IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Must Leave and Some Must Stay
Tuesday, June 2, 2708
Disruption...something wrong. Before I even open my eyes to the predawn darkness I recognize it: machines. I hear the grinding of gears, the turning of engines, drowning out all the natural sounds. I tangle in my hammock for breathtaking seconds of panic before I can scramble out.
"Hurry! Everybody up!" I rouse the family from their lean-to in the woods and tug Malcolm awake. "Rope--get me rope, fast!" I tie Malcolm and the bewildered, sleep-bleary family to the benches out in front. "The rest of you go ransack the store."
"If you need money," our hostess starts to say, "you'll find it in the..."
"Quiet! It looks more realistic if we have to hunt for it. Make a mess, Chulan--don't be so dainty about it! We're leaving victims behind us, more loyal than ever to the army that protects them--right?"
"Maaama! I have to go potty!"
I say, "Honey, you'll just have to wet your panties, 'cause we're ruthless rebels here." That'll add realism, that'll make it look like they've been tied up here all night.
"Hush and do as she says." Sharp odor punctuates the night as I join in the looting.
Malcolm says, "I'll pay for everything later, I promise you." We fling the cash-box and bags of supplies into his hidden car and the pilfered jeep. "For damages, too, and pain and suffering..."
"Hush, " she tells him, too.
The man says, "Bruise us up a bit before you go." Obligingly Chulan and Fatima begin to lay about them with the expert blows of people paid to entertain the jaded in this way.
"Not you two!" I protest. "Damien, Kanarik, you'll have to do it." Madame trained the pros to leave no mark; they don't even realize their restraint.
"Hit my daughter, too," the man says to me.
"No, I don't think we need..."
"Do it! They suspect children most of all, now."
"Do you want them to torture her like Aron?"
I do it. I give her a bloody nose and bloody lip and she caterwauls fit to break my heart with every blow, till she looks very convincingly like a victim and I stand there shaking so badly I could pass for one, myself.
Kindly our hostess says, "Take some of my good chaummin with you--for later. For your nerves."
I shake my head, then swallow, and find words. "No. Thank you." I will get used to this.
"It's much smoother than anybody else's brew," she says in a trembling voice, as the little girl still cries.
"Later—after the revolution. We'll have a drink together then." Then, while the others head into the forest, Chulan grabs me and pulls me into the dead soldier's jeep and we race screeching into the paling night. We’ll have to give the army somebody to chase.
Chulan takes the turns like a maniac. "Guns!” she shouts. “Can you find any guns in the back?" Holding on for dear life in the open vehicle, I climb into the back just as the enemy's jeep comes into sight.
"Score! Three rifles, three pistols, bandoleers to match, and six hand grenades."
"Then for God's sake get over your shakes and cover our backs!" she shouts as the first bullets whiz past us.
"How can I shoot when you're making wild curves?" I cry as another one nearly throws me out.
They have front-mounted automatic weaponry. To hell with guns--I lob a hand-grenade at the road before them; a great chunk of pavement explodes in their faces, their jeep hits the crater and sends them tumbling down a cliff I wouldn't want to even look down. I can hear their screaming all the way.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. Without taking her eyes off the road, Chulan has reached back with a pack of cigarettes and matches. "Found it up here in the glove compartment," she says. I cower down into a corner of the back, out of the wind, get it lit, and try to puff my tensions away. I can do this.
I close my eyes and shudder. Have to do something about my imagination--when those boys went down I felt like I went down, too, I felt each and every scream tear from my own throat, I felt four separate sets of vertigo and terror and then shock! I feel almost like I have four family histories dancing just on the edge of consciousness, haunting my head. I suck at the smoke like it could burn the ghosts away.
Then I clutch at my luck-doll, hidden against my heart, and remember Aron. He will fend their ghosts away from me. "Defend me now, Aron," I whisper, "and you'll never have to howl with the monkeys. You did the best you could."
Gradually I stop shaking. I shoulder on a bandoleer and a rifle, and lean back to watch the departing scenery as we careen down and up the mountainside and into the rising sun.
* * *
(I hate this place. The sooner I can wrap up my business in Cumenci, the better. But that child had to get his ideas from somewhere, to make him crawl all the way to Cyran even without feet. Some filthy insurrectionists sing a few catchy songs, tell a few lying tales, and next thing you know they're sending babes to do their dirty work for them on some godforsaken Children's Crusade. Someone has got to put a stop to it--whatever it takes.
I know right where the grave is. Why do these ignorant peasants feel they have to use secret signs to mark the spot? They turn pale when I push through the foliage to it, then back off when I order them to stick to their stinking little roadside stand and leave me be. What do they think I might do to the poor corpse, anyway?
I stand respectfully where no eyes can see me, too angry to weep or anything weak like that. I should pray for him or something. I find that I cannot.
