Preamble: Before we start, as a matter of housekeeping I'd like to remind you fine readers that in service to all the appropriate buzzwords there are multiple vectors of accessing content here at Cheeseburger Brown, including but not limited to following me on Twitter, befriending me on Facebook, and fanning, liking, or otherwise verbing Cheeseburger Brown's official page on Facebook. You can type up either scornful or congratulatory emails and send them to me at this address. There's even an old timey RSS feed.
Now, it's been a long grey winter of starting up new companies and finding creative new ways to pay the mortgage for your this narrator, but the days are already getting longer and any time now somebody will send me a cheque instead of a bill in the mail. I can just feel it. And you know what money means: more time for this narrator to relax and spin yarns. So cross your fingers for me.
Meanwhile, the current serial comes to a head below.
(The story unfolds beneath the fold.)
by Cheeseburger Brown
(This is the fifth post in a multi-part serial, consisting of chapters fifteen through seventeen of the story. Here are Chapters 1 - 5, here are Chapters 6 - 8, here are Chapters 9 - 11, and here are Chapters 12 - 14.)
One day I came to hate the mountain. I was sure it hated me. All people, in fact. All life. Even Blumenfeld. We were all equally interlopers.
The cold was monstrous. It bit at me mercilessly, a viper always vigilant for any square centimetre exposed. I hid from it inside my clothes. But it never stopped hissing, leaching the warmth out of my body as the wind whipped around me. It never slept. It was not even afraid of the sun.
The sun too was cruel. I watched it from behind polarized lenses. It would barely consent to warm me despite its brilliant light, but the ultraviolet burns began in seconds if something wasn't covered. It wasn't the sun I knew. It was mean.
I was mean also. There hadn't been enough sleep to be had. I forgot about my lack of appetite. I wasn't even sure why I still moving except that the map insisted that the last outpost before the park of the calderas was very, very near.
When I reached the outpost instead of trading in my parka and cleats and nose-hoses for a fully-blown environment suit I would just quit and go home.
What was the point of any of this?
I tried to dream of the foods I would eat while curled up on the sofa back in the apartment but I couldn't get myself to care. Everything inside me was grey.
My watch blorped. It claimed that the current atmospheric mix was too oxygen-poor to keep me alive, even when supplemented by the rebreather pushing scrubbed and concentrated atmosphere into the tubes under my scarf. The wind had yawned open a void of air even rarer than the surrounding sparse mist. The display flashed: VACUUM WARNING.
I would have to wait out the weather, I reasoned. I would have to hunker down.
My watch whistled. I looked down. Scotia's icon was rippling my proximal field. She was only a quarter kilometre ahead. Her position didn't update for a long moment and then it hopped forward before pausing again. She wasn't hunkering down -- she was on the move.
I toggled the channel open. "Scotia!"
Static and distortion. A squelch. "Hello?"
"Scotia! What are you doing?"
"Claire? Is that -- Claire? How could you -- be Claire?"
"By virtue of a certain persistence of form and memory," I quipped. "Why are you still moving out there? There's a vabacuum warning for the whole hill! Hunker down, Scotia! You've got to hunker down!"
"Can't," she said. "Running out."
"Running out? Of what?"
The channel closed. Her position held, then lurched forward half a metre. Then again. "Why are you being so dumb?" I hollered, banging my mittens into the ground. Then I spent a few minutes regaining control over my breathing. With the taste of my bile at the back of my throat I knew, even though I didn't want to know. I knew there was only one thing to do.
Excreta. I had to rescue her.
Part of me baulked. Part of me raged "Let her take care of herself!" but an image of Madeleine kept forcing itself into my mind's eye. Yes, it's true that people should take care of themselves. But it's awfully hard to stand by and look them in the eye when they don't.
I don't know if God was watching. She could've been. That wasn't the point.
When I came upon Scotia she was standing on a barren shoulder of the mountain populated only by little pear-sized rocks. She was leaning into the wind, one arm cast up to block the flying grit from her goggles. She kept trying to lift her boot to move forward but the toe never left the ground.
I touched her shoulder and she screamed. She thrashed against me and then fell. I leaned over her and waved my watch by her neck. "Scotia, you're okay! You're okay Scotia!" I yelled through my scarf. "Can you turn on your microphone thingy? What's wrong with it?"
