IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Sunday, February 21, 2709, continued
(I love this hour, the pines and peaks a silhouette against the predawn glow, the thin-fine air enriched with the freshest scents of resin and fern and summer mountain flower, and the cold air tingle-fresh to someone new-emerged from the fleece of a good, thick sleeping-bag. It seems like anything could happen, starting with this hour, this brand new day, all potential lying before me. And now the scent of smoke wafts my way, bearing with it the aromas of coffee and breakfast-beans, and for just this moment I can forget that I have become a soldier, I can pretend that I’m camping out with friends. But then I hear the distant sound of marching feet...)
It feels different, marching with the infantry, when you know that you could fly, any time you want you could take to the air, but must not, that honor-bound means earthbound, and you hope you have the courage to stick to it, to stand by those who have no such escape, that you won’t find some excuse to take off and leave your comrades dying in the mud without you. And then you remember that bullets shoot upwards, too, far and hard, that flying wouldn’t make much difference anyway, and you feel both better and worse.
(So the bugler sounds the alarm, and we grab our grub while hustling for our stations, slapping helmets on as we run, praying that we don’t trip on our bootlaces before we get a chance to do them up proper. And I curse the rebels for ruining a perfectly good morning. And then I feel stupid–what else would they do?)
Flying has spoiled me; the miles crawl by. But after awhile my legs remember their old hiking rhythm, they like the flow of blood and exercise of muscle, and I can take the time, at walking-pace, to see all this loveliness up close. Who can discern the delicate lines inside a blossom’s petals from way up in the sky? Who can make out every needle on a pine-tree’s branch? So I find my heart straying; I can almost pretend that I’m back in Til Territories, on a hiking expedition with my friends. Except we didn’t used to all step in time, sending a martial beat a-skipping up the echoing cliffs and stones. And we didn't fear, oh God alive, we had no sense of fear!
(And so now, after all that rush, we wait. We swallow down the indigestion of our hasty breakfasts, we lace up our boots, we sit by our guns and watch the hours crawl by the shifting of the shadows as the sun climbs high. But we can’t relax, we still hear those damnable feet marching closer and closer and closer, amplified and thrown across the distance by the stony flanks of cliff and slope. I just want to run screaming down the road to meet them and get it over with!)
We don’t want to use up all our strength on the way, yet I can feel myself begrudging every break, even when I declare it myself. I sit smoking amid the cold-hardy grass by the side of the road, here just below the perpetual snowline, staring at those brief summer flowers, the wide-open golden ones and the tight-clustered purple ones, glad of one last reminder of beauty. Then I see the dark swath of trampled vegetation, stretching behind us for miles, where our troops have overflowed the road to either side.
I throw down my cigarette butt, stand up and smash it under my heel, disgusted by my own sentimentality. I’m not on some godforsaken hiking trip! I call everyone else to their feet, too.
(I’m not on a camping-trip. These aren’t my friends. They’re something else, people from all walks of life, people with whom a year ago I would have sworn I had nothing in common. And now they understand me better than my old friends ever could. They understand this thing we share, this war, that has severed me forever from my life before, and cauterized the wounds where I used to connect with my former good-time buddies, so that nothing can grow back there. Now it’s the old crowd with whom I have nothing in common anymore.)
Lousy time to find out that we still have unarmed troops marching with us–somebody should have spoken up while I still could fly back to Merchant’s Cavern for supplies. I give up my rifle, my pistol, and my knives. I know by now how well I can handle a shortage of weaponry–now if only I didn’t have to deal with a shortage of sleep!
(Lousy time to find out that I’m out of bullets. No chance now to go fetch more. I don’t want to have to rely on nothing but the cannon, not when those sneaking devils can come up right behind you and slit your throat before you can swing a heavy thing like this around.)
Marching is a devil of a thing–it gives you too much time to think. Your feet don’t need your attention, the repetition won’t occupy your mind enough. And if your thoughts go towards the coming battle, you can replay your own death or wounding a thousand different ways before the first bullet flies. But if your mind turns to anything else, it makes the pending reality doubly, trebly brutal when you finally do come back to it.
(Holding your post’s the mischief. All you can do is think. And I don’t want to think. I just want to do. But does that mean that something has gone wrong with me, to actually look forward to killing? Something changed so badly that I’ve lost all hope of ever going home? Oh lord, I feel like I’ve died already! I’ll never be the lad who used to go out camping with his friends.)
I don’t like having the time to realize just how badly these past days have tangled up my hair. I don’t want the time to wonder if any of my old friends would even recognize me. I just want so much to hurry up and get it all over with.
And what do we hasten towards with such ungodly lust? Something that only we can understand, a guilty secret, the unholy rites of bloodletting? No, no–it’s not like that. I don’t like hurting anyone! Or maybe...but you can’t help it, really, you can’t help but cheer when you succeed, because failure means dying; you can’t help but take joy in a job well done with the stakes so high. So yes, that does make us initiates to something that would blush in the light of day, something we dare not tell to anyone in our old lives, something they wouldn’t understand if we tried.
(Oh God oh God oh God I can see them now oh God watch my back and Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints and angels and all my ghosts!)
