IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VI: The Rift
Tuesday, January 26, 2709
(We start the lessons right on the boat, once we’ve got a steady wind, icy but fresh, driving us away from Port Iris and the sighs and spume of waves crashing up against the her rocks.)
We start the lessons right on the march, traveling through Mountain Maiden’s Knees in the dawn’s first light, where the stone-squeezed wind whistles around us, running its curious, cold fingers through our hair and watering our eyes. I bend down and pick up a likely chunk of granite.
“Rocks kill,” I say. “In fact, that’s how we got the better of the Meritocrats right here in this pass. They even the odds–just ask David and Goliath.”
I show them the ways to throw the small ones, the medium, and the large, the different positions of the arms, how to put your belly-muscles into it, how a lunge of the leg can help. I show them how rapidly the Neanderthals could mass-produce razor-sharp flake axes with one quick blow per blade to a likely chunk of flint. I fly up to the tops of boulders and shove rocks crashing down. I show them how a small stone can harden up a fist, and how a larger one can hammer hand-to-hand.
“Don’t just aim for skulls,” I say. “A rock can break a clavicle and make a man’s arm go limp as rope. A rock can cave in ribs that puncture lungs. Have they got shields? Then bowl their feet out from under them–anyone you trip falls wide open for a comrade with a gun.”
(Jake asks, “On what premise do we base morality, George?”
“Human rights,” he says, oiling and polishing the brass, not looking up.
“What’s the primary right?”
He swallows, then pours more pine oil onto the cloth. “The...the right to stay alive.”)
I pick up a little scrub branch. “Does this look small to you? It does to me, too. But it can lash, and the sudden sting can make a soldier drop his gun before he even knows what he’s doing. See this small twig end? It’d break before skin would, sure–but that won’t stop it from hurting eyes. People identify with their eyes more than any other part of the body; they’ll recoil instinctively at anything coming at their pupils. So one twig like this can make a man forget his arms, forget everything but dodging–again, leaving him wide open for someone better armed than you.”
(“That’s a good principle,” Jake says, helping Wallace clear ice off the riggings, “and it’s part of a larger, umbrella principle. Are you familiar with the Golden Rule?”)
Further on I find a fallen bough, blown in by the perpetual gale. “Now this won’t scare quite as much, because instinct tells your target that his eyesocket will take the worst of it; he won’t go blind. But that doesn’t matter, because you can reach killing force with this. Don’t swing it like a cricket-bat, though, unless it’s bat-sized and you need the distance and momentum. Grip it in the middle, so you can swing either end at will. At noonday break we’ll drill, while our lunch cooks up. You can cause concussions, break bones, pry weapons free of hands, sweep low and trip, or go in butt-end first into the abdomen and cause internal injuries. And don’t overlook the irregularities of a branch, the little spikes left over from broken twigs–they multiply the injuries from a blow.”
(Wallace says, “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you. But I tried, Jake! In so many ways I tried.”
Just to break the tension, I wink at him, grinning as I pass him the mop to reach the higher ice. “If it were that simple, I’d have invited my teachers along to play hooky with me, back in my schooldays,” I say with a wink. I don't mention that in Til children schedule their own classes, so playing hooky is impossible.
Jake nods. “You have to extrapolate—what would they want if they had good judgment?” More gently he adds, “And what would you have wanted, if nobody had traumatized you?”)
I lead them off the well-worn track, up onto the goat-path that I’d used before. “Feel that slippery gravel underneath? Your enemy finds it slippery, too. Keep your eyes scanning, and watch out for tricky ground. Then, if the fight seems to go against you, retreat towards it. Run like a bawling coward and let your opponent laugh, running after you, paying no attention to where his feet hit in his pride. Lead him right to where you know exactly what to do with your feet and he doesn’t. Then turn on him so fast that he goes off balance. Oh, and don’t forget, if you chance to go off balance, yourself, that this same gravel–any kind of dirt, really, but especially gravel–can also sting the eyes when thrown and buy you time to scramble up again.”
(Wallace’s eyes redden as he throws down the mop and cries, “How the devil am I supposed to know that?”
“Enough lessons for now,” I call out as cheerfully as I can. “Time for cocoa.”)
