IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Saturday, January 16, 2709
(And now I’m lost, oh so very lost, along the car-choked highways of Vanikke, stumbling with the stinking mob of half-mad, half-recovering citizens, no particular destination, no plan for now, just surviving from day to day and hour to hour, hardly even aware of my hunger and my pain anymore, till I can come up with some kind of action worthy of my agency to stop this mass-stampede to doom.
But I can’t think. The crush of so many minds, so much hysteria among those saturated with poisoned magentine turns my telepathy into a handicap. I can’t get free of them long enough to build a wall against them. So I just wander with the rest.)
I march with the rest of my band, now, the aching shrunk down to manageable levels, the limbs moving once more at my command. We tramp through a forested stretch, down the rained-on side before we climb the steeper, final mountain-range ahead. Shadows move over us, and bands of warming sun. The ground softens under the litter of old trees, springs beneath the foot and sends up its resinous perfume.
No one bothers us for now. No one left alive knows where to find us. We might as well have gone hiking for the pleasure of it; I hear that mountain-climbers endure all manner of suffering just to say they did.
Yet...how long have I gone without rest? True rest, not just crashing, not running completely out of me, just laying down at the end of a normal day, and sleeping, and waking up naturally eight hours later. How long since I felt not just wired, but honestly, oh beautiful word, refreshed?
(Imicin smells refreshing at first, sort of green and piney, as Jake, George and I rub it into the hull, careful of how the boat, suspended in mid-air, sways on its cables. But after awhile it begins to make my eyes sting and water; no wonder barnacles don’t like it!
It doesn’t help the swaying that Don and Wallace stomp and clomp around on the deck above us, inspecting everything and grumbling about not getting our money’s worth for such an expensive drydock. I dodge an especially bad swing as Don explodes with “Christ! Will you look at that corrosion!”
“Language,” Wallace murmurs automatically.
“What part of ‘dry’ didn’t I pay for?”
“You can’t keep the humidity out completely in these parts,” Wallace says amicably. “You should have seen the condition my father’s boat would get in sometimes.”
George didn’t expect to spend our return to Port Iris like this; he grumbles under his breath, himself. He comes from inland folks and expected to just hop on board the Mathilda Gardner and take off. I grin to listen to him, rubbing the resinous wax over the name on the side of our rental boat; it goes on opaque at first, but I know it will soon turn clear. “That doesn’t sound like an Istislani name,” I say. “I wonder who Mathilda was and where she came from?”
“Not a clue,” Jake murmurs back.
“Hell,” George remarks, “and not the cozy version.”
I chuckle and he glares at me. “Well, Don,” I call up, “Do you think she’ll carry us?”
“Not all the way to Til Institute, but she’ll get us to Istislan
waters, no problem.”
Ambrette insists on carrying Lufti, as she has for the past couple days. Tanjin marches beside me, making sure that I can put one foot in front of the other, not taking my word for it. From Ambrette’s back Lufti holds out a wizened sausage to me. “Eat,” he pleads.
“Oh no,” I say. “I’ve had my fair ration.”
“It’s fuel,” he says. “It’s ammunition. You’re our weapon.”
Memories of Sharp-Eyed Shermio ambush me, causing me to stumble. But I take the sausage.
Sunday, January 17, 2709
Why won’t you accept this prescription?
Oh, sure, become an only slightly inferior imitation of a normal person. You know it doesn’t really cure narcolepsy, it only masks a symptom--why not let me be really good at what I am, instead?
You are a patient with a disease. Come on—we’ve had a treatment for this for years!
Yeah, right--a treatment that takes years off your life and pries the lid off of your sanity, to prevent a cosmetic problem of falling asleep under embarrassing circumstances.
You are so stubborn! You know that there’s more to it than that. What about the chronic exhaustion? This will make you a better person, a more productive citizen...
You lie! They used to call those “truckdriver pills,” back when they told my father that they’d make him a more productive citizen, able to work three shifts a day to not just support his family but buy us the house that he’d always wanted. He almost got it, too, before...you know, he never could remember everything he did that brought our family crashing into shards.
