IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
November 27, 2708
(We wake long before the sun.
Silently we dress and prepare for the morning, illuminated only by the
coals of Cybil’s fire as she cooks up hamster porridge for us. I braid my hair out of the way, and then coil
the braids into several becoming roselike buns, pinned with smoothed twigs,
attractively asymmetrical in the latest avant garde fashion. I notice that Pauline does likewise, tightly
winding her own blonde locks, nary a hair out of place. Men have no idea how vanity can keep a woman
Her once-pale face has become freckled in our travels, but I kind
of like it that way. I like how my own
hands have turned as golden-brown as fresh-baked bread. Speaking of which, I wish I had some right
now—with butter! Yet this porridge that
Cybil hands me tastes better to me all the time. I think I like that touch of alfalfa, now.
Softly I ask Cybil, “Will you and Toni be all right staying behind
with Raif and Kimba?” as she sits down with her own breakfast.
She smiles wearily back at me.
“Sure. Kimba’s quieted down quite
a bit these days.”
I put a hand on her shoulder.
“We’ll come back or send for you soon.”
Maury says, “I’ll stay with them, too.” He smiles lopsidedly and shrugs. “I’m a bit too old for this sort of
thing—living in the woods is adventure enough for me.” With a rueful laugh he adds, "it's been a long time since I worked my way through college in construction." Jacques nods in agreement and sits down on a
log, bringing out his little pocket chessboard, with all of the tiny pieces
held in place by pegs in holes. As I
shoulder my coil of rope I hear them explaining the mysteries of the game to
The rest of us follow Elmer through the woods. “They don’t watch the cliff-side,” he says,
and chortles. “They thought me too
spastic to climb up that way—that’s how I escaped. They didn’t know I’d been the 2683
rock-climbing champion of Goeddalville, and that I know these cliffs better
than they know their own fathers.”
“It must’ve been hard all the same,” Pauline murmurs, “in your
condition. I salute your spirit.”
“Staying was hard,” he replies.
“Didn’t much care if I died on that cliff.”
Pauline nods, her face showing a surgeon’s cool
determination. “A warrior’s choice,” she
Briefly I wake myself by
talking. I hear myself say, “I chose
this. Jonathan came to take me home, but
I turned away and followed Cyran. I
walked across the coals. I will always
walk across the coals. The damned always
Tired. I can’t afford to let recriminations keep me
awake. I punch my pack into a better
shape for a pillow, annoyed that it carries a hard, folded up flit underneath
the softer stuff, and go back to sleep.
I chose this. I chose
this. Oh God it hurts but I chose this I
will not let it go for I have made this who I am and who I shall always be, the
burning beams falling on me for all time, the flaming silken curtains wrapping
‘round my scorching skin, the laughter turning into screams as all my followers
run around in panic, deformed by my own arts but in the end they testified
against me but who needs them when I declare myself the Outlaw God, supreme in
crimes, because I damn well get to choose and if all else belongs to Him then
all the more shall I embrace my burning! I shall force myself to love my
torment because it’s mine, my one last thing, and to do otherwise would say
that I made a mistake, that I have compounded that mistake for all this time by
staying here, in the immolating ruin of my palace, yet here I stand, laughing
or screaming doesn’t matter, I remain, unbudgibly, eternally, incorrigibly
here, and that simpering, nice-guy God has to watch me burn, has to smell me
forever sending up a stench, because I’d rather burn in a Hell of my own making
than concede one thing! For I am myself,
my own self, I am, I am, I am
DEIRDRE EVELYN KELLER! And I
wake up screaming.
And after that I get up and
wash my face.
(I wash my face. I don’t
want to look in the little military-issue mirror. I don’t want to see if any trace remains of
the blood that gushed right into my face in that last encounter. I know that I have scrubbed it too much. I know that I look like hell without my
make-up, and that we stretch supply-lines too thin for any of the emollients
that keep a face fresh and youthful-looking.
And I also know that the lines in a man’s face that would make others
look up to him just make a woman look tired and prematurely old. And that’s what people judge me on, not on
Why does it have to be this way?)
