Sorry, Still Working on Through Fire

And lazy, so here’s a piece of it:

Father, Father

Corin came running out of the inner room, as I was struggling to get hold of the burner. “Alexis,” he said, then a string of words in French, and then, “I’m so glad it was you. I thought–”

“They’re right behind,” Alexis said. “I have arranged to get you out of this. Were you about to blow up the house?”

Corin half nodded and made a sound in his throat that might have been suppressed laughter or a barely contained sob. “I almost blew you up,” he said.

“Never, mind that,” Alexis said. “Can you resume the sequence? They were right behind me, and although it will take them time to find the proper place and force the door open, you and I know it must be done. For that matter, blowing up the house will only buy us an hour, maybe two. I must get you out of here. I have made arrangements.”

A closed, mulish expression passed through Corin’s features, and I thought, for just a moment, that I knew that expression, that I’d seen it on Len often enough, only this time I couldn’t imagine what it applied to.

You see, my husband was the nicest man in the world. He was also the only man I could neither bully nor seduce nor budge once his mind was made up. And when that expression appeared on his face, I had to come up with a better plan because Len was going to do what he thought was right and even I couldn’t stop him.

But I couldn’t imagine what Corin though he was going to do. As he turned to go back into the room, Alexis Brisbois took advantage of my distraction to pull the burner out of my hand, and as I turned to him, said, “As for you, Madame, it’s hell’s own time you gave me. I thought you were dead, and what I was going to tell the Good Man?”

I was thinking of Brisbois talking to the man in the dark and seeming to arrange Simon’s execution. Was he going to try to convince me he was a loyal servant all the way? Or was it possible I had the whole thing wrong? Unable to decide, I glared at him, and said, “I have other burners.”

Was that the twitch of a smile at the corner of his lips? People had found me scary and cold, meddling and commanding, annoying and useful, but I didn’t think anyone ever had found me amusing. Except, apparently, Alexis Brisbois. He let go of my arms, as though he didn’t think he need concern himself with being shot. Which he probably didn’t, because I couldn’t bring myself to shoot someone who didn’t expect of me. We all have these little disabilities.   “I saw you, in the dark,” I said. “I saw you talking to—”

There was warning in his eyes, and Corin was there, saying, “It is done,” and covering his ears. We covered ours, too, just in time to deaden the sound of the explosion, and feel it mostly in vibration all around. A heavy thud followed the explosion as, I supposed, the house fell in above us. The ground rocked under us.

Alexis turned, lowering his hands from his ears, and asking Corin, “How long do you think they’ll send another party to find the entrance? Or for the survivors of this one to try again?”

“As soon as it stops smoldering and is cool enough to enter,” Corin said, in a tired voice. At which point, I hope we’ll be out of here.”

Alexis nodded. “Where is Father?”

I noted he didn’t say “your father.” Nothing in this mountain of a man with the blunt face resembled the Duforts, except that he was presumably human and that they all walked on two legs. But I had seen worse genetic surprises. It would certainly explain why he was here.

“My father,” Corin said, and it seemed to me he underlined the first word just slightly, “Is in that room there,” he gestured with his head. “The one that’s open. My mother was tending to him, and I thought it was better to prevent surprises.”

The massive hand of the man who had once been on death row clapped Corin once on the shoulder, “Good thinking that,” he said, and then turned and pelted down the hallway, going in at the door where Dr. and Mrs. Dufort were.

It seemed to me that Corin’s face was frozen for a moment. Like, there was something unpleasant in the association with Alexis; like there was something about the whole situation that both bothered him and angered him.

I heard Alexis speak briskly, and a male and female voice answer him. When we got to the room, Dr. Dufort was sitting up and awake, if very pale.

“Absolutely not,” Madame Dufort said. “My husband had a broken rib, and is still very weak. You cannot move him within the hour.”

I was aware of Corin coming up behind me, and moving to stand beside me. The two of us filled the door, and the people inside the room ignored us.

“Father,” Alexis said, turning to Dr. Dufort. His tone was both questioning and anguished, a plea, I wasn’t sure for what.

The doctor looked up at him. He was very pale, and obviously shaken, but he looked better than I expected. Through the rent in his shirt, I could see a patch on his chest, not unlike the patch on my arm. That he was awake at all seemed to me a miracle.

