Path by Vitali Timkin
When : Where
Unknown : 23-Librae / Arsensia III / Racadi’s Stand
Even before undertaking nearly a year of research and preparation, I’d assumed attempting a summit of Racadi’s Stand would be a hellish experience.
Expectations never scratched the surface of reality for any adventurer who dreamed of scaling its twenty-kilometer peak. Now that I was here and standing on the upper slopes of the tallest monument to hubris in known human space, I knew I’d severely underestimated my own assumptions. The peak was aptly named ‘Racadi’s Stand’ for a reason. Only one person had ever stood on its summit, and that woman’s name was Eris Racadi. All other climbers had either failed, backed out at the last minute, or died in their attempt.
To call the Stand a ‘peak’ would be an understatement. Mount Everest on Terra is a ‘peak.’ Olympus Mons is taller, but, relatively speaking, is nothing more than an enormous pimple on the surface of Mars. Hardly worth any climber’s time unless you like walking up a gradual slope for 250 kilometers. What I’m standing on now is a black, jagged monolith thrusting from the barren volcanic plains of Arsensia III like a decayed tooth of the world, its lower portion cloaked in an atmosphere of choking sulfur dioxide, and its summit extending into the vacuum of space.
Who in their right mind makes a journey of eighty-five light-years to climb a barren rock cloaked in a deadly atmosphere? Only a special breed of irrational and unbalanced individuals heed the call.
Markov was ten meters ahead of me, slowly plodding up a steep slope of precarious volcanic glass toward the next outcropping of shiny obsidian. I gave the tether connecting us a gentle tug to let him know I was stopping, then turned to look down-slope. After three weeks of climbing, we had just breached the thin atmosphere on the previous day. The yellow blanket of Arsensia III’s atmosphere was starting to take on a very pronounced curvature. I glanced at the altimeter hovering in my helmet’s HUD and it confirmed the summit was close … we were standing nearly twenty-kilometers above the moon’s zero surface.
Yes, completely irrational and unbalanced.
“Hey Foster, you comin’?” Markov’s voice abruptly crackled in my climbsuit’s helmet. “We’re almost there. We can rest at the top.”
“Yeah, just need a breather … taking in the sights,” I replied between gasps. I could hear my suit’s oxygen synthesizer working overtime, extracting just enough of the trace gas from the atmosphere to keep me alive. If my metabolism outpaced the overworked synthesizer I would pass out and take a breather whether I wanted to or not.
Racadi’s Stand wasn’t the most technical climb in human space, but it was the most hazardous and exhausting. Despite being a moon, Arsensia III’s gravity was 1.2g due to its dense core. It was slightly above Terran standard and made every step a burden, especially when draped in a protective climbsuit with no exoskeleton assist. Specific rules must be followed for a climb to be recognized as official. Any non-essential assets other than a standard climbsuit were forbidden.
We were only steps away from entering an exclusive club, one with a singular member. Simply climbing the Stand put you in another, more dubious, club comprised of individuals with egos larger than the jade and lavender mottled gas giant, Arsensia, looming on the horizon. In an age of superluminal travel, fusion-powered exoskeletons, and matter forges, we were the only ones foolish enough to engage in adventure the old fashioned way, with only a climbsuit to protect us from the environment.
Markov chuckled lightly, seemingly not out of breath. His physical conditioning continued to make me slightly envious. “What sights? No one comes to this rock to see dirt and breathe farts, they come to conquer the Stand; to become the next legend! Let’s go … only a half a kilometer left … 500 meters and we can write our names in the history books. Come on!”
He tugged on the tether causing me to slide slightly on the glassy detritus littering the slope. It was enough to draw my attention away from the vista, while simultaneously kindling the ever-shortening fuse of my temper.
I turned and looked back up the Stand at Markov’s short frame lit by the albedo glow of Arsensia. I didn’t know much about him other than he’d paid the same exorbitant climbing fee and signed the same waivers as myself and eight other thrill seekers who had been granted one of the ten yearly permits by 23-Librae’s system administrators. All of our fellow climbers were dead on the slopes below, succumbing to various accidental tragedies during the ascent. Except for us … the last two standing.
“Relax Markov! We’ve been on this damn rock for almost two months, including three weeks crawling up this death trap. Another five minutes isn’t going to upend your beloved schedule. Neither of us has anywhere to be, so give it a rest.”
I think he could hear the frustration in my voice because the bastard pulled the tether again, this time causing me to fall on my ass and slide several meters as he wrestled with trying to restrain me.
