Chapter no 4 – The Gift

Red Rising

As the Laurel-wreathed boxes come down to Gamma, I think about how clever it really is. They won’t let us win the Laurel. They don’t care that the math doesn’t work. They don’t care that the young scream in protest and the old moan their same tired wisdoms. This is just a demonstration of their power. It is their power. They decide the winner. A game of merit won by birth. It keeps the hierarchy in place. It keeps us striving, but never conspiring.

Yet despite the disappointment, some part of us doesn’t blame the Society. We blame Gamma, who receives the gifts. A man’s only got so much hate, I suppose. And when he sees his children’s ribs through their shirts while his neighbors line their bellies with meat stews and sugared tarts, it’s hard for him to hate anyone but them. You think they’d share. They don’t.

My uncle shrugs at me and others are red and mad. Loran looks like he might attack the Tinpots or the Gammas. But Eo doesn’t let me boil in it. She doesn’t let my knuckles turn white as I clench my fists in fury. She knows the temper I have inside me better even than my own mother, and she knows how to drain the rage before it rises. My mother smiles softly as she watches Eo take me by the arm. How she loves my wife.

“Dance with me,” Eo whispers. She shouts for the zithers to get going and the drums to get rolling. No doubt she’s pissin’ fire. She hates the Society more than I do. But this is why I love my wife.

Soon the fast zither music swells and the old men slap their hands on tables. The layered skirts fly. Feet tap and shuffle. And I grasp my wife as the clans flow in dance throughout the square to join us. We sweat and we laugh and try to forget the anger. We grew together, and now are grown. In her eyes, I see my heart. In her breath, I hear my soul. She is my land. She is my kin. My love.

She pulls me away with laughter. We wend our way through the crowd to be alone. Yet she does not stop when we are free. She guides me along metal walkways and low, dark ceilings to the old tunnels, to the Webbery, where the women toil. It is between shifts.

“Where are we going exactly?” I ask.

“If you remember, I have gifts for you. And if you apologize for your own gift going flat, I’ll smack you in the gob.”

Seeing a bloody-red haemanthus bulb peeking out from the wall, I snatch it up and hand it to her. “My gift,” I said. “I did intend to surprise you.”

She giggles. “Well then. This inner half is mine. This outer half is yours. No! Don’t pull at it. I’m keeping your half.” I smell the haemanthus in her hand. It stinks like rust and Mother’s meager stews.

Inside the Webbery, thigh-thick spiderworms of brown and black fur, with long skeletal legs, knit silk around us. They crawl along the girders, thin legs disproportionate to their corpulent abdomens. Eo leads me into the Webbery’s highest level. The old metal girders are laced with silk. I shiver in looking at the creatures above and below; pitvipers I understand, spiderworms I do not. The Society’s Carvers made the creatures. Laughing, Eo guides me to a wall and pulls back a thick curtain of webbing, revealing a rusted metal duct.

“Ventilation,” she says. “Mortar on the walls gave way to reveal it about a week ago. An old tube too.”

“Eo, they’ll lash us if they find us. We’re not allowed …”

“I’m not going to let them ruin this gift too.” She kisses me on the nose. “Come on, Helldiver. There’s not even a molten drill in this tunnel.”

I follow her through a long series of turns in the small shaft till we exit out a grate into a world of inhuman sounds. A buzz murmurs in the darkness. She takes my hand. It’s the only familiar thing.

“What is that?” I ask of the sound.

“Animals,” she says, and leads me into the strange night. Something soft is beneath my feet. I nervously let her pull me forward. “Grass. Trees. Darrow, trees. We’re in a forest.”

The scent of flowers. Then lights in the darkness. Flickering animals with green abdomens flutter through the black. Great bugs with iridescent wings rise from the shadows. They pulse with color and life. My breath catches and Eo laughs as a butterfly passes so close I can touch it.

They’re in our songs, all these things, but we’ve only ever seen them on the HC. Their colors are unlike any I could believe. My eyes have seen nothing but soil, the flare of the drill, Reds, and the gray of concrete and metal. The HC has been the window through which I’ve seen color. But this is a different spectacle.

The colors of the floating animals scald my eyes. I shiver and laugh and reach out and touch the creatures floating before me in the darkness. A child again, I cup them and look up at the room’s clear ceiling. It is a transparent bubble that peers at the sky.

