IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VI: The Rift
Saturday, February 13, 2709
I barely manage in time to use my levitation ability just to keep from keeling off the ledge in Damien’s wake, grabbing Betany with one hand and Ambrette with the other while shoving Ambrette into Marduk to keep him from toppling, too. And then, God help us, we run after Damien. It feels so right, such a relief to our frazzled nerves to do something besides skulk!
For the greenfire sparks and fizzles in our veins and we hardly even bother paying attention to where our feet go, what our hands do–we feel fierce and wild and by all the devils in Hell we’re out to get our own back! Folks say that greenfire gives you courage. It doesn’t give you courage–it scares you out of your mind and then points you straight at what you fear the most, and all you want to do is claw and scream, ‘cause violence feels so good, it lets out everything exploding inside!
We hear the rattle of Damien’s automatic going off first of all. Then we follow up behind him onto the topside land, and, without missing a step, we hop over the dead soldiers caught on their way to KP. When we hear the outcry over at the gunner’s nest, we all laugh like our enemy got the joke.
Gunfire soon comes popping back our way and it terrifies us a notch higher, but we like feeling terrified, we love that rush of a drumroll in our veins as we dodge back to any scrap of shelter and out again to shoot some more, hooting and cheering like fans for the craziest sport to ever mark its score in lifeblood spilt or held. We dance with our enemies, flirting, mad for excitement.
And no sooner do I think “Dance” than by some power of insight Damien starts belting out “The Bullet Dance” that he wrote for Kanarik, and that memory tightens our frenzy one more twanging notch and now we really want to kill!
I run out of ammunition soon enough, but the dance goes on. Since when do I need ammunition? Kanarik, I dance for you! I whirl and kick, I trip and skip and swing my partners right into each other’s weapons, laughing in a furious delight, an all-out embrace of hatred that feels soooo good! I exult in the freedom from inhibition as I kill. To hell with Lovequest–they slaughtered Kanarik with her baby still unborn!
But then I see Ambrette run straight into a swung-around cannon’s fire and nothing could survive that. And moments later Betany falls in a burst of her own red, but Damien scoops her up, and hollers out, “Retreat!” Marduk and I fall into place behind him. I grab a new gun from a dead soldier and we cover our tails as we plunge straight for the canyon-path.
Naturally they point the cannon there at us. Naturally they lose time discovering its emptiness, and more time discovering that the ammunition they thought they had set by has vanished, too. We hightail it like greenfire-nibbling conies through the scratching foliage, but we don’t laugh anymore, we don’t say anything, we just pant for the thin mountain air; only Betany moans around the bullet in her middle and shrieks at every jolt.
Sooner than we feared we hear the boots behind us, but the path winds; they can’t get us in their sights just yet. But it feels like they can—with every leap through the crashing foliage it bloody well feels like they can!
And they’re gaining–I can hear them pounding closer. The leaf wears off even as our bloodsugar crashes and just like that the fire in our veins congeals into concrete, our stumbling slows no matter how hard we try to flag ourselves on. Closer...slower...closer...slower still...
Shots ring down from the upper slopes on either side! God bless Kiril and Lufti–they didn’t just rest like I told them to, they took up ambush positions on higher ground first, and woke in time to save our hides! Our pursuers go down before they know what hit them. Then Lufti comes bounding down the slope to us, his eyes gone mad and his hair flying behind him. He whistles “Follow me!” so that Kiril gets the message, too, then takes us off the path completely, diving under brambles and worming his way through the roots and stalks, ripping the back of his new shirt and pants on the thorns above, and we do likewise, and I feel the points rake my skin, and I feel the blood trickle like a stinging sweat, but terror lies everywhere else, so we keep on crawling after our savior lunatic until we tumble, bruised and scraped along the way, into a hidden crack in the stone, and I find it harder and harder to stay awake even as the second wave of the Charadocian army runs past.
Betany doesn’t make a sound, toppling down in Damien’s arms, with the lad curling around her, trying to cushion her. She hasn’t for awhile. She doesn’t moan or shriek as Damien spreads her out, crossing the arms over her chest, closing the staring eyes. The last thing I see before sleep grabs me is Lufti dancing for Betany, but only from the ankles up, his feet finding hardly anywhere to go in that deep, cramped space.
