IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Monday, November 30, 2708
I can see the whole school from this hill, cob buildings in a broad green field like the palm of a gentle hand, cupped by this and other hills that loved the orphans sheltered there. Yet ravines crack the illusion of safety here and there, jagged interruptions of the surrounding forest. No beauty goes unscarred in this, the lovely, godforsaken Charadoc. Now and then a break in the overcast makes the scene glow in a heavenly light, but then the shadows soon come back to brood. In an hour more I know that the rents in the clouds will heal into one great, seamless pall, cutting off the sun.
And the grounds swarm with an infestation of men in olive green. We can’t possibly take on a force that size, not as an army at least. But we can certainly do some guerrilla-style damage.
“See the bell-tower?” I ask Tanjin, pointing out the chapel. “It would make a fine perch for a sniper, wouldn’t it?”
“I...I guess so.”
“So what would be the drawback?” If he says “God,” I’ll clip him one.
I think he almost does, but then, frowning, he says, “It’s too easily surrounded, and there’s probably only one way down. It’d become a trap.”
“Right you are! Always try to make sure that you’ve got more than one route out.” Pity we couldn’t arrive on Sunday—one bomb in the chapel would’ve done the revolution a world of good. I size up men, and tanks, and artillery, and flags of troops upon troops upon troops, and sigh. I’ll find other opportunities.
(I grabbed my chance, and now I wish I didn’t. I dart from corridor to locker-lined corridor, panting hard, breasts and belly bouncing till they hurt—running’s gotten a whole lot harder than it used to be. But I think I outran...no! I hear the guard’s steps pounding right the way I came. I throw the nearest door ajar and then flee it—Deirdre taught me to make false trails when I could. The heavy thing in my skirt-pocket thumps and thumps against my thigh. Quick—in h...no! Not in there, soldiers in there! Thisaway—fast. Now behind this row of buildings where the weeds grow tall, now up the tree—ugh, but it’s hard to climb! Up, over the roof, quickly, hop down the other side, roll like Deirdre taught me, metal bruising against my thigh, dust myself off, catch my breath, pick weed-stickers out of my dress. Together now? Okay, then.
Walk to my post in the cafeteria like I belong there. But as soon as I enter the pantry, I see Reno’s eyes glinting in the darkness. I leave the light unlit.)
I turn aside to slip into my mouth just a little bit more, just enough to cut through the heaviness that draggin’ fever piles on me. I chew quickly while Tanjin struggles to scratch a bite where his bad arm can’t reach. I feel the bitter fire spread satisfyingly from my jaws to my brain and throughout my body. I feel everything and nothing, normalized and strange, intense and distant, clearheaded at least for the struggles ahead, terrified and yet quite objectively enjoying the fear.
Tanjin has found a broken branch’s stump, jutting from a trunk, to scratch against, scraping like a bear. I repress a laugh, then join him when he’s done. I can last for a bit now; the last thing I need is to lose consciousness at a time like this. Since embracing the leaf I have had no more surprise “naps” taking me.
Now Tanjin and I leave the hill, slipping through the surrounding trees, ghost-quiet, surveying the school from every angle, trying to figure out how best to take advantage of such a concentration of the enemy, but the only problem with that is that there’s such a concentration of the enemy. We peer from weeds at boots and wheels, we peer from branches at helmets and tank cockpits. We aim to circle the entire school.
(Reno and I stare at each other amid the jars and boxes, where hardly any light leaks in. We stare and stare and finally I bring out of my pocket what I stole. His eyes widen, pale in the dark, and he steps back at the sight of the pistol, but I step forward firmly. I take his hand. I put the gun in his hand.)
In whispers I point out weaknesses and strengths to Tanjin as we make our circuit. One weakness is that their heavy machinery makes so much noise that no one can hear a guerrilla’s footfall. Let’s not let that make us complacent, however—the noise can stop at the flip of a switch.
(“I gave you a gun like this before, Reno,” I say to him, quietly but strongly in the dark. “I gave it to you, and then I knocked it out of your hands when you would’ve shot yourself. I saved your life, Reno.” I step forward again, so that the barrel pushes between my breasts. “Shoot me with it, if that’s what the army tells you to do.” I feel the metal tremble between my breasts.)
“Where’s Kiril in all this?” Tanjin asks me.
I stare out over the occupied campus, at the hundreds and hundreds of olive-clad men, but I can’t see a little girl anywhere. “I don’t know,” I say finally.
“I guess that’s a problem,” he says.
