SCIENCE FICTION 
Up, Up, and Away!
 

THE CLIMB

by Rowan Wolf
I turn over for perhaps the tenth time in as many minutes.  The ground is uneven and there is always a root, a pebble, a hollow, an unevenness to welcome every new attempt at comfort.  I cannot fall asleep, or maybe I have slept, but I can't sleep now.  I ease my way around slowly, peripherally aware of Rick not quite snoring only a foot from me.  I don't want to wake him.  The sleeping bag rustles as I maneuver onto my back.  I open my eyes. 

Two to a tent.  Three tents in the camp.  Rick and I.  Linda and Jeff.  Jim and Eva.  I listen.  They sleep.  There's the soft gurgle of a stream nearby, not much of a stream this high up but the water is proud and knows no night.  I listen.  Long sighs through the pines and the tall grass surrounding the camp.  Sighs that now and then come strong enough to flap the side of the tent.  There is something very hard under my left shoulder and I ease over onto my side to avoid it. 

Was I dreaming? 

I close my eyes again to find out but I'm too awake now.  The ground is too there and I can find neither dream nor sleep.  I slowly unzip the bag and ease my way out of it.  The night is cold. 

I find my sweater and boots and my parka and leave the tent as quietly as possible.  Rick stirs and mumbles something as I re-zip the entrance but does not wake up. 

There is no moon, but at nine thousand feet the stars seem closer, and more like the distant suns they are than decorations sprayed onto the night sky.  And less atmosphere to pierce.  After a while I see quite well.  I don my sweater, lace up my boots and dive into the parka.  I look around for and find my walking stick then head out of camp. 

                                                * * * 

I'm heading somewhere, but where?  I don't know, and I haven't thought about it.  It's more like elsewhere than somewhere.  Maybe I just don't want to wake anyone.  I walk down to the stream and stop there to watch the faint light dance and gurgle.  The stars are scattered here, diffuse and wet.  The stream cares not.  About stars or me.  I jump across. 

I find the path on the other side of the stream.  It is quite visible in the starlight.  For a brief moment I consider the direction, up or down, then, as if by invitation, I set out for the peak some three thousand feet up into darkness. 

What am I doing?  The question disturbs tranquility and I stop and bend my head back for an answer. 

My eyes rise among mammoth shapes and the question fades as I scan the ragged skyline, dark against dark.  And higher and higher: The depth of this blackness is tangible, something I reach and although I'm shortsighted can see clearly.  The dust of the galaxy sings almost, the stars pulsate and breathe and live and are not quite where they appear to be.  I can sense where they are.  I breathe deeply and find no words.  I shiver. 

Then one foot in front of the other, on up the path.  I want to see. 

I think briefly about those at camp.  Should I have left a note maybe?  Whatever for?  I'll be back before anyone's awake. 

I'll probably not even go halfway to the summit.  This feeling will fleet just like other feelings like it big and small and I'll turn around, cold and tired and ready to wrestle some sleep from the rocky ground again.  But what if I don't?  Don't what?  Return? 

I've just gone for a walk, the note would say.  Don't worry, I'll be back shortly.  Just like him, they'd say.  He'll show up for coffee, just you wait and see.  But I don't turn around to write any notes.  I use my staff, I use my feet and I fill my lungs with cold, clean, dark air and I stride upwards. 

The path hugs the side of the mountain in ever rising sweeps.  I can no longer see the camp, or the swatch of night down there I knew to be the camp.  How long have I been gone?  I stop to fill my lungs with air again.  Sweet and cold but hollow.  Not much sustenance up here.  I breathe again, deeply for the oxygen to find and feed my legs and I set out again, one foot, then the other as my staff swings forward.  The drop to my right is sheer, the path is no more than a foot or so of carved direction.  I think briefly about those that did this, that with axes and hammers and muscle and enormous lungs swung their way up the cliff that I may progress up into the night sky so many years later.  What did they think about their ascent?  Were they criminals and was their labor forced?  Were they do-gooders that gladly paved the way free of charge?  Were they time and material between semesters?  Or couldn't-care-less contractors?  But someone swung the hammer that shaped the rock and someone thought about something as the hammer struck and splintered the stone and maybe a splinter hit the leg and drew blood or maybe they wore leather shielding to prevent just such mishaps. 

