IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume III: Responsibility


Chapter 4

Approved Education and Forbidden Memories


Thursday, June 4, 2708

I spend all day up to my elbows in motor-grease, with the flies buzzing around my sweat and me without a free hand to swat them with.  All day bent under the hood or flat on my back in the dripping oil, or otherwise contorted into postures that nature never meant for me, while Kief and Chulan kibitz from time to time with what little they know about machines, and I feel certain that nothing I can do will ever make this ruin runs again.

“How long before it needs more fuel?” Kief asks.

“It’s got a bioconverter engine.  It won’t run out of fuel.”  As if that would matter.

(I run out of shaving-soap, so I go down the corridor to the supply room, nodding to the coworkers that I pass in Tumblebug’s back corners.  I used to hate the way all the different scents clash there in that room, but now I like it, I look forward to it.  Now it smells like security.)

The smell of jojoba oil brings me back to my childhood, to Inacio teaching me all about what goes on under the hoods of tractors and GEMS and machines that move, in the sweet days of my girlhood, far away in sunny Alonzo Valley.  I remember how he called me his little grease-monkey, and made me proud to wear my smears of black.  Long ago and far away, working with different systems from Malcolm’s old import, so no excuse for unprofessional reminiscing.  Yet gears are gears; it never takes me long to figure out what ought to mesh with what.

(Dad had it all figured out.  I felt ashamed, as a boy, when Dad saw that I didn’t have the size of my brothers, that I couldn’t keep up even with the younger ones in sports.  So he made other plans for me.)

(Father never figured it out, what happened on Ishkal Island ,while he lowered his nets in search of our livelihood, leagues away on the open sea.  I’m almost certain that he hadn’t.  But not quite.

But no more thoughts of that!  It’s...unprofessional.  Yes, that’s it, unprofessional to waste time on the past.

A walk around the campus, out in the clarifying sunlight, that’s what a man needs to clear his head of pointless memories.  My heavy heart lightens just to think of it, as I go down the corridor, headed for the door.  I’ve been stuck inside too long.)

The sun comes out from behind a cloud.  And here I lie, stuck under a hopeless vehicle.

I poke my head out just for a breath that doesn’t smell like grease, and look around.  Fatima, of course, has already taken the jeep and Kanarik to...wherever.  Lucinda sleeps the day away, and Ambrette stays at her side, crocheting a string doily for heaven knows what use out here.  Gaziley whittles hair-sticks for the girls, while Lufti sands down the ones he’s finished with so far, against the roughness of a rock.  Kiril tries a couple out, twisting and winding her four braids together up into a tiny bun atop her head to pin them into place with Gazi’s art.  Damien broods up on a branch like Father Man, but silently.  The twins sit by, watch the autopsy of Malcolm’s car, and grin.  I slide back under the car and endure my fate.

 ( I endured Dad bribing the Town Clerk to teach me to read, with a promise that I wouldn’t cut into the man’s business; he had something else in mind for me.   I thought it would end there.)

(Of course Father had to send me away to school.  He could teach me little beyond reading, basic math, and fishing.  And Thank God he did!)

(But then he had to go and insist that I shave him and my older brothers every day, and learn to cut their hair, all the time I studied reading—I felt mortified!  And then, when he saved up his money to buy beauty books, and with them fancy combs and curlers, and demanded that I practice styling hair on my mother, grandmother, and sister, and on all my sister’s friends, I wanted to die!

And yet Sisky’s friends loved the attention!  I got dates before my elder brothers did, so that made my life much, much better.)

(The school made my life so much better!  I have found a happiness of sorts, here, in my book-lined monastery...but no more thought of that!  Head for the sunshine, man!)

(Strange to think of it, but it turns out Dad used to have a girlfriend before Mom, who got herself a job at Tumblebugs as a cook.  Seems the gal bought herself some votes and felt too big to remember her old buddies, but while others grumbled, Dad saw possibilities.  He looked into things.

Tumblebugs has no trouble hiring cooks these days.  His ex got lucky, getting in when they first built the place.  Nowadays the waiting list, just to apply, would fill a book.

But hairdressers?  They don’t come so easy.  And Tumblebugs pays them even better than the cooks.)

“What’s the payrate for mechanics in the Charadoc?” I grumble.

Kief answers cheerily “depends on if you can actually get that thing to run.”

( So now here I am, the biggest breadwinner in the family, sending checks home to help out the rest.  Thank you Dad.  Sorry I cussed at you.)

(So here I am, in this my only world, shielded from any link to my family ever again.  Safe within the sheltering walls of Toulin Academy, and sunlight enough falls within the gates to never have to venture out beyond them.)

