THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
VIII: The Final Conflagration
A Reliable Base
Friday, May 9, 2709
My limbs won't seem to rest, probably because of the rather dramatic aching in the joints. I toss on the pad laid out on the floor for me, my arms and legs and spine and neck seeming to have a life of their own. I can hear the water flowing underneath me, endlessly...eternally...restlessly...soothingly, too. It sounds so cool I want so much to jump in but the floorboards won't let me, creaking with my rocking side to side. The water gets in my head, seething between my ears, shimmering sound almost like the
tinkling of bells, but not quite, something else, really. But just then I feel a cigarette held to my lips. I puff on it till the electronic tinkling
turns back to the sound of the river running under the pylon'd floors of Mayuraq.
I guess we made it just fine. I open my eyes to Lufti sitting crosslegged beside me, looking eerie in the pale wreathes of his smoking. Outside I can see an answering mist, through the door that Lufti left open to let in a bit of cooling breeze, shifting layers that hug close to the water all around us.
Lufti sponges me off and starts to fan me again. I smile and settle back into the sensation.
(The day has warmed up fine and bright, sun pouring through the windshield. In fact it's actually getting rather hot; holding the wheel as I drive, I crank down the window a bit and sigh with pleasure as a cool breeze ruffles my hair. Anselmo takes a turn riding in back, as Dayin and Ozwald talk skateboarding, but Dayin occasionally halts the conversation to tell me where to turn next.
This time, though, he glances my way and says, "I'm awfully sorry you had to couchsurf last night, but our homes are full-up."
"Oh hush, I've slept on worse, darling. Much worse."
"But Ozwald says you're not just an agent, you were the Ambassador from Til."
"For a little while." I smile at the memory of soirees past. "Yet on most missions, including most of this one, I've seldom had the luxury of sleeping under a roof, let alone on a nice, cushiony surface like a couch--agency's not all champagne and congratulations, darling. Sometimes I've camped under stars (which can actually feel quite elegant if you think of it that way) sometimes snug in whatever vehicle has come to hand, running or not, sometimes in makeshift tents or ruins, you know, making the best of whatever I find."
"And you never complain? Forgive me, but you seem like someone who comes from a much more, um, pampered life than this."
"Pampered?" I laugh delicately. "My dear, have you ever tried modeling for an artist? That's something worth complaining about, holding such poses for an hour at a time. But of course I never said a word. Pretty girls get tough, my dear. Besides, muscles make for shapely limbs and hard labors keep you trim."
"I'm sorry--I didn't mean to offend."
I fluff my hair. "Not at all. And I will admit that I do lovvve pampering, when I can get it."
He grins. "Then you'll appreciate where we're going, though I don't think the food there's safe."
"Not a problem, Dayin. Your kibbutz loaded us up with more than enough to last.")
"I don't think I can eat this, Kiril," I try to wave away the bowl of thick red liquid, disturbingly similar to blood.
"You don't have to eat it, honey, just drink it. It's gazpacho."
I hesitate. I know I need the vitamins, but the very thought of food leaves my stomach ill at ease. "Isn't that kind of harsh? Acidic?"
"Just try a sip at least, Deirdre. Please? Give it a chance."
After a few swallows I realize that its sharpness actually helps to calm the nausea, though I wouldn't guarantee this working for everyone. I savor the garlicky tomato goodness; I ought to trust Kiril to know her stuff--and to know me--by now.
She smiles to see me tip up the bowl and drink more deeply. "They have a long, long pier right in the middle of the river," she says, "out in the sun, full of container gardens. They dredge up the rich silt to fill their planting-baskets. It's quite a good system!"
Khouri also drinks gazpacho, and eats mashed sweet potato as well. I notice that Kiril has, in addition, crushed boiled fish into a paste for him; I hope it smells better to him than it does to me! Sometimes he winces and cups his cheek in obvious pain, despite all his care. Sometimes on one side, sometimes the other. I can see why he wants to go to Koboros.
("Aunt Edna wanted to restore the Schultz Mansion. I can see why nobody wants to go to there, or at least to find it," Dayin says, as we bump along on a potholed road between feral fields lush with spring. Mansion? Intriiiiiguing. "People think it must be haunted after the way the Governer died." Dayin shakes his head, a little pale at the memory. "Nobody deserved that. He may have been a thief and a seducer of women, but Governor Schultz didn't cause the Confusion; he didn't own any factories or canneries." Dayin swallows, gripping the dashboad as he scans the road ahead for signs of where to turn. "He also wasn't Jewish."
"Turn right at that dirt road between the two honeyplum trees." Now the road really gets bumpy. "The mob thought he was Jewish, and after they killed him some of them tried to hunt us down, too. Imagine our relief, even in the midst of our troubles, when the Confusion made it impossible." He grins bitterly. "Every time they got too close their telepaths would pick up on us being surprisingly like themselves, and these telepaths couldn't help but wildly project this all over the place to their fellow maniacs. They couldn't kill us."
"With a little help from men like you, I take it."
"With a little help from men like me."
