IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
The Defense of Abojan Pass
Wednesday, August 12, 2708, continued
(Ammunition—who has the ammunition?) Having locked the smuggler in the Abojan’s storeroom (to pass him off as a prisoner, glad of rescue, should the battle go badly) I walk down the ranks, surveying all the teenagers and children poised tensely at the chapel wall. (Do I have time to slip away and make a quick confession to Father Man before things get going?) Children and teenagers—what happened to the handful of adults? (Oboyoboyoboy! At last I get to kill those miserable, village-looting, mother-raping, blood-sucking sons of shame!) The wind blows razor thin, through old rags and new brocade, sifted with the dust of construction and a powdering of snow. (Where’s my comb? I want to look cool, like Captain Sky in the comic books, when I stare down into their guns.)
Not enough guns to go around, but we still haven’t cracked open that one promising crate that Lufti found. (Do I have enough rocks? Can I ever have enough rocks? Oh Lord, what if I run out and they’re still coming at me?) I thought it’d be the first thing we’d do back at base, but the minute we came in we had our hands full trying to tend to everybody’s needs at once. Then we forgot everything else at the first whiff of food cooking, but what can you expect?
(Booms, soon. Everybody stink scare. Kill friends if Aichi don’t make them stop, kill Aichi, maybe, too.) I only remembered the guns, myself, this morning, and somehow I’ve had so much to do that I forgot again till just this minute. (Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou...) So as soon as I get a tally of our strengths and weaknesses, I’ll crack it open and distribute what we’ve got.
Lufti trots by my side, jotting notes down importantly on a little clip-board when I tell him to. (Well, when are the beasts going to get here? How long do I have to stand here sweating in the cold?) I don’t really need the notes, but it makes him so proud to show off his literacy. (Oh God, sweet Jesus—I really, really didn’t mean to go so far the night that Damien and Kanarik got married! Oh why, why, why didn’t I confess before now?) I do need Lufti to feel proud, to get him out of this alive. (Time to teach those slaughtering hogs a lesson!) I doubt if I could read his scrawl, anyway, but no need to tell him that. (Captain Sky is never, ever afraid.)
Kiril accompanies me on the other side, a basket in her arms. (Fine time to realize that I have to piss—they could get here any minute!) She passes out a handful of dates to every soldier. (Booms, soon. Don’t cry. Only bad girls cry.) Not much food left, even after the smuggler’s haul, but enough maybe to give them a burst of energy, hungry as they are. (...among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb...)
“She’s here!” Shermio scrambles up the slope, shedding hanks of winter-burnt grass camouflage. “She’s here, she’s here!” His sharp eyes glare from a tumble of curls like bright, black fire.
“Hold it, hold it! Who’s here?”
“The Lady General—they sent General Aliso herself against us, and about a mile of her troops!”
Sweet Jesus. “Okay everybody, this is it,” I shout. “Anybody who hasn’t taken their positions, do it now.” (Sweet mother of God, here they come!) “Lufti, where’s the crate of guns?” (I’m gonna run out of rocks before half of ‘em get here—I just know it!)
“Over here, Deirdre.”
“Fine—get me that crowbar...annnnnnd...” Off pops the lid. I reach in and pull out the first packet that comes to hand; strange, how light it weighs. I tear open the wrappings and stare in horror at a toy dart gun and five suction darts.
“They’re charging up the hill!”
Cussing furiously, I dive for cover behind a half-finished wall as the first salvo whirrs overhead and explodes rocks from mortar in the chapel behind me. (Sweet Jesus, please don’t let me die in my sins—I’m sorry, I really, truly am sorry, I swear I’ll never, ever again...) I tip the crate and packets spill over me as I frantically claw through wrapper after wrapper. All toys, every single bloody one of them, toys!
I peer over the wall. Dear God, they’ve got automatics out there—they sweep back and forth like scythes of gunfire, mowing down our inexperienced refugees who’d panicked and ran—that’s where the adults went. (Die, you murdering monsters! Die!) Now the enemy takes aim at the first wall—automatic fire chews through adobe like packing-foam, chunks and rocks and dirt exploding everywhere, while the soldiers I positioned behind it retreat in a shrieking scramble to the next wall, hauled over by their buddies—or raked from grasping arms by a new onslaught of fire. (Ohhh, Captain Sky, where are you when I need you?)
“More coming in from behind!” the cry goes out.
“Auxiliary rearguard–change positions!” I shout, and we lose a big chunk of our frontal force. I knew it would happen, I knew, but oh lord how did they do it? How...the pass! They must have broken Stovak’s unenforceable law and had troops waiting there already before we even arrived, just listening for the gunfire. And nobody in Stovak will ever know. (Oh no—I didn’t! I didn’t just wet my pants—did I?)
Kiril snatches up toy darts by the handful and coats the rubber in gobs of toad-poison. “Watch your fingers,” I warn. The stuff won’t kill without penetrating the blood stream, but if she can hit someone in the face, what the skin absorbs will at least cause hallucinations. She shoots off the first volley, but they wobble mid-air and fall within a few feet of us; crying, she spits out words that a child shouldn’t know. (Booms! Lots and lots and lots and lots of booms—all coming at me!)
Suddenly every one of the darts she shot bursts into flame.
“Who did that!” I shout. (Holy Mary, Mother of God!) “Who’s the combustor?” I look around and see Shermio turning white and gulping for air.
“I, I, I, I...”
“You,” I say, “must be a combustor. It’s a psychic talent.”
“I, I, I just wished they were burning arrows, and, and...”
I grab him and drag him back to where I’ve hidden my flit. Crouching under gunfire, I rip the crystal from the frame, pound furiously with a rock till I knock a chip off, and give the flake to him. “Careful,” I say, “it’s got a sharp edge.”
“That’s your focus for your power.” Bombs squeal overhead and burst the sheltered spot where Father Man held mass. “Without magentine your gift lies dormant except under extreme emotion—like terror in battle. But picture shooting flame through that crystal—that’s magentine, right there—picture the flame shooting towards a target in line of sight, and that target will catch fire.” He stares, horrified.
“Come on!” I grab him again and hustle him towards the food stores, trying not to listen to my soldiers scream. I grab two candy bars and shove them in his mouth, one after the other. “Hurry! Eat them both.”
“But the rations...”
“They’re fuel. Combustion burns calories like crazy.” But it doesn’t need the wiring, the amplification, not like flying–not with a raw talent so strong it doesn’t even need the magentine close at hand. “You’re a gun and I’m feeding you bullets, okay?” I drag him back to the front line and shove him right up against the wall, under Aziz who slings one whirring stone after another at the enemy. “Now concentrate!” I command. “The best way to learn is by doing.” They’re massacring us out there!
He nods, shivering. He grips the chip of magentine and blood runs down his wrist. Then three enemy soldiers in a row burst into flame and Shermio faints against me.
I push his head below his knees for a few moments then yank him back up again. “Fight, soldier!” I hiss in his ear as he reels. “Them or us. Ignite their brains and they’ll die instantly, no suffering—it’ll look like a nightmare, but it’s the most humane way. Come on—you can do it.” I make him do it. The explosions look worse than I imagined; I have traumatized this child so badly that he might never be sane again. But we’re outgunned and outnumbered and crazy heals a whole lot easier than dead. “Keep going, Shermio. It’s merciful. It’s merciful. You burn away the part that feels the pain.”
And it’s working! What looks awful to us looks straight out of Hell itself to our assailants. The skulls explode, of course. But fractions of seconds before that the flames shoot out from eyes and ears and mouth and nose. The attack turns into a rout.
Alysha calls out, “Marduk’s force knocked out the rear-assault–we’ve got one front again.”
“Come on!” Cyran shouts, still hoarse from his cold. “Everybody over the wall!” (Oh Lord oh Lord how’m I gonna carry my rocks with me?) I vault over to join his counter-charge, trip on my skirt and tumble back to my feet to run like a fury till I can snatch a gun from a smoldering, headless corpse, and fire, fire, fire, as savage as what I did to that boy, but he gave us the only advantage we had, he’s the only reason we’re going to survive this round, come on, Deirdre, we’ve got ‘em on the run! (God forgive me! Sweet Jesus forgive me all my sins!) Down the mountainside, down, after them, they’re so mad with fear they can’t even shoot behind themselves. (Ha! Just look at you die, you bastards—who’s the stronger, NOW?) Soldier after soldier falls to a bullet in the back or a rock hitting from behind. (Here’s one for Captain Sky, you butchers!) No, wait—some of them do get in some Parthian shots, egged on by The General herself, right in their midst. (I am Captain Sky! I’m all the superheroes that ever punished evildoers anywhere and I’m coming to rain vengeance down upon...oh, Holy Mother! Help, help, I...no...) Don’t let it slow you, Deirdre—toss the spent rifle and grab up another from a dead man’s arms. (Shoot ‘em—shoot ‘em before they can see my wet pants, damn their eyes, kill ‘em all!) Someone still has presence enough to lob a grenade behind himself, but I knock it back with my gun like a baseball seconds before it goes off. (Stop the booms! Stop them, stop them, Aichi stop the booms!) Holy Mary, but that was close! (...now and at the hour of our death.) I skid in a slick of bright red mud, but I keep my feet and go on, shooting all the way. (Scoop up rocks as you go, black bits jutting from the slush, stoop and scoop, sling, run skid and stoop and grab...)
We lost a lot of the new recruits; bloodstained brocade and curtain-silk lies in heaps all over the slope, a cold, blue hand poking from the folds here, wind-blown hair streaming out over there, but not as many casualties as we might have had. And their casualties all carry weapons and ammunition that we can loot—the best blessing that we could ask for! Meanwhile General Aliso shouts and shouts but she can no longer control her forces, she...
Good Lord—she looks exactly like my old friend Zanne.
I stumble to a halt, mesmerized. The same past-the-shoulders cascade of platinum blonde curls spill from the helmet, the same arrogant carriage, at once ultra-feminine and powerful, the same...
Get over it, Deirdre! You can’t even see the face from here. That is not Zanne. Move away from that line of smoke—it’s blowing down from the burning darts and heaven knows what nightmares it carries in its fumes.
But the battle has petered out. Did we? Oh, sweet Jesus God, we did! We won this one! Children cheer themselves hoarse to one another as we limp back up the slope, foraging among the fallen soldiers, too excited to count our own dead, yet. We’d desperately hoped for survival; we had not expected victory.
I climb back over the wall to my first position and stop, stunned. Shermio’s body lies there on the stones, a charred spot where his head used to be. He burned away the part that felt the pain.