Sunday, February 14, 2709
(I wake slowly to the faint blue glow of the porthole, just listening to the heartbeat-steady slush and slap, gurgle and sigh of the ocean in which our boat makes but a dimple. I sigh myself, snug and warm, almost at peace. Why almost, Randy? Because gradually the emptiness of the blanket beside me dawns on me. I dress rapidly and go out on deck. The sun has not yet quite risen over the rim of the ocean, yet already I see Jake’s unmistakable silhouette out there, billed cap and all, one hand on the riggings, gazing to the south.
I turn up my collar against the chill and go to stand beside him, but he says nothing. So, that’s okay, that’s Jake all over. I listen some more to the water against the hull and the creaking of the yacht, waiting till he’s ready, praying that I’ll know what to say.
“We bleed,” he says in a rasping voice. “The rift still gapes raw, and we fell on either side of it. The torn link doesn’t heal very well, and so we bleed.” He shakes his head, despairingly. “She thinks she’s all right. She is not all right.” Then he turns to me. “You still have your end of it?”
Almost comprehending, I answer, “I haven’t—quite—lost the thread. Not the last strand of it.”
“Good. I’m not quite strong enough yet to take it all back.”)
* * *
(My stomach growls, and so of course Zora’s does, too. Our confession has dragged on till lunchtime, and still our parole officer stares at us skeptically. His round, bald head gleams with summer sweat; I’m sure he’d like to end this as much as we would, maybe find himself a nice glass of citrade clinking with ice.
We finish at last. For the longest time he says nothing; the only sound comes from the clatter of the fan; I wish I could take it apart and clean it on the spot—how is this man supposed to guide ex-outlaws on responsible behavior when he can’t even take responsibility for maintaining his own office equipment?
“So, what this boils down to is that you feel guilty because you failed to change the past, in what may or may not be a flashback hallucination from substances that you used to digest?”
“It was reeeeel!” Zora growls in a tone that reminds him, at least enough to raise his eyebrows, that she has committed mass murder not all that far back in her past. But parole officers don’t frighten that easily.
I add, “It was more than that, Jerry.
We violated the mind of Jake il’ Dawes and probably
She nods, wobbly but sternly. “Uh huh. Baaad bus-ness.”
“And Deirdre Keller,” I put in. “I’m almost certain she was in there somewhere, too. Maybe Suzanne Charlotte as well. Maybe more.”
“Now why would...”
He still looks like he doesn’t believe us. I regret every strange thing I ever uttered in his presence while completing the training to make Zora and me a full oracle together.
“Can any of them corroborate your alleged crime?”
“No sir. They’re all out on missions.”
He chuckles and closes the file. “Well, then. Until they come home and testify against you, I see no reason to punish you for a bad dream.”
Zora looks like she’d leap up and smack him if she still could. But then her face softens and she says, quite humbly, “Maay we ap ap apply for...for...” she looks to me.
“For a refresher-course in voluntary rehabilitation? It is available for the asking, isn’t it?”
Jerry’s face softens as well. “Of course it is. Yes, you may be right. Such nightmares might recommend this very thing.” He stands up and fetches the forms. “Indeed. I can see how troubled you both are feeling. Best to nip problems in the bud, right?”
“Right, sir,” I say with exasperation and relief.)
* * *
(I wake up alone and desperately hungry, in a makeshift shelter of branches and cardboard, piled up with snow, I gather, on the outside. Inside, someone has kindly left a handful of raisins and a hard chunk of cheese beside me for my dinner, neatly laid out on a flyer for a concert, from the days when they still had concerts. “The Flying Dutchmen,” played four months ago, daringly declaring, “All kinds welcome!” A small map on the back shows which entrances various races and ethnicities should use to get to their correct part of the amphitheater. Naturally Dutch customers had front row seats. Oh well, at least the darlings made an effort.
I eat my food, run a comb through my hair, and come out, thanking those who took care of me during my down-time.)
* * *
We wake up shivering in the dark. We must have slept close to a full turn of the sun. Betany has long gone cold. And it dawns on me that none of us thought to bring any food.
Kiril looks terrible. She huddles against Lufti, who keeps his arms around her where they sit together, staring around him like a fierce little eagle-chick. Everything about this venture now seems like a bad idea.
Our eyes keep going back to Betany, as we gather ourselves together again the best we can. It just seems so wrong that someone could survive two bullet-wounds in less than a year, only to fall to a third. After a time Marduk says, “Ambrette gave me this. I guess it can memorialize them both.” And he pulls out of his shirt the crystal rosary that I recognize as Lucinda’s prize possession. Ambrette must have had just enough time to take it off her corpse back when Kief had Lucinda shot, on that terrible run from Cumenci. And then Ambrette gave it to Marduk of all people? Cheating Alysha? Why must I not only lose Ambrette, but in the same stroke lose all respect for her?
