IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
WATCHING AND WITNESSING
Saturday, February 22, 2708
Weary, at the end of a hard day's march, no supper in my stomach, I topple into my hammock too worn out to even register the chains... (...too worn out even to care much about the smell of this old chicken-coop we hide in, yet tense, every muscle of my body tense. My turn to watch. Makhliya sits up, watching me watch. Angrily, I point at the dirt and she lies back down; every one of us who can rest must do so. I gaze a moment too long on her hair, shimmering like a night-dark river that spills down over her shoulders, Then I get a grip on myself and go out to my post.
I try not to brush against the bean stalks as I walk through the rows, try to make no rustle. The irrigation cobbles there will betray no footprint--after the old man scolded me I pay much more attention to such things. “Pimply stick of a boy,” he called me to my face, but I’ve seen some things that many a grown-up never has.
Now comes the grassy stretch. I get down on my hands and knees and burrow below the seed-heads; if they look they will see no more track than an animal leaves. I wish to God I really was just a boy, in some other country, where all you have to do before you come of age is play and study and do small chores. Maybe one of those countries where the boys all go to live-in schools and never worry about anything beyond the walls until they come out as adults, able to read and everything. They don’t wriggle through the grass to hide from bullets, there.
At last I make it to the brow of the hill. The road winds down below, empty from horizon to horizon. So it has gone now, day after day, night after night. Sometimes I feel like I watch for a convoy of ghosts. They're at least a week late. When will they get here? Already the villagers grumble about how much food we eat.
Yet oh dear God, forgive me for praying every night, every morning, to hold back the payroll convoy one more day! It's not like I never fought before, God knows. Yes, God knows, because when I sleep I stand before the Heavenly Throne in nothing but my own blood-soaked skin, a wound everywhere that I wounded someone else. Night after night I stand before God like that, then stumble into other, darker dreams.
God forgive me for hesitating to avenge my murdered kinsmen! God forgive me for not always caring that we hardly ever eat the abundant harvest of stapleseed, that it all must go to fuel the engines of the rich, that I watched my mother thin down as I ate the only food we had, till she spent every minute she could curled up asleep. God forgive me for not hating the villains that I kill.
Villains recruited from the same village, older boys who used to play with me, taught me how to wrestle and climb trees and how to throw a rock with deadly accuracy the way I throw knives now. They say that I'm good at fighting, one of the very best. Oh God, forgive me!
And do the rich even know? Do they know what they recruit the village boys to do? Do they know why I live the way I must? The overseer who held his hand from beating my mother when she grew too weak for work, who killed his own calf to give our family a little respite, who told us how the law bound him from treating us any better, how he had no choice, did he ever muster the courage to tell his masters the price of what they ordered? Could anyone ever dare?
God! Why do you stare so hard at me every single night, naked in my blood! Me, and the conscripts I kill, and the overseers and the masters and mistresses over them--why must you plunge each and every one of us into Hell? You last visited almost three thousand years ago. Maybe you'd better come back for a refresher course on what it means to be human.) I sleep so deeply that if I had any dreams I can't remember them.
* * *
Blurs passed through the psychometrist, days identical and not identical, like the non-rhythms of tlomi, fluttering changes of vegetation and words, songs and silences, rocks and winds and clouds, peaks and valleys. Deirdre registered everything, more richly than most, in more detail than she should, yet in the end no event stuck out enough to keep it all from blurring anyway. It surprised Justín slightly, nonetheless (inasmuch as anything could surprise him anymore) how happiness increasingly seemed to overlay the view like a softening rainforest mist.
No, it didn’t really surprise him, not after all of the minds that he had visited. He had met Til agents who had found something to enjoy in disasters, wars, imprisonments, even torture. Missions made agents strange, until their very strangeness bored him, each flowing into each like another day force-marched through a wild paradise. Yet now and then features surfaced, like great stone outcroppings, boulders jutting from the jungle green. Meanwhile, two doors down, a transcriber doggedly typed a book into Archives...
Thursday, February 27, 2708
At least I think it's Thursday; I could easily have lost track. I have grown so tired these past few days that I haven't been at all good about writing anything down about them. Sanzio leads me on a fading trail from village to village, sometimes two or three in a single day, and that on muleback. Machine-made vehicles do not travel where we want to go; no one would sell me any if they did.
The villages give off smells that I had hoped to leave behind me when I rejoined my friends in the Charadoc, smells of no refrigeration and no sanitation in a tropic clime. Why can't they get their act together like other low-tech cultures around the world, make themselves buried coolers and composting toilets and all of the other commodities that people have used since before the Migration? I ask Sanzio about this, but he shrugs, telling me that they have no one to teach them, and no one has time to learn. I think he makes excuses for laziness; he comes from such people, after all.