“Of course, I must go,” he said, hoarsely. “Now, Madeleine, my dear, you know I must go. It’s not a choice between what I wish and what Alexis wishes, it’s a choice between death and life. I must go if I am to live. You know they’ll keep coming, you know why. If I don’t get out of here– And don’t even think of staying.”

“I’ve arranged for transport out of the isle,” Alexis said. “I can carry you to it.”

The doctor gave a laugh like a hiss, and said, “You’ll have to. Unless you want to creep out of here and get caught. Are you sure of the transport? I heard that no one could leave by air.”

“It’s not by air,” Alexis said. “And yes, I made sure of it. I’ll get you out the way I would have got the Good Man out should he allow it.”

“How is he?”

Alexis shrugged. “Alive. Stubborn, I expect.”

“Of course.” The doctor got up, on shaking legs, retrieved a small bag from somewhere and started putting injectors and instruments into it.

Alexis didn’t say anything, but the doctor must have detected something to his posture or some half-suppressed movement of impatience. “I must take the tools of my trade, Alexis. Into the unknown, and at my age.” The last was almost a grumble. At some point he closed his bag, and Alexis lifted him. I thought I heard Corin huff by my side, but it was such a small sound that it was hard to be sure.

Alexis carried the doctor effortlessly, with Mrs. Dufort running alongside him, down a long hallway and then into a vast room.

To this day, I have no idea how vast the room was or precisely what it contained. I just know as I walked past it seemed to me it was full of glass coffins, and within the glass coffins there floated… people. Or sometimes parts of people: a leg, and arm, not torn and bleeding as they’d be if they’d come off a living person, but whole and sealed, as though it had grown by itself. There were also other organs, of the kind that were imprinted in my mind as “things that should be inside people and never outside” but most of all, what stays in my memory is a kind of container at the end, which could be viewed as a coffin on its side. Inside it, floating in some liquid, surrounded by glass was someone I’d swear was Simon – but the eyes were blank and the body contracted in the fetal position.

I stared at it, and Corin got my arm and said, urgently, “Come on. We must go. They’re going to blow this up.”

“This?” I said. “This secret place, too?”

He pulled more urgently. “They must,” he said. “The things in here…”

And he pulled me out completely.

We left the lab area and trotted down a narrow hallway for a long time. I lost sense of where we were and how far we traveled, because we were in the sort of space where the light came on just ahead of us and vanished behind us. It was like moving in a fog, or else in a dream, where the only space that existed was the space immediately ahead and the space behind us vanished again.

Alexis ran, as though he weren’t carrying a full grown man, even if one smaller than himself. And Corin walked just ahead of me, pulling me if I delayed.

At the end of the tunnel we emerged into what seemed to be a public park, and miles away – as far as I could tell – from the neighborhood where the doctor’s house had been.

I was shocked once again, by how peaceful a night could look, even when the human world was in turmoil. The night air was warm on my skin, and crickets were chirping in the shadows of palm trees, while we walked, without breaking stride, down a slope covered in lawn, and then down narrow stone steps. From somewhere – probably many somewhere given the looting and burning going on – came the smell of fire and burning.

“Alexis?” a voice asked out of the dark.

“Yes,” Alexis answered.

“You were such a long time,” the voice said. It sounded young and diffident.

“Yes,” he said. I met with some trouble. But everything is all right now. Here?”

“Nothing,” the voice said. I realized it was not only young but female.

“C’est bien,” Alexis said, and walked past a shadow standing on the beach, at the bottom of the stone steps. I spared her a glance as I went past. She was shorter than I, which was no great feat, as most women are, but also one of those young women who would have no trouble passing as young men, save for the breasts. The moonlight glinted on blond hair topped by a liberty cap.

I wondered once more what Alexis was playing at, and would have given the doctor and his family the warning, if I thought there was the slightest chance they’d listen to me. But I wasn’t fool enough to think they might.

Alexis stepped heavily across the beach, still moving fast, still without giving the impression of being winded. The doctor’s wife ran alongside him, to keep up with the pace.

The beach was hardly that. There as a semi-circular space of soft sand, and at the end of it, a bit into the sea as though enclosing the space, stood a ring of tall, dark stones. From a certain regularity about them, I guessed they were not real stones, but poured, black dimatough.

In other words, we were in a private cove, probably the private beach of some property, where the owners could have disported in safety and privacy. The waves were broken out in passing through the tight space left open between the ring of stones – little more than a wide doorway. The water in the cove rose and fell with an effect of something breathing deeply, but there were no waves. I could see it, easily, as a place for children to learn to swim, or for a family to enjoy the sea without being watched by strangers.