And with one foot then the next, heavy then heavy, I wonder why I don't know, why I can't sense that person.  Why I can't tell who it was that carved my path to the stars and what kind of life he led. 

I have to rest.  Orion has moved, I notice.  I have been gone for a while.  My lungs hint at burning as I stare out across the faint bowl below.  I take another breath and set out again for the summit, still distant and looming and beckoning.  Away and across and up, snow too I think. 

The thought to return, which I almost expect, fails to arrive.  There is only up tonight. 

                                                * * * 

I had left Los Angeles in turmoil. 

"If you go, then you damn well stay gone." 

I was never good at confrontation.  She seemed to relish them.  I tried to look her in the eyes, tried to stand my ground but I could find no purchase.  I could feel her vibrate with indignation. 

I scrambled for the right words, for the right point to shut her up, but those points do not exist.  At least I have not been able to find them, and I have been looking for a long time.  She stood there waiting for my excuse.  I glanced up at her face and in the glimpse I could almost trace a smile.  It was not a pretty smile.  It was a vicious smile.  A smirk.  But only a trace, only if you knew exactly what to look for and where to look.  Only if you knew her well.  And I did. 

"I can't change everybody's plans now," I said.  "We're leaving in the morning."  My voice fell far short of the firm response I attempted.  Instead, it wafted across to her more like a whimper.  A complaint.  The smirk almost materialized. 

"And you made sure I was not invited." 

"You don't even like hiking."  Another complaint. 

"That's not the point." 

"Well then, what is the point?" 

"You live in your own little world and play your own little games and you're dead scared of inviting anyone else amongst your little toys and fantasies." 

"You know that's not fair." 

"Oh, for crying out loud, stop sniveling." 

We were so far apart, so distant as to be insane.  She had such little idea who I was or what I wanted that the gulf between us was unspannable.  No answer could be given so I simply turned around, slowly through sticky emotional molasses, and walked away. 

"And don't bother coming back." 

I didn't turn around for I knew she would be smiling.  She  didn't mean it, she just liked winning. 

                                                * * * 

I catch a single shooting star to my right.  It came on as a tiny explosion out of nowhere.  A tiny, little star, so much closer, and such a short life span.  I stop again.  They usually come in numbers so I look hard at the spot where our atmosphere ate the little rock.  Expecting more.  None came.  I scan the sky again.  No further debris.  Just the stars and the vivid light of the Milky Way and two feet with boots on and a staff and the soft hum of the wind that never completely rests. 

And what does she matter now?  Her winning and bullying and bolstering herself and scratching and hurting; her hands raw and burning and pulling and cursing the rope that anchors me to her just to make sure I don't drift away.  What of her now?  My eyes seek the path I have come up.  They seek the stream, the camp, the world below, and I shed her like a skin.  And actually laugh. 

I take three deep breaths.  Three slow lung fills.  It is colder now.  My ears are numb.  I briefly bring the parka hood up.  It shields but alters the night.  It locks out the wind, the hum above me, the scraping of my boots against firm gravel and I need the night complete and bring the hood back down despite the cold and my protesting ears. 

The dark plateau of the summit grows bigger in minuscule degrees with each step, then remains the same as the path levels out and away and even descends for a while.  Only for a while.  It heads back up over there. 

It's easier to walk here.  Even ground.  Feet not so heavy. 

                                                * * * 

There was no way I could leave without a signed contract.  Ludlum was adamant.  Furious, in fact.  I left his office.  I heard him open the door behind me.  No way.  Absolutely no way.  I expected him to slam it but heard nothing.  I looked back.  He still stood in the door, looking at me retreating.  Not if I wanted to make partner this year.  No, he never said that, but that was so clear he didn't have to.  The threat had hung there between us like something ugly you can carve. 

