Monday, November 5, 2012

Mons - Part 1

Serial is an important part of a complete breakfast. Please, chow down.

Preamble: It's been said that awe is the emotion that makes you really feel alive, which is interesting because it's also an emotion that is agnostic with regard to the human quest for eudaemonia -- a philosophical object which possesses its bearer of a profound satisfaction derived from the correct application of mind, body and action. That is to say that functionally equivalent forms of awe can arise just as well from dread as from communion.

This chirality ensures a certain equality among impressive experiences. Births and deaths get filed on the same shelf as triple rainbows, earthquake tsunamis and state-girdling forest fires. Orgasms and riots. Successes and failures alike can be the kindling, because awe doesn't distinguish between good and bad.

Awe will never sort out for us what should and should not happen. The only thing for certain is that when we're experiencing awe we're feeling keenly aware of our lives in the emphatic present tense in a qualitatively remarkable way.

Some people seek it out. Others avoid it. Most prefer the comfort of second-hand simulacra. And who can blame them? Awe has a host intrinsic discomforts. You might come out of it feeling especially mortal or fundamentally incorrect. That sort of personal growth can be a hassle.

Today we begin a new serial in which two people strike out in pursuit of awe through a singular experience. Each of them is searching for something different, so even though they go together they're not walking the same road. Where and how their those separate journeys ultimately come together will surprise them both.

Please note: Nothing in the following story is nearly as wankerific as the five paragraphs above. That's just something I needed to get out of my system because I've been talking with children all day. Polysyllabism throbs in my brain's clenched maw like so much unspent spunk.

Anyhoo, so here's the first five chapters:

(The story unfolds beneath the fold.)


MONS
by Cheeseburger Brown

(This is the first post in a multi-part serial, consisting of the first five chapters of the story.)

1.

It's all uphill but you can barely tell. So you don't need to be an athlete to do it. God knows I'm not.

But it's hard anyway. Maybe that's obvious. But it's hard in a way I hadn't been expecting. Like a fish on a beach you know you don't belong there. Your gills quake and shudder against the merciless whorls of oxygen burning your eyes and denying you life. You feel colder lying in the shadow of death -- colder than you thought you could.

But we did it. Nearly all of us made it back.

We walked to space.


2.

"You're fired," said Rolo, chin resting on the top edge of my cubicle wall. "If you want any more of those muffins from the kitchen you really like you'd better start stuffing your pockets now."

I chuckled. He chuckled back. There was something tight in it. I looked up. "What?"

"I just told you. You're fired. We all are." He gestured vaguely over his shoulder. "There's an elite unit of unsmiling suits working the room. They appear to be crapping private missives and making people cry."

I stood up. It was true. The south end of the office was clearing out their desks, the tsunami of dire pronouncements drifting relentlessly toward our distant northern row. Even now the middle kingdom of accountants and calligraphers was falling under the shadow of the wave, looking up with startled expressions to see human resources robots loom.

"We've got to hide!" I blurted.

Rolo rolled his eyes. "What good is hiding? Being physically within the building is not the basis of your employment, Claire."

"Excreta!" I exclaimed. My desk was covered in about a thousand miniature carved cat figurines and I didn't know which one to take first. I kept picking them up and putting them down again, and looking at my purse as if they could all ride in there. "I don't even have pockets!"

"They unfold you a box," said Rolo, nodding at the advancing terminal line. "But I bet you anything a charge for it shows up on our final pay."

I couldn't stop adjusting my hair. "I'm so flummoxed."

"I can see that."

"What do I say when they come? Do I say thank you? Or should I just say okay?"

"You should direct them to self-fornicate."

"Is that what you're going to say?"

He didn't answer. He looked past me. I turned around. Two suits unsmiled at me from the imaginary doorway formed by a gap in the semi-imaginary walls of my cubicle cell. They wanted to know if I was my name.

I threw up on their shoes.

So in the end I didn't say thank you or okay or even go fornicate yourself -- I just said sorry, sorry, sorry over and over again.


3.

I came out of a job interview downtown and went to the washroom in the mall to cry a little before catching the train home. I'd have preferred to cry in the washrooms at the station rather than the mall but I was more upset than that, so. I sat in a stall and took a moment, and when I came out Scotia from marketing was standing at the sink.

