you're the one that put us all behind schedule--little turd!" He grabs the fabric of both shoulders and rips down. "Who said a lowlife like you could wear sleeves? Let your bare arms hang out and show you for what you are!")
Continuing a lesson, Jonathan points to a man complaining loudly about their late lunch. "Notice that although his balloon sleeves are quite full, they are, nonetheless, true sleeves. And see how the veils on his wife's arms tie at the wrist--in effect split sleeves, not petals. Custom requires it." He chuckles as they gesture grandly. "For all his bluster he is not of our status and will not sit at the Captain's table with us."
"And the servant?" I ask. "His sleeves look surprisingly wide."
"That would make him a butler or head-waiter--prestigious enough to intimidate even some of the low-ranking guests. You'll notice that the rest of the servants, however, wear very narrow sleeves." He raises an eyebrow at me. "Like you, my dear.” He fingered the hem of my jersey. “Considering the delay, you still have time to change."
I shrug. "I look like an Istislani. So long as we keep traveling I can pass." I point out a little girl with sand-color hair coming up from below decks, carrying a tray of glasses carefully. She sends a hawklike glance my way, all big, fierce eyes, then trots off to the mess-hall. "What about her? She has bare arms."
"Riffraff," Jonathan says. "Probably daughter to a portside whore. Pay no attention to her."
"Jonathan, her jaw is swollen! And she's bleeding from her hands and arms."
"Don't stare. She probably fell. The galley stairs are steep."