IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Phoenix of the Vanities
Wednesday, February 24, 2709
(Morning light shines in through the car’s iced-up windows. I slept half the day yesterday and on through the night, but I guess I needed it. Stiff as an old woman, I force myself outside to do the necessary, shuddering with the cold when I have to bare my fanny within the discretion of a clump of snow-topped bushes (sneering at my own modesty—it’s not like anyone else walks about!) and then I look around. Not as much snow as I thought; it wouldn’t even require a snow-plow if I drive carefully.
Drive? I return to the car, where I find a self-heating can of hachee and open it. I need something hot in me more than I need to avoid magentine, at this point. Correction: I need something in me, hot or cold. Even an agent finds food hard to come by in the forest, in winter, alone.
“Why drive?” I ask Tshura in the box, fiddling with the useless dial because at least it helps me think that I can tune in. “Why did I think of driving? Because...because it’s possible? I climb into the front seat, behind the wheel, and use the card on the ignition. Not only does it fire up, but a dial shows I’ve got a full tank of taro! Who knows what lunacy caused the owner to abandon a perfectly good vehicle, with no cars behind and the capacity to simply pull back and out of the whole mess? We’ve all been asleep for months, it seems, shuffling through the motions of life.)
I sleep through the day. Sometimes people wake me up to shove food in my direction. I try to eat it, with middling success. I hardly taste any of it; it’s just volume in my gullet. I hate everybody who drags me even for a minute from my pillow, but I’m sure they’ll forgive me for it later. Back to sleep again. Not even the gunfire can wake me up.
(Oh lord, oh lord, where did they all come from? And why–WHY?
Mehti–dead? And Pawl dead, and Jiaolong bleeding here in my arms and I can’t stop it, I can’t stop the bleeding! And...now he’s dead, too? His blood still feels warm on me–how can he have died? How can any of it happen? I thought the Peshawrs had an understanding with the smugglers!
They saw the banners—because they shot right through them. The Charadocian flag and the Peshawr family crest, as if with particular malice. My ears still ring with the shots. But I’d have given them yards of banners to ruin if they had let my friends alone.
All I freakin’ wanted was a little sunscreen!
Those weren’t smugglers. They wore Charadocian peasant-rags of the lowest caste, underneath the bandoliers and fur. Low caste folk have no authorization to carry guns of any kind, let alone automatics! Those were rebels. They have taken over the smuggler base.
They have made me their enemy forever.)
Thursday, February 25, 2709
I wake on my own, to find myself not completely without responsibilities. Makhliya still needs help, especially with a new influx of wounded, and with her belly by now so swollen that it's starting to get in the way. I put in a few hours today, before she tells me to rest.
(Lord have mercy! Where can I light? Where can I find rest? The rebels hold Abojan Pass, too! Look at them down there–not one of them in uniform, and all of them armed–guns stolen from our own manufacture, by the look of it.)
(All right, so I have wheels. But where can I rest? The countryside rolls past me, forests sparkling with ice giving way to snow-heaped farms. The most I could hope for might be some forgotten turnips, but I couldn’t dig the frozen ground even if I could tell which patch once grew that crop.
Still, it feels good to make the miles melt while sitting on padding in a deliciously heated compartment! Hungry I may be, but I ride in style; I feel the happiest I have in a long, long time.
Some consider hope incompatible with the doctrine of Truth. It doesn’t, after all wait on proof. But my father taught me that hope is in fact a possibility, as potentially true as any other possibility. While one should not worship it, one may freely entertain it.
And wasn’t I the girl whose dream came true and walked into my life? I think I’ll roll down this highway basking in hope while scanning for an improvement in my lot. Another thing my father taught me is that we’re more likely to see the potential in hope become a truth if we actively go looking for it. So here I am, Papa, looking! Wish me joy in the search!)
I should rejoice, and so I dutifully make the noises of rejoicing. For we have real antiseptic now, and ointments and painkillers and even antibiotics. With the pass secured, cartloads more of the stuff roll off to Koboros, just as Rashid had wanted in the first place, before any of us knew that the pass would become so hotly contested. It smells very different from my first clinic in the old university, all of these clean, sharp chemical-scents, and hardly ever a whiff of rot, these latest wounds all cared for while still fresh.