Suddenly her rasping voice was in my ear. "I turned it off because the static kept saying I was going to fail. But you're here now. You won't let those voices say anything."
"We have to stay here. We have to wait out the wind, or the pressure'll stay too low for us to breathe or even for our rebreathers to grab anything scrubbable. Right? You remember the orientation video."
"I don't have enough air, Chlorine!"
"Did you just call me Chlorine?"
"Chloroplast, climax, chemotropism," sang Scotia weakly before struggling to push me away. She got to her knees and strained to stand. "Whatever disrupts the trending. Whatever segments your name and keeps mine stably hashed on the social feeds."
I grabbed at her arm. "You've got to stay down and keep still, Scotia. We can wait this out! There isn't enough air to walk but there's enough air to wait."
"I can't wait," she snapped, peeling my mitten off her arm. "Not enough. Air to wait."
"You're delirious, Scotia! You're not making sense! Please listen to me!"
"Only nine. Nine minutes. Of air left."
"Or twenty-five minutes if you lie down, shut up and breathe slowly. Do you understand, Scotia? Come here and lie with me. We can breathe together. Really slowly. Okay?"
"You're so weak. That's why you want to give up."
"I never wanted to give up," I lied.
"You're lying," she said. "Your life is -- one big give up. You give up to -- everyone and everything. That's why you're fat, and that's why you're sad. All you do is roll over. But I'm not like that. I win."
"Why are you being so mean to me now? I'm trying to help you."
"You're just trying to make me like you so you won't fail alone."
That was so untrue it made me want to laugh so I was surprised as anyone when I ended up coughing through a fit of sudden tears. But I wasn't thinking about Scotia. I was thinking about Madeleine ordering my favourite strain of snack by the case and being so eager to watch me enjoy. It was innocent, wasn't it? Or did I accord Madeleine a merely child-like sophistication in my mind because otherwise I'd have to cop to allowing myself to be manipulated? If so, I was keeping her down as much as she me. "I don't want you to fail," I told Scotia. "I want you to live."
"This story is -- about me," she hissed, turning away from me. "Not you. That's the story -- people are watching on the socials. And I'm not -- going to let them down. My name's -- current -- a second-tier trend!"
She lifted her arm again and trudged on, disappearing into swirls of airborne dust. Static crackled in my earpiece.
Instead of feeling badly for poor Scotia my feelings changed colour. My heart turned inside out and my chest prickled with cold. I was angry. Like angrier than I'd allowed myself to feel in a long, long time.
I got down on my belly and began to slither.
Slowly, methodically, I wriggled my shoulders and hips to scooch my body bit by bit across the barren rock. My breathing was part of a clockwork effort in which every piece of me took its patient turn to advance my position in microbursts. Oxygen-nitrogen in, lean, squish, push, gather, carbon dioxide out, lean, squish, push, gather...
On every forty-fourth movement I checked my watch and looked for Scotia. Her beacon was off, her shape never visible in the shifting streamers of dust or against the darkening sky. In measured rhythm I crawled on.
Scotia would never make it walking with her head held high, and neither would I. But I could bear to wallow. It didn't embarrass me to be so low.
I'd survive. And she wouldn't. But she was a mean and selfish person who lied so she brought it on herself.
My mitten touched metal. It startled me. I blinked at my watch. It flashed red. My rebreathers had nothing to give me and were trying to scrub dust. I looked past my watch. I was in the outer part of a metal-reinforced airlock doorway with a big letter S on it. I'd reached the outpost's south lock.
My vision sparkled. I was so sleepy. My body was heavier than if I'd been waterlogged. With effort I dragged myself over the threshold, my boots leaving long marks in the accumulated grit.
That gave me pause. No one had passed through the airlock recently. I was the first. That meant that Scotia...
With a grunt I thrust myself up high enough to hit the lock controls. The outer door swung shut. Gases hissed around me as the lock cycled. "Hurry!" I gasped imploringly to the airlock. "Hurry!"
The inner door opened. There was a figure there ready with a blanket and a first aid kit. I ignored her as I switched my rebreather to maximum intake and the little fan inside sang as it sucked up air. "There's still somebody out there," I croaked before hitting the controls to cycle the lock again.
