IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Battle of the Tanks
Wednesday, April 29, 2708
My hammock trembles in the night. Another pesky earthquake, but that rumble in the distance...books start to fall on top of me. I flail out of my hammock in a half-asleep panic and then realize that no natural quake of the earth shakes our rest as the rumble mounts to a roar.
"Everybody out!" Cyran shouts as e runs through the building. "Get to your troop leaders--everybody who's leaving, leave now! The rest of you man your posts." Through the library window, as I fling on clothes and my pack, I watch Malcolm go to block a gaping rift in the wall, gripping the surgery-cleaver, as he fills it up just by standing there. Inanely, I notice that he hasn't shaved; he looks big and menacing with his bristle-darkened chins.
(I wait by my crack in the wall as the noise grows more and more painful, the cleaver heavier in my hand. But I can lift anything I have to. Explosions in the distance light the night, and then comes fire. Kids scramble everywhere, as lithe as monkeys, but that's not my power; mine is the power not to budge.)
I run out into the night, casting about in the chaos for Lucinda's blocky silhouette while children scamper frantically in all directions. The moon comes out from behind the clouds, just a few days past the full; in the sudden glow I catch the sight of some lanky teenager hoisting a boy with a gun up onto the wall--and the child has no feet--before Kief stumbles into me, grabs my wrist too hard and hisses, "This way!" as he drags me along.
He shouted just now; it only sounded like a hiss to me because the roaring builds so loud it hurts. And to think we felt so proud of ourselves, so safe about disabling four of them--there must be dozens of tanks all converging on us at once! They must've cached them all over the countryside.
(Now the noise grows so deafening that it rattles loose shingles from the roofs. I can feel my dentures vibrate in my mouth. Now it--behind me! Tanks already breached the walls behind me! I watch a streak of light shoot into the library and my heart wants to burst like that library bursts, flames licking up all the pages that I will never turn.)
Hands throw rifles arcing through the air to kids perched on the wall. I see a girl catch hers with one good arm and one stump--Cyran has left the defense of this doomed base to our disabled. The cynical necessity of what e does locks me in place with pure rage till Kief jerks me out of it. Our feet pound the ground till we reach the rest of Lucinda's troop. Oh, I look forward to battle all right, because a person wants to kill after seeing a wall manned by the sick and injured like that. Let's start with Cyran first and foremost, why don't we, by gun or knife or teeth, but anyone'll do, don't get in my way, man! Cyran most of all because I agree with hir and I hate hir for making too much sense.
(Children scream--a thousand children scream, running like rabbits with tails a-fire, more and more blasts from more and more tanks--God, how many are there? I jog as fast as my body will let me from my harmless little crack in the wall, in search of some other post that I can better block with my bulk.)
"Hurry!" Lucinda leads us out through the crack that Malcolm had guarded before it became pointless. "We have to circle behind and harry their flanks before they get here," she tells us. Imad fills my arms with sloshing, pine-and-piss-stinking Molotov cocktails, and I run like crazy with the others, cursing Lufti hysterically when the boy starts to light a cigarette nearby. Kief pinches the match out without breaking stride, nor does he even glance at Lufti when the boy protests and he cuffs him for it. Then Kief takes some of the Molotovs from me for himself.
We tear through leaves out onto the broken road, leaping from scale to scale of pavement, too fast to even think of how we know where to land our feet in the dark. How far, how fast do we have to run? How slow does a Charadocian tank move? They must've only recently reinvented the ugly things, on research funded by dear Aunt Soskia, no doubt. What can they do, and what limits them? I'm not even fully awake, yet, and I'm trying to think?
I feel cold seep into my sleeve with the sharp smell of phosphorus-saturated pine-whiskey. I realize that I've splashed myself with flammable fluid--great thing to do in the middle of combat, Deirdre!
("...souvenir," I hear someone say. He has climbed down from the safety of his tank, he has planted his boot on Cantimar's back, her face in the dirt. And he doesn’t see me behind and to the left of him, with all his focus on his prize. Now he yanks at that long, dark braid of hers, jerks her face up muddy and wincing, as he brings out his knife...
