Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 22

High Maintenance



Friday, May 9, 2709, continued

"God! Zanne! What happened to Zanne?" Deirdre woke herself shouting, her whole body shaking. She felt her chest heave, her blood zing with hyperventillation, the sweat suddenly turning her body hot, then clammy. Through eyelashes blurry with tears she saw Justín start to rise, start to reach for something…
       "No….," she whimpered, "Nonononono, don't drug me now, please, I have to go back, have to find out…" she still heard her own sucking inhalations between words, her body rocked with every breath, but she reached back for the magentine, her soul leaping back into the tinkle of the chimes like a suicide plunging through a window, shards of clarity breaking all around her, gouging her with fear, tumbling down into the trance only to spill back out into her
own body lying gasping in the deep grass of the Charadoc, fending off all of the hands trying to lay wet cloths on my shivering, burning skin.
       "I have to go back!" I cry. "I have to find out!" I take another kamikaze dive through all of the different minds linked to mine to get to
       (Zanne. I am Zanne, Zanne, Zanne! I...I am...lost?
       I have a body. I know because it shivers. I can smell grass. I can feel its dampness on my back, but my head rests on the softness of a zaftig lap...what does zaftig even mean? That's not a Zanne thought oh Gates my shields are down!
       "She's stirring," says a voice above me, deepened by the years yet feminine. I feel dry fingers caress the hair out of my face as I open my eyes to a kindly old woman holding me, and two old men behind her, anxious to help. The sweet, soft lines of their faces look so warm, so human.)

       "Lufti…" I can hear Kiril moan, "...Lufti...hold me...what...what did she do?"
       "Fire," he replies, his voice husky, shaken. "We all must burn, but...she burned straight through me! Fever has forged her into a star!"
       "Oh dear God are you all right? It must have been even worse for you!"
       I hear Alysha somewhere in the background, but her steps pound closer all the time, crying, "What's going on? What just happened?"
       With surprising lucidity Lufti can barely get out the words, "It's not her fault. She's delirious. She's a danger to herself and others." I moan and try to stir but lifting my head makes the world seethe away as I feel myself drop again.
       ("You're a strong one, chachka" I realize that Edna shivers, not me. I don't have the energy for it. "You pushed the shiriki away." But I don't remember how I could've broken free. I don't remember doing anything.
       "I didn't do it, " I say, surprising myself to even speak. "I...I think Tshura did." I'm not Zanne. I can't be. Zanne is young and strong and beautiful, she needs no one's help, not even from her husband who thinks he's such a perfect agent--no nasty old haunt could have robbed Zanne of her personal power just like that!
       "It was her compassion," an old man says as he helps me to my feet and I immediately fall against him. "How could a shiriki punish a thief reaching out to him to help? He couldn't keep a hold on her."
       Zanne wouldn't need these frail old people to hold her up and help her back towards the light. Zanne wouldn't cower at the thought of even moving. Yet I need their arms around me, their warm, living arms. I need their voices to murmur reassuring noises. I am Zanne and yet not Zanne.)

       "It was me! I am me I mean I me I'm um I'm your ghost and I can lick their ghosts, oh Zanne, who else can come to the aid of the wicked ones like us?"
       "Oh Lord," Alysha sighs, "The fever has fried her brains!"
       I can feel Lufti shrug somehow. "What difference does that make to an Egalitarian soldier?"
       (Anselmo, Ozwald and Dayin soon join us. Edna has to hand me over to my men so that Dayin can hug her, sobbing, and she can sob back, so glad that he had this power to hear her cries for help. I have to hold onto them to keep standing; my legs shudder under me.
       Then we go inside, where the heat comforts my chilled body so that it almost reaches my soul. My ears ringing, I sink into the softness of the couch as if into my grave. I hear an old man say, "So what makes it so safe now, when before we fled out into the cold while I don't even have socks on my feet?"
       "I don't know, Josie my friend," says the other, "But can't you feel the lightening? I tell you, the mercy of this young woman must have weakened the shiriki with doubts." I open my eyes as Ozwald feeds the fire more wood, gilding all the faces, old and young, with the ruddiness of life.
       "I recognized him, Josie. Old man Schultz--not the governor, but his grandfather."
       "Oh." Josie's eyes widen. "Him."
       "The same. Meaner than a tiger with a toothache, that one. Who could love such a man? So he settled for money, and guarded it as jealously as his wife. No wonder his son turned out so bad."
       "Speaking of money, do you still have some?" Anselmo asks, as Edna brings us all hot tea.
       She shrugs. "Money, shmunny, who cares what we have?" She helps me sit up and accept a cup, wrapping my hands around its warmth letting the fragrant steam warm and moisten my face like a little whiff of life. "Where are the banks that could make such money count for anything?"
       "It counts with shirikis. My folks have managed to lay some ghosts by burying money in their graves when we take over their houses." I remember the cheery, clean-swept home that I stayed in at Ejidio Libre, and the tablecloth whose stains had lost their history. "Let them have their moldering bits of paper--the living need shelter." He looks around. "You could house a village in here.")

