Chapter no 2 – The Township

Red Rising

My suit can’t handle the heat down here. The outer layer is nearly melted through. Soon the second layer will go. Then the scanner blinks silver and I’ve got what I came for. I almost didn’t notice. Dizzy and frightened, I pull myself away from the drills. Hand over hand, I tug my body up, going fast away from the dreadful heat. Then something catches. My foot is jammed just underneath one of the gears near a drill finger. I gasp down air in sudden panic. The dread rises in me. I see my bootheel melting. The first layer goes. The second bubbles. Then it will be my flesh.

I force a long breath and choke down the screams that are rising in my throat. I remember the blade. I flip out my hinged slingBlade from its back holster. It’s a cruelly curved cutter as long as my leg, meant for taking off and cauterizing limbs stuck in machinery, just like this. Most men panic when they get caught, and so the slingBlade is a nasty halfmoon weapon meant to be used by clumsy hands. Even filled with terror, my hands are not clumsy. I slice three times with the slingBlade, cutting nanoplastic instead of flesh. On the third swing, I reach down and jerk free my leg. As I do, my knuckles brush the edge of a drill. Searing pain shoots through my hand. I smell crackling flesh, but I’m up and off, climbing away from the hellish heat, climbing back to my holster seat and laughing all the while. I feel like crying.

My uncle was right. I was wrong. But I’ll be damned if I ever let him know it.

“Idiot,” is his kindest comment.

“Manic! Bloodydamn manic!” Loran whoops. “Minimal gas,” I say. “Drilling now, Uncle.”

The haulBacks take my pull when the whistle call comes. I push myself out of my drill, leaving it in the deep tunnel for the nightshift, and snag a weary hand on the line the others drop down the kilometer-long shaft to help me up. Despite the seeping burn on the back of my hand, I slide my body upward on the line till I’m out of the shaft. Kieran and Loran walk with me to join the others at the nearest gravLift. Yellow lights dangle like spiders from the ceiling.

My clan and Gamma’s three hundred men already have their toes under the metal railing when we reach the rectangular gravLift. I avoid my uncle—he’s mad enough to spit—and catch a few dozen pats on the back for my stunt. The young ones like me think we’ve won the Laurel. They know my raw helium-3 pull for the month; it’s better than Gamma’s. The old turds just grumble and say we’re fools. I hide my hand and duck my toes in.

Gravity alters and we shoot upward. A Gamma scab with less than a week’s worth of rust under his nails forgets to put his toes under the railing. So he hangs suspended as the lift shoots up six vertical kilometers. Ears pop.

Got a floating Gamma turd here,” Barlow laughs to the Lambdas.

Petty as it may seem, it’s always nice seeing a Gamma squab something. They get more food, more burners, more everything because of the Laurel. We get to despise them. But then, we’re supposed to, I think. Wonder if they’ll despise us now.

Enough’s enough. I grip the rust-red nanoplastic of the kid’s frysuit and jerk him down. Kid. That’s a laugh. He’s hardly three years younger than I.

He’s deathly tired, but when he sees the blood-red of my frysuit, he stiffens, avoids my eyes, and becomes the only one to see the burn on my hand. I wink at him and I think he shits his suit. We all do it now and then. I remember when I met my first Helldiver. I thought he was a god.

He’s dead now.

Up top in the staging depot, a big gray cavern of concrete and metal, we pop our tops and drink down the fresh, cold air of a world far

removed from molten drills. Our collective stink and sweat soon make a bog of the area. Lights flicker in the distance, telling us to stay clear of the magnetic horizonTram tracks on the other side of the depot.

We don’t mingle with the Gammas as we head for the horizonTram in a staggered line of rust-red suits. Half with Lambda Ls, half with Gamma canes painted in dark red on their backs. Two scarlet headTalks. Two blood-red Helldivers.

A cadre of Tinpots eye us as we trudge by over the worn concrete floor. Their Gray duroArmor is simple and tired, as unkempt as their hair. It would stop a simple blade, maybe an ion blade, and a pulseBlade or razor would go through it like paper. But we’ve only seen those on the holoCan. The Grays don’t even bother to make a show of force. Their thumpers dangle at their sides. They know they won’t have to use them.

