Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VII: The Burning

Chapter 45

Making the Best of the Mess



Friday, May 2, 2709, continued

     (We pull the yacht into harbor. Unseasonable icicles adorn the piers, the eaves, the cranes and bridges, everything in sight, fantastically swirled by the moaning winds. Those winds, whistling between buildings and twanging wires here and there, the tinkling of ice that they occasionally dislodge, plus the slap of the ocean against the ice-armored pylons, make the only sounds around us, in what ought to be a bustling waterfront. We have no trouble finding mooring; everything that can float has left town for calmer waters. Til should get the reports of new refugee camps any day, now.
     Softly Don says, “We’ve all seen missions go bad, but this is spectacular!”
     I can’t help but add, “And for it to happen to Zanne, of all people—right when she’d set out to prove that she could handle a mission all by herself.”
     Jake growls, “It’s not her fault,” and looks at George.
     Unexpectedly Wallace puts an arm around George. “It’s not his fault, either. He’s just a boy!”
     "That’s right,” Don says, blushing, as he ties the moorings. “I fell for as much in my day, with less excuse, from the same deceiver.” After that we get efficient about taking one last look around to make sure we didn’t leave anything out of our packs that we might need.
     Because a daylight inspection shows the unwisdom of daring to sail anywhere deeper than wading-depth on that charcoal’d hull. Even as we load up, the first cracks open, and the first seepage begins. Bumping softly against a pylon finishes the job; we barely make it out as the water finally fountains up. We stand up on the pier and watch the sinking of our home.
     Well, it won’t be the first time I traveled cross-country on foot. It won’t be near as hard as the trip to Ganshu. I hope.
     We stare inland now, at the dead or dying city, patched here and there in snow that no one plows away or shovels anymore, but already most of it has thawed, long icicles dripping everywhere, glittering in the morning sun. It really only looks like the shadiest places hold any at all, between tall buildings or in dark alleys. The countryside might be clear of it entirely.
     A few lumps in a sunless alley look like vehicles--wheeled cars--and clearing the sparkly cold stuff off of one confirms it. Not many cars, and the hulks left behind look scavenged for parts, probably dead machines to begin with, gaining a final value at last as organ-donors.
     Don examines our exhumed one and sighs. “Internal combustion, and not very efficient at that. Can’t even take biodiesel. They must have imported huge amounts of taroleum. Just because they could.” He shakes his head. “Well, not any more. Those who drove out won’t get far.”
     “Don’t be too hard on them,” I say. “Fuel for a bioconversion engine wouldn’t have come easily in such a dense city. You can only go so far on kitchen-scraps.” Wallace looks on utterly confused; I’m not sure if he’s ever seen an engine of any kind.
     Jake asks, “What can you pick up from the car, Don?”
     As Wallace’s eyes widen, Don pulls off his left glove and locks his rings together “Can you warm this up for me, Randy? I don’t fancy freezing my fingers to the metal.”
     “Just a bit, but I’m running on fumes, myself.” As Jake explains to the Toulinians that combustors burn a lot of calories, I heat the metal just enough, and Don presses his hand to it.
     “Family car. Nice memories, trips to the beach, trips to school, the store, and temple. Generally driven by a grandmother, who took care of the kids while the parents worked. Usual arrangement in Vanikke, apparently.” With a start I realize that we've had no real chance to study Vanikke, and no resources to start now.
     Don continues, “The car stayed in good shape for years till it got stolen, then abandoned. The kid who stole it felt scared to death the whole time, and was glad to ditch it. He needn’t have worried, though; Granny had stopped driving when her eyesight went; maybe she never even bothered to report it missing. The car probably could have run for years more, with an owner’s care, but it fell to ruin. Then others came to harvest what they could.”
     Now he gets more intent, searching out the most recent memories. “Hmmm. Not a panicked rout, but an organized evacuation. I'd guess the city could no longer sustain such concentrated numbers, though I suppose we might find a handful here and there, gardening several yards and making do.” He glances at our Toulinians. “Do either of you speak Vanniketan?”
     “I do,” Wallace says, “or rather, I can write it. I have sometimes had to import citrade and other supplies from the south. But my knowledge has its limits, I’m afraid.”
     I pat him on the back. “Better than nothing. I’m glad to hear it!”
     Jake reminds me, “I know something of Vanikke, too, remember, including the language. I didn’t start out knowing what part of the region we’d wind up working in.”
     “That’s a relief!” Then I hear a sharp breath from our psychometrist.
     “Interesting”, says Don. “Zanne’s a better agent than we gave her credit for." He withdraws his hand, and pulls his glove back on. “I found images of her left from several minds, all of them working together in technology-harvesting teams that she sent into town..from farmland, it looks like. The image of her stuck in their minds as significant." He opens the door, running his hand along the wheel in front of the space where a seat used to be. "She organized all of this, in fact, and cut the biocost by half at least.” He closes the door again and looks at us. “The Vanikketans don’t see her as a failure at all. So neither should we.” We all concur and start to move on, but Don hasn't finished. "Especially since she's not well."
     "What do you mean?" I ask, but he gets that troubled look that I normally see only in Jake.
     "He doesn't know," Jake fills in, and starts the long tramp through the snow.)
     (As I lie there, nestled in with Ozwald and Anselmo, blanketed against the chill fluttering around the edges of the dying fire, but also deeply breathing in gusts of freshness without smoke, a storm of doubts and regrets overtake me. I can neither rise nor rest, for my failures swarm around me, kicking me back down
     But then I hear Tshura's sweet voice tell me that I haven't failed, showing me things that I did right along the way--tatters of memories, ravaged by the chaos of the past year, hardly recognizable as mine. Did I really pass the outskirts of Gastenherber and organize scavenging operations? Did I, somewhere between a raving dance and a dark time cowering in a cellar, plan an evacuation to arable land? Did I pull a girl out of a chimney where she had flown in and got stuck in a fit of magentine madness? Which is more true, o Gates of Knowledge--the failures or the successes?)

