IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Lives
Monday, October 19, 2708, continued
(“Human blood,” Don whispers, shuddering, in the next bed of the infirmary, after the nurse goes off to fetch clear broth for our dinner. “That’s what George sprinkled on us. I never felt anything so empty as that blood.” He props up on an elbow and turns to us, a bit louder now that we know we’re alone. “More than just from someone dead. From someone whose soul had already dribbled away before he died.”
I like the infirmary. Much softer beds, warmer blankets, and some sunny windows facing south. The sick get privileges. I just wish I didn’t need those privileges right now. I haven’t felt this awful since the morning after that crazy, spell-induced party at Don’s, years ago. Okay, so maybe also that morning after in Dixie...but no. Not even close.
“Human sacrifice,” Jake rumbles softly. “I had no idea it had gotten near so bad. But I should have known.”
“Why?” I sound irritable even to myself. “Because you’re perfect?”
Don says, painfully, “Let’s just agree it’s bad,” and sinks back down onto his pillows, with a creak of cords beneath the mattress.
“That’s not the worst of it,” says Jake. “You know it’s not.”
Don groans. “I know.”
“I don’t,” I snap. “What are you two talking about?”
Don hesitates before answering. “That…thing. What he made us kiss.”
“Yeah? The dry, stinking thing that set off explosions in our heads? What, did it have some further drug or something on the skin?” Then I realize that I just said “skin” instead of surface, and I feel odd about that.
Jake says, “It had no need of that.”
“Randy, do you remember that awful relic that Deirdre stole from Alroy, found in the ruins of that corrupted mission?”
“Ugh. Better than you, Don. You weren’t even there.”
Jake interrupts. “What’s your problem, Randy? No need to get nasty.”
“I’m not nasty. Now finish the damned story!”
Don says, “I wish I did know the story behind this. It’s impossible.”
“Randy,” Jake says, “It’s the same thing. That relic, and the one we touched last night. The exact same thing.”
Dear God. The time-mummified corpse of a baby born deformed by a beaklike bone-growth, ritually tortured to death centuries ago.
“But…but it fell into a boiling vat of dye and disintegrated! And then Alroy took the bits and goo to make a monstrous idol, and he destroyed that, too. Vaporized it.”
“Well, now it’s back.”
Don says, “I have no idea.”
“I do,” Jake groans, and pulls his blanket up over his head. “A rift in space and time.”
For a long moment nobody says a word. Then I almost don’t hear Don whisper, “What are we going to do?”)
* * *
“What are we going to do?” Chianti asks. “We can’t move her, but the farmers can’t keep us forever—not after the army just got through looting them.”
Bijal says, “I talked to the farmers. When they understood that we don’t eat dinners, they recalculated. They can keep us on for a few days more, with a little help from the neighbors.”
“Will the neighbors help, you think?”
“The word has already gone ‘round,” says Bijal. “They’re all mad at the government troops coming through all the time—so many and so often, like locusts. With unemployment so high in the lowlands, and the extra votes that soldiers get, all the city riffraff’s enlisting these days and ripping off the countryside.”
“In the name of hunting us down. But why should the locals like us any better”
“Because we’re not from the government. Chianti, I’ve heard about this stuff. Guerillas are supposed to lure the people in power into getting more and more oppressive, to get more of the people on our side.”
Silence hangs in the air like the smell of farm manure.
“I wish you’d never told me that, Bijal.”
Yeah, Bijal—I don’t want to hear it, either. I don’t want to admit that I already knew. Come back darkness, quickly, please! Send me somewhere better than here...
(Darkness fills me, the aftermath of last night’s overdose, with an aching at the shoulders and the neck, and throughout my entire scalp. And I want it. I want to face the ugliness of Truth with open eyes.
“Cybil,” I say as I try to set candles where they’ll cast the most light and cause the least danger, “We can’t just keep on running. We have to figure out what happened, and what to do about it.”
“You do,” she says, sitting on the floor and hugging her knees. “You’re the fancy foreign agent. I’m just a displaced bureaucrat with no idea what hit me.”
I give her a hand up. “Then help me figure it out.”
“What’s that?” Maury cries, jumping up.
“Relax,” I say. “Just a branch tapping on the window.” I really need to engage these poor dears in some positive action or they’ll self-destruct.
As would I. Tomorrow, then, when I feel a little better.)
(I hear a tapping at the door. Sarge says, “Kiril? You decent?”
“Come on, then; they’re serving supper.” He studies me in my new outfit. “My oh my, ain’t you just the cutest little thing alive!” I grin in spite of myself and do a twirl for him.
As soon as I step into the dining hall, between the family quarters and the help’s barracks, my mouth waters at all the rich smells. One long table stretches down the middle and it just steams with food.
“Look at all this!” someone says with relish. “Real dairy stuff!”
“They even got an ice cream machine in the kitchen. We can have real, honest-to-God ice cream!”
“And butter, too—I can’t remember the last time I had genuine butter on my bread.”
“I thought you couldn’t get butter from goat milk.”
“You need a special separator—and they’ve got one.”
“Oh my dear Lord!”
Sarge asks me, “What’ll you have on your potatoes, Kiril? Butter, sour cream, cheese, or gravy?”
“Yes!” I say. The men laugh and cheer my enthusiasm.
“That’ll take a couple potatoes, then,” Sarge says, and snaps his fingers at the farmwife. “See to it, woman!” And she makes a sour smile.
Suddenly self-conscious, I cross my arms over my middle. “Sarge,” I ask hesitantly.
“Do I look like a pig?”
“Do you what?”
“Am I fat and ugly?”
“No!” He picks me up and again pulls me onto his lap. “No, no, no! You’re cute and cuddly!” His arms feel so good around me, wrapping me close and warm. “We like you just the way you are—don’t we, Men?”
“Yeah!” “Yeah!” “Hell yeah, Kiril!” “Watch your tongue, man!”
Again I grin despite myself—seems my mouth does what it wants, these days. “Then I’ll have bacon on my ‘taters, too!” I say. If Malcolm gets to eat, then so can I. Sarge holds me so gently, as tenderly as Papa ever did, his big hand protectively cupping my tummy, his cheek soft against my head, so that I feel almost too good, almost drunk on affection, safe in his embrace and he keeps me right there for the whole meal.
I work through several potato-halves in a row, each with a different, clever combination of toppings—oh, chives! Capers! And yes, yes, bacon! And just when I’ve seen enough of potatoes to last me forever, they bring out the most succulent kid-goat steak, and biscuits full of cheese, and buttery-candied carrots.
Sometimes Sarge laughs and feeds me just like I was a little baby; sometimes I reach out, myself, and all I have to do is point and the soldiers all pass whatever I want to me with big smiles on their faces. Beans taste good with cheese on ‘em—I never had them that way, before. I already felt full just on the potatoes, but I can make room for more, finish off this stuffed tomato, at least, then maybe just a touch of that other kind of meat over there. I’ve been doing that lately, each day I can eat a tiny bit more past full than the day before...stealing food from the army while safe in Sarge’s unsuspecting arms, if I just go slow, if...very, very slow...)
Eyes open...didn’t mean to open them—close them quick again.
“She’s responding,” Tanjin says. “Here, Chianti, prop her up—I can’t. My arm...”
“Got it. You got the broth?”
My headache makes me too sick for the very smell of broth. ‘Noooo,” I moan.
“Come on, Deirdre. You haven’t eaten since yesterday morning. A little soup’ll do you...”
“No,” I insist. “Way too full for...” Blissfully I pass out again.