IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VI: The Rift
Thursday, February 11, 2709
After another rough night repeatedly jolted from sleep by nightmare flashes, all I can do is light up a cigarette with shaking hands and puff at it desperately, trying to burn away the weariness and horror on my way to breakfast. Nicotine isn’t nearly as potent as greenfire, but it’s something, and oh do I need something! My soul stands over Tanjin’s dead body—or is it Kief’s?—and can’t budge till a few gulps of smoke can move me to pay attention to the aroma of frying sausage.
So I don’t immediately look up at the people joining me, and when I do I don’t recognize Father Man at first–only the mutilated hands give him away. He has scrubbed his skin pink, but that’s not all. Whispers go around the table about how, at his request, Ambrette has cut away the matted tangles of hair and beard, and shaved the stubble after, till he looks newborn. His face even seems somewhat less lined without the dirt. And though I don’t think his eyes will ever lose their haunted cast, they seem to look more clearly on the world. The smugglers have found clean black clothes for him, and someone sewed the collar of his new shirt into an open-fronted tube, into which he could insert the rabbet of his old rags, now bleached and recognizably white.
We all know the delicacy of newborns. All eyes watch him as he walks, hesitantly, to a place at the breakfast-table, an overpowering grief permanently etched on his naked face. Daba’oth pulls out a chair for him. Ambrette lays his sausage and potatoes before him so carefully that the dish doesn’t clink upon the wood. He faces everything, now, and perhaps stands more in danger today than in the height of his madness.
For the first time we see how strong, how dexterous, the two outer fingers have become, managing his knife, as he folds a fork into his other palm. He cuts all of his food at once while we stare, helpless of our rudeness, for never till now has he revealed to us how he eats. Then he shifts the fork to his fingered hand and eats from it, and we abruptly remember our manners and turn to our own plates. And he forgives us; he endures our curiosity as the least of his worries.
His voice still sounds gravelly when he says, out of the blue, “Mykolas. My name is Father Mykolas Bobola.” He smiles wryly. “But you can still call me Father Man if you want to.” And he goes on eating.
Lufti cries out like a spear gouges the words from his breast: “Must I carry it all alone, then?”
The priest looks over at him with the kindliest, smiling sorrow that I have ever seen. “Lord no, child! None of us have to carry anything alone.” He reaches out his arms to the boy who runs and buries his face against the clean, black shirt. “Have I taught you all so ill that you really think that? Then I had better make up the lack.”
“Father,” I say around a lump in my throat, “You have kept us going when no one else gave us any hope at all. Sick as you were, you have never, ever let us down.” And it saddens me to think of all the martyrs of the mind, all the good folk driven mad in the service of a higher cause, unrecorded in the calendar of saints.
(How long since I lost the others? Wasn’t that around New Year’s? And...oh dear Gates of Knowledge, more than a month has passed since then! And I still haven’t been able to think.
Well you’re thinking now, girl. You’re starting to feel solid, again. People all around must have begun to clear the magentine from their systems.
Naturally? No. That couldn’t happen. Dalmar and the others, some of the others at least, must pass out antidotes. They must spread. People might even make their own by now. Don’t I recall, now that I think of it, people sharing medicine along with food and water? Didn’t I partake, myself?
I stop in my tracks. No one can control dosages if this spreads as folk-medicine. The remedy has dangers even when closely monitored. People will die. People have died already—I’ve already seen them; I just didn’t register why.
And Dalmar has weighed the risk, no doubt with the help of Pauline, good old Pauline as cold and sharp and healing as one of her scalpels, reminding him that if many die, still many more will live, and all at least will stand a chance. I found good companions on this mission.
I feel humbled—not familiar territory for me. Not all agents study in Til. I don’t do this alone. Sometimes we get injured, and somebody else carries us for awhile, doing our work while we heal. Even if we can’t see them, can’t even find them.
And...what about this box I carry? What is it, anyway?)
The day wears on. No sooner do we clear the breakfast dishes than we need to start the cooking for our lunch. While I peel potatoes, Cyran gives me the mandatory scolding that I’ve waited all morning to hear, telling me of all the penalties that e’d rain down on any soldier who neglected hir gun half as badly as I’ve neglected myself, so why the devil shouldn’t e punish me? I tell hir to put me on KP duty, and I keep on peeling. E can’t quite hold back a smirk at that. We both know that e needed me to neglect myself, that e yells at me for show.
Then e surprises me by presenting me with my body-flit improved. Leather and foam now pad it here and there, and comfortable new leather straps replace the twine I’d improvised before. “I had you measured as you slept,” e says. E didn’t dare mess with the main wiring, which e couldn’t understand, but e had mechanics improve the structure here and there. A few quick manipulations lock the leg-struts (now made from resin-scrap) which a deft hand can make even through layers of fabric. Buckles adjust for wearing under or over my clothes. “Or for any weight gain–which you’d better have if you want to keep up with my army,” e growls. (Only now do I glance down and discover discrete eyelets cut and sewn into my new skirt, allowing straps to pass through, if needed. I wonder if they’ve done the same to my old clothes, too?) Then e leaves, calling Damien and Romulo to hir.
Damien has always endured his hangovers with a kind of willful cheer. Today he makes no effort to hide his pain, but he does his duty nonetheless; he works with Cyran and Romulo (who, to my surprise, happens to birdwatch as a hobby) to establish an entirely new whistle-code. I wince just thinking about what all that shrilling must do to him, but nobody ever accounted Damien as anything less than brave. Soon we lay aside all other chores to learn what the three of them have come up with, over and over and over, till our lips cramp up with whistling and I know that we will all hear these calls in our sleep for long nights after this. But I suppose it beats fighting.
And none of them include sparrow-calls, nor the cry of a pounced-on coney. Of course. I should have known that Dosh compromised those codes, too. But no one mentions Dosh’s name.
When we literally can’t make another peep, Makhliya orders us on our feet, all of us not too wounded to comply, and we follow her lead in calisthenics. Cyran obeys as docilely as the rest. I understand–the greenfire has burnt up the endorphens in our bodies; we must have exercise to generate more. After awhile she tells some of the walking-wounded to sit out the rest; I notice that this includes Kiril. Makhliya takes Lufti’s pulse several times to make sure that he doesn’t overdo it, monitors a couple others in various ways, and assigns some modified versions of exercise to meet their needs.
I’m impressed. She does a better job than I could do; if she lives through this she ought to study medicine, perhaps physical therapy. She has already devoured all the textbooks that Cyran could buy, borrow, or steal for her, as soon as she learned to read from the smugglers who brought them.
If she lives through this...how easily such words append our every thought. If we, if they, if somebody lives through this, all plans contingent on the uncertainty of life that the war makes us feel more keenly than I had ever imagined before–and me an agent of the Tilián!
I look out the cavern-mouth, at the merciless beauty of the mountain-range, face full on in the bracing chill that could kill us if we lacked for furs and fire. All the more reason to relish every minute of life that we might have left!
And even as I say it I know that the only reason I can is the residual greenfire still in me, making things not quite so bad as they could be. Not yet.
(Residual magentine saturation still troubles me, though, troubles all of us in Vanikke. The psychic machine has begun to fall apart, but some connections still spark and sizzle; the smoke of them sometimes wells up behind my eyes, the neural flashes sting.)
(The wound still gapes.) (Can we change the past?) (Can we change the future?) (Can we try, at least?)(I stare at the box in my hand. Tshura lingers there, I now remember. I turn a knob...)