The Harvest of Young Minds


By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 10
The Time of Hope

The nightmare became worst in the dark of night, when manic confidence crashed abruptly into depression, in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight before her or behind in any direction at all. Then had the waves loomed up pregnant with unseen monsters in their bellies, then had the troughs sunk down like gullets opening to swallow her. Then did she most desire sleep, like she could die without it, yet dared not lay down her head. How long since she had dreamed with both eyes closed?
 
Yet though hope had left her, Consuelo had no choice except to continue with the plan, follow an impulse now forgotten, navigating by the stars towards a shore unknown, shivering in the spray and wondering why she had brought nothing to huddle in except a wisp of sheer curtain. Her fingers brushed the jewels that mutilated her body, and felt the tender heat of flesh around them, even as the fever of infection permeated her exhaustion. Why had she done this to herself? She couldn’t think–could not think! Her one defense in the hostile worlds--her brain--had broken down right when she needed it the most.
 
For now, in the spreading predawn light, she could at last make out the silhouettes of mountains on a distant shore. Waters swirled in weird ways, throwing up bursts of phosphorescent foam in odd places all around her: evidence of reefs below, yet perilously unspecific as to depth or form. She had entered that region of coral that surveyors had catalogued, that made this stretch so dangerous. Her heart pounded and her nails dug into the sides of the boat.
 
And then, just as fever robbed her of her reasoning, her intuition kicked in. She felt the power that the gemstones focused and effulged into her neural centers. She reconnected to the energy-fields of the planet, suckled on them like each neuron in her body had become a little mouth, sustaining her from a world-sized breast. She even brushed upon the small circuitry that she herself had introduced to this new land; she laughed to think of the toggle switch, still soldered in place, that she no longer needed, that never really meant anything except as a crutch for her imagination, to help her take the leap. “On,” she chuckled to herself. “Permanently, ever after on!”
 
Now she knew the way. She knew. She had tuned into the planet–no, the planet had tuned into her. She laughed again, louder, freer, her arms upraised, laughed and threw back her head, like surrendering to a lover as the ocean spray kissed her all over, as the wind played with her tangles, as the early light slid over her willing skin. Then she picked up her paddle and steered her course according to the guidance given her, swerving around perils unseen.
 
She felt the life in the coral even when she couldn’t see it, more than the glimpses of rainbows blurred beneath the waves, in colors beyond the range of those that grew in reefs on Earth before they all went white. Sometimes coral even rose in peaks of deadly lace around her. Sometimes the waters grew glassy-still and revealed their secrets to her. And all the while the storm built up on the horizon, not yet here, yet even so sending roughened water ahead of it. Whitecaps saluted the first golden rim of the rising sun.
 
Finally, under a rosy sky, Consuelo’s dugout rode the last wave to a delta of white sand. The little rivulets veining it shimmered in the dawn-soft light, and mountains loomed behind them, shifting purple and green with deep blue shadows in their velvet. To the left stood the tallest mountain of all, challenging the peak of the island that she had passed in the night. (Though it had offered a much more protected cove, she knew that this new island did not draw her.) To the right a mesa rose up on intricately eroded cliffs. A canyon opened to the left between the greater peak and a lesser one behind it. Her boat sped straight ahead, though, on a rim of sparkling froth, until it shushed into the sand, unable to go further.
 
Then she stepped out into the shallow water, chill tingling her feet, even as it receded, sand fluid underfoot, rushing backwards, scouring her soles. The light remained so dim that she could still see faint rings of phosphorescence around each step, and this renewed her mood. She left the remaining supplies in the dugout for the seagulls to enjoy (at least she called them seagulls, those silver-gray birds with streaks of green, like bits of sea that could take flight.)
 
When her feet met the warmth of drier sand, she took a deep breath and tuned in more completely than before. That way. Through marsh and sandbar, follow the lefthand river upstream, where it bent around the mountain, into a vale unseeable from here. She remembered.
 
* * *
 
”I want my guns! I want my guns! I want my GUNS!” Rob Roy’s chest heaved up and down, his body arching from his mattress at each cry. The healers had tried to tune it out for days. But it grew louder even as the boy grew hoarser without water in his throat, even though no one could feed him in this state. Mr. Joe stayed full-time by his bed just to hold the IV in place.
 
Now the cry moaned from bed to bed: “Give him his guns. Give him his guns. Oh please give Rob Roy his guns.”
 
Miss Emma threw an emptied bedpan ringing to the floor. “For God’s sake, somebody take out the firing pin and give him something he can pretend to shoot!”
 
“But how?” Miss Marcy asked. “We didn’t bring any guns to the island.”
 
“Well now, isn’t that idiotic in a unknown land!” Emma looked like she could tear the heads off of any monster the new planet might throw at her.
 
Marcy cringed, but then rallied. “They researched this island thoroughly–it’s too small for large animals, and we don’t need to hunt. No guns.”
 
“Then send for something–a water pistol, anything! The transfer-device could bring it in a day, if we..”
 
“No it can’t.” No one had heard the door open in all the hollaring, but for some reason even Rob Roy fell silent when Bos spoke. “Too many power outages earthside. Until our crew gets the solar set-up running–if they even get the chance in all the bombing–we’re on our own.”
 
They turned to the thin man at the door, his clothes loose and wrinkled on him. Gray now streaked the hair and beard of Fobos Tercos, but they focused mainly on the rifles in his arms, with pistols stacked on top of them. “Fortunately, we cached all the contraband here, on the island. Easier to dispose of here than there, nobody to ask questions. And yeah, I took out all the firing pins last night.”
 
