IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VI: The Rift
Layne Estelle Aliso
Sunday, February 21, 2709, continued
She doesn’t yet turn, but I know that cascade of platinum blonde curls from the back. At the sound of my steps she says, “Corporal, is that you?” I don’t answer. “One of the gunners forgot to restock on small-bore ammunition, and I thought I’d bring him some. We still have some left in here, you know.” I say nothing, moving closer.
After my silence plainly shows me no soldier of hers, she says, almost playfully, “Whoever you are, you must not be armed, or you would have shot me by now.” She closes the refrigerator and turns around, flashing me a sudden smile full of perfect teeth. “Why, if it isn’t a little rebel waif!” She chuckles like one who gossips about an inferior’s airs. “And such ungodly tangles! I suppose you have nothing better to feel proud of than the length of your hair–but in this season, I ask you?” She fluffs her own shoulder-length curls. “And obviously you have no idea how to take care of such long locks, even if they came into fashion tomorrow. My poor dear, have you never heard of scissors?”
And suddenly she looks and sounds exactly, precisely like my Friendclan sister, Zanne–every mannerism, the turn of a hand, the twinkle of a bright, blue eye. But Zanne at least has honest vices. This woman has no right to her cruel innocence, untouched by her crimes as though everyone she has ever killed meant no more to her than pincushions, as though her own people receive from her the impersonal cosseting of dolls.
Speaking of pincushions...
She chuckles again. “Paralyzed with fear, darling? Not a word to say? And well you should be.” She swaggers towards me, sashaying between the stacks of boxes as I keep the sewing-basket in the corner of my eye. Men don’t know this, but women have one sashay for them, and another, slightly different one, just the tiniest bit exaggerated, with which to taunt their sisters: a bodily way of saying, “You couldn’t possibly ever be half the woman I am.” I can feel her defy me, by her smile, to lay claim to any more humanity than a pie-safe which she plans to plunder at her pleasure. In fact she licks crumbs off her fingers with rude relish even as I watch; no need for manners in the presence of someone so much lesser than herself.
I crouch into a fighting stance. At that her eyes widen and she nods, but her smile doesn’t drop. “You’re not serious, are you?” she giggles. I reply nothing. “Look at yourself, darling–you’re skin and bones. You honestly don’t think you stand a chance against a well-trained lady like myself, do you? An officer?”
In silence I grab the shears from the sewing-basket. At that she bursts into peals of outright laughter. “That? You think you can make a weapon out of that?” I hardly believe it myself, the way she says it.
She comes in range and tries to slap the thing out of my hand. I push back, then we crash about the boxes and bags, and all the while she howls with mirth in weird counterpoint to the screams and shouts outside. And she’s good! Every time I knock her off balance she twists right back, growls now mingling with her giggles, her eyes sparkling and her grin outrageously delighted, not just to find an opponent worthy of her training, but a fellow female one.
But I grimace more than grin back at her. I feel the fire in my veins guttering, and she won’t give me a chance to reach the leaves in my pocket. I try to dislocate the arm gripping me, yet she not only twists away but karate-chops me hard enough to crack a rib—she would’ve smashed a kidney if I hadn’t dropped in time, flipping her over me. Panting, I climb to my feet, clutching my side, and then I do reach the greenfire and she shrieks with laughter at the sight.
“Do I wear you down, m’love?” She rushes me but this time she stumbles and I catch her. She still chuckles as she struggles against me, but clumsily this time, her bright eyes not in focus. Did I knock her on the head? I don’t remember! But no, she comes right back at me as if nothing has changed. Yet she seems weaker, now, less coordinated.
Scissors—where’d I drop the scissors? There! I dive for them and she stomps my hand, but not hard enough to break anything. I grab her foot and throw her to the ground, but she bounces right back up and tries to punch me in the gut but I swerve away in time, and now I’ve got her, I’ve got her for sure! I slam her against the freezer and try the scissors against her neck, but still she laughs at me, so hard that she can barely resist the dull blades which Deni Abojan surely must have set aside to get sharpened someday; they slide uselessly against her throat while I struggle with her squirming to keep her pinned down, her hilarity more and more hysterical by the minute, not even resisting me anymore, but then I twist the scissors just right, catching a flap of flesh, and her mirth drops off like a blindfold.
Now she struggles in panic, but too late, I have them right and it takes seconds for the throat to bleed to death. She sinks to the floor in a pool of her own blood. In death she looks more like Zanne than ever, with all foreign personality drained from her face. And there I stand over her dead body.
Why’d she stop fighting? She could have done better than that—she did do better than that mere minutes before. Why the bloody ever-loving hell didn’t she fight?
And why didn’t I just stab her with the scissors? Why did I have to do this in such an ungodly grisly way as to...that...to...what’s wrong with me? I can’t think I can’t can’t can’t think...think...heaven above but I need rest! But the blood slowly spreads across the stone slab floor and I don’t dare lay down there, never mind what’s already on me, I just...nothing makes sense anymore.
