IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Monday, October 26, 2708
(I’m a big boy now, I tell myself. I’m not afraid of the dark anymore, even when I sleep beside the dead. I’m a secret agent in a bold and desperate cause and many people depend on me. I’ve gotten taller, so that my pants don’t reach my ankles anymore. So I have no business feeling so small on the road, my pack on my back, my eyes on the rain-spattered mud before me. I take the biggest steps I can and try to think like a giant. Other people pass me on the road, and they may look taller, but I’m really bigger than most of them because I can read.
They all pass me going the other way. Fast. Scared-looking. More and more of them hurry by every minute. Now they start to run and I hear screams. Smoke hangs thick upon the air—the choking black smoke of wet wood burning anyway. I look up from the churned-up mud of the road. I see the flames leap higher than the treetops. Another “nest of insurrection” getting cleared out, I guess. I turn and run with everybody else.)
* * *
(“Run!” I shout, rising suddenly from the patchy old armchair that Apollo found.
Cybil runs from the kitchen, wiping her hands, skipping around bedrolls with unconscious practice as sleepy folk sit up. “Zanne! What’s wrong?”
“Footsteps, outside!” I put the clues together faster than I can explain. “And waves of telepathy—they’re going to...”
CRASSSSSHSHSHSH! Glass flies from every window as people scream. Somebody outside yells, “Filthy perverts—come on men—let’s clear out the whole nest!”
“This way!” I call, leading them towards the inside door to the cellar, which, fortunately, has an outside door as well.
Blood sprays everywhere! Bullets fly randomly from men too excited to get a clear view in the window, pounding our ears with noise and fear, but with so many of us too many shots connect.
“This is illegal!” Maury shouts while I grab him after throwing a knife at the man reaching through a window to drag a screaming teenage girl across the glass. “This is illegal!” I clap a hand over his blood-spattered mouth and nose, dragging him along, till he can’t breathe enough to shout, then release him as we stumble down the stairs.
Behind me Ozwald and Dalmar haul Toni between them—her nerves can’t handle shocks like this, so soon after withdrawal. She stares blindly, her mouth gaping open, shoulders hunched in, incapable of thought or independent action.
Shon pulls the trap shut behind us. Thank the Gates for the Truth that he thought to put an inside lock on it.
And I know that somebody else grabbed that girl anyway, after I nailed the first invader. I couldn’t protect her. I COULD NOT PROTECT HER!
“Damned perverts—they had all kinds in here,” I hear the voices up above and the heavy tramp of boots. “ Different religions and races and all...just all kinds! Copulatin’ all mixed up like God wouldn’t care.” Good—maybe they won’t rape her, then. Maybe they’ll give her a swift, clean death—yes, now I hear the shots. Oh miserable Truth, to take consolation in such things! “Why, just look at all these stinkin’ blankets and pillows everywhere!”
Our blankets do not stink. The very suggestion offends me, absurdly in the midst of all else, but I keep it to myself as I herd people out as quietly as we can through the more authentically noisome cellar, grabbing the packs that I insisted on keeping stocked and stored down here.
“An orgy in progress, I tell you.” I and our stronger members silently grab two packs each; not everyone can claim theirs, now.
“Yeah, I caught a glimpse of one of ‘em going in, earlier today. Black skin and Asiatic eyes—some of them have been at it for generations!”
The voices fade behind us as we tiptoe up the ladder, through the bush-overgrown hatch (opened agonizingly slowly so as to creak as quietly as possible) and then out into the fresher night air. We make it into a copse where we cower like frightened animals, in a faint tingle of rain. But we still hear the shots, loud and clear, as the invaders dispatch our wounded.
And I face the Truth, that I have failed. I, Zanne Charlotte, left wounded behind. I didn’t save everyone entrusted to me—no matter how fast I can think, how fast I can move, bullets fly just as fast, and in too many places at once.
Oh Gates, I didn’t even succeed in my mission. I have never failed so deeply in my life!
Not all the wounded perished. Pauline grabbed a thickset Irish girl, Courtney, with bushy red hair, dead white behind her freckles. Even now Pauline stops the bleeding in the shoulder-graze.
Our attackers must have used an accelerant to make the house burn so brightly in the damp conditions. We watch the red-orange flames leap higher and higher, the light garish-bright on every surface but leaving shadows all the darker for it, the smoke thick and black, sharp-scented, blotting out the stars.)
* * *
(The smell of firewood and cooking wafts around the cafeteria, just a bit. I can savor it without even having to think of the processes going into the making of my supper. Randy, m’boyo, this reversion to minor-status does have its perks!
And sure enough, old Hulda comes out carrying a big tray of grilled parmesan chicken, babbling to herself, in a blank-eyed, mindless way. I start to smile…till I realize how everybody else in the Cafeteria has frozen in horror. Her loose breasts wobble over the tray within the gray blouse, her skirt sways around the grind of wide, arthritic hipbones, and the pale eyes, half-occulted by cataracts, gleam dully like the insides of shells.
