Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 24

The Fruits of Education



Sunday, May 11, 2709, continued

       ("I can't tell you what happened," Jake says, not looking at me, his eyes on his fingers loosely tying a former blind's cord. "But it happened to Zanne." He gets down on hands and knees on the damp earth, rustling into the bushes some yards behind our cabin to set his snare.
       "Zanne? How is that even possible?")
       (Anselmo pulls the truck over to a likely creek to let Dayin set up his homemade water purifier that the young man packed along. I sit in the cab with the window rolled down, listening to the cheerful, liquid sound. Yes, indeed, I can hear "cheerful" again. Then Ozwald comes back, opens the door and helps me out and I remember that I can exit the truck. He asks, "How are you doing, Zanne?"
       I pause to try and come up with some witty answer, but all that comes out is, "Better." My legs still feel shaky under me, but at least I feel some command of them again.
       Anselmo brings me my coat and helps me into it while we wait on the miracle of filtration. "Do you remember, in one of the early houses where we all stayed together, when we first realized that something was wrong with the rubyberry jam?"
       It takes a moment, but I do. "Yes. I thought Cybil was going to kill Tshura in a fit of paranoia before Jameel and Dalmar brought us all to our senses."
       "Yes, the magentine in the food...do you remember the vision that I had?"
       "Of a woman in stone? Yes. What about her?"
       "Not about her, about you." He turns and looks straight into my eyes. "Somehow I had that vision through you."
       "Indeed? I don't remember that part."
       "I'm not a visionary, Zanne. Neither are you. But someone else is--someone linked to you. I didn't understand about telepathy back then, but I know a bit more, now. Without realizing it I linked to you, and you linked to some other person, someone I can still feel you loving, though not the same way that you loved Cybil or your...husband? You're married?"
       I shrug. "Sort've." Now it's my turn to look away, at the sparkles on the spring-fresh creek.
       "This...someone else, I can feel him near. I can feel his heart going out to you. I know that you can feel it, too, and that you want to leave us."
       I do? Now that he mentions it, I do. But I mustn't...must I?
       "Zanne, this triangulation that you taught us, it tells me that he's in this country, right now. Miles away, but I've seen you cover greater distances on foot. I can feel that you need him and he needs you."
       I admire the greenery flickering over the creek, and the gurgle of the water that Dayin pours into the purifier. I'm probably swimming with parasites by now, like...someone else?...from not caring what I drank, but Dayin remains stubbornly fastidious. "I...I came to this country to work."
       "And you did, Zanne!" He grips my shoulders and gives me a gentle rock. "How many people are alive right now because of you?"
       I gaze up at him. I don't have to say aloud my question: how many might be alive today, in an intact country, if I had figured things out sooner?
       "Listen, we've got a plan, now. Spread the antidote and get communities to at least trade with each other. We can carry on with everything that you've taught."
       I pull him to me in a hug. "I'm not ready to go just yet.")

       After we pass around bread and Damien shares a splash of chaummin in a jug of water (I mean why not? It's all pretend anyway, without a priest) we saddle up again and continue our Dantesque climb through purgatory. We've gotten well on our way before I hear Lufti murmur, in a trembling voice, "I'm not ready to go just yet."
       "Oh hush," Kiril says . "Koboros isn't such a bad place."
       "Not yet," he mutters darkly.
       "I'll be there with you and won't let anything bad happen to you."
       "No you won't," he says, and Kiril shakes her head.
       The uneasiness that I had fought off before returns, and somehow in the darkness behind my mind, where I last shoved it, it has found food and grown. Our hoofbeats and footsteps sound too loud, echoing up and down the mountainside. Lufti , walking beside us, grips my foot so hard that it hurts. I almost ask for a halt. But then he calms, and so do I. He sighs and says, "I can smell the richness of the autumn breeze, for I have promises to keep, and corn to grow."
       I don't like the sound of that. I can't remember why...if indeed any why exists. I remind myself that greenfire can make a habit of anxiety, long after the leaf itself fades from the bloodstream. For some it works that way forever. Your body expects to go on high alert, it has come to think of that as normal, so it substitutes adrenaline, pushing for any excuse to fear, or thrill, or rage. I can no longer trust my gut instincts, because my guts have twisted up and now they groan out lies.
       (My guts are either going to thank me for this or never forgive me. Jake and I follow the instructions that we recall from childhood with nervous thoroughness, because one mistake could kill us all. But we might as well give it a go while we've got a real kitchen to work in.
       Sra. Valdez called these "travel tamales", a means to preserve meat on the march. We double-steam everything to kill every last pathogen, and spice it to hell and gone to make sure that nothing new gets in, and cook it not in the soft masa covering that delighted us so much in our year as farmhands, but in thick, hard corn shells, made with water, not lard, tough as hard-tack, to seal the meat off from air. Perforce we must deviate from the original recipe in one thing only: we have to improvise with cooking-parchment instead of cornhusks or banana leaves, but that wrapping only really matters to help the shell stay intact.
       Sra. Valdez swore that the ancient Aztecs of Earth could march for days on this stuff without a bellyache--but you have to do it just right. We compare memories frequently to make sure we know what we're doing, and we still can't swear that we do. Oh we do, it's just, well it's like the first time you ever hunt down wild mushrooms. You're absolutely positive that you followed the guidebook correctly and didn't actually pick any toadstools by mistake, but once it's in your mouth you start to wonder.
       I had forgotten how hard it gets to cover every speck of the filling evenly with dough, thick enough to make it impenetrable, even to teeth, almost. With regular tamales it's okay to let a bit of meat poke out the end to get extra browned, but you don't dare do that with these!
       I can remember Sra. Valdez, her skinny limbs and thickish body and the sassy way she spoke to us, the help, with that underlying mother-tone beneath the sharpness. "You boys--and you, too, Deirdre, you're practically a boy--need to learn this if you never learn to cook anything else. And you, too mijo:" she said gesturing to her son, Bram, "you come over and learn this also. I'm not a fool; I can tell that you've caught the adventure-bug from these picaros. It's not enough to know how to catch food in the wild--you've also got to learn how to keep it."
       "Ah, Sra. Valdez," I say affectionately as I try to clean up the mess I made. "She knew us better than we knew ourselves, sometimes!"
       Jake shrugs. "I used to envy Bram having an actual good mother. But not anymore, of course." And he looks troubled. "Why do I always feel," he says, "That we had something to do with his death?")

