IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
V: Sharing Insanity
Thursday, November 5, 2708, continued
(The wagon ride takes awhile, with these farm-worn, plodding horses; night has long since covered us like a discreet old friend. Benomi Marst and I trade our veteran’s tales to pass the time, with no one but us for miles at a stretch to hear.
Seems Ben ran away in his youth, too, but rebels had no organization in those days that he knew of, just hit and run, and nothing ever seemed to come of it but a lot of blood on both sides. They’d just invented the code, or heard about it, around the time he decided to bail out with his girlfriend, Marta. She had a baby on the way and he wanted to set her up right—he’d seen too much of babies born in the trenches and the camps, the ones who grow up wrong, or the ones who don’t grow up at all.
He’d stashed a nice bit of booty along the way, here and there as the chance came up, being a thrifty man. At last he went back to collect it; he remembered every squirrel-hole in his travels and found it all again. Ben got himself some tools and a small farm out where nobody’d ask questions of a man with a scar from a bullet in his arm.
They lived in a tent for awhile. “Hard times but good,” he says, “and whenever the baby laughed I’d know it all was worth it.” Then he and Marta built their own house, dug their own well, and grew enough food for the three of them, with a little left to sell and buy a few nice things. They lived happily ever after on the profits of war...for a little while. But a cough can kill a child as readily as bullets when you don’t have medicine.
I tell him my own story and he listens politely, having heard it all before, but I shock myself. What a deal I’ve been through in a year, less than a year! So much has changed that I hardly know myself. I’ve gotten used to things that I didn’t used to imagine. And I’ve got a ways to go, yet, too—if I’m lucky, that is. I sit up taller and realize, “I am a veteran. I really am a veteran.” And then suddenly I feel so bone-crushing weary that I curl up right there, by the farmer’s side, my head upon my pack.)
I find myself back in Duerlongh, back in that veterinary hospital where we sewed Don up. Only this time we’re trying to remove a gigantic parasite; he ate cookies full of parasite eggs. Zanne cuts him open with an expert hand and removes a teddy-bear with evil red eyes.
It turns to me, speaking hollowly in a high, dry, teddy-bear voice. “I know you,” it says. “I remember how you carried me. I know all of you.” As I try to stumble away, the voice changes to that of a man, saying, “and I will watch you BURRRRRN!”
I scream, then find myself under a tarp-and-bush shelter, bandaged-up and groggy. The rustling sound comes of Tanjin scuttling to me as fast as he can crawl.
“Shhh, shhh, you’re safe, Deirdre.” He soothes me down again, as I look around me blinking. So we’re sleeping at night again? I can’t keep it all straight.
Tenderly he says, “Ghosts are bound to bother your sleep, but they can’t do anything to you so long as you lie here safe and still; they can’t trick you when you don’t do anything.” I feel him slip in under the blanket beside me, fully clothed. “Here, now, I’ll stay right here. Ol’ ghosts’ll have to fight me to get to you.”
That seems good. Much, much better. I slide back into sleep the minute my head nestles against his breast.
(Screams wake me up! I wriggle out of the sleeping-bag as fast as I can, the screams still going on, more voices joining in, echoing into a frightful clamor. Disoriented for a moment, I try to remember which abandoned building we’d camped in this time. Gym. A community gym. So I don’t have to worry about hitting walls in the dark. I run towards the screams, dashing agent that I am.
Someone finds a lantern and switches it on, and the first thing it shows is red. I shiver from more than cold when I realize that Kimba stands in the center of the carnage, one hand brandishing a dripping knife, the other clutching a teddy-bear with rose-red eyes. For that matter her own eyes show a disturbing glint of red in them—what happened to the child? I do a quick telepathic scan, but the chaos of so many different thoughts—most of them not hers—almost knocks me off balance.
“Kimba?” I call. “Come here, baby. Come on here.” She turns slowly, dazedly, while Pauline and Maury dart behind her to pull away the wounded. “Come here, my dear.” She grins and then suddenly rushes upon me. I trip her in my dodge, but she scrambles to her feet again, panting, her eyes rolled up, and she charges me again. I sidestep and grab her from behind this time, one hand on the knife-wrist, the other arm around her throat. I squeeze...
