IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Friday, September 4, 2708
Day by day I regain a little bit more of the ability to savor beauty once again. The sparkle of the snow caught in the conifers, the tinkle of the wind in ice-crystalized twigs, the drama of long streaks of shadow on the white, the dawnlight breaking through a diamond curtain of icicles that weep for joy with the first hint of the coming spring thaw. It keeps me going, this beauty; sometimes it’s the only reason I can keep on marching, pushing on without the leaf.
(I don't know nature. I never thought I'd have to. It's got its points, I guess, pretty, like calendar-pictures, only moving and with sounds and smells. I could do without some of the smells, though; no one collects the garbage and things rot out here, or at least they did when we marched below the snow-line. Calendar pictures don't have bugs, either—and Sarge laughed when he overheard me complain, back when we still passed through the midlands, saying I’ve seen nothing yet—just wait till spring! Gazing at a picture doesn't mean you have to sleep on the cold, hard ground in a tent that you can't keep warm no matter what you do. Even so, I'd rather go back to that tent and try to sleep some more, than listen to the Sargent bawl us out with the orders of the day.)
I give the orders of the day, who will take the rearguard, who the fore, and in what shifts they shall watch when we take our rest. Guerillas should march by night, but the cold makes it too brutal for now; wait till we get to a lower altitude.
Some would call me a city-girl; I grew up with walls everywhere. But I hungered for sights beyond those walls, and all terrains looked good to me. I wanted landscapes that I’d never seen before, adventure after adventure. I laugh at myself, briefly. Be careful what you wish for.
They will all look good to me again. Soon. I keep telling myself. Already they do—somewhat.
(I'm a city-boy, myself. I like good, solid buildings around me, painted in every kind of color that you don't find out in the winter world, with doors that can close out anything you don't want inside—weather, wild animals, bugs, and whatever you don't need or don't want to know. (I did not just think that. Forget, forget.) I like jobs that begin and end at regular hours, with bosses who don't own you and can't order you to die for them. I like hanging out with friends at tea-shops, going to church with Mom and the family, or sprawling on a couch and listening to the latest music. Just a regular middle-class guy, I guess, a few votes under my belt and a few more when I go abroad and finish college after my tour.
But someone's got to defend our way of life from the cheats and bullies who want everything handed to them for free—the losers who don't bother to study hard and get themselves some skills, who don't want to work for a living, who'll shoot you dead out of sheer envy because you made something of your life and they didn't. Spoiled crybabies whose parents let them get away with murder, who probably don't spank their own kids, either—my Mom and Dad would've had my hide if I hadn't gone to school.
Rights go to those who earn them—everybody knows that: that's what meritocracy stands for. And now I've got to earn mine. It's a real war, now, and anyone with an ounce of patriotism has to step forward and stand up for his country.)
I wish ideology could still stir me; then I wouldn’t need to feast on such cold scenery, to try and get some feeling back, of rebel zeal. But after Abojan Pass, after…Shermio…no. I have no illusions, there.
But then Cyran’s words come back to me. Scum with dreams. We fight for the chance to become better. That’s worth something.
I call a halt. Immediately Kiril goes into action, while we others, bigger and stronger, rest. Each night in snow-country she sleeps with the skin of soaking breakfast-beans cuddled in her arms, and each morning she carries it close to her body to keep it from freezing. I can always locate her in the troop in the morning by the sound of sloshing inside that leather bag. Now she pours the beans into a sieve, rinses them off, and starts up breakfast. I never ask her to. She always takes it on herself.
Ah well, she will get a chance to sit while they boil.
(Ugh, but they serve a nasty slop for breakfast. But if you complain Sarge decides that your zeal for how the kitchen runs has just volunteered you for extra KP duty—I know. Kitchen—listen to me! As if we didn’t squat by a smoke-choking fire to stir a dented pot. Lunch and dinner'll be more of the same, hardly recognizable as food; it smells sort of like what I used to feed my dog. And after the morning calisthenics you hardly have an appetite for anything anyway, sweat all through your nice, clean clothes before you've had half a chance to enjoy them, and then cold getting into the sweat the minute you sit down.)
Me, I can hardly wait to get a load off my feet. So, naturally, that’s what I shouldn’t do, take the easy way. That’s what leads to privilege, and privilege leads to oppression. Hey, maybe I’ve got a proper rebel soul after all, buried somewhere in the greenfire ash.
“Here, Kiril,” I find myself saying. “You get a break, too. I’ll fix breakfast. Lufti, make her stay down even if you have to sit on top of her.”
“Don’t forget to add the tarragon,” she says before not just sitting down but falling asleep, her head in Lufti’s lap. She’s still catching up on her energy, too, poor thing, worse than me from her lung trouble. And skinny as a handful of winter twigs. I will hate to call her back to march, after we have finished.
(After breakfast I suppose we'll have to march again. I'm finally starting to get used to it; I don't ache half as much as I did, and my feet no longer feel quite like a couple of throbbing beehives. I won't need a car when I go home, after we clear up this latest insurrection nonsense. But I sure will want one anyway.)
Yes, indeed, I do believe I’m getting better every day. I catch myself humming a tune, staring into the bubbling water and the steam. And oh man, that sure smells good! Taste is one sense that doesn’t go gray in the days of ash. And I intend to enjoy every mouthful!
I have lots of reasons to take hope. The war goes well, by all accounts. We have even begun to carve out territory, especially in the Midlands. Whole villages, sometimes even chains of villages, have become places where rebels can march openly and proudly.
Like Hamalla. Cumenci. Koboros. Don’t get carried away.
(The war goes well, the veterans around me say. So far I haven't shot a single round at anything alive and moving. I'll feel disappointed, I suppose, if I don't get to shoot at least one thug, but I can't say I miss the prospect of getting shot at, myself. I'm not like the rebels; life means something to me. I have so much to live for, so much I want to do. I guess when your life is as aimless as theirs, you don't understand things like that.)