I appreciate him leaving out the gruesome details of the Governor's death on a fine spring day like this. "Clever of you, dear boy--who knows how many lives you saved?"
"Turn left instead of continuing on the bridge. We'll have to drive for quite awhile, now, and the road's going to wind a ways." We ascend into rolling hills tumbled at the feet of mountains. "They liked their privacy, the Schultzes. Few locals knew how to get to their country estate, though they entertained a lot of out-of-towners." We pass orchards cloudy with blossoms; I lower my window the whole way, now, to let in that sweetened air.
"So how do you know about it?"
"Me? I'm a tailor. I used to come by and measure him for suits in his home so he wouldn't have to stand in his underwear in a vulgar little shop, as he put it. What, did you think I'm a commando or something? The best my aunt can do to come to her rescue is to summon a tailor." He laughs briefly. "I wish I did know all kinds of fancy fighting moves. But all I've got is a pair of really sharp shears."
"Don't worry, darling--that's what you have me for." He looks at me, startled. "Silly boy--I told you I was an agent, didn't I? We take classes in 'fancy fighting moves', among our other skills.")
It comes time for some of us to pack and some to unpack fully. No one asks anything of me; Kiril packs for both of us, with Lufti's help. It cheers my heart to see him in a sunny mood, humming odd tunes and smiling. Once he says, "Apple blossoms--Lucinda watches over us," but mostly leaves the words to others more coherent than himself.
Chulan insists that she isn't crying. "My eyes just itch," she says. "I must be allergic to something out here in this swamp."
"Yes," Kiril says, "That must be it," And then she looks at me. We both know that Chulan has never shown any sign of allergies before.
A couple local shipwrights come for Pacay, to show him his quarters and his workplace. I close my eyes and breath in the shop's air, redolent with fresh sawdust and noisy with hammering and friendly banter. I feel the leather-wrapped handles, the heft of the tools, and I smile; I could enjoy working here.
I open my eyes. I'm in the same room where they've tucked me in all this time, and nothing here smells like sawdust. None of the feet causing the boards to creak with every step are Pacay's tread; I guess I got to know it well in a short period of time: ponderous, careful, a bit arthritic, not as heavy as Malcolm but he's got some heft to him. How can I miss him so soon when I've known him so briefly? We hardly even spoke to each other.
I drift in and out of my body. That doesn't even make sense. I need to anchor myself somehow. I open my eyes again, uncertain of when I'd closed them.
I lie near Cyran, I suppose for the convenience of taking care of both of us at once. E motions Alysha to bend down over hir, says something, and Alysha pales. Then, very stiffly, she straightens and says, "Marduk, you'll have to stay and help Chulan show new recruits the ropes. Cyran's orders." His face darkens and he storms off outside.
No business of mine. I lie here safe and warm and clean and cared-for, my fever not so great as to make me ache anymore, but hot enough to melt my cares away. I could be back in Soskia's mansion, lying between soft cheir-silk sheets, and when I open my eyes I will see cherubs circling in a painted heaven overhead.
("Why, this is gorgeous!" I cry, when we finally step through the fluted pillars of the entryway into the domed foyer, where painted birds circle upwards into the twilit clouds and hints of stars in a mural heaven. I set down Tshura and spread my arms like I could hug the entire mansion. "This is incredible!" Playfully, I kick off my shoes to glide in stocking-feet on the marble floor--clean, surprisingly enough--caressing in passing the textured ashlar blocks of the walls, sliding straight into a purple velvet curtain, dusty but so wonderfully soft that for an instant I bury my face in it. Do I detect a hint of "Blue Rose", a lovely perfume based on that delish little flower that grows in Darvinia, mellowed with a hint of tuberose and spice-melon? I let go of the curtain, spin around and giggle. "This is soooo delightful!" The boys laugh back. And wasn't I born for this sort of elegance, didn't I leave my ridiculous little village to participate in a world like this?
Silly notion--I left for the danger, actually, the thrill of the edge. I'd die of boredom inside of a week if I had it all my way. Little kittens grow up to be lionesses and find much better sport than chasing pretty yarn-balls, even if the yarn's cashmere.
The thought sobers me. I realize just how badly I've betrayed a lack of sophistication--which I thought I'd had, actually. I pick up Tshura, and try to look more professional. "I can see that the place has seen some care since the Confusion," I say.
"And you'd be right," says Dayin. "My aunt, she and some old friends of hers have been checking it out, tidying it up. It has so much room to offer! The water comes from a private well, the septic's good, it has its own generator--look, lights!" He flips a switch and now the chandelier sparkles overhead. "What could be better?" he asks, leading us into a salon with a grand piano and a fireplace the size of a small room. "What else do they need but for the young people to follow them up and do the heavy work, and then move in families, we could have so many children here, it's a shame to leave it empty." Then he tries to smile when he says, "Maybe I worry unnecessarily about Aunt Edna. Mother says I'm going to give myself another breakdown if I keep on worrying." He shrugs. "Maybe I've brought you out for a nice excursion for no good reason."
"To an absolutely lovely abode," I tell him with a smile of my own, caressing the marble mantlepiece with a couple fingers.
