IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Monday, May 25, 2708, continued
(All my mothers and all my fathers, you feel so gloriously present right this minute, this precious minute when we laugh, we feel so happy, we trade jokes like we could live forever, and I know that just around the corner we all could die at once. All my mothers and all my fathers, you know why I have to do now what I must--you have always understood everything I do. I bask in your approval.
All my mothers, smiles as bright as red as blood, all my fathers, grinning teeth that shine like the bullets in your bandoleers. I remember all your hands--big, rough hands that guided me as gently as you would the wires on a bomb. I remember each and every one of you, though the names blur one into another over the years. I remember all your love.
So let us take our pleasure while we can, let all fear burn away, exhale it like a fading smoke. You knew how to laugh between the blasts, you knew how to cherish the bright red moments between birth and death, you knew and you know still and you fold in sweetly all around me. Let us revel, bright as bullets flashing through the air, for our flight through this life may pass as briefly. For this precious moment, let us LIVE!)
(Why do I keep walking back to the tobacconist? Why do I enter the darkness of the shop, stroll through the hemmed-in aisles, hardly room for a man my size to move, cautiously opening apothecary jars, breathing in the musty scent of different blends? What draws me here?
“Are you going to buy something this time?” drawls the man at the counter.
“Yes, Jake—are you?” asks a high voice at my elbow. Only one woman has that accent in the known parts of Til. I turn and frown down at the platinum blonde, posed to show off her curves—does she never stop posing?
“What are you doing here, Zanne?”
“Stalking you,” she says, and smiles. “What are you doing here?”
“I wish I knew.”
“Curious about smoking?” she asks, and then her eyes light up with something slightly evil. “So am I!”
“Remember what happened the last time you tried your telepathy on me?”
She pouts, and punches my arm. “I never did get back my acupuncture skills, you beast!”
“Anyway, you’re wrong. I’m not curious. I have smoked tobacco before—twice.”
She plays with my lapel. “Have you indeed, bad boy? But aren’t all of us bad girls and boys curious? I’ll try anything twice.” She sashays up to the counter and asks, “Do you sell single cigarettes?” When he nods she slips out her card, and he shows no surprise that it’s the iridescent ID of an agent. “Two, then, and a pack of matches. Mild—for beginners.”
“Beginners, plural?” I ask.
“Oh, very well!” she says. “Make his stronger.”
“No! Mine? Zanne, I...”
“Oh come on, Jake! I don’t need telepathy to see you want one more go.” She hooks my arm in hers, the other hand clutching the plain brown bag, and leads me to a quiet park around the corner, just one tree in a small grass lawn, with a border of flowers. Benches ring the the tree, and we sit on one. I also see ash trays, on weather-greened brass stands. The backsides of shops ring all but the entrance. People who wish to smoke discreetly come here from the shop.
“You staked this out ahead of time?”
“No, silly, I found it by smell, just now. Here...you light mine, and I’ll light yours.”
Okay. I admit it. It tastes good to me. Smoke...why do I picture great clouds of smoke, when it swirls so thinly, a fading stroke of white upon the air? Great clouds of smoke in a place of warehouses...
“Ooo, I could get used to this!” Zanne leans on my shoulder, looking dizzy, though she holds her cigarette with aplomb.
“You’d better not,” I say...and then my eyes fix on the cigarette in her hand. Her lipstick has rimmed it in red...red ring...blood red. “Anything new, anything worthwhile, must pass through a ring of blood,” I say before I know I’m speaking.
She sits up so suddenly she pales. “Jake, are you having one of your fits?”
“It’s not a fit!” I snap, and come to myself again, wondering why on earth I’m making myself sick on tobacco. “It’s a vision—a fragment of a vision.” I stub the cigarette out, barely used, and leave it in the ashtray. Maybe some bum will think it a lucky find.
She does the same, saying, “I’m taking you home. Right now.” She looks a little green, herself.
“I can find my own way home.”
“You can get lost in these fits. Randy would kill me if I didn’t see you back safely.”
“Zanne...” but she presses a finger to my lips.
“Not another word! I wouldn’t want you to lose whatever you need to write down.”
“Nope.” She tugs me to my feet. Then she smiles and bumps the knuckles of her left hand against my own, saying, “We lefties have to stick together, remember?”