...and when she falls I push the knife and teddy-bear away and give her mouth-to-mouth. She chokes and wheezes back to life, but weakly. Her brother rushes over and glares when Jacques, bleeding, says something like, “Need to kill the little beast,” but Raif ties her up, tears running down his young face. Me, I sit there on the floor, shivering, not bothering to shove the hair from my eyes, only half aware that Magda drapes a robe over my shoulders and that I’m naked.
Cybil squats down beside me, handing me a damp cloth, and puts a kind hand on my arm. “Pauline’s taking care of the wounded. You don’t have to do anything for the moment.”
I start to wipe off the blood, and in that act I find my voice. It sounds rough and faint. “I almost killed her. I almost had to...but she’s a child! I’ve never had to kill a child.”
Cybil’s hand draws away and she stands up. The blood rushes suddenly back into my head at her withdrawal of support. “Did...did you ever have to kill an adult?” she asks me.
I look up at her coldly and say, “I’m an agent, darling. What do you think?” I work my arms into the sleeves of the robe and sash it tightly around me as I rise. I run my fingers through my hair and ask, “Pauline, how’s the triage going?”
She, at least, does not stare at me shocked.
“Anselmo will need surgery,” she reports,
“but I’ve got him stabilized, and Toni gave us the wherewithal
to make him
Pauline continues. “Jacques and Jameel need stitches. The others just need bandaging.” She nods to them. “Brave of you both to try and stop her.” Jacques grumbles something unintelligible.
I nod, trying not to shake so much. “A veterinary hospital’s the easiest to break into,” I say. “I think I saw one on the way.” And with returning confidence I add, “I’ve done this before.”)
I feel like I should hurt. It scares me that I don’t, but just a little. I feel a sense of slow, lazy movement rocking me, like a boat or wagon, but I know it’s just my breath...no, Tanjin’s breath. Still, I don’t fight it. I let it rock me back to sleep.
* * *
(By and by we come to another farm, its barn glowing with lamplight. I stir from where I fell asleep, Ben’s coat thrown over me.
A boy a few years older than me comes out of the barn, pitchfork on his bare shoulders and his shirt wrapped around his waist to let the sweat flow free. Not a hair grows on his suntanned chest, yet something about him tells me that he’s the man of the farm and has been for awhile—something about the way that his muscles have shaped, or the weary confidence of his stance, or the far-off glare in his eyes. By starlight I can barely make out a couple of whitewashed crosses out back, up on the hillside; I wonder if he buried his parents there.
He wipes his face with a kerchief and says, “I thought you’d never get here, Benomi.”)
(Kimba suddenly says “I miss Mommy!” and sniffles a little. She sounds a little croaky, but thank the Gates for the Truth that she can speak!
Her brother hugs her without unbinding her. “I know, sweetie. We both do.”
“M-my new friend said that I could send some other dead to replace her, and she’d come back to us.” And we all freeze, just for a moment. “She’d come back to us.”
While the others stare in shock I kneel before her and say, “Honey, that’s not fair. You can’t make others suffer bereavement just so you don’t have to. We all lose people that we love.” I stand again. “I lost my Mommy, too, but you don’t see me killing anybody to get her back.” Kimba looks confused, struggling to think, but not quite so homicidal.
Dalmar says, “Hand me that teddy bear.” Minerva brings it to him, and he unsnaps the back. “We designed these as children’s purses—after they first served as dispensers.” And grimly he pulls out a half-empty packet of cookies. “It made a terrific promotional.” And he tosses the packet into the fire.)
(Ben and the boy go off together to talk trade—sosoka sprouts for strawberries, eggs for cheese, the quilt that Marta made all winter long for a couple of chairs that the boy made while it snowed. People don’t much use money around here, or stores. They do what they can by themselves, without the system that has no room for folks like them. You don’t find much rich or poor in these parts; all the bosses pay in room and board, eating at the same table as the hired hands, who are mostly young folk waiting their turn to inherit or dicker for their own patch of dirt.
There are worse ways to live; I might like to come back to do the same, someday. Except it doesn’t buy metal for tools, it doesn’t buy medicine, and it sure doesn’t buy you any votes.
Someday—how? It never even occurred to me to take booty as I went and stash it along the way. But rebels don’t work for pay, and we don’t get a retirement plan. Some of the want-ads mention retirement plans, and it’s got me thinking. I’m going to keep my eyes and hands open from now on, that’s for sure. But I wonder how many other rebels have had the same thought, generation after generation, and never lived to collect? Who knows how many treasures a sharp fellow might find, scattered through the land? Hmmmm...)
