IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Thursday, February 11, 2709, continued
“If you wanted gauze,” I shriek at Makhliya, “You should have said “Bring me a roll of gauze, not just point and hope I get the message!” She just looks wearily up at me in a way that makes me realize that maybe I shouldn’t yell at her over something so trivial, especially not in front of the patients. In fact, maybe I shouldn’t have to be told that what she next needs is gauze, when we’ve done this same procedure for oh, I don’t know, like a thousand times or so before.
After giving me enough time in her stare for my face to get good and red, she says, “Go get some rest, Deirdre. You’re off duty.”
“I can’t rest,” I grumble, instead of apologizing, which I know I really ought to do.
“Yes you can,” she says, while Hekut brings her gauze. “It may not feel like it, but you get some benefit every time you lay down.”
“But the nightmares...”
“Are what the brain does when it heals. You taught me that, yourself.” I did? More kindly she says, “They won’t last forever, Deirdre. You can weather them like every other hardship that a rebel has to face.”
Except they’re not like every other hardship. They hit closer than any bullet can. They ache deeper than any hunger. They’re a throbbing gash in the very core of who I am, bitter with infection, oozing a pus of grief and regret and sheer unholy terror. And she won’t let me have the medicine that can keep the pain at bay.
“Eat first, though.” She scribbles on a scrap of paper for me to bring to the commissary—just an oval with wavy lines above it, to symbolize a steaming plate, with her signature beside it that the cooks will recognize. “I’m authorizing a dinner for you.”
Though my mouth waters I growl, “If you keep on authorizing dinners for me, I’ll get too heavy to fly.”
“I doubt you can fly now, with so little reserve on you. Eat and rest—that’s an order!”
Damn whoever told her that a medic’s orders take priority over anybody else’s in their specialty! Grumbling that I can fly just fine, I stomp over to that corner of the cave where people cook and store food, and get a cold dish of papulsa with cheese congealed on it, left over from lunch. Ignoring my need to peck at it with wounded dignity, my body gobbles the food down before I can even taste it.
Come to think of it, Tanjin told her about her authority. Oh God don’t damn him—damn me instead!
“The irritability will wear off, too,” she says brightly as I pass the infirmary-zone again. I lick fingers at her and wash up for bed.
(“I don’t deserve the finger, Jake,” Randy says while cooking. “I know you don’t like canned mutton-barley stew—but it’s what we have left.”
“Sorry,” I grumble. “I don’t know what’s gotten into me lately.”
Don pats me on the shoulder. “It’s what’s getting out of you. It’ll pass. And then things’ll turn around. You’ll see.”
For some reason this scares me most of all.)
(I turn the dial. It doesn’t really matter where I turn it. It doesn’t operate that way. It just helps me tune in to Tshura, this motion of my fingers and my attention.)
(“We have to do it now, Zora! Everybody’s healing and the rift is closing fast.”)
I lie on my very thin bedding on top of rock, and I toss and turn, restless yet tired, aching and close to tears over nothing. Lufti changes into the warm sleepwear that smugglers swapped him for I don’t know what, then joins me under the blankets, snuggling up to me, his cheir-silk flannel soft and kind.
“What’s this for?” I murmur, “You don’t have to go to bed yet, Lufti.”
“You need protecting. We’re all monsters in the dark; we slay each other and think that we are heroes.” I hold him tight and try to fight the insane thought that I shot the gun, I know I shot the gun, even if I also didn’t. Is madness contagious? But if it is, Lufti caught it from me, not the other way around. Everything’s my fault.
(Then lie with me, Incense. Fold your strong arms around me and nestle your head against my shoulder and hear all of the things that I can’t say with my half-paralyzed mouth in the beating of my heart.)
(Together let our Siamese-twin souls plunge down into the Rift, drifting deeper, deeper, falling centuries back in time...)
I feel myself falling, falling deeper than sleep, my last awareness being Lufti’s hug and his urgent whimpering, “No, no, don’t take her along, no please...”
(“No!” I cry, “Don’t drag me along you wicked godforsaken brotherfucking SOUL-RAPIST!”)
(I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. Jake, George, and Wallace all scream at once, George crying, Jake cussing, Wallace groaning and clutching at his heart. Don immediately tends to Wallace, pressing his magentine-ringed hand against the old man’s chest, wincing to read his flesh.
“It’s okay,” Don gasps. “Anxiety attack, not a real heart attack.” And he does what he can to make his patient comfortable.
I grab Jake’s hand, and Jake grabs George’s, sweat turning cold in the winter night, and I pray to God we get through whatever’s happening.)
(“Tshura!” I cry. “What are you DOING? Where are you taking us?” Yet she feels as helpless as I do, myself. Broken clocks hurl at us, bruising us—symbols, I know, of waking her at the wrong time, but here symbols hurt like bullets, like bombs, they rip the skin off from my soul, even off of themselves, time melts as I watch and feel and the impact burns right through me!)
