IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Sunday, May 31, 2708, continued
(Did he bring the baby? Yes, yes of course. He wouldn't forget. He's never very far from it. Oh, the poor thing! Ha ha, yeah, right.)
(Ah, the joys of vacation! Jake has taken it in his head to drag me along on a hiking expedition. So much fun, admiring all the pretty scenery—what I can catch of it in this deluge of rain, slogging uphill through ankle-deep mud, discovering every failure of the waterproof stitchery in my jacket, and feeling my hamstrings freeze up. Jolly good times!)
(Drink the potion…everybody…all at once.)
(And what can I expect at the end of the road? A dinner gritty with campfire ash, and a hard place on the ground to sleep. Well, no, not strictly accurate. Even I couldn't possibly manage a campfire in this weather. Cold rations then, probably freeze-dried whatsit meant for cooking in hot water, chewed leather-tough without it, growling over it and worrying it like bears, all the while shivering our tails off.
Well, I might heat up some rocks. And I can expect a softer sleep, at least, if a little squishy. I hope Jake remembered to pack something watertight to put under his sleeping-bag. I just realized that I forgot.
And suddenly the rain abates. Soon the sun comes out, and we see the most incredible rainbow spill down into the gorge between two hills, and every twig and needle sparkles with a billion jewels of rain, and I bless the man who made me trudge up here!)
(Now. Everybody touch the baby…)
(But he doesn't look blessed, right now. He reels, grabs a tree, his face the color of limestone.
I run up to him. Didn't know I could. “Mountain sickness?” I ask. He shakes his head. Oh dear. “Vision?” He nods.
“They've just ripped it wider. He'll have to notice, now. He should—he’s almost out of time.”
And then, quick as that, he pulls himself back up, adjusts the tarp-pack on his back (not nearly as soggy as the one I made from a blanket, stupid me) and says, “Come on, Deirdre showed me the way, years ago, to a cave near here that always stays dry.” And with exertion the color slowly rises back into his face.)
* * *
We reach the trading post by nightfall. Nestled into a grove of those fragrant trees from whose sap the peasants brew their liquor, it consists of a leaf-thatched roof on poles, walled on three sides by shelves of weather-warping wood, plus a bar in front, with a couple picnic tables between it and the road. We see nobody there, but Malcolm thumps the bar loudly and shouts "Anybody home?"
"Get back," a man snaps at someone hidden in the foliage as he emerges from the wall of chaummin-trees that crowd in on the clearing. He steps forward, a big man of mixed blood, his mustache as bushy as a white man's but blue-black from his Mountainfolk blood. He wipes his hands on an apron and says, "I'm the proprietor here, sir--may I help you?" He holds his head up despite the fear in his eyes; I can't help but respect that.
Malcolm tells him, "We need food. We have money. We haven't eaten for days."
Our host sizes us up, then asks carefully, "And who might be the man or woman that you serve?"
"Neither and both," Malcolm answers.
The man nods and calls for his wife and daughter to come out. The woman's a delicate little thing, pure Mountainfolk, timid but smiling, who never quite relaxes enough to straighten all the way, or maybe she's a wee bit hunched by nature; poor nutrition in the teen years can curve the spine, sometimes. The little girl looks like she could grow up as sturdy as her father, if given half a chance.
Soon platters of papulsa, a potato and bean-sauce dish, steam on the table between greasy-smelling tallow candles and we dive right in, laughing with sheer delight. Hey, at this point I would’ve eaten the candles!
Malcolm takes his dinner out to the fringes of the forest and eats alone in the dark. Fatima has words in private with the family, who then lock everything up carefully. Coming closer, I hear Fatima tell the wife, "It's a sickness. Something's been done to him, I think."
The woman nods and says, "I had an aunt like that. Government starved her to within an inch of her life in prison. When she got out she feared hunger more than the devil himself. She got a cook-job at the Manor so she could eat herself to death." She puffs on a cob pipe thoughtfully and the scent just about drives me mad.
"We could use some tobacco," I say, glancing over to see if Malcolm notices, but he has gone from sight. "Just put it on our tab. And I need sandals."
Ah, so much better, the smoky flavors of food and tobacco! I feel much more rational with nourishment and nicotine inside me. My heels slide a bit on the backs of the sandals, till the man whittles and sands them into a shape that fits me, and reknots the straps to match. And who could ask for better than tailor-made? I ask the family, "Do you sell hammocks? We lost everything to a fire."
The wife says, "Honey, we've got everything you need but guns." And she winks at us, leaving no doubt as to the obviousness of our calling. How? The security question could go with plain old citizens who know when to keep their mouths shut. We wear no uniform, we carry no weaponry--can one read so much in our faces, our body language? And what do these say? "I won't be beaten down!" or "I don't care anymore who I kill"? What does my own face say? I haven't seen it in so long. I rub a couple scabs on my cheek, where Fatima clawed me in that garden.
"I think I'll start with a change of clothes," Chulan says, looking down at her hooker-garb. "How about you, 'Tima?"
She just grins and says, "I think I like being Father Fatima for now," at which Damien leers and says, "Bless me Father, I want to sin!" and Kanarik smacks him one. Fatima says, "Hit him again for me, Kana," and the girl chases him laughing into the woods.
"How are you set up for medical supplies?" I ask. "We have some, but it's always a good idea to..."
"Are you a medic?" the woman blurts, grabbing my arm hard.
"After a fashion." Without another word she drags me off into the bush, to a lean-to camouflaged in foliage. I can barely make out the hammock in there, let alone its occupant, but I can smell infection in the air. "I can't do a thing without light," I say.
Oh my dear God. "Aron?"
The woman comes up behind me with the lantern and I see what no one in their right mind would want to see. "They brought him all this way to Cumenci to do this," she says sadly, "so that his parents would have to watch."
"I know you didn't, dearheart," I say gently, though the fear flames up suddenly inside.
The woman says, "They punished us for raising children to rebel. They made us all watch."
I ask her, "Ma'am, do you have any painkillers? I'm afraid I can't..."
"He escaped to the church," she fills in.
"For God's sake, get him some painkillers, woman!" Knock him out, before the others hear. Of course Aron knew that we had a number of ex-pros in our crew, all from the same brothel in Sargeddohl, and that if a crime took place in the vicinity we might take refuge there.
She comes back with nothing better than a bottle of Chaummin. "We make it ourselves, and no one else can match it," she says defensively. "The sugar-sap trees around here are..."
"I don't give a damn about your sugar-sap trees! Give that boy as much as he can swallow."
"But...his stomach..." and she gestures to the sodden bandages that hold his viscera in place.
After this I will not hesitate again. I will kill as many of them as I can sink blade or bullet into. Here in this place I do swear, by Jesus and the Virgin Mary and by all the ghosts of those whom I've seen die, that I will not stay my hand. I will always remember that this is the place where I became willing--eager!--to do whatever I must.
It doesn't kill the pain. He screams and convulses when he tries to digest it. Belatedly I remember Malcolm's equipment, run back to the car, run forward again hauling tanks and tubing, and give him pure nitrous to breathe till he slips peacefully away. I'm an idiot--idiot! After that horrible, illegal experiment that speeded up my thoughts and reflexes and capacity to learn, why do I still have to do perfectly stupid, witless...
"Jesus!" Deirdre gasped as she snapped out of trance. "You know about that?" She switched the music off.
It took a moment for Justín to come to, and then only to moan. "You are trying to kill me, aren't you."