IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VII: The Burning
Of Failure and Success
Thursday, March 18, 2709
Downhill, we go, and gladly, for I've no inclination to climb today. (Climb down and around. Today. Now. No more excuses. Sneak in, at the same place as before. Nobody watches this end, where only a mountaineer could reach.) We emerge from the land of clouds, dipping down under their bellies. Another time I might have found that overcast gloomy, but I discover myself oddly relieved. The Highlands may offer breathtaking splendor, but the Midlands scale down to an easier measure, and the overcast softens things appropriately. Already the air feels richer; as good an excuse to smoke as any.
(Slip in once more behind the crates. Careful...I must not make a single clank in setting out the bottles of oxygen. Wait till an argument over a board game waxes loud enough to cover the soft hiss of opening every valve. Oh good, now some deeper, gravelly voice has started to shout. Steal back out again.)
"My last tobacco!" I say wistfully, pulling out a cigarette from my pocket. I give Lefty a wry grin. "I should never have loaned you any."
"I'll pay it back," he says. "But I won't find any smokeshops up here; you'll have to wait."
"Mm hm." I say around the cigarette in my mouth, lighting it, and shaking out the match. (Light the molotov, and shake out the match. A waste of top-flight primera, poisoned with camp-stove gel, but with whom would I toast?) After a few puffs I tell him, "And by then I suppose you hope that I'll have forgotten all about it."
"It's not my fault if people don't keep track of what they're owed."
"Then I'll be sure to remind you," I say, then startle at a nudge to my elbow. "Why, what's this?" I say as Kiril hands me a pouch.
"My tobacco and pipe," she confesses. "I kept it around just in case." Then she looks at Lufti, and takes his hand. "I don't need any just in cases anymore."
(Now throw, throw before it goes off in my fist! And dive behind the rock, hear that gravelly voice keep shouting, clasp my hands over ears at the start of explosion after explosion after explosion as the entire slope caves in and my safe place becomes safe no longer and I flip head over heels over head among the rocks, part of the avalanche along with my foes and the unearthed bodies of my friends, all tumbled together, down, down, bruising and cutting and breaking and all of us scream silently together for we've all gone deaf from the first blinding flash, and all I can think of is how I will share my grave with rebels and no one will ever know to separate my bones apart from theirs.)
I see smoke in the distance, several columns rising up together, tidy little wisps, probably from chimneys. Our peace apart from men will not last long.
(Did I really hear, right before everything blew apart, that rough voice shouting "Out! Out! Quick, into the tunnel!"? And why am I still con...)
"...scious?" Deirdre woke herself saying, noticing that the music had turned off for the noon meal. She turned wide eyes to Justín, saying, "I've got to tell them–tell the Peshawr family—what's left of them—where to find Soskia and Cherone!"
Justín eased Deirdre's clenched fingers off of the magentine and massaged the cramped muscles of her hand, though the sweat beaded on his brow just to touch her. "And how do you propose to do that? How can you explain to them why you know Cherone's last thoughts? And how could you separate his bones from those of any rebels who might have died with him? And why would the Peshawr family listen to you, of all people, after all that has happened?"
"I...just...well there must be something I can do."
Wincing, he gave her a hand out of her chair. "And what makes you so sure that he died?"
She turned and stared at him. "You know something?"
"I'm not sure whether I do or not. Hints and glimpses, as usual. We'll see how the rest unfolds. Now, let's get some food into you before your blood-sugar crashes."
At the patio table, out under a blue sky too serene to care, she said, "You know, I like this gruel. It's honest–fuel and nothing but. It doesn't try to entice me into eating more than I decide to." She leaned an elbow on the table and rested her chin on her fist. "Sometimes it seemed like people obsessed on feeding me all the time in the Charadoc. And they with so little, themselves! It made me really ashamed."
Justín eyed her up and down, eating his own unseasoned bowl of beans and barley and vegetable-bits. "You have no idea how distorted your body-image has become, do you? Deirdre, I'm in the unique position of having seen out of your eyes and also looked on you with my own. You are not plump, as you seem to see yourself right now. You are nowhere near. In fact, you teeter perilously close to developing an eating disorder."
She shrugged, spooning down more food. "I'm eating right now–see?"
"Good girl–and I'll see that you keep it down." He drew out a cigarette for himself, and slid the pack over to her. Lighting it, he said, "The last thing either of us needs is yet another vice."
"Deliberately undereating is as much a vice as overeating. I've seen it go both ways. Agents who don't die in the field usually die of their own compulsions. Didn't you know that?"
"That's not true!" She slapped her hands on the table, halfway out of her seat. "I've seen them in Til Institute my whole life, teaching classes."
"For a little while. Until they become unfit to teach. Then they usually wander off to Rhallunn, devoted enough, to the end, to conceal their deterioration from those they'd hoped to inspire." He laughed smokily, shaking his head. "Here Til Institute has made a grand, public business of rescuing all the world's waifs from dysfunctional families, when we're the biggest dysfunctional family of them all." He leaned towards Deirdre, his eyes glinting, and whispered, "We debriefers know all the family secrets."
"Jonathan..." she started to say, then stopped, sitting down abruptly.
"If not for me..."
Suddenly Justín's eyes became kind again, as he reached out and almost touched her hand. "You don't know that, Deirdre. Something else would have set him off, sooner or later. He lived in a bubble of fantasy, a blister just waiting for something to pop it and bare the raw wound underneath. Sooner or later he would have had to confront the disconnect between his ideals and the reality of his failure in the Charadoc."
"Failure?" she asked faintly. "Do we all fail, then, in the end?"
Gently he said, "Of course you do. All of you. But only because you accept nothing short of perfection." He leaned back in his chair, "Oh, I have seen it all, Deirdre, year after year. We debriefers don't enjoy long lives, yet we outlive many agents. We watch their progress from dewy-eyed rookies to burnt-out wrecks...and then we recognize their names in the obituaries."
"Is...is there anything we can do? Some way we can reform the whole institution?"
Sadly smiling, he shook his head. "Not until humanity in Novatierre ceases to need nation-sized sacrifice to survive." He paused in thought for a moment, then got up, and forced himself to offer her a hand. "Let's finish what we started."
He continued to speak as they walked back. "Failure in the end doesn't matter. You accomplish too much along the way to discount it all. You–and others like you–keep hope alive for everyone else. Don't let anything take that away from you." Almost inaudibly he murmured, "And there was that mysterious baby…but no, that hope won't mature for quite awhile—not in my lifetime, surely." She couldn't even see his lips move.
As she resumed the chair, Deirdre said, "Jonathan told me that ex-agents usually retire to the country of their choice."
Justín slipped the band back on his brow. "Even better than Rhallunn for falling apart out of sight. But even then, some still accomplish great things before they die." And he switched the music on.