(“Does it really have to be this way?” I ask George, bringing him
his oatmeal. He has not looked well
since we burned the rug.
“What way, Jake?”
“The way that fills you with horror even as it demands more horror
He glares at me as I sit down.
“Keep your filthy telepathy to yourself!”
“But I’m not a telepath,
“What are you, then?”
Briefly I bring out my globe of magentine. “I am an oracle.” And I slip it back into my pocket before
anybody else notices. “I don’t suppose
you know what that means,” I sigh, and then pay attention to my own oatmeal.
Yet he stares at me, owl-eyed.
“But I do, Jake. I have read forbidden things. Books removed from the library. I know exactly what you are.”
“Yeah?” I ask with my mouth full.
“Yes. One of the
damned. Like me.”)
(We reach the brink of the forest once again, which also happens
to mark the brink of the high ground, some trees hanging down over the
edge. I ask, “Does anyone here besides
Elmer have rock-climbing experience?”
“I do,” says Tshura with a sabre grin, “and so does Guaril. We’ve gone on rock-climbing dates together.”
“Then rope up with Elmer and me.
We four shall scout ahead first.
The rest of you stay topside and mind our lifelines.”
And so we pass first through the easy climb of the leaning-trees
and their knotted roots, then down to the rugged part, gripping cracks and
protrusions, thrusting the balls of our feet where whole feet wouldn’t fit, as
the first light just begins to glow above the worn-down mountains. And I feel so alive! My muscles tingle and I feel my heart pump
strong and steady. A moist breeze
carries the scent of autumn leaves, and birds begin to sing. Ah, but I love the life of an agent!
Still, I worry. A sick man
leads us, visibly shuddering with the effort to keep his holds. Yet he manages. He manages astonishingly well.)
(Reno treats Lufti astonishingly well, carrying Lufti back from
the latrine over his shoulder, performing services for him that nobody would
have asked of him. I gaze on him with
gratitude but he blushes and looks away, like my smile troubles him. In silence he helps me load up the wagon,
then settles Lufti in with me and takes the reins.
And the wind in the trees sighs and sighs like it’s given up on
words for all the sorrows that it’s seen, it has nothing more to say, and the
trees don’t reply either, they just shake their boughs and watch us roll on by
before Reno can find his tongue to say what’s bothering him, some ways down the
He looks straight forward; maybe he pretends that he’s talking to
himself “There was a boy,” Reno says, “maybe
Lufti’s age. I couldn’t save him. Bullet in the back. I knew it had paralyzed his legs; he tried to
scrabble away with his arms, but his body wouldn’t do a thing for him below the
waist. Sarge called us to get out of
there before reinforcements showed up. I
could tell he didn’t like it either, just leaving that kid half alive on the
battlefield like that. But, you know, he
was on the other side.”
I pat his knee. “I’m sure
his own found him and took care of him.”
Even if that meant putting him out of his misery.
I almost don’t hear him say, “I think my bullet did it to
him.” And the cart keeps rolling on.)
(We reach the halfway point when Elmer gets this crazy, ecstatic
grin on his twitching face. “Of course!”
he shouts, and lights go on in the building below. “This was always meant to be! I’m already one of the damned, and we are all,
all, all, all linked!” He slashes the
rope and falls with his arms and legs splayed out to embrace his destiny,
shouting, “Mistress, I have brooooought them!”
And then the guns fire!
“Back!” I scream. “Back!
Back! Back!” But a bullet hits Tsura’s hand. She screams like an eagle, blood spraying the
rock. Guaril reaches for her,
overbalances and then...
...then they don’t fall. They
merge with the cliff–face. I see them sucked right into a vein of rose
crystal. What in the name of Truth?
I cut the rope between me and the end absorbed into the rock, and
scramble up without them as the bullets keep on coming. And I look again at the crevices I grip. Hot springs can leave veins of calcite
deposits—slashes of magentine scar the whole bloody cliff!
