IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Wednesday, March 10, 2709
The predawn light slowly illuminates the view of peaks beyond peaks beyond peaks, first a violet lightening of the deep blue-black, then the flush of turquoise, then the rim of coral glow. (It looks positively chilly out there–not at all a sunshiny summer day in Sargeddohl, is it?) The mist-softened mountains wear deep, muted, shades of indigo and teal. (I nestle deep into the leather upholstery, grateful at least for the chance to relax on this long drive back to The Charadoc. Meetings can get so tedious! Thank heavens for this fur and feather cloak from dear Cherone, all snug and fluffy against the year-round snow–well, snow it would be if we didn’t drive over such a desert, and at such an ungodly hour. Cherone really knows how to treat his favorite Auntie.
But really, I have been away too long for late starts and early evenings; we have some time to make up . Ah, what’s a business-woman to do?)
I feel health in my veins–real health. I almost forgot the very sense of it. (I can hardly wait to enjoy darling Layne Aliso’s hospitality on the border’s other side. Madame General is not nearly as uncouth as rumor makes her out to be–quite the reverse.) I feel alive again–strong, and eager for action. (Not to mention a valuable contact for a military contractor to cultivate.) The air feels so crisp, so refreshing! And the first birds sing.
(No one knows of all the sacrifices that I make for my company–nothing, really, that a lady should involve herself in at all, if she can help it, if she has a living husband to shield her from the nastier details. Yet sometimes one needs a hands-on approach. There’s just no getting around it.
Let my neighbors fancy me vacationing at some beach resort too exclusive for them to know the name–it wouldn’t do for them to learn that I must deal with smugglers on a regular basis. Yet Stovak has iridium, and The Charadoc does not, and I need it for my catalytic converters. A shame, but there it is.)
Cyran comes up beside me. We don’t need to say a word. E can tell by looking at me how I feel today. And I can sense hir approval.
(If only the dreary revolutionaries didn’t tie up our military resources, we could solve Stovak’s civil unrest problems by a salutary conquest. Oh, I know it sounds dreadful, but I don’t mean it cynically. They would thank us! All they need is a strong hand to sort out their affairs. And as for the profit to myself, well, why not? The sillies don’t have the technology to use their own iridium, and we do. We’d be helping them out.)
I gaze out at a distant stand of pines on a mountain’s rainy-side. The green/black smudge of vegetation fans out here and narrows there, growing around rock outcroppings, till it looks like an eagle, maybe, only kind of elongated and with two tails. (I gaze out the window, and watch the fence-posts go by. They look gray and weathered–not something I see much of back home, but rather charming, in their own way—rustic, if you will. Not milled posts, either, but lopped pine branches cut to post-length and otherwise left unfinished. Ah, the appeal of the primitive! I should build a summer retreat up in these mountains with a similar decor. And I wonder what makes those curious blue glints in the shadow behind that shelf up there, all in a row like that? Ice in twilight? That might make a nice aesthetic touch, too, something like that.)
“It looks sort of like a flying woman, doesn’t it, that patch of woods?” I realize that Cyran regards the same feature that I do. “It reminds me of you, Deirdre.” I don’t break my silence.
(I wake up a bit and notice a startling detail. No barbed wire connects the fenceposts. I sit up more and look directly out the window. The wire has not merely fallen off–someone has deliberately stripped it off!)
(Oh God have mercy–that’s her car down there–and she doesn’t know! She doesn’t know!)
“The smugglers have brought us an interesting bit of intelligence,” e says. “Are you ready to go back to work?” I still don’t say anything, but I nod.
Then Cyran points to the road below, and on it a long luxury vehicle comes our way, its length impractical for the mountain’s tight curves; I sure wouldn’t want to be the one driving it. I haven’t smoked for the duration of my sickness, so when the wind puffs up I can smell the rich bread scent of stapleseed–a vehicle of The Charadoc!
“That’s your target. We need it stopped, preferably with hostages taken,” Cyran tells me. “Do you feel up to it?”
