The bus stops at a gaudy sign with a painted picture of a monkey. The Chinese students get off excitedly, their cameras blinking to record everything they see. A line of deep red mountains, barren and scored with hideous black scratches, forms a line along the edge of the road, stretching off towards the west. Sam looks out, interested to see what has got everyone else so excited. The other foreign students look tired and bored, eyes blurred from trying to focus on pocket games or study manuals in the jagged motion of the bus.
“What is it?” Devers asks Sam.
Sam shrugs and gets up, dropping through the doorway into the chill air outside. The driver is already stood there, watching with a casual insolence as he smokes a cigarette.
“Shi shenme difang? Youming ma?” Sam asks.
“Shi.” The driver replies. These are the fire mountains. The place where the Monkey King had one of his trials. Sam remembers the story and looks around. The range seems strangely small compared to how he had imagined it. It does not seem to inspire the fear and awe described in the story of Tripitaka's thirst. Sam is struck by a strange sense of deja vu in the realisation that he is tracing the steps of the novel even if only part-way. Now the Earth seems tamer than it ever has been, ground down under the spreading of human life and its desire to make itself at ease where it can. He shudders and tells himself it is the cold.
The bus shines in the brilliant light when they get on it again. Past the mountains the bus drives on for hours, through the next night and day, until they begin the slow ascent to Tibet. The bus is a copy of the ones used to ferry workers around on Mars and so it is also a part of the training. It is a long, jointed snake of metal, divided into three compartments. Two are living quarters, one of the men and one for the women. The one on the end carried their equipment and scientific instruments. They have to learn to think of it as their refuge.
Half a day into the climb up the winding road they stop at a gully. Instructor Xia blows his whistle and they assemble in a line outside the bus. He speaks first in Chinese and then Sam translates it into English for the others.
“We are now at 1000 metres. Still not so high that you will be feeling the effects of altitude sickness but it is essential that I remind you – if you feel ill effects you must tell me or one of the other masters. More than likely it will be nothing, but we have to be sure. Even people who have been up here many times before can still succumb to altitude sickness. Remember to take your meds, those little machines will keep your lungs working for you. For tonight I want you to rest and enjoy your last beer. There will be no drinking once we are on the top. Anyone found drinking, or even with a stash of alcohol smuggled away somewhere will be immediately expelled. There are no exceptions.”
The serious expression on his face suddenly breaks open into a smile. He reaches into a pocket to pull out a small bottle of baijiu and cracks it open.
“Good luck to all of us.”
He tips a little on the ground and takes a good swig. The students laugh and break up into our natural groups, a few eager ones jumping back on board to get out the supplies they had been hoarding, the rest just taking the chance to stretch their legs.
The next day the bus sets off early. Everyone feeling sore and hungover, headaches grow worse through the day as the altitude increases and all retreat into silence to avoid petty arguments. The bus creaks along a road that is so old its self-repairing nanite cover has been stripped from its pitted surface. Dark patches of concrete are scattered either side where the nanites accumulate in small hollows and against rock. Another day of driving. Eventually they arrive at the training camp.
The camp is situated in the middle of nowhere. There is only the faint dark smear of mountains on the horizon to offer any indication that the world is other than flat, grey and featureless. There is a stench of ozone and acids leaking into the air from rusted and battered equipment. The temperature hovers around zero degrees. If it were not for him being able to breath the air unaided then this is what Mars must be like, he thinks. Silent apart from the sound of the land itself, the sussuration of the wind and the sand sharing ancient secrets.