Wednesday, January 27, 2709
Glad to get the pass and its potential for an ambush behind us, we reach an unoccupied house, hidden in one of those sudden, green groves that can crop up sometimes, nestled in the folds of the hills where water gathers. An upper middle caste vacation home? We should be so lucky. More likely the residence of someone who wants to live far from the conflict. Yet such isolation means having to leave for days on end to sell goods and fetch supplies, luckily for us. Last time we came this way we slipped past quietly, seeing smoke spiral up from the chimney. This time it makes a nice place to camp.
The inside of the home looks lower middle caste. Modestly comfortable, with home-hewn furniture and the usual crocheted-string lace touches here and there. The pictures show offspring in various stages of childhood, teens and most recently adulthood. One of the bedrooms has turned into storage and another into an office; a third has the empty closet of a guest room. The young must’ve flown the nest. A toybox in the guestroom, however, suggests an occasional visiting grandchild.
Other closets reward our curiosity. We replace socks and anything else that has worn out. The clothes look fancier than the furniture, though you can’t really tell out here, where nobody would report them for the width of a sleeve; if they’ve got anything more discrete, they probably packed it for town.
Oh wait...what’s this? An indoor bathroom with a sink and toilet, both of polished granite? That’s not lower middle. And the kitchen reveals another such sink, a stone oven, and a granite countertop. And over here’s a reading-nook—they’re literates.
A workshop reveals rock-carving as the household trade—that explains a lot. I follow a wire to a window...oh my, a nice solar array upslope to power it all! Make that the high end of middle middle caste—the bulk of their funds seems to have gone for tools, but apparently this has paid off. The couple seems to specialize in mortars and grindstones for the most part, of the sort used by the humbler castes for turning grains and roots into flour, with an occasional artful bowl or vase, and of course bath and kitchen fixtures for the high-end customer. Nice work in progress, here and there. The empty stable shows that it takes two sturdy horses to haul the goods to market. The wagon will probably come home piled high with hay.
The lessons continue. How to twist vases or bottles, when you break them, to achieve the maximum jaggedness. How mugs can turn into raw glass edges with convenient handles. How many different substances in the average kitchen, bath, or utility-cupboard can hurt the eyes when thrown into the face–causing anything from crucial seconds of closed lids to lifelong damage. Consider that pretty much every tool in the workshop can function as a weapon, and don’t forget the pitchfork in the stable. Throwing books can buy you time, but pulling the entire bookshelf down on somebody buys you more–and if you do the same with a china cabinet, you can really make your point.
Kitchens make wonderful battlefields. Consider the virtues of boiling soup or a fryer full of bubbling oil if you’re lucky enough to arrive in time for dinner. But even if not, canned-goods can have fatal weight when thrown, be they metal, glass, or ceramic. They also roll under feet. Kitchen chairs fend off more than lions, tables up-end and make a barrier, and skillets and rolling-pins have always been a battered wife’s best friend. And by all means don’t forget the knives stuck to the magnet on the wall!
In other rooms, keep an eye out for scissors, knitting needles, or fruitbowls and ashtrays that can break and sport a sudden edge. Use furniture one way whole, another way when broken–the legs make perfect clubs, and don’t forget the splintered ends. Mops and brooms are just small quarterstaves. Anything on wheels can, with a push, trip up the nimblest, and that includes toys.
By the time I finish I don’t think any of those assigned to me will ever feel entirely comfortable again in even the coziest of home. And that home won’t appear anything like cozy whenever the owners return, after what we’ve left of it in practice. I just hope to God that they’re meritocrats.
Thursday, January 28, 2709
A fine summer morning makes the mountain air sweet, for the dew brings out the colors in every gleaming boulder and steams with petrichor. I should feel happiness. Yet in the increasingly hot-colored rock around us I can’t help but see the red of Tanjin’s blood, and all else fades to gray for me.
As I explain, on the march, the art of dislocation in all its variations, Cyran tells me, “You’re worth ten warriors!” Why? Because my heart is pure?
But I scarcely have time to think this before the army falls upon us, from both sides of the road. They look more feral than we do, their stinking uniforms in rags and their faces unshaven, but they have bullets, now.
My irregulars part to either side and melt into the rocks, while the main body of soldiers deploy their guns. We creep behind boulders, each finding separate gaps from which to watch the action, trembling every one of us–a few days is not a lot of time to learn unconventional warfare! Yet those of us who survive will have great potential for future lessons, I keep telling myself. And because I trained them, every death of theirs will be my own.