“Indeed I do,” I say, stretching, feeling the straps of my flit upon me. “It looks like a good day ahead.”
(What if Layne doesn’t still hold the pass since last I came this way? What if rebels haunt the mountains, now? We are wide open to attack!)
(I can’t get to her in time! I can’t warn her!)
“I really should keep you grounded until Makhliya says you’re up to weight, but she does say I could use you in a pinch at this point.”
“Use me all you want,” I say, and laugh. “I’m pinchable.”
E bends back and peers at my buttocks like a parody of a man, then winks and says, “You’ll need a bit more on you for that–fortunately we don’t fight with our rumps.”
“You’d think some do,” I say with a smile, then step up to the brink. I dive head down, breathless in the icy rush! I do a barrel-roll just for the joy of it, and glide to a spur of the mountainside feet-first. (I run skidding down the mountain, caution flung aside like the gravel spraying from my feet!)
I see my fellow soldiers issue out of a tunnel below, taking their zigzagging goat-path down to the road. I skip from boulder to boulder, taking giant leaps, barely skimming the rocks with my boots, arms floating on the air for balance, running perpendicular to the cliff. I know the psychological effect: the enemy perhaps has gotten used to a woman who can fly, but someone running down a precipice like a level trail would give them a new twist of the unexpected, even if functionally less formidable–it must look eerie. The difference means that a witness might not know whether it’s me, or some other rebel who also has an uncanny trick or two. And if there’s two of us...ha!
(I trip, fall, tumble bruise and bruise and bruise then THUMP! against an outcropping. I shove myself back up with bleeding hands and go on more cautiously–but I go on! Am I a Peshawr or a stinking, sniveling coward? Well, come ON!)
The first shots fire, aiming for the tires, but it takes a learning curve to hit a moving target.
(God, God, God, guns again! Oh God I can’t do this, I just...guns!)
(This pretty pink ring had better do as advertised–the training alone cost three times its weight in iridium.)
I see the leader of the charge combust before my eyes! “HIDE!” I shrill. I shoot off from the cliff to soar directly over the car as my folks dive behind any rock available.
(When did I dive behind a rock, curled up and cowering–what is WRONG with me?) The slowest three also go up in flames, shrieking–whoever the combustor might be, e either hasn’t the control to target the head, or doesn’t bother. But nobody can combust anyone that they can’t aim for.
Heart pounding, I race to keep up with the vehicle, streamlining and diving to increase my momentum, because the minute I slip from soaring directly overhead, she will see me and she will burn me. Somehow I know it’s a she–no time to question it. She doesn’t dare lean out the window, because as soon as she does, concentrating on me, a hidden sniper will pick her off.
The freezing air streams past so fast it blinds me–I can’t see the car anymore! And I know I plummet at fatal speed, and can’t gauge my distance, and...
...and what? Divebombing the car means dying to stop the biggest threat we’ve faced so far—an armed combustor.
But the road twists and turns–I can’t guarantee even succeeding at a suicide mission at this speed–if my foe doesn’t fry me, I’ll crash into the mountainside. It all means nothing–nothing!
(Come along, dearie. I know precisely who you are, and now I know what you are. Just come within sight, you nasty little chert, one teensy miscalculation and I will deal with you as I should have done a year ago, before you terrorized my country and ruined poor, dear Jonathan.)
And then a weird calm enters me. Somehow I know that I can sense the car beneath me, as surely as know the gender of my enemy. My ghosts must guide me. Tanjin? Are you there, Tanjin? My rational mind shuts off and I glide on pure intuition, and the mountain air feels silent, so silent, only the growl of the motor precisely beneath me disturbs it as I twist and turn with the invisible road, feeling the pummel of the wind and my own hair lashing at my face.
(And to think I welcomed you with open arms! I should have flung you off the pier–I should have ordered my servants to beat you down with oars until you drowned!)