I swing wildly on my rope, leaping from side to side to make a
poor target, but it doesn’t do much good, my fast reflexes can’t speed up the
pendulum swings, and the bullets just keep coming! One hits so close that flying stone flakes
cut my face and I shriek like a scared little girl and then I do a terrible
Mindblast! I pour all of my
fear into one great flare back at the gunners, amplified by my heightened
neurology on top of magentine concentrations so great that it can do things I
don’t even understand. I hear the screams
of men dying of fright—I feel like they use my throat, then realize that my
whole body heaves with howling out their torment with them! My own head pounds with pain from the echo of
their bursting blood vessels turning their brains to mash.
Shivering as violently as Elmer used to do, I make it to the top,
I claw at sod to drag myself up over the brink, trying to yell, “Run! Run!” but I don’t have any voice left, but
they don’t need more than a rasp, they grab my arms and scramble with me away
Over and over I keep telling myself, “I must never tell Merrill
what I have done...he must never learn what I have become.”)
When you wake up in the
morning and know your own damnation, the birds still sing, the sun still
shines, but this impenetrable shell encases your soul, so that it doesn’t hear
what your ears hear, it sees no light, it feels nothing of the warmth that
touches your skin. You eat your meager
breakfast, and on some level you do feel grateful for each mouthful, and you
note the flavors, but you do not taste them.
It means nothing to satisfy your hunger.
All day long you move through beauty, and you know it, but the beauty
cannot reach you.
And the scariest part is
that you almost prefer it that way.
You’re through with trying, with the unbearable burden of striving to be
worthy of all the beauty in the world.
You accept the ugliness inside you as a necessary condition of
life. You surrender all your doubts as
you drill your underage soldiers for the carnage ahead; you can ask anything of
them and they will deliver, for they share your damnable condition. You wonder why war crimes ever bothered you.
But every so often your
conscience gives a pang, as sharp and rending as a wounded child’s cry, as real
as if an angel had stabbed you with cold steel.
But no, it’s more like the cramp in a tight-bound limb, the circulation
fighting through the bonds, trying to mingle its blood with the rest of
you. Oh, then is when you hate all
morality the most! Then is when you
understand a monster like Sanzio perfectly.
* * *
Deirdre’s eyes flew open.
She watched Justín’s sleeping eyelids tremble as his lips mouthed, “...
monster like Sanzio perfectly...” She
did not want to wake him. She did not
want to discuss this.
But Justín stirred before she could slip back into the past. His eyes opened on her and he smiled
ironically as he switched the music off.
“Ah, how convenient cultural immersion must be for an agent,” he said
sleepily. “You can look back on your
missions and think, ‘Someone else did that.
Someone from another land, with a different set of values.’ You all do that, you know.”
“Do we?” she asked faintly.
And silently she asked herself, “Did Zanne?”—guiltily realizing that she
now understood something that not even Merrill knew about his wife.
“Assuredly. The agents’
drug of choice. When you sign the papers
that change your citizenship it works like a magic rite—in your mind you really
did become Deirdre of the Charadoc.
And now you’ve gone back to being Deirdre of the Tilián—isn’t that
She shook her head.
“Justín, when I first met you I thought you were gentle. Kind.”
“I think I used to be.” The
smile faded from his face. “Yes, I think
I am, still—kind to sedated agents, gentle with their vulnerability, doing what
I can to purge their souls and send them back home for a brief interval of
normalcy.” He shook his head and laughed
faintly. “Normalcy—whatever that means.”
“But with me...”
“I thought you cruel at first, to insist on doing this awake. Cruel to me and to yourself. Yet I find it so refreshing, now, to finally
be able to say out loud the things that agents normally can't hear from
me. Most agents feel so superior to
people like me.”
“So you punish me for facing what the others turn their backs on
as fast as they can.”
He frowned and sat in thought a moment. “It does sound bad when you put it that way,”
he said at last. “And it may be even worse. Maybe I punish you for facing what I myself
Deirdre sighed. “I can’t
judge you, Justín, and you can’t judge me.
Can we leave it at that?”
“I guess we have to.”