IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Tuesday, April 28, 2708, continued
I ache in every muscle that God ever gave me, but as the eldest of our party I remember Alysha's example (grudgingly!) and spoon out Petro's perpetually-simmering bean soup for the others, while he bakes cornmeal into stiff little scoops with a kind of press he has. He must think me a drawn and sullen sort, too exhausted for any get-acquainted conversation. Or maybe he's used to that kind dropping in like this.
At last I can sit down (leaden pockets thumping into the cushions) and eat my own meal, washed down with icy mineral water from the subterranean springs. Like the rest, I soon push my empty bowl aside to squirm out of my bullet-weighted clothing as Petro thoughtfully extinguishes the lamps in the main cavern, retreating behind a wall of blankets where I hear the hypnotic shushing rhythm of his loom. I sprawl back onto the dusty cushions under thick, rough blankets, lightened and naked and free, practically dissolving into sleep as I sink down into the wool...
* * *
(I feel young, healthy, proud. Boot camp has transformed me into this thing of pure, exuberant muscle and energy, honed like a bayonet, straight and sharp. My feet feel sure in every step, solid in their tight-laced combat boots. My body ripples inside my new and starchy uniform--I can feel it ripple! Join the army, get more votes. It's only fair--the army makes a man of you. I could've wound up a sniveling conscript like so many in my village, herded out to the front line with that pathetic little ribbon around my neck, to take the bullets instead of the herders. But I chose the better path, the smart path. I enlisted before the recruiters came to town. I chose training: body, mind, and soul. I can read, now. I can bench-press my own weight. I can operate a tank. I've earned two extra votes already, a corporal right from the start, and field-promotion will win me more.
Confidently I march with my unit into the dairy that keeps no cows. My very own tank awaits me there--my first commission, because I took the extra classes, volunteered for the extra tasks, always did a little more than asked when everybody else grumbled that our officers asked too much. Can promotions be far behind?
Oh, there--isn't that a thing of beauty, now? Massive. Muscle rendered in metal--we were meant for each other. I breathe deep the axle-grease perfume of clean machinery. I put a hand on that cool flank of steel and thrill to think of all the power she contains, dormant for now but just waiting for me to stir 'er up. I think I'm in love.
With a laugh I hoist myself up into the hatch and down, let her completely engulf me, as my crew piles in behind me. My crew! Already I have a rank and people take orders from me--that’s another vote, right there. Study and hard work, apply yourself body, mind, and soul--that's all it takes.
With satisfaction I survey the complex of controls, a great lever for each arm, pedals for each foot, total bodily engagement. And then there's the buttons and toggles for lights and fans and every kind of control of my environment, gauges to tell me intimate messages about the state of my tank, mysterious patterns to which I have become initiate. I have caressed responses from such controls about a million times; they have no secrets undivulged to me--but never before with my own tank, this one gorgeous machine pledged to me. Once I rev her up she'll move precisely as I move her, as responsive to my will as the muscles of my own body. The gentlest press of a button shall unleash such deadly force!
I have to wait for the order to pull her out of there, but it takes all the discipline I own to contain myself. By the time we get the word and we all start up the engines, her thrilling tremble matches my own. Oh, the roar of all the engines starting up at once!
But wait--that sound! It shouldn't grind like that, it shouldn't groan deep like dying in anger, louder and louder while I slap switches trying to minimize the damage. The tremor around me turns convulsive, she bucks loudly and violently, jarring my hands on the sensitive controls.
Then a roar rips through me so hot that it all goes white, the tank no longer contains me, the barn no longer contains me, I can barely see the burst-open roof below me as I fly through the air but I don't feel a thing yet, I may never feel anything again.)
* * *
A jolt in the stone awakens me. All around me sleepy heads pop up, blink at the momentary swaying of the hangings on the wall and the rattle of the kitchen's pans, then nestle back down again, too exhausted to trouble about a tremor that hardly lasts longer than a heartbeat or two.
But I didn't grow up in earthquake country. The last volcano in Altraus went dormant centuries before my birth and nothing there has shivered in my generation. I lie here and stare up at the stone overhead, wondering just how heavy it must be. I think about that crack that we came in by and speculate on the force it must've taken to sunder stone in two. Oh dear lord--we aren't just on an earthquake fault, we're bloody well inside one!
So that leaves me awake enough to once again hear that certain, distinctive click, as Lucinda hisses, "Move away from her, Petro. Now." I freeze where I lie, feigning sleep but tense, ready to act if I have to.
"Go easy, woman--she's willing, I tell you."
"She's exhausted--let her sleep."
"Ah gee, Lucinda, all she has to do is lie there."
