Authors: Steve Stanton
Tags: #Science Fiction / Space Opera, #Science Fiction / Hard Science Fiction
Well, she hardly had any choice. Simara tried to remember fresh air on a planet far away, a cool breeze on the ocean beach of New Jerusalem where windblown palms fanned the sky. She felt something skitter up her leg, and slapped at a scorpion on her thigh, a big one. Mothership, she hated bugs! A purple mountain loomed ahead and disappeared into dark clouds above. “We’re not going up that cliff, are we?”
“No, we’ll go in a low tunnel close to the eastern showers,” Zen said. “It’s kind of a back door to the city. We can’t make a grand entrance until I get you some clothes. You’re an adult petite, right?”
“With a size six sandal. Can’t I pick my own outfit?”
“The clans of Bali are colour coded. Visitors wear white during Vishan. There’s not a lot of fashion selection south of Trade Station, as they say.”
“Ahh, I see. Well, something loose but flattering would be great. I don’t have armadillo skin like you.”
Zen barked in his breather, possibly a laugh, and in a few minutes had parked his buggy in the night shade beside a dozen others. He plugged in a charging cable and signalled for her to follow him through a tight crevice in the granite wall. A musty breath of cool air wafted up from below as they edged their way down a sandy incline. A flexible tube on the ceiling lit the way with bright fluorescence.
“The city is powered by geothermal turbines,” he said. “The air is filtered and climate controlled, and there’s light in every public tunnel. I’ll leave you in the women’s showers while I market our merchandise. You can fill a tub and soak for a while.”
“Let me help you unload the truck first.”
“No, you’ve done enough. I’ll grab a friend while you get freshened up. You’ll need your strength. The opening party goes all night the first day of Vishan.”
Simara looked past him down the tunnel—a widening pathway ahead, a narrow opening behind. She felt a wave of anxiety at the thought of leaving Zen.
“Look,” he said, stepping closer to speak in hushed tones. “I know you have a thing about nudity, but it’s perfectly okay in the company of other women. Just don’t touch anyone.”
“Of course not.” She did not have a
about nudity, no more so than any normal person. He had obviously misinterpreted her nervousness.
“Okay, I’ll meet you in an hour with a white tunic and shorts, adult petite. I got it.” He tapped the side of his breather to indicate his perfect memory.
“Size six sandal,” she repeated.
“Right,” he said as they continued down the tunnel together.
The air grew noticeably cooler as they progressed, and they reached an area where stairs had been hewn out of the rock, worn in the middle from years of use. At an intersection of corridors, they came across a woman making a turn ahead.
“Trish,” Zen yelled, and she stopped and tilted long dark hair at the sound. She wore a bright yellow shirt with a red crescent on the left breast and matching satin shorts with red trim.
Zen pulled off his breather as they approached. “Trish, can you help my friend to the showers?”
“Zen!” she gushed with recognition and flashed perfect teeth. “I haven’t seen you in a lizard’s life. How have you been?”
“Good,” he said. “I’m working out in the badlands.”
“So I heard. And this is . . . ?”
“Simara. She’s a pilot.”
Simara struggled to unhook the clasps of her breather and gasped as she finally got it off. She choked on the moist air and spit harboured bile from her palate. Her mouth felt like a tinderbox.
“Lovely,” Trish said as she surveyed Simara’s strange bra and ragged turquoise boxers.
“She lost her clothes,” Zen said.
Trish smirked with friendly amusement. “How convenient.”
“I’m just going to pick up a few things for her. Can you take her to the showers and stow her gear?”
“With pleasure,” Trish said, her chirpy voice melodious. “I’m intrigued. Does anyone else know?”
“Oh,” Zen said, “no.” He wagged his palm. “We’re not . . . we’re just . . . you know, working.”
“Right,” Trish said as she studied Simara, “alone in the badlands.”
Zen turned toward Simara, swinging his breather in hand. “You okay, then? One hour?”
“Great,” she said with false confidence. “You sure you don’t need my help?”
“I got this,” he said as he turned to dash off.
Trish helped her store her breather and clothes in a plastic locker, led her to the showers, and pulled down a towel from a clothesline, dampish but clean. She seemed anxious to help and boisterous with energy. The shower ran hot and cold with firm pressure, and Simara toyed with the taps to find a tepid balance. She brushed off oily gunk under a refreshing blast of saltwater, and found and filled a small bathtub in an open area of communal bathing. Trish returned with a small plastic vial and held it out with invitation. “Are you allergic to rosaline?”
