IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VI: The Rift
Sunday, December 27, 2708, continued
Cyran calls Kiril and me aside, marching to one side of the rest as the road passes through a broad, open area, over an expanse of rock where only moss and lichen grow. I let Kiril make her report first, while my mind drifts across the arid landscape. I’ve already planned my own; it lies in a closed folder in my mind, and right now I want to think of anything else, anything at all.
(Pauline has to make her report as though she still worked in a hospital, as though she expected us to transcribe it for her. Regardless, I get the gist: We have at least abated the violence in Kimba. She can travel now, and without a chain.)
(“I have sent in my report, along with my resignation,” Wallace says, “But the Alumni Board will want my head.”)
It feels good to let others take care of the details of ordering the march, to just grip my pack-straps and gaze out at the graceful circles of the flying dardies in a bright blue sky, as they search to see if we missed anybody in the burial detail.
(I listen as I watch the others pack up to leave, Dalmar giving all the food one last check, Toni rolling up the blankets—fresh and fluffy replacements for the now-ruined bedding that we began with. To my surprise and delight Dalmar’s lab results have approved a canister of cocoa powder!)
(We watch the sleighs pull up, taking on load after load of dazed-looking students. The air steams with cocoa from hot and distant lands, and the cups warm all our hands, passed about by a bundled-up little kitchen-maid with a turned-up nose reddened in the chill. Maybe we sip on cocoa from the same plantation where Deirdre and Jonathan hang out. Who knows?)
Of course we can no longer stay at what forever after will be called “Trap Canyon”. But where can we light? Not my worry, with Cyran here, thank the ghosts!
(I look at the people remaining to us. A Tai Chi instructor. A political liason. An accountant. A lawyer who used to do construction. A secretary. Two academics. A baker. A surgeon, but granted she also knows martial arts. A street-smart but aging newspaper hawker. A housewife junkie in early recovery. Two teenage skateboard messengers and a high school shotputter. Three more kids besides them, but the thief can handle himself in a fight All of them hardened by our trials to get to this point. I take one last, deep breath of the musty, cinnamon-laced air of Montoya Manor. “Right,” I say. “Let’s go, m’loves.”
Time, now, to spread our antidote across what’s left of the country. I wonder if we can do it?
No, Zanne, never think like that. I’m an agent of the Tilián, and a member of Fireheart Friendclan, and a shaman’s daughter, and a neurologically enhanced prodigy, not to mention a trained telepath, and most important of all, I’m me. I make dreams come true.)
My mind wanders, trying not to listen in on Kiril. I think I dreamed last night that Tanjin kissed me. Deliciously on the mouth, and then his delicate, exploring tongue sent shivers deep throughout my body, warming me in places that I had frozen years ago. And the thawing ached so exquisitely that wanted more and I wanted it to stop, and I didn’t know what I wanted anymore, and “knowing” seemed irrelevant.
(“I cannot stay here, Randall” Wallace tells me, very quietly. “Not as the first Headmaster in Toulin history to close down the school. And especially not when people find out why.”)
But it must have only been a dream. By the time I could pry my eyelids open he had gone on guard duty, only his warmth and musk upon the blankets beside me. Besides, it had only been a kiss. Had it been more, he surely would have stayed behind.
(I take point, with Apollo for back-up. Pauline and Jameel take rearguard. “Tshura says we can’t stay here any longer,” I explain as we walk down the empty hall, which our Romany friends assure us will stay empty for a little while longer. “It’s been lovely, but our vacation in Montoya Manor has come to an end.”)
(“Agreed, Wallace,” I tell him,” you can’t stay here.” I pat him on the arm, while nearby teenagers laugh nervously about their coming “vacation.” “But don’t be so hard on yourself—a whole lot more shaped that ‘why’ than any man could handle.”
“Toulinians will not understand that.” He makes a halfhearted stab at chuckling. “We are not known for our imaginations.”)
Cyran interrupts Kiril to turn keen eyes on me and ask, “And why did you ‘have to’ use so much leaf, Deirdre?”
“Draggin’ fever,” I mutter, my eyes dropping to watch my feet on the grit, left, right, left, keeping on no matter what I feel.
“And has the fever stunted your imagination, or was that the leaf?” e asks. “Because not so long ago you could have figured out how to delegate your work to others. Several others.”
I have no reply. E knows it, and presses me no further. Yet hir eyes just won’t get off of me. Hesitantly, Kiril resumes her report.
(Apollo asks, “Why does...uh...Tshura want us out, Zanne?” even as he peers carefully down a perpendicular corridor, not entirely trusting her information—as well he shouldn’t.)
Kiril finishes and I take my turn. Will Cyran even believe a word I say, now? And wouldn’t that be a relief, if e didn’t? With nothing left to lose, I take a deep breath and begin my own report. I know by now that nothing but the most honest account possible will satisfy Cyran. I have memorized what to say. I speak it as though a casual listener, myself, off in the distance, hearing the travails of someone else.
(We reach the end of the guest quarters. I scan outside the entry to a greater hall with eyes, ears, and psi, before leading them out. “Because Tshura and Guaril are losing coherence. They can’t protect us much longer.” The others stare at me, wide-eyed. “They’re ghosts,” I say curtly. Magentine impressions lingering in a primitive computer system not designed to hold onto such things. “What did you expect?”)
