Cheeseburger Brown CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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We Walked to Space
By Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
We Walked to Space, fiction from Chester Burton Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming


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.


"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.


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."


"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."


"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?"


"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."


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?"


"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?"



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 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.


He nodded. "And I never will."


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.


"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' -- 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."


We took the train up the coast. We had a cabin on the north-western side of the car so outside all we could see was the sea. It never changed, so once the train was up to speed it didn't even feel like we were moving. It felt like I was just sitting in small room staring at wallpaper of an ocean horizon for a while.

I looked down. The water in my glass was tilted. The train was climbing the Tharsis.

The others squealed and laughed. I winced.

When I'd arrived at the train station for departure it had been easy to spot Scotia in her parka, especially because it looked just like the one she'd tried to buy for me but especially especially because she was flanked by two clones. Their matching parkas fit perfectly. When they turned toward me I recognized them from the company.

"Chloe!" cried Scotia with glee, "you're here! Of course you know Svetlana and Suzumi. You remember? They worked with me in marketing."

"Hi Svetlana. Hello Suzumi."

Scotia gushed, "We're all going to go together as a team! When they heard our idea they just had to come with. Isn't that awesome?"

"Awesome," I confirmed.

Suzumi offered me a slight bow. "It's going to be awesome," she said with a practiced smile.

Svetlana shook my hand. "I think I remember you from the kitchen," she said. "You love muffins, right?"

"Awesome," I said again for some reason. Everybody just smiled harder.

I leaned my head into the glass and looked down at the bed of red pebbles over which the train flew. They appeared to me as a wavering blur of long lines. We were moving six hundred kilometers per hour. If I pressed my cheek against the window I could look forward along the train and see it -- Olympus -- swelling into the sky. It scared me.

Scotia and Svetlana and Suzumi were painting one another's fingernails. The cabin smelled like the alley behind a beauty parlour. It made my eyes water. Or something did, anyway.

Way before I was ready for it to happen the train slowed. The water in my glass tilted the opposite way. Everybody started fidgeting with their stuff. With a roar of air the train surged into the terminal. The Amazonis Sea vanished, leaving me looking at my own reflection. I looked away.

Our team strode down from the carriage three abreast, and then I came following after them. We met our baggage at the carousel. Scotia dropped a bead on the polished floor of the terminal and a map swirled out of it. Scotia gestured and the map zoomed. She pointed. "We can camp on this shelf here tonight if we hit the trail right away. I mean, assuming we can keep up a good pace and everything."

I looked up because it was quiet. They were looking at me. "Great," I said.

We exchanged shoes for boots and then fed our shoes to our backpacks, who then mounted us and secured themselves across our breasts and middles. Mine rumbled as it redistributed items inside itself to correct a weight imbalance, then chuffed quietly as it expelled a pocket of air. Suzumi looked over at me and giggled, hiding her mouth behind her hand.

Zinc, sun-lenses, lipgloss. I let Scotia apply them all. "Now you really look like part of the team," she said to me and gave my shoulder a squeeze. "You're going to do fine, Clora." She paused, a theatric furrow between her eyes. "It is Clora, right? I'm not screwing it up again am I?"

"It is, no, you got it right," I said, nodding supportively. "Um, it's just pronounced more like 'Clara.'"


"But without the final a."

Scotia's bead jumped off the floor and into her glove. She led us all in a kind of cheer and then we pushed out of the train terminal and into the open air at the foot of the escarpment. We all had to stop short and there were two reasons for it: firstly because of the arresting view, and secondly because of all of the people ahead of us arrested by the arresting view. A compression wave of awe jammed the terminal's exit terrace.

There was a wall of rock extending upward eight kilometers straight into the air. A line of ants seemed to be defining a zigzag path up the cliff-face, but they were in fact full-sized human pilgrims walking the famous stairs and switchbacks carved into the stone.

Above the cliffs the mountain started in earnest, rising another twelve kilometers to the calderas. But from below the cliffs the peak was invisible, its presence hinted only by a whorl of orographic clouds against an unnaturally deep bruise in the sky -- the shadow of Olympus on the atmosphere itself.

I think I let out a little squeak.

We followed everyone else to the base of the first run of risers. The stairs were allegedly hand-cut by Felix himself before he left the Solar system for the frontier, but this mostly seemed to be alleged by people selling memorabilia proclaiming the same, so I didn't know if it was really true or not. The way to the stairs was lined with wallahs on blankets and wallahs in stalls, singing and imploring and hawking essential hiking gear and mountaineering tools alongside spirit tokens, protective amulets and flasks of elixirs promising to oxygenate the blood naturally for a bare-faced ascent. They infiltrated the ranks of the pilgrims and tugged on their backpacks, babbling experimentally in every kind of planetary dialect until they happened on one mutually understood. "You're beautiful, you'll get to the top for sure, but not without my mother's special blend of formulated oxygen! Come, inhale a sample, see how strong you feel! Everyone who summits does it breathing our famous secret mix!"

"No thank you," I said, squirming past him to follow Scotia's backpack, which was looking around warily in case of pickpockets.

There was a park at the base of the Felician Stairs but the grass had been stomped dead. People milled between the trees. We gathered by a weathered statue of some forgotten pioneer and Scotia set up a recording bead to take a picture of us all. Scotia posed in the middle with her friends flanking her. I found a place for myself off Suzumi's left elbow. "Ready?" asked Scotia. She opened her hand.

The recorder zipped around us emitting pulses of light. When it was done it hovered over Scotia and dropped into her outstretched palm.

I blinked away the afterimages.

Scotia was passing out beads. I took mine dumbly. "Diarize," she advised, "for B roll content. Express your worries. Make it all seem scary. I want to believe your resolve, sisters."

"I don't understand," I said.

"It's all part of the marketing plan," said Svetlana. "Has she not read the marketing plan?"

"There's a marketing plan?"

Suzumi rolled her eyes. "This is what happens when you add players at the eleventh hour," she said. She was looking at me when she said it, even though she could only be describing herself and Svetlana. After all, I'd been a part of the plan since the beginning.

Scotia put her arm around my shoulders. "Listen," she said, "what we're selling here is a story. It's the story of a group of women the corporate world has turned its back on, who overcome their doubt in themselves by doing what many set out to do but few succeed at, but totally succeeding at it due to a bond of sisterhood that can overcome any obstacle."

"Is that a story we're selling, or is that just what's happening?"

Scotia waved dismissively. "Same difference. It's a matter of framing, and we're pre-framing our success in order to maximize the potential of our notoriety window when it comes. Part of that is stocking content. That's where the beads come in."

I smiled and dropped the bead in my bag. I heard it jingle and ding as it tumbled down to the bottom. I didn't care because I didn't plan to look for it. Before she could turn away I reached out and touched Scotia's arm. "Scotia, can I ask you something?" I asked quietly.


"Why does it always seem like everyone has a lot better idea what's going on than I do?"

"That's just garden-variety paranoia, sister. I wouldn't worry."

I glanced over at Svetlana and Suzumi. "But I feel out of the loop, kind of."

"Don't be ridiculous. You are the loop. It's just that S and S understand things from a marketing perspective, so that's how I've contextualized everything for them. I'm sorry as hell if it makes you feel left out somehow."

"But you explain everything to me in marketing terms, too."

"Oh? Well! Then there's nothing to feel left out about after all, is there? Wonderful. Chin up, I'm sure you're going to be able to keep up just fine."

"Keeping up wasn't my concern, though."

"I simply adore your confidence! Right on, sister."

We bumped fists for some reason. Svetlana and Suzumi had already joined the queue slowly but steadily feeding itself into a narrow file proceeding up the first run of stone steps, ascending up the escarpment and disappearing behind a switchback. The chatter around us was positive and friendly -- as if we all were a group of loose acquaintances sallying forth for a little Sunday promenade and not embarking on a quest to summit the sky itself. Like it was nothing.

I came to the first riser, and lifted my boot to begin.


At first I had to keep my eyes on my feet to find my footing but in time my legs memorized the spacing and I was free to look around. The edges of the risers were worn to curves and in the middle of each step was a polished depression eroded by the passage of millions and millions of feet over the centuries. The stone was grey because the rusted upper surface was being continually buffed away except in a narrow ridge down the very centre of the staircase where a void of passage marked the division between upward and downward traffic with an undulating orange stripe.

Those coming down were quieter than those going up. They blinked less often. They moved with patient assurance. I was too shy to meet their eyes.

Scotia's brunette coif bounced ahead of me. Over her shoulder I could see Svetlana's blonde and Suzumi's ink. The sound of a stranger's footfalls behind me guaranteed my pace. After a quarter hour of climbing the general chatter diminished. I could hear us all breathe. I noticed beads of sweat on the back of Scotia's long neck. I was relieved. It meant it wasn't just me working hard.

I licked my lips and mopped at my brow. I wondered if Madeleine was okay. I felt a spurt of anger and pushed onward with new effort.

After the switchback the sun was in my eyes. We climbed higher. The crowd spaced out in clumps with runs of no one in between as faster climbers drew ahead while slower climbers plodded along. In this way the line self-sorted by speed into social clusters. Scotia slowed until we were climbing the stairs alongside one another. "How are you doing?" she asked, eyes serious.

"Just fine," I said.

She looked at me appraisingly for a moment longer and then let her eyes flit away. "That's a good attitude," she said. "You're a tough cookie."

She jogged up ahead to catch up with Svetlana. They shared a joke together. I always wished I had a girlfriend like that.

Two switchbacks later the sun was a greenish smear melting into the western horizon, the Earth and Venus visible as two dim, twinkling pearls hanging over it all. The day's heat ebbed away and the stones quickly became cold. At long last we hefted ourselves up the last few risers to a long, narrow plateau, a kind of shelf along the cliffs with small boulders piled at the edge as a fence. The plateau was already dotted with tents and illuminated by the glow of camp fires. The scene was surveyed by a single public eye atop a tall pole swaying gently in the breeze.