But it surely does twinkle fine in a shaft of moonlight, now, around Betany’s dead neck. At least Marduk redeems himself a little, parting with that treasure in piety for the dead. Layers upon layers of ghosts surround us, desecrated or honored, and I have always felt haunted, but never more than now.
Lufti stares the most intently of us all, standing between me and Kiril. He reaches his left hand to press against my chest, and I feel the forgotten magentine there on my hidden body-flit, and I feel a kind of tingle from it. Then Lufti reaches out his right hand towards Betany...no, he waves towards the body, sweeping towards it from various directions, a sort of hand-dance. And as he does, rocks and gravel and the vegetative debris from the bushes above move, little shivers of material at first, with scratchy little sounds, then they trickle onto Betany, then they trigger small-scale avalanches, burying her. Damien crosses himself; Marduk utters a cussword. Kiril just stares, too weak and weary to make much note of miracles. I know that proto-oracles have all kinds of Gift at first, before their oraclism absorbs it, so I miss out on the wonder. Then Lufti drops his hands, and leans against me. “I am soooo hungry,” he moans.
“I know, chickling,” I say, putting my arms around my son. “I know.” And what a poor substitute for a mother I make, with nothing to feed him, through my own stupidity.
“Heaven below and hell above,” Lufti murmurs softly, “but you’ll need hellfire to get us home alive.” And he points up, and I see the bronzy-green bush among those that shelter our ravine. Oh, he’s an oracle, all right, steering instinctively towards whatever his loved ones need. After gathering the necessary, I take him onto my back, even as Marduk takes Kiril, and we carry our weary rescuers back up onto the rebel path even as we chew what makes it possible. Damien has enough to carry with Betany’s blood all over him.
And we have to pass our dead. They still glimmer faintly. A breeze clatters softly in the rosaries, beads against bones. Lufti murmurs, “Listen how they whisper! They pray for us, you know.” As if I didn’t have reason enough for my hair to stand on end! Because I do hear whispers in between the clicking, and sometimes I’d swear I see the shapes of the dead, shadows in the shadows all around us.
In time we reach the tunnel and enter into darkness absolute. We have no lantern anymore; we don’t know what Betany did with it. I go close to one side and Marduk to the other, and our charges reach out hands to feel the walls as we pass. Damien takes the fore with a stick that he picked up outside. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if we didn’t have to also pass around greenfire just to keep our feet on the upward-climbing slope of hard stone. But soon we feel the pressure of our ghosts so tight upon us that it takes all our discipline not to scream. The echoing of our footsteps sound like their footsteps, whole armies of our dead, those fallen beside us and those slain by us, going wherever we go.
I want to think of anything, anything at all but this debacle. And like a flash I suddenly remember: Last year Chinese New Year fell upon this date. I don’t know when it happened or will happen this year; I have no calendar to mark it. But I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that last year, on this date, Cyran took me prisoner.
If anyone had told me that I’d wind up here, on this path, one year later, bloodsoaked and dirty and strung out on greenfire, I’d have shot hir for a liar. No, I wouldn’t have. I didn’t shoot people so readily in those days. I didn’t even consider the possibility.
I don’t want to think about what this day makes me feel. Part of me thanks God that Cyran woke me up. Part of me hates hir, because e didn’t just steal me from Jonathan, e stole me from me.
February 14. That date has some historical significance, too. it might help, a bit, if I can remember it. A saint’s day, I think. Or maybe some secular holiday; my memory seems to associate some sort of ribaldry with it. My memory just doesn’t function like it used to, these days, but I suppose if I can get away from the leaf for awhile it’ll all come back. And I will, soon, just as soon as we take care of this business, finish what we started, as it were. Maybe I’ll ask for the transcripts of my debriefing someday, when they pry it all out of me telepathically. If I should live so long.
Last year...to hell with last year! I live right now. And hell’s not so very far away, is it? Father Man wasted his absolution on me, because I have pretty much turned right around and committed the same sins as before, haven’t I? Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll never drive another child mad. That’s the big one, isn’t it?Drowsily Lufti murmurs next to my ear, “It’s all right, Deirdre. Keep my wits with the fat old sailor by the beach. We could feed the gulls together...” and then he falls asleep again. Ai–how often the abused child loves his abuser anyway! Where’s the justice in this world?