“I don’t know,” Simara said. “What is it?”
“Perfume soap. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. Were you in a fight?”
Simara glanced down at the open welts on her skin with a sigh of humiliation. “No,” she said. “Just working.”
“It’s none of my business, I’m sure,” Trish offered with condolence. “They say it’s hell in the badlands.”
Simara took the perfume and squeezed a dollop onto her palm. She sniffed it and was pleasantly surprised by the fragrance, a mix of cinnamon and rose petals. She turned on the tap and squeezed out another dollop for an instant bubble bath.
“It’s made from a selection of local flowers with natural healing properties,” Trish said, trying to mingle hope with the pity in her eyes. “I’ve actually got to be running along, now that you’re settled. I’m supposed to be decorating an ice carving for the gala.”
Ice? Simara could not remember the last time she had touched frozen water. “Sounds wonderful,” she said. “Thanks for the perfume.”
“Enjoy. It’s been a pleasure meeting you. See you later at the dance?”
“Oh,” Simara said with doubt, “I don’t know.”
“C’mon, everyone parties at Vishan. It’s the biggest event of the year.” Trish splayed her fingers and puffed up her chest to indicate her golden costume with a bright red crescent. “Let us show you our famous local hospitality!”
Simara did her best to summon a social smile. “Okay.”
A few older women showered and dressed after Trish dashed away, but none gave Simara more than a passing glance as she soaked quietly in her tub and counted her blessings one by one. She had escaped being eaten by a lizard just hours previous, and now was bathing in perfumed splendour. She had been chased by helicopters across a deadly desert and now was safe underground in the security of a crowd, preparing for a gala celebration. Simara began to feel almost human again after a time, but her welts remained raw despite the healing balm, and her brain was still crippled without access to the V-net.
A young girl with a blue tunic and shorts approached with a small bundle. “Are you Simara?”
She sat up with a splash. So much for anonymity. “Yes?”
“A man from Star Clan asked me to give you this package.” She thrust it forward.
“Thank you,” Simara said as she accepted the bundle of clothing. “That’s a lovely shade of blue in your outfit.”
“Sky Clan,” the girl said with a hint of perplexity. She was prepubescent, preteen, and had already noticed the welts on Simara’s skin.
Ahh, a ubiquitous blue in a colour-coded culture, not much to compliment. “Yes, but it matches your eyes so well,” Simara said in quick recovery, and the girl smiled as she ducked away.
Her new clothes were nothing fancy—short white pants, a plain tunic, and white sandals. Zen hadn’t bothered with undergarments, which was probably just as well. The last thing she needed was constriction brushing against open wounds. The fabric was a soft twine, tightly knit and thankfully opaque. Simara dried herself off and dressed quickly, then hung her towel on the line and rushed to meet Zen in the hallway. He wore a green robe that hung to the floor with a bold silver star emblazoned on the chest.
“Wow, you look great,” he said.
She eyed him askance. “Why are you wearing an evening gown?”
“It’s not a gown. It’s a ceremonial cassock.”
Simara looked down at her bare arms and legs. “Why am I in skimpy pants with half my ass hanging out while you look like a monk?”
“The men dress up for Vishan out of respect for Kiva,” he said and held palms up in helplessness to tradition. “Don’t you like it?”
Simara touched two fingers to her brow. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m just nervous. Did everything go okay with business?”
“Perfect.” He winked. “But don’t tell anyone about our newfound riches, or all my distant relatives will want loans. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. Enjoy the food and wine. Have some fun. Just try not to touch anyone.”
“Of course,” she said. That much should go without saying.
Zen sniffed at her. “What is that smell? Is that you?”
“It’s rosaline. It’s perfume soap. Do you like it?”
He bent closer to savour the scent, breathed deep near her ear. “Mmm,” he said, “wonderful.” He peered into her eyes, grinning with enthusiasm.
Simara felt a tickle of pleasure at his consideration. Zen was a native prince and built like a stud horse, probably a wonderful lover. Mothership, what was she thinking?
She brushed self-consciously at damp curls on her forehead. “It’s a nice change from the smell of pesticide.”
He nodded with approval. “Sure is. The party’s upstairs. Follow me.”