Aron, you sorry little fool! Why’d you force me to take it so far? I had to have your information—I had no choice in the matter. You could've given it to me early on and saved us both a lot of grief. You should've told me all that you knew after a few slaps like a normal child--what did those crazy rebels do to you to brainwash you so badly?
It only counts as a full success if the subject lives. You neutralize him, you scare him so badly that he'll not only never take up arms against the government again, he'll teach others to fear crossing the Meritocracy in any way imaginable—and that saves lives. I've spent my career scattering the countryside with walking advertisements on the wisdom of keeping the peace. Some of them can walk, anyway.
I frown down at the little grave. Maybe that had something to do with it, in part at least. The horror of lifelong maiming or mutilation can overcome the glory of a martyr's death in many cases--a most effective tool. But what can you do with a boy who has already lost his feet? Who doesn't even care anymore? Oh, hardened, hardened! I hate what it takes to break these rock-hearted peasant kids.
Maybe there won’t be any more Arons, not from this village. I made them all watch, children and adults alike. So now the nights shrill with the screams of nightmares. Maybe the fear will save their lives.
I sigh, inhaling deeply of the pungency around me. A grove of Chaummin-trees caused the settlement here, even before the establishment of a plantation--they make the sap into that gawdawful liquor that the country-folk love too well. But it does smell sweet from the tree, doesn't it--did Aron ever get homesick for the scent?
I thought that bringing him home would soften him. I thought that the sight of his father's tears, the sound of his mother's sobs, would break his heart and bring him to his senses--why should he owe Cyran more than them? Even with the father I had, even when I wished the monster dead, I hated it when he cried; I wanted to not exist rather than provoke those tears.
But rebellion makes these kids callous to their own flesh and blood. Aron didn't care that they begged him to tell me what I had to hear. "Cyran is my god!" he shouted, sweet Jesus forgive the little boy.
But I cannot forgive him, myself; I'm not as big as Christ. Aron forced me to commit a blasphemy. He forced me to hammer at his misguided faith with pain after pain, overlapping, running together and mounting to higher pain, till I saw the vulnerable moment with my practiced eye. That's when (God forgive me!) I shouted at him, "I am your god! I alone can give you pain or relief, life or death--worship me, for no one else can help you!" That's when he finally broke.
But not before his injuries had already gone beyond what a small one can survive. I couldn’t be his god after all. Nothing I tried could have saved him. Then, when they “hid” him from me I felt too depleted to stop them; it wouldn’t have done any good, anyway.
How can I help but hate him for what he made me do? How can I not hate him for making me, for that one terrible instant, actually feel like a god--a being with total power over this helpless creature who couldn't get away with defiance of my will? He saw it, and he crumpled. He could not have seen it unless I let that feeling suffuse me and radiate from me so that every nerve I'd stripped raw in him couldn't help but throb with my sense of godhood over him. That's how much it took and damn him for it!
A songbird sings sweetly overhead and brings me back to myself. I hate myself for my inability to pray for the dead. The departed should go beyond all politics, after all—everywhere but in the Charadoc. Am I still peasant enough, myself, that I can't shake the superstitions about his ghost, that I fear to leave this grave unplacated? But can the damned pray for the damned? It's all so useless--let the birds pray for him, let the leaves rustle palm to palm and murmur something over him. I've got other business.
I return to the clearing, where a soldier takes the fat man's blubbering report on his imprisonment. Malcolm deGroot--have I ever got a file on you, as bloated as your disgusting self. Foreign provocateur with rich connections--if only his patrons knew half of what I know about dear Dr. deGroot.
At least Layne guessed, soldier that she is, regardless of the petal-dress that she wears off-duty, listening discreetly to the help in all the finest homes, never really on leave—not our General Aliso. She first suggested that I compile the file.
"Captured" a second time, Doctor? What coincidental misfortune. Reporting the "theft" of a car that nobody knew you still possessed--lest, no doubt, some later incursion finds it abandoned with your name still on the register. But what brought you up here in the mountains in that thing in the first place, when you could ride in utmost comfort to any legitimate destination?
Aron mentioned your name, Doctor. Called you a comrade, a fellow-laborer in the rebel infirmary. I couldn't convict you on that alone; judges have a soft spot in their heads for medics who give aid and comfort to friend and foe alike. But I haven't forgotten that your patrons whisked you off to comforts and a feast on the same night that Aron fell into my hands.
Just looking at you in your grossness, hearing you feign innocence, knowing how you perpetuate this whole obscene conflict with your meddling foreign money, makes me want to tear into you, hit you with everything that that misguided little pawn never deserved but oh, how much you do, and more! To deport you would merely let you get away with murder, Dr. deGroot. Yet I can, perhaps, do a little something more suitable before your ship arrives.
For you may have gone too far at last, my well-fed hypocrite. No half-starved, half-grown whores like the ones described to me could possibly have severed a man's neck-bones with just one blow.
"Arrest him," I say quietly, and point.)
END OF "TESTS OF FIRE AND BLOOD"