IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
The Burden of Flight
Monday, December 28, 2708
Now Cyran informs me that e must fly me every day–reconnaissance matters too much to leave me marching on the ground. I’ve done reconnaissance for him before, sure, but not over such a wide stretch. Does he have any idea what this costs me? That flying burns calories like crazy? He must. He saw me come in yesterday. The needs of the People surpass those of any one soldier.
Accordingly, I have made a framework of scrub-branches, rags, and turkey-feathers (thanks to the turkey-farmer who slaughtered much of his flock to feed us) almost double my armspan, not because I really need wings (actually they slow me down and make my shoulders ache) but because they make a grand target for the army snipers who keep trying to shoot me down, ever since that stupid stunt with stealing the officer’s wig—much easier to aim for than the skinny little body that dangles in between them.
I have even scavenged hinges, springs and wires from a dump we passed. Between my movements and the wind, the wings make interesting random flaps and bounces, foldings and extensions, that make them seem lifelike, and only I’d be close enough to hear the little squeaks and creaks. I feel rather proud of the effect.
And they’ve saved my life several times today already. Whenever the bullets tear through the structure (doing its looseness no real harm) I make a creditable screaming tailspin, tumble down to a sheltered spot in the worst terrain that I can find, quickly fold the wings up and zip out of there unseen, grazing close to the ground in my escape-flight, while cheering army-grunts scramble over rocks and through thorn-choked ravines to find my supposedly dead or wounded body. Scouring the countryside delays them nicely, and the absence of my mortal shell (plus subsequent sightings of me elsewhere) only enhances the stories.
Then, out of sight, I shoulder the cursed, heavy thing again and fly to overshadow the next troop, crucified to my legend. The Ancients made communication-devices that everyone could carry in a pocket, connecting in an instant from anywhere to anywhere in the world: little hand-held things that fried the brains with radiation over time, or so they say, but right now they do sound tempting.
What sounds even more tempting right now would be a nice, hot cup of coffee, maybe because that’s something familiar and useful and friendly, and it warms the chest in a way that greenfire never could, and the wind blows so cold high up in the mountains. But we ran out three days ago. I can almost taste it as I fly.
(Cybil has spoken all day of the major city just beyond the hills: her birthplace, Vayefeleze. She tells us of their winter celebrations, their art museums, their tempting cafés, till I can almost taste the cappuccino on my tongue and hear the New Year’s carols under festoons of blinking colored lights reflecting on the snow—oh, but she’s a sybaritic poet!
In the meantime we drink cups of aromatic treetip tea and appreciate the art of nature all around us, stark but lovely chiaroscuro strokes of winter, or at least I do, happy to have at last recovered from that dreadful migraine. And the hills do seem a wee bit closer.
I examine the device that Toni gave to me. It looks like some antique from Earth, the sort of doodad that a rich family like the Montoyas might pass down in their family without any understanding of its nature. It is neither aesthetic nor ugly, sort of pleasantly prosaic, really. Many hands have taken good care of the leather. Old grime has gotten inside the glass of the dials, on the other hand, and in one I see a dead bug. I suppose they had no idea how to repair whatever it is. Besides, that grime might come from the Mother Planet, adding value.
I open up the battery-compartment in back, and find it stuffed with magentine crystals. Of course.
I probe it telepathically. I find Tshura sleeping. I leave her dreams undisturbed; she will need all the rest that she can get to recharge.)
Tuesday, December 29, 2708
Some of the battles have already begun. I soon lose count of how many bloodied fields that I have soared above. Some of the smaller bands have vanished completely. Sometimes I have seen bodies with no one left to bury them–and God help me, I don’t have the strength to bury them, either. But if we have lost many, the army has lost more. At least I think so. At least I hope that my yearnings have not distorted my estimates.
Now I gather some especially juicy information: I sight Sanzio D’Arco himself, directly behind Cyran’s band, as though by arrangement. I watch him walk through some post-skirmish wreckage, taking his notes, gesturing for men to lift up a wounded rebel and haul him towards the largest tent. Even without the blazing-white shirt, much too full but with those tight, long cuffs, I’d know his every posture, every move, better than I know my own. With the pistol that I’ve taken to carrying on flights, I shoot the wounded rebel dead, and those on either side who carried him, hurl backwards from the shooting, and then speed out of there, flying blind with tears.
A doubt pounds in my heart, something that I suddenly know for sure even as I fly away, like it explodes into my skull with the force of rage behind it–he never meant to torture that poor fool! What information could he possibly pry from such a one that he didn’t already know? That was the medic’s tent they hauled him to! I groan, tumbling into freefall with my head in my hands–then grab the wings before the wind rips them off my back, pull myself together, and fly back on track. And then, too late, I wonder why on earth I didn't shoot D’Arco, too?
Which craving, Deirdre? Seriously. The powder or the ticket home? Or maybe just the existence of one bitter soul who understands?