Obedience is the highest virtue.

The Gray captain, Ugly Dan, a greasy bastard, throws a pebble at me. Though his skin is darkened from exposure to the sun, his hair is gray like the rest of his Color. It hangs thin and weedy over his eyes—two icecubes rolled in ash. The Sigils of his Color, a blocky gray symbol like the number four with several bars beside it, mark along each hand and wrist. Cruel and stark, like all the Grays.

I heard they pulled Ugly Dan off the frontline back in Eurasia, wherever that is, after he got crippled and they didn’t want to buy him a new arm. He has an old replacement model now. He’s insecure about it, so I make sure he sees me give the arm a glance.

“Saw you had an exciting day, darling.” His voice is as stale and heavy as the air inside my frysuit. “Brave hero now, are you, Darrow? I always thought you’d be a brave hero.”

“You’re the hero,” I say, nodding to his arm. “And you think you’re smart, doncha?” “Just a Red.”

He winks at me. “Say hello to your little birdie for me. A ripe thing for piggin’.” Licks his teeth. “Even for a Ruster.”

“Never seen a bird.” Except on the HC.

“Ain’t that a thing,” he chuckles. “Wait, where you going?” he asks as I turn. “A bow to your betters won’t go awry, doncha think?” He snickers to his fellows. Careless of his mockery, I turn and bow deeply. My uncle sees this and turns from it, disgusted.

We leave the Grays behind. I don’t mind bowing, but I’ll probably cut Ugly Dan’s throat if I ever get the chance. Kind of like saying I’d take a zip out to Venus in a torchShip if it ever suited my fancy.

“Hey, Dago. Dago!” Loran calls to Gamma’s Helldiver. The man’s a legend; all the other divers just a flash in the pan. I might be better than him. “What’d you pull?”

Dago, a pale strip of old leather with a smirk for a face, lights a long burner and puffs out a cloud.

“Don’t know,” he drawls. “Come on!”

“Don’t care. Raw count never matters, Lambda.”

“Like bloodyhell it doesn’t! What’d he pull on the week?” Loran calls as we load into the tram. Everyone’s lighting burners and popping out the swill. But they’re all listening intently.

“Nine thousand eight hundred and twenty-one kilos,” a Gamma boasts. At this, I lean back and smile; I hear cheers from the younger Lambdas. The old hands don’t react. I’m busy wondering what Eo will do with sugar this month. We’ve never earned sugar before, only ever won it at cards. And fruit. I hear the Laurel gets you fruit. She’ll probably give it all away to hungry children just to prove to the Society she doesn’t need their prizes. Me? I’d eat the fruit and play politics on a full stomach. But she’s got the passion for ideas, while I’ve got no extra passion for anything but her.

“Still won’t win,” Dago drawls as the tram starts away. “Darrow’s a young pup, but he is smart enough to know that. Ain’t you, Darrow?”

“Young or not, I beat your craggy ass.” “You sure ’bout that?”

“Deadly sure.” I wink and blow him a kiss. “Laurel’s ours. Send your sisters to my township for sugar this time.” My friends laugh and slap their frysuit lids on their thighs.

Dago watches me. After a moment, he drags his burner deep. It glows bright and burns fast. “This is you,” he says to me. In half a minute the burner is a husk.

After disembarking the horizonTram, I funnel into the Flush with the rest of the crews. The place is cold, musty, and smells exactly like what

it is: a cramped metal shed where thousands of men strip off frysuits after hours of pissing and sweating to take air showers.

I peel off my suit, put on one of our haircaps, and walk naked to stand in the nearest transparent tube. There are dozens of them lined up in the Flush. Here there is no dancing, no boastful flips; the only camaraderie is exhaustion and the soft slapping of hands on thighs, creating a rhythm with the whoosh and shoot of the showers.

The door to my tube hisses closed behind me, muffling the sounds of music. A familiar hum comes from the motor, followed by a great rush of atmosphere and a sucking resonance as air filled with antibacterial molecules screams from the top of the machine and shoots over my skin to whisk away dead skin and filth down the drain at the bottom of the tube. It hurts.

