IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Lives
Not Actually a Party
Tuesday, October 20, 2708, continued
The dawn light does, indeed, hurt like payment for my sins. I try vaguely to remember the party last night—something about a lot of little candles, and the heavy smell of chaummin, and...ice cream? God, not ice cream! I make a staggering dash for the barn door to vomit out the night’s festivities, then gingerly cradle my throbbing head in my hands...
“Deirdre! You’re up!” Why do they act so surprised? I find bruises all over me—oh Lord, did I get in a brawl last night? Disgraceful in an officer.
“Yeah, I’m up,” I growl, sagging against the barn door, still wobbly on my feet and feeling worse by the minute as the daylight spreads. “Must’ve been some party.”
“Party?” Tanjin asks as he and Chianti come to prop me up on either side like I was still drunk or something. Testily I wave them away, then reel around to go back inside, but my legs buckle under me—good Lord! Did somebody drug the wine or something? I surrender to their help as they ease me back to my blankets, feeling very ashamed and wondering if I have even more to feel ashamed of than I guess.
“You go rest, too,” I tell the kids. “You’ll need it if you’re half as hungover as I am.”
They laugh suddenly at that—painful noise! Then, grinning, Tanjin says, “You’re not hungover, Deirdre. You got a bad knock on the head.” Then, more anxiously, he asks, “Don’t you remember?”
“Uhhh, no. Wait...did this involve a tree splitting in two?”
“I’m not sure.” He glances down, embarrassed, at his arm in the sling. “Betany, you saw the whole thing. Did a tree split?”
“Yeah,” she drawls in that hollow voice of hers. “It got the worst of the grenade blast that threw Deirdre up in the air. Then her head hit a branch on the way down.”
I ask them, “But what about the candles and the ice cream?”
They stare at me blankly, till Tanjin says, “You must have dreamed that.”
Betany asks, “What’s ice cream?”
* * *
(The chemistry teacher drones on about latent heat and inertia, his back to the class as he writes on the chalkboard, while we slip from our seats at George’s nod. “So, since brine freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water, ocean ice serves better than snow to freeze ice cream.” I shiver at the very thought, ducking into the supply-room behind Jake and Don.
With no one to see how quickly we can move, we set up the still in record time. “But of course none of you boys want ice cream this early in the year. So, in summer, with no sea ice available, how do you produce the same conditions? Anybody?”
We pile in the fruit too rotten to make into ice cream, and set the Bunsen burner going. If we can get this slop distilled before the end of class, we will gain credibility points enough to move up in George’s Circle…now that we know that George Winsall is the Changewright.
“You add salt to the ice.”
“Excellent. And why does that work?”
“Uh…because it makes the ice briny?”
“Be more specific, please.” Silence. “Would you please read aloud what I wrote on the chalkboard? That might help.”
Don closes the door, very, very quietly. Now we can’t hear the class at all, just the soft bubbling of the still. Heated, the fermented fruit actually smells almost pleasant—but maybe that’s just hope in the result. Still, I feed in cinnamon sticks and cloves to help mask the worst of the taste. I surprise myself by anticipating the result, so soon after George’s concoction, but hey, I’m not Merrill, to let one boyhood hangover compel me to a lifetime of sobriety.
(George doesn’t actually need this hootch, not with Joel supplying him with a steady stream of smuggled liquor, but his boys will appreciate the party all the more if brewed illicitly right under the teacher’s noses, no matter how vile. And if we can make it not-too-vile, so much the better!)
Gazing at the flame, blue light upon his face, Jake asks quietly, “How long would it take for humankind to change the shape of magentine effect?”
Don thinks a minute, then answers, “We’ve done that from the first. What do you mean?”
“Explain, please.” Jake says in a slightly strained voice.
I move closer, asking, “Are you all right? You sound so...”
“Just explain,” Jake insists, staring at Don, ignoring me.
