IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Tuesday, April 28, 2708, continued
We cross a broad open space, a hill drier and rockier than the surrounding land, sporting only an occasional bush or clump of trees. It stretches up before us, lazy with sunlight and buzzing with clouds of insects. A weary kind of peace settles down on us as Damien's tune circles through our minds, our legs pushing against the slope. Our burdens drag at us like the sleep we didn't get last night. I halfway drowse on my feet when suddenly I hear a popping noise...
"Hit the dirt!" Lucinda shouts. Guns--oh God! We mash ourselves down into the dirt and the insects as the bullets tear up the weeds where once we stood. Quickly we wriggle through the grass to places as far from our last locations as we can manage in a split second, and then make no move nor sound, petrified or prudent I don’t know which. More bullets rain down, trying to find us. God, God, don't do this, I wanted never to hear that sound again, at least not for a day or two. The tall grasses may hide us, but they offer no protection.
Hating myself for freezing there, I make myself crawl towards the gunfire, attempting a silence more perfect than the snake. Oh Miko, you can't have gone too far ahead yet, no saint of course, but can you heed me? Oh Miko. Every slightest rustle stops my heart, but the gunfire halts as I hear the enemy walk forward, cautiously, to get a better fix on our location, shoot point blank if they can. Oh God, oh God...and goddammit! I left the guns behind me, of course! And I don't dare can't possibly wriggle backwards to fetch a weapon...oh Miko, shut their ears, don't let them hear me slithering up to them like the jewel viper can, don't let them hear the thundering of my heart!
Now they sound right on top of me. I can see feet through the grass, I can actually smell the boot-leather, so close. Remember, remember the experiment that changed the speed that I can move, but enough? Can it ever be enough?
With a shriek I leap up onto him, I knock his gun out of his arms and grab him by the shirt so fast the others seem to turn in slow motion at his cry of fear. I throw him down on his back, me on top of him, and we roll into a nearby copse. Bullets fly uncertainly through trunks, but they can't tell whether they aim at him or me as we try to grab and punch and kick at each other's throats, guts, genitals, anything vulnerable, kicking and spitting like wild animals.
At last I grip him by the shoulders and pound him hysterically against trees till he socks me in the diaphragm and all goes dark while he does unto me as I did unto him. Only vaguely do I hear the gunfire in the distance once again, the bars of light and shadow veering crazily around me.
Then my hand flings against a fallen branch. I snatch it up and have at him madly, furiously, strike and strike and it spatters all over me, strike till I'm dizzy, till I see the fixed, unblinking eyes, the place in his head caved in and bleeding and I realize that he looks just like somebody I knew once...
"Deirdre? Deirdre! You all right?" I hear Kief calling me. I stagger to my feet, but I can’t see anything else. The kid looks like one of those Alonzo Valley farmboys that I used to know...
"In there, Kief," Kiril says. "I saw them go in there." One of the Ramirez boys, who used to give us lifts in their truck sometimes, I can't remember his name...
"Deirdre, thank God you're alive!" From the corner of my eye I can see how his hammer drips blood, but I don't turn around to know for sure. "Your distraction worked--they turned their backs and we picked ‘em off like blind ducks...Deirdre?"
Why can't I remember his name? The bloodied branch falls from my hands as Kief grabs and shakes me. Why the hell can't I remember his name!
"Deirdre, come on. Snap out of it, come on." Then his voice turns hard and metallic--bullet words. "This is what you wanted Deirdre--to be a revolutionary. You chose. This isn't some political theory. If you want to throw off the oppressor, you have to kill people. If you don’t, they kill us."
Name. Inacio. That was it. Inacio Loyola Ramirez. Used to pretend to flirt, tell me that I'd make somebody a fine wife someday, when I grew up. I'd make faces at the suggestion of marrying anybody, I'd call him Nasty Naci, but deep down I ate it up.
"Come back to us, Deirdre." Kief has been talking to me--what must I seem like to him, just standing here like an idiot?
"I'm okay," I say, surprised to hear my voice shake. "It's just, it's just so..."
"Real. That's all it is--just real."
* * *
We bury the bodies because we don’t want the ghosts coming after us, four of them in all, and we hang their dogtags on the nearest tree. While we're at it we bury Miko, too, hacking at the soft and fragrant dirt with machetes, levering stones away with sticks. Not too deeply; Lucinda won't allow that much time or effort, and we haven't, after all, eaten breakfast. But we at least observe a token of decency, and Charadocian soil moves with little effort in these parts. We tumble our assailants into one grave, and put Miko into the hill a little higher up the slope.
Then Fatima kneels between the graves and prays the Virgin Mary to lead the soldiers on to better incarnations. That's right--I remember, now, reading that Charadocian Catholics in the mountain villages believe that purgatory can be reincarnation or ghosthood, depending on the individual case, and only the saints ever leave for good. Unless invited back, of course. No one ever dies completely, quite--you just personally never, ever hold those hands again.
* * *
The rest of the march goes on in a bruised-up daze, lead-weighted pockets hindering every step, as I haul a hammock full of guns with Kiril and Lufti on the other end. The other side of the hill banks a canyon where Kief leads us to a safe place that he made with friends, long ago, or at least what passes for long ago in a life as short as his. There we can rest, he says, making up for the lost night for an hour or two. He says that they stash food there--we can have lunch and siesta, and recover our strength. Stone canyon walls slide by, festooned with ferns, water trickling just below the rocks we walk upon. Rust streaks the ochre sandstone like the bloodstains on me--I killed a man practically with my bare hands. Two men. The creek chatters inanely below us like it gossips on me. I struck and struck, I...
"I did it," Lufti says proudly, strutting like a little rooster helmeted in bandages. "With the gun you gave me, Deirdre. I nailed both those suckers for you."
"You..." I swallow, nauseated. "You probably saved my life."
"Yeah." He grins from ear to mutilated ear. But at least one couldn’t have been a clean kill. I remember blood on Kief’s hammer. Lufti must have dropped one but failed to end the other soldier quickly; another had to finish the job for him. He is still quite young, and has much to learn.