Dolores J. Nurss

Volume II: Tests of Fire and Blood

Chapter 1

Malcolm deGroot

A quiet little cluster of buildings, the Til Territories Port Authority complex drowsed in the shifting sun and rain.  It could almost be a village, almost anywhere in the world, outside the bustle of world affairs, with its whitewashed walls, its terracotta roofs, its peace.  A little island kingdom in a blissful sea of Nowhere, green with fresh-mown lawns.

Agents, they said when they built it, should find it comforting, especially when most of their missions made them unaccustomed to city life (for, of course, no territory on this stepmother-planet, however remote, could really excuse itself from the world and its troubles.)  Yet Alonzo City, one of the three greatest metropoli in Novatierre, bustled just on the other side of the gently-hushing waves, though the planners tried to make sure that the debriefing rooms always faced out towards the open sea.

No sound of city or ocean, wind or rain, reached the two people in Debriefing Room 12.  A chiming melody entirely engaged their attention, once Justín switched it back on, since hypnotism long ago trained them to immerse into a trance of psychically shared memories, compressing days into minutes, whenever they heard these precise notes, played on no musical instruments, pure confections of electronic frequencies.  Archives made sure that these notes, in this sequence, never played anywhere but here.

The music coaxed Deirdre down, down, down into herself until I hide deep in the dark and prickly overgrown hedge, up to my wrists in musty old leaves, with Kiril scrunched up to one side of me and Lufti to the other, pressed so close against my ribs that I can feel how fast their hearts beat.  I listen to the grind of gears that struggle over the broken road, closer, closer...

"It's Malcolm the Dentist!"  Lufti yells so loudly that I bang my head against a branch; then he scrambles out from cover while I stop myself from shouting after him, I just hold Kiril back. 

"Cyran!  Come on out!  It's all right--Malcolm fixed my teeth for free."  I hear the click of guns cocking and the sweat just pours. 

"Shut up, Lufti!" a bass voice bellows.  "I surrender!  I mean, I haven't seen anything, I mean, oh God!"

I hear the rasp of a rusty metal door.  "See?  Hands raised, no weapons on me, just dental gear in the back.  And food--take all the food you want, just don't hurt the boy!"

I hear the bird-calls that tell us all to come out armed and ready, but don't shoot just yet.  The foliage rustles around us as we disentangle ourselves from twig and thorn.

"Don't hurt the boy for coming to me," the bass voice says again.  "He didn't know any better."  I see him now--an astonishingly fat man, pale but with brown eyes and hair (Soft brown hair that curls just a little bit, soft brown eyes so full of compassion even in his fear that I melt despite myself--I get so tired of hardness, everybody knife-hard, even the smallest babes.)  He shoves Lufti behind the protection of his bulk, then raises his hands again.  "Don't ask too much of your child soldiers, Cyran, whoever you are."

"Survival asks more of them than I would ever dare."  Cyran steps forward, a leaf still in hir hair.  (So that's the great Cyran, huh?  Barely more than a youth, himself--barely in his twenties, at most.  That could explain a lot.)  E gestures towards Lufti, who peeks around one great hip.  "But who are you to put this little moron's welfare above your own?"

"A decent man, I guess--too decent to want to put a boy in the line of fire."  He lifts his chins with defiance.  (Oho!  How brave!  I bet his heart must be enormous.)  For a long time the two of them just stare at each other while the rest of us squirm in agony as to the outcome.  (But why all the jewelry?  Is he gay or something?)  (Of course--a freak, an outcast.  Too big to fit , forced to question the society that rejects him.)  (He...omigawd!  He is!  He's really wearing eyeliner!)  (What's the matter with you, Cyran!  Get your eyes off all those luxuriant curves!)  (Yet--so young.  He could be my kid brother.  What's a poor little fairy like him doing in the line of fire?)

At last Cyran says, "Don't worry about Lufti.  New recruit, you know, just arrived.  I can't blame him if I haven't had the chance to train him yet.  However," e says with a crocodile grin at Lufti, "He'll start his training with such a whupping that he won't make the same mistake twice."

"And if he did?"

"I'd shoot him, of course," Cyran says amiably.  "But he won't."  The fat man's face works like he doesn't know whether to attack or cry.  "He won't," Cyran says in the most persuasive voice I've ever heard from hir.  "Now he'll know better than to blow everybody's cover by trusting before I say it's safe."  (And why do I say it's safe now?)  Hir voice soothes, like coaxing down a skittish horse.  "I have many children to consider, to try and keep alive.  Sure, I would sacrifice one to protect the others--so would you, I think, if it came down to it--but don't think me an evil person for looking after everybody."

Malcolm looks disturbed, maybe disgusted, maybe moved to pity or even half persuaded, like he has no idea what to think.  "Not my place to judge," he says at last.  (Poor little fairy!  Are you the best the revolution can come up with?)

(Is this the best I can come up with?  Why don't I just shoot him and be done—as I have before?  Have I lost my mind?)  "The question is," Cyran says, "What do we do with you?"

The man shakes his head and laughs faintly.  "You know what?  Suddenly I don't care what the hell you do with me.  I actually don't care."  He waves his arms and shouts, "Go ahead and shoot me!  Boom!  I really, truly wish you would!  It'd finish things off just perfectly, right on target--after I've wrecked my whole life in service to the poor, any way I knew how, it'd suit me fine for a pack of raggedy-assed waifs to finish the job and kill me right here."

He steps forward and I see Cyran actually blanch at the size of him.  "You'd do me a favor, because nothing in the world can stop me from feeling everybody's pain, everybody's hunger.  He grabs his belly and flaps it at us, roaring, "You think I wanted to be this way?  I can't stop caring, can't stop feeling needs that aren't my own--they're eating me alive!  So you, you just go ahead and shoot me right here in this gut that offends everybody so goddam much--nothing else'll stop my idiot heart, though God knows I've tried to choke the stupid thing."

(Heart--that's what I've lost.  My idiot heart.  But don't just stand there, say something!)  "Dental supplies, you say.  You got Novocaine?"

Malcolm blinks in surprise.  "Lidocaine, actually.  And gas.  And Ibuprofen."

"Sutures?  Sterile gauze?  Surgical tools?"

"Limited, but yeah, I 've got some of that."

"Think you can fix something beside teeth?"

His eyes widen, then he nods.  "I'm no expert, but I could improvise."  Then he narrows his eyes at Cyran and says, "But don't expect me to do anything but heal--you understand that?"

Cyran reaches out a hand.  "Of course I do.  You're a healer, beyond politics.  We could use a healer."

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