I never liked her, but she was bawling, so I went over and gave her shoulder a squeeze. I made sympathetic sounds. "Did your interview go as good as mine?" I asked.

"There are no jobs," Scotia said to the mirror. "Not really. They're just having us on so the funniest fails can be syndicated on the li-comm."

I tried but failed to properly chuckle.

Scotia turned to face me with puffy eyes. "Let's get drunk."

"What?"

"Right now. You and me. Let's go. You know you want to go. Come on, we're going."

"But it's not even noon."

"Hours are for employed people. You and I are just dust in the wind, sister."

There was a sort of bar in the mall but it wasn't the way I actually pictured city bars in my head: instead it was quiet and sad. There was a guy with terrible neopox scars vacuuming the carpet, an old lady talking to her newspaper, and then the two of us, dressed up like smart young professionals, sitting right the bar. Really bad music was playing -- apparently out of the plants -- so we asked the bartender if he could turn it down. He said he wasn't allowed.

"I can't believe they threw the entire division under the bus," growled Scotia, her long lashes low. "As if we had anything to do with anything. My job didn't include decisions, sister, did yours?"

I shook my head, staring at the ice cubes in my glass. Generally people as dashing as Scotia didn't go for drinks with people of my calibre. There were very few awkward silences though, as Scotia seldom paused for air. When she did pause for air I said, "Scotia, can I ask you something?"

"Anything, darling."

"Do you keep calling me sister because you don't know my name?"

She stopped swirling the ice in her glass mid-swirl. "No, no, no," she said. "Of course not, Carla."

"Claire."

"That's what I said." She started to sip at her drink but then stopped. "We should do a toast," she said, eyes suddenly wide. "We're both two smart, successful, educated Martian girls, right? We should do a toast to us. We deserve it. You know why? Because we're going to go out there again and again, and keep on trying until somebody recognizes us for what we are."

"What are we?" I ventured.

"We're awesome, Karen. We're totally awesome."

She held up her glass and looked at me expectantly. I giggled a bit and raised my own. "Sure I guess," I said. We clinked. We drank. Scotia banged her empty glass back down on the bar and gave a little whoop of victory.

"I get it," I said, trying to look up and meet her energetic eyes. "You're right. You've got to pump up with positive energy so the interviewers think we believe in ourselves."

"What?" said Scotia with a sudden frown. "No, no, that's not it at all. I'm actually awesome. I pity the poor fool who can't see that. You know what I mean? It's not pumping yourself up if you take it in your heart to be true. Triumph is a state of mind, sister."

She ordered another round of drinks. The bartender put down my new drink next to my old drink, which was still mostly full.

"But maybe you're right," Scotia said, changing direction in a heartbeat. "You know? Maybe you are. Maybe after getting laid off you feel a little wobbly. Maybe you end up crying in the washroom."

"I'm sure that's pretty normal after a stressful thing like a job interview."

"Oh, I didn't have an interview," she said waving her hand dismissively. "I just pretend to have interviews so I'm not hanging around the apartment letting my unemployed depressed roommate see how unemployed and depressed I am."

I looked over at her sharply. "Why?"

She shrugged. "Because I'd lose the moral high-ground in arguments about how she spends her time."

I shook my head. I took things out of my purse randomly and then put them back in again. "I think I probably have to be going soon."

"Ridiculous. Sit. Drink. We're mourning our jobs, aren't we? Co-worker Kate?"

"Claire."

"Right. You know what we need?"

"Well it isn't more drinks because I haven't finished mine."

"No, no, no -- bigger than that."

"A pitcher?"

"No I mean we need to do something big. You know. Something life big. One of those amazingly worthwhile things where you challenge your limits and break through and everything, and rediscover your inner awesome." She brought her elbow down on the table and extended her hand importantly. "Are you in?"

I blinked. "I'm sorry, are you asking me to arm-wrestle you?"

"No I want to shake your hand as we swear an oath in sisterhood to, you know, like go out into the world and totally triumph somehow."

I furrowed my brow. "What did you have in mind? Volunteering at a hospital?"