“If I do, Kief, would you pay me?”

He laughs.  “We’re revolutionaries—we hold all things in common, anyway!”

Chulan, smirking, says, “Hey, we all like a little jingle in our pockets.  You do too, Kief, when you can get it.”  She winks.  “I know what you sell, now and then, on the side.”

“I know what you sell, too, so don’t get smart.”

None of my business, I decide, and pay attention to the engine.

(Still a revolutionary, even with some jingle in my pocket?  You bet.  The army took Sisky years ago.  We haven’t seen her since.)

This set of bolts needs a different caliber of socket.  I sigh, climb out, and rummage in the trunk till I find the socket-wrench fittings under the polish and chamois.  What?  Did Malcolm ever polish this car?  Did it once look beautiful?

Why do I also think, and did he?

(I still remember her face, looking over her shoulder at me in terror, with the laughing men leading her by the arms, and the other men watching us with hands on their guns.  Her beautiful, beautiful face, painted up by my own hands, framed in braids and ringlets exactly as I’d shaped them.  After that all her friends stopped asking me to do their hair.

“This is your lucky day,” they said to her.  And grinned like fools.)

(“Begging your pardon, Headmaster, but I need a word with you,” says the maintenance man, tugging at my elbow on my way out the door.  Not my lucky day.

“What now?” I snap.  Can’t I even catch a little walk after lunch, before my duties close in on me again?

“They’re at it again, sir, the little rotters.”

“At what, man?”  I gaze longingly over his shoulder at the warm, summer sunlight twinkling on the leaves.  “And who?”  I can hear the birds call me out to the freer air.

“The students, sir.  They’re stealing chamois again.  We won’t have anything to shine the brass with, at the rate we’re going.”)

I crawl back under the jalopy with the new socket, remove a plate, and get a better look.  So many old holes have rusted in, besides the new ones caused by bullets.  I can barely poke the nail of my littlest finger into one, another won't admit even that much, but it suffices.

“A snag in a mothhole,” I murmur.  It's an old Tilián saying:  “A snag in a mothhole can rip open the fabric of the world.”  An admonition to pay attention to small problems in small countries, because they can grow out of hand before you know it.  Peasant children, too small for the mighty Charadocian government to take seriously, surround me, each one like these little flaws in this great big machine.  And every one of them has killed.

(“That goat that...died—wouldn’t his skin do for the job?”

 “Yes, sir, but it takes some time to cure up proper.”

I sigh.  “Then I shall send out for more.  But keep in mind, good man, that our budget hinges on self-sufficiency, as much as possible.”

“Then catch the thieves,” he growls and leaves.)

(This one has holes worn into it, and this one has a ragged edge.  But that’s all right.  None of them have to be perfect.  I run the soft chamois through my fingers and laugh at the very thought—who needs a perfect universe, when the rips here and there make it so much more interesting?)

Here’s a curious one.  It might have been the biggest hole of all, but the torn metal seems to have closed back up, mostly.  I shiver, sitting there, thinking of my ghosts.  Thank you.  Thank you.  And back to work.

(I’ll have to go back to class, soon.  But not before at least slipping one small piece into my pocket.  The soft suede touch reminds me of thoughts forbidden.  Maybe when I leave here I’ll still be able to remember.)

The thing about mechanical jobs, especially with enhanced neurons, is that while your hands do the job, unrelated parts of the mind wander.  Right now, it meanders back to my friendclan, wondering when I last thought of them at all, and what what they’re up to, these days?  Doubtless they’ve all gone on missions of their own, and prudently don’t think of me at all.

          (I keep thinking about Deirdre, all the way to the Mulberry, on her mission with Jonathan, with an odd pang of concern in my heart.  But why?  Jonathan specifically told me it would be a cushy job, giving her a much-needed break.

          “So, Randy--what's up with Jake?” Don asks as he joins me on the way.  And why the Mulberry?  Jake prefers the Silverfoam Inn, these days.  Of course that’s quite a sail away, out in Til Territories.  But we make the trip regularly.

          I shrug, opening the door.  “I don't know any more than you do.  He just wants you and me to wait for him here.”

“And not Lisa?” Don says with just a faint tightness in his voice.  I notice that, consciously or not, he has cut his hair at exactly the same length as hers.
          “Now that's a funny thing,” I say as the barrista hands us our tea, and we walk over to the condiment counter.  “He said she ought to join us, but it's no use, they wouldn't understand, so she might as well stay home.  Whatever that means.”  I add some cocoa and sugar to my cup.  “I didn't mention that in your invite—why upset the girl with heaven knows what?”)