Heavy falls the cleaver, with the weight of an arm like mine behind it; between the neck and clavicle it falls, the blade designed to shear through bone. Heavy falls the blood all over me as I amputate a body from a soul. I watch as if outside myself. I passed the test.)
Hooves pound towards us. Two horses thunder our way with identical little boys on their backs. They crouch into the wind, grinning madly; their fine hair looks demonic in their kewpie peaks, their elfin features sharp and menacing. Hard to say by the moonlight, but I think they're redheads.
I don't even see who hoists me up behind the rider, but now I lock my knees tightly to the heaving animal's ribs, with no hands free to hold on with as I hug my fumy, rag-stuffed bottles like treasures stolen from some angry fairytale giant three strides behind. I look to my right and Kief rides next to me behind the other twin, beautiful in a nightmare sort of way, as burdened as I am with nascent firebombs.
Suddenly I laugh, swept up in the rhythms of this violent night, my hair streaming behind me like black fire and the winds of war full in my face! It doesn't cool my anger but fans it, strengthens and directs it. Tonight I can do anything, anything at all in the name of the Cause, and right will take my side--total freedom! I gallop, rise and fall and rise and fall into something dreadful and desirable, my conscience left behind me in my dust.
(I help Cantimar to her feet, there amid the screams and chaos, explosions of sound and lurid light. The fever has her tonight; I don't believe she comprehends. We move slowly through the mayhem, she and I. I pick up as many wounded kids as I can, and she follows my example, eyes clouded, moving in a dream, but soon puts each one down that she lifts, no strength left in her. I take them up for her, and carry them in turn to the shell of a room already blasted out, no longer worthy as a target. Then I go back for more. Some of these teens stand nearly as tall as I do, but I can lift anything I have to. Cannon blasts and bullets fly around me, but I don't pay attention. Why should I care whether I live or die?)
Louder and louder the tanks assault my ears--the drivers must go deaf, must not hear death galloping their way. Kief grins, an orange glow on his teeth as he lights his cigar. Oh, reckless, reckless night! Now we burst through trees from the dead road onto the living one, the leaves slapping my gasping face like a wake-up call. The tanks loom right in front of us.
(Now tanks roll right in front of me. I watch them plow through our cornfield and turn it into mash. I watch the treads chew up our cemetery, knocking down crosses like desperate little wooden figures with arms outstretched in vain to stop them--nobody gets any peace tonight.)
Still grinning, Kief synchronizes with the horse's motion to light a bomb on the cigar clenched between his teeth. Then he hurls it in an arc of streaming sparks over the head of the hard-riding imp. I see it burst harmlessly against the tank's tough shell, but oh, how it lights up the night!
(Fire shoots right past my shoulder. I turn, slowly, with Cantimar leaning on my arm, to face my makeshift infirmary. Direct hit.)
Kief lights another cigar, kissed against his own, twirling them together lovingly, and then passes it to me, in tune with the rhythm of our steeds. I breathe in smoke that I can hardly taste for the stinging fumes of my burden. Then it's my turn. My horse leaps on the ascendant as I ignite a Molotov cocktail and hurl it right into the lead-tank's treads. It explodes like a star rising up from Hell, rips tread from gears and sends the tank spinning, while its brother monsters swing their cannons this way and that in search of us.
"Down!" Kief shouts. As one our driving imps pull at their bridles to make their trained mounts roll to the side onto the ground. I jump clear just in time--as a stream of fire rakes over us, right where our bodies used to be.
The twins grab bombs from us but leave us our share as we run forward, the forest blazing behind us from the cannon blasts. I can taste the tobacco now: sweet, brandy-soaked savor of rebellion. I scramble right up the side of a tank, chuck a Molotov into the cockpit and leap away again, propelled by the explosion, laughing more wildly than I ever have in my life!
(“Dr. De Groot? Dr. De Groot--thank God I found you!"
I turn, stunned, to see Solon, Head Butler of Mukheymer Manor, leap lightly from a tank and run towards me.
"Good God, man, you're injured!"
I glance down at all the blood on me. "Wounded children," I say. "I carried...tried to save..." Their blood so blends with that of my enemy that I can't see a difference.