The car picks up speed–I can hear the skidding of its wheels. I hear the gravel spraying off the road as the overlong thing comes time and again to the very brink at every curve. That helps, telling me where the curves are. I can almost feel the driver’s terror mingle with my own, as we both swallow it down and do the job we have to.
(I am Cherone Peshawr. I have a job to do. I climb dangerous mountains for fun! No one has ever questioned my courage. Why can’t I unclench a single shuddering muscle?)
Now I plunge so fast that hard air pushes the skin of my face back painfully. I’m pretty sure we’ve gone beyond anyone who could snipe on my behalf–but does she know that? I exert my will to slow me down, lest I overshoot the car. I have to clench my fists and force my arms forward against the G’s, inch by inch, have to shield my eyes, pry open my lids...
(I have had about enough of this. It’ll be a shame to ruin fine craftsmanship, but I can afford the repairs.)
...There! Directly below me as it should be. Now if only I can...
Shots! Straight up through the roof! They’d have connected, too, had I weighed an ounce more. Can she see me through the holes, now? Can she guess?
But she gives me an idea for how I can end this. Fighting momentum, feeling my breastbone just begin to warm, I force my hand to my own holster. The cold wind whips the heat away from me nearly as fast as she can apply it–she didn’t account for that! I force my arm against that same wind, my latest pistol pointed down. I feel warmth bloom just over my heart and at first it feels good. Then not so good, but still our passage slows the heating down, and the sweat that it engenders quickly turns to frost upon my unaffected brow. I take aim, not where the bullets came from, but precisely over that point where a Charadocian driver would have to sit. Cyran wants a hostage.
Truly hot, now, feeling like a sunburn getting worse. I fire, and I don’t hear whether the chauffeur has time to scream or not, because the car goes so quickly out of control, spinning off the side and running straight through the wireless fenceposts, to turn and turn again in the air before the first impact against the mountainside, which bounces what’s left still farther into freefall till not even I could save her.
I follow for awhile nonetheless, just because I’ve built up too much momentum to keep the road under me a moment longer. But the car falls faster, turning into a toy, and then a dot, and then a dustlike speck. I follow, fighting to decelerate, till I can slowwwly pull myself upward again, groaning and sweating in the ice-wind to do it, until I can finally glide into normal flight, or its wavering approximation, as I waft back to our base. My chest-muscles sting when I flex my arms to help guide my direction, and I break out in a brand-new sweat just to think of how close I came.
(Useless! All of my education, all of my breeding, all of my work-outs and aspirations–useless! I couldn’t save my aunt. I couldn’t do a thing but watch her die. I couldn’t even find the ice in me to use the distraction of her death to spy out the rebel stronghold while all watched the battle between Aunt Soskia and that flying chert. I can’t believe I thought her hot at that Chinese New Year’s party, just a year ago. Am I the sorriest excuse for a man in these mountains, or what?)
Later, wrapped in blankets and sipping broth from a cup (“No fasting for you,” Father insisted, “You have a medical dispensation.”) smelling the herbal sharpness of the salve between my breasts (they’ve come back!) I endure Cyran berating me for the loss of a lucrative hostage, in the same silence with which I began the day. E never tells me who she was, and something in me shudders with relief that I won’t find out.
When I see others gather for the Ash Wednesday rites, I get up and join them. I can at least show penitence, if nothing else. When it comes my turn for the smudge upon the brow, people start to suppress giggles all around me. Finally Hekut calls out, “Don’t bother, Father–she nearly made an ash of herself already today!” Mykolas grins right back (it feels good to see laughter sparkle in those eyes!) but he thumbs a cross onto my brow nonetheless.
(No more skulking. Every time I think I’ve reached the limit, I get more motivation to kill. How many loved ones must I lose before I pull myself together enough to act?)
I’m ready. Rested, fed, healed and absolved. There’s a war out there that needs a soldier with my skills. Time I got back to it.
(We burn. We burn, oh dear Lord, we still do burn!)