And so I wound up in the custody of a loving grandmother who got lied to, too, by a doctor who told her that those little green pills would rush her right back to work and make her a walking advertisement for her surgeon—see how quickly ladies get back on their feet after one of his hysterectomies? Except for the nervous breakdown that smashed her to pieces and left scars all over her brain for the rest of her life.
But through it all I still had my big brother to protect me from the fallout, loving me and nurturing me and taking the place of father and mother both--until the Sixties came and told him that forbidden fruit would make him like a God. They called it Speed by then; it made him fear my refusal to use drugs so much that he savaged the one he loved the most in all the world, and tried to kill me twice. Maybe getting my head pounded against a bathtub caused my narcolepsy in the first place; I just don’t know.
And when all three of them, in turn, returned to themselves again, they felt the horror of what those little green tablets of fire had done while borrowing their bodies—burning away brain and life and soul and love and the very basis of everything they’d stood for. And they wept, and they cursed the liars who’d convinced them that they had nothing to fear in small green pills, and not a sea of bitter tears could wash away one minute of the past. No, Doc, I do not choose to take my medicine!
“But how can you know for sure if you don’t try...
“I said NO!” I shout. “Leave me alone!”
Everyone stares at me, but only the donkey dares to bleat a sound.
“Sorry,” I say. “Just thinking aloud.” What’n ‘erth was I thinking, anyway? Whatever it was, it crumbles like the dried leaves in my pouch when I try to recapture it.
“It’s okay, Deirdre.” Daba’oth pats me on the arm. “You’re just tired. We’re all tired.” And gaunt. He looks about ready to crumble himself, poor kid.
Plaintively Lufti says, “Couldn’t we have just a little bit more leaf?” I notice for the first time that Ambrette has become too tired to carry him.
I examine the fragments in the final pouch. “We’re going to have to try and conserve it a bit more,” I say, “ But yeah, I think a wee touch now will make us all more productive in the long run.” I put a flake of greenfire in my mouth and pass some more around. I savor the bitter taste.
(Is there anything so restful, after a day’s hard work, as lying in a ship’s bunk feeling the waves rise and sink, rise and sink, beneath you? And hearing the soft breathing of the man you love more than your very soul, in time to the waves though he doesn’t know it, dreaming in the bunk below.
I bless George and Wallace for necessitating our doubling up like this, though I would have preferred something sharably wide. But even having him right beneath me fills me with peace.
Until I hear him murmur in his sleep, “We all must burn. Oh God we need to burn!”)
Monday, January 18, 2709
We track it by its smell–pungent, bittersweet. We keep our guns in our arms, scanning to our left and right, before us and behind. We search for the stamp of government-issue boots in dirt, but the stony ground gives us nothing. They want it as much as we do, now, maybe more.
It didn’t turn up in the supplies. Cigarettes, yes, and we smoke them gratefully, but not what we really need.
The smell of blessed poison grows stronger. We must have it, on this hard road. We drag ourselves forward, having no other objective with which to flog ourselves on, not till we satisfy necessity. Our muscles ache for it. Our weary veins cry out for fire!
There–we see a cluster of bushes–oh mountain generosity! Even from this distance, each curve of twig, each flutter of leaf, looks beautiful to me, shimmering in the harsh mountain sun.
For we have climbed higher than the clouds by now, to the cold, dry regions. The summer radiance beats down and makes us sweat, but then the high, thin air whips winter breath upon us and chills us dry again. So we tingle constantly between extremes–yet it doesn’t exhilarate us like the greenfire would.
In sight of our goal, we grow stealthier still, all too aware of how many others must desire this treasure, among theirs and ours, all pounding down the same road; even our own bands start to feel like competitors. We creep from boulder to boulder, keeping the bushes ever before us. A duststorm whips up but we don’t care; we feel half-blinded by a gritty haze of exhaustion anyway.
They pounce upon us from the upper rocks! They wrestle us for our guns, too close to shoot. Gaunt men, filthy men, who have marched too many days without any supplies at all. But I find new strength, wriggle out of my attacker’s grip in more directions than he can keep up with. I catch a glimpse of Daba’oth doing likewise–the kid moves like a fistful of snakes! I finally get my man pinned against the mountain’s stony breast–now Daba’oth brings a rock down crushing-hard on the guy’s head, grinning skull-bright as the blood spatters his face. Then the two of us spring to the rescue of the others.
