Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 10




Monday, May 5, 2709, continued

       I can now use my right arm, though the shoulder still feels sore and insists that it'll go on strike if I push it too much. The left hand also feels better after a mushroom poultice and carpaya dressing, and we have more in store, clumps tied up in my spare skirt, sap gumming up the pockets. Lufti insisted that we take it all--or almost. He did bring the ripest mushroom back and ducked under the fall, reaching up to rub it all up and down the moss left behind., releasing the spores. More will grow after we leave.
       And that's why I find myself pressed against his damp back, his wet hair tickling my chin and dripping against my neck. Whenever he turns my way his cheek looks pale and glossy, his eye bloodshot, and even after his soaking he still smells like liquor filtered through sweat. But his hair and clothes will soon dry, and his body will dry out as well, as the sun climbs higher. I make sure that he stays hydrated. He keeps our mare to a slow, steady pace, both for his own comfort and hers, since we won't get a replacement any time soon.
       "How am I supposed to ride like a god," he grumbles, "when you poured out my spirit?"
       "Chaummin is a spirit, not your spirit. And you're not supposed to ride like a god, because you're not one."
       "I only gave that up for Lent, not forever." But he doesn't offer any further backtalk.
       We ride right past a greenfire bush and I bite my lip. I'm not one to moralize on what people use to get by. Slowly I relax, take a deep breath, and look elsewhere. Then let sorry experience take the place of morals.
       (The houses become more widely spaced apart, so gradually that it takes awhile, looking up from our frozen-footed trudging, to realize that we've gotten out of Gastenherber's suburbs at last and now travel through farm country. Being the shortest man among us might have something to do with the oversight, with all these lunks blocking my view. Some fields look wholly given over to weeds, others tilled and green with spring crops. Woodlands stand between properties, struggling in bud and bough to give spring another chance after the unseasonable snow. Somewhere I hear chickens...and was that a distant moo?
       We make one try to approach a cottage with smoke trailing from the chimney. Gun barrels poke out the windows, and a man's voice calls out something. Wallace starts to answer, but the man interrupts him and then guns shoot! I hit the ground, before realizing that they deliberately aimed above our heads.
       Okay, we get the message--they'd rather not kill us, but will if we try to get closer. We scramble back to our feet and hightail it out of there, Wallace puffing under his pack, but the guns withdraw as soon as we reach the road. We move on.
       Don asks, "What did he shout, Wallace?"
       "'What kind are you?'"
       "And your answer?"
       "I wanted to say that we were travelers out of Toulin, but I didn't get much out before he cried, 'Foreigners!'" The old man shrugs. "I guess I should have studied conversational Vanikketan and not just learned to read it. He misliked my accent.."
       Unfazed, George smiles and glances about as we walk. "It looks like the smartest thing to do will be to live off the land. I'm fine with that. Plants and animals are pretty much the same here as in Toulin.")

       Lufti takes us off the road again, under the sheltering trees, where the horse must take care with every step, yet the boy seems able to radiate confidence down at her. "I may not be a god today, but I remember how to ride," he says to answer my unspoken thought. "And yes, I think I'm not afraid of riding anymore. It doesn't hurt at this pace."
       Today the jungle seems almost beautiful to me. I remember loveliness in the curve of a leaf, the sparkle of dew, the color of a flower, the gnarling bark. "We're both doing better today, I think." But then I freeze. "Is that smoke I smell?"
       "It's only the smell of desperation," Lufti answers. "Nobody follows rules on the lip of Hell, staring down and trying to hold on." And he urges Pearl to try and go a little faster.
       ("I smell smoke!" Finn cries out, pounding the panel between the cab and the rear of the truck. "I smell smoke--what have I done? What have I done?"
       "Easy, buddy," Ozwald says, through the window between us. "It's not you. It's okay. Everything's fine." Anselmo pulls over so Ozwald can ride with Finn, now that he's awake.
       Everything is not fine. We drive through char-piled rectangles that used to be, I gather, rows of neat little suburban houses. Black stumps mark the trees that used to shade the road, and black streaks mark, in strangely neat lines, where hedges and fences used to define the boundaries of each one-family domain. I clamp down really hard on my telepathy when I see the twisted remains of a tricycle with the paint burned off.
       Did Finn do that? Did some other combuster, driven wild by a magentine overdose? Did someone simply try to heat their home off the grid, without knowing anything about how to live without technology?
       Anselmo says, "I think we should take turns riding with Finn. We need to keep him calm."
       "Of course," I say, surprised that I hadn't thought of this already. I hold Tshura tightly and murmur, "I'm not an invalid, darling--I got this far didn't I?"
       "What?" Anselmo asks, then, "Oh." as he remembers that he can telepathically invade my privacy. "I never said you were, Zanne. You've been my inspiration." And yet the gentle wave of his pity threatens to overwhelm me, flooding my eyes till I can barely hold back the tears.
       "Stop the truck," I say suddenly. "It's time I took a turn driving."
       He smiles as he pulls over again and gets out of the cab. I take his seat, still warm from his body, make a few adjustments for our difference in height, and take off as soon as he settles in, himself."
       He asks, "Should I, um, hold Tshura?"
       "She's a big girl," I growl back, keeping my eyes on the road. "She can take care of herself.")

