IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Lives
Sunday, October 18, 2708
(“It could be worse,” I tell Cybil with a professional smile, cool, even almost smug, though my heart sinks. If I’d wanted a location to film a threedee about a haunted house, I’d feel a lot more thrilled than I do right now at the thought of actually sleeping here for the night. The whole place stinks of mildew and rat droppings. Of all the survivors of ancient Earth, why did mildew, roaches, and rats have to be the most persistent—and the most likely to stow away with colonists? Everywhere I look warped wood and discolored wallpaper confess that we shall have to use the term “shelter” loosely here, as it obviously does not completely hold out rain. Even on a dry day I feel a draft.
“Maury worked his way through college doing construction,” Cybil says apologetically. “He can make it snug.”
“Excellent!” I exclaim, clapping her on the back. “We’ll make a home out of this place in no time—we’ll do it in style, you and me, right? No reason why we can’t live an outlaw existence with panache, after all. The Pirates of Earth used to wallow in ill-got jewels and truesilk, spices and fine sherry, all while on the run.”
“Easy for them,” she says wistfully. “They had ships.”
I put an arm around her. “There, there, chickling. I am a world-class expert on generating luxury under rough conditions.” She giggles a little at that and I wink at her. I am, actually, and remembering it makes me feel better. “And with fifteen new people we’ll have hands enough for the merry work.” The boards creak under us as we pace around the room. “The place has nice bones, once you look past the damage. Bay windows, built-in shelves, and—the landlady assures me—two full baths plus a shower big enough to share. All things considered, I’d call us lucky.”
“All things, considered,” she sighs. “I still don’t understand what happened. Less than a month ago I had a high-paying, prestigious job with a future. How’d I turn into a refugee huddling in a wreck of a house, with twenty-eight other people in the same boat, hiding from the government?”
“Nobody understands,” I concede, studying the chipped tiles in what turns out to be a rather spacious kitchen. “But I can make a guess. Somebody psychic went mad, I gather, somewhere around a great deal of magentine, and the madness spread from that person to others, and they fed it in each other, back and forth. And then somebody, in the grip of this madness, found ways to flood the countryside with unstable little bits of more magentine, like sparks flying from a wildfire, and the more it grew, the more it could grow. Then, when the madness reached the government, well, that’s like fire making its way to a cellar full of dynamite.”
“It still seems so...is that a car?”
“Hurry!” I cry, hustling her to the cellar. “We don’t want spotted here just yet, not till we can pay the bribes.” So we crouch in the dark on the cellar steps, just above the mud, waiting for the noisy, smelly vehicle to pass us by. I can feel Cybil shivering under my arm. Thank heavens the others haven’t arrived yet.)
(Hurry! I leave the latest chamois on top of the heap, in the ancient room that nobody lives in anymore. I run down the dust-thick stairs, ripping through cobwebs that feel like layers of time on my face, till I reach the lobby of this building that everyone else has forgotten, right in plain sight yet the fools can’t help but avert their eyes. They don’t even know they do it. Here I dust myself off, quickly but thoroughly, and step out into the chill, turning my collar up. Nobody will see me until I come within range of the approved places to look. And by then I’ll be just another student headed for the cafeteria.)
I feel so wrought up about tonight that I can hardly inspect the weapons of the others.
I feel so wrought up about tonight that I almost don’t fake it when I refuse the passing bowl of mashed potatoes, the rye bread spread with ham and mustard, all the good, hearty fare that adolescents need. “No thank you,” I say faintly. “My stomach feels a bit off, tonight.”
“Me, too,” Jake adds, passing on the brussel-sprouts.”
“And me as well,” says Don, looking genuinely green, no doubt as nervous as myself. “Must be something going around.”
Joel says, “I think you must have caught it from me, when I got sick,” and he tries to look apologetic, but the corner of his mouth keeps twitching, and he looks warmly on us, sharers in his secrets.)
(I look at the army issue ham, smeared with the homemade mustard that I felt so proud of yesterday, yellow as a poison toad, and I start to feel queasy, just thinking about tonight.
