Preamble: The big dirty secret about being unemployed is how much fun it is. Granted there's the insecurity, poverty and fear to deal with but there's also the exhiliration of actually living each day like it's unique rather than a numbered square in a sequence that counts wearily and endlessly from weekend to weekend.
Now I get to spend all day with my offspring, which is as delightful as it is trying. Did you know young people talk all of the time? They never stop -- and half of it is questions that require some sort of coherent response. For free! It's obvious we need to establish a union for parents so we can collectively bargain against that sort of thing. I mean, how's a fellow to smoke his pipe and read the newspaper in peace what with all this obnoxious caterwauling and curiosity and growing?
I feed my family rice and oats and garden vegetables. We buy honey from the farmers up the road. Today I splurged and bought a dead chicken. My boy wants to know if it is in McNugget form, and is dismayed when I tell him it is poultry-shaped. He wants to know why we can't go to McDonald's. I say, "Because in North America they don't serve beer there."
To save a bit of money at home I bought strings of LED lights to replace incandescent bulbs in key locations inhospitable for one reason or another to compact fluorescents. This rocks for two reasons: firstly because I am exchanging 60-75 Watt bulbs for 3.7 Watt strings of equal brightness, and secondly because now the old schoolhouse looks like a permanent Christmas wonderland. Since it never really looked like a proper house on the inside anyway -- more like a cross between an ambitious tree-fort and a Dickensian squat -- I think this turn of décor is entirely for the better.
A friend of the family needed a fill-in for their factory administrative faculty so my wife volunteered. She files. She is writing a manual for them so the next temporary administrative fill-in can hit the ground running. The factory's human components are pleased about this, and will give her money. Because she's my wife and the childrens' mother I bet you dollars to doughnuts she will share this money with us.
Another plus about the situation is that I get to lounge about in the bedroom watching her try on the swankiest professionalesque ensembles the used clothing store has to offer, like sitting backstage at a Goodwill fashion show. This affords me life drawing opportunities. And, let's face it, if people didn't make me do other things I'd probably do little else. What's more relaxaing than the meditative peace of studying the just-so sweep of side-boob's line?
I've had a bit of work here and there, and between there and here I've typed up a few more chapters of the current serial. I'm going to go outside and burn leaves and play in the smoke with my children, but in the meantime please feel free to stay wherever you are and go on reading the story. Ready? Scroll, click or swipe to proceed.
(The story unfolds beneath the fold.)
by Cheeseburger Brown
(This is the second post in a multi-part serial, consisting of chapters six through eight of the story. You can read the previous five chapters here.)
We took the train up the coast. We had a cabin on the north-western side of the car so outside all we could see was the sea. It never changed, so once the train was up to speed it didn't even feel like we were moving. It felt like I was just sitting in small room staring at wallpaper of an ocean horizon for a while.
I looked down. The water in my glass was tilted. The train was climbing the Tharsis.
The others squealed and laughed. I winced.
When I'd arrived at the train station for departure it had been easy to spot Scotia in her parka, especially because it looked just like the one she'd tried to buy for me but especially especially because she was flanked by two clones. Their matching parkas fit perfectly. When they turned toward me I recognized them from the company.
"Chloe!" cried Scotia with glee, "you're here! Of course you know Svetlana and Suzumi. You remember? They worked with me in marketing."
"Hi Svetlana. Hello Suzumi."
Scotia gushed, "We're all going to go together as a team! When they heard our idea they just had to come with. Isn't that awesome?"
"Awesome," I confirmed.
Suzumi offered me a slight bow. "It's going to be awesome," she said with a practiced smile.
Svetlana shook my hand. "I think I remember you from the kitchen," she said. "You love muffins, right?"
"Awesome," I said again for some reason. Everybody just smiled harder.
I leaned my head into the glass and looked down at the bed of red pebbles over which the train flew. They appeared to me as a wavering blur of long lines. We were moving six hundred kilometers per hour. If I pressed my cheek against the window I could look forward along the train and see it -- Olympus -- swelling into the sky. It scared me.
Scotia and Svetlana and Suzumi were painting one another's fingernails. The cabin smelled like the alley behind a beauty parlour. It made my eyes water. Or something did, anyway.
