IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Bugs and Fireworks
Thursday, September 24, 2708
We find coin-sized beetles laying dormant deep inside a rotting log. Pretty things, bright golden-red wings and little green heads, waiting for the change of weather, almost ready to wake up on their own. We load up a dry water-skin with them (government issue, loot from a battle past) which Lufti tucks under his shirt to warm against his belly and bring them back to life. I give him a quick kiss on the cheek and send him off to do the honors. From a safe distance I watch as he sneaks into camp (his first stealth mission—I feel so scared, so proud!) in search of Mr. Entomophobe’s horse-patched tent.
I picture what happens next, step by step. He will open up the skin and lay it gently just inside the tent, next to the sleeping man, stealing the man’s own waterbag to make ours not seem out of place. Now I see Lufti again, though the guards don’t know where to look, as he makes his careful way back towards us. The beetles must stir by now, finding their way out to a colder world than they expect and, quite naturally, the little fellas will march straight to the next warm body. As Lufti rushes back into my arms, flushed and grinning, the screams break out so loudly we can hear them clear to camp. And we laugh, oh how we laugh! How many of us have feared as keenly at a government soldier’s hands?
* * *
(Three dorms away we hear the high-pitched shrieks, and we all laugh. Somehow Conrad, the school’s worst bully, and one of those who made fun of Lumnites, has found the rubber snake mysteriously migrated into his bed. I wonder if it felt squishy on contact, and if his startled movement made it seem to squirm. I wonder what his face must have looked like when he hurled it out. I wonder what prompts Jake to say, “I only wish I’d had beetles to put in there, instead.”)
* * *
(I find a fat envelope, of a cheap, fibrous, yellowish material, waiting in my mailbox, stamped with an official government address: The Department of Records. I weigh it in my hand; curious, to send it to me now that they have no more interest in my work. It’s not from Meg; she tracked down correlations; she didn’t gather raw data.
Still, I take it into my apartment and lock the door; I might as well have a look anyway. Perhaps I’ve reason to hope yet, if they’re still sending me information. Or maybe the gears of bureaucracy never got the memo about the civil order unraveling.
I carry the packet over to my desk by the picture-window—I just love that view of city lights! I put on something silky—well, cheir-silk, but it feels considerably more luxurious than it looks—pour myself a nice cup of coffee with a dash of hazelnut syrup, and curl up on the couch with my mail in my hands. Tonight I have a date with corruption; I might as well enjoy it.
Not that I expect these documents to indicate anything the least bit improper, on an overt level. Nobody would send me anything like that, of course. But I have the training to trace the evasions and omissions as surely as footsteps fleeing the scene of the crime. I already have enough to put several prominent people in jail, but hopefully I can learn at least a wee bit more about the current situation, especially the firings and such. I smile; I can hardly wait.
I pause a moment, with just a shiver of doubt. With Cybil fired, who will I report to? Then I feel a smile creep over my face once more, as I think, why not President Vosca directly? He did, after all, invite in an agent of the Tilián. If he doesn’t entertain me at least once, he could face charges from his opposition that he wasted taxpayer money. Mmmm—time I finally pay him an official visit. Soon. I turn my attention back to my mail.
I just bought this letter-opener today. I’ve never needed one before. It looks rather dashingly like a dagger, with a hilt shaped as a silver dragon, complete with red jewel eyes. Yet I pause a moment; I’m not sure I like the look of it, now that I have it here, in my home du jour. Silly me—it can tear through paper; that’s all that matters.
I rip the envelope open—and scream! Out swarm bugs, lots and lots of red bugs, pouring into my lap, running up my arms, burrowing in and infesting the couch, flying around the room!
I run about like a madwoman, smacking them with the rolled-up envelope, then pull off all the cushions and beat the ones in there, hair falling in my eyes. They’re no match for my heightened reflexes...but did I get them all? I can’t possibly know if I got them all.
I call the hotel manager. “I’m terribly sorry, but I will need a different room, immediately, even if you have to settle me into another branch altogether. This one will need an exterminator. I will pay for it. Somebody has just pulled a horrible trick on me!”
Shakily I set the telephone receiver down. Why would a respectable government office, however corrupted, do something so weird? It just doesn’t fit the bureaucratic profile, not at all. But neither does bruising employees when you fire them.
I check myself over. No bites. I moved too quickly for that. What would have happened to me if they had bitten me?
I can kiss the cleaning deposit goodbye. I look at the white carpet with the great big coffee-stain from my flung cup. I look at the little red and green dots of squished bugs everywhere. And I look at the letter-opener, at the r...rose, not red, gemstones in the dragon’s eyes—translucent, like little bits of watermelon. With a creeping scalp I realize that these are no mere bits of glass. Why—to decorate a common household object? What’s going on in this country?)
Friday, September 25, 2708
We hear the guns in the distance—booms and pops and staccato crackles of fire. It sounds, almost blasphemously, like the Christmas Fireworks Festival of Alonzo Valley, that I ran away from home to watch as a child. But the only bursts of color you’d see in this display are red.
A freezing rain begins to patter on our shelter. Little warriors huddle all together for warmth, for I have forbidden the lighting of fires. They hear the distant battle and look reproachfully at me, but all obey my order to stay put. Whoever those other rebels are that Kiril’s troop fights, we must not come to their aid. We made our contribution when we weakened the ranks for them.
