IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Back to Home Base
Saturday, February 6, 2709
At last, at last–I see Abojan pass, and the half-built ruins of the chapel far above us! Oh stark beauty, clinging between the cliffs! St. Teresa of Levitators, St. Adra the Wanderer, o give us shelter, sweet saints, and maybe we won't be quite so damned anymore.
But then I remember the desecration of the grounds in blood, and I start to shake–no, I've been shaking for quite some time, that's right, I keep forgetting–and I begin to weep, and then to curse. And then, just like that, I realize how absurd a reaction this must be, and laugh at myself.
"Drink water, Deirdre." I feel the nozzle touch my lips, and catch the liquid squirting in my mouth.
"Thank you Tanj...Kiril." She looks dead white with black pit eyes, a skull already.
Then the gunfire rains down on us from our own base!
"Oh Nooooo!" I wail, diving for cover. This is just too much, too much! We all dive, so shocked that we don't even fight back.
Then Lufti starts singing, his voice cracked but strong, "We, the seed trod underfoot shall send a secret, deepening root, shall rise a green, unnoticed shoot, abandoned to sun and rain..."
And Damien, far away, picks it up and sings it louder, even as he cowers behind rock, his eyes huge with horror,
"We, the wanton, wild vine,
Shall thicken, strengthen, intertwine,
Shall tangle path and sharpen spine,
Made tougher by want and pain...
And then everybody joins in, singing,
"We, the lush, ungoverned wood,
Shall thrive where no one thought we could,
Shall strangle harm and shelter good,
And overgrow our own again!"
And suddenly it doesn't matter whether this base stands or falls, whether we ourselves live or die, because the enemy can hack away at us all they want, they'll never get the root, we'll just keep growing back over and over again, fighting and fighting, not even death can stop us!
I lead the suicide charge. I wrench up a stone-stunted, shallow-rooted sapling, I run like I've run for days, skittering around, no bullet can get a fix on me. I reach the first bunker and scour it clean with twig-jagged sweeps, jumping in right onto someone's chest, knocking them crunchingly backwards while someone else grabs his loaded gun and I whip my sapling through a fire where its resins suddenly blaze up like a warning, and while I wield my torch my disciples do other things, violent things, with what only becomes violent in our hands, some of us dying and some of us not, and then we all run crazy to the next bunker, flesh and ghost comrades in arms alike in our fury, and on to the next bunker after that, and come out seeing something even crazier than ourselves:
A ragged figure runs towards us, dancing between the bullets like a manic scarecrow, cackling and dipping, leaping, dodging, skidding, pelting on as he arches around gunfire like he knows seconds before the snipers do precisely where the bullets will go. His matted hair and beard and spittle fly, his feet jig when the enemy tries to mow his ankles down, his arms lift and his chest veers just in time to dodge another, and he doesn't even see them, he has his back turned to the soldiers—Father Man comes flying towards us with his mutilated paws outstretched!
I grab him and throw my poncho around his stinking, skinny body, and we hightail it back to cover, hurling ourselves down to pant at Cyran's side. Dimly I notice Cyran holding a newly liberated automatic rifle.
"Oh Father Man!" I don't know which of us gasps it, which of us weeps out loud, and then I realize that we all do. A sudden hope flares up in my heart, brighter than the torch I left behind–surely Father Man can make it all right, surely he can help me get my soul back once again!
"Follow me, duckies!" He slips from our arms and slides right down a stony slope, into the breakneck canyon that we marched beside to get here–as it turns out, we skid down the sole safe path for miles, hidden in the brush.
Cyran whistles the "Come home to me" sparrow-call that we had improvised on the way–the only whistle-code that we can count on for sure. Soon I hear it piping up and down, and only a trained ear can distinguish it from the regular bird-calls all around us.