Way before I was ready for it to happen the train slowed. The water in my glass tilted the opposite way. Everybody started fidgeting with their stuff. With a roar of air the train surged into the terminal. The Amazonis Sea vanished, leaving me looking at my own reflection. I looked away.
Our team strode down from the carriage three abreast, and then I came following after them. We met our baggage at the carousel. Scotia dropped a bead on the polished floor of the terminal and a map swirled out of it. Scotia gestured and the map zoomed. She pointed. "We can camp on this shelf here tonight if we hit the trail right away. I mean, assuming we can keep up a good pace and everything."
I looked up because it was quiet. They were looking at me. "Great," I said.
We exchanged shoes for boots and then fed our shoes to our backpacks, who then mounted us and secured themselves across our breasts and middles. Mine rumbled as it redistributed items inside itself to correct a weight imbalance, then chuffed quietly as it expelled a pocket of air. Suzumi looked over at me and giggled, hiding her mouth behind her hand.
Zinc, sun-lenses, lipgloss. I let Scotia apply them all. "Now you really look like part of the team," she said to me and gave my shoulder a squeeze. "You're going to do fine, Clora." She paused, a theatric furrow between her eyes. "It is Clora, right? I'm not screwing it up again am I?"
"It is, no, you got it right," I said, nodding supportively. "Um, it's just pronounced more like 'Clara.'"
"But without the final a."
Scotia's bead jumped off the floor and into her glove. She led us all in a kind of cheer and then we pushed out of the train terminal and into the open air at the foot of the escarpment. We all had to stop short and there were two reasons for it: firstly because of the arresting view, and secondly because of all of the people ahead of us arrested by the arresting view. A compression wave of awe jammed the terminal's exit terrace.
There was a wall of rock extending upward eight kilometers straight into the air. A line of ants seemed to be defining a zigzag path up the cliff-face, but they were in fact full-sized human pilgrims walking the famous stairs and switchbacks carved into the stone.
Above the cliffs the mountain started in earnest, rising another twelve kilometers to the calderas. But from below the cliffs the peak was invisible, its presence hinted only by a whorl of orographic clouds against an unnaturally deep bruise in the sky -- the shadow of Olympus on the atmosphere itself.
I think I let out a little squeak.
We followed everyone else to the base of the first run of risers. The stairs were allegedly hand-cut by Felix himself before he left the Solar system for the frontier, but this mostly seemed to be alleged by people selling memorabilia proclaiming the same, so I didn't know if it was really true or not. The way to the stairs was lined with wallahs on blankets and wallahs in stalls, singing and imploring and hawking essential hiking gear and mountaineering tools alongside spirit tokens, protective amulets and flasks of elixirs promising to oxygenate the blood naturally for a bare-faced ascent. They infiltrated the ranks of the pilgrims and tugged on their backpacks, babbling experimentally in every kind of planetary dialect until they happened on one mutually understood. "You're beautiful, you'll get to the top for sure, but not without my mother's special blend of formulated oxygen! Come, inhale a sample, see how strong you feel! Everyone who summits does it breathing our famous secret mix!"
"No thank you," I said, squirming past him to follow Scotia's backpack, which was looking around warily in case of pickpockets.
There was a park at the base of the Felician Stairs but the grass had been stomped dead. People milled between the trees. We gathered by a weathered statue of some forgotten pioneer and Scotia set up a recording bead to take a picture of us all. Scotia posed in the middle with her friends flanking her. I found a place for myself off Suzumi's left elbow. "Ready?" asked Scotia. She opened her hand.
The recorder zipped around us emitting pulses of light. When it was done it hovered over Scotia and dropped into her outstretched palm.
I blinked away the afterimages.
Scotia was passing out beads. I took mine dumbly. "Diarize," she advised, "for B roll content. Express your worries. Make it all seem scary. I want to believe your resolve, sisters."
"I don't understand," I said.
"It's all part of the marketing plan," said Svetlana. "Has she not read the marketing plan?"
"There's a marketing plan?"
Suzumi rolled her eyes. "This is what happens when you add players at the eleventh hour," she said. She was looking at me when she said it, even though she could only be describing herself and Svetlana. After all, I'd been a part of the plan since the beginning.