(Death. Deaths. Even from up here I can smell the blood that spilled down there, rotting in the mud. Deaths here, too, on top of those I left behind. And surely my lover among them, so recently in my arms that I can almost believe that I still carry a bit of her scent her on my body.
How can I lose so many friends all at once? How can anyone bear it? I sit back against the rock, stunned–absolutely stunned! Where do I go? What can I do? How can I make my way home with rebels holding the roads? How do I go on feeling?)
We rig up crackling xylophane tarps into more oxygen tents just as the latest tankfuls arrive. Who knew, a year ago, that we could have such a wealth of supplies? Kiril now at least has company.
(I don’t. I must purge all gentler emotions from my breast. My fists clench up like hardening hearts. The rebels have driven me to this. I don’t go back. I now have enough supplies for four men, meant for two weeks of eating enough calories to fuel a major mountain-climb. With care I can stretch that out for months.)
Marduk’s broken ankle turns out to be a sprain. A very, very bad sprain, I assure him; it could have fooled anybody. The swelling even looked like a bone jutting out at the wrong place. He just buries his face in his pillow. Cyran finds work for Alysha anywhere else but there.
(Hold on, Zanne. Tracks in the snow? Yes indeed. I am not hallucinating. Tire tracks, cartwheel tracks, and many, many footprints, all converging onto this road to make a nice slush of it. Now that sounds hopeful indeed! Perhaps they lead to food?
Good, because I feel so hungry that the snow looks like that powdered sugar confection that the little coffeeshop by the shoe-store used to sell, mounded with whipped cream dusted with sugar...what did they call them? Skislopes. And underneath it all, a white cake base flavored with mint. Oooh yeah!
I pull over for a moment, laying across the seat till my poor, dizzy head stops spinning. Perhaps it’s not a good idea to think of food till I get some actual edibles into me. That can of hachee didn’t go very far when I went hungry for so long before finding it.)
I tire quickly. Sometime during my long sleep every overtaxed portion of my body has unionized against me and now goes on strike. But Makhliya understands. Tomorrow, she says, she will start me on exercise, but today I should just go back to bed–after I finish a few simple stretches that she recommends, and then eat a little more.
(I stare down at the rebel-held base, as cold as the mountaintops. Weary or not, supplied or not, alone or not, I will get my revenge. I have no arms, but I’ll think of something. These brutes may do very well at frightening peasants, and murdering a lady who should never have become an officer, but they have yet to reckon with a man of the highest caste.)
“And Deirdre, do something about your hair,” Makhliya says before I can lie down. “You’re scaring the patients.” I lie down anyway.
(After all, rebels improvise weapons all the time. And not one of them could match me for intelligence or education. I will find or make the tools I need for this dirty business.)
When next I open my eyes I find a brush, comb and mirror laid out beside me. Oh sweet Mother Mary, I do look worse than hell! I try, but soon my weakness defeats me and I fall weeping back to the mat with a comb stuck in my hair.
(When I wake from my little nap I look in the rear view mirror and laugh at myself. Really Zanne? With the hair on half your head sticking up like a wing? Perfect for a lopsided flight, or more likely a tailspin, but hardly de riguer for meeting future friends in whatever gathering all those tracks lead to.
I pull out my brush and settle it all back to where it belongs, then dig out some string to tie it into two ponytails in the old style. Farm folk tend to be a conservative lot, or at least don’t see much point in following every little trend that comes along.
I give myself one last glimpse in the mirror. Weary or no, hungry or no, Zanne I remain, and that’s precisely how I shall present myself! It puts a twinkle in my eye just to think of it. In a good mood, I start up the car again and head to wherever everybody else heads. I like my alone time as much as anyone, but the prospect of joining forces with others again heartens me no end.)
But then hands pull me back up again. Alysha kneels beside me and wrestles with my tangles for me. Then she motions over Nishka, who starts brushing out the other side, inch by torturous inch. “Lordy, Deirdre!” Nishka exclaims after a few strokes. “I never thought any human being could get rat’s nests this bad!” I think back to how often I flew with it unbraided. I think about the other occasions when I just grabbed up handfuls and braided it on the run, without bothering to untangle it first. I can’t...oh jeez...I can’t remember the last time I actually combed it.