"It feels awesome to out in nature, like doing everything for ourselves and everything," commented Suzumi as a tinder box crawled out of her backpack and unfolded itself on the ground. There came a blue flash from the titanium-boron igniter and then the sweet smell of hot kindling chased a trail of smoke curling up from the combustibles cage. "Roughing it makes you feel alive," she decided.

"You should put that in your diary," said Scotia.

"I already did. Is it bad that I re-used it now?"

"No, no, no. Maybe it'll trend as a catchphrase. You never know."

Our tents climbed out of our backpacks and lumbered around scanning the ground. Mine turned in place a bunch of times and then finally settled and began to unfold. Everybody arched their backs to stretch them out after being freed. I did too. Everybody twisted their torsos. I did that, too. The other girls reached down and touched their toes while I fished through my gear for a snack.

The brightest stars were becoming visible one by one, punctuating the mauve sky. Crickets chirped. I threw a wrapper in the fire.

"This is kind of peaceful and nice," I said, unwrapping a second snack.

My body was sore but I'd escaped without the worst kind of blister or any kind of injury. I felt awkward around those marketing clones but at least they seemed to be leaving me alone. And Scotia did seem at her most sincere when she was reassuring me I didn't have anything to worry about, so maybe I really didn't.

Maybe this was all going to work out. Maybe even Madeleine would be happy for me.

We fried rice over Suzumi's fire. Svetlana doled out salad. Scotia provided grilled kebabs and I took care of desert. They asked me questions about what exactly I used to do at work and then they didn't ignore the answers I gave. They wanted to know if Rolo was gay. It was kind of nice to be the centre of attention. I turned pink but nobody could tell because of the fire.

"Goodnight, sisters."

I crawled inside my tent which was scarcely bigger than me. I let the sleeping bag find me and wrap itself snug. Very quietly I opened and ate a third snack, lying on my back and staring at the scintillating darkness, listening to the small noises of the others in the tents around me.

I slept so deep I didn't dream.


There was something reassuring about the antiquity of the Felician Stairs that I was only able to put my finger on once it was gone. I was startled out of my pace and almost tripped, catching myself against the cliff on my right. I looked down at the steps. For the first time in two days their character had changed. Suddenly the edges of the risers were crisp and perpendicular.

"Why are the stairs new here?" I asked aloud, panting. My thighs were burning. My shins were burning. The inside of my clothes felt slimy with sweat.

"Washout," said a dark man on the descending path. He gave me a strange smile as I turned my head to watch him pass.

Somebody grunted behind me. I started climbing again, my toes catching on the new edges. I had to look down for a while to find my pace again. Once I did I accelerated so I could catch up to the others. "Excuse me," I said, nudging past some strangers. I winced as I somehow made my angry legs continue moving.

Between bouts of trying to catch my breath I told Scotia what the man had said. She scoffed. "Don't take it to heart, sister," she said. "Don't let him discourage you."

I frowned. "Pardon?"

"You won't wash out, I just know it," said Scotia. She looked over at Svetlana.

"We all believe," said Svetlana.

"But it wasn't about me, it was about the stairs," I said when I could.

"It was probably the same creep that leered at Suzumi," said Scotia. "What did he say to her?"

"Supplicate or suffocate," supplied Svetlana.

"No, that's what he said to me. What did he say to Suze?"

"He asked if she was married. It's disgusting. He looked a thousand years old."

Suzumi had slowed down enough for us to catch up to her. "He didn't ask if I was married," she explained. "He said something about being buried."

Scotia snorted derisively. "Pervert."

"I don't get it." I blinked. "But still, why are the stairs new here? Or -- um, back there, I mean. Look behind us. See? I thought that guy was saying parts of the stairs got washed out sometimes. That's all."

Scotia seemed dubious. Svetlana showed me a patronizing smile. "Do you really imagine there are many floods up here kilometers into the sky? Just because you can see the coast doesn't mean it's close."

I looked out to the ocean horizon visible only as a glimmering haze beyond the green plains below. A froth of dense, heavy clouds was roiling up over the distant waters while we hefted ourselves up the stone steps in the glaring sunshine.

"See?" said Scotia. "It's like the sea is in a whole other world. Can it even rain up this high? That would be a good thing for you to research when we break for camp, Corrine. Is your li-comm signal strong?"

I looked down at my watch. "I've got three bars," I reported, but when I looked up I was trailing behind again.

Lightning snaked silently through the clouds far out over the sea.

When we came to the evening's alcove for camping I was surprised to see how small it was, and wondered what the hikers who arrived after us would do. But as we set up for the night and got supper on and only a few others had turned up I realized that the upward traffic had already thinned to a trickle. It could only be that many of the people we saw coming down had come up no further than this. Here, at the top of the cliffs, on the precipice of the volcanic shield above -- this was close enough for many.

Testament to this were the small temple platforms for offerings dotting the edges of the plateau. This was the point at which some people turned around and went back home.

Twilight came quickly after the sunset was swallowed by the looming storm in the west. The air turned even colder. I inched closer to the fire and hugged my own shoulders.

Scotia called us to gather around as her bead spun up to speed and sprayed out a projection. "I know it's been a tough haul, sisters, but we're about to cross the threshold. Up on the shield above is the Spa of Statues. I've booked us a night so we can refresh ourselves before starting up the mountain proper, like as a reward."

Suzumi and Svetlana cheered so I cheered too, but a second or two too late. I felt like an idiot but nobody glared at me.

Blushing made me feel warm so I jammed my hands in my pockets and wandered away from the light of the fire for a moment. I put my boot up on a boulder and peered over the edge of the cliff. Down below I could see nothing, like staring into blindness.

I squinted, confused. Where were the lights of the settlements at the foot of the cliff?

Lightning flashed. The scene was briefly revealed. The storm had washed in over the lowlands and surged up against the escarpment, dense whorls of cloud completely occluding the landscape beneath us. Like a wave crashing on rocks the storm's westerly edge was sloshing up the cliffs, tendrils of wind-torn cloud reaching up toward us. Thunder groaned.

"Excreta!" I yelped.

Pebbles crunched as Scotia came up beside me. She leaned forward. Her eyes widened when the lightning flashed again but when she turned to me she was grinning. "Ooh!" she said, "Isn't it pretty? Nature sure is awesome."

"I'm a little worried. Should I not be?"

"No, no, no -- of course you should not be," she said, putting an arm around my shoulder. "The storm's not going to come up here and get us, sister. It's not a monster. Let it rain on the plains. We're on Olympus, looking down on it all like Greek goddesses. Ooh -- I like that! -- goddesses. We'd make awesome goddesses, wouldn't we?"

I said, "Um."

A gust of wind whooshed up beneath us, pushing us back from the edge of the cliff. "Well," admitted Scotia, "I never said it might not get a bit windy!" She pulled on her hood and cinched it tight, still smiling.

Gusts of cold air pulsed over the cliff causing our tents and belongings to flap rhythmically. I saw other people frantically gathering their things and securing their sites. "We should get in our tents!" said Suzumi, crawling backward inside her town. "Good night!" she said, shrinking the aperture to a pinched point.

I looked down over the edge once more. Something was glittering in the dark.

"Is the wind blowing rain up at us?" asked Scotia, furrowing her brow.

A triple strobe of lightning. Clouds of glittering particles were surging up at us out of the top of the storm. A rough peal of thunder sounded and then we were assaulted by an up-pour of crystal ice shards. My hands flew over my face. Scotia shrieked. The camp fire turned to fat billows of steam ripped ragged in the erratic wind.

Between lightning flashes the plateau was completely black. During the flashes I saw signs of panic as tents tore loose from their moors. I crouched down into a ball as lumps of hail bounced off my back and slivers of ice cut my exposed knuckles.

Somebody ran desperately past me then screamed when they ran out of plateau. The pitch of the cry changed as they accelerated away, plunging into the storm's churning core below. My breath caught in my throat. Would they die? Oh my God, of course they would!

I crawled deeper into the plateau. I never even tried to find my tent. I just found the cliff side and wedged myself into a niche between two boulders, then fished around inside my pockets until I found my gloves. I hunkered down. I hugged my shoulders and rocked and hummed. I designed dresses in my mind. I remembered my mom.

Ice pelting against rock became a white noise.


Somehow the sun rose again.

The morning was clear. The sky was yellow. The plateau was littered with the scattered remains of our equipment, tools, supplies and selves. None of us had slept much except in the dreary, quiet hour before dawn when the winds had finally faltered. Everything was coated in a crisp layer of frost knotted with hail stones and teethed with icicles, the violent motion of the storm captured and stored in the form of intricate convolutions and sprays and whorls that decorated the ice surfaces, stopped in time, sparkling in the dawn glow.

I peed. I unwrapped a snack. I blew on my hands.

Svetlana looked forlorn. The skin on her face had dozens of tiny pink nicks in it. She was dabbing at them with alcohol and then wincing because of the sting and because of the cold. Suzumi stared into space. Scotia tugged her parka tighter around her shoulders as she walked over from the edge of the ledge. "There's a problem," she said flatly.

We followed her back to look at the next section of the Felician Stairs, the risers run through with glistening cracks and slick with orange mud. As we looked on bubbles slowly formed on the stone, the taut surfaces clear and pristine. Idly they popped.

"It's been explained to me," explained Scotia, "that last night's storm blew loads of hail up over the ridge, and when the sun rose it all melted and started running down through natural fissures in the escarpment. Basically, all the ice is bleeding out through the stairs."

"So the stairs -- they're slippery?" prompted Svetlana, arched brow raised.

"No, no, no," said Scotia, "it's worse than that. The stairs are pretty much floating on a bed of liquid mud." She turned to us and shrugged sadly. "They could come apart under our feet. Word is a car from the parks commission is on its way up to close the trail, so. I mean I guess that's it."

"At least the failure wasn't ours," reasoned Suzumi.

"Perhaps we'll make another attempt, another time," said Svetlana.

