We walk hand in hand with the others from our township through the tunnelroads to the Common. Lune drones on above us on the HC, high above, as the Goldbrows (Aureate to be technic) ought to be. They show the horrors of a terrorist bomb killing a Red mining crew and an Orange technician group. The Sons of Ares are blamed. Their strange glyph of Ares, a cruel helmet with spiked sunbursts exploding from the crown, burns across the screen; blood drips from the spikes. Children are shown mangled. The Sons of Ares are called tribal murderers, called bringers of chaos. They are condemned. The Society’s Gray police and soldiers move rubble. Two soldiers of the Obsidian Color, colossal men and women nearly twice my size, are shown along with nimble Yellow doctors carrying several victims from the blast.
There are no Sons of Ares in Lykos. Their futile war does not touch us; yet again a reward is offered for information on Ares, the terrorist king. We have heard the broadcast a thousand times, and still it feels like fiction. The Sons think we are mistreated, so they blow things up. It is a pointless tantrum. Any damage they do delays the progress of making Mars ready for the other Colors. It hurts humanity.
In the tunnelroad, where boys compete to touch the ceiling, the people of the townships flow in merriment toward the Laureltide dance. We sing the Laureltide song as we go—a swooping melody of a man finding his bride in a field of gold. There’s laughter as the young boys try running along the walls or doing rows of flips, only to fall on their faces
or be bested by a girl.
Lights are strung along the lengthy corridor. In the distance, drunk Uncle Narol, old now at thirty-five, plays his zither for the children who dance about our legs; even he cannot scowl forever. He wears the instrument suspended on shoulder straps so that it rests at his hips, with its plastic soundboard and its many taut metal strings facing up toward the ceiling. The right thumb strums the strings, except when the index finger drops down or when the thumb picks single strings, all while the left hand picks out the bass line string by string. It is maddeningly difficult to make the zither sound anything but mournful. Uncle Narol’s fingers are equal to the task, though mine only make tragic music.
He used to play to me, teaching me to move to the dances my father never had the chance to teach me. He even taught me the forbidden dance, the one they’ll kill you for. We’d do it in the old mines. He would hit my ankles with a switch till I pirouetted seamlessly through the swooping movements, a length of metal in my hand, like a sword. And when I got it right, he would kiss my brow and tell me I was my father’s son. It was his lessons that taught me to move, that let me best the other kids as we played games of tag and ghosts in the old tunnels.
“The Golds dance in pairs, Obsidians in threes, Grays in dozens,” he told me. “We dance alone, because only alone do Helldivers drill. Only alone can a boy become a man.”
I miss those days, days when I was young enough that I didn’t judge him for the stink of swill on his breath. I was eleven then. Only five years ago. Yet it feels a lifetime.
I get pats on the back from those of Lambda and even Varlo the baker tilts me his brow and tosses Eo a fist of bread. They’ve heard about the Laurel, no doubt. Eo tucks the bread into her skirts for later and gives me a curious look.
“You’re grinning like a fool,” she says to me, pinching my side. “What did you do?”
I shrug and try to wipe the grin from my face. It is impossible. “Well, you’re very proud of something,” she says suspiciously.
Kieran’s son and daughter, my niece and nephew, patter by. Three and three, the twins are just fast enough to outrace both Kieran’s wife and my mother.
My mother’s smile is one of a woman who has seen what life has to
offer and is, at best, bemused. “It seems you’ve burned yourself, my heart,” she says when she sees my gloved hands. Her voice is slow, ironic.
“A blister,” Eo says for me. “Nasty one.”
Mother shrugs. “His father came home with worse.”
I put my arm around her shoulders. They are thinner than they used to be when she taught me, as all women teach their sons, the songs of our people.
“Was that a hint of worry I heard, Mother?” I ask.
“Worry? Me? Silly child.” Mother sighs with a slow smile. I kiss her on the cheek.
Half the clans are already drunk when we arrive in the Common. In addition to a dancing people, we’re a drunken people. The Tinpots let us alone in that. Hang a man for no real reason and you might get some grumblings from the townships. But force sobriety upon us, and you’ll be picking up the pieces for a bloodydamn month. Eo is of the mind that the fungus, grendel, which we distill, isn’t native to Mars and was instead planted here to enslave us to the swill. She brings this up whenever my mother makes a new batch, and my mother usually replies by taking a swig and saying, “Rather a drink be my master than a man. These chains taste sweet.”
