IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Thursday, November 5, 2708, continued
(I’m glad I bought this coat before going on the run, however frivolous it seemed at the time. Fleece-lined lambskin—perfect thing for a chilly night in an abandoned factory.
Ominous, though, how often we find these derelict establishments. If so many failed businessfolk left their facilities behind, why haven’t other, more clever entrepeneurs bought them and taken over?
I walk softly around my sleeping-bag mummified fellow refugees, to toss more wood on the fire. The smoke has no problem finding its way out of the broken windows high above. It could be worse.
I should catch some sleep, too, but I feel restless. No need to post a guard anymore; we have gone far beyond the ruts of the bigots who attacked us, into what now appears to be uninhabited lands. And yet...a clever girl like me knows when to trust her instincts.
I stand in the doorless doorway, staring out at a whole landscape of empty buildings much like this one. I wonder what they made here? I suppose if I took the time to analyze the rusting heaps of machinery here and there I could figure it out. I find the prospect boring. I raise a couple fingers to my lips and...
...and what? That’s the third time since I stood here that I’ve raised an imaginary cigarette to my lips. I’ve only smoked once in my life, yet it feels so habitual, so that even as I think about it my hand moves again. I shiver, wondering why.
Never mind; I have a more pressing conundrum. Like who comes through the field of weeds out there, flashlight bobbing back and forth across the way we came, obviously tracking us.
Silently I turn around, to rouse the others, one by one. Shon finds a cartload of crushed ore (refinery! I knew it!) so he and Jameel push it over and bury our fire in it as the others dress and pack up as swiftly as they might. .
Tracked! That puts a different light on things.
It doesn’t take me as long as the others to get ready, since I hadn’t gone to bed. I turn my back, so that I can raise two fingers to my lips, inhale, and blow, thinking, “I’m still here, Jake. They can’t get rid of me that easily. We lefties stick together.” Even as the words play out, they both comfort and confuse me. I shoulder my backpack and join the others, headed for the doors on the far end of the factory.)
(I watch from my hiding-place, straining my eyes to stare out into the night, beyond my cigarette-tip’s glow, till I can make sure, beyond doubt, that nobody else still walks the campus. Then I stub out my smoke, turn my collar up against the wind, and stride out towards the Married Teacher’s Quarters.
In a haven of order and respectability, it only dawns on me now just how strangely unkempt this corner of the campus has become. Soon grass starts to overflow the sides of the pavement, or bursts up through cracks here and there. Ahead of me, the raggedness of untrimmed hedges nearly blocks from view the old, Greek-style architecture.
I find George by his eyes glinting in the shadow of the portico. I expect him to produce a key or pick a lock, but he pushes the door open without any trouble at all.
“Nobody comes here,” he says. “Nobody even sees it. They know the name, but forget it seconds after I mention it. You’re the first person I’ve ever told to meet me here who actually came.” His big teeth flash a grin in the dark. “Yet somehow I knew you would.”
It gets even darker inside. I wish we’d brought Randy, to light up a glow for us. But George doesn’t seem to need a light. His feet know the way, stirring up clouds of dust that sparkle faintly wherever the windows streak the shadows in almost undiscernible rays of starlight. Cobwebs brush my face whenever we pass through an archway or step near tall furniture. We go up stairs, and then to one door in a whole hallway full of doors. I can’t even make out a number anymore.
George pauses there, his forehead against the wood. “My parents lived here, many years ago. They were both teachers. First Headmaster Weatherbent fired all of the female teachers, and then found cause to fire all of the married teachers. He accused…” George swallowed, then went on in a harsh voice. “The things he said ruined their lives. Alcoholics, both of them—now. I couldn’t wait to get out of their house. I wouldn’t mind if ol’ Weatherbent met an ugly death.”
I try to reconcile this with the gentle old man that I know, as George shoves in the door with a sudden, angry bang. We step into a sitting-room, bumping in the dark into the dust-thick furnishings of a comfortable life. The air smells stale, almost giving up on being air at all, heavy with the scent of leather, cedar-oil, mildew, mice, and a whiff of old corruption.
“In here,” he says, lighting a candle at the bedroom door. “I was conceived in here. But not born in this school, oh no—Weatherbent couldn’t stand the sight of a pregnant belly.”
I follow the yellow glow into a bedroom and stop, gasping. Waves of horror push at me so hard that everything goes black—no light of candle or star or blazing torch of retribution could ever light that room! Then I catch myself against the lintel and find that it’s not so. I can open my eyes. I can see where the horror comes from.
She lies in state on the marital bed, on a pillow, shriveled and surrounded by the equally withered masses of old flowers, now as dry and brown as the little corpse with the bone deformity dominating her poor face. But my eyes quickly adjust even to the psychic darkness. I see also magentine—lots of it, masses of crystals in a pattern around the small figure, with faint glints in their hearts of mostly rose, plus some green and blue. As I watch, as if in response to our coming, a rosy glow seems to well up from inside the dead child herself.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” George sighs. “She will bring our revenge on that sorry old toad! She’ll bring revenge on everyone!”
It takes sheer will not to faint. It takes more to make myself go up to the bed, to confirm the unthinkable. I had...I had blanked all memory of this from my mind. Why did I do that?
“Do you have any idea how old this is?” I ask. Oh yes, I recognize it, and though I school my muscles against it, my mind still shudders.
“Oh, I don’t know.” George Winsall shrugs. “She’s always been around. Sort of.”
I say nothing, just force myself to lift an earth-browned bit of rag away from the corpse, the tiny baby skeleton with her tusklike bone-growth jutting from the skull like a muzzle. She still shows the traces of the designs burnt into her flesh, dark on the bone, adding a faint touch of grotesque ornateness.