Oh dear Lord–I see the pass ahead! But I could bear that; I’ve borne worse. No, what makes me giddy with fear is the sight of Kief, his chest and arms and legs bare to the cold mountain winds, hands on his hips, a cigar clenched in his grinning teeth, shaking his auburn mane ruefully at me, standing plain as plain right there in the middle of the road!
Suddenly I remember begging him to watch over me, kill me as dead as I killed him should I ever commit the same stupid mistakes that he did–and oh, I have, dear God I have! Or close enough–maybe I need slain right now, before the worst happens. Something comes over me, then, like I faint except I don’t, I don’t feel that queasy rush of blood away from the head I just feel incredibly sleepy, the sounds of marching and of summer birds and wind grown distant as I feel my body tailspin down...
...and I pick my head up off my desk, blink a couple times, and go right back to my typing. Nobody in the office cares about my occasional narcoleptic seizures–not when I can crank out ninety-two words a minute. (I laugh, a little ruefully–who says that years of writing could never bring me any profit?) Besides, half the time I wake up with solutions to problems, like how to decipher some of these horribly garbled tapes that the doctors give me to turn into coherent medical records. The brain processes fast and true in sleep.
I work my way through the breast-surgeon’s stack, and then start on the wound-healing clinic, when I notice the slip of paper that has toppled off the desk, scrawled, barely legibly, in the red correction–pen that just happens to be the only writing implement handy in my cubicle: “Distant sound of marching feet. Before that predawn light, quiet, seeming-peaceful, but fear, know battle comes. Then battle. Then aftermath. Mostly long-drawn wait, then it all happens so fast.”
I feel a cringe of horror and drop the paper. I can hardly fail to recognize my own handwriting in the bloodstreak letters, however drowsily-distorted. I must have dreamed all that, and jotted it down while still asleep. But I don’t remember the dream at all. I sweep the sheet up again and quickly shove it into my bag before anybody else sees. Why must I dream so often about war? I turn back to my keyboard...
...and I wake up with this sense of having dreamed something in a flash, though I have absolutely no memory whatsoever of what, but who cares, suddenly I know just how to turn this walking massacre around! I push aside the anxious hands reaching to revive me and climb back to my feet–I must have slept for so short a time that they barely had a chance to run up to me.
But of course! I saw it all, flying over these hills–a perspective that General Aliso doesn’t have, that trying to think like her wouldn’t cover. Wasn’t it Alexander, as a boy, who’d refused to speculate on strategy for his tutor because he’d have to see the lay of the land?
Just a little ways ahead the road dips behind a curve of hill for the briefest interval. But we don’t have to continue around the bend. Another way exists, hidden by trees and geology, coming up over the hills behind Abojan Mansion–and we don’t need Alexander’s engineers to get there, either, nor even a miner’s skills. If we hurry, we can reach our target long before the rappelers come down the cliffs–the whole thing amounts to a shortcut, on top of everything else–why, I had it right in front of me the whole time! I couldn’t process what I saw before, not without sleep. Now, for just a few minutes’ down time, it all comes so clear to me that I could laugh!
Quickly I tell the others of the change of plan, and they make preparations. A badger pokes out his head from a bush at just the right moment for us and the wrong time for him–his blood will come in handy for an idea of mine. Accordingly certain designated females, wincing at the chill in the wind, start unbuttoning their shirts even as they march. And when we reach the bend, silently, so very silently, we slip away from the road altogether, treading through the soft grasses and the summer blooms–with no foe behind us to follow the trail that we trample.
(I can’t see them anymore–I can’t hear them anymore! Don’t panic. You know that road, you know that’s how it goes. The road dips down, the hills screen it for a second, and then it rises once more. They’ll come into view again any minute, their footsteps louder than ever. Then they’ll come into range. Then you can end this misery and do the job you came for.)
Then I finish the wound-healing clinic and put the files into the out-stack, and go on break. A photo falls out of one file; I put it back before anyone else can see it, knowing how it would upset most folks: a gaping, jagged, rotting wound within a living foot, full of maggots. The doctor put the maggots there, himself–the best sterile fly-larvae that a pharmacy could raise—for the worms can distinguish between the dead and living tissue better than the most delicate of scalpels. It appalls me that it doesn’t appall me, that I grew used to seeing such things long before I landed a hospital job, in my other life.
Nobody here knows what it’s like for me, slipping back and forth between realities, never knowing when I’ll shift from the office to the battlefield. I go into the lunchroom, for my prescribed fifteen-minute break-nap. “I take naps so that the naps won’t take me,” I’ve joked, but it doesn’t always work anymore with the long hours I put in. And it hardly qualifies as rest, laying my head down on this hard metal table, each time certain that I couldn’t possibly fall asleep here, right until the moment when I close my eyes and...
...gaze down the hillside, from behind a clump of scrub, at that once familiar, comforting haven of Abojan hospitality, now General Aliso’s headquarters. I review the layout of the place–was it only half a year ago that we stayed there, sheltered in hungry peace, when we toasted Damien and Kanarik’s wedding, the one-armed bride radiant in her bright-embroidered garb?