Chapter no 8 – Dancer

Red Rising

Dancer looks through me. He’s near enough my height, which is rare. But he’s thick and terribly old, maybe in his forties. White swirls from his temples. A dozen twin scars mark his neck. I’ve seen their sort before. Pitviper bites. The arm on the left side of his body hangs limp. Nerve damage. But his eyes arrest me; they are brighter than most, swirling with patterns of true red, not rust red. He has a fatherly smile.

“You must be wondering who we are,” Dancer says gently. He’s big but his voice is easy. Eight Reds are with him, all men except for Harmony, and they watch him with adoring eyes. All miners, I think, each with the scarred, strong hands of our kind. They move with the grace of our people. No doubt some were jumpers and boasters, as we call those who run along the walls and perform the flips at dances. Any Helldivers?

“He’s not wondering.” Harmony takes time with the words, rolling them along her tongue. She squeezes Dancer’s hand as she passes around him to look at me. “Bloodydamn runt pegged it an hour ago.”

“Ah.” Dancer smiles softly at her. “Of course he did, otherwise Ares wouldn’t have asked us to risk extracting him here. Do you know where ‘here’ is, Darrow?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I murmur. I look around at the walls, the men, the swaying lights. Everything is so cold, so dirty. “What matters is …” I fail to finish my own sentence. A thought of Eo severs my voice. “What matters is that you want something from me.”

“Yes, that matters,” says Dancer. His hand touches my shoulder. “But that can wait. I’m surprised you’re standing. The wounds on your back are sullied. You’ll need antibac and skinres to stop the scarring.”

“Scars don’t matter,” I say. I stare at the two blood drops that trickle from my shirttail to the floor. My wounds reopened when I climbed from the grave. “Eo is … dead, yes?”

“Yes. She is. We couldn’t save her, Darrow.” “Why not?” I ask.

“We just couldn’t.”

“Why not?” I repeat. I glare up at him, glare at his followers and hiss the words one by one. “You saved me. You could have saved her. She is the one you would have wanted. The bloodydamn martyr. She cared about all this. Or does Ares only need Sons, not Daughters?”

“Martyrs are a dime a dozen.” Harmony yawns.

I slip forward like a serpent and grab her around the throat; waves of anger ripple through my face till it goes numb and I feel tears welling behind my eyes. Scorchers whine as they’re primed around me. One jams into the back of my neck. I feel its cold muzzle.

“Let her go!” someone shouts. “Do it, boy!”

I spit at them, shake Harmony once and toss her aside. She crouches on the floor, hacking, and then a knife glimmers in her hand as she rises.

Dancer stumbles between us. “Stop it! Both of you! Darrow, please!” “Your girl was a dreamer, boy,” Harmony spits at me from Dancer’s

other side. “As worthless as a flame over water …”

“Harmony, shut your bloodydamn gob,” Dancer barks. “Put those damn things away.” The scorchers go quiet. A tense silence follows and he leans in close to speak with me. His voice lowers. My breath is fast. “Darrow, we’re friends. We’re friends. Now, I can’t answer for Ares— why he couldn’t help us save your girl; I am just one of his hands. I can’t wash away the pain. I can’t bring your wife back to you. But, Darrow, look at me. Look at me, Helldiver.” I do. Right into those blood-red eyes. “I can’t do many things. But I can bring you justice.”

Dancer goes to Harmony and whispers something, likely telling her that we’re to be friends. We won’t be. But I promise not to choke her and she promises not to stab me.

She is quiet as she guides me from the others through cramped metal hallways to a small door opened by twisting a knob. Our feet echo over

rusting walkways. The room is small and littered with tables and medical supplies. She has me strip and sit on one of the cold tables so she can clean my wounds. Her hands are not gentle as they scrub dirt from my lacerated back. I try not to scream.

“You’re a fool,” she says as she scrapes rock out of a deep wound. I wheeze in pain and try to say something, but she jams her finger into my back, cutting me short.

“Dreamers like your wife are limited, little Helldiver.” She makes sure I don’t speak. “Understand that. The only power they have is in death. The harder they die, the louder their voice, the deeper the echoes. But your wife served her purpose.”

Her purpose. It sounds so cold, so distant and sad, as though my girl of smiles and laughter was meant for nothing but death. Harmony’s words carve into me and I stare at the metal grating before turning to look into her angry eyes.

“Then what is your purpose?” I ask.

She holds up her hands, caked with dirt and blood.

“The same as yours, little Helldiver. To make the dream come true.”

After Harmony scours my back of dirt and gives me a dose of antibac, she takes me to a room next to humming generators. The squat quarters are lined with cots and a liquid flush. She leaves me to it. The shower is a terrifying thing. Though it’s gentler than the air of the Flush, half the time I feel like I’m drowning, the other half I find a mixture of ecstasy and agony. I turn the heat nozzle till steam rises thick and pain lances my back.

