IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Screams in the Night
Thursday, April 30, 2708
Screams wake me in the middle of the night! (Screams wake me in the middle of the night!) I pull on my skirt like a dress up to my armpits as I run to the screamer. (I grab my robe and pull it on running, out of the faculty quarters and down the stairs to the student's dorms.) Kiril holds Lufti as he sobs in her arms. She looks up at me, disheveled, and says, “Bad dreams. It's okay.”
“It is not okay!” Lufti sobs. “He came back for me! He came back!”
“Who, sweetie?” I dab at his tears with the corner of a blanket.
“The dead man. The, the one I killed all wrong. Dr...dripping blood and pointing at me!”
Kief comes up, yawning. “Then he'll have to contend with me, first, because I dealt the killing blow.”
“But I did it wrong!” Lufti screeches. “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” I try to pull him into my lap, but he fights me off like a wounded cat. “Wrong! Wrong!”
Kief picks up the kicking, scratching boy and carries him away. We hear the echoes of Lufti's cries fade down a tunnel, but I know Kief won't hurt him, just take him somewhere to calm down without freaking out the others any more than he has already.
It leaves me more rattled than I expected. I try to settle back down to sleep, but I toss and turn, until finally…
(I finally reach the dorm-room where the screams come from, more rattled than a Headmaster ought to allow. I struggle not to show this as I burst the door open. Most of the children cower against the walls, while the screamer stands in the middle. No, he doesn't stand at all—I can see that his feet don't touch the ground. He floats in the middle of the room, screaming, “Wrong! All wrong! We're all going to Hellllllll!” In the distortions of his terror he almost looks like he grins, but his eyes couldn't stretch open any wider to encompass all the horror of whatever tortures him.
I tackle him and haul him down, then wrestle the thing out of his hand that he holds. He drops in my arms as soon as I prize it from his fingers. I find a dark pink crystal. I recognize the substance as banned from this school.
“Where did he get this disgusting thing?” I ask the other students, but they're too frightened to speak—whether in shock from the circumstances or in fear of me, I don't know.
I pick up the boy and lean him on my shoulder; I keep up with physical culture, even at my age. He feels stiff in my arms, corpselike, but I can hear him breathing, his mouth next to my ear.
“Let this be a lesson to all of you,” I tell the wide eyes staring all around me. “You ought not to mess around with uncanny technologies from outside of Toulin. We have done just fine with the simple life for centuries. Magentine is dangerous, unnatural to human life—it can drive people mad if handled improperly.” I start out the door, then pause. “If anybody has any more of this foul rock and wishes to get rid of it without disciplinary action, you may drop it off anonymously outside the door of my office—I will put a box out for that purpose. But if I find anyone persisting in possession of this or any other contraband, I shall have to take harsh measures—do you understand?”
Nobody says a word. I carry the rigid, wide-eyed child to the infirmary; this poor fellow, at least, needs no more punishment from me. The nurse has already started a kettle of water and it whistles as we enter; he probably heard the screams the same time I did, and figured that someone might need a tonic for the nerves. He pours hot water over tranquilizing herbs while I sit and wait, still holding the boy in my lap, still taut in every muscle. I could use a cup of that, myself, but I mustn't show weakness to staff or student.)
Kief carries Lufti back to us about half an hour later, dead asleep in his arms. Tenderly he tucks the boy in. I smell the marijuana, but I can't second-guess Kief's decision. Maybe that's what it took, maybe no one could have talked Lufti down without it.
* * *
My stomach, growling for breakfast and coffee, inform me when morning has arrived. People stir all around me as I dress under the blanket. Petro lights lamps and makes it officially day.
Lucinda shakes Lufti nominally awake, helps him dress, and steers him towards a dish of potatoes and cheese, which he wolfs down wordlessly, hardly opening his eyes. Then he toddles right back to bed.
Lucinda frowns, asking, “Did you have to give him that much, Kief?”
Kief shrugs. “New recruit—he's not used to it. And yes, it took that much.”
When we've finished Petro joins us, clapping his hands. “Well, well, well! Time we put you fine folks to work, here.”
Lucinda walks straight to an oil press and puts her shoulder to it. “You know we always pay our way,” she says affably, the stone wheel growling over seeds full of oil—fruit pits, inedible wild nuts, anything and everything that Petro can get his hands on, for he uses an awful lot of lamp oil down here in the dark.
Petro soon finds chores for all of us. Kief and I take turns spelling Lucinda at the press, and in the intervals of rest between we tinker at small repairs of clothes, tools, and furnishings. Kiril mentioned that she used to do kitchen duty on a cruiser, so now she washes our dishes, scrubs the cooking-corner out all ship-shape, and keeps the fire tended. Chulan and Fatima sit at small looms, in the shadow of the greater one, and weave border-ribbons, after Petro shows them the designs that he has sketched out. Kanarik sweeps the stones and dusts the shelves, giving Damien and Imad armfuls of blankets, rugs, and cushions, to take to one of the many underground ravines, roaring with unlit waters in their depths, where they can shake them and beat them without suffocating on the dust.
I welcome the labor, the strain of muscle against wheel. I remember an old lady in Rhioveyn who used to say that working by the sweat of our brow wasn't a curse, it was Adam's consolation. And by pushing on so purposefully I feel like I go somewhere, some idyllic location where my nerves won't frazzle quite so much, where I can actually feel safe. Even if all I really do is go around in circles.
Lufti sleeps on, and Petro leaves him undisturbed, sitting to his own loomwork. Everybody treats Lufti like a soldier with a war-wound, and I guess he's that.
By lunchtime Lufti wakes on his own. At first he says nothing, concentrating on his food. Then he turns red eyes to me and says, “That man was a soldier; he knew the score, and he didn't really suffer all that long.”
“You're right,” I say around a mouthful of beans, trying not to remember the screaming man on fire.
Thoughtfully, Lufti says, “Kief has lots of friends among the dead. He says that they reasoned with the guy. He stuck a pipe in my mouth and made me smoke till I could calm down enough to hear him, and then he told me all about his ghosts. He's never alone he says, and it's all going to be all right.”