His alien hand touches my arm. "Such a good-hearted man--to try and heal even your captors!"
Captors? I stare aghast at this man, Cantimar oblivious on my arm.)
I hear the sound of screaming, screaming--I turn around to see and the cigar falls from my lips. He crawls out of the wreckage of his tank, all of him torch, blinding bright yet still alive enough to scream and not stop screaming. Frantically he rolls in the dirt but phosphorus clings and burns deep. He can't possibly live--his entire skin has charred. So in horror I grab up a rock and go after him, I pound the blackened skull till the screaming stops and we both get some peace.
(“Mr. Mukheymer cursed the day he'd ever told you about the university," Solon says solicitously, "once he'd realized it had become a rebel enclave. When you didn't come back he gave himself no peace; he wouldn't rest until he'd agitated the army into coming to your rescue."
Rescue? I look around at the university burning in the night, and all of the bodies, all the little bodies.)
Bullets whir past me and I roll back into forest-shelter. "Hurry!" Kief shouts, "They're getting past!" I find my last Molotov where it dropped, half of its contents gurgled into the dirt. I'm going to have to make a little count a lot. I hurl it under the nearest tank to grind by, aiming for the spot where I remember the fuel-tank hangs. Bad design decision, Soskia. Again I hear the explosion and the screams but this time I don't look, the light all behind me as I run into a stretch of rainforest not yet ignited.
Guerrillas do this, attack and then scatter, no cowardice to it, but I don't run from the bullets behind me, not entirely, I just run. I slam into a tree, put the tree between me and parting shots, gasp and gasp and then throw up--violent heaves, badly hung-over from the brandy of war, sickened of all past mirth.
(“But it's all right now, Dr. De Groot. I've come to take you home." Home? He tugs my arm. "This way, doctor. Do as I say--I can see that you're in shock. I know what's best for you. Come with me. There. Like that.”
Cantimar moves with me, and for the first time he notices her. "Who's she?" he asks, gesturing with a pistol. "A fellow captive? Mr. Mukheymer will give her refuge, too, I'm sure of it. You have only to ask."
For a second I hope. Maybe I can salvage one life. I can...I can see how full her fevered lips are, see how perfectly formed beneath their temporary blisters that will fade back down in a day or two, I see the lips part for just a hint of a questioning sound...
"Her? She's a rebel, my prisoner of war. But she's young and naive; with time in a reform school, she should..." I hear the bang at the same time that I feel her full weight sag on my arm.
Solon lowers his gun. "I regret to report that we have no facilities for prisoners at this time."
I should've killed him. I should never have just stood there rooted in horror. But by now the cynical mind has managed to kick in--if I attack him, I die accomplishing absolutely nothing. Already they must've picked off my half-healed amputees from the wall, one by one. If I play along, on the other hand, I can position myself easily to where I can smuggle supplies from the rich to their enemies, spy on the secrets of the arrogant, and eventually rejoin my own. Cantimar drops into the dirt and I let him lead me away.)
The roar of machinery dwindles, headed towards Base Camp. I drop into the first stream I stumble upon, to wash the pine-whiskey off before the conflagration comes my way, or so I tell myself, working the purifying mud into my clothes and rinsing it out again as the fire dwindles in the dank rainforest, dying back down to nothing but a smear of ember-spangled darkness and a stench upon the air. Yeah, get the old blood out, too, while I'm at it; the too-flammable-for-turpentine extract of the pitch-pine seems to have stain-removing properties, if the first glow of dawn does not deceive.
Then, dressed again and heavy with water, I climb back up the bank and wonder how to rejoin the others when we didn't have time to set a rendezvous point. After awhile I figure that the logical thing to do would be to head back towards Petro's Canyon. Yeah, that's the best bet, that's what the rest of Lucinda’s band would think of, too.
("How have they treated you, sir?" he asks. "How are you feeling?"
"Hungry," I say, hating myself for saying it, hating myself more than ever in a lifetime of self-hatred.
"Ah, of course!" he says sympathetically. "They must starve their prisoners.")
I guess it's official. I'm a soldier, now.