“What’s the matter, honey?” Sarge asks. “Are you sick or something?”
“Nope” I say, and make myself take a double portion. “Just a sad memory.” I must not give any clue that I know what Deirdre and I have cooked up. “My mother taught me how to make wild mustard sauce, and I miss her, sometimes.”
“Well,” he rumbles gently, “God rest her soul.” And with that the man who helped the government starve my Mama serves himself some ham.)
* * *
Four of us go out at night and approach the camp from four directions at once, each with one Molotov and one match. Reinforcements soon come after, diffused in the woods all around, waiting for us to start the show.
(Four of us slip out of the dorm, we three candidates and Joel to lead us.
“You know, don’t you, that this is going to get pretty…metaphysical?”
Jake says, “We know.”)
Let’s be metaphysical about it—let’s strike precisely by the compass, north, south, east, and west, so that the Charadocian Army can feel safe in no direction.
(Joel takes us, in the dark, down the same route that he went before, not knowing that we’d followed him and memorized it all. And why did The Changewright send us a guide, yet leave him to fumble in the dark? Assumptions about Lumnite stupidity? But he knows better. Or…that’s it. He wants us grateful, bound to Joel emotionally, and maybe feeling a little dependent, a little less-than. He must know already, then, that he can control Joel.)
I blink, and shake my head. Why do I have so much trouble concentrating tonight? Worst time possible for it—get control of yourself, Deirdre!
(We reach the head of the final, cellar-bound flight of stairs and Joel stops and stares, waiting. And, with more reluctance than I expected, we pull out the flasks and hesitate, tapping the memorization sequence in the other palm out of sight. Then we each uncork their herbal pungency, listening for the susurration all around us of boys trying to be quiet.)
Desperately quiet, I wait till I can see the circling guard at north-north-east and then whistle “Now!” (We start to drink.) Four stars arc towards four tents that just happened to have the misfortune of standing at a cardinal point. Four explosions shout our rage for us and the night lights up once more—not like the night of the lamp-oil fire, but bright enough, sparks carrying hot messages to Heaven. We shoot at the men boiling out of their tents, then scramble away in the stinking smoke, fighting through the ever-thickening foliage of these lower slopes, trying desperately to leave no trail without losing speed. (And everything we know, everything we ever thought we knew, reels away from us, disintegrating like a trail of sparks.)
I hear wild shots in all directions and one scream—high-pitched, one of ours, girl-child or boy soprano, I can’t tell which while I run, my own breath heaving too loudly in my ears. I won’t find out who till I get back to camp—some survivor of bullets past, hit so soon after Rashid brought the kid back from the brink. But I can handle it, I can, I can. I laugh grimly to think that it used to bother me even when the enemy died, not so long ago. You can get used to anything.
(We laugh, drunkenly, but we can handle this, oh yes, much better than a pack of naďve schoolboys could! We let them guide our swirling feet down and down into disorientation, but they have no idea what sort of “initiates” they’re dealing with.)
I reel for a moment, suddenly dizzy, and catch myself on a tree. No time to lose it, Deirdre! What’s wrong with you, woman?
(“Zanne!” Cybil cries, startling me out of...what? I find myself shuddering in her arms. What’s wrong with you, woman?)
Uncertainty, maybe. I wish I knew which tent that Kiril shares with “Sarge”. Probably one of the bigger ones, but can I be sure? Did we hit one of the bigger ones? Some risks will never come so easily to me.
(Don! Don! I can feel you! Me, Lisa—your bride! Oh please, Don, find a way, get me out of...fist hits my chin, sparks fly through my head..,)
Four tents, but I couldn’t see...What’s that! Explosion? Explosions! Did fire hit the ammo-tent? No! The bursts go off right in our midst! Who cares if they can’t see us in the foliage if they blow the WHOLE FREAKIN’ FOREST apart? I scan for safe places, find none, so I just run.
A grenade hits so near that I fly through the air without magentine to help, puffed like a dandelion fluff in this weird freedom from gravity and flit and will, wrapped in sudden heat and light, watching a great tree beside me cleave in half and take fire, and then suddenly...
(And then time stops.)