Vexhal Mountain Platform
Translated by Voinescu Marius
If I call you this way, I hope that both of you, or at least one of you, can hear me. I never really understood why humanity decided to make me so important. Why couldn’t you just leave me alone? Why did you place such a heavy burden on my shoulders? No one asked me whether or not I wanted this. You sent me to the Yellow Eye to speak to the sand and prevent it from flowing cold. Well, now I’m here, and now I know that throughout my entire life, you’ve lied to me about who I was and who I belonged to. You burdened me with the mission of wearing the Yoanian Shirt and saving what you couldn’t. I want to tell you this: I don’t plan on staying in this wasteland to speak to any grains of sand. If you wanted to be rid of me, then you’ve done it! You’ve sent me to Purgatory! But I haven’t left empty-handed; I took two wancuy with me.
So, thankfully, I am not alone, and I will do whatever it takes to get out of here and give you this damned Shirt back.
The landscape here is desolate; nothing but sand and mud. When the wind sweeps through the countryside, it smells like a predator spilling its guts after gorging itself on carrion. When the storm starts, everything is earthy and dark. Afterwards the sand bellows through the heavens like a cow that’s being slaughtered, even though here on the surface, there’s hardly even a breeze. Then, just a meter in front of me, the wind dies down, leaving me with swollen nostrils.
All I breathe in is this damned heat that continues to cling to us.
On my first day, I was instructed by a pair of veterans. Their eyes were full of sand, their nails were black, and occasionally they spat up nuggets of clay. The mud here clings to you like glue—only a Vexhal scalpel or scissor can overcome it.
One of my colleagues decided to try being funny and smeared his penis with the mud to keep it stiff. That caused his insides to turn to jelly, and urine to gush straight out of his scrotum. They had to cut off the mud…and most of his penis with it.
Each of us was given Vexhal jumpsuits, and this muddy earth can get through neither it nor our boots. So don’t worry yourselves—assuming it’s a good day, and the mud vortexes don’t shift their location, we will manage to return safely from this territory that’s been cursed by the despicable Sertazians!
I rest in the barracks with other miserable fellows, who—like me—hope to one day escape unharmed from this place you’ve sent me to.
The wancuy have adapted themselves well. During the day, when I’m asleep, they sit atop the wardrobe and watch over me. When I leave for the night, I lock them inside the filing cabinet. I hope they don’t decide to mate before autumn.
I’m really upset with Kay! I still can’t forgive him for bringing me all this way, by his own hand no less, and then abandoning me here. He kept saying he’s organizing some “Resistance” no one has heard even a whisper of for many years. Despite all this, however, I really wish I could show him how the Clay-Women emerge from the Yellow Eye. The sight of them makes you break out in a cold sweat, and then your helmet visor gets foggy.
Whenever we go out, we take the ranculians with us: those big dogs with white manes that the Yoanians bred during peacetime. The hounds walk in front of us. They could smell a Sertazian if he’d blown his nose in the wind, much less if he’d left behind a bulbous deformity somewhere.
Once they find it, they return, sit on their hindquarters, and whine. Do you know how a ranculian whines? It’s heartbreaking—it sounds like the creature is giving up the ghost. But that’s when the bomb disposal team steps in to measure things with their double probes. Afterwards, they modify the map and we change course. It takes us a few hours to reach the Yellow Volcano.
We skirt the banks of the petrified river, mindful that our feet don’t slip towards the viscous shore. No one can pull you out if you fall in. No, you are stuck there in the clay, slowly being liquefied alive as the cold, sticky magma eats you and drags you into the depths. No one screams—they just bite their tongue and drown their tears. Nothing can be done except maybe commit suicide.
But wait, there’s more! Once we arrive at the summit of the gargantuan Yellow Eye, all we have is about two hours, because that’s as long as we can endure watching that boiling mass full of popping, sulphurous blisters. We need to know when to duck and cover, and when to hold our positions. It’s not easy to read the signs that indicate whether a Clay-Woman is about to emerge. Once they’re out, their naked golden phosphorescent skin gleams as they open their mouths and eyes wide. That’s when we need to operate the tractor device. The vexhal platform, with its net as thin as paper, needs to be lowered into position under the soles of their feet—any higher, and their legs are sheared off and the batch is worthless. It’s mostly guesswork, and you need to repeat the process in order to collect at least two or three that might be worth some money.
