Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 1

Home Sweet Home



Friday, May 2, 2709, continued

       "Oh thank God thank God thank God both of you okay thank God Lufti come here right now! Deirdre I ought to kill you but thank God, bring her over here thank God you're still alive!"
       "Stop loving me," I murmur to Kiril as those carrying me lay me back down in my old nest of blankets. I can't believe how welcome the softness feels!
       "Not a chance," Kiril mumbles back, her face muffled in a double armful of Lufti.
       I clench my eyes around my tears, unable to bear seeing her. "It was there, Kyra. It was just there." And how? Why? How could Sanzio have gotten the poison into my pack?
       Does it matter? I still kept the cylinder, with the little xerophane packet tucked inside it, and the kindly letter that almost apologized.
       I open my eyes to see Jaydee, very pale, very weak, looking back at me in the other nest across the floor from me. I wonder how long it'll take him to die? If he does die, I now think with a less melodramatic mind. Most people survive swallowing foreign objects, even sharp ones.
       "Haul it on in here, boys!" I hear Katya's raspy voice behind me. A tub soon clunks down beside me as the older woman stands over me, hands on her hips, but I can tell by how she cuts short shaking her head that she's still hungover. "Girl, can you sit up? Because you're going to need a lot more than a bit of wiping off to get you clean!"
       I nod and start to weep, silently but shakingly, so hard that I can barely breathe. Hands help me sit up, strip me, guide my shuddering limbs to the tub and I can't see it through the scalding tears, I can only bump into it it and find my way into it by feel, wincing to do it. I shrill when they move my dislocated shoulder the wrong way; Kiril steps up to set it right. I cry out more than I would if I wasn't crashing, and that embarrasses me another notch worse.
       "Her hand! Nobody told me that she injured her hand." Warm water sluices over me. "Here, keep her hand out of the rest of the bath. Oh dear, the wrist's broken, too. Put a bowl by the tub on a stool over here...there." I feel hands guide mine into the bowl. "That other water's going to get mighty foul mighty fast." Then she turns and cries, "What idiot put her on her blankets as dirty as she is? That'll all have to be washed!"
       As others mutter apologies for fouling good bedding with myself, I keep whispering, "I am so ashamed. I am soooo ashamed."
       "It's okay," says someone washing me--Luka, I think her name is, a young woman with a longish face made more so by wearing her hair in a tight bun on the very top of her head. "Everybody know you got sick from winning us the victory at Abojan Pass." She shrugs skinny shoulders, one poking out of her too-wide neckline. "Greenfire fever's just another war wound." I blink enough to see Baruch glare at her when she adds, "I wish I'd been there to see it."
       And there it stands. Everybody knows. Even this stranger cleaning the blood and dung and urine off my naked body. Everybody knows and everybody loves me anyway.
       I wish they'd stop.
       No I don't. I don't want them to ever stop. Oh, I don't know what I feel! Every emotion I ever had has bled from my eyes and now there's nothing left in me but darkness. And into darkness I surrender.
       The last thing I remember before losing consciousness entirely is the warm water touching my chin, and then Lufti hlifting my head up out of the water, murmuring over me, "It's hard to be a god, Deirdre. Sleep and be done with it."
       (So on we trudge, George holding onto Wallace's arm to keep his elder from slipping, Jake taking the lead, through the drifts made blue by nightfall, Don and I looking about at the lightless buildings to our left and right, no sign of life but us. When I said that our journey to Istislan couldn’t be as hard as our trip to Ganshu, I hadn’t counted on snow. It's worse the deeper we go, not better. No rent-a-sleigh to glide over it, and precious few calories to burn it away. My legs would scream if they had throats for the job, and I can’t feel my feet. Thank God for the academy galoshes, for we brought no boots with us.
       “Dead lands,” George says, shivering, his eyes showing white rims all the way around. He laughs faintly. “My punishment, for all the lives I’ve slain. And here I thought that Hell would be warm.” Wallace looks wan and old, gazing down the deserted street, listening to a wind that never lets up, that feels like it blows right through us.
       Jake glances at me. Dandy—I’m now the guardian for three oracles, two of them untrained and violent transgressors to boot. And all three recently subjected to trauma, mind-altering drugs and high levels of magentine radiation.
       “God gets a bad rap,” I say, “for meting out punishments. More often He’s just trying to teach us something.”
       Hoarsely Wallace says, “That’s justice for me, then, for I taught all the wrong things.” He turns his bleary eyes to me. “I honestly tried, Randall, to teach correctly. I really did.” At that George lets go and buries his face in his hands, though whether he shudders in tears or stifled laughter I can’t tell.
       “All right!” I snap. “No more wallowing allowed on this trip! We’re in a tight bind, and no getting around it, but we won't make it out by surrendering to our misery. It’s action that shows our intent to reform, and to act we have to live.”
       I point to a doorway. “Now get over there, George, right now, and clear snow out of our way--that's home for tonight. Don, you can help him, and pick the lock while you’re at it. Jake, see if you can find enough bricks and stones for me to heat up, that’ll radiate all night long once I get ‘em glowing. Wallace, you can set things up inside, once we get in there.”
       Jake heads for a low wall around what looks like outdoor seating for a bistro. Don says, “Allow me,” and psychically picks at the mortar till the whole thing crumbles.
       “Thanks,” Jake says with a grin, tapping the bill of his cap, where it pokes out from under his hood.
       By now George has finished clearing the doorway and gone off to poke about around the corner. My Fireheart sibs start hauling bricks inside. I stand and watch Don and Jake work, conserving my energy for the heating to come.
       George surprises me by bringing me a candy-bar, which I wolf down eagerly. "I found a police station nearby. It's much more of a wreck than most places." He snickers, briefly his old self. "Looks like they left in a panic, much sooner than anybody else. I couldn't find any guns, though I found empty racks. They must have taken those."
       I grin back at him. "I'm more dangerous with a candybar, anyway."
       "Good, because I found a few more."
       The interior stands neatly bare of furnishings, but we have our own camping gear. With a groan and a wrench Jake pulls a bathroom sink out of ta kitchenette wall, to hold the heated rocks in the middle of the lunchroom. Meanwhile Wallace rigs up a foil blanket into a low roof that will deflect rising heat back down to us as we crawl or sit beneath it,, and then lays out our sleeping bags neatly in a ring. Jake uses a few of the bricks to stabilize the sink, and piles the rest of them inside.
       Soon we huddle in the pink glow of bricks, eating a hodgepodge of canned oysters, crackers, and a tea of conifer-tips that George swears is rich in vitamin C. Wallace says, morosely, “I suppose we haven’t the foggiest chance of finding your friend in all these empty miles.”
       I burst out laughing. “Are you kidding? With three oracles, how can we miss her?”)