Alysha asks, “Would you like us to cut it for you, Deirdre?”
“No! No! No! No! No!” I shove them away and crawl backwards away from them. “No! No! No!”
“Easy, easy,” Alysha soothes. “We won’t cut it, then. Here, Nishka, let’s give it another try.”
And I find myself ludicrously, unheroically weeping throughout the entire operation. The endless tweaks and twinges aggravate me absurdly, more than all the agonies that I have already passed through. I feel like they comb my nerves. Greenfire might embolden the warrior on the battlefield, but it makes her a mewling baby in the wearing-off.
Yet at last they sleek it all down, and braid it into two ropes, less thick than formerly, and not nearly so glossy as I remember them being before. I lift one braid and examine it...
“You cut it!” I cry, and recoil from them again.
“No, we didn’t, honest!”
“You did! You did! It barely reaches my hip–it used to reach my thighs.”
“No, no, you just lost a lot on your own,” Alysha reassures me. “Starvation does that. Your hair has become brittle and doesn’t replace itself as fast.”
I vaguely remember...yes, it might have looked this short before I got here, come to think of it. I look at the woolly piles that they’ve pulled again and again from the brushes, and I whisper, “What have I done to myself?”
Alysha laughs grimly. “Has it taken vanity to finally get you to ask that? Then God bless vanity!” And she and Nishka gather up their things and the matted hair, and leave me to my rest.
(And then, right there, upon my rocky perch, a strange impulse takes me, but following it gives me an odd feeling of hope in the face of crushing despair. I pull out my comb and a little signaling mirror. I take care not to let the sun fall on the mirror in such a way as to send a flash either to the complex below or to the road beyond, but I comb my hair as fastidiously as if I spiff up for a date. I must not let one detail of my superiority slip. I must remember, always to the very end, who and what I am.)
I lie there, frustrated–this is not who I am! What’s wrong with me? Other people have already recovered by now. Sometimes I catch Makhliya’s worried looks; she notices, too. One more anomaly of my rewired neurology, I suppose.
I turn on my mat and look over to the patients that I’d helped to care for before, trying to remember who and what I am. Kiril lies propped up in her tent with a couple other patients; she shouldn’t have shared my sleeping mat the night before, I realize; I feel ashamed of being so needy.
I hear her complain of boredom, but as I watch Lufti approaches with a book. I can’t make out much of the words from here, but he reads to her till he goes hoarse, and then comes back later and reads to her some more. I have no idea where he gets his books, but he reads now at a furious rate, anything and everything he can get his hands on. He has become well-versed on a dizzying array of fantasies, classics, pop-lit, histories and myths, and they all scramble together in his speech.
(I miss my library. It would help me to remember myself as a cultured man, if I had just one book to read. But they seemed like an unnecessary weight to pack at the time. All I brought for entertainment was a pack of cards.)
Lufti has read enough. From my position lying down, I watch him go over to trade stones with merchants for more books–ah, that explains it. I see one smuggler fit a loup to his eye and gaze appreciatively at a crystal; apparently Lufti’s got a better eye for gemstones in the raw than we gave him credit for.
(It doesn’t matter. I know my own education. I know that I can discern the good from the bad, the high from the low. Even reduced as I am. And perhaps my straits do some good, to separate me, my true quality, from the mere appurtenances of wealth. To show my real merit.)
And perhaps my debility does some good, for it keeps Kiril and Lufti here, resting, recuperating, when otherwise they would have followed me to ruin. Thank all the angels and saints, then, for leaving me depleted!
(Thank all the angels and saints that inspired me to take precautions this time, to climb this peak above Layne Aliso’s base and gaze down with binoculars before taking the road. And yes, I know beyond a doubt that she must have died, herself. Had she lived, she would have found a way to hold the pass. God but she had spunk, for a woman.)
Pity we can’t make this our main medical base. But the grueling climb, the cold and the thin air, argues against it. And we must not fall to the temptation, ever, of thinking any base secure. Red summer flowers grew all the way up.