"I don't know what to say," said Scotia. "I want to cry," she said, but she didn't cry.

I looked past them as a skinny old Hyper-Christian monk in rough woolen robes extended his foot and touched the first riser experimentally. Its base bubbled but did not move. He cast his eyes skyward and mumbled something and then hefted himself to the next step. He paused to test it, again glanced skyward, then lifted himself again. An ancient Buddhist woman in a bright orange sari followed after him using her cane to feel out the footholds. One of the steps came apart under her foot but she was able to scamper ahead and continue. The monk caught her hand and held it until she was steady. Together they proceeded upward.

Scotia traced my gaze. I chewed the inside of my cheek thoughtfully. "If we go now," I said, "we'll be through the washout before they come to close the trail. If we wait, they'll turn us back. I think maybe we should consider trying it, um, sisters."

Ignoring me, Suzumi turned the discussion to what gear we should bother to haul with us on the journey back down and Svetlana pretended to pay attention so I walked away. My tent had finished dragging its sorry remains up inside my backpack so I knelt down to show it I was ready to be mounted. Once the backpack had secured itself I straightened my jacket and marched to the sweating stairs.

I wasn't ready to go home yet.

Cautiously I started picking my way up the stairs. I didn't look behind me. I didn't have to. I knew there was no way Suzumi and Svetlana could live down my going on without them. That's the secret power of being somebody people look down on -- they can't help but fall over themselves to avoid being less than you. Shame is persuasive.

The team caught up to me when I finally stopped, stunned, unable to continue.

The stairs ahead were riddled with cracks. The riser under the feet of the nun in orange had torn away and she remained on the escarpment only because the monk in brown was clutching her around the middle. A tepid slurry of brown water was washing out of the cliff-side and over the nun, her boots scraping against the increasingly slippery rock in an attempt to find purchase. The monk adjusted his weight slightly. More water spurted out from between the cracked risers.

I couldn't breathe. Scotia, Svetlana and Suzumi pressed into me from behind and started to speak but stopped. I heard Suzumi gasp.

The nun and the monk tumbled off the escarpment. Neither screamed. They were just there one second and then gone -- a blur of fabric and a whisper of wind. Gone.

"Oh my God!" cried Scotia.

"Excreta," I sobbed.

We all stood there frozen for what felt like a long time. I blinked and turned when I heard the murmuring of other hikers carefully coming up behind us. One of them drove a spike into the rock when he lost his footing but the spike came free in a flood of mud and pebbles. He rolled end over end back down the way he'd come, knocking his fellows down as he went. Thankfully none of them went off the edge.

Scotia swallowed loud enough to hear. "It sort of looks just as bad going back down as it does going up," she said. "What do you think, Svet?"

"I don't know," said Svetlana. She crossed her arms so it would be harder to tell she was shaking.


"We should just go down. I think we have to go down. People are dying. We've got to get down."

Maybe Scotia turned to ask me next and maybe she didn't, but I didn't know because I saw a goat. I tilted my head at her and made little clucking sounds like my tongue. The goat blinked at me. I blinked back at the goat.

I reached into my pocket and withdrew a bag of snack. The goat took a tentative half-step forward.

"That's right," I assured her seriously. "Yummy-nummy."

"What's she doing?" hissed Suzumi. "This isn't a good time for her to play petting zoo, Scotia."

"She's in shock," suggested Svetlana blankly.

I tore off a tiny piece of snack and tossed it toward the goat. She tried it out and was duly impressed. She stepped closer, hooves clicking on the stone. I showed her the bag again, and then tossed a handful of snack upward along the eroded staircase ahead.

She tracked my throw. So did Scotia. "Claire, what the hell are you doing?"

"Quiet," I said quietly. "Watch," I said, pointing. "Remember where she steps."


The goat chose her footing precisely as she hopped from ruined step to ruined step, alighting from spot to spot methodically in order to nibble up every last morsel I'd thrown. When she was done she turned around and bleated at me.

I retraced the goat's steps, though much more slowly. When I came too close she skipped up higher, stopping just shy of the entirely washed out section where the monk and nun had made their worldly exeunt. I showed the goat my bag of snack again. She didn't blink.

I threw another handful up the flight, the last pieces falling beyond the washout. Without hesitation the goat picked her way after each mouthful. I studied how she flitted across the ruin.

"If this doesn't work out," I whispered to myself, "I really am really sorry Maddy."

I put my boot on the same hunk of sloping riser the goat had touched her hoof upon. It squelched and leaned, making my heart hammer in my chest. I closed my eyes and pushed off it, landing on a second piece of debris that began to foam at its base when I applied weight. With a little shriek I skipped over the next three hoof-marks in the mud and launched myself at the intact stone stairs beyond.

When I was able to turn on my back and sit up and I waved to Scotia. "Come on," I said as I worked to catch my breath. "It's pretty easy. I mean, I did it, so. You know. You all should be fine."

They didn't look like they believed me, but I knew they couldn't stand to stay there looking up at me from below. I felt a little guilty that it made me smile to know they had no choice. Maybe Suzumi and Svetlana would see that I had valuable contributions to make to this effort, too.

"I don't think it's safe," said Suzumi. "We should call for rescue, Scotia. Damn the fee."

"Don't be stupid," said Scotia, shouldering past her to begin the ascent. "Claire's totally nailed the spirit of this adventure and I'm surprised you haven't yet, Sue."

"We're not all going to live through this," said Suzumi.

"Nonsense," said Scotia. "Ridiculous. You've got to believe, sister."

I grabbed Scotia's forearm and she grabbed mine. I hauled her up onto the firm step beside me. She put her hands on her hips and gestured at the two women below with her chin. She was daring them to turn back, I realized. It was a pissing match with my initiative at the fulcrum. Weird!

And on top of not falling off the cliff and dying Scotia also got my name right twice in a row. Pretty much everything was coming up Claire. The scariest day of my life was also the best one so far.

Goats are awesome.


My legs quivered in protest but obeyed, hefting me up to the last riser of the flight so that I could take a moment to lean against the rocks and pant. While I panted I watched an ant wend its way among the pebbles, over the toe of my boot, and on down the cliff, scuttling carelessly beyond gravity's grasp.

When I was able to look up I lost my breath again.

I stood at the top of the Felician Stairs. Behind me the world dropped away to haze and ahead of me the world bulged up into a belt of thick, smoky cloud. Between me and the mountain was the rest of my team hobbling slowly toward a series of low buildings and gardens set into the rock: Spa of the Statues.

"Wait up!" I called, launching myself after them.

I caught up in the lobby. It was ornate and temple-like, with grey stone walls overgrown with various species of green and red ivy. The floor was packed copper-coloured dirt. Behind a gnarled wooden counter which itself seemed to have smaller plants actively growing out of it stood a portly man with a blonde moustache and twinkling eyes, smiling graciously as Scotia bent his ear. "Oh yes, madam, oh yes," he nodded, "and congratulations on your conquest of the Felician. Your reservation has validated and your arrangements will be just so in a mo. Would you be so good as to impress, madam?"

Scotia pressed her thumb into the goo pad. It chirped and turned green.

"Further," he continued, "we have accepted receipt on your behalf of your mountaineering equipment and sundries for the second leg of your ascent. I have taken the liberty of having everything roboed to your sleeper."

"Thanks," said Scotia. "That's awesome."

"Finally I would remind madam and her party that every guest at the spa has the right to the assumption of pseudo-privacy. Please refrain from interacting with guests outside of your own party except when within designated socialization zones. I'm obliged to tell you that these rules are rather strictly enforced, and the consequences for straying from policy are swift, severe and utterly without appeal. At this time I must ask you to signify your acceptance by saying ‘I understand.'"

"I understand," claimed Scotia.

His grin returned. "Capital. Tonight's special in the dinner hall is probiotic muck à l'orange. Enjoy your stay, ladies. We are so very pleased to have each of you here."

The doors to the inner sanctum unlocked and swung themselves open once a clear passage had been calculated by the house. Lights nestled in the ivy guided us through stone corridors to our reservation, leaving all other ways dark. As we walked we passed ivy-choked stone statues here and there. Some of them were posed in an attitude of walking, while others were sculpted with their hands extended to hold real objects, like drinks trays and piles of folded white towels.

I mean, that's what it looked like. But I wasn't born under a rock. I'd heard about the place, obviously.

I knew the statues were actually staff.

"But they're all robots, right Scotia?" asked Suzumi with a lingering sneer as she crept past one of them. "They'll all start moving again once we're gone?"

Svetlana smirked. "I think most of them are robots," she said, "but from time to time flesh is needed. But we're never to know the difference."

"That's a myth, Svet," snapped Scotia, "made up by perverts. Of course there aren't any actual people. That would violate the whole point of pseudo-privacy. I wouldn't just let some random stranger see me relaxing!"

I cast a sidelong stare at a marble maiden posed in front of a closed door carrying a plate of sandwich crusts. She couldn't be real. Nobody real could stay that still. Plus her algae-streaked eyeballs had no pupils. Still...

I shuddered and moved along faster.

Our reservation was comprised of a cluster of hemispherical stone rooms housing a series of interconnected pools of varying temperatures and mixes. Round apertures around the tops of the chambers were both vents and skylights, so the air was criss-crossed by beams that revealed twisting and circulating whorls of moisture. At the centre of the largest hemispherical room was a waterfall cascading down over hot rocks, the tumbling droplets turning to steam.

After so much coldness and stiffness and sleeping on stone ledges and weary step-climbing the place seemed like heaven itself. I said, "Wow. This is really nice, Scotia."

"I know," she said, "it's like the brochure wasn't even retouched."

Svetlana stepped out of her boots and unpeeled her parka. She tugged off a sweater then unsealed her shirt seams and suddenly she was standing there in her underwear. I didn't know how best to not look at her and while I was trying to decide about that her brassiere unclenched and fell away, and as if she didn't even notice that she put her arms up over her head and stretched out her spine.