From a dry throat I say, “Then I don’t suppose you know where it came from.” In fact, I know precisely the circumstances that had destroyed this dreadful relic—years ago.
“Nope.” By candlelight George could’ve been handsome, very handsome indeed, with his dark hair, lean flesh, and incredibly fiery eyes, if not for the predatory thrust of buck teeth like some gnawing creature, something perpetually hungry. A dashing rat, I can’t help think, exciting vermin. He takes up the tortured remains and holds it like he’d fathered it. “They say that she comes and goes. They say that she’s the only thing around here not always of the school.” His brow knits, and then he laughs suddenly. “I’m not sure who says. I can’t remember. Maybe I dreamed it.”
The implications burn in my stomach. How could the body of a baby tortured to death centuries ago in Altraus sometimes materialize in a boy’s school a hemisphere away?
Yet I knew this! I have already thought about it. I already encountered this relic. How could I have forgotten thinking these things?
I trace the evidence of a spiral fracture along one exposed tibia. Tangible. “How does one come by it at any given time?”
“Oh, she sort of calls to you.” I don’t like Winsall’s grin when he says that. Not only does it feel conspiratorial, but it seems to invite–no, to already include me in the conspiracy. I have to remind myself that, as an agent, this confidence should please me. “Why?” he asks. “You seem rather taken by her, yourself.”
“Not exactly.” I turn to look out, to compose myself, only to see the window shuttered. When had George closed it? “It’s just that I’ve known something very like this, years ago.” Or at any rate I heard Deirdre describe it–what if every break and burn really did match that other? How many babies could have cropped up with that specific bony growth?
My scalp crawls when I notice Winsall stroking the corpse, with just a couple fingers, almost unconsciously–though he smiles as though he finds it pretty. He says, “Sometimes I call her Gita–my little sister’s name, don’t you know.”
Something about the words give me a hollow sort of feeling, like...they make me feel slightly skeletal, myself. I analyze the feeling, startled to realize just how profoundly I miss the presence of females. I feel scraped off from all feminine contact. (“I’m still here, Jake,” someone says within my soul, but not whom I’d expect, or...what?) The school has even amputated the female part within myself, within all men, like some vital organ regarded as of no importance to a primitive surgeon. I know that this has dangerous implications not only for me but for someone else, but I can’t for now remember who. Again. I have thought of this before. Why does it surprise me now, like a brand new revelation?
Shouldn’t this feel clearer in this of all places? But oracles often stumble onto unexpected paths. For right now George must know what I do not, that I might ask the questions. And the thought restores my confidence.
I ask him, “When did you last see Gita?”
“When she died. Mother was quite put out, but accidents will happen.”
I only know that I clench my teeth when my jaws begin to ache. The boy had continued to smile when he made his statement.
“Mothers are such fools. Daughters aren’t that big a deal.” Only then do I see how his eyes water, gleaming in the candlelight. “That’s what my father said. And then he packed me off to school.”
“George, this shouldn’t be here. An evil man, a, a very evil man, destroyed this relic years ago, as part of a spell to…”
“…transcend time and space.” I stare at him. He smiles back, fallen-angelically. “Surrender to the rift, Jake. We can become Princes of Chaos, you and I.”
Chaos. The wild, feminine answer to masculine order and control. The…I feel the temptation. And he feels me feeling it. And…and he strokes my arm.
No. Just...no. I have enough information. I turn and leave.)
“They always forget the ghosts,” I hear somebody say. And I hear laughter. Kief—is it Kief?
“Oh Kief, forgive me!” I try to cry, but my mouth won’t work, my throat won’t make a sound. Something has cut me off from…my body? My inconveniently female body, with its fluxes and fatty bulges and its…but no, starvation cures all that. Or at least greenfire can. Or…
…no. Something else, still deeper than the body, feels cut off. All except for a glimmer-thin thread, in the hand of somebody other than who I…what?
Can’t think. Brain amputated. Thoughts bounce around randomly, like I jolt about in a wagon on a rut-rough road. But I really don’t…what?
Sudden horror fills me as a realization grows, though I don’t know where it comes from. That’s not Kief!
(That’s not Jordan, opening my blouse, caressing my skin. No, not caressing, for the pain…the PAIN!
“Glancing wound, deflected by the rib. Just a graze, fortunately. It must’ve hit right when she raised her arm to signal the charge.” In the background I hear someone muttering, “The Dead want blood.”
Don’t scream. Don’t even weep. The men watch for that in a woman, though they holler enough themselves, when shot.
“No bone damage, no nerve damage, no artery or major vein involved. Some muscle damage, but not a significant amount. She should recover nicely.”
I make myself say, “Good. Then I won’t have to go to the field hospital.”
“General Aliso, in my professional opinion, with sepsis what it is in these parts…”
“Have we no antiseptics in camp?” Of course we do—I can smell the sharp stink.
“Of course, but…”
“The rebels make do with boiled rags and salt. Do you think me less than them?”
“I would never say such…”
I open my eyes to glare at him in the medical tent’s harsh lamplight. “My bloodline did not reach its exalted position by fragility. This is nothing more than a cut, really—isn’t it?”
He doubts himself. Good. “I suppose you could say that.”
“Then we need not talk about sending me off from the front, when the men need me right here.”
“If you’re willing to forego standard medical treatment...”
“I am.” The men will never respect me if I turn back for a graze. “The men need me.” The men are such idiots! They long to see me falter. I force myself to smile. “Call it maternal instinct. I won’t abandon them.”
“As you wish, then.” And I feel his clean fingers wash and bandage my wound, while I hear somebody, almost out of earshot, mutter, “Maternal instinct! Tell that to the men at Cumenci.”
Oh God I hurt.)