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IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VII: The Burning


Chapter 43

Regrets


 

 

Thursday, May 1, 2709, continued


     "What leaf? I didn't have any leaf, when do you think I'd have a chance to forage in this stinking health-hazard of a pantry?" I stalk away from Kiril as fast as I can go, hooking my pack and nearly toppling but rapidly getting my feet. "God, you are so suspicious, little girl! Can't somebody enjoy a second wind now and then?" I slip on the mop-water while Braulio tries to clean the floor, catch myself against a stone wall with only a slight abrasion and stride on, Kiril running after me.
     "No--not as sick as you are! Deirdre, with your fever leaf could kill you!"
     "Well it's a good thing I didn't chew any!"
     "Don't lie to me, Deirdre…"
     I whirl on her. "How DARE you accuse me of lying to you!" She blanches when I grab her, but Lufti pushes between us, pulling back my fingers so I have to let go.
     "She's not lying, Kiril," Lufti says in an eerily calm voice.
     "There! See? He wouldn't…"
     "Because the stardust only shines green on the other side," Lufti finishes.
     "Conchy-sharp!" Kiril cries as I back away from her. "Oh Deirdre, that's even worse!"
     "Don't you dare judge me, you little slut, after all the times you…"
     "Deirdre, no, please, it's not about judging, you're sick, several different ways at once you're sick," and she takes my arm but I jerk it away from her.
     "GO AWAY!" I scream at her so hard that it hurts "Get lost! I don't want you anywhere near me--leave!" I start running but she runs swiftly after.
     "You don't want me to see you like this!" she shouts after me, and I hear the tears in her voice. I pull my flit out as I run, donning it with practiced speed "But I do see you, and I still love you, Deirdre!" I didn't hear that. I imagined it because I want to believe it but I know it's impossible, it's all impossible. I see sky ahead, between the vines, and that can only mean one thing. We're still in the higher reaches of the rainforest. I rip through jungle with a drug-fueled fury keeping one step ahead of the girl who claims to love me, whose entire life I'm sure I must have ruined because she freakin' loves me, swimming through the dizziness and heat, hoping that Kiril tangles on every vine and falls farther and farher behind for her own stupid best interest, but she doesn't, but it doesn't matter because I reach the cliff and dive right off. She can't follow me here!
     Wind whistles in my ears as I realize ah hell, I left my boots behind!
     (Another night falls deep on Vanikke, no light saveours for miles around. It looks cold out there, but I luxuriate in the warmth within this truck, between two kind men and a heater breathing comfort on my feet. What a relief, to no longer have to do any of this solo, or just me and Ozwald, or me and...now, now, mustn't remember that. The deep growl of Anselmo's truck lulls me like the sweetest of songs, and the popcorn odor of its fuel smells so much better than my old belated car.
     But now that I've had to remind myself of what I mustn't remember, the memory leaps out at me in a full-throated howling gallop straight into me to sink fangs into my brain. Scenes of happiness so sharp that they hurt, they tear me up, because I'll never have them again.
     I've shrugged it off as a moment's passion, an adrenaline-fueled explosion of lust and escapism falling into the arms of the only one available to hold me, just hold me, just distract me from the nightmare of these days. But now my memory skims over that moment, skims even over the toying curiosity that made the option possible, and the jaws of memory drag me, struggling, into all of the tenderly nonsexual moments, all the poignant little truths, the friendship deepening into something else, the...love. I loved Cybil. I love Cybil--no, I don't. She betrayed me hopelessly. No she didn't. I did--I broke a cultural taboo, something that no agent should ever do. I brought this on myself and deserve no I didn't, the horror in the boxcar overwhelmed me, I did nothing wrong but I also did wrong because I broke Cybil's trust. Zanne should always be the one in control.
     Anselmo glances over, seeing the tear slide down my cheek. He doesn't pry, although his awakened telepathy could. Briefly he takes a hand off the wheel to touch my arm softly and just keep on driving in silence. He knows that it's in the lulls between dangers that the trauma can catch up with you.)
     (Sitting on my bunk, sewing up a torn knee in my trousers by will-o-watt, I smell the smoke before anything. Then I feel and hear the feet pounding on the deck as Don shouts, "George set the galley on fire!"
     I scramble out for the bailing-buckets and join Don and Wallace, faces to the hot, bright blaze, hindquarters to the cold. I see George as a whirling silhouette, dancing madly. Great dousings of icy saltwater soon turn our favorite retreat into a cave of steaming, dripping charcoal awash with ashy bilge. It doesn't take long for the edges to rime, even as I watch, before the last flames die and the near-moonless night takes over. Good grief--are those snowflakes that I see? In May?
     We turn to where Jake pins a struggling, spitting George to the deck. The boy cries out, "I want my old self back! I want my old self back! I used to be powerful--I used to regret nothing!" Jake just keeps on holding him down, as steady as the anchor.
     Don whistles, then swears, then says, "There's my rental deposit, up in smoke."
     Wallace, shivering in wet clothing, asks, "What are we going to do?" Good question. I send in a bit of a glow to estimate the damage. No food left, of course. No leaks so far, but the hull looks sufficiently compromised that it could bust open at any time, and up here spring's not known for gentle weather. Not snow, though--that's new.)
     ("Anselmo," I say, staring at the white fluff hitting our windshield, bright against the fall of night, "Tell me that's not snow."
     "Do you want me to lie to you?")