My sports-clothes, although loosely sleeved, still mark me as a gentleman roughing it. The villagers always notice, always defer, always glower under their brows at me and watch me like every move could be an omen of their fortunes. And each and every one looks like they want something from me, bright eyes of hope, dark looks of resentment for some help that I supposedly could offer but won't, can't be bothered. I want to shout in their faces, "I'm not an agent anymore! I retired to a nice little embassy to get away from needy people and their voracious demands--I have nothing left to give!" But they never actually say anything that I can shout back at.
Lovequest never listens anyway, just points and points like an importunate child, saying, "Look! Look! Look!" at all the world's misery, no matter where you go, and the child always wears that orphan face that stares up at you like it's all your fault.
Ai, the contacts made and betrayed, the heartbreak of starting over from scratch again and again! And all the while the poor grab at me in nightmares, cackling, "You thought you could forget me at last--you thought that I had vanished between tea and supper!"
Friday, February 28, 2708
The hunger gets to me, sometimes. Birds sing, and all I can think of is succulent fowl on the wing, maybe folded into a flaky crust with nuts and berries. Rustles in the underbrush might taste like chicken, or beef, or pork. We cross a creek and I can't help but scan the waters for fish or frogs, the sunwashed rocks for lizards. I feel lightheaded all the time, now, a vast and watery distance wavering between my feet and head.
(I feel crazy all the time, now, barely hiding it, I fear, from staff and students. My face, my gestures, my posture, all follow presentable forms by years of habit, but I wonder what they read in my eyes? Do they see the terror, there, the sense of pressure in some ungodly medium, invisible to the eye?)
As an agent I have undergone hunger before, but never for so long, barely touched by the Spartan morning meals, falling a little bit more behind every day. Sternly I remind myself that other agents have survived worse, far worse, and still fulfilled their missions. But what mission do I have now, a prisoner far from the embassy for which I trained, powerless and chained?
Lovequest, Merrill would remind me. Anywhere, under any circumstance. I must always serve Lovequest. Even among my captors.
(What exactly do I do here, as headmaster? What do I serve? This venerable establishment, all the more revered for its time-rounded bricks and the mustiness of its books? But what does the establishment serve? These students, eager or bored, innocent or naughty, brilliant or dull, obedient or rebellious or just quietly trying to get by unnoticed? Aye, there—I serve the next generation, and all generations to come.
But do I? What if—oh horrible thought!--what if I, what if we all—no, don't even think such a thing!
What if everything we teach, have taught for generations, is...wrong?)
I distract myself. My eyes go to the intricacy all around me, the tangle of twigs and vines, roots and ferns, tendrils and spider's webs. Layers upon layers of beauty, an extravagance of lace in living form. It has existed before my hunger, before my very birth, and will continue long after I die. Even the newest sprouts unfurling, the day-old mushrooms, the feather just now dropped, continue something ancient, new cells in an old, old being.
(I distract myself. I go into one of the empty classrooms. Proper, that the Headmaster should inspect these venerable grounds entrusted to me, make sure that everything has been laid out as it should. I make it through and close the door just in time, before the vertigo becomes noticeable.
And indeed, I find reassurance in that old geometry, smooth and polished wood, the desks all in their lines, the chairs all waiting at the perfect distance from them to give the students room, the right angles of chalkboard and books and stacks of paper and walls—Right, right, every angle right. Exactly as it has been, for generations. I feel steady once again, my feet planted on solid stone. But then some impulse, out of nowhere, causes me to walk over and lift up a desk's lid, to look inside.)
But then something happens in my hunger-watery mind. I start to see the twigs and roots and things form emblems. Horrible emblems. Evil symbols that I once saw on the charm-bracelets of Alroy's slaves...
(...upside-down crosses, upside-down pentagrams, backwards-whirling swastikas, symbols still more arcane than these, inked or carved into the wood. I flip open more and more desks, and find the same—every single desk! Inner chambers full of darkness, full of things never taught by any authorized class, where did the boys even hear of such things?)
It's just my imagination, I tell myself. It's just my hunger, seeing dreadfulness where none exists. I stumble on, listening to delicious-sounding birds.(One by one I close each desk, like closing the jaws of gaping mouths that would otherwise speak horrible things. They might accuse me of madness entire. They might tell the school that I hallucinate, for certainly I must. This can't be happening. And I will go out this door, and act respectable, and nobody will know that I ever saw such things.)