IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
A Vacation is Just a State of Mind
Friday, June 19, 2708
Another midnight and we absolutely have to rest. We've run out of leaf, anyway, and don’t have it in us to search for more; it's just as well. By ones and twos and threes I tuck rebels and civilians into tree-boles and willow-bowers, in caves and tangles and underneath the bushes. “Our vacation resort,” Damien says with a haggard smile, as I hide him under a vine’s canopy, its foliage turned golden and papery, but still clinging, still thick enough to hide him. Then I find a fragrant hidey-hole for Kiril, Lufti, and myself to crawl into–another fairy-ring of young trees around the soft rot of an old, great stump. We fall onto the crackling leaves as soft to us as a feather-bed, and sleep there like we died.
(God knows we couldn't ask Hir for a better place to hold a siege than Tumblebugs, our world-renowned vacation destination, with its springs of water, stores of food, a lip of rock all around to shoot over at soldiers forced to charge straight up into our gunfire. And we've had years to collect bullets--even Cyran never knew how much we had. Hey, this has got to be the paradise of fortresses--no dirty, unshaven soldiers suffer here amidst the scented soaps and obsidian razors. Yet the perfume of skin conditioners and bath-herbs mingles with the stench of the pyre, ashes blown across the volcanic stone that will not break open for graves, and the pall of Hell's own sulfur covers all.
My turn to go up to the rim. Who am I kidding? How many of us ever paid that much attention to the training, convinced that we'd always spy and never actually have to fight? I take my place among the embattled hairdressers and masseurs, manicurists and cocktail girls, I push my rifle into place, then feel it thud against my shoulder as I pretend that I know how to shoot. Bullets whistle back as my heart beats faster and faster and my eyes see red with fear. Fewer of us return from the rim at every shift.)
* * *
I wake in full daylight to the sound of sobbing. Shivering when I stir from the warmth of my nest, I grope through the foliage to the hiding place of a Cumenci-woman and her daughter. She rocks the dead girl in her lap, tears splashing down onto the staring face, the pencil-thin limbs trailing from her arms. How could the child have starved, when we feasted only days before? But days and nights of running on greenfire--that could do horrible things to so small a body, with so little reserve.
I silence the mother maybe more harshly than I should, but then I help her scoop out a grave in the soft mould beneath an arching root. I ask the child's name, and carve "Mebhra" deep into the root and to hell with security. The mother, of course, can't read it. I try to wipe the sticky sap from my fingers but it doesn't really leave me. Then we murmur a couple soft prayers together, my arm around the young mother's waist, her leaning into me like I could protect her or something, before we go back to rest.
I lie here on the leaves and decomposing wood, still smelling the incense-scent of sap upon my shirt's hem where I tried to wipe it off, staring up at the branches of the trees that circle tightly ‘round our little nest. I listen to Kiril's labored breathing and I try not to wake her as I prop her up a bit against her pack, then lie back down again. Kief’s fall keeps playing over and over in my head, from the moment when the blood began to bloom from his breast to the point when his eyes glazed over, then up again to die before me one more time, and one more after that, and one more...
Think of something else. Think of Mebhra, Deirdre, and what will happen to the others, too, if you don’t do something. I feel the hunger hollow out my belly and my brain. I've got to find some way to feed everybody--and soon. In a little while, as soon as I can get everyone together and...
...I open my eyes to night and close them again. My body will not budge for me beyond that. Is this how it ends? Do we die of exhaustion here, incapable of stirring enough to forage for ourselves? Do I care?
Saturday, June 20, 2708
I smell something indescribably sweet and good, some air from heaven wafting down to earth. I lick sweet juice from my lips, then bite something soft and slick, then suck in the fragrant pulp of a dulcina. I open my eyes to a big, soft face--motherly, except for the beard. Malcolm lifts my head to the spout of a waterskin. Then, after I have drunk my fill, he presses another dulcina to my lips, his face gray with weariness but determined to smile on me.