I saw his point, though.  Of course.  It was a sweet deal.  Very.  We had worked on it for well over six months, almost a year, and it was my main assignment.  But I had postponed this trip over two years, and had finally had it.  I was going no matter what happened, no matter what the consequences. 

The buyer and their lawyers had come in to sign Thursday, four o'clock.  Had come to sign.  We had a deal.  No more bartering, no more drafts, no more counterproposals.  They had come to sign and I was leaving Friday morning for Aspen. 

They came alright.  But not to sign.  Not just yet.  Just a very, very few minor details, all incorporated in this draft here.  I had lost count.  Draft number fifty?  Number sixty?  The enormous document was handed out to all present.  Classy white and black sticky labels indicating the pages that required signatures.  Forget it.  There was no possibility of signing before we read the entire document again.  We had to make sure.  We had to know what we signed. 

Of course, we had done the same thing to them, more than once: added a line or two without the customary underlining to indicate the addition.  Mistake.  Sorry.  No one's fault really.  But it was planned that way.  And these little mistakes were designed to cost the other party millions going forward.  So we couldn't sign.  And until now, as long as we could bill two-fifty an hour, what the hell.  The more the merrier.  But now they had come to sign.  We had stopped dancing and our client was tired of the haggling and was losing money by not closing.  Everybody was there to sign. 

The other team knew the pressure we were under to close this thing, and tactically they did the right thing.  We had to close, they just had to take care of some very, very small details. 

No deal. 

Those little details they had indicated were no problem.  Of course not.  It was the hidden additions we had to catch.  The mistakes.  So, no, sorry. 

Ludlum said we could be ready Sunday and if everything was fine we'd close then.  They all agreed, filed out and I trailed Ludlum to his office. 

"This gives you two days." 

"I'm going to Aspen." 

He knew this was coming but still managed to act surprised.  Affronted.  Really.  "You have got to be kidding." 

"I told you months ago.  You agreed.  I'm going." 

"This was supposed to be wrapped up long ago." 

"I know." 

"So you're staying to read the draft." 

"No." 

"Are you telling me you're going to jeopardize the closing to suit your god damn personal agenda?" 

"Yes.  And the closing won't be jeopardized.  It's another week, that's all.  We'll live.  I'll take care of it when I return Tuesday.  We'll sign Thursday." 

"We'll sign Sunday." 

"That'll be without me, then." 

"Look, damn it.  There is no way you can leave without a signed contract." 

I left.  Looked back to see him see me leave.  Left the office.  Took a plane the next morning. 

And I was tired of it. 

It all boiled down to the bottom line.  Business in America in two words.  I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes.  I was actually quite surprised that I had done it.  Left the draft on my desk, left the office, left town.  Would I have a job when I got back?  Judging by Ludlum, probably not.  But I surprised myself again: I did not care. 

                                                * * * 

The path bends upwards again and the reprieve is over.  And steeper now, almost like a stairway, each step a short foot above the last.  I look up at the summit.  Closer now, more immediate.  But still a ways to go. 

What time is it?  I dig out my watch from under the thick parka arm.  Two thirty-three.  So it's Sunday.  Early morning.  They're closing today.  Somewhere, out there, down there, some poor associate is probably still reading through two or so inches of fine print, comparing it to the old draft.  Ludlum would not wait.  He'd shoot for closing today. 

Twenty-three, breathe, twenty-four, breathe, twenty-five, breathe.  Hundred sixteen, breathe, two hundred-five, breathe.  I have to stop.  This is steep.  Three deep breaths.  Three more.  Sit down and rest. 

But why?  Why are we so enamored with the bottom line?  What do we do with all that extra cash?  Buy timesaving machinery to improve the bottom line.  Cut the thickness of the packing by three one hundredths of an inch, over the year that's a savings of twenty-six grand.  Right to the bottom line.  If we re-engineer R&D and cut the staff we will save three hundred thousand.  To the bottom line.  First to market, by six weeks.  The bottom line.  Sell three affiliates, buy two, downsize one, streamline the production line of the other.  The bottom line.  And in the end who does the bottom line benefit?  The bottom line, it occurs to me between labored breaths, benefits no one but the bottom line. 

