Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 2

Unexpected Applications of Gift



Saturday, May 3, 2709, continued

       (No! NOOOO! I hear the boom and feel the ground shake clear into the farmhouse where the doctor has quartered me. What have I done? My own son, what have I done? Charadoc, you ask too much! I grab the nearest shirt out of a laundry-pile and pull it on, running barefoot out of the building. Clutching my side, I stumble into a surprised sergeant's tent, grab a voclo hanging from a strut and amp it all the way up. Then I tear up the highest hill in sight, one nibbled close by the farmer's goats, no trees up there to block the sound. I fall to my knees, gasping, force myself back up again, a fireball in my left lung where the bone-splinters abrade it. Can I make it in time? Can I?)
       Blinking in the sunlight and the afterimages of fire, choking on the smoke and falling dust, forest-sounds gradually come back to my ringing ears, and the percussion of running feet, my injured arm bouncing against Cyran's breast. I take quick inventory from what I can see over hir shoulder: Kiril and Baruch run beside Cyran and I. Romulo follows close behind with Makhliya white-faced in his arms. Katya and Alysha carry Jaydee between them. Chulan leads a terrified Sonja by the hand. And Lefty, I see him running, too; he and Marduk have grabbed up as many of our packs and weapons as they could, looped on arms and shoulders and clutched in front; war has trained them well. I twist around to see Lufti in the lead, still carrying Makhliya's crying baby, with Hekut close behind. And there's that fat old man, herding Braulio, Chaska, and Kuchi. Others I don't know run with us, too, people I don't care about, don't have enough left in me to care about. Inanely, I notice that Cyran's wearing a sleeveless gray tunic from some other land, probably Paradisio. Not that I care about that, either.
       Cyran throws me into Chulan's arms and Sonja helps to catch me. E goes over and knocks Chaska to the ground, then shoves away her brothers. "I saw you go in the storeroom right before the bomb went off!"
       "Chaska! I cry. "I told you to be more discreet!" Oh God don't let her be the traitor--not one of the ones that I can still care about!
       "But I I I I I was just was just you know he told me I was just I I…"
       Cyran grabs her hair and jerks her head back. "Who told you what?"
       "To, to go in the storage room and look for his...but I thought I'd already brought him his pack, but he said no, I remembered wrong, he, he, he…"
       "WHO?" Cyran roars.
       But just then a voice blares over us, amplified by a voclo yet sounding raspy, "For St. Dymphna's sake, Cyran! Spare my son!" So raw and out of breath, that voice, that I almost don't recognize it.
       "Son?" Cyran cries, letting go of Chaska who falls sobbing to the ground. E looks around wildly, then locks onto sunken-eyed Jaydee, who suddenly laughs like a lunatic.
       "Tell Papa that I don't want spared," he says, and pulls up his shirt, revealing a hot water bottle taped to his belly; I see no fuse but suddenly I know he doesn't need one--the stopper's a magentine crystal. Cyran runs to him but Alysha drops Jaydee to intercept Cyran while Lefty sheds the packs and throw his body over the boy just as Jaydee ignites the homemade explosive with all the psi-fire in his tortured soul.
       And somewhere within himself the miner finds the power to contain the fireball, raising both of them and Katya, too, bending the kinetic energy of a natural levitator into a globe of force, too untrained to know that he shouldn't be able to do this, pressing the fire down with the same Gift that I've only ever used to lift myself into the sky. He has contained even the carnage, a swirling red bubble with rags of skin and cloth and char whirling in there with the occasional recognizable bit. And now the bubble bursts as Lefty dies, but only a little splash, the fury all turned inward on itself, the flames suffocated and spent. He topples down onto the raw spot, all of the back of him intact, the front all burned away. So in the end we only lose Jaydee, Katya, and himself. And I don't even know his real name, only the nickname that he got from his mutilated hand.
       "Leo," Lufti murmurs beside me. "His name is Leo and his wife is Myrtle and they have died happily ever after."
       (I can't breathe. I can't breathe enough to cry but that doesn't seen to stop me. Every sob rips my lungs, heaving against the bone splinters. When did I sink to the ground, clutching at my chest? When did the voclo drop from my hand? I choke and spit up blood, but not very much, I have at least a practiced eye enough to tell that it's not so much that I would die, I'm sentenced to this hell awhile longer.
       I hear someone climbing up behind me rapidly, yet still with some distance to cover. I start to tremble. Again, that practiced eye says that this one's about to break. This Sanzio person, down there kneeling in the dung-spotted, goat-nibbled straw, coughing up a bit more blood, but never mind, he's ready to talk, but what would I say? What could I ever say?
       Ask me something, God! I'm in pain enough that I would tell You any truth! Do You want my confession? You know my sins already. You have prescribed them to me. No, that can't be right, but what the Hell is right anymore?
       I hear the medic draw closer, breathing heavily from the climb. I see his hand reach out to pick up and pocket the voclo. The entire camp--both camps--have heard what I wanted nobody to know. There's no need to testify anything to anybody.
       Without a word the medic gently draws me to my feet, pushes his shoulder under my arm on the good side, and helps me down the hill.)