“They all shoot through me!” I scream, as Lufti holds my bucking body, rapidly muttering, “Right time wrong time no time all time right time wrong time no time all time...”
(“I can’t help it!” Zora wails in my arms but they aren’t arms because they melt as we all fall deeper and deeper into the molten surge of time within the Rift. “I can’t help it I didn’t want to do this to Jake to Zanne to Deirdre to anybody!” And she turns, in my embrace, to a bewildered, half-mechanical Romany woman, dissolving and fighting to reconstitute in the blaze of so much magentine energy that it makes the Cave of Changes feel like a toddler-level ride in the Amsi’en Amusement Park.)
(Oh Lord this goes way beyond the Cave of Changes! And Deirdre, fragile, shell-shocked, somehow poisoned Deirdre, has become the focus. I try to tell Randy, but I can’t find my mouth. Deirdre has become the tipping-point, the one most off-balance, so we careen into the past that has hurt her the most. Damn you Zora and Incense! Even if you didn’t mean to you had no business trying this!)
(As we tumble backwards and backwards through the burning centuries...)
Oh God, oh God, what happened to my precious tedium? Wherever I land, let it be boring, boring, boring...
...I am so bored with this assignment! When I took the hypnotic suggestion to change me from Robbie Morricone to Robar Moreno I thought oh boy, this is it, this is when I finally, fully enter the thrill-filled life of an agent of the Tilián! But instead my dullard veteran, Collin, just had to take me to the not-in-the-least exciting Charadoc, to check out an unsubstantiated rumor that the reign of Crystalia Atmos the Uniter has become a tad oppressive. Borrrring!
Of all the veterans available, why’d I have to wind up with a pallid ol’ pudding of a man who wouldn’t get any action at all if his wheeling and dealing didn’t make him at least halfway interesting? I hope somebody shoots me before I get so old and fat that I have to trade in gossip and secrets for people to pretend they love me!
I tramp through the tall grass looking for rats to shoot, my sleeves rolled up to expose my dark, strong arms that so many have loved wrapped tight around them...at least in civilized places with singles bars. Well, the locals call them rats, though they don’t actually resemble anything I ever called a rat back home, besides having four legs and fur. Whatever they are, they get into the grainery, the kitchen and the library and leave a stinking mess of whatever they don’t rob or shred, so the master wants them gone.
Quite politely, mind you, and cheery, trusting, as he handed me the gun. I would have liked a touch of oppression, something to fight valiantly and vanquish. But their slavery is much like in many other countries—a temporary contract to pay off debts, with clear-cut rules and limitations. Granted, it’s more likely to fall on Mountainfolk than anyone else, but that’s just because the local Mountainfolk are poor, as a rule Where are they not? Always heading where they feel most comfortable, up into rocky, barely arable mountain ranges—what do they expect and why don’t they ever learn?
Who ever gets comfort, anyway? The hot sun burns me and the grass-scratches itch, and the constant buzz of insects just plain annoys me. Oh, I could endure all manner of pain and want for a noble cause, but for hunting rats it’s just a waste of misery.
I even got excited at the prospect of posing as Collin’s slave, to catch the gossip and glimpse the dark underbelly of Charadocian society. Maybe that could plunge me into peril! The locals have resolved the apparent contradiction of my dark skin and my dashing height by deciding that I must be Collin’s son by a maid. Okay, so that does disturbingly suggest that slavery might have become hereditary, at least for some, and deserves looking into, but I’ll leave the paper-chases to Collin.
For a moment I relish fantasizing about pretending to be Collin’s lover as well. “Incest!” they’d howl, and try to tear us to pieces. I wouldn’t mind fighting somebody off, or even running ahead of a lynch mob, if it gave me a thrilling tale to tell back home, impressing all the stay-at-home boys and girls hanging out at the Mulberry, in the hope of meeting a genuine agent. I’ll take either for a tumble; I’m not particular that way. It ups the excitement, wondering who I’ll wind up with next.
But for now, I’ve got to trudge through these meadows, watching my footing for fear of nothing worse than cow-pies and ankle-breaking rat-holes, hunting that which hardly gives a fight back, beyond making itself aggravatingly elusive. Bored BORED bored bored bored!
Oh, I enjoyed agency—at first—back in Alcazar. The art museums alone surpass anything in Til, and oh my, the cuisine! Even as a “slave” I had it good, drinking and gambling with the rest of the help in my off-hours, listening to the gossip and reporting back to Collin every morning while readying him for the day...and collapsing into his bed as soon as the door clicked shut behind him. (Yes, I could make that look like something else again, if I wanted to.)