I nod and go with her. I have no argument for that.)
I wake from drowsing to the cabbie saying, "Here's the place, folks--lousy dump, if you ask me, but there's no accounting for taste." So I pay her off and we tumble out of the car at twilight into a shoreside district of neglected warehouses and closed-down factories, their high little windows mostly broken and their gates locked shut for good. Didn't Jonathan once say something about neglect of trade? Happens, when people in power hear no feedback from those who actually do the work.
We have arrived some blocks away from the rendezvous point, as planned. Earlier than planned, though—Speedy knew her business better than most, or else not yet well enough to run up the price when her customers fall asleep. So we kill time for awhile, huddled in a warehouse doorway, passing a cigarette back and forth between us till the twilight ripens into night, just loitering teenagers in the bad part of town, don't mind us.
(I finish typing, then rub the bridge of my nose. I can still smell the tobacco on my fingers. I wish I had the rest of that cigarette. Damn Zanne!)
Now, oh so casually, we stroll under cover of dark over towards the pier to meet the rest--a rotted and abandoned scaffold teetering over oily water, next to a boarded-up bait shop. Clean or not, the sound and the scent of the sea restores my soul even in these surroundings. And oh, the freshness of that ocean breeze! Already I can make out the silhouette of the other two crews on the safer, landward side of the pier--did we delay too long, perhaps? Maybe we shouldn't have lit that second cigarette.
"You utter moron!" I hear Lucinda shout. "I said rested, not limp!"
Kief just laughs in reply, then suddenly grabs her and swings her back into a kiss that would make a tango-dancer blush and I just stop breathing. "I love it when your eyes flash, Luci."
I hurry up and hiss, "Could you two keep it down? We could hear you a block away." Then I smell the marijuana.
Kief shrugs. "'Sall right, Deirdre. No one hangs out here 'cept other juvenile delinquents. We blend right in."
"Yeah, you smell like 'em too--gonna die young like 'em?" Lucinda drops her voice but the tone scolds just as loudly.
Kief laughs again and doesn't drop his voice at all. "Oh, of course. Won't we all?"
Teo says, "Go easy on us, Luci--you know we had to calm the twins down any way we could."
"You didn't have to pass the joint back and forth between all of you."
"Oh, but we did--wouldn't look natural any other way. And the cabbie wanted his share, too."
"Oh great!" she spits. "I'm lucky you got here alive!"
"But we made sure," Imad pipes up, "to put the twins in the middle of all the passes--they got twice as much as we did." He almost looks convincingly sober when he says it, too.
"Right. Ohhh right." She paces critically around Kief who slouches there trying hard not to giggle at her scowl. "In the middle--sitting on Kief's lap, am I right? Am I right?"
He bursts out laughing and gasps, "You know, you’ve got a point! You definitely..." more helpless laughter, "...have a...have a...oh my!"
"A point." She stands firmly planted in front of him now, and leans into his face. "AND YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE THEIR FORNICATIN' LEADER!”
"Lucinda!" I plead. "Keep it down!"
"If we had any other night to do this, I'd postpone the mission right this minute. But our information only allows us this one chance, when the guards plan to sneak out for a local poker marathon." Her grin glints in the dark. "I only hope they get better cards than you've just dealt me."
Kief pulls himself up straight and says, "I'm fine, Lucinda. I can do the job."
"You'd better," she says, then holds out her hands. "But give me your gun."
"You heard me."
"Aw come on, Lucinda! You know I'm the best goddam marksman this lil' revolution ever..."
"At any other time, you bet. But I want Deirdre to take your gun tonight."
My face turns hot, then cold. "No, wait!"
"She doesn't want it, Luci."
"That's an order--both of you." Reluctantly Kief pulls a sawed-off rifle from its hiding-place in his bedroll. "You'll see the sense of this when you're back in your right mind, Kief," she says in a milder voice.
Slowly I shrug the weight of the rifle onto my shoulder, feeling dangerous and conspicuous. Sawed-off’s a hard weapon to aim; Lucinda knows more about my abilities than I like.
(I stare at what I just typed. Good Lord. And no way to warn...someone.)
As we move towards our objective, I feel a shiver down my spine. I strain to hear any step past ours over the melancholy slap of water against the docks. But nothing, nothing, nobody comes this way at night. Except for us.