The most intelligent member of Fireheart Friendclan tells us, “Well, Novatierre didn’t have enough consciousness in its indigenous life-forms to trigger off magentine effect at all, before the Migration. Oh, a primitive sentience started up for awhile, but it didn’t survive. We don’t even know for sure if it was mammalian, reptilian, or avian.”
“And now,” Jake murmurs, “with just half a dozen centuries behind us, give or take, the planet boils with ghosts and gregors, blessings, curses, shandows and shirikis.”
Don shrugs. “You know all this. Why ask anything? And what’s a shiriki?”
“Because you know more about Archives than anyone else that I have access to right now.”
Don asks, “Archives?”
“Don’t play dense. Psychometrists aren’t the only ones who know that it’s not really a computer.”
I hiss, “Keep your voice down!” as Don says, “Very well. You could call it a human/magentine interface, if you wanted to. Is that what you’re getting at?”
“I’m not sure. It may have nothing to do with anything. But you brought out an important point: magentine effect doesn’t exist without consciousness. We had consciousness, but no magentine on Earth, leaving psi so weak that most people didn’t even know it existed.”
“And, aside from a brief flurry with proto-sentients, it would never have existed here, either, without us.”
Jake steeples his fingers, biting the topmost nails a little, before remarking, “Strange to think on. How many other potentials never stir...Don, answer me a riddle. What distinguishes conscious creatures from all others?”
“I knew it even as I said it.”
“Several animals could’ve developed equal or greater intelligence, but for lack of one trait.”
“I follow you. Imagination. One can only conceive of individuality if one can imagine oneself distinguished from the rest, with one’s own collection of traits to fit into the whole: individuality that needs adapted or adapted to.”
“Which means that a phenomenon owing at least part of its existence to our consciousness will adapt. Change. Grow. Maybe even imagine.”
“I see,” says Don, while I shiver in the dark lab storeroom. “Frightening.”
“Now, consider this. We–our kind–arrived in Novatierre by a means as close to magentine effect as our original planet could produce.”
“You mean transfer? Would that explain why we ended up on this particular parallel–an affinity of likes?”
“That’s not important right now. Or not centrally.”
I gulp, despite myself, and tap a little cup into the drip from the still. “What, then?” I ask.
Jake wrings his hands a moment, then says, “What if magentine effect began to take on some traits of transfer? The affinity, as you say, Don, is there. The original Technological Laboratories derived transfer from research into nonphysical, or “primitive” technologies–crude harnessing of psychic phenomena–and refined it to the limit.”
“What if...oh.” Don takes the cup from me, sips, and hands it back for my turn.
“Exactly.” Jake nods grimly and accepts the cup from me. “Physics would no longer limit it.”
We let most of the rest of the distillate drip into the bottle meant for it, but pass the teacup around between us, Don musing, “Anything done anywhere could have an impact anywhere else.”
“Or anytime,” Jake adds. I squirm, for some reason hearing, or not quite hearing, rather sensing, the spring calls of distant southern birds, vibrating along a fine thread which I mustn’t dare let go.
Don thinks a moment. “The time-side of the space-time continuum would get harder to manipulate, though; I don’t think we’ve come to that, yet.”
“I hope not,” says Jake. I hope I’m wrong about space, even. The result could disrupt whatever life has evolved for. Instability in space could get nigh unlivable, but without history it would become impossible.”
“Are you so sure?” Don asks. “What about your own Gift?”
Jake pauses with the cup halfway to his lips. “Oraclism?”
“Sure.” Don’s face seems just a little bit more rosy, though the blue light might deceive me. “Don’t possible futures bleed back to you some way?”
“My God!” Jake cries. “Why didn’t we see this years ago?”
The muffled lecture in the other room falls suddenly silent.
Obliviously, Don says, “Of course. The process began awhile ago. Now it accelerates.”
The door slams open. “You boys are in so much trouble!” the teacher shouts.
Jake chuckles tipsily, with frightened eyes. “Ohhh yeah. Tell me about it!”)