It was like that time I stumbled into Mr. Jones-Cobalt's office when he was watching holographic pornography: so awkward.

"So I guess she's pretty uninhibited," I said as I turned to Scotia, but Scotia wasn't there because she was bending down to get her pants off. "Oh!" I said instead to no one.

Suzumi scampered past me and slipped into the closest pool, naked as the day she was born. She closed her eyes and sighed and then disappeared beneath the surface. Svetlana waded in beside her. Scotia kicked her underwear off and followed.

"Oh my God," she moaned. Then she opened her eyes and looked over at me. Svetlana was looking at me, too. Suzumi resurfaced and traced their gazes. She went back underwater. Scotia shifted. "Sister?"

I was pawing through my bag. "I was just trying to find. You know. I was just."

"What's wrong?"

"Trying to find my bathing suit. But."

"Oh no no no, don't be stupid," giggled Scotia. "You don't need a bathing suit! That's what pseudo-privacy is all about, darling -- having no worries."

"Yes," I agreed vaguely, letting go of my bag. For the first time I noticed the alcoves around the perimeter of the chamber, each decorated with a sculptured humanoid form. I wasn't buying the premise: I certainly didn't feel like nobody was looking at me. Even the walls were looking at me!

"Don't be shy," advised Svetlana languidly. "We're all girls here."

That was true. But we weren't all the same kind of girls. I turned back to my pack and was startled to see a statue standing over it, half-hidden behind a veil of steam. The statue was of a young man. He had moss growing up his legs and it made him look like a satyr. In his outstretched stone hands was what looked like a black bathing suit of a conservative cut.

I wanted to hug him. But then I felt stricken. I turned back to the pool. "Scotia, one of them has a bathing suit for me. It's okay if I wear it, right?"

She said it was. I backed away a little bit deeper into the steam to try to find a place to change. When I turned around three statues were frozen in a half-circle, their hands intertwined playfully, forming a wall between me and the team. I thanked the statues and wormed my way out of my clothes and into the bathing suit. The bathing suit fit. I looked down at myself once but then tried to avoid doing so. Bashfully I stepped out from behind the statues and went straight into the water.

When I surfaced the others were smiling at me. I felt kind of dumb for feeling so dumb. The warmth of the pool was unbelievably great. "This is awesome," I said. Everyone agreed.

We tried different pools. In some the water was mineralized and bubbly and in others it was flat and heavy and hot but cut with streamers of refreshingly cold current. There was a pool with oily yellowish water that left our bodies feeling baby soft, and there was a pool with rough-feeling water that peeled away dead skin. Svetlana swam laps in a wider expanse of water while Suzumi was massaged by moving jets. Scotia sipped a drink and lounged on some shallow steps. If we needed anything we just talked about it, and before long we'd come across a statue posed with our needs.

"You should try one of these," she said, talking around a colourful paper umbrella floating in her glass.

"Is it fruit juice?"

"It's a Marineris Delight."

"Those have alcohol in them."

"Well, a little I suppose. Not much. Do you like grapefruit?"

"I like it okay."

"You simply have to taste the grapefruit in this, Cleo! It's beyond awesome."

I tried a sip. It certainly didn't taste like it had much alcohol in it. I agreed to have one of my own and then we both turned our backs so it would come quickly. When we looked again a frosted glass stood at the side of the pool right where I'd been sitting. I admit I probably drank that first one pretty fast.

By my third one I was pretty much just laughing at whatever anybody said. "You're hilarious!" I told each of them several times. I even agreed to let them help me pick out an outfit for going down to dinner. They did my hair and make-up as if we were at a secondary school slumber party, like me and Madeleine used to do when she could still move around more.

They made me make a drunk diary entry, and I cried a little bit because we were all having such a nice time together.

"I can't wear it like this," I told Svetlana, shaking my head. "People will be able to tell. You know. What I'm shaped like."

Svetlana used a safety pin to adjust the way my dress hung. She snorted. "When you're stepping out for an evening people are supposed to be able to tell what you're shaped like. People like one another's shapes."

"It's all in good fun," agreed Suzumi as she tugged off her wedding band and dropped it into her pack. "I want to go dancing!"

"Totally," agreed Scotia, turning around to look at herself in the mirror from different angles. "Are we ready to go?"

Once we'd touched the exit pad it took the spa a moment to calculate our route. When ready the door to the dressing room grumbled aside into the stone wall, presenting us with a lit length of ivy-grown corridor. Svetlana took Suzumi's arm and Scotia took mine, and together we paraded our way to the dining hall.


The dining hall was situated in a vast underground cavern on the shore of a submartian lake whose waters had been turned bone white by natural mineral salts. The lake faded away into pitch blackness outside of the strip of shore illuminated by thousands of candles. The air smelled rusty, like a perfume of old Mars. The maître d' was human, ancient and dignified, his tuxedo immaculate. We followed his little bony bum between the tables until we came to our own. He untucked my chair for me as if I were a royal. I giggled then felt embarrassed. His smile was genteel and reassuring. He talked like a robot. "Madam."

I leaned aside and whispered, "Scotia, why are there no prices on the menu?"

She waved dismissively. "Don't fret, darling. Sometimes you've just got to treat yourself. Are you hungry?"

My stomach gurgled audibly. "Not really," I told her.

She looked me in the eyes. "I'm going to get a little something extra, just in case you want to share it with me. Just something on the side. But I'll order it. What do you think I should get?"

"Oh if I want something I can just order it."

"Nonsense," she said. "I want you to feel comfortable."

Part way through dinner a waiter walked over with a tray of four tall colourful drinks. "From the gentlemen in the corner, ladies," he said as he set one down in front of each of us. "With their compliments."

"Be cool," Scotia said to me while barely moving her lips. "Act like you don't care. Don't look over."

"Shouldn't we say thank you?" I whispered to her.

"No, no, no," said Scotia. "That's not how it's done."

"But I feel rude."

"Now we should all share a little laugh together. Everyone ready? Three, two, one."

We all had a sophisticated chuckle at nothing at all, then deigned to sip our drinks. "What happens next?" I asked.

"When we're finished eating they'll come over," explained Scotia.

"What if they come over sooner?"

"Then they're cads and we should ignore them. What kind of a man interrupts a woman while she's eating? I'd never dance with a man like that."

"I'm not really the biggest dancing fan in the whole world, kind of, anyways."

"Don't talk like that. Of course one of them will ask you."

I flushed. I wasn't sure if I was angry or embarrassed. "That's not what I said."

"But it's what you meant," replied Scotia without looking at me.

Was Scotia nice or was she horrible? I felt guilty and stupid that I still couldn't tell for sure. On top of that the whole cave seemed to be slanting eastward but nobody else was disturbed in the slightest so I tried to ignore it.

When desert was cleared four men with wide smiles came sauntering over to our table. I didn't know where to look so I looked at Scotia. Scotia sipped her drink and looked at them over the rim of the glass. Svetlana raised one arched brow. They wanted to know if we'd enjoyed the drinks. Scotia said we had.

"Ah," grinned the tallest among them, "you're from Mangala Valley. I'd recognize that valley girl accent anywhere."

"It's very sexy," said the man to his right.

"Oh yes, it's among the sexiest of accents," agreed the tallest man. "You could say anything to me in a Mangala accent and I'd be helpless. Utterly helpless."

Suzumi laughed behind her hand. Scotia rolled her eyes. "Is that the best you can do?"

"No, we've got more," the tallest man assured her. "May we sit down? Let us put our best material on the table."

"An audition?" said Svetlana languidly, eyes half closed.

"They're sirens," said the baldest fellow. "I don't think we should sit down. If we do they'll never let us leave. Look at this: one raven-haired, one ginger, one brunette, one blonde. A collector's set. Too good to be true."

For some reason he looked at me when he said "too good to be true" which made me turn pink. I hid inside my drink but found that it was empty, so I waved for just one more.

They sat down, their captain opposite ours. Scotia's counterpart was called Bao. They sparred verbally a bit while the rest of us looked on. I wrapped and unwrapped my fingers around my glass and watched my ice cubes melt, looking up to laugh when everybody was supposed to. The balding fellow to my left scooched his chair closer and leaned in. "You're not entirely comfortable here, are you?"

"No the food was great," I said, shaking my head. But then in order not to focus on the food I said, "And the cave. It's great, too. So...cavernous. I can't believe I just said that. I totally sound like a fool."

"Not at all," he told my collar bone or thereabouts. "Bao and Wei are right about that Mangala Valley accent -- you could read the li-comm references index and I'd swear it was poetry."

I couldn't help but giggle a little. "You're trying too hard."

"I'm overcompensating for my pate."

He was nice. Really all of it was nice. We did end up dancing. Everyone did. He showed me his ring and warned me he could only flirt and dance and not anything more intimate because his marriage was exclusive. I shrugged and told him I was too repressed and neurotic for anything else anyway. We agreed that we were a good match for the evening. "My name is Feng. It means ‘summit.' I think that's why I'm along, actually -- because it's good luck to have your success eponymous within your party."

"I'm Claire."

"Clarity is a good thing to have, too."

"What do you mean?"

"The words share a common root. I know they're pronounced completely differently from one another now, but a few centuries ago they sounded almost the same. Claire and clarity."

"I guess I can almost hear that," I claimed.

He smiled. "I'm being didactic. Please forgive me. When I'm not climbing mountains I'm a schoolteacher. What do you do, Claire?"

I thought of Madeleine. "Nothing," I said quickly, and then laughed. "I do this," I added, gesturing at myself. "When I'm not climbing mountains I dance around summits and get drunk. Oh, that sounded awful. I don't really get drunk often."

"It's okay, I can tell."


"By the way you're drunk. It has an air of authenticity."

We went out to get some air. We actually did end up kissing a bit, but don't tell anybody. There was no one on the terrace to notice except statues of waitstaff. And about a million stars.