If she protested I couldn't hear it. I stumbled out into the winds again, waving my watch in front of me and squinting through my lenses at the display. It pinged for Scotia's beads but she'd shut them down...
When I found her she was lying prone on the rock, the wind ruffling the fur-trim on her hood. I touched her face and called her name but she did not stir. "It shouldn't be too late," I criticized the universe, "it's wrong, that can't be!"
I drew one snotty tube from my nostril and put it up Scotia's nose in place of her own.
I tried to lift her. I slung her over my shoulder but couldn't rise from bended knee. My vision turned colourless and my stomach bucked. I relaxed under her and we both sank down to the ground.
My rebreather bleeped an alarm.
The sun was gone. This was a frigid Hell. All I could see where faces in the swirling grit, frowning and hating me. And then the mouth of one of those imaginary faces yawned open as if it would consume us, and out of the mouth came a rhythmically lurching figure. The shadow stopped just out of reach, its eyes revealed fleetingly by their soft amber glow.
My earpiece crackled. "Madam, is there anything this unit can do for you?"
The limping robot! "Can you carry us?" I rasped. "Please, will you?"
The corroded steward bowed his head. "Madam, of course."
I was slung over one shoulder and Scotia the other. Then the poor robot's works whined and sputtered as it straightened up and began taking very asymmetrical lopes forward. I felt like a baby, but not in a bad way. I clutched that robot's neck as if he were my dad. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," I tried to say but I was sinking into a black dream where my heart was being squeezed until it could not beat.
I broke apart into a million tiny pieces, like the dust on the wind, and lost myself.
I awoke. Clean bright sunshine shined in through the windows. I rolled my head on the pillow to look. There wasn't a cloud in the black, black sky.
My eyes swam. My chest ached. I felt dizzy and heavy. I licked my lips and summoned some strength and called out, "Nurse?"
A lady in a long white cape walked into the little room. And when I say ‘lady' I use the term loosely. Not because she was rude, though. But because she wasn't a human being as such.
She extended a hand to offer me water. I drank it with shaking hands. She poured another glass. "I don't mean to stare," I said over the rim, my voice echoing inside.
She blinked translucent lids over black, fathomless eyes. "You cause no offense, dear guest."
"You really are a Zorannic, right? One of Dr. Zoran's special sentient robots?"
"I am. My name is Dime Twelfth. I am the keeper of this outpost, and your host."
"And Scotia? She's here too? She's alive?"
"She survived, yes."
"And the limping butler? He's okay, too?"
"It is my regret to inform you that he is not okay, dear guest, but rather has suffered catastrophic hardware failure as a result of his efforts."
"He saved us. Without him we would've died."
"He said he was proxy pilgrim for a Nirgal man. Do you know who?"
"I do not, dear guest."
I sat up straighter in the bed. Dime took a step back as I rotated and dangled my feet over the edge. I slipped to the floor and stood, feeling a bit weak but otherwise okay. Dime watched me carefully. I looked up at her. "Would you take me to Scotia's room? I'd like to see her now. She's awake and everything?"
"Dear guest, your travelling companion departed this facility twenty-one minutes ago."
My eyes widened and I felt a shock ripple through me. "I'm sorry -- what?"
"Madam Scotia has embarked on the last leg of the journey. You are displeased, dear guest."
I didn't know what to say for nearly a full minute and then my lips quivered with a hail of spittle as I screeched, "The motherless dog!"
Dime cocked her head. "Dear guest, can I be of assistance?"
"Yes!" I cried. "Yes! My clothes -- supplies and sundries -- the summit kit! There's an environment suit reserved for me? Immediately, please, immediately!"
The very humanoid robot moved quickly to fulfill my requests. In the staging room I dressed and then pulled on an environment suit. "Madam, I am concerned that you require additional recuperation before essaying a hike to the caldera park," said Dime.
"I appreciate your concern," I said to the thing, "but I'm propelled by piss now, and couldn't possibly delay."
"This dear guest is propelled by urine?"
I looked right into Dime's reflective black eyes. "Excuse me if this is rude but weren't your kind developed to be more than just robots? Aren't you supposed to understand us? Don't you know what's happened here?"