After, I part with Loran and Kieran as they go to the Common to drink and dance in the taverns before the Laureltide dance officially starts. The Tinpots will be handing out the allowances of foodstuffs and announcing the Laurel at midnight. There will be dancing before and after for us of the dayshift.

The legends say that the god Mars was the parent of tears, foe to dance and lute. As to the former, I agree. But we of the colony of Lykos, one of the first colonies under Mars’s surface, are a people of dance and song and family. We spit on that legend and make our own birthright. It is the one resistance we can manage against the Society that rules us. Gives us a bit of spine. They don’t care that we dance or that we sing, so long as we obediently dig. So long as we prepare the planet for the rest of them. Yet to remind us of our place, they make one song and one dance punishable by death.

My father made that dance his last. I’ve seen it only once, and I’ve heard the song only once as well. I didn’t understand when I was little, one about distant vales, mist, lovers lost, and a reaper meant to guide us to our unseen home. I was small and curious when the woman sang it as her son was hanged for stealing foodstuffs. He would have been a tall boy, but he could never get enough food to put meat on his bones. His mother died next. The people of Lykos did the Fading Dirge for them—a tragic thumping of fists against chests, fading slowly, slowly, till the fists, like her heart, beat no more and all dispersed.

The sound haunted me that night. I cried alone in our small kitchen,

wondering why I cried then when I had not for my father. As I lay on the cold floor, I heard a soft scratching at my family’s door. When I opened the door, I found a small haemanthus bud nestled in the red dirt, not a soul to be seen, only Eo’s tiny footprints in the dirt. That is the second time she brought flowers after death.

Since song and dance are in our blood, I suppose it is not surprising that it was in both that I first realized I loved Eo. Not Little Eo. Not as she was. But Eo as she is. She says she loved me before they hanged my father. But it was in a smoky tavern when her rusty hair swirled and her feet moved with the zither and her hips to the drums that my heart forgot a couple of beats. It was not her flips or cartwheels. None of the boastful foolery that so marks the dance of the young. Hers was a graceful, proud movement. Without me, she would not eat. Without her, I would not live.

She may tease me for saying so, but she is the spirit of our people. Life’s dealt us a hard hand. We’re to sacrifice for the good of men and women we don’t know. We’re to dig to ready Mars for others. That makes some of us nastyminded folks. But Eo’s kindness, her laughter, her fierce will, is the best that can come from a home such as ours.

I look for her in my family’s offshoot township, just a half mile’s worth of tunnelroad away from the Common. The township is one of two dozen townships surrounding the Common. It is a hivelike cluster of homes carved into the rock walls of the old mines. Stone and earth are our ceilings, our floors, our home. The Clan is a giant family. Eo grew up not a stone’s throw from my house. Her brothers are like my own. Her father like the one I lost.

A mess of electrical wires tangle together along the cavern’s ceiling like a jungle of black and red vines. Lights hang down from the jungle, swaying gently as air from the Common’s central oxygen system circulates. At the center of the township dangles a massive holoCan. It’s a square box with images on each side. Pixels are blacked out and the image is faded and fuzzy, but never has the thing faltered, never has it turned off. It bathes our cluster of homes in its own pale light. Videos from the Society.

My family’s home is carved into the rock a hundred meters from the bottom floor of the township. A steep path leads from it to the ground, though pulleys and ropes can also bear one to the township’s greatest

heights. Only the old or infirm use those. And we have few of either.

Our house has few rooms. Eo and I only recently were able to take a room for ourselves. Kieran and his family have two rooms, and my mother and sister share the other.

All Lambdas in Lykos live in our township. Omega and Upsilon neighbor us just a minute’s worth of wide tunnel over to either side. We’re all connected. Except for Gamma. They live in the Common, above the taverns, repair booths, silk shops, and trade bazaars. The Tinpots live in a fortress above that, nearer the barren surface of our harsh world. That’s where the ports lie that bring the foodstuffs from Earth to us marooned pioneers.

The holoCan above me shows images of mankind’s struggles, which are then followed by soaring music as the Society’s triumphs flash past. The Society’s sigil, a golden pyramid with three parallel bars attached to the pyramid’s three faces, a circle surrounding all, burns into the screen. The voice of Octavia au Lune, the Society’s aged Sovereign, narrates the struggle man faces in colonizing the planets and moons of the System.