"No, no, no." Her eyes defocused as she engaged with a display over my shoulder. She gasped. "I've got it!" she cried, then grabbed my shoulders and twisted me around to look at the screen. "That's what we'll do."

It was a fishing documentary or something. A flying camera roved from pond to pond over the Tharsis and then lifted its view to the bulging horizon.

"Olympus Mons," I said. "I don't get it. What are we going to do at Olympus Mons?"

Scotia grinned. "We're going to climb it."


4.

Rolo found work first. I went down to his new place of business, placing an order so I could visit with him. From behind the counter he smiled and straightened his little paper hat. "One scoop or two?"

"Two. And the chocolate should be the bottom one, with the pistachio on top. Sequence matters."

"You're very particular about this."

"I've encountered ice cream previously."

"I can see that."

I reached across the counter and smacked his shoulder. "You're rude."

"You miss me."

"Of course I do."

"You're jealous of me. You wish it were you -- and not me -- hopping on this fast-moving express train straight to ice success and cream glory."

I laughed. When he could take a break he sat with me at one of the little metal tables out front on the sidewalk. He untied his apron and hung it on the back of his chair. It fluttered every time a car swooped overhead. "Seeing as a moron like me has a job a genius like you must have six or seven," he said. "How do you spend your time when you're not busy ruling the city with an iron fist?"

"I'm planning to hike Olympus Mons with Scotia from marketing."

Rolo cracked up. He slapped his knee. He wheezed and he shook his head and then he caught sight of me out of the corner of his eye and froze. "Wait a minute -- you don't tell jokes that well."

"Thanks. That's a marvelous way to be believed."

"Believed?" he echoed, squinting at me as if my image could be resolved into something easier to understand. "You're serious? Am I drunk?"

I turned a little bit pink. "It's just one of the crazy things that kind of happen. I mean, nobody planned for us to plan this together. But now it's more or less happening, I think."

"Can I point out a few things?"

"Um."

"First of all, you hate that all-Martian page-three skinny-rich dog-woman prostitute jezebel Scotia. Second of all, since when can you climb a mountain?"

I tried to reach across the table to smack him but swung short, mashing my ice cream into my shirt as I flailed.

He raised his brow. "I apologize -- I take it back. You're a natural-born athlete."

I sighed. I frowned. Maybe I even swallowed a small sob. "I'm going to fail," I said quietly. "That's why people like Scotia are never caught dead with me. Because of the failing at things."

"Ridiculous," he snapped. "I'm just cruel. You won't fail. It isn't even a mountain, really."

"It's the second highest peak in the Solar system, Rolo."

"Well sure, but it's very tentative about its altitude. There's no rushing straight up or anything. It's a very gentle grade. It isn't the angle that defeats people."

I cocked my head. "What defeats them, then?"

"Pride."

"Pride?"

He leaned forward and put a hand on my forearm. "Listen, Claire. My parents were religious. Like, really religious. You know what kind of piety it takes to get a family of Terran immigrants through the Purge without even having to change our name? That's the kind of piety they had."

"So?"

"So when I was a kid we went on pilgrimage up Olympus. We made it half way."

"Why only half way?"

"Because Olympus is a journey through scale. And the further you go the harder it is to take. You're a mite on the planet's nipple -- but instead of that being philosophy it's something you can see. And feel. And if you don't think you'll dread it you haven't understood what I'm talking about yet."

I was quiet. Rolo pushed a napkin around on the table.

"I think I maybe need to do this to prove something to myself. About overcoming fear."

He nodded without looking up. "Or about fear overcoming you. Either way it's a memorable lesson."

"Why don't you come with us?"

He jerked his hand away. "I'm sorry, Claire, no. I'm never setting foot on that hill again. Things happened there that I always want to forget." He looked up and shrugged. "I don't mean to be coy. It's just that sometimes -- sometimes people don't deal with it well. The scale shift. Some people freak out."

I swallowed. "What happens to them?"

"Let's just say more go up than come down." He chuckled oddly and looked into the street. "Did I ever tell you about my mother?" he asked.

"No."

He nodded. "And I never will."


5.

The biggest problem was my sister.

