IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Saturday, June 13, 2708, continued
(Nice cut. I can respect you as a warrior, at least, Deirdre Keller, if not as a woman. And to think Ambassador Drury thought you needed rescuing—ha! Too bad our medic had to die so early, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to rip my shirt into bandages. Anyway, I have more shirts.
Try not to groan too loudly, man; you dish it out, you can take it. Annnd...up on your feet. You have a long, slow walk ahead, alone and in the dark, before you reach her camp. Here, this branch will serve for a staff. That’ll help
Yet why today? I thought I had just one more night. I could have broken my monster—I came so close! Then it wouldn’t have mattered—you could have rescued him all you wanted, my bloodthirsty rebels, enjoyed your massacre, I’d have still had him in your ranks, devouring you insatiably, and himself in the process. If only you had given me just one more night!
Because it’s not really about the information. That’s more of a sign, the breakthrough. More than half the time they don’t say anything accurate, anyway. It’s about refashioning the mind, about sending back someone who will weaken the insurrection in some way, lacing the enemy ranks with time-bombs.
(Except for poor Aron. God but I needed his intel! Sifting through the babble, finding the one real clue that he didn’t even know mattered. A brothel, of all things—figures. That and the name of Dr. Malcolm deGroot, but at that point he cried out to people not there, dead or alive, even some saints and folk-heroes which I’m pretty sure never existed.)
The trees help, pulling myself from trunk to trunk. Easier, in fact, than an open road, for a wounded man. Safer, too. Egalitarians aren’t the only ones able to slip through the jungle without a machete. I grew up in woods not so different from these. I like thick forest floor underneath my feet better than pavement any day.
Behind me, in the distance, I hear an all-too-familiar harp, tuning up at first, and then a few joyous chords, interrupted by some other business. It must have been that minstrel at the birthday party who betrayed us. Yes. No doubt the source of all those subversive songs going around, too. The timing argues against him as the spy who told the rebels about Dr. deGroot. One more face for me to remember.
Ah well, so he sprung the thing a little sooner than expected. The men had marinated enough already. And the General and I can adapt.)
I wake to Ambrette gently sponging the blood off of my brow. "How many fingers?" she asks as she holds her hand before me.
"One," I say, guessing.
"Oh, good!" she sighs with relief. "You're lucky--you got only a glancing blow with a mug--just enough to knock you out. Still, I thought for a moment there that I'd have two cracked skulls to take care of."
"Count your blessings; I guess I'd better count mine." Like the fact that my neural alteration, the connections rapidly reforming, apparently helps me recover from concussions. I sit up carefully--oh man, and I thought I had a headache this morning! "Sanzio D'Arco got away, I suppose."
"I suppose he did--nobody’s found his body. But it takes a lot to kill the devil."
"We've got a lot," I say. A forest-full of centuries of ghosts. I look around and take in the sounds of mirth all around me as starving villagers and our own merry band abandon themselves to feast on the pantry's bounty. And even in my pain, I smile.
Yet already my eyes refocus. The headache and the nausea fade quickly. I feel better by the minute. And something tells me that this matters even more than I think it does, if that makes sense.
"There's more here than our local fare," a man calls out excitedly. "Delicacies from all over the Charadoc!" and more cheers go up. Out come hams and loaves and cheeses the size of wheels, out comes jars and bags and barrels, a flock of whole smoked poultry, a rope of sausages, cookies and candies and delicate pastries, more and more, I can't take it all in, I can't even see it anymore because my eyes flood with tears of joy to hear the children laugh and clap their hands with each and every revelation.
Now our troop grabs up food and starts to feed it to each other, rebel-party style, by forkful and by handful and never mind the mess. Soon everyone participates, feeding and being fed, laughing with our mouths full, smeared from chin to cheek with sauces dripping down our chests. We leave many a footprint, great and small, in the gravies and the blood, but we can clean all that up later.
Over in a corner lie piles of the glaze-eyed dead, staring at us in blind astonishment, but they have no power to stop us anymore; our ghosts must have them on the run on the other side, for I feel no presence of them here. Thank you, Aron.
I shove a slice of pie into Malcolm's happy mouth and he gulps it down eagerly. "I can do this--I mean, it's all right! I mean, everybody's...and I’m really hungry, I mean for real, not crazy-hunger, and, and we all feast together, and it's good--and I don't mean just the taste!"
"Eat hearty, my friend!" I say as I push a pink strip of spiced peccary meat into his mouth while he gives me caramel'd yams.
When Damien can't stuff in another morsel he sings, of course, hoarsely on too full a belly to do the song justice, but who cares? And we sing, too, we sing the Bailebelde, belting it out more loudly than on key, till we drown out the delicate tinkle of the thambriy, drunk on food and victory alone. We laugh as we pour out bottles of the finest chaummin in the Charadoc into the gaping mouths of dead oppressor soldiers.