Anyway, I’ve got some experience now. So, the last time, I was able to pick up two creamy Earth-Pearls, as the Candlemakercalled them. In that moment, I felt a joy I’d nearly forgotten in my time spent here. You should have seen how I held my breath with my finger over the launch button; I was nearly paralyzed. You see, during my prior attempt, I had launched too soon and severed a pair of Clay-Women in two, right at the pelvis. They dropped back into the scalding basalt with their eyes wide open. My colleague– the one missing his penis–managed to catch only one of them. As he stood with the launcher on his shoulder, his finger was trembling, but he still managed to get her, even if a piece of her heel was missing.
When I finally returned that night, I did some calculations and figured out that it would take me about a year to gather about twenty-two Clay-Women. Only at that point could I finally return.
By day, I work with the Clay-Women, and they faithfully obey me as though I were their master. I try to stay humble and not let it go to my head.
It’s said they are the embodiment of people from the nations exterminated by the Sertani. They don’t speak, they don’t eat, and if you put them in a box, one atop the other, they sit like that until you pull them out of there. They learn to follow orders exactly as you tell them to, so I’m hardly surprised that humans decided to use them for law enforcement. We, however, aren’t allowed to touch them, which is fine. What the hell would we do with a woman made from dirt?
I’m lucky to have the wancuy! They’ve made their home in my drawer, and we sit and talk for hours on end. The male eats right out of my hand and then urinates on the bed pillow. The female always finds time to argue with him. The male keeps pleading for me to bring him along when I go out on my missions, and even though I would like to, I do not dare until he sires children.
I am well, my eyes have adjusted to this place, and I can hardly wait to see that scoundrel Kay so he can tell me everything that’s been happening back home. It had reached my ears he’d recently been named the new ambassador for Glotaria. Because what in the devil does diplomacy and resistance have to do with one another? I don’t get it.
I’m starting to regret that I had forgotten to bring some eye ointment with me; the kind Father Acron had obtained when he was burned in the doorway of his laboratory in Drigat would have been perfect.
I was scared I would be blinded here, in the Yellow Half, and that I might be eaten alive by the clay that was advancing slowly each day towards our camp.
Telling the administrators that we should move had proven pointless. These people want to hold on to every penny. Time and again, they’ve refused to relocate the metal mountain with their transporters, stating that it might aggravate the Yellow Eye, and that it hardly produced many fish-eyed women anyway.
Every night that magma chases after us and creeps closer. It burns our eyes while we sleep, and resting with your helmet on isn’t an option, unless you want to suffocate.
Otherwise, Tas worries me; the male wancuy is upset with me, all because I refuse to believe his story about a small blonde colleague who comes over to my bedside while I sleep and keeps making faces at me. If he so much as touched me, Tas would sting him in the jugular, or wrap his rope-like body around the man’s neck. But I don’t believe it, and Tas is sad because of it. He promised to sit in my pocket and wake me, should the blonde fellow come back to disturb me. That was the only way I could put his mind at ease.
We don’t go hungry, and we aren’t lacking anything, but during the day, it’s hard being locked inside that metal bunker. Sitting with those clay dummies feels like watching a training session for monkeys. We aren’t allowed to touch them, since for at least two months, they’re still soft. During this period, we need to take things slowly, else they might get damaged.
Some rookie became impatient and went up to one of fifteen–because all of them are numbered in the batch, and they are mostly identical–and placed his hand on her breast. He became stuck to her almost instantly, his arm going in all the way up to the elbow. From behind, his fingers were sticking out, and we could all hear him howling in pain.
Juices of melted meat were flowing, mixed up with already putrid blood. Luckily for him, the instructor was nearby when it happened, and severed the arm at the shoulder. The rookie fainted, and number fifteen was walking about with his Vexhal glove sticking out between her shoulder blades. At least I hope this event taught everyone this is certainly no joke!
Some say these things will be the death of us, that after a few years, the Sertazian’s will activate them against us. Others say let the devil burn the economy, and that we should just tighten the belt on the army and police, and bring the dead inside our houses. However, after all these years our half has been defended by the Sand-Pearls. And it’s safe to say no one can defeat them.
I personally rather like these plain figurines. They don’t comment or argue. If you teach them to walk on all fours, they will crawl like that until you tell them to stop. God, how they look, they’re actually quite wondrous! They can resist grenades and even high caliber bullets without so much as blinking. The devil would find real enemies in these ones.
I prayed to God no one would decide to cause mischief, or I might send this division I’m training to confront them! They follow me blindly. What I wouldn’t give to have one of those scale helmets they’re wearing, but this is an impossibility; even if you tried to slice around the edges of the head, the helm still wouldn’t come off. Not that others haven’t already tried this. Then again, I never saw or heard from any of them ever again.
Tas pinched me when I was asleep, making me jolt towards the ceiling, and I almost crushed him.
Fema, his consort, became agitated from her perch above the dresser. I had not seen anyone. Fema explained Tas had gotten drunk on some fermented cider I had forgotten on my nightstand. This made the wancuy feel depressed again. When he becomes upset, he wraps himself into a ball. I read him a story, but it still didn’t help. Even I started feeling depressed because of his behaviour. I petted him for half an hour and then pretended to doze off. Only then did he unwind.
I haven’t heard any recent news about Mother, and that’s the most painful thing. Tas has started ignoring me, he pretends like he doesn’t see me. I have to pull him by the legs and wrap him around my arm like a bracelet, but still he keeps silent. He’s probably waiting for me to apologise. I know I will need to; I have no one else to talk to, and I hardly trust anyone around here. Tas and his partner, Fema, are the only ones who listen to my worries. Besides, none of the others can speak their language, let alone see them.
No one knows who I am or how much I know. Every day, the Yoanian Shirt teaches me more and more information, but also advises me to stay humble. Fortunately, I am in fact so humble that no one takes me seriously.
Tas believes I am a cold-blooded killer. I explained it to him; in fact, he and his lover Fema had witnessed a part of it. At this point, no one but us knows about this, but I’m afraid I might be discovered and will have to flee. In all likelihood, I think that’s what I will need to do before someone finds out the truth.
I hid myself as best I could, pretending to be a fool and working from dusk till dawn. Nobody would have suspected that I was wearing the Shirt of the Yoanian’s? Who would believe that a simple soldier (well correction Corporal now) knew everything there was to know in the world?
In a way, I knew today would come; the day Duncan’s damnable posse arrived at the Vexhal Mountain. Duncan, the same mercenary hired by the Glotan Commercial Lodge, who had sworn to hunt down mother, all because he’d learned why Father Acron had left, and how he had pulled the wool over all their eyes.
Apparently, he had orders to check absolutely everyone. We were all commanded to assemble at the platform from where we departed towards the Yellow Eye every day, and strip down to the waist. The shirt was now invisible; no one knew I had it; and it was sunk deep below my skin. Only if someone skinned my hide, like the Leranians did to Father Maximus, could they take it off me. Thus, I had to be brave.
For certain they would use intimidation, they were just waiting to see who would tremble, and use that as an excuse to skin the poor fellow alive. Even so, I was terrified, for they had brought fifty sniffers with them. It was said they could detect even the smallest drop of sweat that smelled of fear.
In order to fool the sniffers, I needed to smear myself with mezder fat, and since that couldn’t be found here, I decided to use rancul fat as a substitute. How could I anoint myself with dog grease without killing it?
Without telling anyone, I went to the rancul paddock. I knew one of the handlers there, his name was Udor. He let me inside and allowed me to take one of the rancul’s, so I told him to give me the oldest one he had so that I could take it out for a walk.
The dogs name was Maipo, and while he rarely wagged his tail, he appeared happy to be out of his cage. Udor gave him to me and I pulled the leash, making my way towards our barracks, walking calmly so as not to attract attention.
I knew exactly where to make the incision to take out a piece of fat. The hound wouldn’t have to bleed, since I was using a cauterized scalpel. I even brought stitching needles and thread. Nothing else was overlooked, not even the sleeping serum with which I knocked him out for the same amount of time it would take for a walk.
I operated on him quickly, taking out a piece from under his neck, the place where the excess skin wouldn’t make any wound visible. I also remembered to take a vial of his blood to drink when I was out on the platform. Afterwards, I liquefied it, just to make it easier to swallow. When he awoke, Maipo was a little dizzy, but otherwise completely unharmed. I took him back and left a packet of cigarettes for Udor.