"I have been developed to be sentient. My relationship with human beings is largely architectural. Please, do enlighten me: what has happened here?"
As I tucked into my boots I explained, looking up at her when I needed to. "Listen, you know what social status is, right? A pecking order? I'm talking about ranking. It's the way we climb all over each other when we feel threatened or dissatisfied inside, to make sure we don't come out on the bottom."
"Madam, I had understood that human beings were ranked meritocratically or, in cases of equal ranking, by seniority."
"What? No. That's just government. That's the rules. That's how systems are supposed to work. But between people it's older and simpler. We just size each other up for fear. Whoever has the least fear wins." I looked up at her. "Have you ever known fear, Miss Dime?"
She tilted her head. "Our experiences of internal motivation have only poor analogues in your own emotions, dear guest."
"Is there like a leader of the Zorannic robots, now that Dr. Zoran's gone?"
"There is not. Our goals are identical so leadership is not required. As a race we are self-organizing."
"Then you could never understand the mad scramble not to suck. You just couldn't. You never will. Because you already are what you've always wanted to be."
"We are not beyond aspiration."
I sealed my gloves and knelt down in front of my knapsack. It buzzed as it climbed aboard. "Oh yeah? What would you be that you aren't already?"
"Dear guest, I wish I were a spaceship."
I paused, blinking. I turned to her. "Really?"
The strange Zorannic being nodded. "I was not programmed like a butler or a taxi. I was grown. And while every Zorannic entity works toward a common end, the route by which each gets there is uniquely idiosyncratic. As with you, my instinct is revealed through urges. And as a complex and evolving construct the interactions between my urges can have emergent properties as non-obvious as your own." She smiled with a row of little diamond teeth. "I do not know why I want to fly, but I feel it. I cannot help but believe that I will not be my whole self until that state is mine."
I stood up and felt the backpack shift to find our balance. I nodded to her. "Well, I just figured out what I need to do in order to be my whole self."
"And what is it, dear guest?"
"Win," I said. "I've never thought I could be the kind of person who gets to win, but now I realize that it's hard to imagine waking up tomorrow unless I go out there and do it now. It's like my blood is burning and I don't mind. That's crazy, isn't it? It sounds crazy and it might be but I don't mind at all."
Dime bowed her head slightly. "More power to you, traveller."
"And to you, spaceship. I hope you fly free one day. Cycle the airlock please."
The morning sky was full of stars. The sun had melted out of the eastern horizon and dried up into a hard, white, unblinking eye. The atmosphere was a glimmering, gossamer sea I saw from above, a haze that swallowed the mountain out from under me and made it seem as if Olympus were adrift on an ocean of mist.
The light was bright. The shadows were crisp. The air was none. If I threw a stone it made no sound when it landed.
I wore a fishbowl on my head.
My muscles were mad at me after being so recently starved of oxygen after having been worked to the point of tearing, but today I could only go fast. They could fall right off me for all I cared because I felt like my skeleton had enough will to go it alone. I exerted motion from the core of myself. With scrubbed and plentiful oxygen being poured into my lungs I felt weightless and unstoppable. The pebbled ground was a blur beneath my boots.
Mars curved away beneath me, the horizon visibly bowed. That was the whole world. Far ahead was a bobbing spot of white. That was Scotia.
Every time I stopped believing one of my own stupid lies I found I could go faster. By the time I came to understand that I was Madeleine's caretaker not because it was thrust upon me but because that's who I wanted to be, I was practically running. When I figured out how true it still was that Maddy and me were in it together I started to sprint. For the first time in forever I felt like the two of us really had managed to leave mom behind once and for all. That we'd won. But I'd become so used to the idea of sucking that I hadn't even noticed.
I flew. The distance to Scotia diminished. The light of the rising sun winked off her helmet glass as she looked over her shoulder and saw me coming.
She turned and broke into a shambling run.
I felt like a zoom lens. The image of Scotia became larger and larger. My legs were numb and busy, far away and irrelevant. I was propelled. Greedily I ate the distance between us. She looked back and saw me again, and I could tell how afraid she was. She was the kind of afraid you can taste in your spit.
