IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
V: Sharing Insanity
Monday, November 2, 2708, continued
(“Storm”, Kimba murmurs, and smiles, under a sky completely clear of clouds.)
All Soul’s Day. Nobody wants to kill today, to add to the weight of dead folk gathering in the mists of spring, yearning for at least a ghost of resurrection. Silhouettes form and fade in the mist, on the edge of sight, in the corner of the eye. I feel a constant psychic pressure.
We watch the soldiers from the shadows between trees, we hear the stamp of their boots, and feel the vibration of their passing through the ground beneath our feet. We could pick them off so easily. We hide behind the trunks, feeling the seduction of it, shivering with our refusal. No one needs bad luck less than a rebel in the woods. And so we let them pass.
(“Storm,” I hear a passing neighbor say, walking her dog like any respectable suburbanite, past the window of the house with one conifer in a field of pavement. The little dog whines and presses close to her, his tail between his legs. Do I smell rain in the air?)
(I need to get out into the woods. I feel my heart near-stopped with fear, as I pick the iron lock on the servant’s gate, screened by a shed, unnoticed. I hear sea-birds up above—a storm must brew, for them to fly inland like that.
Good Lord, I can see trees out there, between the twists of wrought iron! Trees wild with the flame of autumn, reckless in their clashing colors!
I ease the skreeling metal open slowly, trying to minimize the noise, yet I chose my hour well. Sports consume everybody’s attention, in a field on the other side of the campus, which I dodged by twisting my knee out of joint. The crowd roars just as the gate clanks shut behind me.)
(Toni closes the door quickly behind her, after a venture outside. “They’re going crazy out there!” she cries.
I run back to the window, preparing for anything. But nobody has become violent so far, though children, their mothers, and some retirees dart back and forth at random with glazed eyes, muttering, “Storm, storm, storm!” And I see the clouds begin to gather above the houses.)
(I want to run! But my knee still throbs within the stretchy bandage that holds the patella in place. So I hobble quickly, toppling forward with the school-issued cane to balance me. My skin crawls in the cold breath of ghosts, but my mind tells me that it’s only gusts of breeze full of autumn frost.
And now the irrationality of my fear frightens me even more. I didn’t even let Randy know my intentions. I just keep going and going, till my feet know where to stop.
I stand outside the academy, beyond its classrooms, beyond the lawns, the gardens, beyond even the shadow of the meter-thick stone walls. The school, in fact, lies nowhere in sight. Under my feet a hill rises, mournful in its frostbitten grasses. Over me sky stretches, overcast, a few southbound geese crying now and then in the air above. No more gulls. Before me a sunset kindles the gray clouds into magic, a whole enchantment of light and shade, color on color. The school almost made me forget anything but brown and gray.
“Red sky at night, a sailor’s delight.” No storm coming, after all. But what do the seagulls know that I don’t? Something doesn’t add up.)
“Storm,” I find myself whispering, and I wonder why. The weather’s cold but clear. I shiver and Tanjin puts his good arm around me, warm and close.
“It doesn’t look like rain,” he says, “But you can expect frost tonight, and probably snow up in the peaks. The temperature always takes a dive on All Soul’s Day.”
“Every year?” I ask.
We pass a rock outcropping in the woods. Nobody else notices the vein of pegmatite in the granite. I wonder what crystals might grow in there?
(I pace a bit, wondering what I should notice. Yet my uniform distracts me, as it hasn’t for quite some time, now. I tug with distaste at the elastic which bands my clothing here and there. Unnatural, irritating. I can still taste the dust of all those bricks! It makes no difference that I know I imagine it. The bricks, the school itself, grits in my mouth with a psychic flavor—I want to spit.
Suddenly my hands dart all over my face, arms, body, a flurry of panic, wiping off the invisible. I catch my breath and regain my self-control.
“That school’s driving me half-crazy,” I mutter out loud, just because the sound reassures me that I can assess what is crazy, what is sane. I kick a tall weed and set its seeds adrift in white stars of fluff. Every mote of my Gift cries out against a wrongness, but vaguely as usual. I hate having such a frustrating, stupid, unreliable gift!)
Because in the Charadoc everybody gets what the majority expects. Like clockwork. Like...then my tired brain forgets where I was going with that.
(I clench my fists and move down the far side of the hill, trying to catch a whiff of an instinct that sort of leads this way. The sunset colors darken and send me into shadow.
They will miss me at the cafeteria. Randy will sense that I’m up to something. He will joke about me sneaking off for a smoke, he will distract everybody else. And he will worry.)
No worries for a change, though, whatever I might have been thinking earlier. “We can camp right here,” I declare at a likely spot, well-protected by the woods.” We have less to set up than the soldiers, and we know that they don’t have killing on their minds right now, either. So everyone moves slowly; you can feel the relaxation spreading out like shadows. “Bijal, you’re in charge.”
Gratefully I lie down upon the mat that Tanjin spreads for me, and feel the blanket settle softly down upon my body.
“Has it been long enough since the last leaf?” he asks me quietly, so that the others cannot hear.
“Oh yeah,” I sigh. Underneath the cover I pull off clothes, and he takes them from me, and lays them out neatly beside me where I can easily reach them. He lifts my head, to slip the bag containing the rest of my clothing under it, and I sigh, and smile up at him, and he smiles back, and the birds sing sweetly to each other, notes mingling in with all the scents of spring.
Eyes close on their own. I hear a rustling as he sits down next to me. With the last energy in me I grope for his hand, and when I feel it respond my peace becomes complete.