I dared so much in childhood. Venturing far from all supervision for the very first time, I crossed a surprising stretch of unfamiliar country in Alonzo Valley, where I contended with weariness, hunger and thirst, and the consequences cost me a year’s schooling and set me to hard labor on a Valley farm before the authorities found me. And all for a lark! A chance to see pretty lights in the sky.
Yet here I cower, adult and agent-trained though I be, far from the action, letting others die without my help, trying to pretend that I hear nothing more than thunder in the storm. What happened to me?
Reality happened. Responsibility for others, and the cold importance of strategy. We cannot achieve so much if we blow our cover now.
Is this how people grow old?
* * *
(Lucky for me I sent so much stuff back to Til. The few clothes I have left didn’t take so long to check for infestations that way, and the minimal other household goods I kept took few trips to carry over to my new furnished apartment.
Still, I feel a bit tuckered out. So I pull myself together with a cup of chamomile tea (glad to not have to worry about Merrill’s allergy to the very smell of it) and dial the President’s office, toes curled up in a brand new blanket. No screens on the local telephones, so he needn’t know I’m naked. I finish giggling before his secretary answers, fortunately.
It takes awhile, but I persist and insist. Yes, I must see him. Yes, I would strongly recommend that the entire cabinet attend, as well. Yes, I must do so soon. No, that date would be way too late. No, that won’t do either. She tries to put me off by suggesting that President Vosco might squeeze me in at dawn, at a cabinet breakfast, but I just say, “The twenty-ninth of September, six o’clock sharp? I’d be delighted!”)
* * *
(Jake and Don and I skip out of English class. We know more variations of the tongue, as well as the Classic Amereng taught here, than anyone in Toulin ever heard of. We have long read its tales for pleasure, catching all the puns that seemingly sail right over our teacher’s head.
We slip back to the dorms and pull out the jars and boxes from under the bed, grinning at each other—nay, giggling like the schoolboys that we strive so faithfully to be. And we get to work. Don compounds ingredients, Jake prepares the wrappings, and I gobble down all three of our desserts reserved from lunch.
And at last we have it! We have managed to concoct gunpowder. Getting sulfur posed a challenge, but Joel had a detention in chemistry class and did the deed for us. After that, some scrapings from the chamberpots on Jake’s detention (sarcastic back-talk in history class) plus charcoal from the fireplace, and now we have something worth twisting into mud-stiffened paper. Which deed we’ve done, and now that it has dried (with some extreeeeemly cautious help from me) it waits—no, it yearns—for ignition.
We head outside, put them into position, and hide behind a hedge at just the perfect moment. The last class lets out, and the most troublemaking students of course rush out first, just happening to catch us in the act of hiding, while the more sedate sorts and their teachers amble out afterwards and miss us completely. Jake puts a finger to his lips and smiles at the firstcomers mysteriously.
I do the igniting, from a safe distance. (No one stops to think of how we’ve managed that part.) We must all do what we can to earn an invitation to a troublemaking cult.
We laugh to hear the popping and excitement (small-scale, no real danger in it if Don keeps nudging the things to blow in safe directions) but a wave of melancholy hits us all. Jake and I went on a quest for fireworks, once, and the pops and flashes and whiffs of sulfur in the air bring it all back.
Not quite all. “Jesse went with us,” Jake whispers. “And someone else.” His brows knit. “Why can’t I remember the someone else?” And the words set an ache through all of us, a great, hollow cavity in the heart. “It’s so important, that we should remember!”
To my utter surprise, as though an oracle myself, I murmur to him, “I hold the thread, still. I will not let go. When the time comes I will reel her in.” And suddenly I feel a strange shock, to feel the word “her” in my mouth, and the others stare at me. Herrr, hur, ur, rrrr…the syllable suddenly makes no sense.)
* * *
And the gunfire goes on and on, well into the day, rapping in the distance, pounding out more fear on a forge of war. My ears hurt from the barrage. Some of it hits me more than the rest; my body clenches at the sounds as though the bullets tear right through me—I almost feel them. Then I get a grip on myself and make sure that the children stay tucked in with as many blankets as I can layer over their huddled bodies. They pull their heads under, hands to ears, trying to keep out the sound. I think I could go mad if I hear much more of this battle dragging on in which I cannot help. But no, if I lost my mind, who’ll look after the kids?
* * *
(I think I could go mad under this cauldron, the air getting stuffier and stuffier here in this perfect darkness, with a stink of old grease and my own breath, but still shivering-cold where I huddle, curled and cramping, on the frozen ground. But three times now bullets have gone “PING!” against the iron—if I crawl out I will bleed.
At last I hear a weary voice outside. “It’s okay, Kiril. Battle’s over. You can come out now.” Sarge lifts up the heavy pot and I crawl out to an even deeper chill and the sight of blood all over his face.
“You’re hurt!” I blurt before I know I have the words in me.
“Just a scrape, honey, I’m all right. Brow cuts bleed a lot for little.”
He falls to his knees before me and I hurl myself against him, into the embrace of his shaking arms.
In the background someone says, “It’s bad, Doc. It’s really bad—the men weren’t up for this.”
In my ear I hear Sarge murmur, “Oh Kiril, oh Kiril, a child shouldn’t see such things!” I bury my face deep into his coat to hide the absence of the feelings he expects. I see things like this all the time.)