Now, as Alexis got to the edge of the water and continued into it, splashing up to his knees into the ocean, a shadow detached from the deeper shadow around the rocks. It revealed itself as it approached as a little boat, the kind of craft children will motor in around safe areas. And like a children’s toy, it made no sound, save the buzz of an electric motor.

There was no sound either, as Alexis nodded to the one man in the craft and then carefully, delicately, deposited the doctor in the little boat. The boatman nodded.

And then… and then the little craft grew a dome of transparent… ceramite or dimatough, I’d guess. And silently it submerged.

We waited in silence, while I tried to make sense of what I’d seen. I’d guess that the little craft was a submarine’s lifeboat. It had a retractable, transparent dome in two halves overhead. And it had retracted it down to take the doctor, and then had closed again to take him to… a submarine waiting beyond the black rocks, I guessed.

The little craft came back silently, and Alexis turned to Madame Dufort and said, almost soundlessly, “Madame.” She had stepped up to stand beside him, the sea wetting half of her very proper skirt, but she turned back, to where Corin and I had stopped, at the edge of the sea, “Corin?” she said. “Son?”

Corin shook his head. “Apres vous, Maman,” he said. But I knew that voice, that stubborn tone, and I had a feeling that he had no intention of going, before or after her.

She seemed to know that too. By the light of the moon, her expression was exasperated, a mother’s annoyance. “Corin,” she said.

“No,” he said. “This is my place, enfin. You and Papa must go. I don’t have a need to. No one knows me. And there is… a man must make sure that no innocent are harmed– Surely you understand?”

She shook her head and said, “Take care,” and to Alexis, “look after him.” then stepped up into the craft, which closed and went under again.

I expected Alexis to turn back and come out of the sea then, and out with us, and then I expected we’d have time to talk. At least I hoped so, because I had a lot to say to him.

But he remained very still, and I thought he was waiting for the craft and then… would get into it and go with the doctor. Of course, perhaps he needed to go with the doctor and his wife, to arrange their stay wherever it was they needed to be.

On the other hand, perhaps he meant to run away, abandon the isle after setting whatever plans he’d got started.

The craft came back, the man in it sitting, immobile and impassive, a slight man with dark brown hair. And Alexis turned to me, “Madame,” he said. “If you will.”

“What? No.” I was outraged. “I have come here for a purpose, and I have not fulfilled that purpose.”

Alexis homely countenance looked like he was counting backward from three thousand. Slowly. Possibly in Chinese. “Madame,” he said. He turned and advanced out of the sea towards me. “You have to go.”

“No,” I stepped backward up the sand and half hoped he would try to force me, because I was more than willing to show him that I was not his to command. “I came here to save the Good Man and I—”

“The Good Man,” he sneered, his countenance turned ugly. “If you think that the Good Man should be saved by you, you are—”

That was when the voice came out from up on the beach. “Alexis Brisbois. Maylis Bonheur. Doctor Dufort. Madame Dufort. You are under arrest by orders of the Protector of the Republic.”

“Merde,” Alexis said. “Zen, now, please, I beg of you.”

I shook my head.

At the head of the stairs, a man appeared, standing in the full moonlight. He could have been Alexis’ prettier brother, just as tall, just as well built, but with features that weren’t designed to be mistaken for a bulldog’s, and with a haircut that made each of his honey-blond hairs fall into the exact position to delineate an elegant cranium.

“Alexis,” he said. “Surrender. You know she has a tenderness for you. It won’t go badly for you.”

Alexis’ face did something. I wasn’t sure what exactly, but for just that moment, as his facial muscles contorted and his heavy eyebrows came down over his dark eyes, I wouldn’t at all have been surprised should he have grown enormous fangs or turned into a werewolf. At any rate, he looked as though he’d very much like to acquire a more murderous configuration. “I’d like to beat you,” he told me in a vicious whisper. “If I weren’t sure you’d manage to get into even greater trouble, I’d knock you unconscious and stick you in that craft.” Then he moved. Just so slightly, but I saw he was moving to hide view of the craft from the beach, as he turned towards the figure up on the sea wall, by the stairs, “Jean!” he said. “Are you now her errand boy? Did she threaten to burn your frocks?”

