IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
The Test of Blood
Tuesday, April 28, 2708, continued
"Who are you, and how many came with you?" says the man with the gun pointed at me, there in that little covered walkway between the dairy and the house.
I say nothing. I allow fear to make me tremble.
"Answer me!" He kicks me. "Who are you?"
"A, a thief! A hungry thief!" I allow my fear to flood my muscles with adrenaline. "Mama wanted some fodder to grind into flour for our bread."
"You mean she wanted cheese and butter to spread on it," he says with a chuckle. "Your kind's never satisfied with grain." He laughs as my muscles tense up...ready...ready... "Oh little girl, did you ever rob the wrong dairy!" And he reaches out for me...
And I kick him back, spring up from my crouch and whip around so fast he'll never know what broke his neck.
And here I stand, heart pounding. All the speeded reflexes that that horrid experiment gave me years ago can't do a thing to shake the paralysis of staring at a man I just killed. Handsome. God damn it, he had to be handsome. I shake for real, and not all from fear of anything outside myself as I force my hand to pick up his gun, still cocked and ready, and carefully ease it back to safe.
One time...but no. I didn’t do that. Not really. The Soul-Stealer lay dead at my feet, years ago. But Jake killed him through me, to save me. He just used my limbs. The man had left me too weak to do it by myself. I never before, by myself, fully consciously...no.
(Who knows what I did on my rookie mission, though, under that battle-drug?)
A bird quavers up and down, up and down twice--the unseasonable mating call of the Green Nutcracker. I shove the gun into my skirt-pocket and drag the corpse of my own making out of obvious sight, then run to join the others in the barn.
Tanks. I see four big, ugly tanks. Just looking at them I can feel what it must mean to find part of your body under those bonecrusher treads. I join the others, to swarm with them underneath the hulks in search of any wires that we might cross, screws we might loosen, things not readily apparent till the last minute when you try to make them run. I'm not sure, but I think that this reconnection here might start a fire under the fuel tank. But just in case that doesn’t work, I also pry the gears that control one set of treads slightly out of line, leaving the other intact to really mess up the steering.
Lord, but I wish I had some plastic explosive--spies in books always carry an unlimited supply of the stuff on their persons at all times, they just stick it wherever they please, and it never goes off till precisely when they want it to. The weight of so much metal hanging over me, inches from my nose, oppresses my brain; I sigh with relief when Fatima passes on the handsignal to tell me to hurry up and get out of there.
I join others at the silo to load every pocket on me with handfuls of the bullets it contains, till the weight pulls my skirt down to hiphugger level. Then we return to the barn, trying to walk silently with all that weight swinging awkwardly around us.
"Hey! Who's in there!"
We scatter like rats in the sudden glare as bullets spray the barn. Screams! But screams of fear, not pain, thank God, none of us hit--ghosts cover for us, please, please, cover for us! I take my pistol in both hands and shoot where the other bullets came from. Now I hear a scream on the other side, and my hair tries to rise.
"The guns!" Kief hisses. "We'll need what we came for just to get out alive." They still lie out there, hammocks half-folded around them.
"Chulan and Kanarik," Lucinda orders. "Get out there!" Our nimblest little soldiers dart out and in again, dancing between the blasts to snatch the ropes of the hammocks back to where we can yank the guns in toward us. The fire drives them back, but out they trip again, big eyes mad with fear and bravery. And in, two ropes, but we need more. Out again, as the straw flies right by Kanarik's reaching hand, in again, as the bullets chew her footprints.
And we have nothing to cover them with till we get those guns hauled in, nothing but thin shreds of ghosts. And nobody here knows that I can move even faster than they can. Cursing the temptation to leave them ignorant, I toss my pistol to Kief and join the two girls, fear pounding in my ears. I grab up all the ropes remaining, twisting like a dancer around a hot blast that only I could dodge, and then I fling the ropes and me back to shelter faster than I can breathe, while swinging pocketfuls of bullets slam into my legs to throw me dangerously off-step. We haul the hammocks in as fast as arms can pull. My heart skips like a tarantella--even heightened reflexes can only go so far.
Okay, now--now! We've got the guns, we can return fire. More screams add to the chaos--one of ours? Blood spurts from the side of Lufti's head--NO! But he keeps on squealing as lustily as ever while Kiril grabs him back. Now we sling the guns between us and scamper all different directions--I think I see Lufti running too, by some miracle, but never mind, Miko and I barrel on out with the guns bouncing and jolting between us, leaden pockets pounding against us with every step, as heavy as Malcolm when we dash between wall and wall, from corner to corner then out across the fearfully empty field and into the cool embrace of rainforest.
We look for paths but there are no paths. Our weapons and our ammunition trip us up along with root and branch, while bullets tear through leaves around us. "We the wanton, wild vine," I hiss under my breath like a prayer, "shall thicken, strengthen, intertwine..." and just then we stumble into an animal-track, no wider than our feet, that can--barely--let us through. "Shall tangle path and sharpen spine," but not our path, pray God. "Made tougher by want and pain." Creation has to be on our side, God, doesn't it? It'll let us through, not them?
The going gets easier. We slow the pace. The sound of bullets still rings in our ears long after the gunfire stops, but we'll be all right, we survived this one. The woods that have befriended us gradually become more familiar as we near our rendezvous point by the stream. Leaf and blossom and tendril have never looked so beautiful to me, shapes damasked on the black silk of night. We have survived.
Suddenly Miko groans loudly and collapses before me. "The ghosts!" he moans. "The ghosts directed the fangs!"
Fangs--ohhh no. I catch just a glimpse of what might be a jewel-viper slithering away from Miko's pierced and swelling leg where he rips the pantsleg off. I tie the rags into a tourniquet, then make the incision as I whistle, "Soldier down--send help!" I bend to suck the poison out. I try to remember whether that bleeding gum problem I developed on the march to Home Base cleared up yet with regular meals.
"The ghosts," Miko whispers weakly. I can't gauge his skin-tone in the dark, especially not under all that charcoal. I can't take the time to check his pulse. I have no way to tell how close we've come to losing him. I just keep sucking and spitting blood while it takes forever for anyone to chop through the jungle to find us.
(After the test of fire came the test of blood. And I passed. I kept Aron on my mind, I focused in on him like he'd become my patron saint, while I shot my former comrades, one, two, three, for standing in my way, for still wearing that damned purple ribbon that they gave us when they impressed us into service from the town we'd all grown up in--the ribbon that I'd outgrown, myself, to don the mantle proper, the worst of all us four.)
By the time the others find us Miko had murmured "Ghosts!" for the last time long before, and he already lies cold, and I've had plenty of time to learn that in the dark I'd made my tourniquet and incision below instead of above the snakebite. No benign spirit guided me this time, whatever Damien might say.
So now I haul the body back, on the hammock behind me, as the others distribute our share of the rifles among themselves. Father Man will have another grave to weep and mutter over. Miko, if you hear me, please make sure I never make a mistake that stupid again.