Sky. Once it was just a word.

I cannot see Mars’s face, but I can see its view. Stars glow soft and graceful in the slick black sky, like the lights that dangle above our township. Eo looks as though she could join them. Her face is aglow as she watches me, laughing as I fall to my knees and suck in the scent of the grass. It is a strange smell, sweet and nostalgic, though I have no memories of grass. As the animals buzz near in the brush, in the trees, I pull her down, I kiss her with my eyes open for the first time. The trees and their leaves sway gently from the air that comes through the vents. And I drink the sounds, the smells, the sight as my wife and I make love in a bed of grass beneath a roof of stars.

“That is Andromeda Galaxy,” she tells me later as we lie on our backs. The animals make chirping noises in the darkness. The sky above me is a frightening thing. If I stare too intently, I forget gravity’s pull and feel as though I am going to fall into it. Shivers trickle down my spine. I am a creature of nooks and tunnels and shafts. The mine is my home, and part of me wants to run to safety, run from this alien room of living things and vast spaces.

Eo rolls to look at me and traces the steam scars that run like rivers down my chest. Farther down she’d find scars from the pitviper along

my belly. “Mum used to tell me stories of Andromeda. She’d draw with inks given to her by that Tinpot, Bridge. He always liked her, you know.”

As we lie together, she takes a deep breath and I know she has planned something, saved something to talk about in this moment. This place is leverage.

“You won the Laurel, we all know,” she says to me.

“You needn’t coddle me. I’m not angry any longer. It doesn’t matter,” I say. “After seeing this, none of that matters.”

“What are you talking about?” she asks sharply. “It matters more than ever. You won the Laurel, but they didn’t let you keep it.”

“It doesn’t matter. This place …”

“This place exists, but they don’t let us come here, Darrow. The Grays must use it for themselves. They don’t share.”

“Why should they?” I ask, confused. “Because we made it. Because it’s ours!”

“Is it?” The thought is foreign. All I possess is my family and myself. Everything else is the Society’s. We didn’t spend the money to send the pioneers here. Without them, we’d be on the dying Earth like the rest of humanity.

“Darrow! Are you so Red that you don’t see what they’ve done to us?” “Watch your tone,” I say tightly.

Her jaw flexes. “I’m sorry. It’s just … we are in chains, Darrow. We are not colonists. Well, sure we are. But it’s more on the spot to call us slaves. We beg for food. Beg for Laurels like dogs begging for scraps from the master’s table.”

“You may be a slave,” I snap. “But I am not. I don’t beg. I earn. I am a Helldiver. I was born to sacrifice, to make Mars ready for man. There’s a nobility to obedience.…”

She throws up her hands. “A talking puppet, are you? Spitting out their bloodydamn lines. Your father had the right of it. He might not have been perfect, but he had the right of it.” She grabs a clump of grass and tears it out of the ground. It seems like some sort of sacrilege.

“We have claim over this land, Darrow. Our sweat and blood watered this soil. Yet it belongs to the Golds, to the Society. How long has it been this way? A hundred, a hundred and fifty years of pioneers mining and dying? Our blood and their orders. We prepare this land for Colors that

have never shed sweat for us, Colors that sit in comfort on their thrones on distant Earth, Colors that have never been to Mars. Is that something to live for? I’ll say it again, your father had the right of it.”

I shake my head at her. “Eo, my father died before he was even twenty-five because he had the right of it.”

“Your father was weak,” she mutters.

“What the bloodydamn is that supposed to mean?” Blood rises into my face.

“It means he had too much restraint. It means your father had the right dream but died because he would not fight to make it real,” she says sharply.

“He had a family to protect!” “He was still weaker than you.” “Careful,” I hiss.

“Careful? This from Darrow, the mad Helldiver of Lykos?” She laughs patronizingly. “Your father was born careful, obedient. But were you? I didn’t think so when I married you. The others say you are like a machine, because they think you know no fear. They’re blind. They don’t see how fear binds you.”

She traces the haemanthus blossom along my collarbone in a sudden show of tenderness. She is a creature of moods. The flower is the same color as the wedding band on her finger.

I roll on an elbow to face her. “Spit it out. What do you want?” “Do you know why I love you, Helldiver?” she asks.