The man up took a step back, shook his head. “Don’t play the fool, Alexis. I have ten guards with me. This is no time to be an idiot. Rose said to bring you, and that you had nothing to fear. We understand you were caught on the Good Man’s side, and you had no chance to escape. We understand your natural sympathies are with us.”

I saw Alexis hand go back to the back of his pants. I figured he had a burner hidden there, where the fullness of his doublet-like coat hid a multitude of sins. Still in a whisper, he said, “Run. Left. There’s a path out. Keep the children safe.”

I had no idea who he meant by the children, and then I perceived that the girl who had guarded the cove for us was knitting herself with the wall, hoping, I was sure, to pass unnoticed. And she was a child, probably well under 20. And Corin, too, was a child in a way.

I grabbed at his arm. He seemed to resist briefly, but as Alexis said, “My dear Dechausse, you have no idea where my sympathies are or why!”

And then, lightening fast, so fast I could barely follow it, Alexis drew a burner and fired at the man on the wall. And shockingly, unbelievably, the man returned fire. Even as he fired back, and I realized he was too intent on Alexis to see us, and ran, holding Corin’s arm, to flatten against the wall, and then, pulling at the young woman, led them both at a fast sort of slide, in the direction Alexis had indicated, I realized that I’d have been killed by Alexis first shot. And I was faster than normal people. But then perhaps Dechausse knew Alexis very well and knew what he was likely to do.

My heart was hammering in my chest, pushing the blood past my ears with a sound much like the sea. I was trying to move as fast as possible, but not so fast that two normal young people couldn’t follow me. To their credit, neither of them protested or made any sound, but obeyed my pull in silence, even the young woman who knew nothing of me. Corin was the one having trouble keeping up with the speed, stumbling on his own feet occasionally as I tried to rush him along.

In the confusion, intent on getting the young people to a safe place, I didn’t pay attention to Alexis fight, except for keeping an eye out on the beach, in case the man atop the wall or the men he had with him should come down and after us.

Alexis seemed to be firing with both hands, and some other men had joined the fight from above the wall – or at least burner rays were coming from multiple places in the retaining wall, lending credit to Dechausse’s claim that he had many men with him.

We hit water, and walked sideways into it, trying not to splash or make too much noise, even though I was sure that we couldn’t be heard above the zap of the burners. But it also seemed to me that in the light of the firing weapons we were fully visible, no matter how much we knit ourselves with the wall.

Then suddenly something blew up. I couldn’t tell where, precisely, but it seemed to me in recollecting the images before the explosion that Alexis Brisbois had taken a grenade from one of his pockets, and pulled the pin.

There was a fountain of sand, a lot of screams and a lot of imprecations. And I realized from some of them that the men from the wall had to be on the beach, having somehow crept there without my seeing them. I grabbed Corin and half threw them into the deep water. Then I threw the young woman. I screamed as they tried to come up again, “Dive, dive, dive.”

And then I dove after them, in the dark water, with the pale moonlight filtering through, my lungs bursting with lack of air.

Alexis had said there was a passage here, but I couldn’t see one above water, between the dark, artificial rocks, and the retaining wall. So the passage must be under water.

I dove deep, looking for it.

5 thoughts on “Sorry, Still Working on Through Fire

  1. ““Are you now her errand boy? Did she threaten to burn your frocks?”


        1. From the research files:

          Recent studies indicate that an irregular schedule for snippets is most effective in raising the tension among readers. While regular snippets, such as every Monday, proved quite effective in causing readers to press refresh repeatedly on Monday at the regularly scheduled time, this schedule did allow them to relax in between Mondays. The level of stress caused by missing a Monday, of course, was quite high.

          However, an irregular schedule, with snippets left here, there, and everywhere, but at random intervals, actually led to compulsive snippet hunts, even the occasional attempt to force a snippet to appear through apparently random magical incantations and other superstitious actions. Readers were observed to make various offerings, such as candy, potables, and even whimsy.

          Other experiments, such as the whoopsie planting of a significant chunk of the material, or the fabled “just the punctuation” snippet, actually decreased the tension level of readers, allowing them to laugh at their own expected addictive behaviors.

          As shown by these studies, in 63.9% of readers, the most effective method was simple random snippeting. In 94.5% of the experiments, this level of torture was quite sufficient to keep readers begging. Therefore, we strongly recommend that authors take the time to do a little random snippeting here and there. It will keep your readers asking for more.

          Remember, a random snippet here and there keeps your readers waiting!

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