IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Monday, November 23, 2708
(Doc gets called out before the sun quite makes it to the sky; it seems a guard stumbled into a trap that hadn’t been there the last time he made the rounds. My heart pounds so hard that I wonder if people can see it—a rhythmical twitch shouting, “She did it! Kiril set the trap!” It’s the first sabotage I’ve done on this troop my own self—a great big risk. But it’s a bigger risk if I don’t get a chance to speak to Lufti alone.
Will I even find him in his right mind? I heard him all last night, raving his lungs out, all about eyes watching him, the stars out to get him, bandits after him because he’s the God of Freedom, he can leap from mountains and not die, he has danced with the dead. I bit my knuckles with fear when he declared that he had been sent on a great mission with important messages from...but then he started to retch again and I prayed my thanks to God.
I duck into the tent; Doc won’t think it odd to find me here if he returns anytime soon. Daylight shows me just how gaunt Lufti has become; he didn’t look this bad when we nearly starved on our first march together; his eyes have sunken into skull-pits and I can faintly see the outlines of teeth through the skin of his cheek. His hair’s grown out till it curls on his shoulders; it ripples around him and swirls damply on his face. He’s grown taller, too, I see, and changed; his limbs and face seem to stretch longer than they used to—have we been apart so many days as that?
I kneel down beside him—let the porridge cook by itself for awhile without me. I stroke his sweaty hair from his brow and softly ask, “How ya doin’, honey?”
Lufti opens his eyes to me and starts. His gaze travels up and down my body and he looks so uncomfortable with what he sees that I want to die.
Rebels face death. “What is it?” I say roughly. “You staring ‘cause I got fat?”
“I’m staring ‘cause you got breasts,” he rasps.
I gasp, my face red-hot. My hands go to hide them. Have they gotten that big, that my dress can’t conceal them anymore? Of course, stupid—I just got big all over, dumb me—it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t. It can’t.
“And hips, hips hip hoorayyyyy…” and he passes out again.)
(Cautiously, convalescently, Jake walks across the campus, galoshes slipping a little now and then on the frosted pavement, but I always catch him and set him right, for he leans on my arm with one hand and uses a cane with the other, bundled up and still shivering. I steer him over to walk on the lawn; the grass just below the skim of snow gives better traction, and hang the rules!
“I have to have a cigarette,” he admits. “I haven’t in so long.”
I’m his guardian. I should not take him to the bad boy’s corner, where the cigarette butts have burnt little holes in the snow where they’ve fallen. I breathe in the purity of the chilly air, and wonder how anyone could want to block it out with smoke. But I want to give him anything that could revive him, after the horrible things that I did to him.
We reach the place. And we stare at the graffiti—enormous breasts, obese bellies, great hips jutting.
I sigh. “I suppose we should rejoice that once again the spell seems to have broken, however crudely. They’ll soon get through this phase…I hope.”
“No,” Jake says in that deep, soft voice of his. “We should not rejoice at all. It’s not the only thing shattering.”
Hip, hip hooray.)
* * *
Mortal combat! We wrestle together, no holds barred, thrashing through the thicket while sky and ground and branch and root all tangle together in a bruising, spinning gyre. He pounds my head against rocks and trunks till I see sparks. “No, Deirdre—you’re not going anywhere!” He grips both wrists and shoves my knuckles back into the dirt while I buck and writhe to free my legs from his. “Stay put PLEASE! will you just...” Kief grins wickedly down on me but I roll out of his grasp. I make a break but he grabs me and drags me down again.
“Let go!” I beg. “I have duties...”
“You have no such thing!” I try to knee him but I feel strangely weak and he forces me back no matter what I do—the dead have power to sap our strength, they say.
“They need me! The children need me!” My heart pounds in the hot jungle steam, but I can’t get my feet under me without him knocking them out and throwing me once more upon my back. I ache in every inch of me, but I can’t let him win, I can’t abandon Kiril and Lufti and the rest.
“Deirdre, stop it! You said yourself that I’ve got the authority to ground you,” Zofia says over me, breathless from my struggles, her face flushed and hair in her eyes. “I’m the medic, you said, and I can order you to stay put.”
“Thank God. She recognizes me.” The woman sits back on the bed and tugs at a loosened corner of the sheet. “Listen. Your fever’s spiking.”
“Yes—why do you think you’ve been passing out lately? You must have been sick for days, maybe weeks. The low-fever stage can go on a long time.”
Yes. Of course. Jonathan warned me not to drink the water if I ever left the cities—but who has the time to boil it every single time, on the run the way we live?
“It’ll be all right,” Zofia says with a smile as she mops the sweat that starts from my splitting brow. “I’ve seen this kind of sickness before. The spike’s a kind of grand hurrah, and comes before the fever breaks; you’ll feel better in a day or two—maybe even by tomorrow, if you’re strong.”
“That’s good news, at least.”
Zofia gets real efficient about straightening out the bedding that I’d kicked up. “And, God willing, you could have quite a nice interval of health before the next flare-up—so make the most of your well-time.”
Oh. So I’ve got one of those—isn’t that just perfect.
(How perfect is this! I restrain myself from exclaiming it out loud, because it’s really not nice to gloat over finding an entire abandoned neighborhood. But we might all sleep in beds tonight. Oooh that would feel so fine!