       Cyran looks white from falling plaster-dust. E tries to turn, stumbles, falls, pushes back up again, then totters over to me to glare in my face, close enough that I can see dark tear-streaks make hir face look clawed. "What was that you shouted to Chaska?" His voice sounds distant to my still-weakened hearing.
       "She doesn't know anything!" Kiril cries, darting between us. Cyran angrily shoves her away, but Hekut says, "Kiril's got tlopathy, remember?" so Cyran grabs her back, roughly by the elbow. "Tel-e-path-y," Cyran says with cruel precision. "It skipped my mind. So you know what Deirdre's thinking?"
       In a voice almost too hushed for our bomb-stung ears, Kiril says, "Not exactly, but close. I can feel when she's lying...or trying to deceive. She lied--she never gave Chaska any such instructions. I feel...she acted out of love and panic." Chaska looks up from the ground, her face wet and red, her hair in her face.
       Cyran turns to me again. "The only reason I don't kill you is that you're not in your right mind right now--don't you EVER try to cover for anyone again! Not to me, not about something this important." And I can only hang there in Chulan's arms, saying nothing, finding my voice choked with an immeasurable sadness that doesn't make sense--I've seen so much death, and I barely knew Jaydee.
       Cyran grips Kiril's shoulders, turns her around and points her like a gun at Chaska. "Read her."
       "She's, uh, she's scared, confused, grieving. She, uh...I think she had a crush on Jaydee…"
       "Jason," Cyran says in a quieter voice. "He had grown so much that I didn't recognize him. His real name was Jason." And the alien grief wells up so painfully in me that I feel like dying. "Go on."
       "I see images of...of a dog fetching slippers, books, sweaters...no, not quite…"
       Chaska whispers, "That was me, how I saw myself. I felt like his dog, his pet. I know it was stupid, but I wanted so much to please, that I kept fetching everything he asked for, even when it got annoying, hovering around to see if he'd ask for more. I didn't know he was...he was…" and she burst into tears.
       "Setting you up," Cyran finishes, his voice gentle now. "Don't expect real affection from a family of manipulators." E shakes hir head. "And don't be anybody's dog, Chaska. Egalitarians don't believe in that."
       Kiril hugs herself, staring at the ground. "I should have known. I should have known."
       Cyran turns back to her. "Known what, Kiril?"
       She shudders and says, "I kept picking up a traitor vibe--that same kind of craziness, self-hatred, memories of torture." And she looks up with a glare so raw that it hurts just to see it. "But every time I tried to focus it, to tune in to see if we had somebody in our midst plotting something bad, all I could pick up was images of Dosh, of that...that moment I had to shoot him for betraying us. I thought Dosh was haunting me!"
       Softly Cyran says, "So he didn't die a hero as the songs say." And e folds her into hir arms as she shakes her head furiously, crying against hir. "We're all haunted, love," e tells hir, cheek pressed to the top of her head the way I ought to be doing if I wasn't such a poor excuse for a friend. After a final squeeze e says, "We're done here. It's okay. I...I have to organize our response. " Then, still shaking, e mounts a horse and rides off, and I feel the weight on my heart lighten a bit as e leaves, though that doesn't make any sense to me either. Why do I keep thinking that things have to make sense?
       At least tactics still do. I see the plan take shape quickly, reading what the shifts in movements mean. Some will remain in the rubble to cover our retreat. (I can't help but think of the disabled warriors left behind in the first rebel base that I ever knew.) The rest must scatter and seek somewhere safer, somewhere not known to Jaydee. This includes the family of the Manor; I watch them all strip on the run, too terrified for modesty, doing whatever rebels bark at them to do. They pull on peasant clothing tossed to them before they, too, clamber up on horses to gallop out of there. The servants, too, the farmworkers, everyone must seek a home elsewhere.