I think she might have tried to trip me but my legs were smarter than that today. I blew past her. Ahead of me was a run of straight stairs cut into a minor escarpment, rounded and ancient, the outer fringe of one of the mountain's earliest crowns. The boundary of the calderas. Victory itself.
Scotia followed me up the narrow stairs. She made a dive for my legs and caught me. I stumbled but not did fall. She grabbed at my shoulder and wrenched me around by my backpack. The glass of our helmets smacked against one another and stayed in contact so we didn't need our radios. We screamed like monkeys.
We thrashed at each other and then staggered apart, each of us panting for breath separated by just a few risers.
"This is so stupid," I said at last.
She looked at me. "You could've been a part of a success story. One that makes sense and trends hot. But you had to screw it up."
"It's only a success story if you're the one who succeeds?"
"Or if I gracefully let you win. I should've moved to that strategy earlier, but I honestly never thought you'd make it this far. I only brought you in for Suzumi to lose to. Svetlana was so sure you were perfect for the part. If I were you I'd have felt lucky to be invited at all."
"It doesn't feel lucky to be lied to."
"It's not my problem if you can't recognize charity. But now you've sabotaged my friends and now you're standing here, blocking my way to the top. You're no victim. You can't imagine I can let that stand, can you darling?"
"I saved your life."
"Debatable. A stray robot saved us both. Luck favours the beautiful."
"That's not what happened."
"But that's the story. I control the broadcasting subscription. Do you think your beads are active now, recording all this? Because they're not."
"Actually I threw the diary bead into a crevasse a week ago."
"I can't believe how stupid you are. You're going to all this trouble to cheat me out of my own victory story and nobody's even watching. Do you understand that? Your name isn't trending, your feeds are unlinked, and all the world knows are the moments I've curated. You imbecile. Even if you do think you're noble now nobody will ever agree."
I shrugged. "Nobody ever has, Scotia."
"Well that's too bad for you."
"It isn't," I argued. "Because a lot of noble things are secret. Dignity doesn't need a reputation."
"If you had dignity you wouldn't be fat, and if you deserved good luck you wouldn't be a loser. That's the universe talking to you, Claire. Take a hint, and make way for doers."
"You want me to just step aside?"
"If you want to make any royalties off this feed-matrix it's the only thing that makes sense. If you want mainstream likes, you need a mainstream heroine. And I'm promising you now if you do the sensible thing and let me summit first I'll make sure the authoritative cut doesn't make you look too bad. I can either spin you as a psycho or a rescue. Which will it be?"
"Honestly, I feel I need to tell you that I don't think I'm going to step aside, Scotia."
"Of course you are. Because you're so holier-than-thou. And if it comes to it you know I'm going to throw you down these steps if I have to, and you're above that sort of thing. Aren't you?"
I nodded thoughtfully. "Heads you win, tails I lose," I said.
She felt she was winning. She pressed her advantage, leaning forward toward me. "There's a spin that will work for you. I promise to sub-trend, like, your heroic weight-loss over the course of the trip or something. Think about it, Claire: play your cards right and you could parley this into a spokesmodel position for a reduced-joule foods company. Your face isn't bad at all, after all."
I looked over her helmet at the black, star-spangled sky, and the whole damn white and green and orange and blue world curving away to infinity beneath.
And we were specks on the nipple of the planet, squeaking for supplication.
A flicker of movement caught my eye. Along the stone edge of the staircase a single ant was patiently working her way over a millimeter protrusion. She wiggled past it and continued on her way, passing Scotia and me as we stood there poised at one another. That ant would beat us both to the calderas. I could only guess how long she had been climbing.
My cheeks dimpled. I laughed.
Then I hauled back and punched Scotia right in the fishbowl. Her head whanged against the glass. She blinked at me in stupefaction for half a second before I put me boot into her chest and shoved.
Scotia tumbled bum over boots backward down the stairs.
I turned away and marched over the threshold of the escarpment, the planetary park of the calderas rising before me out of unfolding perspective. Rings intersected rings, their sun-bleached faces dotted by ant-like pilgrims -- and beyond, a gentle roll away to pure velvet space and a fall that never stops.
It was the top of the world. It was apart from the world. It was a tiny platform of firmament you could walk around on, if you wanted to.
It was awesome.