When we returned to the cave the lighting had become pulsing and lewd. The music was louder. My eyeballs quivered in rhythm with the bass, blurring the world. Feng held my hand while I dragged him across the dance-floor in search of any member of either of our parties. Finding none we shouted in each other's ears that there was no point in hanging around.

He walked me back to our sleeper and gave me a gentlemanly bow. "Thank you for not being a wretched insincere bore," he said. "I wish you the best of luck in your ascent, Claire."

I laughed. "Thank you for not being gross," I said. "Maybe we'll meet again in the calderas."


It was hard to believe the evening had been passed with such a very small amount of painful awkwardness, but so it seemed. I had the sleeper all to myself until the others returned from their respective adventures. It seemed appropriate to do a little pirouette of happiness in the middle of the domed room but somehow I miscalculated and ended up in one of the beds instead. I tried to get up but it was harder than I thought it would be. Something made me laugh. And then I was dreaming.

I dreamed of a mouse. She wanted cheese. Squeak, squeak, squeak.

My eyes snapped open. The sleeper was dark. From the next bed over came the unmistakable noises of human coupling. I stifled a gasp. Oh God. It sounded like somebody clapping with a handful of cold-cuts.

Embarrassed and horrified I decided to try to make my escape while the couple was distracted. I slowly raised myself on one elbow and blinked against the dark. What could I do? Where could I hide?

"Yeah Wei!" moaned Svetlana dramatically.

I repressed my gag reflex and made a firm decision to crawl along the floor quietly until a better idea came to me. But instead of extricating myself from the bed in silent slow-motion I just fell off it and hit the floor with a boom.

I cringed and froze.

The grotesque applause continued without interruption. I dared to exhale then careful got on my hands and knees to make a go for the washroom. I was thinking maybe I could sleep on some towels in the bath tub. I had reached the threshold of the room when Svetlana and Wei reached the threshold of climax.

It was very theatric.

Afterwards while they were quiet I didn't dare move. In mumbling voices they gave each other positive reviews.

They started chatting and chuckling. I resumed my retreat. I was almost far enough into the washroom to consider sliding the door closed.

I didn't think I was listening to them but I guess I sort of was because I heard it when the talk turned to me. "What's the fat one's story?" asked Wei.

"Don't be cruel," she teased.

"Seriously though. How does she fit in?"

Svetlana sniffed. "Someone has to summit last."


"Are you stupid, Wei?" she said into the dark. "Her function is to lose."

It was at that point that I was surprised to learn just how enthusiastically my stomach wanted to throw up. I was a little too late to stop it. With a bestial croaking sound like the world's biggest frog I covered the washroom floor in probiotic muck à l'orange, ensuring that when the lights came on my humiliation would be total.


It was an alien world up there on the other side of the clouds.

Chirping and croaking rainforests, bird-choked river deltas, endlessly undulating prairies of green and golden grasses -- all the things you think of when you think of Mars -- there were none. Instead: barren copper rock gullies of dead pebbles connected by runs of orange sand, presided over by sullen winds. A cold landscape indifferent to living things.

The very air refused to be breathed. I had oxygen lines up my nose.

Ascending the gentle, almost imperceptible slope was a descent into desolation. While no two steps seemed to make any difference at all each score of steps conspired to drain the habitability out of the world around me. Each hundred of steps incrementally darkened the apex of the sky until I could see Sirius at noon.

It had been four days since I had seen Scotia, Svetlana or Suzumi.

The trail up the mountain was sparsely but regularly peopled. If I wasn't walking along with a party it would be rare that I couldn't see one on the rounded horizon ahead of me, or others coming out of the vapour and haze far behind me. I seldom felt alone and when I did it wasn't for long.

When I did run into people there was a sense of common understanding. We were on similar missions. Language barriers weren't a problem because we didn't need to speak a lot. I even came across a chimpanzee once, loping along all by herself. I don't really sign so there wasn't much we could say to one another. We just sat on a rock and ate lunch, trading bits of goodies when something caught my eye or hers.

I didn't know if she belonged to a human being or belonged to herself. I couldn't ask. I couldn't even know her name. But still I felt like we were friends when we bowed to one another and proceeded up different forks of the trail, me studying my map and she studying the landscape.

I met a robot, too, limping unaccompanied. He was one of those simple but exceedingly polite household models, expensive but unsophisticated, so he couldn't help but waste resources in greeting me. "Madam, is there anything this unit can get for you?"

I couldn't help but giggle. I knew his words didn't mean anything but I engaged him anyway because it had been a while since I'd seen anyone. "Whad do you hab?" I asked.

"Madam, if you would deign to repeat?"

I adjusted the oxygen lines in my nostrils. "What do you have?" I asked again.

"Madam, regretfully this unit has access to few amenities at this time, but is possessed of strength and locomotion at your service. Madam, would you care to have your baggage ported at this time?"

"No I'm fine thank you," I said, walking along beside him. "Why are you limping? What happened to your leg?"

"Madam, this unit is sufficiently operational to provide a wide range of services. Madam, this unit was damaged when failing to maintain adequate pedal purchase while porting a heavy load."

"It doesn't hurt you, does it?"

"Madam, naturally not. Madam, your concern is gracious."

"What were your carrying?"

"Madam, a gentlemen had graciously elected to avail himself of this unit's service."

"You carried somebody's backpack?"

"Madam, it was the gentleman himself who was carried."

"Oh my goodness. What happened when you fell?"

"Madam, the gentleman graciously shot this unit in the leg."

"Oh my God!"

"Madam, this unit is sufficiently operational to provide a wide range of services."

"Yeah, but still. That's crazy. So you ran away from your master?"

"Madam, the gentlemen was a hiker such as your genteel self, madam. Madam, this unit's master resides in the kingly city of Nirgal. Madam, this unit's master has graced this unit with a brave and singular mission to retrieve a stone from the summit of this mountain."

I frowned. "Only pilgrims are allowed to take any stones, I thought."

"Madam, this unit is pilgrim on behalf of this unit's master."

I cocked my head. "Can it work that way?"

The robot turned to face me and lifted a corroded hand to tap on his head beside his optic sensors. "Madam, this unit's master sees everything this unit sees and follows every step of this unit's progress with diligence and piety."

I looked into the robot's glassy optics as he looked at me. I raised a cat mitten and waved. "Hello in there! My name's Claire! How do you do!"

I smiled. The robot smiled, too. But then again robots like that are always smiling.

It didn't take long to draw ahead. Soon the robot was limping in the distance behind me, visible only when the sun caught a clean part of him and made it glint. I focused on controlling my breathing and keeping my steps steady. My thighs startled to prickle and burn as I rounded a lobe of hard bronze rock. I paused at the top to gather myself.

The flank of mountain beyond was dominated by a many-fingered glacial blanket of whiteness. And though a few flakes twisted lazily in the air I knew what I was seeing ahead was not snow. The map unfolded itself into my hands and I double-checked to be sure. Yes. This was it. The very southern edge of it, at any rate.

The Blumenfeld Growth -- the world's largest fungal forest. Square kilometre after square kilometre of unfettered mycological life.

Heeding the warnings from the brochure I mumbled to my backpack as I lowered myself to my haunches. It dismounted me and disgorged a medical pack. The medical pack unfurled and presented a tiny canister of differently coloured pills: micafungin, butenafine, polygodial, isoconazole, miconazole, ravuconazole, amorolfin, tolnaftate and crystal violet.

They looked like candies. Life-saving candies.

I yanked back my sleeve and waved my wristwatch through the air. It chirped. The atmospheric taster recommended a dose of two reds, one green, a pink and a yellow-green striped. I took off my mittens and carefully picked the right combination out of the medical pack.

My message bead was blinking. I ignored it. I really couldn't imagine anything to say to Scotia, Suzumi or Svetlana. Were they calling to taunt me or to apologize? To me it didn't matter.

If a limping domestic could climb as proxy for some rich man in Nirgal then surely I could climb as proxy for Madeleine.

So I really wasn't going ahead alone, in a way.

Never the less when I looked up again and saw that spread of weird, inscrutable whitish-grey material in folds and whorls of impossible scale it took a bit of extra effort to pick up my boots and make them step ahead of one another again.

It was hard to bring the fungal forest closer. But turning back would have been harder.


There was a boardwalk through the Blumenfeld Growth. Its sides were dotted with signs which repeated in half a dozen languages and scripts that varying from the trail promised lethal consequences.

The fluffy fibres and silky tendrils of the surrounding mycological Eden all thinned and browned at the borders of the boardwalk. I wondered what terrible stuff the boards secreted to keep themselves bare. Life here was stubborn and creative. It would take a lot to hold it back.

A gossamer pattern of orange strands was already visible on the surface of my parka. Green and grey motes hung heavily in the air, parting in slow-motion whorls as I stepped through. Exotic dusts settled on my shoulders and took hold there, accumulating into networks of thickening flakes and glistening lobes. The brochure had told me to expect this, and to resist the urge to taste any of it no matter how sweet the smell.

It was true. The stuff growing on my shoulders smelled like maple flossed sugar. I started to salivate. But I didn't lose my head. I knew the one thing the fungal forest wanted more than anything was a fresh source of food -- and it wasn't above resorting to tricks.

I stopped in my tracks after rounding a curve where the boardwalk dodged the towering bone-white stalk of a massive mushroom looming overhead. Here, in its shadow, lay someone's backpack abandoned in the middle of the path.

Instinctively I cowered and covered my head, then risked a longer look at the giant mushroom cap blocking the sunlight from me. Its underside was a dizzying convolution of radial ridges. I couldn't see anything threatening. I peered around the forest at my level and saw only the same fractal mash of mycological free-for-all I'd been seeing for an hour. It was quieter than any plant and animal forest could ever be -- even the small sounds were pristine in their muffled isolation.

I called out, "Henno?"

I adjusted my oxygen lines and tried again, louder this time. "Hello?"