"Hopefully it's just me being neurotic, to think my aunt's in trouble. I'll...I'm going to just have a look around the grounds to see if I can find her. She wouldn't have heard us, in a place this big." He shrugs again, trying to smile. "She'll probably turn out fine."
"I hope so, dear." I settle into a pamperingly soft real leather couch, and tug a nice if dusty coverlet over my chilly feet. "I have no objections to waiting for you here." )
I find my voice surprisingly faint when I call out, "Baruch? Is Baruch nearby?"
"Right here," I hear him say.
"I want you to stay here, too. Help them turn this town into a proper rebel base."
"I promised your mother to keep you safe. I can't do that in the shape I'm in right now. You know that."
"What about serving the cause that my father died for? Doesn't he get a say, too?"
"Setting up a hub where tanks and MAC and even jeeps can't go supports everything you ever wanted to fight for." I reach up for his hand. "Listen--if I do get better, I'll come back for you."
Kiril tells him, "Sooner or later she always does come back."
"Then why aren't you staying, too?"
Kiril shrugs, arranging her new, folding silicone-ware cooking gear into her pack. When did she get that? "Nobody in the Charadoc knows Deirdre the way I do." She smirks with a wink my way. "And we all know how high-maintenance she is."
I listen vaguely to other orders. Luka and Diomedio will stay long enough to train others in the fine art of sabotage, before forming a band of their own and taking them off to make life difficult for the Charadocian Army. And Cyran wants to set up a number of rebel-friendly crafters of various kinds useful to the war, here in the relative safety of Mayuraq.
I try not to think of the armored GEMS that Earth devised in the last days, for fighting in the swamps and mudfields of the Eurasian Wars. Even if she had found mention of them, Soskia wouldn't have had the technology to recreate the ultralight foam-metal armor that they'd need. I hope.
I worry unnecessarily. Mayuraq's not even on the Meritocrat radar. It's an uncomfortable place, inhabited by mosquitoes and shiftless fishers unfit for hard work, close to no practical roads or economic hubs--why would the designers of weaponry even know its name?
Chaska comes and gives me a big, hot hug. All human touch seems too overheating for me, but I need the warmth of her soul more than I need the river breeze.
"We're staying on," she says. "They need leatherworkers for shoes, warerskins, bandoliers, coracles, all kinds of things. Alysha calls it the best use for our talents."
"Not me, though," Braulio says. "I signed on to fight." He turns to glare at Alysha. "And don't you dare say otherwise!" His voice would have sounded commanding if it hadn't cracked. "Deirdre's my officer, sick or well--I stay with her till the end."
Kuchi, troubled, wide-eyed, listens and then blurts out, "I'm not staying, either."
Chaska lays a hand on his head, "But honey, I need your help to..."
"I won't!" Kuchi shouts at the top of his lungs, ducking away from her caress. "I'm a warrior and you can't make me!" He bursts into tears, sobbing, "I wanna fight for my bru, bru, bruthhhers!"
Damien drops to his knees and takes the boy's shoulders. "Yes, you are a warrior--and also a bard. And as your mentor I give you this next assignment. Mayuraq has become a hub for many rebels. I want you to listen to all of their tales." He hugs the boy to his breast. "Learn every story, every song. Write new songs from what you hear. Practice them often, alone when you can, to audiences when you're ready. Many of us will die before another year rolls 'round, but part of us will always live so long as songs and stories remember us." Shaking, himself, he rises to his feet. "I need you exactly where you are, Kuchi. Don't let me down." Then he straightens and salutes, and the sniffling boy salutes back.
And then, in a child's high voice, roughened with emotion and yet still painfully sweet, Kuchi sings,
"I have no father, no mother; I make Heaven my father, Earth my mother.
I have no home; I make awareness my home.
I have no life, no death; I make the tides of breathing my life and death.
I have no sacred power; I make honesty my sacred power.
I have no money; I make understanding my money.
"I have no body; I make endurance my body.
I have no limbs; I make promptness my limbs.
I have no ears; I make sensitivity my ears.
I have no eyes; I make the lightning-flash my eyes.
"I have no talents; I make quick wit my talent.
I have no tactics; I make emptying and filling my tactics.
I have no strategy; I make a blank slate my strategy.
I have no miracles; I make good deeds my miracles."
Then he belts out, with all of the force he can muster in his tiny body,
"I have no friends; I make my mind my friend.
I have no magic secrets; I make character my magic secret.
I have no enemy; I make carelessness my enemy.
I have no shield; I make benevolence my shield.
I have no armor; I make righteousness my armor.
I have no fortress; I make stubbornness my fortress.
I have no sword; I make selflessness my sword."
And he gets every single word, correct, even though his tears.
Now Damien hastens away, wiping his own face; I hear his feet take him across a creaking bridge to the shack on stilts where they sell bottles of indifference. I can even hear the distant clinking of the glass as it turns into
the chimes in the debriefing room.
Deirdre felt tears of her own run down her cheeks. "I had no idea," she whispered, "that that would be the last time that those two ever met."