Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 21

Ties that Bind



Friday, May 9, 2709, continued

        When Deirdre cradled the coffee-cup in her hands, Justín could plainly see the scar in the center of her left hand, now that he knew to look for it. It didn't surprise him that he missed it before; he tried to miss as much as possible, after all.
       "Does the coffee help?" he asked
       "A little," she said shyly. "It's not greenfire, of course, but...but that's a good thing, isn't it?"
       "If that's what you want."
       She nodded, one quick jerk of her bone-thin jaw, then she gazed out the window at the sea. "I thought that when I got back home I'd stop being so 'high maintenance' as they used to say in the Charadoc." She laughs briefly then scowls out the window again. "And yet here I am, being high-maintenance to you."
       Justín quirked a smile. "You're complicated," he said. "That's okay--it's part of your charm."
       She looked at him, wide-eyed. "I have charm?"
       "Oh, abundantly! I still want to marry you, you know."
       She laughed. "As if either of us could." And he laughed back, nodding.
       "Shall we continue?"
       "After a brief bathroom-break." She shrugged, embarrassed. "You know--coffee."
       He waited for her, staring at her empty chair, the imprint of her bony hips in the seat, the long strand of premature silver left behind on the headrest. He inhaled deeply his tobacco and wondered what kind of life he might have led, had he found the courage to try out for agency himself, rather than living vicariously through agents.
       The thought made him fidget, snubbing out his cigarette just to give his fingers something to do. He considered freshening his sedation, but decided against it. For now, inasmuch as he could stand, he wanted to feel.
       Soon Deirdre returned and settled back into her seat, clasping the magentine rod, listening to chimes turning into
the chirping of crickets, ooh, so many crickets! But they don't sound like the diverse night-time insect life of the Charadoc at all…
       Deirdre opened her eyes again. "What's happening?" she asked.
       "You've passed out in the Charadoc," Justín murmured, opening his own eyes slightly, "and so you've drifted off into your Fireheart-sister's mental territory...again. Never mind--just flow with it and you'll wind up back in your own body soon enough."
       Deirdre nodded uneasily, closed her eyes again and surrendered to
such a lovely night, even more stars than crickets, but what else can one expect, my dear Tshura, when so few smelly cars and none of the factories have run for so long? I mean the collapse of civilization is such a bother in so many ways, but like anything else, it does have its perks, as I'm sure you'll agree, like the freshness of the evening air and the quiet (except for the crickets, of course) so many miles of silence all around, diaphanously clothed in the soft sighs of the wind in trees, and come to think of it, aren't those chirps little sparkles of sound like diamonds adorning the silence? What do you think, Tshura?
       And thank you, by the way, for letting me feel your presence again. Oh, I know you're always there, but sometimes, well, you know, a societal collapse can make any girl a bit blue now and then. It's good to know that I'm not alone. Oh, I know, we've got the boys, but...you know, boys. Sometimes I almost feel like I'm talking with one of my friendclan sisters when I'm with you, Tshura, as if I've known you for years. Well, we've been through so much together you've got to expect that sort of heightened relationship, really. But not like Cybil, I don't mean that way! Not that you'd have anything to worry about, under the circumstances, and oh dear, I really do have to get my mind back on the business at hand!)

"But this isn't the business at hand!" Deirdre cried. She let go of the magentine like electricity arced from it. "It's, it's more than slipping into the wrong person's memories--it's something else, ssomething all messed up." She sat there trembling, her hand still near the rod but her fingers pulling back. "It's time. Something's wrong with the time."
       "Shhhh, shhhh, it's all right," Justín said soothingly, almost reaching for her but then refraining. "These things happen now and then. You only slipped a few minutes, a half-hour at the most, forward in the sequence, but it doesn't matter, Deirdre, there's nothing spooky about it--all of it's in the past now anyway."
       Deirdre still felt herself shivering, though she tried to settle it down. "I think that somehow I'm tangled up with all these oracles, that that has something to do with it."
       "Most likely. That certainly complicates matters."
       "But I didn't slip up now, I slipped up then."
       "Maybe." Justín laughed a little. "You certainly are a unique one."
       "I...I can't stop shaking. Are you going to drug me?"
       Silence fell between them for a long moment before, very softly, Justín asked, "Do you want that?"
       More silence filled the room, crowded the room, while Justín waited. Deirdre suddenly felt naked, more than she had in Sanzio D'Arco's grip, strapped to his chair. She swallowed. "I, um...no. No, I don't want that." And she reached for the handle again, as this time the chiming turned into
(the tinkling of a slightly out-of-tune but divinely resonant grand piano. I didn't know Anselmo could play. The rhythm's a little off, and he hits the wrong keys now and then, his fingers stumbling back to the right keys, trying to remember what they used to know, but oh, it's sheer heaven for me right now--I can't remember the last time I heard piano music!
       Mmmm...did I fall asleep here on the couch? Silly me. But this satin coverlet feels so fluffy and warm and the couch is incredible! And is that pearwood on the fire? How delectable, like incense on the air! Oh dear, I hope they didn't sacrifice some priceless antique..but no, again silly me. The log-rack looks more than half full of what looks like prunings from an orchard.
       Still, I had a strange dream, something about wobbling a bit in time and space and oh I don't know what nonsense, but it doesn't matter. I'm awake now.
       Just in time, apparently. Dayin comes leaping down the stairs, his face in a panic. "She's not here! None of her friends are here either. I found their stuff, pajamas laid out, toothbrushes dropped with the paste still on them, but not them. She's not here, Zanne! I can feel her not being here. I can feel her somewhere cold, frightened, with night falling, her joints ache and there's nowhere dry to lay down. But I don't know why and I don't know how to track her with this, this telepathy."
       I stand, leaving Tshura by the couch, and take both of Dayin's hands. "Fortunately, darling, I have experience in multi-telepathic triangulation."
       "On top of learning all those fighting moves?"
       I laugh. "Yes, on top of that. We agents learn quite a repertoire. Anselmo, come over here...")