I came closer to the abandoned pack. There were no footprints on the immaculate boards of the toxic boardwalk, no scuffs or lines or debris. No blood. The backpack was not torn, nor stained or weathered. Only a small amount of orange webbing was clinging to its upper surface.

I stiffened. That meant whatever had happened to the hiker had happened recently.


My breath caught in my throat. I swallowed it and spun, trying to look everywhere at once. Motion caught my eye and I froze. "Oh my God..."

In a shaft of sunlight crawling with motes stood a doe.

It made no sense! How could it be? I blinked, tilting my head at the thing.

The doe blinked its bottomless brown eyes. It stirred but did not run away. The mote-filled air glittered around it as it stood, long legs fixed in place just beyond the gloom of the mushroom's shadow. The doe's ears twitched nervously.

"Don't be afraid," I whispered, keeping as still as I could. "How did you get here, little girl? Where did you come from?"

The doe licked her nose. I couldn't help but smile.

Her presence was unexplainable but my heart was engaged. I hunkered slightly lower.

A shout: "Behind you! Behind you! It's about to strike -- behind you!"

Automatically I turned. A long, conical tendril had extended from the underside of the overhead mushroom cap all the way down to my level, its mouth a wet aperture only inches away from my face.

Let me just admit this right up front: I peed a little.


I dropped. The tendril was pierced by an arrow. Where the shaft of the arrow touched the fungal flesh a rapidly expanding discolouration grew. The thing wilted as it turned brown, sagging lower out of its root in the whorls above until it collapsed under its own weight and settled into a pile of shifting ooze that exhaled a foul yellow steam.

From where I crouched on the boardwalk I turned my head left. Standing deep in fungus was a wide-hipped woman in a full-body coverall with a transparent helmet and an arm-mounted crossbow. She took a few steps forward, eyes pinned to the rotten tendril, then let her armed arm dip. Her eyes met mine.

I said, "Thank you!"

She nodded curtly then climbed over the side of the boardwalk and knelt next to her pack. Her outfit looked like a space-suit. She dusted the orange webbing off with her gloves and fed a series of sample vials into the pack's aperture. She took a reading on her watch then cracked the seal on her helmet and opened it up. A small pale face peered at me out of a mass of dark, sweaty hair. "Glad I could help. You okay?"

"I'm pretty okay," I assessed as I got to my feet. I risked a look up at the looming mushroom cap. "My name's Claire. Are anymore of those things going to come down?"

"Frantiska Ludmilo. No, she'll take hours to recover from loosing that tooth. See? Bait's already deflating."

I looked where she pointed. The doe in the shaft of sunlight was shrivelling down into the grass-like undergrowth. I turned back. "That's incredible. It was...a trap. You're a botanist?"

"Mycologist. U of N. You're a pilgrim?"

"I'm a hiker."

"Shouldn't hike alone in carnivorous forests. Didn't you read the sign?"

I flushed. "Sure, I just didn't think that -- I mean, the speed of it -- well, the pamphlet didn't say anything about fungus deer decoys."

She nodded. "I know. Brand new stratagem. I'll get to name it."

Frantiska artfully pressed an impressive fraction of her wild hair into a woolen toque and fed a pair of oxygen lines into her nostrils. She grimaced, swallowed, then shook her head and tucked her hands into gloves. "It's freezing out here on the boardwalk. But I have to get to my next checkpoint in short order. Lingered a bit at that last site. Want to talk together?" She knelt before her pack and it climbed onto her. She looked up at me, one eye visible through her hair.

"Sure," I said, offering her a hand. She took it and got to her feet. We both took a moment to catch our breath, then set off along the boardwalk.

As we walked Frantiska pointed out some of the more amazing specimens around us peppered now and again with a warning about potential dangers. "Within Blumenfeld you must be suspicious of everything amazing you see, because the function of that amazement is to distract you from the function of something else." She was planning to recommend the parks department erect antibiotic roofing over particularly indefensible sections of the trail but had mixed feelings because of the way it would spoil the view. "What's the point of visiting the growth if you can't see the amazing stuff?" she asked. "Amazement isn't free. There's always risk in it. That's why pilgrims come through her."

"Our group leader chose the route for speed, not for the attractions."

Frantiska raised a brow. "Say, Claire, who's the leader in group of one?"

I kept my eyes straight ahead. "There were four of us. I mean, originally. And I guess there's still the three of them but I'm walking alone now."

"Couldn't keep up with you?"

I sort of chuckled. "That's not it. I'm sure they're way ahead of me by now. They probably rerouted to save us all the awkwardness of running into one another. We had differences, you know, so."

"Are you an irrational, unfair, hateful person, Claire?"

"Um, no," I giggled. "I hope not!"

"Oh, well," reasoned Frantiska with a small smirk, "it must be them, then."

She talked about the Blumenfeld Growth a lot. She loved it. She spent nine months of the year up to her armpits in it. She always called it "her." I asked her why and she explained that the growth was not a literal forest -- an ecozone defined by competing kinds of plants and trees and bugs and birds and mosses -- but instead a single individual super-organism filling every available niche with a micro-evolved surface feature. "Miss Blumenfeld is at least a kilometer deep according to the seismics. She's the fattest thing on Mars."

"How did -- um, she -- get here?"

"Oh! Well! That's very interesting, actually. We brought her. That is, the pioneers did. But not to this mountain. She'd certainly have been seeded in one of the basins. That's where everything that grows took hold first. She would've been cultured to disseminate minerals -- that's what a lot of the early myco-complexes were for. That way when the ants came in to start aeration there was a heterogenous soil to work with rather than just stripes of different weights of silica sands."

"They were engineered? To help the terraforming?"

"Exactly. And designed to die off once their bit was done. But evolution makes mud-pies of any aspiring godling's plans. The Blumenfeld found a way to keep going, to dodge every bullet, to adapt as fast as we could. If she feels threatened she jams an appendage full of mutagens and lets cry the dogs of war! You know? It's amazing." Frantiska grinned wistfully. "At any rate, civilization chased her off Mars and up the mountain. And here she clings, catching as catch can. A spiderweb for flies."

"Don't take this the wrong way, but couldn't she be -- you know -- exterminated? Because of the danger?"

"We don't dare. Because the beauty of it is that she wants what we want. She likes the atmospheric mix just the way it is, and anytime it wanders she nudges it back. She's the globe's most sensitive atmospheric sensor and its most skilled operator."

I looked sideways at her. "How does she operate it?"

"She makes it rain. Or she doesn't. She's got her western edge on the fringe of the trans-oceanic stream and her south-eastern edge touches the Tharsis gyre -- basically, she sits at the crossroads of two of the planet's most influential weather systems. She can seed clouds along either current or along neither. We could never in our wildest dreams have designed such a perfect caretaker."

"So I guess it's okay that she picks off the occasional pilgrim."

"Sacrifices to the rain goddess? Maybe so, Claire. An authentic Olympian titan. A beautiful monster."

I nodded. "My sister's a bit like that."

We crested a small rise. Ahead of us was a dense glen of varicoloured mycological glee, a stone-still storm of clashing spirals wreathed in iridescent hair. An emergency flare lifted lazily from behind the glen, the smoke of its tail deforming in the breeze. The head of the flare flashed urgently pink. A few seconds later a soft and echoing pop! made its way to us.

Frantiska stiffened. "Flares! She must be hunting again."

"That means someone's in trouble over there, right?"

She nodded. "Let's go!"


Running wasn't an option. Not with air so thin. We loped as best we could, our boots beating the boards in painfully slow rhythm. It took us ten minutes to round the glen.

We passed through a field of white grass-like fuzz that grew higher than our heads, the breeze causing it to curtsy in undulating waves. If you looked close you could see that the fuzz was sticky and fringed with insects struggling to free themselves. Between panting breaths Frantiska advised, "Keep to the middle of the boardwalk, in case the wind bends the teeth close enough to touch you."

I did as I was told. We followed a hairpin turn in the boardwalk and found ourselves suddenly outside of the Blumenfeld Growth. I stopped short. So did Frantiska. "What the hell...?" she whispered, gaping.

The boardwalk continued along through a short, narrow valley -- a valley of nude bronze rock streaked with runs of loose grey pebbles and sand. The fungal forest had come to an abrupt end behind us. The steep valley walls ahead were lifeless and dusty and cold.

I looked down at my watch. The map showed us still within the bounds of the growth. "What happened here? What could kill everything off? Some kind of pollution -- a poison?"

Frantiska shook her head. "I don't know, Claire. I've never seen a die-off like this. It' some kind of myco holocaust."

We were both startled when a second flair erupted upward from behind a collection of onearby boulders. The report of its firing was surprisingly close, the echoes overlapping. The sound was chased by a high-pitched scream, as if it had been a firework.

We loped over. We pushed hard. The edges of my vision turned grey and started to sparkle.

In the lee of a clutch of big broken rocks were visible only the upper thirds of two high-altitude dome tents, both pink. I recognized them from the manifest images: I had an identical tent in my own pack. The tents seemed to be somehow sinking into the rocks themselves. "Excreta, excreta," I said to myself. I tried to breathe right so I wouldn't throw up. I couldn't stop adjusting my oxygen lines.

Frantiska had already vaulted over the boardwalk's railing. She bent her knees to hit the stone in a squat, but there was no recoil when she came to the ground. Her feet penetrated the rock as if it were papier-mâché. She went right through, stopping hip-deep.

The first thought to occur to me made no sense. I cried, "Is it lava?"

"No," reported Frantiska, frowning as she waved away a cloud of dust. "It's mycological. We're still inside Miss Blumenfeld after all."

I looked around wildly. "So why can't we see fungus?"

"Because she has camouflaged herself."

A chill trickled down my spine. Cautiously I approached the edge of the boardwalk and stuck my boot through the railing, toeing at the copper rocks. The closest turned to dust when I touched it, the dust carried away on the breeze. It was fake. It was all fake. I reeled back. "How can I get to you?"