More steps led up to a natural tunnel of rock, the gnarly walls irregular and ribboned with dark striations. The flexible tube on the ceiling gave faithful light, branching at intersections and feeding electricity throughout the cavern complex. After a few minutes, the tunnel opened up into a grotto hung with white icicles, a wondrous, sparkling masterpiece of nature. “Wow!” Simara said as she stopped to survey the spectacle. Her voice echoed in a tinny reverberation, and she turned her head to follow the noise. A mirror of water stood on the ground off to the left, showing the ceiling in a perfect reflection. No breeze stirred the stillness, no ripple marred the surface. “It’s amazing.”
“This is Secret Lake, one of the ancient caverns,” Zen said with a dozen echoes off the icicles. “It’s been here for millennia.”
Simara squinted up at the ceiling in the meagre light. “Is it frozen?”
“No, that’s crystal calcite. It’s made from minerals that have seeped down through the mountain. You can see they’re still dripping. That means they’re still alive and growing, but it takes centuries. We’ll never notice any change in our lifetimes. If you look through a single calcite crystal, you see a double image. It’s weird. We used to play here as children, and swim in the cool water.”
“Those are stalactites?”
“Right,” Zen said, nodding, “very good. The ones growing up from the floor are called stalagmites, and they
join together someday into a column, like that one over there.” He pointed to a white stone cylinder that ran from floor to ceiling. “The bigger ones are called pillars. You’ll see some upstairs in the grand ballroom. C’mon.”
Simara stooped over the lake to check her reflection in the looking glass. She combed her fingers through a tangle of loose black curls in a pitiful attempt to primp for the party. Her space-wasted cheeks were hollow under high cheekbones, her eyes dark under thick lashes—she had a plain face with a pointed chin, hardly worth a second glance in a crowd, but today her mouth looked cadaverous, and she longed for a smudge of lipstick to add a touch of colour. Her new collared tunic looked smart and dressy, punched out with youthful vigour even without a bra. At least she had that much going for her. She rubbed her rough lips with a fingertip.
“Don’t worry, you look great,” Zen called back from across the cavern, and his voice echoed in a lingering chant as she turned to follow. “. . . you look great . . . you look great.”
“Geologists think the ballroom was once a volcano that was buried in a flood,” he said as they walked. The tunnel walls in this area seemed to be coated with antique white porcelain, the ceiling pebbly and convoluted like underwater coral, the air damp and cool, every surface shiny with condensation. “Millions of years later it was pushed up into this mountain range by tectonic action, and the softer sediments were washed away to hollow out the interior. Then the calcite started to coat the walls and collect into pillars. The cave was discovered by the early colonists and became one of the first underground cities. The corporate mining camps come and go as they scrape away the surface of Bali, but our native community is carved into the bedrock of the world.” Zen beamed with pride for his culture and heritage, his striding gait regal and purposeful.
Simara heard a steady pulse-beat of drums in the distance, then a bustle of voices and a hum of music as they approached the festival. The tunnel widened into a vestibule where a handful of men chatted together and passed a smouldering stick of weed. One man in a matching green cassock stepped forward as they approached. “Sneaking in the back door, Zen?” he asked as he raised an elbow in greeting.
“Rising up from the underground, brother,” Zen replied as he crossed his arm in passing.
The man chuckled and nodded as he returned to his friends in a cloud of pungent smoke.
As they entered the ballroom into a milling crowd, Simara was overcome by sparkling brilliance and loud music. She shaded her eyes and blinked with surprise. The cavern was immense, stretching up above as far as she could view, the walls glassy with white calcite, glowing with strange phosphorescence, huge columns and rockfalls, mounds of flowstone decorated with colourful clan banners. A band raised a cacophony on a raised stage to her left, a ring of drummers surrounded by musicians with stringed instruments and horns. The harmony seemed discordant, the easy beat pervasive, a slow, chugging pace that prompted her body to move in time.
Merchant tables stretched along the wall to her right, filled with all manner of jewellery, scarves, tapestries, tunics, and beaded curtains. A lavish buffet occupied the centre of the ballroom in a giant U-shape pointing away from her to a kitchen area where a steady stream of servers balanced platters on their shoulders to replenish the supply from the interior. The rich scent of tamil seed competed with a host of strange spices to permeate the air with freshness.