“Not really,” I say, and he looks at me. But I know Kiril—or did. If we could hurt the forces that starved her mother, the old Kiril would’ve gladly die among them. And if she has changed, well, that works out, too.
(“So why don’t you kill me?” I ask him. “Isn’t that your duty?”
His hand drops. Then he sags against a heap of cornmeal in sacks, cradling his bandaged arm, and I hear a sob.
“You don’t know what your duty is anymore, do you?”)
“Okay, Tanjin, now you know their forces and our forces. Do we go against them in pitched battle?”
He shakes his head. “Wouldn’t work,” he says.
“Right you are. It wouldn’t work. So what can we do instead?”
He knits his brows. “Fire?”
(“Reno, if you can’t fire on me, then that leaves you one sane choice.”)
“That could do it. They’ve got wood shingle roofs.”
He says, “We’ll need someone to slip in there and start the fire from the inside out.”
“Yep, you’ve got a point there. But it’d be dangerous work, with so many men piled into one place. And I see a lot of new recruits down there—ones we haven’t broken down yet.”
“How can you tell which ones are new?”
“The piping on their uniforms’ still purple. That dye fades pretty fast on the march.”
(Gently I pull the gun from his hand and slip it back into my pocket. “Run away, Reno. You’re not a soldier anymore. All those bad things they made you do, they can all go away if you turn your back on them now.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Please, Reno. I...I don’t want you getting hurt. Not anymore than you already hurt. Please.” And then he reaches out and strokes the tear from my cheek and he knows I mean business. “Tonight Reno—please.”)
I study the newbies, the hard eyes, the coarse jokes, the jostling and the surly looks. I think I know their type: city riffraff, recruited from the refuse of an economy floundering more each day that this rebellion stretches on. We have conspired with our enemy to fashion men like this.
(Gently he pulls me to his breast and I weep there against him, my throat in easy reach of his hand and I wouldn’t blame him if he did what I’m thinking. “You’re not like the men of this army, Reno. You don’t belong here. You think with your soul. You see the truth.”
“Truth,” he says with a faint laugh. “I wish I did.”
“Someday,” I sob, “when you are older, you will understand how horribly, horribly complicated life can get, how sometimes you can do nothing good.”
“This is good,” he replies, his arm warm around me. I look up at him. I stand on my tiptoes to kiss him, but he turns his cheek to me. “I hope,” he says, “that someday you will get to be a child.”)
So...the Charadocian Army has resorted to recruiting the worst of the worst, blunt objects on two legs to bludgeon us without mercy. I can work with that. Good luck trying to impose any discipline on them. Unleash their brutality on the countryside and just watch how the populace rallies around Egalitarianism.
(“There you are, you little pig!” The door slams open, the sunlight blinding all around the guard. “I saw you stealing from the magazine!” He raises his gun, but Reno tackles him, knocking the weapon from his hand. They wrestle, crashing through the dry goods, cans clattering and rolling everywhere, flour sifting down. Reno grabs a can of pork and beans and smites him hard across the brow. The eyes go wide, the pupils dilate, the blood trickles from the dent in the skull.
“My God...” Reno says, rocking back on his heels. “My God...”
I try to tug him to his feet, but he won’t budge. “Go away!” I plead. “ Now! I’ll run crying to Sarge, I’ll tell him the guy went crazy and attacked me. He won’t remember what happened.”
“You would ruin a man’s reputation to...”
“I’ll put toad poison on his skin—they won’t blame him.”
“I have it. Now go—go while the camp’s still in chaos and nobody knows quite who’s sent where.”
He stares at me with all the pain and horror in the world.
“If I do one good thing in this world, Reno, let it be that I saved your life. Please!”
He rises then slowly to his feet. He caresses my cheek, the horror in those great big eyes of his all mixed up with love, and then he runs out the door.)
“The best place to light a fire,” I say to Tanjin, “would be the magazine.”
“Ah—with all their explosives.”
“One of the most important things about guerrilla warfare is to calculate, with every move, how to get the ‘most bang for your buck’, as they say.”
He laughs softly, eyes glinting. “Some bang,” he says.
I nod, smiling myself. Aichi would be pleased.
(I take a few breaths to calm myself and steady my hands. Then I step over the unconscious, probably dying guard and take out from my hidden pocket the little vial that I brewed up in secret on the march. Carefully I extract a dart, soak it in twice the fatal dose just to be sure, and I prick the man deep in his neck, from the angle it would hit if someone shot him from behind. He won’t even know...)
“...what hit ‘em,” Tanjin says.
“Oh yes they will,” I say, fighting to keep my chuckle silent. “That’s the terror part.”