Markov was ten meters ahead of me, slowly plodding up a steep slope of precarious volcanic glass toward the next outcropping of shiny obsidian. I gave the tether connecting us a gentle tug to let him know I was stopping, then turned to look down-slope. After three weeks of climbing, we had just breached the thin atmosphere on the previous day.
“Sorry!” he yelled in exasperation, carefully backtracking to my side to help me to my feet. “If you think the summit isn’t somewhere we need to be right about now, by all means just turn around and descend, or call in for a dust off … you paid good money for it, wouldn’t want it to go to waste.” He paused briefly, tilted his head, then offered his hand. “But, I don’t think that’s what you want, not when we’re this close. Come on, let’s finish it.”
“Get the hell away from me!” I slapped his gloved hand and sat up facing down-slope, staring sullenly at the dirty atmosphere of Arsensia III curving away far below us. “Just let me rest for a few minutes.”
Sighing, Markov raised both hands in capitulation and stumbled back a few steps. “Fine. I’ll tether out and start up that outcropping, it looks negotiable. Stay here and belay just in case, then follow me up.”
“Yeah, fine,” I said without looking, raising my hand in dismissal.
I couldn’t hear Markov’s movements since we were out of the moon’s already thin atmosphere, but I could feel the tension of the tether at my waist sending telltale vibrations into my body as he played out the line on his end and moved up-slope to the outcropping. Shards of glass occasionally slid by my bent legs, my climbsuit protecting me from their sharp edges.
Markov was right, we were close, but I was bone tired and sick of this place. We only had the equivalent of one last figurative step before making history, and the worst of the climb was behind us, including the unfortunate deaths. But they all knew the risks when they were chosen for the annual expedition and paid their fees. Yet here we remained … the fortunate among the unlucky. I could feel my temper beginning to subside with each steadying breath.
“Foster … !”
I turned to look just in time to have his voice cut off in my helmet by a jagged, fast-moving boulder slamming into the side of my head. At this altitude, I’d heard nothing of the rock as it tumbled down the slope behind me. My head snapped at an unnatural angle and I felt a meaty crunch at the base of my neck. Blood sprayed from my mouth and nose, misting the inside of my face shield. My body went immediately slack and I fell to the slope on my right side. The climbsuit’s HUD was hard to read superimposed over the spray of blood, but it was lit with all the wrong colors and winking icons.
Scree slid by my motionless head resting on the ground. Along the outside of my helmet the rocks clawed and scrabbled eerily, cutting through the muted climbsuit warnings sounding in my ears. I could no longer feel any part of my body, but I could taste the blood running from my mouth and nose, beginning to pool around my right cheek. My rapidly weakening pulse throbbed in my temples. Soon I would either bleed to death or drown in my own blood … probably both.
So, the penultimate victim. Another grave for the Stand. I thought morbidly to myself.
“Foster!” Markov’s feet appeared in my field of view, more glass rattled against my helmet.
I saw his hands grasp my arms. My field of view changed as he grunted and rolled me onto my back. A sky of crimson tinted stars filled my vision, then Markov’s thin face inside his helmet suddenly hovered close over me.
“Mark’v … help … “, is all I could manage to wheeze.
His form drew back slightly out of view, then reached down and manipulated one of the controls on my wrist.
“// . . . !WARNING! Suit data acquisition disabled . . . suit telemetry link disabled . . . last sixty seconds of buffer purged . . . //” the androgynous A.I. voice informed.
“Wait …” I said, barely above a whisper.
Markov was doing the exact opposite of what should be done. He was essentially telling the geostationary relay satellite that I was dead. Rational panic pumped adrenaline into my body, but despite my best efforts my paralyzed body would not respond. I knew I was dead, but my subconscious refused to acknowledge its fate.
“You sure are a persistent, slippery son-of-a-bitch.” My damaged helmet made Markov’s voice sound distant. His faceplate again filled my vision, blocking out the stars. There was a strange smirk on his face. “This is the highest I’ve had to climb in years. I didn’t think that rock was going to hit you. Got lucky this time!”
“Shhhhh …”, he brought a hand up to his helmet and touched a control on its side.
I couldn’t tell if my sight was failing or the pall of red inside my helmet was blurring my vision. The face inside his helmet slowly wavered and dissolved into a shimmering matrix of colors, then a different face looked back at me … but someone familiar this time. My eyes went wide, tears suddenly slid down my cheeks to be lost in blood.
“Eris … Racadi?” I gasped.
“No one summits my Stand,” she uttered coldly, this time in a firm feminine voice. The smirk had vanished.
“But … why?” I could feel my life quickly ebbing away as I uttered my last words.
She shrugged. “It’s a living, paid for in fools.”
Words © 2020, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
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