I want to curse or cry or faint, do something appropriately negative–she looks so much like Zanne! But I just stand there, teetering in a kind of balance of bone upon sore bone, hearing the battle outside, the shrilling young voices and the older roars, the bullets and explosions, the thumps and stamps and splintering wood, the shrieks and groans and jeers and cheering cut off suddenly, the insane laughter and the sobbing wails, and I can’t move, I can’t join them, I can only look down on my handiwork, on the flies buzzing over the mess, as the blood that soaks me slowly cools, as I stare into the ice-blue, lifeless eyes.
The sun moves, even if I don’t. The rectangle of light from the high ventilation window slides across the room from one end to the next, lighting on old, crammed bureaus and other antiques, all the detritus of a long, rich life. They had everything, in the end, except enough food to go around.
And still I stand there, scissors in my hand, on trembling legs that know no mission anymore other than to do their best to keep me upright, as bombs go off somewhere. I hear screaming. I hear dying. I hear shouts of triumph, in the shrills of savage children. We must be winning. But some of the dying screams sounded young, as well. My mind floats somewhere out beyond my flesh, taking in such information, speculating on it, too disconnected to move a muscle. Can greenfire do that? Dislodge the outworn body from the mind? Or is this some twist of the mindchange? Or a property of damnation?
Somewhere my forces finish off the leaderless guard without me, and repel the enemy’s support-forces flooding in, giving them no chance to succor Aliso’s men. And here I stay, like one enchanted, someone under one of those spells where ages pass in moments, unable to even remember how to move.
Rebels tumble in at a rush. When they see me they only want to tell me all about their victory, thanks to my stroke of strategy. None but me rebuke me for having spent most of the battle hiding out, doing nothing. Except it doesn’t feel like hiding, it has nothing to do with fear. Nobody seems at all aware of how I somehow wound up shirking my duty right when they needed me the most.
Instead, when they see Aliso at my feet, they all start hugging me or slapping me on the back, hailing my victory, jolting me this way and that, though I can’t raise my arms to hug them back, nor even raise my lips to smile. All these young hands on me! All these people piping congratulations in unreal, child-high voices! They don’t seem to care anymore, either, that once again blood has drenched all over me, that it blots onto them with each embrace.
Leaf can make you imagine things so vividly that you want to kill or die because of them. I’m not an idiot–part of me knows full well that I didn’t slay Zanne, that tomorrow I will probably see no resemblance whatsoever beyond a hair-color that The General no doubt got from a beauty-parlor anyway. But that just brings home to me how she probably really was somebody’s friend or sister or lover, every single person that we’ve killed has someone to account them as dear as I hold my own friendclan. I find myself fighting a crazy self-image as a big, bald strangler; I keep looking down at my slender hands and what’s left of my braids because I have to keep confirming who I am.
Alysha enters with her own soldiers–dully I take in the information that her band has successfully rejoined us. She takes it in stride that we softened up the base before she got here. I find myself resenting how casually she accepts it, my hands clenching and unclenching.
She opens the freezer–a welcome find for our hungry kids–no, the smuggler’s supplies certainly haven’t reached all our forces. But when she sees the first two trays she winces in disgust. The labels on the pastries carry names like, “Sweet Surcease” and “Dreams of Forgetfulness” and give off a musky, haunting perfume.
I find my voice. “What is that?” I ask hoarsely, suspecting for the first time that they aren’t just desserts.
“Muras. A decadence of the rich,” she answers. “I had an uncle very fond of them, on my father’s side. Chefs foster a sweet, narcotic fungus in the filling–the perfect dainty for people with no responsibilities, but sometimes others get into them, too.”
The Abojans never indulged in anything like that; I saw them starve, not withdraw, when besieged with us. I suddenly understand Aliso’s strange behavior. I should take heart–has their morale sunk so low? But instead I find myself wondering what pressures came to bear on the Charadoc’s only female officer.
Alysha holds them out to me and says, “Here, Deirdre; I can trust you. Get rid of these before any of the kids get into them–we don’t need that.”
I look at the narcotic pastries and I feel so tired of the greenfire flogging me on. I feel my knees go weak at the thought of something softer, something kindly, something that could let a person die laughing. Did the dead General, still lying at my feet with her glazed blue eyes, ever wonder about the pressures on me? I don’t own my own hand when it hovers over the desserts (did the room really hush at my wickedness or does the leaf make me imagine it?) Then my hand claws as I force it away. I take a growling breath and tell her, “Find somebody else to trust.” I turn and leave the building.
* * *
(That thunder went on behind us for quite awhile, but it has stopped, now. It worried Mehti, but Pawl and I teased him out of it. I don’t see any thunderclouds ahead, around Mt. Maitreyya. I think we can safely continue.
Jiaolong acts less perturbed, but I know him; to me he actually seemed more uneasy than Mehti. When I can get him aside from the others I ask him why. He says that the clouds back there have a dirty look.I tell him, “Don’t let mountain superstitions get to you–we’ve come to conquer, not to let the local fancies conquer us.”)