Rolo would mind my cat. I had a second-hand nurse with a cheap plastic carapace who could be tricked into keeping my plants watered. But there wasn't anyone alive to watch over Madeleine. Probably no one who could, but certainly no one would. God knows I wouldn't dare to ask. What would they think of us?

The nurse helped me hoist her from the bath, its antiquated limbs buzzing plaintively. There was water pouring off of her, and also she was crying. Her dimpled chin quivered. I was so mad at both of us.

"I'm going to die without you," she said as I hunched over the controls.

"You're only saying that to be mean," I said. I ducked as the armature swung over my head and locked into place for lateral locomotion. I checked the safeties one by one and adjusted the straps. "Are you okay?"

She nodded.

The hoist rotated, a splatter of drips raining down on the red carpet of towels I'd laid along my sister's path. "I'm saying it because I'm scared," she said. "Because I don't know what's going to happen to me. I shouldn't have to worry like that."

"What if I hadn't come home today, Maddy? What if I'd been hit by a car or walked into an elevator shaft? Would you just curl up and die, right on the spot? Here, tonight, too embarrassed to ask for help?"

She started crying again. I felt like a heel. "I'm sorry," I said as I walked alongside the hoist's big back wheels. "I didn't mean to make you feel bad. That's not my right."

The nurse installed a layer of fresh sheets, tucking the last corner tight as Madeleine's shadow pooled over the bed. It had been poorly programmed when it came to fluffing pillows so I snatched the pillows out of its hands and fluffed them myself, putting them into their places as the hoist lowered Madeleine into hers. I quickly inserted a towel under her damp hair just before her weight settled. The bed groaned and the hoist fell silent.

"I hate the bath. I wish you didn't make me take so many baths."

"You don't have to take a bath the whole time I'm gone."

"That won't matter because I'll be dead."

I walked out. I went into the kitchen to start supper but didn't make it all the way. I just stood in the hall and tried not to go crazy. I stared into the distant horizon of a painting hanging on the wall and hummed a happy little tune.

When the doorbell rang I jumped.

"Can I come in?" asked Scotia.

"Scotia?"

"I bought you things!"

"Um." Reluctantly I opened the door only slightly wider. "It's not really a good time actually, Scotia, just now. I'm all packing and getting ready, you know, so. I mean that's really sweet of you and everything, but."

"Don't be stupid! This'll just take a second. Come on, let a sister in. These bags are heavy."

"Excreta," I whispered then let the door come open all the way. I tried to smile. Scotia paraded inside empty-handed followed by a duo of polished domestics carrying shopping bags from acclaimed boutiques. I closed the door and followed them into the sitting room.

Scotia did a pirouette in the centre of the room, seeing nothing her eyes passed over. "How charming and delicious!" she crooned. "Do you live here all alone, darling?"

"Can I get you a cup of tea, or something else?"

"Ooh, please have your thing make me a gin and tonic. I'd love a gin and tonic. With a slice of any kind of citrus."

"I don't have any of that."

"Look at what I've shopped for you! Cora, you're just going to die when you do. It's six kinds of gorgeous."

She yanked a parka out of one of the domestic's bags. She presented it to me hung over her arm with a flourish. I was still trying to smile. "Claire," I mumbled, reaching out to touch the glittering fabric.

"Try it on!" squealed Scotia, making me wince. "It's rated for spacewalks, and these seals under the arms help it breathe so you don't get all sweaty. Plus the outer shell has three colour settings and it folds down to the size of a pair of socks."

"I don't know what to say," I said. I accepted the parka from her and slipped into one sleeve, then tugged it around me to fish for the other. I stopped. I frowned. "Oh," I said sadly. Then I started to get all sweaty.

"What's wrong?"

"I'm not sure it's my exact right size."

"Don't be stupid," she said, sitting forward and taking hold of the loose sleeve. "It's an extra large," she said, pulling the sleeve around and tugging it over my arm. "There's no way it won't...um -- fit," she trailed off as the parka strained to close around my middle.

"It was a really nice thought, Scotia. Thank you. I mean that."

"I didn't mean to. You know. It's just."

"It's okay. It's hard to know exactly without, you know, so."