Clean, I dress in the strange garments they’ve set out for me. It’s not a jumpsuit or homespun weave like I’m used to wearing. The material is sleek, elegant, like something someone of a different Color would wear.

Dancer comes into the room when I’m half dressed. His left foot drags behind him, almost as useless as his left arm. Yet still he’s an impressive man, thicker than Barlow, handsomer than me despite his age and the bite scars on his neck. He carries a tin bowl and sits on one of the cots, which creaks against his weight.

“We saved your life, Darrow. So your life is ours, do you not agree?” “My uncle saved my life,” I say.

“The drunk?” Dancer snorts. “The best thing he ever did was tell us about you. And he should have done that when you were a boy, but he kept you a secret. He’s worked for us since before your father’s death as an informer, you know.”

“Is he hanged now?”

“Now that he pulled you down? I should hope not. We gave him a jammer to shut off their ancient cameras. He did the work of a ghost.”

Uncle Narol. HeadTalk, but drunk as a fool. I always thought him weak. He still is. No strong man would drink like him or be so bitter. But he never earned the disdain I gave him. Yet why did he not save Eo?

“You act like my uncle bloodydamn owed you,” I say. “He owes his people.”

“People.” I laugh at the term. “There is family. There is clan. There may even be township and mine, but people? People. And you act as though you’re my representative, as though you have a right to my life. But you are just a fool, all you Sons of Ares.” My voice is withering in its condescension. “Fools who can do nothing but blow things up. Like children kicking pitviper nests in rage.”

That’s what I want to do. I want to kick, to lash out. That’s why I insult him, that’s why I spit on the Sons even though I have no real cause to hate them.

Dancer’s handsome face curls into a tired smile, and it’s only then that I realize how feeble his dead arm really is—thinner than his muscular right arm, bent like a flower’s root. But despite the withered limb, there’s a twisted menace to Dancer, a less obvious sort than that in Harmony. It comes out when I laugh at him, when I scorn him and his dreams.

“Our informants exist to feed us information and to help us find the outliers so we can extract the best of Red from the mines.”

“So you can use us.”

Dancer smiles tightly and picks up the bowl from the cot. “We will play a game to see if you are one of these outliers, Darrow. If you win, I will take you to see something few lowReds have seen.”

LowReds. I’ve never heard the term before. “And if I lose?”

“Then you are not an outlier and the Golds win yet again.” I flinch at the notion.

He holds out a bowl and explains the rules. “There are two cards in the bowl. One bears the reaper’s scythe. The other bears a lamb. Pick the scythe and you lose. Pick the lamb and you win.”

Except I notice his voice fluctuate when he says this last bit. This is a test. Which means there is no element of luck to it. It must then be measuring my intelligence, which means there is a kink. The only way the game could test my intelligence is if the cards are both scythes; that’s the singular variable that could be altered. Simple. I stare into Dancer’s handsome eyes. It is a rigged game; I’m used to these, and usually I follow the rules. Just not this time.

“I’ll play.”

I reach into the bowl and pull free a card, taking care that only I can see its face. It is a scythe. Dancer’s eyes never leave mine.

“I win,” I say.

He reaches for the card to see its face, but I shove it in my mouth before he can take hold of it. He never sees what I drew. Dancer watches me chew on the paper. I swallow and pull the remaining card from the bowl and toss it at him. A scythe.

“The lamb card simply looked too good not to eat,” I say. “Perfectly understandable.”

The red in his eyes twinkles and he sets the bowl aside. Warmth of character returns to him, as if he’d never been a menace. “Do you know why we call ourselves Sons of Ares, Darrow? To the Romans, Mars was the god of war—a god of military glory, defense of the hearth and home. Honorable and all. But Mars is a fraud. He is a romanticized version of the Greek god Ares.”

Dancer lights a burner and hands a second one to me. The generators buzz freshly and the burner fills me with a similar haze as its smoke curls through my lungs.

“Ares was a bastard, an evil patron of rage, violence, bloodlust, and massacre,” he says.

“So by naming yourselves after him, you’re pointing to the truth of things within the Society. Cute.”

“Something like that. The Golds would prefer for us to forget history. And most of us have, or were never taught it. But I know how Gold rose to power hundreds of years ago. They call it the Conquering. They butchered any who contested them. Massacred cities, continents. Not

many years ago, they reduced an entire world to ash—Rhea. The Ash Lord nuked it to oblivion. It was with Ares’s wrath that they acted. And now we are the sons of that wrath.”

“Are you Ares?” I ask, voice hushed. Worlds. They’ve destroyed worlds. But Rhea is so much farther out from Earth than Mars. It’s one of Saturn’s moons, I think. Why would they nuke a world all the way out there?

