Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Boiler Room

The Greenhouse Cliff is actually a canyon - and a relatively narrow one at that; you can throw a chicken from one side to the other - but for some reason, it's always just a cliff at the top. The two edges never come near each other. That's why no one's ever built a bridge across it. On top of the cliff, you can see across the countryside - whatever countryside is visible, that is, under the havoc the Cliff's leaking clouds always make of the weather. Once you reach the bottom, though, you always have to climb the other side.

If you can find the road on the other side, that is. We haven't yet. Nothing but dripping vertical stone.

We're at the bottom of the canyon now, below the cloud layer, walking between the geysers and steam vents it comes from. It's so thick overhead that it blocks out most of the light. The darkest parts are like an overcast sunset, even when my pocketwatch says it's noon. The only noticeable light comes from the occasional cluster of lava pools. They just sit there in the ground, bubbling away like pots of soup. Inflatable cacti grow over them, floating upside down in midair with their leaves hanging down toward the light. The mist that condenses on their balloonlike roots is all the water they need. Most of it boils off fairly quickly. Very few large plants grow down here; it's too hot for them.

This part of the Greenhouse Cliff, below the Greenhouse part, is often called the Boiler Room. It's easy to see why.

The smaller lava pools have a salamander hunter each, sitting patiently like fishermen at ice holes; the larger pools have frameworks built across them, made of rusted metal or charred wood (nothing lasts very long down here, between the fire and the fog). The more agile hunters stalk across these, metal tongs held ready to grab any salamander that sticks its head above the surface. The small salamanders come up now and then to let off little bursts of flame. Their ability to absorb and release whatever energy is nearby is what makes them so useful, and predators so reluctant to mess with them, but it also means that only the big ones can stay beneath the lava all day. The small ones have to release excess energy now and then to avoid exploding. Every so often, bolts of lightning or bursts of multicolored light flash up from the lava when one of them decides to get creative. Energy is energy, after all, no matter what flavor. The slower-moving salamander hunters usually look as charred as their perches. They stare intently at the lava and shush you if you try to talk to them.

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