One of her polished domestics packed the parka away again. Scotia dropped a bead on the coffee table and it projected a glimmering green and orange map. We both looked at the map instead of each other. "This yellow line is a pretty popular pilgrim route," she said, tapping her index finger on the table. "The park estimates say to allow ten to twelve days to the summit, but no matter how I run the numbers I get less than seven days if we move at a reasonable pace."

"Maybe we should go with a group?"

"No, no, no. There's no glory in tagging along with a tour guide. We're in it for the triumph. You know why?"

"Because we're awesome?"

"You'd better believe it, sister. Besideswhich I've decided it's too much awesome to keep to ourselves so I got people to sponsor us. You know, for causes. Lots of people are pulling for us now. By the time we hit the peak we'll be all over the library-commons for at least six hours, and if we harness that momentum properly we'll be able to propel ourselves right into notoriety."

"We'll get jobs?"

"Jobs? No, no, no. We'll be beyond jobs, sister. We'll take fees to speak, and inspire people by what we've accomplished."

"Accomplished summiting Olympus?"

"Well, sure, that -- but really everything that naturally falls out of that. The li-comm exposure, the trending bump, the whole package. You've got to think of this from a marketing point of view."

I bit my lip and smiled in a friendly way. A sound came from the bedroom but I ignored it.

Scotia cocked her head. "Is that my gin and tonic coming?"

I turned around. The nurse stood at the threshold of the sitting room. "Madam," it croaked, "assistance is required to complete a procedure." I waved it away. "Okay, yes, just a second," I said, turning to face Scotia again. "Let me just do this."

"Your thing needs help to mix a drink?"

"It's old."

"Excuse me if this is insensitive but I thought all the business units in our subpartment were assessed on the same pay scale, darling. Can't you afford an upgrade?"

"I have a lot of expenses."

"Ooh," said Scotia blankly and then, after a pause, "Ooh, right. Of course. I'm sorry again."

Now it was my turn to be confused. "What do you mean?"

"It's none of my business what you spend on food."

My cheeks and ears burned as I bent over Madeleine, untangling two buckles from the hoist's straps -- a simple knot that had confounded the stupid nurse. I blinked away tears. I'm not sure which thing the tears were for. It could've been either. The air in the bedroom seemed suddenly oppressive to me. I needed out.

The door slid back and Scotia stood at the threshold. I think she started to say something about the washroom but didn't finish. She was staring over my shoulder, staring past me into the bedroom. And at the bed. At Madeleine.

I walked right at Scotia and she fumbled to get out of my way. The door closed at my back. "We're fresh out of gin," I said to her. "And the other thing, too."

"Claire. I just. Well, I guess I was just going to, you know. Look in the mirror. So it doesn't matter where it is, that's fine. In fact I have to get going. Especially since I have to return that parka."

"I'm so sorry about that."

She dipped into the sitting room to signal her domestics to their feet. "Don't be sorry. Don't be silly. Don't worry at all about any of it. It was a good deal and I thought it would look good if we matched. For the live feeds. Like we're a team. But it doesn't matter, not really." She offered me a winning imitation of a smile.

I walked after her toward the front door. I asked, "Are we still a team, though, Scotia? Do you still want to do this? I mean, with me."

"Of course! Oh my God of course, darling," she said, shaking her head dismissively as she stepped out into the corridor. She turned back and offered me that smile again. "The honest truth is I simply couldn't imagine doing it without you."


Proceed to the next section of this story...

10 comments:

SaintPeter said...

And yet the root word of "Awe" is actually fear. An "Awesome" god is one who is so great that we fear him. We forget that we FEAR things which are greater than ourselves. Life, Death, Birth - all of those significant events are massive changes that most of us fear. It's scary.

Olympus Mons seems very scary.

Also, because apparently I'm 8, I am amuses that a story entitled "Mons" features two female main characters. Knowing that you are a fan of the fairer sex and willing to engage in double entendre, I presume this was deliberate.

--

I noticed that Scotia only called her "Claire" after she saw her sister. It makes me wonder if up until that point Claire was only an object to her. I do question Scotia's motives - as Claire herself says, people like that don't usually hang out with people like her. She is large and shy and unfashionable. What possible reason could she have for wanting Claire to go with her?