During this time Tas and Fema stood watch, ready to sound the alarm should any unwelcome guests arrive. I left them to guard the room and tell me about everything that moved during my absence.
In an hour I was at the platform, oiled from head to toe in Maipo’s fat. My new fear was that I would vomit due to the blood I had consumed. Keeping a low profile was essential, but my face was as white as a sheet and because of the heat, I was worried I might sweat profusely. I didn’t know what I was going to do if the sniffers caught me, but I was determined not to let them catch me. Jumping off the Vexhal platform straight into the viscous mud and drowning in the cold deadly clay that flowed nearby might have been preferable.
All of them passed me by, their huge nostrils opened wide like wet pits taking in my scent. Only one stopped; he tilted his nose in my direction and smiled with lips that resembled two pieces of twine.
I calculated the distance it would take to reach the edge of the platform. Less than thirty seconds. I propped myself up on my boots and tightened my muscles.
The sniffer came up to me and asked.
“What is your name, Corporal?”
“Sir, Konos, sir.” I answered curtly.
“Where are you from?”
“Sir, from the Digrat Belt, sir!”
“From which side?”
“Sir, Crater number 2, sir!” I stood there with my eyes fixed on his right shoulder.
The sniffer went around me, searching me up and down while I didn’t dare take in breaths of my own. My fear was long gone, I knew exactly what I had to do. He wouldn’t have placed a finger on me unless he wanted to be liquefied.
After he had finally gone, I released the air I held in my lungs in stages and calmed my erratic heartbeat. When I returned to the barracks, Tas had come out through the keyhole and was waiting there, hanging on the doorknob. In one breath he told me everything, so I was ready when I entered. Udor was in the room with the dog, and on his face was a vicious grin. He threatened to expose me unless I gave him all the credits I’d earned from so much hard work. It wasn’t that I cared too much about the credits, it was the fact I knew he would betray me anyway.
In his hand was the container in which I had liquefied the blood. It was clean; but still, after a laboratory analysis…I couldn’t take that risk. I hacked him in zigzag patterns to make it look like he’d been attacked by a savage beast. Afterwards, I opened the rancul’s wound, tattered it and closed the door.
After a few minutes, I raised the alarm.
Tas no longer left my side. Fema kept trying to reassure me, saying I had no other choice and that I shouldn’t feel guilty.
They found Udor and took him straight to the cremation chamber. Thankfully, no one wondered what he was doing in the barracks. The only pity I felt was for the rancul. They found him covered in Udors blood, with the wound on his neck from which his own blood was still flowing, but they still ultimately shot the dog. Sometimes, I dream about the rancul and then cry in my sleep, remembering the taste of his blood. One day, I will take a rancul puppy and raise it, just as soon as this madness is over. Afterwards, I will let no one else touch it. I will keep it by my side to wash away the guilt I have for Maipo.
My wancuy are more attentive than ever. Whenever I’m roused from my sleep, they smile at me and chase each other on the bed’s headboard. I know they only do that to raise my spirits. Tas no longer speaks about the blonde comrade who comes to stalk me. He started liking the idea of me carrying him around whenever I left for the platform. Every time I look at him standing there with his tail sticking out, he reminds me of a diffused grenade pin; not to mention how quickly my heart beats, knowing he is in fact there.
Usually, we returned from the Yellow Eye in the morning, exhausted with swollen eyes and spitting out saliva mixed with dust. Our mouths are like dry bags when we leave, anyway. When finally we do arrive, typically the water bottles are all empty, including the reserves for the rancul’s. The smell of wet clothing and manly sweat mixes in the hot dry air. We’ve gotten so used to the situation that we just don’t care anymore. It’s only when the straps of our helmets start rubbing and rash the flesh on our chin, that we feel really uncomfortable. It would be possible to loosen them, but no one dares risk losing their helmet.
If that ever happened, and a dust storm started out here, the meat on our heads would simply be sandblasted away.
Today, I had a small heart attack. Tas and Fema were missing from my room. Some hours later, just as I was really starting to panic, they returned. For fear of losing them, I decided not to scold them. Later, they told me they went to see the rancul’s. When I heard this, I tightened my jaw and did my best to bottle my rage. The reason for their absence was because they wanted to see if the hounds could detect their scent. Now I understood why there was such a stampede and inexplicable racket at the paddocks earlier. I only brought myself to kiss them, happy with the knowledge that they were safe.