"I found a whole tree-full," he says, "not too far from here--last of the season, probably, at this altitude.” He smiles wryly, saying, “Another time I’d call them overripe.” I see now that he can only squeeze his shoulders and arms between the tight-grown trees, that it must hurt to let them pinch him even so, but that doesn't stop him from reaching in to me. “When you get your strength back you can help me feed the others."
"You look good with a beard," I say hoarsely. He smirks mirthlessly at that, but I insist, "No, really. It complements your face nicely."
"Thank you, Deirdre. But I think a goblin would look good to you right now, if it brought you food."
"Kindness complements your face, too," I say as I sink back into the leaves and he moves on to Lufti, searching for a gap between trunks nearer to the boy that will let him admit an arm. Thank God that we have one among us with enough reserves on his body to get us through this time!
* * *
(Thank God that Jake slept all day and night yesterday, before this arrived! I weigh the cylinder in my hand, watching him groggily type into Archives while he simultaneously spoons in my bean-and-wheatberry porridge, the screen-light blue on his face, making him look even paler than he is. The letter feels heavier than your average message, and when I tip it I hear something slide back and forth inside. Maybe it's from hanging around him, but I have a bad feeling about that.
I leave the postal-tube on the table when I go to fetch his empty bowl and refill it. Let him discover it in his own sweet time.)
* * *
We need a day of rest, oh Lord! Let us have it early, just this once. Damien shoots a honey-bear, and we clean it and cook it, but that's about all the work that anybody can ask of us. I’ve heard that on Earth bears could tower ten feet tall, but a honey-bear's the size of a big dog and doesn't spread all that far among our numbers. The meat tastes sort of like pork, though, and the portion that I get satisfies me more deeply than gourmet fare. Kiril stuffs and wraps it in herbs that curl and blacken on the spit, burning the flavor into the sizzling grease. So we commune on bear and dulcinas and the greens that Kiril has also gathered (brave, weary girl!) and then we doze, and eat some more, and doze, and I dream that I hold Fatima's gift of crystal in my hand...
(Why, on God's Green Planet, did Jake have to receive this thing at a time like this? Okay, okay, I know the answer—because he's an oracle. Maybe it even triggered his bad patch in the first place, being on the way. I don't know.
Jake holds the magentine crystal in his hand, though I know it pains him on a level past the nerves, I can see it in his face. “Did that come with the letter?” I ask.
He nods, white around the mouth.
“Can you put it down, please?”
He shakes his head. He needn't say another word. I know that he absorbs its message deep into himself, his psychometry subsumed into oraclism so deeply that he can’t consciously articulate a word of what he reads in the stone, but even I can tell that it means no good.
I pick up the letter, curled by its long journey, still crisp and crackly, though, the paper absolutely white. It's a good thing that I studied Toulin before this arrived. I would not have otherwise found it so easy to read, even knowing the language, considering their peculiar habit of leaving no spaces, marking the start of every word with a capital letter, and writing proper nouns all in caps, each line alternating left-to-right or right-to-left, with tiny red arrows alongside the rows of unbroken blue script, taking up the cramped margins, pointing which way to go. Punctuation alone marks paragraph shifts. I understand that they evolved this style during a shortage of paper, and now consider it the only decent way to write.
“Something has gone wrong,” I read. “Something has gone terribly wrong.” And I feel my spine prickle, remembering how often Jake has repeated those same words, in a different language, for months, now.
I try to laugh. “Won't Don be surprised—Toulin, of all places!”
Jake stirs, looking up at me, finally releasing his grip on the stone. “Don. Yes. He'll have to read this crystal, too.”
“I guess our vacation's over, then.”
Jake forces a smile. “It's been a long one, Randy.”
I stuff the letter back into its cylinder, and then pop the crystal in after “Now what's the use of drawing an agent's salary, if not for taking the occasional really long vacation? And who needs it more?”)
I open my eyes to swaying branches overhead. When this mission ends, I might just allow myself a nice, long vacation. Yeah. That'll be the ticket. That's what I'll look forward to.
I groan, forcing myself to my feet to search the woods for more food. Everybody needs it, after all. No, it's no good thinking about vacations someplace far from here. I have made this my country. No place exists for me, but here.