“Since the dawn of man, our saga as a species has been one of tribal warfare. It has been one of trial, one of sacrifice, one of daring to defy nature’s natural limits. Now, through duty and obedience, we are united, but our struggle is no different. Sons and daughters of all Colors, we are asked to sacrifice yet again. Here in our finest hour, we cast our best seeds to the stars. Where first shall we flourish? Venus? Mercury? Mars? The Moons of Neptune, Jupiter?”

Her voice grows solemn as her ageless face with its regal cast peers down from the HC. Her hands shimmer with the symbol of Gold emblazoned upon their backs—a dot in the center of a winged circle— gold wings mark the sides of her forearms. Only one imperfection mars her golden face—a long crescent scar running along her right cheekbone. Her beauty is like that of a cruel bird of prey.

“You brave Red pioneers of Mars—strongest of the human breed—sacrifice for progress, sacrifice to pave the way for the future. Your lives, your blood, are a down payment for the immortality of the human race as we move beyond Earth and Moon. You go where we could not. You suffer so that others do not.

“I salute you. I love you. The helium-3 that you mine is the life-blood of the terraforming process. Soon the red planet will have breathable air, livable

soil. And soon, when Mars is habitable, when you brave pioneers have made ready the red planet for us softer Colors, we will join you and you will be held in highest esteem beneath the sky your toil created. Your sweat and blood fuels the terraforming!

“Brave pioneers, always remember that obedience is the highest virtue.

Above all, obedience, respect, sacrifice, hierarchy …”

I find the kitchen room of the home empty, but I hear Eo in the bedroom.

“Stop right where you are!” she commands through the door. “Do not, under any condition, look in this room.”

“Okay.” I stop.

She comes out a minute later, flustered and blushing. Her hair is covered in dust and webs. I rake my hands through the tangle. She’s straight from the Webbery, where they harvest the bioSilk.

“You didn’t go in the Flush,” I say, smiling.

“Didn’t have time. Had to skirt out of the Webbery to pick something up.”

“What did you pick up?”

She smiles sweetly. “You didn’t marry me because I tell you everything, remember. And do not go into that room.”

I make a lunge for the door. She blocks me and pulls my sweatband down over my eyes. Her forehead pushes against my chest. I laugh, move the band, and grip her shoulders to push her back enough to look into her eyes.

“Or what?” I ask with a raised eyebrow.

She just smiles at me and cocks her head. I back away from the metal door. I dive into molten mineshafts without a blink. But there are some warnings you can buck off and others you can’t.

She stands on her tiptoes and pecks me good on the nose. “Good boy; I knew you’d be easy to train,” she says. Then her nose wrinkles because she smells my burn. She doesn’t coddle me, doesn’t berate me, doesn’t even speak except to say, “I love you,” with just the hint of worry in her voice.

She picks the melted pieces of my frysuit out of the wound, which stretches from my knuckles to my wrist, and pulls tight a webwrap with antibiotic and nervenucleic.

“Where’d you get that?” I ask.

“If I don’t lecture you, you don’t quiz me on what’s what.”

I kiss her on the nose and play with the thin band of woven hair around her ring finger. My hair wound with bits of silk makes her wedding band.

“I have a surprise for you tonight,” she tells me.

“And I have one for you,” I say, thinking of the Laurel. I put my sweatband on her head like a crown. She wrinkles her nose at its wetness.

“Oh, well, I actually have two for you, Darrow. Pity you didn’t think ahead. You might have gotten me a cube of sugar or a satin sheet or … maybe even coffee to go with the first gift.”

“Coffee!” I laugh. “What sort of Color did you think you married?”

She sighs. “No benefits to a diver, none at all. Crazy, stubborn, rash …”

“Dexterous?” I say with a mischievous smile as I slide my hand up the side of her skirt.

“Reckon that has its advantages.” She smiles and swats my hand away like it’s a spider. “Now put these gloves on unless you want jabber from the women. Your mother’s already gone on ahead.”

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