Scotia put her arm around my shoulders. "Listen," she said, "what we're selling here is a story. It's the story of a group of women the corporate world has turned its back on, who overcome their doubt in themselves by doing what many set out to do but few succeed at, but totally succeeding at it due to a bond of sisterhood that can overcome any obstacle."
"Is that a story we're selling, or is that just what's happening?"
Scotia waved dismissively. "Same difference. It's a matter of framing, and we're pre-framing our success in order to maximize the potential of our notoriety window when it comes. Part of that is stocking content. That's where the beads come in."
I smiled and dropped the bead in my bag. I heard it jingle and ding as it tumbled down to the bottom. I didn't care because I didn't plan to look for it. Before she could turn away I reached out and touched Scotia's arm. "Scotia, can I ask you something?" I asked quietly.
"Why does it always seem like everyone has a lot better idea what's going on than I do?"
"That's just garden-variety paranoia, sister. I wouldn't worry."
I glanced over at Svetlana and Suzumi. "But I feel out of the loop, kind of."
"Don't be ridiculous. You are the loop. It's just that S and S understand things from a marketing perspective, so that's how I've contextualized everything for them. I'm sorry as hell if it makes you feel left out somehow."
"But you explain everything to me in marketing terms, too."
"Oh? Well! Then there's nothing to feel left out about after all, is there? Wonderful. Chin up, I'm sure you're going to be able to keep up just fine."
"Keeping up wasn't my concern, though."
"I simply adore your confidence! Right on, sister."
We bumped fists for some reason. Svetlana and Suzumi had already joined the queue slowly but steadily feeding itself into a narrow file proceeding up the first run of stone steps, ascending up the escarpment and disappearing behind a switchback. The chatter around us was positive and friendly -- as if we all were a group of loose acquaintances sallying forth for a little Sunday promenade and not embarking on a quest to summit the sky itself. Like it was nothing.
I came to the first riser, and lifted my boot to begin.
At first I had to keep my eyes on my feet to find my footing but in time my legs memorized the spacing and I was free to look around. The edges of the risers were worn to curves and in the middle of each step was a polished depression eroded by the passage of millions and millions of feet over the centuries. The stone was grey because the rusted upper surface was being continually buffed away except in a narrow ridge down the very centre of the staircase where a void of passage marked the division between upward and downward traffic with an undulating orange stripe.
Those coming down were quieter than those going up. They blinked less often. They moved with patient assurance. I was too shy to meet their eyes.
Scotia's brunette coif bounced ahead of me. Over her shoulder I could see Svetlana's blonde and Suzumi's ink. The sound of a stranger's footfalls behind me guaranteed my pace. After a quarter hour of climbing the general chatter diminished. I could hear us all breathe. I noticed beads of sweat on the back of Scotia's long neck. I was relieved. It meant it wasn't just me working hard.
I licked my lips and mopped at my brow. I wondered if Madeleine was okay. I felt a spurt of anger and pushed onward with new effort.
After the switchback the sun was in my eyes. We climbed higher. The crowd spaced out in clumps with runs of no one in between as faster climbers drew ahead while slower climbers plodded along. In this way the line self-sorted by speed into social clusters. Scotia slowed until we were climbing the stairs alongside one another. "How are you doing?" she asked, eyes serious.
"Just fine," I said.
She looked at me appraisingly for a moment longer and then let her eyes flit away. "That's a good attitude," she said. "You're a tough cookie."
She jogged up ahead to catch up with Svetlana. They shared a joke together. I always wished I had a girlfriend like that.
Two switchbacks later the sun was a greenish smear melting into the western horizon, the Earth and Venus visible as two dim, twinkling pearls hanging over it all. The day's heat ebbed away and the stones quickly became cold. At long last we hefted ourselves up the last few risers to a long, narrow plateau, a kind of shelf along the cliffs with small boulders piled at the edge as a fence. The plateau was already dotted with tents and illuminated by the glow of camp fires. The scene was surveyed by a single public eye atop a tall pole swaying gently in the breeze.