As I speak I feel my ghosts march beside me, or see them hinted at by a heat-shimmer, a stone outcropping, a ripple of windblown weeds in a miserly cup of soil in the stone. To one side a distant cliff stretches alongside us, deeply eroded, and the ridges halfway look like all the soldiers I have ever killed, lined up in a proper military row. I can almost see still more soldiers behind them, deep into the rock, going all the way to Hell and back. Only the most rigorous honesty can keep their souls at bay.
(I push Jake’s wheelchair down the hall, over worn but well-polished linoleum. He stares off in the distance the whole time, as though he could see through walls. Maybe, for a little while still, he can.
“Here, Don, this way.” The nurse leads me back a dark corridor and around a bend to where I’ve never been. I feel my neck prickle when I see cobwebs in the normally tidy school. The passage leads to a gate in front of a double door. With some effort and a rusty, skreeling noise, the nurse pushes the gate aside and then opens the doors of the....elevator!
He grins lopsidedly. “Students are not supposed to know that this exists. But we make exceptions precisely for emergencies.” Then he frowns. “And you’re not really students, are you? I keep forgetting. All of this will take some getting used to.”
“Not for long, sir,” I assure him. “We’ll soon be gone.”
Inside, as we descend, the elevator makes an unsettling clacking sound as it lets us down, our stomachs sort of floating in our bodies. I rode an elevator only a few months ago, in Istislan, yet it feels like I never have till now, as if I descend in something ancient and unholy. I suppose I’m picking up on attitudes soaked into the wood and metal for generations. I take my hand with the rings off the wall.
Jake looks up at me, wide-eyed. “It hasn’t closed, you know. The Rift. Opening it took too much. It won’t just snap shut overnight.” And my short hair stands on end.)
I feel my skin crawl with Cyran’s regard as I finish my report. I feel Kief breathing down my neck. I feel the ghosts of everyone I’ve ever let down staring at me right along with Cyran. The deaths...oh, all the deaths!
(Then Wallace turns to me with his wide, sad eyes. “Randall, will the Tilián even take us in, do you think?”
I smile up from my cocoa at him. “The Tilián are the least judgmental people in the world, Wallace.” Or the most, I suppose, depending on how you look at it.
“But...the deaths. So many deaths.” He glances back, to the upstairs windows of the infirmary. “George is a serial killer.”
A deep voice behind us says, “Til has retrained worse than him.”
“Jake!” I say, turning. “You’re up!” Sort of. Don has pushed him out in an antique wheelchair, bundled to the chin; he’s not yet steady on his feet.)
Cyran murmurs, “Kiril saw fit not to mention that you attacked
her. You heard her omit it, just
now, and there
were no other witnesses. You could
slid right past that and I’d have never known.”
Cyran looks on me with more compassion this time. “And that is why I can still have some hope left for you as my officer.” Dammit!
(Jake nods to me, his eyes still a bit strange. “Good morning, Randy.” To Wallace he says, “Til Institute has the best rehabilitative facilities in the world. I can’t say that either of you won’t sometimes wish you’d gone to prison instead, but in the end you will find your place in society, and you will become a blessing to others, and you will, I think, be happy.”
Wallace has gone pale. “Either of us?”
Gently I say, “There was the matter of the serving-girl.”
Faintly he agrees. “Yes. There was that.”
“You will need retraining,” I tell him. “You’ve never learned healthy ways to interact with women. You can’t just avoid them forever, and we can’t risk any more...tragedies.” I put an arm around him, because he looks like he could use it. “But don’t worry, sir....”
“Don’t call me sir. I have no title, now.”
“Wallace, then. You’ve got something better ahead of you. For the first time in your life, Wallace, you will live!” )
(Down the stairs we go, now, by a back passage seldom used in Montoya Manor. I don’t tell the others that my own boosted telepathy has begun to wane as well—thank the Gates of Knowledge for this truth! Much more of that and I do believe that I would have gone mad.)
They might have a point, Cyran and Kiril, and the ghosts. Maybe I did go very slightly overboard with the leaf, and maybe not absolutely unavoidably. Much more of that and I could well have gone mad.
(Did I really telepathize to Lisa in words?)
I glance over at Lufti where he marches with the others, arguing ferociously yet soundlessly, with either himself or something we can’t see. Suddenly he shouts at thin air, “You can’t have her, you gutter-bred bastard! Even without the drugs, all you ever were about was you, you, you!”
He leaves the ranks to hurry over and hug me, sobbing, gripping me so hard that he won’t let me move at first. Then a dardie sings, sweet notes upon the putrid air, and he laughs and lets go, singing, “Corn, corn, the dardies love the growing corn and so do happy crows!” He dances a little, and then walks beside me, hanging onto my arm, exhausted. I sling my pack to the front and hoist him up onto my back; his feet could use some more time to heal.
(We come out again on the ground floor into an unused ballroom. Kimba hangs on her brother’s arm till Toni picks her up. The treatments have left the girl depleted, but Toni has grown stronger these past few months. “Here, honey,” Toni says and presses a water-bottle to the girl’s lips; I’ve briefed everybody on the dangers of dehydration and kidney damage in chelation therapy.)
“Water, please,” Lufti rasps in my ear. Kiril holds up her waterskin to him and he drinks thirstily, as we rejoin the ranks and Cyran makes hir way back up to the front.