More troops, on both sides. I make mental notes as Til Institute trained me to, fixed in full detail in my memory to disgorge later. I try to remember the innocent little girl in memorization-class, all those years ago. I can recall details–a pair of flower-printed leggings with grass-stains on the knees, a teacher who wore her hair in a complicated double bun, a kid who fell asleep in class and made us giggle with his snores–but I can’t recall the girl, herself. I can’t recall what it felt like to have never seen a battle, to have never killed.
The land looks red in places, raw and torn up by trampling feet and bullets. But the blood came from human beings though the mountains groan with what we’ve done, the Maidens hiss, I can hear it all in the wind. And I can smell the bloodshed clear up here. I swoop down for any glimpse of survivors, see none, move on.
(“Red,” Jake says, staring at his wrist as Don changes his bandages, in a smoky, drafty hotel room. “I can see the color red.”
“Good,” Don answers, and binds it up with gauze, though Jake doesn’t look the least bit happy with this breakthrough.)
The powder or the ticket home. Either flight would leave such thoughts behind. Instead I have to fly the hard way, with nothing better than a few raw leaves and a prayer to ghosts to hold me up in the sky a little longer.
(“I see red, too!” George exclaims, and he bursts into tears. And now Jake finally smiles, reaching his uninjured arm out to the boy. George stares a moment, and then embraces him, sobbing like it would break him.
“Tears burst through,” Jake says, “They can shatter spells and set you free.” And then he looks sad again, and my heart just breaks. George doesn’t see Jake’s lips move, saying, “I wish that I could cry.”)
Landfall. Usual bruises. My skin looks tie-dyed in plum and charcoal-blue by now, and blood stains the knees of my leggings these days, underneath the skirt. But I always make it back to my feet to do my duty and report. I have informed Cyran about Sanzio’s presence nearby. E has not said a word all evening since, brooding on the coals of our campfire.
I stumble on my way to the bed that they make for me, and Tanjin catches me before I hit the ground one more time. “I fly so much I’m forgetting how to walk,” I joke. He makes a stab at smiling back, but I can't make him laugh. No one ever wakes me for a shift at guard duty anymore.
Wednesday, December 30, 2708
Lufti will not help Kiril strap me in anymore. I caught him this morning, in fact, beating my fake wings with a stick, crying, “Bad horse! Bad horse!”
He watches now, in horror, in this tarped-off space for the wounded, after my day’s flight, as Makhliya salves the sores upon my shoulders, taping on thick pads that I know will wear through before tomorrow ends. Kiril tries to make me eat, but I feel too tired to move my jaws.
I finally give Makhliya a good look. She thrives despite the harsh conditions, her face rosy, almost glowing, even if a little bit more pimply than I remember. And she has gained weight. Her once concave waist has become a bit convex.
She sees where I stare, glances down at herself, and back at me. “I know,” she says. “I've started to show. But it's okay. Father Man has already performed the marriage—sorry we couldn't find you to invite you.”
“No,” I say, my eyes watering as I take her hand. “It's not okay. It's not okay at all.” But she just shrugs and moves on to other patients.
Lufti looks sideways at me. He does that a lot. I make a point of only chewing greenfire in the morning, so that I will sleep at night, so there’s no point in telling Kiril about something that has already worn off. But Lufti sometimes sees what the sane could miss.
It turns out that he has something else in mind. “You should promiscu too,” he tells me gravely. “We use you up too fast—we need more Deirdres, lots of Deirdres before the fall of night.” But then his face clouds. “My night falls faster still. The stars come out and oh, how they glare!” He stands up, mutters, “I've got to find Kiril,” and walks rapidly for the entry-flap.
“Come back here,” I call, and he returns. “Tell Kiril that she gets a cigarette tonight, and tomorrow. I deceived her for two days. I will abstain tomorrow.” I hear that people like a little nicotine after...that. “Tell her I’m sorry I didn’t confess before.” He nods, and leaves me to my shame.
(“We’ve found them,” I say. George turns dead white. Beside me Wallace gazes on the dilapidated house with weary remorse. The mailbox reads, “Winsalls” and nothing more.
“Hanukkah,” Jake murmurs, his eyes thoughtfully wild. “Even now Alroy hasn’t lost his touch.”
Don looks at him, nearly as crazily. “You think he...but of course. He knew exactly when it would all have to end, and how long after it would take us to get here.”
Wallace clears his throat, then says, “Come along, George; we must secure their permission,” as he pulls off his gloves to extract the necessary papers from the briefcase at his side. I can hear them rattle faintly in his hand.
In a small voice George asks, “Must I?”
Wallace forces a smile. “They’ll think I’ve kidnapped you, otherwise.”
“They won’t care.”
Wallace climbs out of the sleigh and holds his hand out to George. “Come, come. Everything improves when you face your fears and get it over with. I should have learned that years ago.”)
The whisper goes on and on. “I can’t face it any more. I just can’t, I can’t. No more. I can’t face it. No. I can’t.” I turn my head as Makhliya moves my hair to bandage the other shoulder and I see the woman beyond her, trembling, sipping a fragrant chamomile tea as her husband rubs her shoulders, in this space for the wounded, without a wound on her visible flesh, but oh my heart breaks for her.
Cyran ducks in and looks down on her. “I hear you want to muster out already, Suleya.”