A ping! went off, startling Deirdre out of trance. Gentle, gloved fingers pried her hand from the magenta crystal grip. Dazedly, she felt them tremble on her skin—the gloves didn’t help completely, not after a communion as intense as theirs.
"Time for lunch, dear--you need food and a smoke or your body's demands will make further work impossible."
"I'm not hungry. In fact I feel so full that..."
"That will last for oh, about two seconds." As she stood up he said, with a chuckle, "It's a good thing you can get out of your chair by yourself, because I'm in no shape to help you." He gave her a weird grin, pulling himself up carefully by the back of his chair.
"How come...oh." When she worked at it she could, just barely, reconstruct vague recollections of past debriefings where somebody helped her out of her chair to food and back again. She'd never thought much about how a debriefing could last all day; it just happened.
"Bathroom's over there. I imagine you can handle that by yourself, too."
"You mean you..."
"Normally." Her face went hot as she went over to use the facilities. Had she gone through this routinely—had all the agents she knew done so? Even Merrill, who hated altered states with a passion normally reserved for crawly things found in rot?
Hypnotic suggestion, she realized. They made it all seem normal, and fuzzed the memory afterwards. Maybe blanked the memory completely for the unenhanced.
When she came out, Justín leaned against the mantle with a wry smile, as though his poor posture had more to do with jauntiness than necessity. But when he took her arm he steadied himself lightly with another hand on the wall. She saw, in fact, a dark streak of years of smudges at the same height on all the walls.
"Outdoors," he said, "Where you can smoke in peace." He led her to a pleasant courtyard, an octagon of shaded walkways dripping flowering vines, and picnic tables in the center, filled with people. Nobody spoke to each other here. She avoided looking at their faces, fearing to recognize some sightless gaze.
"The cuisine isn't much, I'm afraid," Justín told her. "Most people don't care. But I guarantee it's nutritious." He lit a cigarette, puffed it into life, and handed it over to her before lighting one for himself. "You look surprised. You think I'd sign on for this job if I cared about my health?"
"Uh, no, that's okay.” She took the cigarette and sucked on it hungrily. “I mean, I'm more worried about what you think of me."
"The little altercations we had earlier? Of course they upset me at the time. You got stressed and then stressed me. Now it's over." She stared at him as food arrived. How would it feel to lack the ability to hold a grudge for minutes at a time? she asked herself. Would it feel good? Would I feel robbed of something essential? Would I care?
"Eat. S'good for you." His blurry voice sounded almost motherly and he smiled on her with lopsided warmth. "Look at you--you're skin and bones."
“I’m fatter than I was.” She ate a kind of nondescript gruel of grain and beans with bits of vegetable in the mix, guaranteed to violate nobody’s taboos, conscious or not. Not bad, certainly, though it could use some seasoning. Still, it could never compare to...
"That, uh, last memory," she said shamefacedly. "I guess you'd have to have been there."
"Looking back, it all seems so gruesome. Especially what they did to the Master. But at the time--Justín, that was one of my happiest moments in the Charadoc."
"I know.” He drew deeply on his cigarette. “And if anybody ever deserved to have his feet chopped off, it was the Master of Cumenci Plantation." Then she looked up at his flushing cheeks and glassy eyes and she felt her own face burn. Did he hate how much such memories thrilled him, or did he count it one of the perks of the job? Or something complicated in the middle--did he feel as confused as her?
"But it...I shouldn't have feasted so gladly in the presence of the dead! I shouldn't have enjoyed killing them in the first place." She shouldn't, she knew, have jeered at the fate of the Master of Cumenci.
"Oh come, my dear. Do you think you're the only soldier I have ever debriefed? Do you think your experiences so unique, or that anything revealed could shock me half as much as it shocks you? The only surprise you've given me so far is how long you held onto a reluctance to kill, under the circumstances. Now that's unusual; I daresay it has to do with your dyslectic telepathy."
"Then it wasn't...ghosts didn't zap through me as they died?"
"My, but you're fresh off the boat! You're still seeing through the eyes of cultural immersion. Give it a month or two and you'll fit right in with normal Til society once again."
"I don't think I can ever..."
"They all say that."
"No, really. I'm going to carry this with me for the rest of my life."
"In a sense, I suppose. But you won't look at it the same way. Already you're judging your past actions—even your feelings—by whether or not your housemother would consider your behavior ladylike."
"That's not it!"
"Isn't it? In the end we all believe that our guardians gave us the definitive version of reality, from which all cultural variations deviate. Cultural immersion amounts to a kind of trance, suspending that belief, but it doesn't last forever."
"It did for Jonathan--he identified with the Charadoc much more strongly than with Til."
"Did he now? I thought he loved a Mountainfolk girl to the bitter end."
Deirdre didn't want to talk anymore. She finished her meal and her smoke in silence, like all the zombies around her, and then went back with Justín to the debriefing room.
She paused before taking the seat. Justín didn't understand her, after all. Whatever the mechanism, those ghosts really did pass through her. They haunted her even now, and probably always would.