But then I mentioned a new slave, joining us from the countryside, missing an eye and bearing a whip-scar across her face. And he’d begun to get impatient with my nightly adventures anyway. So he told me, quite pompously, the way he does, that cities can lie about the grim truths of the countryside, and that it’s our job to uncover whatever needs exposed to the light. Therefore it was high time his rookie got a taste of real, independent field work and learned that agency isn’t all just one great party. Collin loaned me to a short-handed gentleman-farmer to see how slaves fare out in the wild.
So here I am, learning nothing whatsoever, out hunting rats while the rest of the chattels bring in the harvest and I can’t observe diddly-squat about how they fare. Turns out “shorthanded” just meant Master Juffali didn’t have anybody to spare for pest control. And so here I toil, dying of the tedium! After the last few shots, every rat with half a thimbleful of wit has found a place to hide obscure to city-slickers and is probably snickering in his whiskers in a pitch too squeaky-high for me to hear.
Wait...there’s one, nibbling the sweet heart out of a dandelion blossom as if he doesn’t care that I am here, doesn’t deign to notice me. Bad mistake, rat. I raise my gun slowly...take aim...and...click? Dammit! Out of ammunition already!
So I’m out here for no good reason whatsoever. Can’t even kill rats. I should have joined the police-force instead, or become a pirate, or chased pirates, or anything but this.
That tree there. Imagine it’s a pirate. Take aim...and click. Dead pirate. That scarecrow over there, that’s a highwayman. Take aim...click. Nailed him. That window, that’s a den of iniquity and a thief moves as a shadow behind the curtain., Take aim...SHOT? Screams pour out of the shattered window and I drop the rifle and run.
Idiot! Idiot! Idiot! The gun had a stupid revolving magazine. I just played Russian Roulette with somebody else’s life and lost!
What’ll I tell Collin? Quick, think of something while branches slap me in the face as I pelt out of there! Somebody else shot the gun. I was working in the field and somebody else shot the gun and the master won’t say who he sent because that’s whose goddam bedroom I just shot up, that’s whose portly silhouette stood out against the bloody curtain! And no, I can never, ever tell this story at the Mulberry!
Collin will have to play it down anyway, because he doesn’t want an investigation that might reveal what he’s let slip to people who aren’t supposed to know that he’s an agent, but he got bored, too...and oh boy, this had better go away! Lots of people have a stake in making this go away. We’ll say it was an insurrection. Yeah, that’s the ticket. A slave revolt...
I jolt awake, shivering, my teeth chattering, and yet the sweat just pouring off of me.
(No! No! It happened too fast! We couldn’t change anything!)
(We have to go back and try again!)
I tumble backwards into sleep, clawing for wakefulness but no use, I’m right back to Robbie, playing with a loaded gun, trying and trying to scream and make it stop, but I can’t control these arms, the swiveling waist, the trigger finger...NOOOOO!
(Again! We’ll have to try harder!)
I feel the tides of time like blood pulling me back into the whirlpool wound and I drown too much to scream...
(No! You damned outlaw, you utter unrepentant criminal rapist whore of Alroy!)
(No. I won’t be part of this. The Romany have always protected the persecuted.)
(But I want to stop the persecution! I want to change history.)
(No. Tshura and I can stop you. Tshura and Jake and I and we can pull in reinforcements...)
(Absolutely not, Zora! I fended you off from Jake before and I’ll do it again if I have to break every surviving braincell in your skull!)
(I don’t know what’s up with Deirdre, but she can’t handle this. Shove off, Zora!)
I feel a snap in my head, a stinging shock, and I gasp for air, my eyes opening onto a rock roof above me, freezing cold and damp with fear.
“Medic!” The mad boy beside me shrills. “We need a medic! The gun went off and nobody’s okay!” I hear footsteps run at that, and then I see Makhliya, panting and holding her ripe belly. She sighs her irritation when she sees no blood, just Lufti holding the stick with which he struck a pot to make a bang, but then takes a second look at me.
She helps me sit up and I cling to her. “Hot water!” she calls, and Kiril comes with some still warm in a teapot. My grasping at her makes it hard for Makhliya to wipe me off, but she frees me from my sweat and then wraps me shuddering in my blanket again, while Lufti stares on, holding Kiril’s hand and eyeing me sadly.
That’s how it started. That’s how the whole bloody mess in The Charadoc started—by a couple of bumbling Til agents!
I clutch Makhliya’s wrist before she can draw back to other duties. “Don’t. Please don’t.”
“Don’t what, dear?”
“Send me back to more nightmares! Give me something—anything! Knock me out with a hammer! Just don’t send me back.”
She extricates herself; I find my fingers too weak to resist her. “You have to work through it, Deirdre.” Medics can be some of the coldest people on earth, sometimes.
I spiral back down helplessly into sleep, face down towards Kief’s angry, bleeding grin, swirling on the words repeating in my head: I shot the gun. I shot the gun. I shot the gun...