They’ll taste even sweeter with the syrups we’ll get from the Laurel boxes. They have flavors for alcohol, like berry and something called cinnamon. Perhaps I’ll even get a new zither made of wood instead of metal. Sometimes they give those out. Mine is an old, frayed thing. I’ve played it too long. But it was my father’s.
The music swells ahead of us in the Common—bawdy tunes of improvised percussion and wailing zithers. We’re joined by Omegas and Upsilons, jostling about merrily toward the taverns. All the tavern doors have been thrown open so their smoke and sound billow into the Common’s plaza. Tables ring the plaza and a space is left clear surrounding the central gallows so that there is room to dance.
Gamma homes fill the next several levels, followed by supply depots, a sheer wall, and then, high above in the ceiling, a sunken metal dome with nanoGlass viewports. We call that place the Pot. It is the fortress where our keepers live and sleep. Beyond that is the uninhabitable surface of our planet—a barren wasteland that I’ve only seen on the HC.
The helium-3 we mine is supposed to change that.
The dancers and jugglers and singers of the Laureltide have already begun. Eo catches sight of Loran and Kieran and gives them a holler. They’re at a long, packed table near the Soggy Drop, a tavern where the oldest of our clan, Ol’ Ripper, holds court and tells tales to drunken folks. He’s passed out on the table tonight. It’s a shame. I would have liked for him to see me finally get us the Laurel.
At our feasts, where there’s hardly food enough for each soul to hold a bit in their gob, the drink and dance take center. Loran pours me a mug of swill before I even sit down. He’s always trying to get others to drink so he can put ridiculous ribbons in their hair. He clears the way for Eo to sit beside his own wife, Dio, her sister, twin in looks if not birth.
Loran has a love for Eo like her brother Liam would, but I know he was once as taken with her as he ever was with Dio. In fact, he bent a knee to my wife when she turned fourteen. But then again, half the lads joined him in that. No sweating it. She made her choice right and clear.
Kieran’s children swarm him. His wife kisses his lips; mine kisses his brow and tousles his red hair. After a day in the Webbery harvesting spiderworm silk, I don’t know how the wives manage to look so lovely. I was born handsome, face angular and slim, but the mines have done their part to change me. I’m tall, still growing. Hair still like old blood, irises still as rust-red as Octavia au Lune’s are golden. My skin is tight and pale, but I’m pocked with scars—burns, cuts. Won’t be long till I look hard as Dago or tired as Uncle Narol.
But the women, they’re beyond us, beyond me. Lovely and spry despite the Webbery, despite the children they bear. They wear layered skirts down past their knees and blouses of half a dozen reds. Never anything else. Always red. They’re the heart of the clans. And how much more beautiful they will look wrapped in the imported bows and ribbons and laces contained in the Laurel boxes.
I touch the Sigils on my hands, a bonelike texture. It’s a crude Red circle with an arrow and cross-hatching. It feels right. Eo’s doesn’t. Her hair and eyes may be ours, but she could be one of the Goldbrows we see on the holoCan. She deserves it. Then I see her smack Loran hard on the head as he throws back a mug of Ma’s swill. God, if he’s placing about the pieces, placed her well. I smile. But as I look behind her, my smile fades. Above the leaping dancers, amid the hundred swirling skirts
and thumping boots and clapping hands, sways a single skeleton upon the cold, tall gallows. Others do not notice it. To me, it is a shadow, a reminder of my father’s fate.
Though we are diggers, we are not permitted to bury our dead. It is another of the Society’s laws. My father swayed for two months till they cut his skeleton down and ground his bones to dust. I was six but I tried to pull him down the first day. My uncle stopped me. I hated him because he kept me from my father’s body. Later, I came to hate him again because I discovered he was weak: my father died for something, while Uncle Narol lived and drank and squandered his life.
“He’s a mad one, you’ll see someday. Mad and brilliant and noble, Narol’s the best of my brothers,” my father once said.
Now he’s just the last.
I never thought my father would do the Devil’s Dance, what the oldfolk call death by hanging. He was a man of words and peace. But his notion was freedom, laws of our own. His dreams were his weapons. His legacy is the Dancer’s Rebellion. It died with him on the scaffold. Nine men at once doing the Devil’s Dance, kicking and flailing, till only he was left.
It wasn’t much of a rebellion; they thought peaceful protest would convince the Society to increase the food rations. So they performed the Reaping Dance in front of the gravLifts and removed bits of machinery from the drills so that they wouldn’t work. The gambit failed. Only winning the Laurel can get you more food.
It’s on eleven when my uncle sits down with his zither. He eyes me something nasty, drunk as a fool on Yuletide. We don’t share words, though he has a kind one for Eo and she for him. Everyone loves Eo.