"It feels awesome to out in nature, like doing everything for ourselves and everything," commented Suzumi as a tinder box crawled out of her backpack and unfolded itself on the ground. There came a blue flash from the titanium-boron igniter and then the sweet smell of hot kindling chased a trail of smoke curling up from the combustibles cage. "Roughing it makes you feel alive," she decided.
"You should put that in your diary," said Scotia.
"I already did. Is it bad that I re-used it now?"
"No, no, no. Maybe it'll trend as a catchphrase. You never know."
Our tents climbed out of our backpacks and lumbered around scanning the ground. Mine turned in place a bunch of times and then finally settled and began to unfold. Everybody arched their backs to stretch them out after being freed. I did too. Everybody twisted their torsos. I did that, too. The other girls reached down and touched their toes while I fished through my gear for a snack.
The brightest stars were becoming visible one by one, punctuating the mauve sky. Crickets chirped. I threw a wrapper in the fire.
"This is kind of peaceful and nice," I said, unwrapping a second snack.
My body was sore but I'd escaped without the worst kind of blister or any kind of injury. I felt awkward around those marketing clones but at least they seemed to be leaving me alone. And Scotia did seem at her most sincere when she was reassuring me I didn't have anything to worry about, so maybe I really didn't.
Maybe this was all going to work out. Maybe even Madeleine would be happy for me.
We fried rice over Suzumi's fire. Svetlana doled out salad. Scotia provided grilled kebabs and I took care of desert. They asked me questions about what exactly I used to do at work and then they didn't ignore the answers I gave. They wanted to know if Rolo was gay. It was kind of nice to be the centre of attention. I turned pink but nobody could tell because of the fire.
I crawled inside my tent which was scarcely bigger than me. I let the sleeping bag find me and wrap itself snug. Very quietly I opened and ate a third snack, lying on my back and staring at the scintillating darkness, listening to the small noises of the others in the tents around me.
I slept so deep I didn't dream.
There was something reassuring about the antiquity of the Felician Stairs that I was only able to put my finger on once it was gone. I was startled out of my pace and almost tripped, catching myself against the cliff on my right. I looked down at the steps. For the first time in two days their character had changed. Suddenly the edges of the risers were crisp and perpendicular.
"Why are the stairs new here?" I asked aloud, panting. My thighs were burning. My shins were burning. The inside of my clothes felt slimy with sweat.
"Washout," said a dark man on the descending path. He gave me a strange smile as I turned my head to watch him pass.
Somebody grunted behind me. I started climbing again, my toes catching on the new edges. I had to look down for a while to find my pace again. Once I did I accelerated so I could catch up to the others. "Excuse me," I said, nudging past some strangers. I winced as I somehow made my angry legs continue moving.
Between bouts of trying to catch my breath I told Scotia what the man had said. She scoffed. "Don't take it to heart, sister," she said. "Don't let him discourage you."
I frowned. "Pardon?"
"You won't wash out, I just know it," said Scotia. She looked over at Svetlana.
"We all believe," said Svetlana.
"But it wasn't about me, it was about the stairs," I said when I could.
"It was probably the same creep that leered at Suzumi," said Scotia. "What did he say to her?"
"Supplicate or suffocate," supplied Svetlana.
"No, that's what he said to me. What did he say to Suze?"
"He asked if she was married. It's disgusting. He looked a thousand years old."
Suzumi had slowed down enough for us to catch up to her. "He didn't ask if I was married," she explained. "He said something about being buried."
Scotia snorted derisively. "Pervert."
"I don't get it." I blinked. "But still, why are the stairs new here? Or -- um, back there, I mean. Look behind us. See? I thought that guy was saying parts of the stairs got washed out sometimes. That's all."
Scotia seemed dubious. Svetlana showed me a patronizing smile. "Do you really imagine there are many floods up here kilometers into the sky? Just because you can see the coast doesn't mean it's close."
I looked out to the ocean horizon visible only as a glimmering haze beyond the green plains below. A froth of dense, heavy clouds was roiling up over the distant waters while we hefted ourselves up the stone steps in the glaring sunshine.
"See?" said Scotia. "It's like the sea is in a whole other world. Can it even rain up this high? That would be a good thing for you to research when we break for camp, Corrine. Is your li-comm signal strong?"