“Because of my sense of humor.”

She laughs dryly. “Because you thought you could win the Laurel.

Kieran told me how you burned yourself today.”

I sigh. “The rat. Always jabbering. Thought that’s what younger brothers were supposed to do, not elder.”

“Kieran was frightened, Darrow. Not for you, like you might be thinking. He was frightened of you, because he can’t do what you did. Boy wouldn’t even think it.”

She always talks circles around me. I hate the abstracts she lives for. “So you love me because you believe that I think there are things

worth the risk?” I puzzle out. “Or because I’m ambitious?” “Because you’ve a brain,” she teases.

She makes me ask it again. “What do you want me to do, Eo?”

“Act. I want you to use your gifts for your father’s dream. You see how people watch you, take their cues from you. I want you to think owning this land, our land, is worth the risk.”

“How much a risk?” “Your life. My life.”

I scoff. “You’re that eager to be rid of me?”

“Speak and they will listen,” she urges. “It is that bloody simple. All ears yearn for a voice to lead them through darkness.”

“Grand, so I’ll hang with a troop. I am my father’s son.” “You won’t hang.”

I laugh too harshly. “So certain a wife I have. I’ll hang.”

“You’re not meant to be a martyr.” Sighing, she lies back in disappointment. “You wouldn’t see the point to it.”

“Oh? Well then, tell me, Eo. What is the point to dying? I’m only a martyr’s son. So tell me what that man accomplished by robbing me of a father. Tell me what good comes of all that bloodydamn sadness. Tell me why it’s better I learned to dance from my uncle than my father.” I go on. “Did his death put food on your table? Did it make any of our lives any better? Dying for a cause doesn’t do a bloodydamn thing. It just robbed us of his laughter.” I feel the tears burning my eyes. “It just stole away a father and a husband. So what if life isn’t fair? If we have family, that is all that should matter.”

She licks her lips and takes her time in replying.

“Death isn’t empty like you say it is. Emptiness is life without freedom, Darrow. Emptiness is living chained by fear, fear of loss, of death. I say we break those chains. Break the chains of fear and you break the chains that bind us to the Golds, to the Society. Could you imagine it? Mars could be ours. It could belong to the colonists who slaved here, died here.” Her face is easier to see as night fades through the clear roof. It is alive, on fire. “If you led the others to freedom. The things you could do, Darrow. The things you could make happen.” She pauses and I see her eyes are glistening. “It chills me. You have been given so, so much, but you set your sights so low.”

“You repeat the same damn points,” I say bitterly. “You think a dream is worth dying for. I say it isn’t. You say it’s better to die on your feet. I say it’s better to live on our knees.”

“You’re not even living!” she snaps. “We are machine men with

machine minds, machine lives.…”

“And machine hearts?” I ask. “That’s what I am?” “Darrow …”

“What do you live for?” I ask her suddenly. “Is it for me? Is it for family and love? Or is it for some dream?”

“It’s not just some dream, Darrow. I live for the dream that my children will be born free. That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them.”

“I live for you,” I say sadly.

She kisses my cheek. “Then you must live for more.”

There’s a long, terrible silence that stretches between us. She does not understand how her words wrench my heart, how she can twist me so easily. Because she does not love me like I love her. Her mind is too high. Mine too low. Am I not enough for her?

“You said you had another gift for me?” I say, changing the subject.

She shakes her head. “Some other time. The sun rises. Watch it with me once, at least.”

We lie in silence and watch light slip into the sky as though it were a tide made from fire. It is unlike anything I could have dreamed of. I can’t stop the tears that well in the corners of my eyes as the world beyond turns to light and the greens and browns and yellows of the trees in the room are revealed. It is beauty. It is a dream.

I am silent as we return to the grimness of the gray ducts. The tears linger in my eyes and as the majesty of what I saw fades; I wonder what Eo wants of me. Does she want me to take my slingBlade and start a rebellion? I would die. My family would die. She would die, and nothing would make me risk her. She knows that.

I am puzzling out what her other gift may be when we exit the ducts for the Webbery. I roll first from the duct and extend a hand back to her when I hear a voice. It is accented, oily, from Earth.

“Reds in our gardens,” it oozes. “Ain’t that a thing.”

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