As dirty as we were corporal Artium told us to stand in formation so he could proceed with the counting. He did this by reflex and he was never wrong on the count. First he started with the ranculs. When not a single hound went missing, that was considered a good day. When he numbered the men not a single muscle in his body twitched if someone failed to answer the call. He called the sergeant over, placed a thumbprint on the file of the missing in action presumed dead soldier and that was all. After that we start unloading thevessels. During all of this all you could hear is Artium’s voice, short like the growl of an animal; if I didn’t know what he was about to say I’d have trouble understanding it.
“Hold position! Align to the right! One step forward! Sit, Leave the rancul! Lift up! Good! Get back! Hold position! Protect the back line! Dismissed!”
Just growl-growl! And the stamping of our boots against the vexhal platform that made the mountain yelp and reverberated the sound back into the metal framework. Today I checked to see if there were any marks left behind by the millions of stampeding feet we made each day. Nothing, not even the dust settled on that structure. It was anti-abrasive, even though it was designed to perfectly mimic a high adherence field.
The mountain encompasses the heat into massive balls within the interior and these ensure us with everything we need, then at night we hear them tumbling about from side to side, maintaining balance should the clay become unstable. Floating brackets don’t help; they just become stuck at any sudden movements.
Beyond our division was a landing field for the hecators. To us, this is a restricted area. They come in pairs, one after the other. Each month they come to pick up the vessels straight from the warehouse. I am glad to see their fat backsides when they shove each other forward towards the mouth of the loading area. They tighten their legs and wait for their bellies to be filled.
I imagine they breathe a sigh of relief and shut their eyes because of the exhaustion after such a long way. They stay there overnight while the loading continues. By morning they are full and they take off at sunrise. They don’t let out even a single sound, in mute silence they split the morning light like a pair of birds curving the tall space towards who knows what destinations.
We start everything over, we shove the helmets on our heads, listen to Artium’s grunting, hold the ranculs with a steady hand and, with some luck, we are alive for yet another day.
Fema confided to me that she was waiting for Tas to ask her hand in marriage before they would be mated. I promised her that on my first day off we would hold a wancuy wedding, but without any yelling. She was so happy, and then said we would like to make a dress out of bandage cloth from the infirmary.
Today we didn’t go out hunting, we were wrapping vessels; all things considered we worked in the warehouse the most, until they hardened and we could bundle them up. We placed them on pallets then placed them in crates, packaged like bottles standing upright, four could fit in each crate, beautiful and cold, beautiful and strange, placing their hands on their chest and shutting their eyes in unison.
We no longer jump back in surprise at this, we know it doesn’t hurt them anyway, they feel nothing, no hunger, no cold. We always search for even the smallest signs of deviation, a twitch, a finger moved in a different way, a smile, a bowed head, or a glance. Nothing like that had ever happened. All I ever heard was Artium’s voice.
And I needed to go around the container and wrap the belts tightly.
Now I need to push the lever securing the pallet holding the vessels
And the lid tightly seals the crate holding the four Sand-Pearls.
“Let it go!”
Then you hear the trigger for the conveyor belt going off.
“Crate 103 was loaded! Dismissed! Gather at the mess hall!”
After he’d eaten, Artium the growler started playing the class clown. He read his letters out loud and laughed:
“Take a look at these two ladies slapping and beating each other up because of me!”
And, passing his palms in front of his eyes waved us a photograph of two rather plain looking, overweight women, who are past their prime, tussling on the ground. Artium just started laughing by himself like a fool, flexing his muscles.
“I wonder why I act badly with the women? Maybe it’s because I hate my mother. That’s why I let them bicker isn’t it?” He asked himself. He shook his head and continued to rattle on about all the many lovers he’d had.
Honestly, I had no desire to explain to him that the reason he was rude with women is because that’s all he knows. Besides, I don’t like how he shakes his butt in front of the soldiers. And it’s not like I want to judge people, it’s none of my business, his words just passed by my ears as I thought about the last Clay-Woman I discovered the night before.
She’s different somehow, her eyes are green and when she came up to the surface the clay melted off her like milk. Her long hair reached down to her hips, and she’s not perfect like the rest of them. When I saw how thin she was a thought passed through my mind that she might be discarded as a reject. When she appeared she was holding her hands in front of her breasts.