       Alysha piles me into one of several cars with Makhliya, the baby, Kiril and Lufti. Romulo drives, tearing down a dirt road, raising a great storm of dust. Other cars split off in different directions; the army will assume that at least one car bears the highborn family, but they won't know which one, and won't dare shoot at any of them: upper caste traitors at least get trials. They'll probably try to block us, all the same, but for now the vehicle rumbles on, as I sink into the comforting leather upholstery, just like I did when I first entered the Charadoc, feeling weirdly safe only because I'm too exhausted to fear.
       Kiril leans close. "I felt it all," she murmurs. "He clutched the crystal to his breast and I felt all of his emotions." I tuck my arm around her and I let her cry against me.
       (I thought that I had succeeded. I thought that I had trained myself to face every kind of pain--in myself, in others, in this bleeding wound of a nation--with a cold detachment that could disengage emotion, that could make me impenetrable to it, lift me far from the agony of my birth, the suffering that I inflicted from the instant of my conception. I thought that I could make it mean nothing to me! Truth alone mattered, pain merely a commentary on it, and a tedious one at that. I thought that I could make truth my anchoring rock in this ugly world. Wasn't the whole point to grow callous against parental pain especially?
       Yet here I am, alone in my very carefully private room, burying my face in a pillow despite the heat, so that nobody can hear a torturer weep, waterboarding myself on tears and sweat. When was the last time I ever cried? I can't remember. That lack of memory seems so wrong, and yet at the same time so right, so desirable, to become too hardened for anything so sentimental as memory, a rock indifferent to time and its erosion.
       Thwarting my will, my head rises to gasp for air, each breath raw in my damaged lung, yet alive, so rudely, persistently alive. And I blink in the light that floods through the thin brown curtains. The sun has not fallen, the ignorant birds still sing, and the clawing in my side tells me that my breath persists, idiotically, ignoring what I want.
       Get a grip on yourself, Sanzio! Truth has to matter because I've got absolutely nothing else left. Face what I did, what my son did, what my kin did, what this country has done and must keep on doing. The only thing that has changed, really, is that now I have intelligence on the worst traitorous network in the history of the Charadoc. That's a victory, whether it feels that way or not. My son died to get me that information, and died to take the destruction of my obscene family a couple steps further.
       Did you succeed, my son, my darling? Did you destroy the target?
       I have to believe it! And that hurts most of all.
       So? What is pain, after all? Dry your stupid face and write arrest warrants. We'll start with the lower-ranking patricians first, the ones who still wear absurdly ballooning sleeves, yet sleeves nonetheless--those whose betters will feel most prepared to throw to the wolves to save their own skins. The sacrifices that will move the elite to repent and lead us firmly as nature has intended.)
       (This is unnatural. This is a truth, and I must face it or I'm not Zanne. A skinny, naked boy stands numbly in the slush, hair as snowy as an old man's, surrounded by a ring of blue fire that sucks the temperature out of the world. Everyone around him has frozen solid.
       I'm the telepath, here. I'm the one who has to break into his mind and bring feeling back to him, and with it suffering. I clutch Tshura to my chest, shivering. Oh please don't make me face this alone!
       "You're not alone," I hear, but it's Anselmo's deep voice talking, not Tshura's saucy lilt.
       Ozwald glances at him, then nods, his young jaw firm under its soft, pale beard. "I think I get this kid. He's like me. Somehow he found a way to do the fire-thing to draw all the heat out of everything around him, once he ran out of food, but he's just another scared, mixed-up kid like me."
       And so, together with Ozwald, we climb out of the truck, into the icy air, and walk forward.)



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