       I rest in Jake's arms, with Kiril and Lufti tucked into my arms, with an old man and a youth tucked in Lufti's arms and somehow Zanne in the aching, tender center of us all...and someone else, one of our ghosts? Or two ghosts, or maybe three, but I don't recognize, I can't tell, I will never know as all slips away and I lie in a thrashed-out center of a ring of flattened grass.
       (After the screaming and the contortions, all three of my oracles just stand up again, dust themselves off, look at each other silently for a moment, and just start walking. "Don," I call behind me, "Pack up our stuff for us, and track us down. I've got to go with them. I know it's a lot to make you carry by yourself, but…" No sooner said than the oracles freeze. Then Jake veers off into an alley, comes back out pushing a rusty old shopping cart. The squeaking of one wheel sounds surreal in the otherwise-utter silence. He shoves the thing to go rolling towards Don, doesn't even look at me, then joins the others and they resume walking.)
       "Here, Deirdre, drink this." Kiril helps me sit up, holding a cup to my mouth. The cooled tea within tastes like mild broccoli, but the color's a pinkish beige. Pink-snow tea.
       Kiril also gives Lufti a cup, and sips at one, herself. "I don't know what you did, Deirdre, but you gave Lufti and me one helluva headache." I notice that her voice still shakes.
       Alysha comes up to hover over all three of us. Her look of concern quickly masks itself in a smirk. "That's Deirdre for you. High-Maintenance all the way."
       "She pulled us out again," says Lufti after a drink from his own cup. "Nobody's going to bury any money in our graves just yet, but I didn't do that for the Good People, I pay my way with dances and funerals."
       Nearby Cyran's weak voice sounds surprisingly amused. "Whatever you did, Deirdre, can you weaponize it?"
       I drink more of my tea. "I wish."
       (Jake, Wallace and George stop as one on the edge of some sort of park, apparently advertising a local tourist trap. A sign shows a blissful couple marrying on a bridge over a waterfall. Some sort of wedding destination, but those among us who could read the language aren't speaking.
       My oracles then turn towards the left. I see various cabins nestled in the woods. They beeline to one with five beds in three bedrooms. The tap still produces water, though there's no power.
       Don goes out for firewood while I keep an eye on my charges. George finds a deck of cards, sits down on the round rag rug and starts playing solitaire. George and Wallace instantly join him, as they silently play together, taking turns overturning the next card and laying it where it belongs.
       Don comes back in, making the room fragrant with resin. As we arrange wood in the fireplace (and while I pray that the chimney hasn't gotten stopped up in whatever chaos went on here) Don asks, "What are they doing?"
       "Making patterns," I say. "It'll help them recenter themselves after whatever happened." I light the fire. "Oh, and could you find some mugs to give them water? They're probably dehydrated."
       Don comes back, not only with water for our oracles, but with a beer for him and me. "It's not cold," he says, "and it's doubtless past its prime, but at least it's safe. It's imported from Arundel." At my grin he pops them both open with a thought, and their frothy hissing sounds so good to me! "I thought you could use one right about now.")



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