That made me remove her as quickly as possible with the paper-thin rake. On the return trip I was anxious she might break before reaching the warehouse. I got as close to her as I could and wrote my name on her back and left palm.
I claimed her as my own and it was all I could have done. The rules stated I could pick one, I had chosen her out of fear she might be wasted.
All my colleagues laughed about it, Artium pointed at me, saying I chose a lame mare with green eyes. Damn me if I cared what they thought. She had her eyes open when I scooped her up. In two months she would harden, then I would have someone to tell all the stupid things that passed through my mind, and we could see the Hecators and feed the ranculians.
Artium pokes me with his bony finger and drives me up the wall.
“Hey man, are you listening to me?”
“Yeah, I’m listening.” I answer and leave without understanding what he wanted.
Tas was happy I had found myself a partner, he even suggested I bring her from storage into my room so that he could have a Godmother. Fema had made herself a dress; she looked like a bandaged rope.
I told her she looked beautiful and her cheeks flushed red. When a wancuy blushes they become thinner. Tas made a remark that she should stay that way because she looked better. That made Fema rather upset, but Tas kissed her as an apology and no harm was done.
I can hardly wait to bring my Sand-Pearl home.
“Man I’m going to get on that doesn’t complain about anything. As in she won’t stick her nose into my business when I waste time with whores or at the bar all day. She would stand at attention, understand! One of those women who would love me so much she would wet herself when she saw me, and that’s before I had even touched her. I would turn her into a lady and it would be enough! Maximum happiness.
Artium spoke as he looked in a mirror and pulled a string of hair out of his nose.
“Get out of here, Artium.” One of the boys in the company retorted, it was the quiet blonde with the wide shoulders and a serene look on his face that made him look like a different species of human.
“What’s your problem man, are you envious you couldn’t find one?” Artium replied.
“If I wanted to look for one, I will find her. But devil take me if I could keep up something of the sort. Besides, spending too much time with a woman like that might make my dick go limp forever, especially if we aren’t right for each other.”
“Brother, there is a soul in her too. Even if she’s ugly she still needs to be good in bed.”
“Man, do you see what just happened? Remember how this discussion started, and look how much we’ve deviated. Doesn’t matter who you sleep with, all that matters is you, and you’re the guy who said he hates his mother. That’s how it started.”
“Oh just shut it and go to bed you two, it smells like burned eggs in here. Tomorrow we need to head off again in the middle of the night, and you guys are arguing about the guy who has no penis and sticks his fingers up his ass!”
“Boys I am going to get up right now and release the ranculians. If I incite them they will start barking like mad, then you will wish you were in hell. Tomorrow night your eyes will be as big as saucers.”
“Go back to your fat mama you slimy trout, and who needs sleep anyway. Eventually we are all going to die on this metal hulk. My god, how long do you think we will survive hunting for these clay vessels? Huh, how long? I’m sick of jerking off, and if you keep looking at me while I undress I’m going to head-butt you, or tomorrow someone might find you with your neck slashed open.”
Everyone was reduced to silence when an explosion rang out in the distance. Afterwards another one erupted, followed by smaller ones, like metal shrapnel ricocheting at the mouth of a cavern. This made us all jump to our feet.
“The Sand-women warehouse just exploded! Mother of God, curse this wretched existence, all our hard work this month has gone up in smoke!”
“Grab your suits and masks ladies, and let’s go. On the double!”
I felt the sting of what felt like a thousand needles in my heart as I rushed around with the leaking canteen holding the wancuy, worried that any misstep might cause me to crush them. I couldn’t have left them alone in this chaos. I would never have forgiven myself if anything had happened to them.
Every now and again I stopped to open the bottle. Tas just shouted at me to stop shaking them around so much. I had placed the brides dress at the bottom so they wouldn’t hit the walls of the flask. I would have to make another one for her later.
I was just searching for my Sand-Woman. Fema asked me where she was and advised I forget about everything and everyone and rush into the ruined warehouse to look for her.
I’m in hell mother, and I don’t know if you are all right.
I’m in hell father, and I don’t know if you’ve suffered a similar experience.
I’m in hell everyone, and you don’t even realize it.