Mice, blind to their peculiar blindness, scurry the Earth, chasing, chasing, chasing the one god they can agree upon:  The bottom line. 

And as I look out over the lesser peaks and the massive shoulders of the Rocky Mountains I get the strange sense that I'm standing on top of a very large sphere (which I am), and that the ball is suspended (which it is) in space that does exist (which it does), below me as well as above me, and I shed the bottom line like a skin.  And laugh again. 

I feel lighter. 

There are no trees here.  Still the wind whispers and moans.  Water, a small lake to my left, glistens in the starlight.  Dark, mystical.  Can fish live here?  I make out ripples on the shining surface and I wonder again at my eyes, I see so clearly. 

One, breathe, two, breathe, three breathe, four breathe. 

Who was my god then?  What did I chase blindly? 

                                                * * * 

I discovered sex in seventh grade.  And discovered is the right word.  I itched and itched and I rubbed and scratched and suddenly the most wonderful feeling I had ever felt filled me from loins to legs to heart to head.  Then I got scared.  I thought I may have gone insane.  So alien, so bizarre and vibrant was the feeling.  It was like nothing I had ever heard of, been told of, or read about.  But I was still in one piece, thinking.  Still myself, still coherent.  Not crazy.  It was a treasure then.  A miracle.  I tried rubbing some more and eventually got the hang of it.  It happened again.  And again.  And again.  And again.  And now, what, five, six, ten thousand times later, is it still a miracle? 

I think not.  From eleven thousand feet, and still climbing, it looks more like a prison to me, or a cage.  I'm just another mouse, blind to my own blindness, scurrying the Earth with this tiny hard-on for lady mice, hardly going an hour, or even ten minutes, ever, without thinking about, planning, contemplating or practicing sex. 

And was there ever a dividend?  Is there any? 

From where I stand, listening to my own breathing, wondering at a star that appears to grow as I look, I see none.  No dividend at all.  No lasting pleasure.  Instead I see a long string of vacuums where I lay spent in the hollowness of it all.  There is nothing that promises such riches and delivers such nothing.  I see that now as I shed sex like a skin. 

And I laugh again.  And feel lighter. 

I check my watch.  It's three thirty and I'm entering the heart of the night.  But I still hear the wind, touching the mountain now here, now over there.  Now diving down into the valley below, now rising, baring its chest and claiming the sky as its own.  How come I see so clearly? 

Two hundred forty-two, breathe, two hundred forty-three, breathe.  I am no longer tired, but I notice my hand glisten with sweat as I take the steps at an even pace, two hundred forty-four, breathe, two hundred forty-five, breathe. 

                                                * * * 

And I see my life out there, stretched across the Earth.  It is a painting.  And in the center of that vast canvas I see myself, painted too, along with everything else.  And in the painting I look up and I see good, and I look down and I see evil, and I look up and I see God, and I look down and I see the Devil.  There are things to aspire to above me and things to avoid below.  But from here, from outside the painting, as I look at it I see neither good nor bad: I just see painting.  Just a painting.  No God, no Devil, just a painting.  You have to be part of it to miss it.  And I shed my life like a skin.  And I laugh.  And I feel very light. 

The star keeps growing, growing, and now, as I reach the summit, it lands. 

Henda steps out.  I'd recognize him anywhere, his glow.  He reaches out for me.  Behind him, at the controls I see Chendra, peeking out at me with concern. 

"You made it," says Henda. 

I shed my body like a skin, and laughed. 

"Yes," I say. 

"You almost drowned," he says.  "You never answered.  We  weren't sure you'd make it." 

"Yes," I say.  "That was close."   *  
 

Story copyright ©1998 by Rowan Wolf <rowan@ix.netcom.com>  

Illustration copyright ©1998 by Romeo Esparrago <romedome@aol.com>  

 
 

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