     How long have I perched, dizzy, on this cold and slippery rock outcropping, staring down at a river valley that looks like moss with a silver ribbon going through it? And when did night fall? And what's that smell? And why won't my ears stop ringing? (Then I realize, in my blood, the folly of lighting anything without food, in unseasonable cold, and I shut the glow down quickly. But I shouldn't worry too much; I've been eating like a teenager for months, and the pants that fit well when I left them behind now bind a bit. Still, it's not the best way to burn fat.) (Ozwald wakes up, blinking, and I feel the hunger in him, so I pass over the bag of chips that Felicia made from the leftover tortillas; he's a teenager and can use them more than I can. He gobbles them down gratefully and then looks out the window. "Is that snow?")
     The smell comes from me. I never got a chance to clean up after midwifing. I'm not likely to find a faucet up here to set things right, either.
     A muscle cramp nearly sends me hurtling off the rock, but I grapple with it, scraping myself, to get to a better position...one that I know I can't sustain for long. I feel icy, shudderingly icy, but I realize that what makes this perch so slippery is condensation, not frost. I'm not in the mountains anymore, I remind myself. This is but a spur of a high-jungle sky-island.
     I move wrong, nearly slip off again, fighting another cramp that tries to pry loose my hold. Grit breaks off and bounces off of rocks to fall below. I've got to get down to level land. I don't think I've got the fuel in me to fly very far, but I can still glide...hopefully. For even that much I'll need help. (When did I get in such bad shape? Oh yeah. Dragon fever.) So with great pains, literal and figurative, I manage to extract the little envelope of xerophane and inhale enough power to see me safely off my perch.
     Spasmic explosion of feeling so much better! I freefall, only gradually aware that I fell off the cliff--wow, this is so much fun! To totally lose control and tumble around as the puppet of the wind, guided into a dance finer and more grand than anything I could manage by myself...
     ("We'll pull into Vanikke," says Don. "We can stock up there, and get a new boat. They'll change Til credit, and they have a major port not too far from here..."
     "No." Jake says. "We can't." Jake gets up off of George, who now lays strangely quiet. He picks up the telescope rolling across the deck, and wipes dry its lenses. "I was just checking out that major port, Don. We've been sailing parallel to Gastenherber for miles." He hands the telescope over to Don. "Do you see any lights out there?"
     All of us, George included, go over to the bow, staring at the dark shoreline. Jake says, "It's a high-tech city, Gastenherber. Electricity in every home. Streetlights. Skyscrapers. Trains. Automated harbor cranes. Whatever turned out the lights out there, it's bad."
     In a small voice George asks, "Did I do that?" We have no answer for him.
     My hair stands on end as I say, "Zanne has a mission there."
     Jake says, "I don't think it's going well.")
     (I feel the truck turn. Now the snow hurls straight at us, blindingly, but Anselmo keeps on, his face grim, wrestling the wheel masterfully back in line with every skid.
     "Where are we going?" I ask.
     "The eye of the storm. Somebody's generating this spring blizzard and they need us to help them stop."
     And I thought I knew Lovequest.)