“Can’t face it anymore. Just can’t. I just can’t, can’t, can’t face another day of it.”
“Let her go,” her husband pleads. “Let her take the children back to the farm.”
“We’ve had children in the ranks long before you enlisted. What makes yours so special?”
He lifts his chin at that. “That they are mine.”
Cyran sighs. “She has seen our faces, Rogan. She knows our movements.”
“The whole damn midlands have seen your faces! Everybody knows your movements!” He starts forward, but Cyran pushes him back.
“Okay, okay! Good point.” E stares at him a moment, then says, “Call the children in.” E steps back and lets the man leave and come back quickly with two lanky boys and a girl, whispering to them.
The older boy pulls away. “But I want to stay and fight, Papa!”
“But your mother needs...”
“Let him,” Cyran says, in a tone that brooks no argument.
“Go outside, then, Baruch.” He kisses his wife, then says, “Darling, heart of my heart, lead the children back to the safety of the Midlands. Tend the farm. Keep a hearth for me to come home to. Can you do that for me?”
She nods, and then I can see her relax, even from here.
So Cyran asks, “Do you vow to uphold Egalitarianism your whole life long?”
The mother and both children say, “We do,” one after another.
“Do you vow to give aid and comfort to the Egalitarians whenever you are able?”
“Do you vow to spread the word of Egalitarianism to any who will listen?”
E doesn’t ask them to bear arms again if called upon, I notice, but e invented this ritual, so I guess e has the leeway to omit whatever e wants. “Then go in peace. You are mustered out.” Then e kneels down and takes the woman’s hand. “But stay with us anyway, for a few nights more. Serve with the medics, if you can’t face the coming battle. Because battle must happen, if we are to clear the way behind us for you to go home.”
(“The road to home,” Cybil sighs, as we walk openly on the pavement, feeling simultaneously relieved and uneasy. Twilight begins to settle around us as the sky colors brightly. Yet...too bright, too many particles in the smoky air. And the sun shouldn’t set in the north.
The device which I carry starts to crackle and hiss.
“Tshura?” Toni asks. “Zanne, she’s trying to tell us something.”
“I know,” I say. I study the dials, but the corroded old arrows can't move.
We jump back from the rush of the first cars. Then climb up the forested hill above it just in time, for not only do more and more cars come barreling out of Vayefeleze but some of them veer to either side of the road to hurtle past the faster. We hear crashes now and then. And then the road clogs with cars and people leap out of their vehicles to run.
“What’s going on?” Cybil cries out to the nearest runner.
“Fire!” he calls back and doesn’t wait for us to catch up.
“They went mad and set the whole thing on fire!” shouts another runner
A woman running by wails, “Evvvverybody!” We see now the wall of flame galloping behind them, leaping higher than the buildings. A fire-tornado begins to rise. We join them running.
“Hold together!” I cry out, but the crowd shoves us apart anyway.
It doesn’t take long to reach snowy fields and meadows that no blaze could burn. Dazed strangers wander around, coughing the smoke out of their lungs, looking about themselves as if they expected shelter to just materialize.
Night falls quickly in December. It gets colder and colder—cold enough to kill. I start pulling people together to improvise shelter and start a fire of our own. And I don’t recognize a single face around me.)
Daylight lingers long in summer, but the shadows of the mountains plunge us into twilight hours ahead of time. I don’t care; I sink into the inner night of utter, total exhaustion.
(Night falls before George and Wallace come out, though a faint ghost of sunset still streaks the sky, in the purply-gray ashes of the prior blush; we can see it through the door of the stable where we huddle with the horses. The sound of shouting and breaking stopped long before, when Jake had restrained us from going in. And the hour long passed when Don asked, “Don’t you think we should go in there and see if they’re still alive?” We ate a cold lunch waiting, and have just begun to rummage in our packs for a dinner when lamplight warms the grimy windows and the door creaks open.
Now Wallace emerges to beckon us in. “Come on,” he says, “they want to serve you supper.” His face looks boiled in tears. “I have wrecked their lives, I have wrecked their son’s life, and yet they want to feed us.”
Mr. and Mrs. Winsall appear at the door to wave us in. They’re both drunk, of course. That’s the only way they know how to be, now. They have grown swollen-faced and florid, and their teeth rot from passing out before they can brush them, for years on end. They no longer look a thing like the radiant young couple in the wedding-picture on the dust-thick mantle, behind the broken glass. And yet they set out what remains of their best china, wiping out the dust on dirty towels, and pour us steaming bowls of overcooked, unseasoned soup, and do their best to smile.
Jake stops them as they lay out silverware, taking a hand of each. “The spell has broken,” he says. “You can go into town, now, and seek treatment for your illness. You will find the townspeople more merciful. You will find hope.”
Mrs. Winsall throws herself onto his breast, sobbing, and he hugs her back, stink and all, then holds out an arm for Mr. Winsall, too.
And after that we eat. And no one says a word of complaint about the cooking. As they pass the bottle around, Don and I partake a little, enough to cut the evening chill. And then we head out to the sleigh again, not about to spend the night in that sad house, with directions on how to find the nearest inn.)