Frantiska yanked on one leg and then the other. "I don't think you can. It's alright. My suit can release bursts of anti-mycological toxins. Hang in there. Need to put my helmet back on."

"Do you need a hair binder? I have extra hair binders."

"No, I've been fitting this bramble into helmets for years. I just do a twist like this and it turns into a bun -- well, a loaf of bread."

She sealed the helmet, her little pale face almost lost in the sphere of mashed hair. She opened a wrist control and tapped at its surface. A thick and churning umber steam roiled up from where her legs touched the rock-like mushrooms.

I coughed sympathetically. She pulled free. But instead of coming back toward me she waded deeper off-trail, slogging her way toward the tops of the sunken pink tents. Every few minutes she dispensed anti-mycological toxins, the drips from her boots yawning open depressions to step down into. The closest tent was the most exposed. Frantiska fought her way to it.

She sprayed bursts of aerosolized anti-mycos from her fingertips to help peel slabs of crumbling wet clay-like growth away from the front flap of the tent. I bit my lip. "Can you see anything?" I called.

A hand reached out from the tent and seized her by the shoulder.

Frantiska went down on one knee and used both arms to haul backward. Bit by bit a body wrapped in long underwear emerged. It was Svetlana. When I saw her flail and grab I knew she was still alive. Her face was drawn and terrified, and she wasn't wearing a stitch of makeup. She was breathing hard. She attached herself to Frantiska as if Frantiska were her mother. Frantiska straightened with effort. "It's going to be fine," she said, grimacing as she lifted one leg and started to lurch back toward me and the boardwalk with a grown woman clinging to her.

"Svetlana! Can you hear me?" I cried.

"You know her?" grunted Frantiska as she slowly advanced.

"This is my group," I said.

Frantiska leaned into the railing. I helped to catch Svetlana. That is to say Svetlana piled upon me and we both fell backward onto the boardwalk. She was shaking. "The ground tried to swallow me," she stammered between gasps. "I woke up being squeezed into rock. What would have happened if my flare hadn't been seen? You saved my life, you saved my life."

Gently I turned her face to face me. "Who's in the other tent? Is it Scotia?"

"My God, my God," she gibbered, closing her eyes and gasping harder. "You saved my life, you saved my life, God."

I yanked the emergency oxygen pack out of my bag and pressed the mask over Svetlana's face. She opened her eyes wide with surprise and then let them fall until closed. I pulled my sleeping bag over her and squeezed her shoulders. "There, there," I said, just like when Madeleine babbled. "You're okay now."


I turned. Frantiska had arrived at the second, more far-gone, tent. Her expression was grim. "Getting this one out's going to be more of a challenge. She's deeper. The process has gone further."

"Which process?"


I swallowed the taste of bile back. "What can I do?"

"Break up the boardwalk. Make a path. I need another set of hands."

My own pink tent had unfolded itself on the boardwalk. I tried to coax Svetlana inside but she freaked out when she saw the thing and started trying to climb on top of me again, so I rolled her up inside the sleeping bag and turned her so she could face the sky. I had to pause before moving again because my vision was starting to swim. I grabbed my camping saw and showed it how to cut the boards out of the boardwalk by making an example cut. Its eye blinked green and the camping saw got to work.

Frantiska waded back to me to take the first freed boards. Her helmet was fogged with condensation, her face running with sweat. Wordlessly she took the boards and laid them end to end on the false ground, creating a kind of balance beam to walk on along the bottom of a trough of blackening dead mushroom flesh.

When the beam was long enough I joined Frantiska beside the far tent. Frantiska peeled back the flap. Inside the tent Suzumi was visible from the torso upward. Her lower half was engulfed in mycological growth that shimmered with a fuzz of cilia. Suzumi was breathing. Her eyes were open and darting, but she did not look at us or respond to anything we said. Foam drooled from one corner of her mouth. "She's been poisoned," explained Frantiska, "to minimize struggle."

Frantiska snapped her fingers around Suzumi's head. Suzumi did not react.

"We need help."

"Summoned," said Frantiska, nodding at her wrist-mounted controls. "Paramedics with life gear and full toxin kits. On their way. The wait won't be short. I'll stay with her, of course."

"If someone waits with her it should probably be me."

"What? No, Claire. It's me that has the anti-mycos. You've got to get the other one out of here."


"She's in shock. She can't stay in Blumenfeld. You've got to get her clear."

"She doesn't want to climb anymore. I don't think she can."

"Going back through the growth won't be an option for her. We're less than a kilometre from the northern bounds. Carry her if you have to. There's a parks department emergency shelter where the trails converge. They can do a rescue there. I'll set it up. Are her premiums paid?"

I nodded. Also I was crying. "Is Suzumi going to die?"

"Probably," said Frantiska, "but not for sure; and not alone."

"You don't even know us. You don't have to do this."

"Familiarity doesn't change morality," said Frantiska. "Now get the hell out of here, Claire. It was nice to have met you."

The real border of the Blumenfeld Growth was marked by a wall. Nothing grew very near to it, but the last fringe of fungal life standing undulated in orange and black bands mimicking the wall's caution stripes. Svetlana and I slowly limped closer, her weight a constant drag on my right side. Whenever I paused for breath she tugged on me urgently and pleaded, "We've got to get out of here. Keep moving, keep moving."

The wall swallowed the boardwalk. We stumbled under an arch. Suddenly we were standing on gravel and the temperature had dropped ten degrees. The boardwalk had ended and Blumenfeld was behind us.

Svetlana straightened, pushing against me peevishly. "Where are we?" She hugged her own shoulders and stared at me, shivering. "Where have you taken us?"

I dropped to one knee and breathed, my eyes squeezed shut against the sparkles. "You still. Haven't told me. Where. Scotia is."


I managed to look up at her. "Scotia. Is she dead?"

"How should I know? She abandoned us. And now Suzumi's swallowed up by fungus." Svetlana sagged into the side of a boulder and covered her face. "It could have been me!"

My backpack dismounted me, then in turn Svetlana's backpack dismounted my backpack. It chuckled and hummed as it sorted itself in search of her parka and mittens and scarf, disgorging them finally with a squeal of pressurized air. Svetlana waved the mist aside and yanked at her cold weather gear. While she got dressed I crawled over to where she'd cast aside my sleeping bag. I pet it a little and then invited it to curl up for stowing.

"How far to the emergency shelter?" said Svetlana, sealing her parka. She knelt down next to her pack and gestured at it to climb aboard.

I got to my feet and shuffled over, bending down to show her the big map unfolding in the palm of my cat mitten. "Here at the fork, you take the low road. You should make it by sunset. You sort of have to, because you don't have a tent anymore."

Her arched eyebrows angled sharply. "What's all this you, you, you, you?"

"I'll take the high road. I should be able to make this camping spot by nightfall."

"You're leaving me?"

I shrugged as nicely as I could but couldn't work up the muster to actually say much. "I'm really sorry," I finally said. "But Scotia's out there alone, so."

Svetlana stood. She looked as if she had the taste of something awful in her mouth. "You don't owe Scotia anything. Scotia's a whore. Suzumi and I hate Scotia now. All of this is her fault. You can see that, can't you?"

"Do you think Scotia deserves to die alone on the side of this mountain?"

"Do you?"

"No, I don't."

"You're a fool to forgive her. Are you so desperate for a friend that you'll even cling to ones that betray you?"

I looked down and watched my mittens mauling each other. "I'm not sure why I have to go but I have to. Um, go. So I am. So I guess this is goodbye."

I looked up. Svetlana was already walking away.


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?"

"Of. Air."

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.


Nirgal is a big, big city. It's so dense and so wild that it's laid out like a forest: in clumps and glens and fringes testifying to the accumulation of different financial seasons instead of according to any clear plan. The oldest of the old quarters are packed in along the north shore of the river, the mighty Marineris, the only river Martians ever mean when we just say "the river." The real estate that hugged the bank was ancient and sedimentary and rich.

The house looked like a castle. There was nothing that looked remotely like it back in Mangala Valley. The architecture was so traditional it looked almost Earthy. Weird.

I walked up the walk and stopped on the stoop, waiting for the door to recognize me. When nothing happened I cleared my throat. Finally I just leaned in and actually knocked on the door with my knuckles.

Very even footsteps approached. The door's central cell turned transparent. I found myself facing a very old model of household steward very similar to the one whose mission I would now complete. I cleared my throat again. "Hi."

"Madam, the master is indisposed and will see no one. Thank you and good day."

I reached inside my bag. "Um, this is weird but I want to deliver a stone."

"Madam, gardeners and other contractors must interface with the service entrance accessible from Cuthbertson Boulevard West."

"No, you don't understand. I'm not a gardener. I'm -- just helping out."

"Madam, the master is indisposed and will see no one. Thank you and good day."

"It's from the peak of Olympus. I'm finishing an errand."

There was a pause and then the door ground back into the wall with a rumble and a squeak. The steward reached out, so I put the stone into its hands. Its arms bowed a bit but it didn't fall over. After a moment it said, "The master would see you now."

"Oh," I said, and then, "Um, that's not really necessary. I'm just a proxy's proxy, you know? So. It's fine. It's okay." I tucked my bag aside and backed down one step. "I just wanted to make sure he got what he was looking for, so. I'm just going to go. Thank you?"

"Madam, the master would see you know. Madam, the master says, '"Please.'"

I sighed. I stepped up one step again. "Okay," I conceded with an involuntary smile. "I guess so."

"Madam, this way."

The house was dark, the corridor lined with tapestries covered in protective films that rustled as we walked by. The items of furniture were vague goliath shapes beneath dusty sheets. The windows were discoloured and the light that came in was yellow; the skyscrapers outside seemed fuzzy and golden and far away.

The steward escorted me up a winding staircase, though a hall of draped statues, and finally along a wide corridor lined with closed doors. At the end of the corridor was a double-wide set of doors from under which leaked a bit of light. The steward opened one of the doors and silently stood aside.

With a nervous smile I walked past the steward, and inside.