       I gaze down at the great gulf beside the road and I feel troubled. Lufti looks unhappy, too, and that concerns me. "I've seen that a few of the rich have airplanes," I mention, trying to sound casual. "Have they ever, uh, thought of loaning them to the army?" That couldn't sound casual no matter how I said it.
       To my surprise, Khouri bursts out laughing "Yeah, they thought about it, they even had plans drawn up to form a squadron--but they couldn't do it."
       "Why not?" I ask.
       Cyran stirs in Alysha's arms. "And how do you know?"
       Grinning, Khouri tugs at the ballooning of his pinstriped sleeve. "Did you think that I came by this honestly?"
       Damien smiles despite himself. "Pray tell us more."
       Gleefully Khouri cracks his knuckles as if preparing to beat the story out of the air. "You'll have to understand that we'd just had an initiation. Nine new Egalitarians! Everything went merrily, as you'd expect, until sometime in the morning, when I found myself lying naked in an alley and nary a rebel in sight."
       Cyran rasps, "And nobody in your band thought to count heads the next day?"
       "In the shape they were in, I suppose they…"
       "Alysha," Cyran interrupts, "have you ever seen me not hungover after an initiation?"
       "Not once."
       "And did I ever leave anyone behind?"
       "Not once."
       "Well then, we'll have to look into this later. Continue your story."
       But the boy looks stunned; I don't think it occurred to him that anybody might get in trouble from his words except himself. Finally Kiril helps out, saying, "But you turned things to your profit, didn't you, Khouri?"
       "Absolutely!" he says with too big a grin. "I went down the alley a bit till I came to the back door of a tavern, where I found a fellow more wasted than myself, quite blissfully unconscious and wearing the finest duds that I ever laid a hand on--my size, too. So I availed myself of opportunity and emerged from the alley into a painful blast of sunlight."
       "What does any of this have to do with airplanes?" I ask.
       "Give me a chance, Deirdre; your fever's making you petulant." He drinks water more to annoy me than to quench any thirst, I'm sure of it. "No sooner had I staggered out when a limo drives right up to me, the chauffeur climbs out and flings the back door open, crying out to me, 'Get in, you sorry miscreant, before your father thrashes me for losing you! Don't you know how late we are already?' Well, I didn't have to be told twice!
       "In the back seat a nursemaid washed me up with packets of wet tissues, and then so help me that car ran so smooth that she gave me a shave and a haircut to boot. After sliding shut the window between us and the chauffeur, she leaned close in her work and whispered in my ear, 'Who the hell are you? Dache may not know who he's supposed to fetch, but I've worked for the Pond family my whole life and you are not Raymund!'
       "I gave her cheek a quick kiss and whispered back, 'Who do you want me to be?'
       "She suppressed a chuckle at that and said, 'Not Raymund! I wouldn't mind if I never see that brat again. But you're in trouble, lad; Raymund's supposed to start his internship with Peshawr engineering.'
       "'I can read,' I told her, and she grinned at that.
       "Well, that's about as good as Raymund could do; he isn't exactly known for his scholarship.' She gave me a quick peck of a kiss back and said. 'The job's a synecure; the Peshawrs owe the Ponds. You might just pull this off--at least till the real Raymund shows up."
       "One of these days," Damien drawls, "I'm going to have to ask you about your secret with women, Khouri."
       "Never mind that," says Cyran, visibly perking up. "You got engineering training?"
       "A little bit. But I got intelligence, mainly. I came looking for you as soon as I heard that the real Raymund had turned up; I figured I couldn't get any more at that point and I had to skip out two steps ahead of the law. Sorry I couldn't tell you more before, but you weren't in any shape to hear secrets when I found you."
       "Understood. I'm better now. But keep your secrets, for now, about what the army does have, and tell me what they don't."
       I add in, "Specifically airplanes."
       Khouri laughs. "You're right to worry, Deirdre. They want an airforce very badly, specifically because of you. And the blueprints that they drew up had me worried, frankly. But airplanes can't run on anything but tauroleum, and something happened to the refineries way up north in Vanikke--the Charadoc can build them, but we can't fly 'em."
       Others cheer. I try to smile, but Khouri has just told me that I can't go home to Til Territories anytime soon.
       So what? The Charadoc is now more my home than ever. That's one less temptation that ol' Whitesleeves has to offer me.



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