     IMPACT! A loud, outraged "MOOOO!" bellows right in my ear as I slide off the softness of rough, short fur. A cow staggers back to her feet and backs away from me as the rest of the herd turns their horns towards me, but I don't think I weighed enough to hurt her much.
     Did a cow really just break my fall? What are the odds? Some ghost looks out for me tonight.
     (WHAM! I have no idea what we hit, buried in all that whiteness. Anselmo looks worried and more than a little embarrassed. At close range, now, we can see the fallen tree grown inappropriately intimate with our bumper, its snow-covered twigs and leaves a-quiver in the wind.
     Ozwald says, "Well, that didn't go well.")

     I breathe in enough dust to rise again, in a low, wobbly sort of way, and off I go, apologizing to the cows below me. I see some dulcina trees ahead; if I can browse up in their branches, I'll be able to keep on going.
     He said, "From one without hope to one who understands." I do. I'm not using greenfire to do my job anymore. I'm using conchy-sharps to run away from my job, all the blood and pus and vomit and filth and crying children and children too stone-hard to cry, all the stench of spoiling battle fields and infected wounds and smoke and pissing fear, all the teeth-rattling explosions and screams and the ghost-haunted silence tingling in between.
     (The medic slips over his hand a band of white latex interwoven with fine silver threads, attached to a translucent disk of magentine like a scoop of watermelon. Casually he says, "Don't mention to the brass that I can do this; they'd order me to a swank hospital for officers, but it's the rank and file who need me most."
     "I'm not rank and file," I say as I position myself with my right side upwards and move my arm out of the way. I have come to know every swirl, crack and bump of the poorly plastered wall in front of me by now.
     "You're also not indiscreet," he says and strokes the cool stone over my stitches.
     He winces and involuntarily clutches his side with his free hand. I didn't know that this thing would cause him to feel my pain. "I expected as much," he says. "I thought your breath seemed shallow." He wipes off the stone with alcohol and lays it in its case. "The bullet splintered your rib. Some of the splinters prod into your lung--fortunately without penetrating it, and it might stay that way if you're careful, at least until you've had some time to develop some scar tissue between the bone and the flesh." He sighs. "I'm afraid I don't have the skill to smooth the splinters back with my mind--I have psychometry, but not telekinesis. You might want to travel to Istislan to consult a specialist, when you get the chance."
     "When I get the chance," I laugh faintly, and even that little bit hurts.
     "Until then breathing's going to hurt," he says.
     "I am familiar with pain."
     "I know." He picks up a prescription pad, looks at me, I glare back, and he puts it back down. "I'll send in a cup of pea soup and half a muffin. I'd advise you to eat six small meals a day rather than three full-sized ones. It will be easier on you." Then he shakes his head and says "I mean it will make you more productive.")

     I have no appetite, yet I force myself to choke down several dulcinas as I find them. Strength returns, but also nausea. I perch on a branch for a moment, sweating, holding on with shaking arms, before I can take off again.
     My mission has not gone well. My mission hasn't gone well since even before we docked in the Charadoc, when I let Jonathan, back on the ship, persuade me to ignore that poor, beat-up little oh my God that was Kiril!
     The dark miles roll out beneath me, trees, clearings, faint glimmer of river-mist threading in and out, incessant shimmering chittering of bugs. I knew. I knew even back then. Everything got off on the wrong foot because I knew even even even back then! But I told myself it was okay because I didn't yet know her name. Everyone's a statistic till you look them in the eye and know their name.
     And she loves me? What a fool!
     I grow weary again, an aching promise of still more pain to come. So I reach into my pocket for the xerophane packet, wanting again to feel rush over me that brave, distracting surge of believing that I'm hurtling towards something wild and wonderful and meaningful, but it means nothing, really, not fighting for anything anymore. I have lost all hope of mastering this drive to fly until I drop dead from the sky.
     Yet have I lost all hope? In me, myself, yes. But not so long ago a young girl ran after me, crying out that she loves me no matter what.

                  

 




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