     Strong brown arms lift me up, causing an involuntary cry of pain despite my relief. Nishka? No, she's dead. Someone else, someone radiating warmth and tenderness and I so desperately need that right now. My eyes close back the way they were, and now I can't open them. Again. Yet I can still hear soft whickering and the shuffle of hooves all around me. Nice, the Egalitarians have scored some horses. At least I hope that's who found me this time.
     "You disobeyed me," says Cyan in a tear-roughened voice. Yep, Egalitarians. "God damn you, Deirdre. You nearly killed yourself disobeying me."
     I have nothing to say to that, my many failures heavier on me than the crash and the fever combined.
     "I thought we'd never find you!" I feel hir walking. "Diomedio--race back and tell Kiril before she loses her mind. Tell her we found Lufti, too."
     Of course. Lufti would have led them right to me, no matter where I fell. I endangered him. I endangered that poor, sweet boy whom I have also driven mad, and all my Lovequest is a joke. I don't have the strength to properly cry; my eyes just leak, helplessly as I hear a departing gallop.
     I feel Cyran lift me up to the arms of someone else high up in a saddle."Careful--something's wrong with both her arms." I feel the horse turn and amble back in the other direction, and I hear the others follow suit. I hear Alysha say, "Good lord, but you stink, Deirdre!" Oh yeah. I never did clean myself up after Makhliya gave birth. And here I thought my self-opinion couldn't sink any lower.
     On another horse I hear Cyran say, "This is the last straw. No more chances. I'm going to muster her out." I can almost feel the shifting of plans in his head, adapting.
     I find my voice. "I...I threw it away." I wonder at my own words. "Hit bottom face-first," I murmur and laugh weakly.
     "Threw what away?" I hear Cyran ride closer.
     "The conchy sharp." E inhales sharply.
     "Where in Hell did you get that?"
     "Sanzio sent it to me," I say, too weak to dissemble. I crease my brows. "I don't…I don't seem to know how. I just found it in my pack with a note from him." The venom of Cyran's sudden explosion of cussing takes me by surprise. I mean we all know that Sanzio's the enemy--why should this shock hir so?
     Shivers start to ripple me again. I slip away into dreams of snow.



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