Between us Daba’oth and I pry another starveling off of Lefty’s back, for his maimed hand gave him some trouble in the grapples, but his legs work just fine once we free him, whirling and kicking and stomping through the battle in a manic dance amid the mayhem, wherever some kid shoves a body his way.
And it feels good to be the well-fed ones for a change! Oh God forgive me how I gloat that for once we’ve caught the Charadocian army more poorly supplied than ourselves--No God, don’t bother forgiving me! I won’t let one minute of regret rob me of this moment–die you hogs! See how it feels! See how hunger and fear and desperation feel!
I stare in shock. Tanjin–Tanjin? The close range made a bloody mess of his face, but I can’t mistake that withered arm.
I see red. I react. I kick and punch, grab rocks and pound, I froth at the mouth, my hair flying everywhere, I snarl over the bark of bullets, I don’t know half of what I do.
More of them come flooding down upon us, around the rocks, greenfire burning in their eyes, for they got here before us. And they don’t need food, and they don’t heed pain, they just plow into us, laughing foul-breathed in our faces as they try to yank our guns from us before we have a chance to shoot them.
I hear more gunshots–how many of ours have lost their guns to the attackers? What does it matter? I don’t need bullets to fight! The red of Tanjin’s blood takes over, reactions move faster than my conscious thoughts, I don’t think at all, I just strike and strike before I hear the whistle-code for “Stop! Stop! Stop!”
I stumble to a halt, panting, gore all over me and I can’t remember, exactly, how it happened. The soldiers had a larger force, but they all lay dead, now, and I don’t understand why.
Then I look up from the corpse I’d been battering and see Kiril’s band, and Kiril herself, her prayer-cloth knotted over her face like a bandit’s mask. “They laid a trap for you here,” she wheezes. “I figured it out and turned it into a trap for them.” I look at her, then at the hateful greenfire bushes, then at her again, and then finally, lingeringly, at Tanjin, what they left of him.
He wanted me to train his half-dead arm to the proper angle for a rifleman. It didn’t do him any good at hand-to-hand.
“Oh Deirdre, I am so sorry!” Kiril says. Word: sorry. What does it mean? What good does it do?
He never met his father. Or he might have killed him, never knowing. Or maybe his father just now killed him, maybe that’s him right there laying sprawled over him, their spilt blood mingling. We will never know.
Was there ever a moment when Tanjin kissed me, sweet and tentative on the lips? Or did I dream that? I don’t remember all my dreams. Did I, sometime in the closed-eyed night, live a different life, a better life, where Tanjin and I could have embraced, could have married, could have settled down in a peaceful Charadoc and hang all wars and missions, hang all duty beyond the sanctity of family and plain old living just for life?
“Deirdre?” Kiril asks, like my name has become some kind of question.
I don’t recognize my own voice, too high, too shaky, too small. “Can we take the time to bury him?”
A pause, then, “You’re in command.”
We roll the soldiers into a ravine and kick some rocks and gravel over them, throwing in some hasty prayers to stay the ghosts, but for Tanjin we raise a cairn. Or the others raise a cairn. I find a slab of sandstone soft enough to carve letters into it. I cut in the words, “Tanjin. Rebel. Deirdre Keller’s Platonic Lover”. Maybe they’ll spark a legend for him, for us, worth at least a song or two. And maybe the words’ll just erode away before anybody who can read comes by. I wonder if anyone around here has ever even heard of Plato?
And I don’t care whether this gravestone weighs pounds or kilos or talents or metric tonnes. It weighs exactly as much as my heart, so heavy in my breast that I can hardly move.
Lufti meanwhile carves “The Shell of Rogan” on another slab. “He stands for all of them,” Lufti murmurs. “He is the Father of all Unburied Ghosts and the Patron Saint of Palm Nuts.” The youngest rebels, as though playing at a morbid game, fashion a toy-sized cenotaph to house the shell with Rogan’s name on it, for Baruch to mourn over, tears darkening the soft, pale stone. Soon others join him for fallen comrades left along the way.
Night falls by the time we finish, and I cannot read the words, myself. We have wasted valuable time and energy, but nobody complains. Only one cure for it.
“Come on,” I say. “Let’s get what we came for and move on."