       Soon we return to the road for awhile. I have no rifle and no ammunition, and Lufti left his behind. We're just a couple weary travelers that soldiers and citizens pass by without remark, to all appearances an injured mother and her half-grown son, at one time well-off enough to score a decent horse, but forced to share her, now, hardly noticeable next to the grays and browns of the trunks that shadow the road.
       (The blackened ruin goes on for several miles and then it peters out, and we drive through a park, not maintained but still quite lovely, full of flowers both wild and feral wherever the sun graces the glades between the trees.
       "That's not a park, Anselmo says, and crosses himself.
       Of course. How could I overlook the regular plaques sunk into the ground? Tidy geometric rows, very Vanikketan even in the face of grief, systematic and sensible, with tidy signs in the newer sections to designate which kind to find where. Except over there, where amateurs must have buried their dead haphazardly. Or were they digging someone up? I can't make assumptions anymore.
       "Way to stir up a shiriki!" Anselmo mutters. My mind goes back to studies of the local folklore. Shiriki: a sort of Vanikketan zombie that rises from a robbed grave. It knows something was taken from it, but not quite what. It notices the absence of a soul. It rears up in search of whoever robbed it, but will settle for any thief it finds, and try to suck soul from them. Sometimes it succeeds. You can recognize it because it has no eyes, just empty sockets. I finger my clothing uncomfortably--every stitch of it taken from corpses along the road. If shirikis were real, the entire nation would teem with them.)

       No rifles, no ammunition, and no food, but we've gone hungry before. The medicinal scent of carpaya sap hangs about us, warm and spicy, almost nourishing; that'll have to suffice for now. I kind of like the lightheadedness, anyway.
       (I can see that we'll depend a lot on George’s skill at snaring small game, and his knowledge of the edible landscape in general. He remembers now that he befriended an old woman in boyhood, an outcast herbalist deemed “primitive” by the rest of the community, on top of being female, but why should the son of the town drunks care? She taught him all the skills by which she survived, and a few things not in books, like the herbs to slip into a rival’s tea, or dark chants to curse an enemy. Outcasts don’t much care, either.
       “Snowbird’s the best,” he says, plucking the white feathers from his catch. “Too bad it's spring; they're best in autumn, when they build up a lot of fat to see them through,” he says with a slightly bloody grin, after he’d wiped his nose with a red-stained hand. Wallace gathers up the feathers for a stinky, oily tinder, Don arranges the branches and logs, and Jake comes back with some nuts he found to fuel me for ignition.
       Jake cracks the nuts, picks out the meats and hands them to me—tasty! He turns to George, smiling. “The power to provide. That’s the real thing, George.”)

       I can hear a creek that we ride parallel to, though I can't see it. Lufti starts to mutter, "No one can provide what e tried to give; the poisoned will vomit whatever you try to feed them. The milk ran red because they both love their mother yet they hate their birth. I am not the only lunatic in the world, you know."
       Someone once hacked a trail here, years ago. I see old vestiges of broken-off branches to the left and right, long since healed over and covered with moss. I strain to hear anything human, yet my ears can only find the usual chirps and songs, rustles and buzzes of the rainforest going about its business. I do see some signs that people have come here recently--leaves pressed into the mud with more weight than the natural wildlife could offer, a few snapped tendrils, a disturbed stone--but nowhere do I see the tramp of army boots. Still I stay alert, hoping that my arm is up for one-handed fighting.
       "A seed of grace can split the stoniest heart," Lufti says, "and thrive where no one thought we could, so e thought that even that black stone could crack a bit when the tree has grown so tall, you'd think that lava, being porous, could crumble just a little, but it's now gone as cold as it once ran hot, so cold that even the Mountain Maidens draw back a bit in fear. What, after all, can horrify as much as a dead might-have-been upright and walking, and a seed blown up instead of planted decently in the ground?" I think Lufti gets at least some of this rambling from the sight of a tree splitting a rock into a greater and lesser part, at which point we turn left, dipping down a ways and then climbing up again.
       I do smell smoke! "Lufti, we're not alone out here," I say, the hair rising on the back of my neck.
       "Nobody's ever alone," he says and shrugs, steering the horse up over the rise and down the other side while I hold on tight with my good hand and wish I had a pistol. The smell of smoke grows...and then, as we descend the slope, I see Alysha down by an outcropping of the hill, squatting beside a fire to boil water in a large steel can. She springs to her feet at the sound of our horse's steps, but lowers her gun when Lufti calls out, "It's okay, it's just me and Deirdre and we're enemies to ourselves but not to you." And then she bursts out crying, still holding her lowered gun in shaking hands as if she forgot she has it.



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