It’s when Eo’s mother comes over and kisses me on the back of my head and says very loudly, “We heard the news, you golden boy. The Laurel! You are your father’s son,” that my uncle stirs.
“What’s the matter, Uncle?” I ask. “Have gas?” His nostils flare wide. “You little shiteater!”
He launches himself across the table and soon we’re a muddle of fists and elbows on the ground. He’s big, but I flip him down and pound his nose with my bad hand till Eo’s father and Kieran pull me off. Uncle Narol spits at me. It’s more blood and swill than anything else. Then we’re drinking again at opposite ends of the table. My mother rolls her
“He’s just bitter he didn’t do a bloodydamn thing to get the Laurel.
Shown up is all,” Loran says of his father.
“Bloodydamn coward wouldn’t know how to win the Laurel if it landed in his lap,” I say, scowling.
Eo’s father pats me on the head and sees his daughter fixing my burned hand under the table. I slip my gloves back on. He winks at me.
Eo’s figured out the fuss about the Laurel by the time the Tinpots arrive, but she’s not excited as I’d hoped she’d be. She twists her skirts in her hands and smiles at me. But her smiles are more like grimaces. I don’t understand why she’s so apprehensive. None of the other clans are. Many come to pay their respects; all of the Helldivers do, except Dago. He’s sitting at a group of shiny Gamma tables—the only ones with more food than swill—smoking down a burner.
“Can’t wait for the sod to be eating regular rations,” Loran chuckles. “Dago’s never tasted peasant fare before.”
“Yet somehow he’s thinner than a woman,” Kieran adds.
I laugh along with Loran and push a meager piece of bread to Eo. “Cheer up,” I tell her. “This is a night for celebrating.”
“I’m not hungry,” she replies.
“Not even if the bread has cinnamon on it?” Soon it will.
She gives me that half smile, as if she knows something I do not.
At twelve, a coterie of Tinpots descend in gravBoots from the Pot. Their armor is shoddy and stained. Most are boys or old men retired from Earth’s wars. But that’s not what matters. They carry their thumpers and scorchers in buckled holsters. I’ve never seen either weapon used. There’s no need. They’ve got the air, the food, the port. We haven’t a scorcher to shoot. Not that Eo wouldn’t like to steal one.
The muscle in her jaw flexes as she watches the Tinpots float in their gravBoots, now joined by MineMagistrate, Timony cu Podginus, a minute copper-haired man of the Pennies (Copper to be technic).
“Notice, notice. Grubby Rusters!” Ugly Dan calls. Silence falls over the festivities as they float above us. Magistrate Podginus’s gravBoots are substandard things, so he wobbles in the air like a geriatric. More Tinpots descend on a gravLift as Podginus splays open his small, manicured hands.
“Fellow pioneers, how wonderful it is to see your celebrations. I must
confess,” he titters, “I have a fondness for the rustic nature of your happiness. Simple drink. Simple fare. Simple dance. Oh, what fine souls you have to be so entertained. Why, I wish I were so entertained. I cannot even find pleasure off-planet in a Pink brothel after a meal of fine ham and pineapple tart these days! How sad for me! How your souls are spoiled. If only I could be like you. But my Color is my Color, and I am cursed as a Copper to live a tedious life of data, bureaucracy, and management.” He clucks his tongue and his copper curls bounce as his gravBoots shift.
“But to the matter: All Quotas have been met, save by Mu and Chi. As such, they will receive no beefs, milks, spices, hygienics, comforts, or dental aid this month. Oats and substantials only. You understand that the ships from Earth orbit can only bring so many supplies to the colonies. Valuable resources! And we must give them to those who perform. Perhaps next quarter, Mu and Chi, you will dally less!”
Mu and Chi lost a dozen men in a gas explosion like the one Uncle Narol feared. They did not dally. They died.
He prattles on awhile before coming to the real matter. He produces the Laurel and holds it in the air, pinched between his fingers. It’s painted in fake gold, but the small branch sparkles nonetheless. Loran nudges me. Uncle Narol scowls. I lean back, conscious of the eyes. The young take their cues from me. The children adore all Helldivers. But the older eyes watch me too, just as Eo always says. I’m their pride, their golden son. Now I’ll show them how a real man acts. I won’t jump up and down in victory. I’ll just smile and nod.
“And it becomes my distinct honor to, on behalf of the ArchGovernor of Mars, Nero au Augustus, to award the Laurel of productivity and monthly excellence and triumphant fortitude and obedience, sacrifice, and …”
Gamma gets the Laurel. And we don’t.