       "Pay up, Lefty." I hear Cyran say nearby. How did I wind up in a nest of fresh, clean blankets? "I know for a fact you've had a chance, now to buy the gum you owe me." Somewhere I hear laughter.
       "Of course, my commandante! Here you go." Somewhere people can still laugh.
       "I'll be leaving now. Our hosts have some tools that they'd like us to sh…"
       "Hey! It's a cheaper brand!" And the laughter all around makes my pillow just a little bit softer and the pain a little less.

Saturday, May 3, 2709

       (I burn the husks on which we ate our hot breakfast of polenta, while Ozwald pours water over his new string of sprouting-seeds, and Anselmo catches the water for washing out the pot. I hesitate, grateful for the lingering warmth of the coals of the fallen tree, yet all good things must come to an end, and hopefully bad things, too. So I fetch the shovel and pile what remains of the snow onto the log until it all goes dark, white snow melting into wet black ash.
       Anselmo looks up at a blue sky. "No more blizzard," he says. "That's a good sign."
       I come around and open the door to put Tshura in the cab, when I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the side-mirror. Drawn. Haunted. Not much sass left, though I try. "I miss myself," I whisper to Tshura, then climb in after her as Ozwald scoots in after me and Anselmo takes the other side. The truck rumbles back to life, vibrating softly in the cushioned seat. And off we go, around the steaming ash, to find the snowmakers before they lose it once again.)

       "Ash, ash, we are all but ash," Lufti mutters cheerfully, bringing me a pale corn mush for breakfast. I have never much liked mush, but what the heck, I can't taste anything right now anyway, despite a searing hunger. With one hand in a caste and the other arm bound to my chest, I can't eat it by myself, so Lufti spoon-feeds me like a shivering baby and I just have to suck up the humiliation. "Feel the health," he murmurs as he feeds me. "Feel every cell in your body wanting to heal. All we have to do, dear Dre, is give them what they need and get out of their way." When the bowl empties Kiril hands him a second one, with butter, nuts and anthelma seeds, and I make that vanish, too. I actually tasted the anthelma a bit in that one, fennelish and raisiny.
       Cyran kneels down beside me, waiting till I finish, then puts an arm around Kiril's shoulders where the girl sits nearby. E hands her a chunk of raw magentine and asks, "Hekut told me what you can do. Did Deirdre really pour out the conchy-sharp?"
       For a long moment Kiril says nothing just stares at me, her eyes filling with tears till they spill over down her face, her whole body trembling. At last she whispers, "Deirdre--I had no idea what that cost you!"
       Lufti murmurs, "Ashes on the wind," and takes away my bowl.
       In a quiet voice Cyran looks me in the eye and says, "It's up to you, then, Deirdre. If you want to go home now, I won't keep you. You've already turned the tide enough, I think, to give us the best shot we've ever had. But if you want to stay, and if Makhliya agrees, I won't muster you out."
       Ohhh God. I look at my bandaged hand, and down at my sling-cradled arm. Can anyone ask more of me? I look up to Lufti's face, its haunted serenity. I asked more of him. I look over to Kiril who's crying harder now, trying not to be audible, failing, wanting so badly to want what's best for me and not what's best for her...and where did that thought come from? I'm not best for anybody!
       "I'm tired," I can barely even say the words. "I can't make any decisions right now."
       Cyran nods, squeezes my good shoulder and then gets up to bark orders. I see in the dimness of the pantry, back behind all the others, the door to the dark storeroom open a crack. I see Chaska's pale head poke out, then the rest of her, slipping back silently to join us as unobtrusively as possible, but not before Cyran turns to see where I stare. And then Lufti, carrying the baby, starts screaming "Out! Out! Everybody out!"
       "That's an order!" Cyran shouts after him, grabbing me up, making cry out in pain. "Follow the boy!" And we all stream after Lufti while I bounce on Cyran's shoulder, clutched to hir breast, looking backwards in fascination as the fireball unfolds like the angriest of flowers and my hearing roars away.



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