(When I go into the storeroom I find Max, sniffing at perfumes, trying to find the precise right one for a fussy client.  He always gets the problem-women, and we let him have them.  He says he understands them.  No dates for him out of it, though, not for our Max.)

(Don adds to his cup cocoa, brown sugar, berrydust, cinnamon, mastara, cardamom, anthelma, hazel syrup, tamarind syrup, lemon oil, orange oil, nutmeg, tasper, ginger, kharlain, anise, and allspice—did he miss any seasonings?—and we go find a table.  “We're getting serious, Randy—Lisa and me.”)

(I get the same three soaps that I always do: bayberry, anthelma, and sage.  That’s what my clients always want.  Then, without turning to him, I ask, “Max, why don’t you want anybody else to know that you can do things with magentine?”

“Word would get out.  Cyran would find out.”

“Say no more,”  Reflexively, we both glance at a nearby bin, filled to heaping with a rainbow of satin cushions—which hides, deep inside, such an arsenal as our general would be all too happy to distribute throughout hir ranks, and leave us nothing but razors and hairbrushes should things get serious.)

          (“I mean really serious,” Don says, owl-eyed, looking at me over his cup.

          I know.  Lisa tells me all about it: every date, every kiss, every love-note.  Sometimes she will take my hands in hers and share it telepathically, a bittersweetness between us like a gulp of tea with dark chocolate in it, and I'll feel Don's hands and lips and close-pressed body upon mine, and I'll breathe his scent, and I'll feel his fingers run through hair that seems like mine, but then I'll take a breath and know it's not, and then I'll work to calm the pounding of my heart.  Oh yeah, I know just how serious!)

My lord—the more I delve into this machine the worse it looks!  Did Malcom do anything to maintain it?  Then I realized that no, of course not, he couldn’t have even fit underneath to take a look.

(Then I look at Max.  I at least work out, making the best of what I’ve got, but he has all the muscle of a petaldressed debutante.  If Cyran knew what Max could do, e’d put him on the front lines.  And I don’t think he’d last too long out there at all.)

          (Before I can blurt anything incriminating, Jake bustles in carrying multiple canvas bags that look heavy even for him, all of them bulging with right-angled corners.  Of course—that’s why the Mullberry.  The library’s just around the corner.

          “Books!” he exclaims. “We must read them all.  We must teach ourselves everything.”  And he starts piling textbooks onto our rickety little table, crashing and rattling and making our tea jump.  Printed this very hour, I’d hazard--I can still smell the ink.  Some tea splashes the pages, but the paper-tiger won't mind that when we're done with them.)

          (I look at all the little bars and bottles, reading the labels automatically, now.  That’s where I’d be, on the front lines, throwing rocks if I had to, if Dad hadn’t taught me to read, and bought me those books.  But Cyran says we serve hir just fine as spies.)

          (I sort through the lot: language lessons, history, customs, current events, and a number of brochures on a young men's academy.  “Jake,” I say, “These are all on Toulin.”

          “Yes.  That's right.”  He  plows through the pile and picks out a book on music.  “We'll have our next mission there.  I'm almost certain of it.”

          “Are you sure it won’t be Vanikke?  They’re right across the channel, and the situation there has gotten more explosive than ever.”

          “Right you are,” he says rapidly.  “And even worse than you think. But don’t worry—Zanne will arrive there too late, and everything will work out just fine.  And Merrill will cover the mess to the south, in Dhurbah.  We’re going to Toulin.”

          Don laughs.  “Jake, you noodle!  Toulin has got to be just about the stablest, stodgiest nation in all the known world!  They have succeeded in creating such a placidly self-satisfied little culture that nobody has enough imagination to get into trouble.  They always top the list of safest places to live, if you don't mind them also topping “most boring”—so why would they need an agent?”

All the time Don speaks, Jake hums a tune as he sight-reads it.  “I know,” he answers when Don finally runs out of words for his astonishment.  “Do you think my oraclism would point out anything predictable?”)

I try to clear out some of the thick jungle rust built up between the pistons while I’m in here, and the entire crankshaft snaps in two.   I sigh; the camel has finally felt its last straw.  I slide out from under the wreck.  “This thing's hopeless,” I say.  The twins cannot stop grinning.

          (I take one step out into the warming sunlight, and then hear the commotion behind me as students return to their desks.  I sigh one more time, and close the heavy oaken door, pacing back into the chilly hall, where I belong.  Unruly things can happen on a sunny day, anyway; perhaps it’s just as well that I missed my chance.

          What on earth would the boys want with chamois, anyway?)

          (I stare at my cache of chamois, all the little scraps of leather, spread out golden in the dust-speckled light of my lamp.  What am I supposed to do with them, exactly?)



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