* * *
 
Hunger made Consuelo lightheaded as she climbed up the ravine, sometimes using her hands whenever the terrain got steep and rocky, but mostly finding the way fairly easy to traverse. Sometimes the lightheadedness felt good. Other times it terrified her, along with a thousand other doubts, but she knew she could not turn back, her neurology had changed too much already–she must follow her madness to its conclusion, or else die more definitively than she intended. Dryer than the island where they'd built the school, foliage nevertheless flourished here along the river, ferny trees and spring blossoms and vines draping the cliffs and crags. Somewhere birds sang songs never heard on earth. And the small river or broad creek shimmered always to her right, a comfort when she thirsted, a friend that spoke to her.
 
Now, though, she must leave her friend behind. No landmarks had she to tell her where to turn, yet she knew. Up by that ridge, that connected the larger peak to the smaller one. The river issued from underground to the right, but she knew what she would find to the left, though the boulders hid it.
 
She puffed to scale the steepening slope, yet renewed eagerness energized her limbs, as she seized the rocks before her to pull herself up. She made it into the maze of boulders, deeper, deeper, dimmer in the limestone shade.
 
Limestone–this planet must have paralleled earth’s evolution remarkably to make it so compatible. Similar microscopic creatures lived and died here eons ago: it would have chalk, and marble, and diatomaceous earth. The same meteors would have hit it, or near enough: it would have a Gulf of Mexico and a Kara-Kul Lake. It came as close as anyone could hope for. The continents would stay roughly the same, though carved by different weathers, trickles of rain shifting to one side of a rock instead of another to change the courses of rivers, all adding up to cumulative alterations of coastlines over the eons. Mountains would erupt along slightly different lines, as these divergences changed the weak points in the earth’s crust. But it came close enough, livable enough. Maybe the only really big, significant divergence was the magentine.
 
Here. A hole opened up amid the rocks that few would guess led into wider caverns in the earth. Here is where she needed to crawl in.
 
* * *
 
Rob Roy rose from his sodden sheets like an undead thing sitting up in the coffin. He stared unblinking at the guns in Bos’s arms, a sparkle deep in his pure-black eyes. Utter silence fell on the infirmary. He reached out his arms, and Bos filled them.
 
But he didn’t raise them in any weaponlike gesture. “Now bring me a hammer and some nails,” he rasped. Someone ran to comply. In the meantime, indifferent to the sting, he pulled out the various catheters and IV lines, put on his glasses from the bedside table, and swung his leg and stump over the bed’s edge. He tried to strap on his artificial leg, but it no longer fit. The nurses all knew that he’d had a thigh amputation, but there they saw, with their own eyes, the nascent knee and a bit of stump protruding after, clad in baby-smooth new skin. He laid the guns down on his blanket for a moment. “Bring me crutches.” They could barely hear him, but they brought him crutches.
 
They didn’t even know if he could stand. He did. He tottered for a few steps, paused to rest, hanging between the crutches, gray in the face, then took a few more, till he made it to the window opposite his bed. “Hand me the hammer and a nail.” He insisted on putting the nails into the sashes himself, braced against the wall. Sometimes he’d sway so much that they expected him to faint and rushed to catch him, but he always caught himself, grabbing the sill’s edge and setting himself to his task once more. “Now bring me the guns, and some jewelry chains.”
 
Mr. Joe brought up the guns, and handed them one by one to the boy as requested. Several of the nurses took off chains around their necks, laying aside the medallions or pendants that they bore, and donated them. Rob Roy mounted the two rifles (one once hidden in his coat, one once broken-down in his prosthesis) horizontally across the window, one above the other. He took the chains and used them to hang pistols from the rifles, in a symmetrical design. He stared at what he made, for a moment, nodded, then made his way painfully back to his bed, waving off Joe’s proffered arm. He discarded the crutches clattering to the floor, and lapsed back onto his bed like he’d die there, his face more drawn than anyone his age should look.
 
Yet he smiled, propped up a little on the pillows. “That’s my focus,” he said, with a limp gesture towards the guns. “Everything will be all right, now.”
 
Bos said, “Funny thing. When I took the pins out, I found the barrels and the chambers all stuffed with magentine crystals. Jammed in so tight I couldn’t pry them loose. Those guns will never fire again–I just took the pins out so they wouldn’t blow up if anybody tried.”
 
“We have all changed,” Rob Roy sighed. “We’re changing now. We will never be the same things again.”
 
For a long time no one said another word, no one worked, no one did anything except watched Rob Roy staring at his strange artwork. Then they heard Ramona’s hollow voice, from four beds down: “I know the truth,” she said. “I know what happened.” But before they could get anything out of the child psychologist, she fell back into unconsciousness.
 
* * *
 
Consuelo reached a point where she could straighten. She knew which twists and turns to take in the dark. She did not need sight. She found the cavern that she sought at last–lined entirely with magentine crystals like a giant geode. When she entered they began to glow, and soon the glow spread to other crystals, sparkling, alive and precious beyond any mineral thing that had ever been or ever could be. She saw that they mostly consisted of the rare blue kind, the most powerful of all. She walked to the center, barefoot across the spikes like a penitent, putting all the ways of Earth behind her, draining from her with the blood of her soles. Blood seeped into the mountain’s heart, and it recognized her, and its undiscernable pulse beat with hers. When she reached the center, she laid face down. And there, at last, she fell asleep.
 

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