And I want to die! I leap into the fray as soon as I see one soldier start to load, I scream bloody murder and hurl my rock straight at the side of his head. But when he falls he clears the way for his buddy to get a bead on me. Go ahead! But my foot trips on a root and I plunge face-first while the bullet sails overhead.
I rip up the root, pulling up a whole shallow-founded bush trying to make its way in a crack of flint. I swing it into my sniper’s arms and knock the gun away, and then on the backswing hit his face. When he stumbles back somebody else nails him.
I pick up his gun and fire, but I feel too safe, so I throw it to an unarmed man of mine. Back to rocks–I smash one against the other and it cleaves to an axelike edge. I do hand-to-hand damage, sometimes hacking, sometimes bludgeoning. It gets raw-dirty really fast. My free hand grapples, my knee hits a groin, I break free, but someone grabs me by the hair but I use his pulling to add momentum to my punch to the gut and my rock-fist comes up as he crumples over so I knock his jaw upward. My stone-age blade cuts open a cheek, a chest, a shooting-arm. I hit an artery and the gush feels hot. I trip a foot and jump upon the chest, and hear the crack. I find myself laughing nastily.
A memory tears through me, of General Aliso, her clouds of blonde curls wafting around her shoulders underneath her officer’s cap, striding into a chapel, unleashing machine-gun fire onto everybody hiding there, smiling, impersonal, not hesitating at the unarmed hands going up into the air, the shocked look on elders and cripples and women with nursing babes in arms, huddled there for refuge. They fall right against the altar, their blood spattering across it. I know she smiled because I remember the feel of the smile upon my face, I remember the coolness in my blood, the kick of the machine-gun in my arms. A cloud of blondness wafted around my view.
I kill and kill to avenge those refugees, in a terrifying fury at what I don’t want to remember at all. I kill them because any one of them might have taken orders from her!
And damn them all, none of them can kill me! My reflexes whirl too fast. I can’t keep up with me, myself, when the battle-lust is on me.
Sudden silence halts me, no sound except the panting and a shuffling back of feet. Both sides stop; I let go of the man I’d been throttling, and he doesn’t come back at me. For we stare at a young lad stumbling into the battlefield, right down the middle, his long, sandy hair tangled and matted and hanging in his haunted eyes. And my heart breaks right there and I honestly don’t know why I don’t just fall down dead.
“Lufti!” I cry, and dash for him before anyone else can react. I scoop him out of there, running so fast that my feet take outrageous leaps on the verge of flight. I hear the battle rage behind us as I shove us into a sheltered space. A bullet ricochets off the rock, yet I think it came our way by accident.
I hug him tight, so tight, husking, “Lufti! What are you doing here? How did you find us?” He says nothing. I pull away, and see that I have stained him with the blood upon me.
He looks down at his shirt, and then slowly raises fierce eyes to me. Suddenly he grabs the hair to either side of my face and yanks me towards him. “You’re not dead yet!” he hisses. “You’re not dead yet!”
My reflexes still go faster than my thoughts, the battle-rush still on me. My reflexes cross myself before I remember that I have no right to do that anymore. Yet the gesture softens his face.
“I escaped,” he says simply, hoarsely. I know I will get no further explanation as to details. “I don’t belong in the tomb just yet. I have a grace. I belong with you.” For a moment his young face turns stern. “You need all the grace you can get.” Then he leans against my soiled breast and sighs, “Oh Deirdre, I am soooo thirsty!”
I run out from the crevice so fast that no one marks me, the tramp of battle and the ping of bullets still going on. I dash in unmarked, carrying water and bread. We might as well be a pair of ghosts, off on the sidelines of the main event.
He empties an entire waterskin before his throat feels moist enough to swallow anything else. “Have you had no water or food since you escaped?” I ask.
“Nope.” Then he curls up in my lap, and his face gets bloody from resting on my breast, and there he falls asleep.
And right there, listening to his soft snores in my arms, amid the gunfire and the screams, I suddenly wonder at my own, impossible memory while in the heat of battle, and it frightens me more than bullets. Aliso as me? Did I dream all that? Have I lost the ability to distinguish dream from waking? Have I gone as mad as Lufti?