“No. I’m not Ares,” he answers. “But you belong to him.”

“I belong to no one but Harmony and my people. I am like you, Darrow, born to a clan of earth diggers, miners from the colony Tyros. Only I know more of the world.” He frowns at my impatient expression. “You think me a terrorist. I am not.”

“No?” I ask.

He leans back and takes a drag on his burner.

“Imagine there was a table covered with fleas,” he explains. “The fleas would jump and jump to heights unknown. Then a man came along and upturned a glass jar over the fleas. The fleas jumped and hit the top of the jar and could go no farther. Then the man removed the jar and yet the fleas did not jump higher than they had grown accustomed, because they believed there to still be a glass ceiling.” He breathes out smoke. I see his eyes glow through it like the ember tip of his burner. “We are the fleas who jump high. Now let me show you just how high.”

Dancer takes me down a rickety corridor to a cylindrical metal lift. It’s a rusty thing, heavy, and it squeals as we rise steadily upward.

“You should know that your wife didn’t die in vain, Darrow. The Greens who help us hijacked the broadcast. We hacked in and played the true version over every HC on our planet. The planet, the clans of the hundred thousand mining colonies and those in the cities, have heard your wife’s song.”

“You tell tall tales,” I grumble. “There aren’t half that many colonies.”

He ignores me. “They heard her song and they call her Persephone already.”

I flinch and look over at him. No. That is not her name. She is not their symbol. She doesn’t belong to these brigands with trumped-up names.

“Her name is Eo,” I sneer. “And she belongs to Lykos.”

“She belongs to her people now, Darrow. And they remember the old tales of a goddess stolen from her family by the god of death. Yet even when she was stolen, death could not forever keep her. She was the Maiden, the goddess of spring destined to return after each winter. Beauty incarnate can touch life even from the grave; that’s how they think of your wife.”

“She’s not coming back,” I say to end the conversation. It is futile debating with this man. He just rolls on.

Our lift comes to a halt and we exit into a small tunnel. Following it, we come to another lift of sleeker metal, better maintained. Two Sons guard it with scorchers. Soon we’re going upward again.

“She will not come back, but her beauty, her voice, will echo until the end of time. She believed in something beyond herself, and her death gave her voice power it didn’t have in life. She was pure, like your father. We, you and I”—he touches my chest with the back of his index finger—“are dirty. We are made for blood. Rough hands. Dirty hearts. We are lesser creatures in the grand scheme of things, but without us men of war, no one except those of Lykos would hear Eo’s song. Without our rough hands, the dreams of the pure hearts would never be built.”

“Cut to the point,” I interrupt. “You want me for something.”

“You tried to die before,” Dancer says. “Do you want to do so again?” “I want …” What do I want? “I want to kill Augustus,” I say,

remembering the cold Golden face as it commanded my wife’s death. It was so distant, so uncaring. “He will not live while Eo lies dead.” I think of Magistrate Podginus and Ugly Dan. I will kill them too.

“Vengeance then,” he sighs.

“You said you could give it to me.”

“I said I would give you justice. Vengeance is an empty thing, Darrow.” “It will fill me. Help me kill the ArchGovernor.”

“Darrow, you set your sights too low.” The lift picks up speed. My ears pop. Up and up and up. How far does this lift rise? “The ArchGovernor is merely one of the most important Golds on Mars.” Dancer hands me a pair of tinted glasses. I put them on tentatively as my heart thuds in my chest. We’re going to the surface. “You must widen your gaze.”

The lift stops. The doors open. And I am blind.

Behind the glasses, my pupils constrict to adjust to the light. When at last I’m able to open my eyes, I expect to see a massive glowing bulb or

a flare, some source to the light. But I see nothing. The light is ambient, from some distant, impossible source. Some human instinct in me knows this power, knows this primal origin of life. The sun. Daylight. My hands tremble and I step with Dancer from the elevator. He does not speak. I doubt I would hear him even if he did.

We stand in a room of strange makings, unlike any I’ve imagined. There is a substance underfoot, hard but neither metal nor rock. Wood. I know it from the HC pictures of Earth. A carpet of a thousand hues spreads over it, soft under my feet. The walls around are of red wood, carved with trees and deer. Soft music plays in the distance. I follow the tune deeper into the room, toward the light.

I find a bank of glass, a large wall that lets the sun in to shine across the length of a squat black instrument with white keys, which plays itself in a tall room with three walls and a long bank of glass windows. Everything is so smooth. Beyond the instrument, beyond the glass, lies something I don’t understand. I stumble toward the window, toward the light, and fall to my knees, pressing my hands against the barrier. I moan one long note.

“Now you understand,” Dancer says. “We are deceived.” Beyond the glass sprawls a city.

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