"SHUT UP!" Everyone starts at that; I sit up, too, to see Lucinda poke Petro in the gut with a rifle barrel where he kneels in Chulan's bedding, by the dim light of his work-lamp leaking through the blankets in little rays and stars that barely show us anything. Wide eyes gleam all around them in the dark.
Chulan, indeed, sounds weary when she says, "It's all right, Lucinda. I don't mind."
In a strained voice Lucinda asks, "Do you want him?"
"Do you want him?"
"I don't mind."
"Get out of her bed she doesn't want you!"
"Okay, okay!" he grumbles as he backs out from under the blanket, naked from the waist down. "But after all I've done for the cause, you'd think you'd all show a little bit of gratitude."
"She don't have to pay you that way." Lucinda reaches inside her shirt and pulls out a rosary of rock crystal and silver, then tosses it, glittering, at his feet. "You want pay? That'll more than cover our food and lodging."
He whistles when he looks at it, then cautiously picks it up. "Now where the hell'd you ever steal a thing like that?" It scintillates as he turns it around, catching every crumb of light.
"Never you mind," she snarls, but her lip trembles just the slightest bit, and suddenly I can almost feel like vertigo just how much she treasures that rosary, what it means to let it go.
He holds it up, twinkling in the shadows, and all I can see in the gleam of his eye is the price that that rosary would bring. But then he lowers it, his eyes still dark in their caverns, his body blocking light. "You gotta understand, Lucinda; nobody ever wants a man like me. And it's hard to get out to town for whores. When one comes right into my cave, I just..."
"She ain't no whore no more!"
Again Chulan says sleepily, "It's all right, Lucinda. Maybe later, Petro, on my way back, when I'm more rested..."
"If she survives the coming battle!" Lucinda snaps.
Petro crosses himself and says, "Oh my God..."
Chulan says, "Yes. If I survive the coming battle, I...I think I will want you then. I will want warm arms to hold me, to celebrate me being alive."
"Oh God," he repeats. "How could I forget...I promise I'll treat you like a lady, Chulan--I mean, you are a lady now, but..."
"I ain't no lady," she murmurs as she turns over and nestles back into the cushions. "I'm just a killer and a target."
Petro hesitantly lays the rosary back down. "I don't need it," he says to Lucinda. "You folks pay your way. I just lost my head there for a moment...but you know, we all go a little crazy sometimes, under the stress and all...no hard feelings?"
Lucinda growls but lowers the gun and stomps away. We can all breathe again. Petro just stands there, half naked before the rosary, but his limp member shows that the thing like yearning in his face as he stares at Chulan hasn't much to do anymore with her tough, young flesh.
* * *
The shadows lengthen by the time we emerge out the other end of the canyon, yet we haven't far to go, Kief says. I don't know, I've never come this way before; I memorize as I go, glancing backwards occasionally to see what the landmarks look like from the other direction. But yards feel like miles when you carry guns and lead, so soon after a man has tried to beat you to death. I ache in a way that I thought someone in my kind of shape never could, while our younger members move jerkily like stupefied little puppets.
The jungle gradually thickens around us again as we leave the stony land behind, dark and drowsy underneath its canopy. As we come around the university wall to approach the gate from the side, I glance up to see a star glimmer between leaves.
I barely step into the campus grounds before quick little hands plunder my pockets and pull the hammock ropes off my shoulders. I suddenly feel so light I could fall off my feet, my legs shaking as I turn to see the others crowd around an ember, and I shove in as eagerly as they to reach in for my share of tobacco, but just this once, only because that may well have been the longest twenty-four hours of my life—well, at least it ranks right up there with some of the really bad ones. Or close enough.
The smoke feels warm in my chest, lovingly rough and so appropriately bittersweet. I listen to Lucinda give her report, then watch Cyran head off to Father Man to report on Miko as I lean against the wall and smoke, unburdened at last.
But e doesn't leave the compound; e heads for the infirmary. Suddenly I remember what Father Man does there and why. And now the friendly chatter of the night sounds full of fear. I puff at my cigarette and stare at the smoke that swirls around me like it's some kind of magic, could weave a spell of protection around me or something. Oh, I wish!
While I stand there, too tired to do anything but loiter, Shermio totters in, looking like he’s run nonstop for three days and smelling like he hadn’t bathed on any of them. “Where’s Cyran?” the boy asks me and I gesture with the cigarette towards the infirmary. He nods, shoves a sweaty, black curl out of those elfin eyes of his, and goes in. Not too long after I hear the bell ring. Alysha calls, "Everybody gets dinner tonight--come and get it while it's hot!" I stub out the butt on the wall and go to eat while I can.