For Claire, her motives are much more transparent. She has so much responsibility that even and insane quest must be an escape.

--

I've always disagreed with this idea that you can "escape" from your problems. 99% of the time your problems are with yourself. As they say, no matter where you go, there you are.

I, of course, will be there right along with the team. Looking forward to some delicious delicious serial!

Anonymous said...

I liked large portions of this, and the part about standing in the hall and trying not to go crazy was particularly nice, but 1) so far, I find it hard not to want to get to the end of the Scotia parts 2) the getting-your-name-wrong fell really flat for me.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear SaintPeter,

Thank you, SP, so continuing to provide comments of substance and interest. I meant to say so the last time you commented -- what with all the linky bits and so on -- but I must have ended up distracted by a squirrel or something and never typed in my appreciation.

I do agree that it's tough to have awe without fear. Very beautiful things can make us afraid. They ought to because, as you mention, we are diminished in the face of them. Instead of hiding safely in the shadow of ego we're forced to grok at least momentarily that we are vulnerable, confused and painfully finite. Even a simple sunset can make you feel that way if you let it.

Myself I think Olympus Mons is much scarier than Mount Everest, because the latter is such a physical challenge to scale. You must be a mountaineer and an athlete to take on Everest, but you'd have no such excuse to skip Olympus (were it local to you). You don't have to be elite, you just have to be brave.

Also, because apparently I'm 8, I am amuses that a story entitled "Mons" features two female main characters. Knowing that you are a fan of the fairer sex and willing to engage in double entendre, I presume this was deliberate.

You are not incorrect that the title alludes to several kinds of mounds.

I noticed that Scotia only called her "Claire" after she saw her sister. It makes me wonder if up until that point Claire was only an object to her.

I also think you're not incorrect to posit that the continual mistaking of her name has slightly more to it than simply a repeated throwaway joke.

I've always disagreed with this idea that you can "escape" from your problems. 99% of the time your problems are with yourself. As they say, no matter where you go, there you are.

I agree with you. I think here Claire sees the opportunity as a kind of vacation -- which speaks to how she feels about her current situation. If hiking the biggest mountain on the planet seems like a refreshing change her day to day responsibilities must be very heavy indeed.

I think also that, in general, we can all become easily inured by our circumstances, no matter what they are, simply by virtue of habituation. To a certain extent I think both Claire and even Scotia are motivated by a desire to do something that makes them feel strong emotion (other than rejection) rather than sleepwalking through their days. They are numb.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Guy Fawkes,

To be candid, your responses are more helpful to me when they are associated with a persistent identity (whether real or fake).

Because the lion's share of drive-by critiques without much substance tend to come anonymously over time it lends the impression that there's just one continuously confused individual out there griping reflexively every week.

In contrast, if you associate your feedback with an identity, I can put the comments in context, recognizing for instance the difference between a regular reader who doesn't miss the subtle stuff who suddenly stumbles on something (valuable data point) from some quasi-philistine boob who just has poor reading comprehension skills (noise).

If you're a long time reader of this blog you know I welcome feedback of all kinds, engage politely with even rude critics, and take to heart all impressions that folks trouble to express.

But not if you're anonymous.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Joshua Hemming said...

Enjoying this so far, and very curious about where it will go.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Okay, so I'm not the only one who took the "mons" bait.

Fascinating. It reminds me of Touch the Sky, They Say in that visceral, realize-the-truth-about-the-universe kind of way.

I can't wait to find out what's up with Scotia (no pun intended) -- as well as who goes up and who comes down.

Tolomea said...

Off topic, but I'm trying to buy another print copy of Simon and it's asking for a password "This title is intended for a specific audience and requires a password to view." what's up with that?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Tolomea,

Please try it again. I have done rejiggered it. Let me know if the bustedness is fixed.

Yours,
CBB

Mark said...

Good beginning. Yes, the wrong name trick has been done a lot, but I have not seen it used as you did here. I enjoyed it. I worry for these ladies. They obviously have no idea they are in a CBB story.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Joshua said,

Enjoying this so far, and very curious about where it will go.

Up, largely.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown