IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Wednesday, August 12, 2708 continued
For one moment I survey the battlefield. (I prayed for snow, but the blizzard won't come to cover it all up.) From up here the blood doesn't shine such a vivid red, sunk into the mud and slush and already frosting over. (Who will ever listen to my prayers again?) Smoke rises here and there across the trampled ground. And of course the bodies, everywhere. (But I can go on, now, anyway, as a man, and maybe find my salvation on the hard road ahead.) We shall have to do them proper respect, after we catch our breaths. (No longer will I try to hide my truths in an altar-boy’s white robes.) In the meantime a manic chatter fills the air, of human beings and birds, as our young ones loot, stumbling-tired but as happy as the dardies.
I hear a distant rumble, too, of the departing army. I think I hear one female voice, shouting and shouting, or maybe I imagine it. It doesn’t matter; they will not turn around. They leave their dead to us.
(For one moment we stand before each other, after the battle, in a silence so profound that it seems to swallow up the noise and chaos all around us. E sees the blood upon me, sees it drip down from my cleaver, still hot, to steam into the snow, though the dampness on my clothes turns cold already in the wind. And I see the last colors of hir bruises still darkening hir face—I can make out the shape of my own knuckles.
I have learned to kill for you, Cyran—you owe me for that. And I have learned to heal, as well, far beyond what I thought I could do. And for that I owe you. I have learned, at last, to rebel all the way, to fully believe in the power of my adult decisions, and live or die by them. Sometimes I make the wrong decisions. So be it. I have to risk being wrong and having no one but myself to blame.
But yes, you do mean something to me—something that I still respect. Can you feel it, for just this instant, that I return to you the respect that I stole?
Though we don’t always use the same symbols as the regular army, my weary arm raises in salute to hir. E hesitates, then returns it, a little shakily, hir eyes as big as fatal wounds, but hir mouth shut grim and unsmiling and one hundred percent officer.)
* * *
Nightfall. Mass of victory, mass for the dead. Sadly Father Man mutters, “We all must burn,” as he lights the collective funeral pyre, friend and foe tumbled together like puppies, because he decided that cremation is the holiest course for this particular funeral, and at last we can spare the fuel, abandoned by the enemy. Flames leap up high into the night; sparks spiral upwards with the smoke like souls in search of heaven. Snowflakes sizzle down like angels come to meet them. I remember that money-fire so long ago on Chinese New Year, but we burn something far more precious here. Later we can haul the much-lighter cinders to the grave-ravine and chip new names into the stones (Lufti made a list) and drape the dog-tags on the stones as well, but for now we huddle close to the pyre and warm ourselves on the good will of our comrades and forgiveness of the rest.
The smoke smells too fragrantly like roasting meat. Do we still have llama steaks? I could authorize one more butchered, I think. But not till after Father consecrates the fancy crackers from the smuggler’s hoard and yes, this time we do have wine, courtesy of the Charadocian army.
Yet I must sit by and abstain, unconfessed, though I want to drown out everything I’ve ever seen or ever done. Could the Blood of Christ intoxicate so much that one forgets the guilt? For the penitent, yes, and heal the war-wounds of the soul. If you can honestly repent.
Why should I care anymore? I don’t care. I can’t. I hunch over my share of llama meat with Kiril and Lufti gnawing theirs close by, as Damien sings something glorious and inspiring about what we’ve done.
The Articles of War forbid the use of combustors in battle. Fact. Heck, it even forbids ordinary flamethrowers.
A band of starving children held their position against three times their number in trained soldiers. Fact.
Chemical warfare, also taboo, includes toad poison and its smoke. Fact.
I am alive. Kiril is alive. Lufti is alive, and Damien, and Kanarik beside him. Little Aichi over there is alive and well, ecstatically growling over her food. How many facts do you want?
“We’ve got a breathing-space,” Cyran croaks in hir still-raw voice, as we lie on our backs together in the chapel, staring at the stars, now that e’s given up hir tent for others. “They don’t know that we’ve lost our only combustor.” (Lord, what a hideous spectacle, though, what she made Shermio do! And costing me my best spy!) I want to sleep, the bedding soft and warm around me, but e had a nightmare and needs to talk just to come down from it. “Deirdre, what’s the standard defense against psychic attack in battle?”
“A net of telepaths jamming all other psi phenomena in the vicinity.” (I dreamed of headless Charadocian soldiers pursuing me, wanting to pull my head off and make it theirs.) “But it takes a lot of top-trained personnel concentrating fiercely, unable to defend themselves—tying up resources for others to guard them.”
Cyran smiles, briefly. “And of course nobody teaches anything like that in the Charadoc—plenty of old school politicians still insist that paraphysics doesn’t even exist, it’s all just superstition.” (Who could have foreseen, the night we kidnaped a fragile-looking Tilián lady, in her petal-dress and high-piled hair, what a horror she’d bring us to in battle?) “So why waste tax money on teaching nonexistent skills?” (So wide-eyed and innocent looking!
Yet she’s our horror. Good for us!)
I nod. I hear a distant huddle-call, but no flock’s going to rouse this late for some bird who failed to make the evening gathering. “So that means sending all the way to Istislan for the experts that they think they need.” Not to mention notifying Til Embassy of what happened...
“Oh my God...” Deirdre whispered, and her own words woke her up. Across from her Justín leaned back into his chair, eyes moving back and forth underneath his lids. She gripped her rod of magentine and gritted her teeth, thinking, “Wake!” as hard as she could, till the jolt surged through the connection between them and Justín’s eyes opened as he moaned.
“What happens to me now?” she demanded.
“Does the law require you to report me? Will I face a hearing? How much of this report goes into official hands?”
“Justín! I need to know.”
“Uh huh. All of it.”
“Yeah. The whole report goes to central headquarters. Always does.”
“Then I’m ruined.” She sank back into her chair and socked the upholstery. She couldn’t decide whether the destruction of her career horrified or relieved her.
“Waste of time ‘n’ effort,” Justín muttered as he poured himself some water. “They never read the damn things—too many come in, too long to check out even one. But no, we gotta go through allllll the effort to write up detailed reports, stacks and stacks of paper squandered when there’s a perfectly good psychometric record in Archives...”
“Are you saying, after all this, everything I’m going through, that nobody will know or care?”
Justín sipped water and revived a bit. “I’m not saying that at all, Deirdre. Historians will care deeply—twenty-five years after your death, same as for journals. And Archives needs the raw data, whether human beings know it’s there or not. And politicians will care if anybody ever files a complaint against your methods—which seldom happens when your side wins. And of course everybody would have cared, in great detail, if you’d lost.”
“Oh, thank goodn...”
“Or someone might stumble across some nasty detail while idly thumbing through the stacks,” he said placidly. “It’s happened before. Things like children traumatized to suicide when forced to make heads explode in an illegal military maneuver—well, that sort of thing does tend to catch the eye if anybody happens to browse.”
He winced suddenly. “If you’re going to think such thoughts, please release the magentine bar and cuss out loud—less painful for me, that way. Oh, I forget—now that you’re back in Til you’re a lady again and don’t even know words like that.”
“S-sorry.” She released the bar.
“Now you’ve given me a headache,” he whimpered, easing off the headband and rubbing his temples. “You’d think the narcotics would take care of a throbbing head, but nooo, some psychic brain-burns slip right on past.” He shook his head and reached for the syringe. “Now I’m going to sedate you.”
“No! Wait! Just give me time to compose myself.”
“If you think you can.”
“Just how often do officials stumble on, uh, problems like...”
“Trust me. The big boys hardly ever bother themselves with any of the details, even by idle chance.”
She took a deep breath. Someone must know, she thought. The Charadocian government would have sent to Istislan...but no. They wouldn’t cashier so valuable an agent, not if they could wait to see if a change of regime could brush an atrocity under the rug. A bitter new cynicism corroded the last crumb of innocence in her heart.
Justín must have seen the change in her face. He leaned forward; in a comforting voice he said, “Deirdre, you’re not the first soldier to do something really ugly, in the heat of battle, for fear of dying. Veterans all know this.”
“It wasn’t just my own life—those machine-guns were just mowing kids down like...”
“Whatever. Ready to continue?”
END OF VOLUME III