(Ozwald picks up the now-flaccid teddybear, and looks at the rosy crystal eyes. “Treasure,” he says with a sad little laugh. “I used to wonder what I might do if I ever got a hold of a bit of magentine, wonder if I’d get any, you know, superpowers. Pretty poison treasure!” and with that he throws the bear into the fire right after the cookies.
Kimba screams, “My friend! My new friend!” Raif just keeps on holding her, rocking her in his lap.
Minerva asks, “Does fire destroy magentine?”
“Not really,” I answer.
“Then let’s get out of here.”
“I quite agree.”)
(After they’ve walked the whole way around the barn and back, and cut all their bargains to suit them both, Ben waves me off the wagon. “Come on over here and meet Zahir, Lufti. He’s okay. Zahir, meet Lufti—I’ll vouch for you both.”
Zahir’s got a firm handshake. He’s not Mountainfolk, but few in these lower hills are–I don’t stand out at all. He pushes sun-bleached hair out of those fierce eyes of his and says, “Ben tells me you’ve marched with Cyran hirself.”
“I have.” I say proudly.
“And do the ghosts really defend you, like he says?”
“See this ear? A bullet nicked it. That’s how lucky I am.”
Zahir examines the lobe and whistles. Then he glances at the barn, and back at me again. “You happen to know a couple of redheaded twins, good with horses, don’t care to talk?”
“Yan and Yaimis,” I say sadly. “I did.”
“Did?” He reads my face and his shoulders sag. “Ohhh no.” I nod and say, “Bullet got one of ‘em, and an accursed bridge got the other.” He turns his back to me for a moment, and I see his shoulders twitch a bit. “We killed the bridge,” I add helpfully.
“I kept horses for them,” he says thickly, then wipes his face. “I’ve got sosoka to fetch.” He strides away swiftly.)
And I watch it all over again, the falling redhead, screaming all the way down as I cling to that evil, evil bridge.
I gasp, and gasping rouses me from the nightmare. I open my eyes to a big, blurry face hovering over me, smiling. “Waking by yourself? Good.” It resolves more or less into the visage of Bijal. It’s still dark. I guess we’re on guerilla-time after all.
(I wake in the medical tent. I use the rifle that they left by my cot to pull my clothing over. Then slowly, painfully, I dress. The doctor tore some buttons off the blouse, but I keep some safety pins in a pocket for emergencies. That doesn’t do anything about the hole and the blood, nor the smell of stale sweat, but I have to wear something to get out of here, if I’m going to hold onto command.) “How you feelin’, Deirdre?”
“Good. Refreshed.” I start to stretch, but bandages bind me and my wounds burn. (Tugging on the sleeves pulls at my wound. I hate sleeves.) “Still half asleep, but I think that’ll clear.”
“Then let me get you something to eat.”
“Whatever you want to call it. It’s not even midnight yet. But you missed several other meals, and you’ll want something on your stomach for the work before us.”
“May I have biscuits, please?” I ask, still trying to clear my head. “Buttermilk’s the best,” I say with a yawn, “but I’ll settle for the sour-milk kind.”
“I wish! Sounds like you had another of those food-dreams of yours, you lucky stiff!”
“I don’t remember.” Whatever I dreamed did not feel fortunate. I glance around. Tanjin’s nowhere in sight. People would talk about him sharing my bed, no matter how Platonically. Or maybe I just dreamed him. Maybe I did have that much luck.
(I smell chicken and biscuits. I follow the scent to the commissary tent and walk in. The men leap to attention, shock on their faces. Painfully I salute them back, then say, “At ease,” annoyed with the weariness of my voice, and they settle back into their seats, but all eyes follow me as I sit down at the officer’s table (a cheap card table, but draped in proper linen) and wait for service.
We have some new recruits, now. Maybe I can change my reputation.)
Bijal comes by with the food, himself: a scant measure of beans and no bread to go with it. “How long do you think before you get up to snuff?” he asks.
I look for clues as to time, but can’t tell much under the tarp, in the dark. “I’m better already.”
(I wave over Corporal Edwin il’Jala, my aide de camp, force a smile, and take the briefcase that he hands me. I start writing down the orders for tomorrow just as my dinner arrives.)
“Good, because we’ve got work to do, and I need you to take command. You got us some recruits last night—do you remember?”