We follow Father Man into a crevasse so steep and narrow that it closes on us like the dark of night, but some sun must get in at noon, for the greenery grows lush, fragrantly bruised by our passage, and against that green bursts a brilliance of summer flowers, gold and orange, red and violet. Ages ago I wondered what it would look like after monsoon rains, so now I know. We pick our way through the weedy skeletons of comrades cast down the winter before, when we couldn't properly bury them, many piled on top of each other, the path a squeeze between them. Rough, homemade rosaries drape them all, now, no doubt supplied by Father Man–and we will never know how he managed to carve them.
"He gnaws the wood," Lufti whispers in my ear, his chin upon my shoulder as I carry him over the tumbled ground. "Even as he gnaws himself. The old bones of trees don't feel it, but he tastes the bitter resin as his own." None can hear him except me. "You are Legion, Deirdre–did you know that? You are purgatory, too. Sooner or later we all must come to you in the end." He glances at the skeletons around us. "Empty eyes. They got tired of seeing and so they emptied their eyes rather than take in any more. That's why I'm not quite one of them, you know. I cannot help but see and see and see."
I hear shouts above. The enemy couldn't see what happened and can't say how we vanished. This crack into the larger canyon quickly disappears from any view above–I had no idea! We can hide our entire army here.
I feel myself lagging. With difficulty, my arms still around Lufti, I maneuver till I can reach my pocket. But just as the leaf nearly touches my lips, Father's two surviving fingers snatch it away from me. I stumble back, alarmed; I didn't even see him double back.
"If thy teeth offend thee, knock them out!" he growls, tossing the leaf to the ground and grinding it underfoot. "Now follow close–soon all the little duckies can swim to shore and find their feathered nest."
I flog myself on as Father Man bounds to the fore again. With every thump of my foot to the rocky ground I feel more strength drain from me. He, on the other hand, bounces from stone to stone ahead of us almost like flying. He reminds me suddenly of the messenger who first brought me word from Cyran, flowing over all obstacles like that; I feel the tears surge down my grimy cheeks again.
He leads us to a long, deep undercut, where we can all huddle for the night. "Safe from the stars," Lufti sighs. Not exactly a feathered nest, but sheltered enough; we have slept in poorer places. Kiril falls to her knees near me, doubled over, groaning. I think we all feel like that.
"Nestle in, duckies. Man will guard you for the night. I have slept away the ages; I am fresher than I smell." He tugs packs off of shoulders here and there, hooking his palms under the straps. "You sleep now, sleep all together, and pretend that never did apple fall from the tree into the hand of Man."
We don't need any clearer invitation than that. We don't even wait for Cyran to declare no watch. We barely manage to get the blankets out before the darkness overpowers us and leaves us as empty of sight and sound, smell and touch, as the poor bones that lie behind us.
Sunday, February 7, 2709
Palms lift up my head, and I honestly don't know whether I dream or wake. My eyes won't open to let me see. "Are you sorry for your sins?" a gruff voice asks.
"Oh God, oh God, I am so very, very sorry!" I feel a dab of oil on my brow, more pressed against my palms. Then stale but welcome bread stuffs into my mouth, and then a cup clinks against my teeth, and I take in what turns out to be a choking gulp of very bad wine. But after I stop coughing I feel so grateful, so weepingly glad that not even the crash can dampen my relief. Then my head drops and I hear a groan and a scrape across the stone, as my confessor shifts to the next body down the line. "Are you sorry for your sins?"
Monday, February 8, 2709
Hands, with fingers this time, efficient and impersonal, give me water to drink, and then some sort of gruel to eat, and then more water. Fingers strip my garments from me and wash my body, then wrap me in blankets and roll me into a stretcher. I hear others receive the same care all around me. These newcomers must double more than twice our number–and I feel fear! Remembering the "rescue" that delivered me into D'Arco's hands, I try to sit up, my eyes suddenly wide open. I try to fight off the arms that press me back down into the stretcher.
"It's all right. It's all right. We're Egalitarians. We're taking you to our new base. Just lay back down and let nature take its course."
"But how do I...how..." They push me back with no effort whatsoever. "How do I know?" It's no use–no matter who they are, no matter what they intend, I lie utterly defenseless in their hands and can't help but let them carry me away. The greatest fear in the world couldn't keep me awake.