IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Monday, April 6, 2708
Cici's all right. She didn't even raise an eyebrow when I broke down and opened up the bottle before the sun reached noon, just kept her eyes straight forward, minding her own business like somebody trained her that way. I offered her a sip, but she only shook her head in polite, nonjudgmental silence--I'll just bet she used to be in domestic service; she has all the proper graces and mannerisms. I'm still an agent after all; these nuances don't escape me.
So I didn't say a word when she lit up a cigarette and drew on it thoughtfully, her mind obviously far away as we traveled. She bought it on my money, no doubt--but she doesn't know where I hide all my wallets. Agents aren't fools.
After awhile, when the forest all around us looked less menacing, when the plodding of the mules beneath us began to take on ahappy rhythm, I felt comfortable enough to talk to her. "What do you believe?" I asked. It seemed like a basic place to start.
"In what sense?" she replied. "Religious, political, scientific, or personal?”
“Let’s try religion.”
“I'm Catholic, I forget which rite officially--whatever happened to be the church in my village, pretty much likeanybody else, I guess."
"So it doesn't matter much one way or the other to you? You believe in whatever your family raised you to?"
"I wouldn't go that far." She gazed off into the twisting road ahead and all the trees it wound around, like she gave the question serious thought. "No, I believe very strongly in the justice of God, in a heaven and a hell, just as my mother taught me--buthow I put it into action, that's entirely different from what she had in mind."
"I daresay!" I laughed so hard and suddenly that I nearly choked on the chaummin. "Sleeping with revolutionaries for the greater glory of God!"
She bristled, but only a little. "Believe me, I've seen stranger--people torturing other people in the name of God and Government, which they devoutly believe to have merged some time between now and Gethsemane."
It caught her by surprise when I dropped the bottle, shattering all over the road, our mules skittering away from the glass and stinging liquor, but my stomach hurt so badly that I could have gladly died right there.
And then how coolly she said, "Ulcers again, huh?"
Again? "How'd you know about that?" I growled, bent around this djinn in possession of my vitals.
"You don't remember?
"No, I don't remember!" I snapped, my face burning like shame could still touch me.
"The night we met. You got sick. You woke me, insisting that we had to leave right then and there. You have a time limit, you said." How coldly she blinked those ice-blue, over-kohl'd eyes. "You're dying," she told me. Politely. Nonjudgmentally. Trained to glacial manners.
* * *
I carry another hod of stucco up the ladder to slap into the cracked wall, my chain scraping noisily against the rungs. Must've been a fierce earthquake to have torn so many of these buildings this way, but they don't call this country the Charadoc, the Mountains of Fire, for nothing. Volcanoes smolder all up and down the range. I see bare metal inside the cavity where the stucco shivered away from the rebar; it could've been much worse. Even the peasants around here know enough to reinforce adobe huts with home-grown bamboo, and no one ever stores anything heavier than blankets on the higher shelves. Suddenly the thought of sleeping in a library becomes fraught with peril.
It's funny, but for some reason as I shove the thick goo into place I feel like I'm filling some gigantic tooth; for a second I worry about the exposure of that iron nerve. The sucking of spackle in the stucco sounds a little bit like one of those things that the dentist hangs in your mouth to vacuum out saliva. Then I shake my head and laugh--weird notions, that's my specialty.
"Deirdre, what are you doing up there?"
I look down at Alysha who stands at the foot of the ladder, smoking, strands of smoke twining up towards me. "My work assignment." I wave my chain at her with a clatter and say, "You act like I'm doing this on my own initiative."
"Come on down, then. Marduk, take over plastering the wall--go on, we need your strength." As I descend he strips off his shirt to work, and then he loads another hod with twice the weight I'd carried, with a haughty glance my way. Muscle strains to grow on his skinny frame; he has already gained a pound for every day we've been here, none of it fat.
I make a point to wipe the sweat from my brow and grin at him, for Alysha’s sake. "Thanks," I say, "You'll do a much better job than me."
As soon as we turn a couple corners, out of earshot, Alysha says to me, "Anyone big can do manual labor. But I hear you were an agent of the Tilián."
"Am," I say. "Always."
"Then you would have some degree of medical training?"
"All agents learn the basics--first aid, simple nursing, even emergency procedures like setting bones and stitching up wounds. I'm not a doctor, but..."
"Good. That's better than any of us have except Rashid. You'll work under him in the infirmary." When she smiles I notice a split lip that I hadn't seen the day before, and a little discoloration that hasn't yet fully blossomed into bruise. "God bless the day we recruited an herbalist born and bred--before Rashid we had no healer at all." And I avert my eyes from her mouth, regretting my flattery to Marduk.
She leads me indoors, down a dark hallway, its lights long since disconnected. Some horrible feeling hits me just now, I don't know what, or even why, maybe just the dimness of the haunted old halls, but I break out in a fresh sweat that has nothing to do with my labors, so that I have to stop, to lean against the wall. Just suddenly all this...sickness, and pain, grief and rage and utter lack of hope, and a desperate grasping after hope as well, all of it at once, pounds into me like a storm, like a wind you cannot see that can tear your roof off no matter how invisible.
"Deirdre? What's wrong with you?"
I grasp for something that she'd understand. "Could you please put out your cigarette? I think the smell disagrees with me."
She inhales deeply and blows smoke my way. "Live with it," she growls. She jerks my chain and we go forward. "I can't believe you're this weak, Deirdre, not after all we've been through together." She practically drags me along till I master myself. "You got some scruple against healing injured people if their politics don't happen to agree with yours?"
"No! Not at..." She throws the infirmary door open and the smell hits me hard. "...all." Now suddenly my feelings of a moment ago all make sense and I can handle them. Every pain, every sickness, fear, or anger has a face--rows and rows of them, each ill or injured child lying on clean mats all lined up along an old classroom with the desks removed. Every surface looks scrubbed to the ruination of its finish, yet still the odor of infection hangs heavy on the air. Rashid moves on his knees from mat to mat, cleaning and treating wounds that nobody knew what to do with till now. He looks up at me desperately, sweat in his gingery curls from sheer emotion--and so do all the others look up at me, row after row of gray faces, sunken eyes, and fever-cracking lips. Bullet wounds, knife wounds, infected whip weals, bones broken in ways that no mere accident could cause; I seem to know the diagnosis just by looking at them, though I can't see how that's possible.
Humbly Rashid asks, "Can you help me?"
"I'll do my best." I glare at Alysha till she unclips my chain.