I looked down at my watch. "I've got three bars," I reported, but when I looked up I was trailing behind again.
Lightning snaked silently through the clouds far out over the sea.
When we came to the evening's alcove for camping I was surprised to see how small it was, and wondered what the hikers who arrived after us would do. But as we set up for the night and got supper on and only a few others had turned up I realized that the upward traffic had already thinned to a trickle. It could only be that many of the people we saw coming down had come up no further than this. Here, at the top of the cliffs, on the precipice of the volcanic shield above -- this was close enough for many.
Testament to this were the small temple platforms for offerings dotting the edges of the plateau. This was the point at which some people turned around and went back home.
Twilight came quickly after the sunset was swallowed by the looming storm in the west. The air turned even colder. I inched closer to the fire and hugged my own shoulders.
Scotia called us to gather around as her bead spun up to speed and sprayed out a projection. "I know it's been a tough haul, sisters, but we're about to cross the threshold. Up on the shield above is the Spa of Statues. I've booked us a night so we can refresh ourselves before starting up the mountain proper, like as a reward."
Suzumi and Svetlana cheered so I cheered too, but a second or two too late. I felt like an idiot but nobody glared at me.
Blushing made me feel warm so I jammed my hands in my pockets and wandered away from the light of the fire for a moment. I put my boot up on a boulder and peered over the edge of the cliff. Down below I could see nothing, like staring into blindness.
I squinted, confused. Where were the lights of the settlements at the foot of the cliff?
Lightning flashed. The scene was briefly revealed. The storm had washed in over the lowlands and surged up against the escarpment, dense whorls of cloud completely occluding the landscape beneath us. Like a wave crashing on rocks the storm's westerly edge was sloshing up the cliffs, tendrils of wind-torn cloud reaching up toward us. Thunder groaned.
"Excreta!" I yelped.
Pebbles crunched as Scotia came up beside me. She leaned forward. Her eyes widened when the lightning flashed again but when she turned to me she was grinning. "Ooh!" she said, "Isn't it pretty? Nature sure is awesome."
"I'm a little worried. Should I not be?"
"No, no, no -- of course you should not be," she said, putting an arm around my shoulder. "The storm's not going to come up here and get us, sister. It's not a monster. Let it rain on the plains. We're on Olympus, looking down on it all like Greek goddesses. Ooh -- I like that! -- goddesses. We'd make awesome goddesses, wouldn't we?"
I said, "Um."
A gust of wind whooshed up beneath us, pushing us back from the edge of the cliff. "Well," admitted Scotia, "I never said it might not get a bit windy!" She pulled on her hood and cinched it tight, still smiling.
Gusts of cold air pulsed over the cliff causing our tents and belongings to flap rhythmically. I saw other people frantically gathering their things and securing their sites. "We should get in our tents!" said Suzumi, crawling backward inside her town. "Good night!" she said, shrinking the aperture to a pinched point.
I looked down over the edge once more. Something was glittering in the dark.
"Is the wind blowing rain up at us?" asked Scotia, furrowing her brow.
A triple strobe of lightning. Clouds of glittering particles were surging up at us out of the top of the storm. A rough peal of thunder sounded and then we were assaulted by an up-pour of crystal ice shards. My hands flew over my face. Scotia shrieked. The camp fire turned to fat billows of steam ripped ragged in the erratic wind.
Between lightning flashes the plateau was completely black. During the flashes I saw signs of panic as tents tore loose from their moors. I crouched down into a ball as lumps of hail bounced off my back and slivers of ice cut my exposed knuckles.
Somebody ran desperately past me then screamed when they ran out of plateau. The pitch of the cry changed as they accelerated away, plunging into the storm's churning core below. My breath caught in my throat. Would they die? Oh my God, of course they would!
I crawled deeper into the plateau. I never even tried to find my tent. I just found the cliff side and wedged myself into a niche between two boulders, then fished around inside my pockets until I found my gloves. I hunkered down. I hugged my shoulders and rocked and hummed. I designed dresses in my mind. I remembered my mom.
Ice pelting against rock became a white noise.