Suddenly she drops the tray, cringing, while cheesy chicken-parts scatter all over the floor. “Oh my my oh no I did bad again, didn’t I? Bad, bad Hulda, oh dear, nobody should see her anymore, not since the twins, no sirree. Swoll’d up like a pumpkin, she did, for playin’ with the boys. Nobody should see.” And she crosses her arms over her thin, saggy little belly. “Boys should never see the female help. No no, my no—never again!”
What I’d like to see, actually, is a little supper served somewhere other than the floor. I look mournfully at the grilled meat lying down below the tables. Now we won’t eat till they clear us out of there to clean up the mess, and then they’ll serve us something hastily dashed off, maybe cheese sandwiches again.
Daftly, Hulda leans over towards the Headmaster’s table, trying to focus the half-blind eyes. “Was it you, ducks? No, no, it couldn’t be. Too old. Too old. I likes me purty young boys, out to teach me a thing or two—smart lads, edgycated, not like my worthless sons who never give their poor ol’ Ma the time of day.” Headmaster Weatherbent looks as white as a corpse, staring, his mouth agape, while she says, “Maybe, though, maybe. Tell me, ducks—were you ever young?”
Weatherbent rises from his seat, opens his mouth, closes it again, pivots abruptly and stalks out as fast as his legs will take him short of running.
Beside me, George Winsall stares on with pure hatred in his eyes. He says, “Somebody has got to stop her.”)
* * *
“What are you thinking about now?” Chianti asks.
“Grilled cheese sandwiches, cooked hot and smoky over a fruitwood fire.” My mouth waters as I say it. “Several in a row—one with mushrooms, one with bacon, one with pickle slices slipped into the gooey cheese.”
“Thought so,” she laughs. “You had that look in your eyes again, and your hands on your stomach like it’s had all it could hold, and then some.” Her one eye twinkles at me. She squats down beside me and unwinds the bandage from my brow. “Maybe I should get a knock on the head, too, and join you in these feasts that you keep dreaming up. But you really should eat more, Deirdre, while we’ve got the grub.”
“I can’t help it,” I say. “I keep getting these vivid flashes of taste sensation, and sometimes tactile, too.” I wish I knew more about neurology—I never heard of anything like this following a concussion.
“Enjoy it while it lasts. Say...it looks like your scalp-wound’s healed up cleanly.”
“Thanks.” I feel gingerly at my head. If I have any scar there, my hair will cover it. “I’m feeling more like myself every day.” Except for the weird taste-flashes and sudden pitches of vertigo.
Chianti lights up a candle and holds it up to my face, then blows it out again. “Pupils equal and ree-active,” she says in imitation of what I taught her.
“That’s good to hear,” I say. It scared me sick when Tanjin first told me that my eyes “got all weird” after the explosion, but he might’ve just meant that they glazed over.
“You up to taking command yet?”
“Soon. Not quite yet. Bijal’s done splendidly so far...oh my.”
“What? What is it, Deirdre?” She lowers me back down carefully; she must’ve seen my gaze go out of focus.
“Chocolate cherry,” I murmur. “I can barely find room, but...chocolate cherry cheesecake—anybody’d have to make room for that!”
She laughs and tucks a blanket close around me. “You know, Deirdre, other people see snakes and monsters in their delirium.” She shakes her head, grinning. “Some people have all the luck!”
I grin back up at her. “If I’m so lucky, then you’d better keep me around no matter how scrambled my brains get.”
“You and Father Man,” she jests, and leaves.
* * *
(I share my pup-tent with a girl and her baby, crowded in together on account of the early rain and on account of their house going up in flames, too, right along with all the rest of the village. Turns out the government didn’t set the fires directly, but they did cut funds for the local fire department because there’s no big taxpayers around here worth saving, so it amounts to the same thing. Zia told me all about it; she doesn’t know whether her boyfriend survived or not.
It’s good to have someone warm like Zia to share space with on a cold, wet night. I like the smell of her damp hair and the buttery scent of her body, with her back turned to me. The baby coos and chuckles on the girl’s other side; he’s such a tiny thing, just born a month or two ago, so Zia’s still got some of that mother-fat left over from her pregnancy. I can feel that softness pressed against me; it’s because of the narrow space that I have my arm thrown over her, it’s not like I have a choice. My arm falls across her breasts, and never did a pillow feel so soft. She snores, very softly; she doesn’t know about my hand. I feel a warm wetness. Guiltily I draw my hand back and it smells like milk. She doesn’t notice when I lick the warm stuff off my fingers. I get quivers inside and I really, really miss Kiril.
I feel funny about being there, like maybe I shouldn’t, maybe I’m too big a boy to sleep with a woman I don’t know. Maybe that’s promiscu-stuff, that makes babies come to us too young. And it’s unfair to Kiril; just because we had to go be spies in different places doesn’t mean that we broke up.
Silently I pack my things and wriggle out of there, the rain hardly a mist now on my face. The storm laid all the smoke long ago, but I can still smell the char, but mostly what I breathe in is good ol’ living pine.
I hit the road, my boots squishing in the mud. Zia needs the tent more than I do. She has a baby to protect. The Good People would be pleased at how I’ve passed their gift on. Besides, I feel less conspicuous when I sleep in a barn or old tree or something, anyway; orphans looking for their fathers aren’t supposed to have luxuries like tents. Anyway, I travel lighter without it.)