Looking in the picture windows cools my enthusiasm. Ripped curtains on bent rods don’t obscure the crime-scenes within—the chaos of broken furniture, the old dried blood. And the smell! Once you get this close, you can even smell it from outside.
“Camp in the park?” Guaril suggests, and everyone nods.
“With guard,” I add.)
Dizzily I rise from the sweat-soaked bed. When I bend to grope for my boots I nearly black out again.
Pleasantly Zofia asks, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Guard duty,” I answer hoarsely. I find one boot, put it on the wrong foot, and pull it off.
She gently shoves me back into the bed. “You’re off duty, soldier. Now get some rest.” That sounds waaay too good for me to disobey. “And Deirdre?”
“Thank you for not fighting me this time.”
Huh? Am I supposed to? But...too tired...rest for now.
(In the park we reach a locked public restroom and pick the lock. We find the space inside dusty and spiderwebbed but clean, and the water still runs. We even have soap and toilet paper! Skylights give us some light, though the ventilation and the concrete make it cold. Fortunately, no new snow has fallen and the weather seems to have warmed up just a bit.
I eye those grates high up, though. Hard to crawl through, but a crazy person could break them easily enough to throw in something nasty. I lock us in and set up the watch. “Keep the sound low,” I say, “and no cooking. Survivors might still wander around looking for something to kill.”
Cybil sighs, but opens several cans of catfood and spreads it on the leaves of one of the cabbages that we found in a garden on the way.
Elmer looks at me; the tic in his eyebrow has grown less with better food. “We’re close, we are. It won’t take long, now.”
I study him. “Why haven’t you turned as violent as the others?”
He shrugs. “Too old, I guess. I got fed up on violence fighting my way out.” Then, his face reddening and turning away, he adds, “And they cut off m’jewels. Part of the experiments.”)
* * *
(“Jared, tell me you didn’t requisition an entire herd of bum steers.”
“I didn’t sir. It’s just bad luck.”
“Bad luck? For five oxen to go lame at once? Or...” and then I see Sarge’s face go as pale as the batter I stir. “They don’t have hoof-mites, do they?”
“No, sir. It just so happened that each of the five picked up a stone in a hoof. They’re only lamed for awhile.”
“For awhile...let me see one of those stones.” I pour the batter sizzling into the grease for mushroom fritters while Jared runs back to the corral. Rashid isn’t the only one who knows a mushroom from a toadstool, after all, and they go well with all the dandelion blossoms that I gathered. Now Jared returns with several stones while the fritters send an aroma up to heaven that would make the angels smile. I hope Lufti’s up to eating some today.
“Look at this, Jared—somebody chipped these stones into caltrops.”
“Sharp things to scatter on an army’s road, shaped so that no matter how they land they always have one point going straight up. Guerillas have used one form or another since Roman times—some kinds can even lame a tank.” Sarge ponders the rocks a moment while I flip the fritters. It’s a tempting thought, to put the wrong mushrooms in. But no, they’d trace it back to me too easily—not like herbs that make you drowsy when everybody knows the troop can’t sleep well. Sarge tosses the caltrop in his hand while he stares out over the country like he’s looking for something. “Set a double guard tonight,” he says)
* * *
It has to be another fever dream, all mingled with some flashback to the past, all the wounded children piling in, covering the floor with mats and bloody blankets as Zofia crawls from patient to patient, gasping, “Stop the bleeding! Help me stop the bleeding!” I don’t really hear the moans and shrieks of pain. I don’t hear Nayal weeping in a corner, saying over and over, “You shouldn’t have followed me. Nobody should’ve followed me.” None of this is real. I turn over and snuggle deeper into my blanket, nestled against a kindly shoulder, trying to will the aches to melt away.
“They knew we’d strike ahead of time,” Zeb says. “We might as well have sent a bloody invitation.”
Rozhen says, “You don’t suppose that Kiril told them?” That confirms that I dream all this—it has to be a nightmare.
“No!” Tanjin steps in. “Kiril couldn’t possibly have betrayed us.”
“How can you be so sure?” Rozhen protests. “The army gives her everything she wants. I hear she’s grown so fat that...”
“She couldn’t do it. She’s been silent running. She knows no more about our moves than the army does.”
“Because she’s told them everything!”
“You haven’t been listening! You shut...”
“You trying to tell me to shut up?” I hear blows and crashing around, and the cries of injured children kicked and stumbled on. Nightmare or not, I can't tolerate this; I force open sticky eyes and push myself up.
“I say shut up!” I shout, though it hurts my throat, and even the patients go silent. “Look at you—brawling over the wounded—have you no respect? After all they’ve given for the cause?” Tanjin and Rozhen hang their heads in shame as Zofia kneels to heal the damage as best she can. “Shall we leave it to the Government to kick us when we’re down, or shall we join them?” Vaguely I notice that two wounded girls share my bed, one on either side.
Tanjin protests, “I meant no harm, Deirdre. But Kiril’s no traitor.”
“I know that,” I say wearily as I sink my head back to the pillow. “Sometimes the army can figure things out. It happens. Now go draw water for Zofia and boil it up.”