IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Saturday, May 23, 2708, continued
We hear the roaring of engines at least a mile away. Before we reach the crater's rim the noise hurts our ears and thrums against our chests. Cautiously we peer over the lip of stone onto a gigantic banner declaring "Tumblebugs!" in fluorescent colors. Down below vehicles careen around the crater's bowl, up the steep sides to tumble down again, rolling head over heels by grace of heavy, global cages of rollbars that encircle every vehicle.
Under the growling we can now distinguish the shrieks and laughter of the customers and, way down there, we can watch them sporting with fear, their voluminous garments flapping wildly around them as they take the curves at killer speeds to bounce harmlessly off each other. How much technology went into such sturdy material, in this hard and backwards land?
Higher up on the opposite slope I can see the open-air masseurs and chiropractors restoring their charges back to perfect alignment--medical practitioners dedicated to treating excess fun, while new-made cripples, without help, lose their livelihoods every day. And still other patrons of this fine establishment soak off the day's exertions in pools fed by sulfurous hot springs that stink like hell and probably feel like heaven to those less weary than ourselves.
That smell cuts through even the aroma of so much stapleseed oil burning down below. Look at them! Popping around like corn in an oiled wok, wasting the subsistence of a land where three-fourths of the populace would count themselves lucky to own a draft-animal cart.
"They have no idea," Imad says, "of what they play upon." His eyes burn, and not from the sulfur in the air. "They have no idea what could erupt right out from under them." I listen to the customers scream in their thrills, all of them unaware of what a scream can mean.
My ears slowly adjust to all the noise till I hear, to my surprise, the whimpering of the twins. I look and see the little redheads shiver visibly, pressed tight against each other. Chulan goes over and hugs them, murmuring, "Soon dear ones, soon," over and over till their shivering abates.
Fatima explains to me, mouth practically on my ear, "They saw both of their parents run over as their family fled the farm. They managed to steal half-broken colts and so escaped. They only stop fearing mechanical vehicles when they get to blow them up."
I suddenly remember. "Their horses! They rode superbly-trained horses into battle--what happened to them?"
"Back in their own stables, best not to know where." Nor to know who takes care of them in the interval--I get the picture.
The machines putter to a halt to let new customers take the place of the last bunch. "Come on," Lucinda growls more softly than usual. "Time you boys got used to machines--that's tonight's shelter and tomorrow's rendezvous point down there."
Yan bursts into tears and Yaimis buries his face is his brother's shirt.
Kief squats down beside them. "This is a kind of battle," he says to them. "All that noise down there, that's the enemy. You fight it by going forward anyway. You go where the noise tries to keep you from going. In that way you win." Slowly Yaimis raises his head while Yan wipes his nose on his sleeve.
Kanarik pulls her luck-doll out from within her shirt and holds it up. "And you don't face it alone. The dead go with you--your mommy and daddy go with you down into the noise. They never left you, you know."
As the tumblebugs rev up again, I see their hands steal to their breasts where I expect they have their own luck-dolls hidden within their clothes. Kief helps them to their feet.
"Damien," Kief says, "Sing your song while we march. Sing about Kanarik and the others, in the Bullet-Dance." So, hidden under the roar of the engines, in his cracking soprano/tenor voice, Damien sings back to us how brave we'd been on that terrifying day before the twins joined up with us, and though they still shudder uncontrollably, lips quivering as one, they march with us around the rim to the other side.
* * *
Turns out the entire staff of Tumblebugs, management excepted, consists of rebel sympathizers, “Long before it came into fashion for fancy-servants,” Lucinda drawls, “But Cyran’s kept this card close to hir chest.” They've been positioning thus for years. Lucinda got intelligence from the gardeners that customers here let information slip, sometimes, relaxing in the baths or softening under the kneading masseuse's hands. For instance, one fool sent a servant all the way down to town to fetch a forgotten coat, left at his job--in Soskia's laboratories. The servant has not forgotten the lock combinations since.
First thing we get, even before food, are baths—we’ve had too little opportunity in that department lately, and unfortunately our odor would precede us in a nice establishment like this. At the first whiff of soap Aichi whoops for delight and strips off her clothes without being told, dancing about like a skinny little fairy with tiny buds of breasts and a surprising hint of curls between her legs--who knows how old she is? Kanarik takes her by the hand and dances with her into the bath-room, and hungry though we are, none of us can contain our joy.
Servants bathe in utilitarian concrete tubs, rectangles all lined up in a double row with the spigots down the middle, a grid without privacy or decoration. But we all get the same slippery mineral water that the rich enjoy, hot from the planet's heart and brewing marvelous witchery around our weary limbs--oh, I could spend hours in such water! Aichi kicks up a fountain of diamond-drops and laughs till the concrete echoes with her mirth.
All too soon we must drag ourselves back up into the world of gravity, and towel each other off. I gasp when Kief smacks me suddenly with a rolled-up towel and laughingly says, "C'mere, you!" I turn as red as mahogany from crown to sole--I hope he attributes it to the water's heat as he towels me off with brisk enthusiasm. Thank God he leaves the private parts for me to dry!
When he lets me do the same for him, I feel as though I polish some brazen idol, like I do something sacredly profane. How hard, the muscles of his arms, his back, his calves. How hard his chest, his abdomen, his...oh! I avert my face as he hastily grabs the towel and turns his back, as embarrassed as myself. He hurries into the uniform-trousers supplied him before his skin has completely dried.
Should I say something? Dare I? Should I pretend that nothing happened? Yes, I can do that, say nothing, and he'll say nothing, and between us we'll agree by default that nothing indeed happened, who pays any attention to these little betrayals of the body, anyway? I, too, don the servant's uniform issued to me before the steam completely leaves my flesh.
We emerge from the room of the sulfurous fog out into the sharp mountain air. Not looking at me, Kief quickly drops a shawl over my shoulders and accepts one for himself, wrapping all those muscles out of sight. In winter it snows up in these mountains, even in this beginner-range before the higher peaks of perpetual snow, and already autumn feels the chill.
Meanwhile servants cook up supper--oh, supper!--outside on a ramada grill, coals glowing the same color as the sunset. I smell sweet potatoes sizzling in their skins and my mouth waters.
"It's only vegetarian fare," Lucinda tells us. "Company rules don't allow meat at the spa--some of the patrons find it offensive." Fine with me--I could eat a tree right now, root to crown.
Yet my appetite abates as I watch the twins take seats at the table. They move like blind children, their eyes as red as their hair, as Chulan guides their hands to the chairs. Clumsily they fumble at the flatware, though they eat lustily enough. Once again I catch a whiff of marijuana, when I lean that way for the salt-paste.
Fatima notices my glare. "Don't worry," she tells me. "They won't need much wits for awhile."
The engines have all died down for the night. At least the boys will sleep.