(I grope for why my intuition drew me here. Nobody ever leaves school grounds. The rules against this make no difference. The inmates can think no further than its walls. At most they step into its gardens: tidy little hedges with all the natural lines trimmed off in perfect right angles; they rarely see beyond to anything save a square patch of sky. Many don’t even bother with that much; they just don’t look up.
That’s why I left. My gift works best on unexpected paths. But I sense more in this need. I had to get out—everything warned me so. I still crawl with the tension, as though I haven’t fled fast enough.)
(I hear the first rumblings of thunder in the distance. The wind picks up and I feel moisture in it. Mothers call their children back in, but some still dance outside, their heads tipped back, staring unblinking at the gathering clouds, till their mothers grab their wrists and drag them home.
“They’re bringing the change in the weather,” I say to Dalmar.
“How?” asks the scientist dryly.
“Magentine effect. Nobody’s ever studied what happens when you saturate an entire country with magentine, but I can guess. Somebody thinks about a storm, and telepaths spread the idea across the country. Then everyone with telekinetic ability, all unconsciously, shift the wind currents and seed the moisture in the air with whatever dust comes to hand. The rain should hit any minute, now.”
Almost in a whisper he asks, “Just like that? Without any particular plan or purpose?”
I tune in telepathically. “None whatsoever.”)
(I venture downslope on the hill’s other side. I sit down, in the twilight, on one of three streaks of wilting sod, next to a fourth, much smaller blot of blight. I feel the dampness creep up through my clothes. A miser-scattering of stars barely makes it through the haze to shine upon me. I try to take comfort in my escape, but it doesn’t ring quite true.
I am not a helpless little schoolboy. I am an agent of the Tilián, and an oracle. I must analyze my feelings—professionally.
Okay...I understand a threat, connected to the school. Obvious enough. Also obvious, due to my gift’s peculiarities: I know that the source comes from outside the school where no one looks…
No! Intellectualization! Never try to second-guess oraclism. Under no circumstances does the threat come from anywhere possibly in the least bit outside the school. Regroup thoughts. Try again.
I force my attention upon that place of danger. Its own servants, kitchens, and laundry. Vegetable gardens, grainfields, chicken yard, goat pen, pig pen, barn, an entire hayfield within the walls, aerated by the cleats of sports every time they mow the thing. In-house carpenter, school nurse, a club for students, a club for faculty, married quarters…empty, avoided even by the Changewright’s lot, when you’d think it perfect for their purposes. Volunteer fire-post, and internal security.
Autonomous, it conducts all of its trade through middlemen while ostensibly training young men of breeding to cope with the world beyond. It has its own inside jokes, its private slang, that accent which soon overrides all others, which distinguishes its graduates from the rest. Its gossip and its scandals. Its major concerns, minor crises, its geometric gardens where no leaf grows unplanned. All those smiling, confident, carefree faces! All right with its world…world…little world careening over the big world’s brink!
“Very well, then. The threat comes from its enclosedness. Again, obvious.” My head aches to deduce this much, nevertheless, and my mouth goes dust-dry. It still doesn’t feel right. Something does, after all, come from without, but wrestling the thought into form hurts.
A violent sensation…indistinct. I glance to one side and see where I’ve uprooted a handful of grass. I mumble an apology, then try to examine my palm in the gloom. I feel minute cuts there from gripping the grass too hard.
And why did the grass come up so easily, roots and all?
Nothing fits. Every time I explore my perceptions they elude me. I can’t even call it vision, it escapes me so.
Painfully, I think back to my onetime mentor, Ricardo, from whom I will never learn again. The old man had spoken of such an occurrence, whenever a vision came too close to an oracle’s blind-spot…which is…hard to remember this part…strange; I have an excellent memory…which is himself.
I nod in the night. The threat comes of the school, so all-enclosed, focused through one who is and yet is not of it. I myself focus the threat.
I rise up from the grave that I’ve been sitting on, and head back to the school…
“Deirdre?” Tanjin gently shakes me. “They’re starting to prepare the ‘grave’. Are you up for this?”
I shake my head free of thoughts of rumbling stormclouds on the horizon. “It’d be bad luck if I wasn’t,” I say, pulling clothes back under the blanket and dressing. He nods, reluctantly, as I sit up with a groan. Discreetly he slips me half a leaf, with the saddest look on his face. Bitterness and energy goes down my throat. Ready? Oh yeah, now I am. But greenfire does not make the prospect ahead any less ominous.
(The thunder sounds closer. Toni goes into the shelter that has turned into a sepulcher, with a little vial of holy water that she carries, her other hand clutching a kerchief over her nose, though the heavy odor of taroleum drenching the corpses now masks most of the stench of death. She must sprinkle every body; the best we can do without a priest. And we wait, watching the flame flicker in the sacred candle that we found in the house, burned down, now, far enough below the lip of its glass container that the wind won’t put it out, the wick grown long and smoky, the light glowing through Mary’s immaculate paper heart.
Toni’s eyes have turned red by the time she comes back up. Ozwald and Apollo reach for her arms to steady her, for she shakes like she hasn’t for quite some time. Then they go pour in the last of the taroleum down the stairs, a river cascading to pool in that awful room. As soon as they finish, Toni picks up the candle, murmurs a few prayers, and then hurls the thing down the staircase to smash and ignite the fuel. Jameel grabs her back out of the way of the explosion, almost as fast as I could have done it. Shon and Courtney quickly swing the hatch shut; the shelter has air vents enough to keep the fire going till it can devour everything inside.
And Toni kneels in the fading autumn grass and starts her rosary as the rain begins to fall. After a few moments Minerva heads for the house and returns with an umbrella; Anselmo hands her his own rosary and she goes out to stand over her sister, between Toni and the rain.)