       Bump. Bump. Bumpity bump. At first I think, "This, too, is tlomi, the arhythmical rhythms of life, somehow both regular and irregular, universal to every world…" and then I start to wonder why I keep feeling these little jolts throughout my achey body. Then I wonder why I'm lying at a slant, and what's that scraping sound? And hey, come to think of it, why am I tied up?
       Not tied, quite. Strapped. My arms can go free if I want them to. I suppose it's more practical over steep and VERy rOuGh terrain than a hammock-stretcher.
       I don't have to open my eyes to know who drags me. Kiril and Lufti in tandem. I know their gait, I know the pitch that their height would cause, no more and no less. My enhanced brain keeps on calculating even when half-baked in a fever.
       I ought to wake up and tell them that I'm all right, I don't need this, I can walk. But the sweetness of the humid jungle air seems to anaesthetize me, pushing me gently back into sleep.
       (The humid night air smells so delicious; an expert perfumer could use the inspiration for a little something that I could absolutely bathe in, given the chance. I listen to the music of the crickets, under a sky just scintillating with stars, and feel an eerie bit of deja vu.
       I shine the lantern on the soft soil, finding the prints exactly where I'd expect. Elders, after all, can't exactly hide in difficult terrain. Still, it's fairly cunning, too, the maze between the bushes and the trees, a bit deeper than a cursory search might find. But the triangulation leads me surely towards them; all I need to do is puzzle out how to get there from here.
       I don't call for them because I can feel their fear. The others fan out, on guard against whoever drove them out into the woods. And the cold doesn't help; I can feel their shivering in my own. Do I care? Of course I don't! I rather like how my breath makes powder-puffs in the air. After the warmth of the fire the chill stings my nose and fingertips--and I love it! The exhilaration of an agent's life veers dizzily between extremes of luxury and exigency like an absolute carnival ride. The shivering makes the blood rush till the skin flushes rosy and tingling. Oh, I'd have abhorred satin coverlets without the contrast. Merrill hates my attitude, but I think he's jealous; I'm hardier than him and prettier at it, too.
       Ah, there they are, the poor dears: Three elders huddled together in the starlight between two trees, off to my left: an old woman and two men. I approach them with hands wide open, reassurances on the tip of my tongue, when I see a fourth, apart to my right, hidden in the shadows, but he catches my attention by the intense glittering of his eyes.
       I pause. He wears rags, unlike the well-dressed others, attired in their homespun, well-dyed best. He gives off a disturbing odor, half familiar, yet...I feel like somehow I didn't wake up the whole way from my nap on the couch, like sleep still fuddles my mind or I would recognize that smell. Something ugly.
       He stands there slumped, rather lopsided in how he sags a bit to one side--injured, perhaps? He repels me, yet also looks the most in need, so I turn to him first. Agents do not allow people in need to repel them.
       To find some explanation for my revulsion beyond the smell I scan him telepathically as I walk towards him, but find nothing--no mind, persona, not even a sense of a person present. I have never encountered such extravagant shields--perhaps we have a high-power telepath here, driven mad by the Confusion. Gates, but I know what that's like!
       And with that truth to bolster me I reach out a hand to him. "May I help you, master?" I say gently.
       He gives me no word back. He only turns his head to stare full at me. He looks ill or in some kind of shock. He also seems ancient, far too old for midnight wandering--in fact, I have never seen anyone so old in my life. I have this irrational feeling that he could be even older than he looks--a century, several centuries, more. I reach for his bags, then find that he has none.
       I take his arm to help him in towards warmth and light. Immediately he seizes me in a close and horrible embrace, my face smashing into his shoulder, which smells not at all like a man, but like cold and mouldering earth--graveyard earth! I know that smell! He feels soft and boneless, and strong as a demon who clutches the damned forever. I can't breathe I can't breathe I can't breathe I fight away and GASP! and then he's got me again, choking my mind and lungs and heart and life and soul and somehow I've gotten my hair into my mouth but I have to fight to breathe even a little bit through it. His arms stretch into tentacles that wind around me like constrictor-snakes. I feel a horrible sucking sensation, deep in my chest no my head no my belly no it's everywhere everywhere everywhere!
       I force my head back from his shoulder and see his eyes up close--empty sockets, glittering wet with blood on their inner surfaces!)



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