I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the brightness.

"I can't believe you really came," he said from his side of the membrane. He held up a hand in greeting, the fingers spread childishly wide. "But maybe I should've known. I'm sorry. I'm Sum, I should say, by way of introductions."

I couldn't help but smile. "I'm Claire, but I guess you know that." I waved.

Sum's suite was a kingdom of colour and splendour. The moving mural on the ceiling was intricate and whimsical and bright. The walls dripped copper over blue over copper in ever-changing streaks. The floor rippled and glittered as if water, the current appearing to split around items of furniture. Wide windows admitted gorgeous views of the river and the city's oldest core.

Every aperture was redundantly sealed. Very translucent intelligent plastics were sheeted taut across the window panes, and beyond them the faint glimmer of particle shielding. The outputs of the ventilation ducts had been connected to rebreathers with hospital logos on the sides. In a clean room in the corner nearest to me two corroded old robots were washing dishes.

Sum watched me take it in.

I said, "You can't come out."

"I can," he said in a friendly way, "but it's an ordeal."

"You're immuno-compromised."

"It's a long story. Let's just say I'm immuno-unique."

I laughed. "So you live your life through robot proxies," I said as we both watched the steward who'd met me at the door taking the stone from the summit into the clean room. An airlock cycled behind the robot.

Sum nodded. "I've got robots everywhere, living little bits of life for me." He gestured behind him to the central object of the suite, a two-tiered merry-go-round array of depthy video windows. "I was disappointed when my Olympic pilgrimage window went dark."

"I'm sorry," I said quickly. "That was my fault."

"Miss Claire I'll admit you were causally connected but I won't submit to characterize it as fault. From my point of view it was poetic justice. It was morally necessary for me to be cheated out of vicarity at the moment of climax, because my pseudo-pilgrimage was at heart a cheat. Fair's fair."

"Life's not reputed to be a very fair thing, Mr. Sum."

"Fair is in the eye of the beholder," he said with an earnest nod. "And don't tell me I've mistranslated the aphorism because the scholars who agree with my take could probably beat up the scholars anyone representing your side might cite." After a moment he said, "I hope you know I'm joking. It's a terrible habit."

"You saved my life," I said. "And Scotia's, too."

He smirked. "Well that's a shining example of two acts that sort of cancel each out. Poof!" Then he said, "I'm sorry, that's dreadful. Civilized people never joke about anti-matter. Or the comparative value of human lives, I suppose." He cleared his throat. "I don't get out much."

I smiled. "Enjoy your summit stone, Mr. Sum. I'm really glad I got to be a part of bringing it to you. I think you probably do deserve it, after all. You seem nice."

"Are you trying to go? Please don't go. Please stay a while. I don't mean to be rude."

"I don't think you're rude, I think you're hilarious. But I am trying to go because I had to get same-day train tickets or it would've cost too much. I've got a new job but I'm saving up for a few things, so." I looked at his carpet. I took my purse from my right arm and hung it on my left for some reason. When I looked up again Sum was wearing a peculiar little grin.

"I never get to say this," he said, "but I'd like to try it out: do you have any idea who I am?"

"Are you going to offer to buy me train tickets, because I think that would make me uncomfortable. I mean thank you but no thank you."

"It's my train."

"It's your I'm sorry?"

"Sander-LeRoche Pan-Planetary Transport. The historic limited-liability intelligence complex. I own it. The lines, the trains, the yards, the stations, the robots."

Instead of saying something smart I blurted, "Is that a hard job?"

Sum smiled. "They don't ask a lot of me."

"I still don't want a free ride," I warned him. "That would put me in a position."

He expression was child-like in its unvarnished disappointment. "But I just met you again and I don't want you to go."

I turned to one of the many robots in the room. "So why don't you come over? By proxy, of course. I've got someone I'd really like you to meet. She likes to laugh a lot these days and you two have a lot in common."

Sum looked at me sideways. "Are you trying to set me up with your undatable sister?"

I nodded. "There's a few things you should know, though --"

He grinned. "I've done my homework. I always do my homework. What else is there to do? Listen, Miss Claire: I'm not at all offended by your apt suspicion that I might have a weakness for girls in your league of pretty who also happen to be housebound and single."

I was blushing. I turned away. "So you'll accompany me?"

"Let me just get a clean proxy on," said Sum. He held up one hand and wiggled his fingers in a complex pattern.

An old but polished steward with an artfully decorated carapace stepped up smartly. I think it was probably the nicest one in Sum's collection -- a real classic. "Madam, this unit can serve as proxy," said the robot.

"Awesome," I said. "But when we get there I want to hear you speak up for yourself. I don't want my sister falling in love with your robot, Mr. Sum. Right?"

The robot opened its mouth and spoke with a slight echo in Sum's voice as Sum himself spoke on the far side of the membrane. "No de Bergerac routine. Understood, Miss Claire. Lead the way. But don't rush. We'll take my car. Car, tell the stationmaster Sum Sander's stand-in is sallying forth!"

The double-doors flew open, and we walked out and away from his body as it waved good-bye.


So that's how everyone could come to dinner, even Sum. Sum's proxy arrived with me, straight off the train from Nirgal and to our apartment door. I paused to dust the dust from the shoulders of the robot steward. "How do I look?" it asked with Sum's voice.

"Retro," I said.

We went inside. I could hear Madeleine laughing from the kitchen. Rolo was telling dirty jokes. I swept in and introduced the robot as nearly but not quite Sum from the Nirgal, owner of the pilgrim by proxy. Rolo's eyes widened. "Sum Sander --" he began.

"No," denied the steward quickly, shaking its gleaming head, "Sum Johnson. No relation."

"Because they say there's one of the Sander boys who's got some kind of secret condition and he never leaves --"

"Sum is a pretty common name," claimed the steward. Then, pointing at itself, asked, "Miss Claire, where should I park this thing?"

We decided to go to the sitting room. I pushed Madeleine's new wheelchair. She was smiling. She smiled all the time now. "So how was Nirgal?" she asked, craning her head up to look back at me.

"Historic and frenetic," I said. "I got you a snow-globe at the train station."

"Love you, sis."

She reached out to take it and then wheeled herself over to put it on the shelf, using her own doughy arms for locomotion. Ever since we'd decided to walk to space again one day together she'd been doing more and more for herself. We were having a lot of fun together again, like we used to when we were kids. How did my climb up a mountain cause Madeleine to stop being one? I don't entirely know, but I suspect it means it really was me that was keeping her down somehow. It was my own lack of hope that smothered hers before it could even kindle.

"I brought dessert," said Rolo, pinching my shoulder. "Six of your favourite flavours!"

"Do you think you-know-who will really show?" asked Madeleine.

"I don't know who you-know-who is," said Sum's proxy.

I smiled. "It's Scotia. And maybe she'll come and maybe she won't. We won't wait on her. The invitation said we dine at nineteen sharp."

"Scotia?" echoed Sum's proxy. "The woman who set you up to fail on Olympus?"

"She may have thought she was setting me up to fail but in the end she set me up to unfail, now didn't she?"

"Not on purpose," Madeleine pointed out.

"Purposes are a confused business," I said. "We work through ourselves in mysterious ways. Now let's get all this carried out to the table. Maddy, where's your tray? You're a ferry. Sum can load and unload you."

"With your permission," said the steward for Sum.

Madeleine's round cheeks pinkened. "Toot-toot," she said.

"What should I do?" asked Rolo.

The door chimed. I looked toward it and then back at Rolo. "You can answer the door, I guess."

He smiled but didn't move. "What if it's Scotia?"

"What if?"

He smiled sheepishly again. "I'm kind of afraid of her."

I rolled my eyes.

Scotia brought a big bowl of salad and it was the only thing she looked at for the first few minutes. I put it down on the kitchen counter and her eyes followed it. "I'm glad you came," I told her, but when I reached out to touch her hand she flinched. "You don't have to feel anxious."

"I'm not anxious," she said to the salad. "I just keep feeling like something bad may happen. Like this is all an elaborate joke. So you can humiliate me somehow. Which I probably even deserve somewhat."

Back in the sitting room everyone laughed at something at once. To Scotia I said, "I don't need revenge on you. Okay? If it weren't for you I'd never have climbed the mountain."

"We used you," Scotia said, looking up at me for a second. She put her hands together tightly. "I recognize that now."

"Okay," I agreed easily. "So why don't you carry that salad out to the dining room because this oven says it's almost finished working on dinner?" I tugged on a pair of oven mitts with cat faces on the back of them. The cat faces had silly eyes that roamed randomly while their tongues stuck out.

Scotia took a step closer. "I've come here tonight prepared to apologize to you," she told me earnestly, now holding my gaze properly.

I shrugged and smiled. "Who cares?"

When I straightened from the oven with the roast in hand I headed straight out to the dining room. Madeleine wheeled up to the table with a bottle of wine in her lap. The steward helped her to open it while Rolo took his seat and unfolded a napkin upon his lap. When Scotia didn't follow me out I pushed through the swinging door back into the kitchen. "The salad?" I said.

"I don't think you understand where I'm coming from, Claire. This is a big deal for me to take responsibility for my part in what happened to you up there on Olympus."

"Oh yeah?" I said, scooping up the salad. "Can you grab the salad tongs hanging on the wall behind you there? I think Rolo's going to start eating the table if we don't get him started."

"You're not taking my apology seriously," pleaded Scotia, her flawless brow furrowed.

I offered her another friendly shrug. "It's not always about you."

At table Scotia's salad proved popular. We'd nearly finished it by the time she emerged from the kitchen and quietly took the last vacant seat. She interrupted a lively conversation to say, "I understand now you've brought me here to humiliate me by refusing my apology, Claire. And I can't blame you for that."

I put down my chopsticks and looked at her. "I didn't ask you here to humiliate you. I don't have a plan to punish you. There's no secret lesson in what's going on here tonight. I included you because it's my party to celebrate the summiting, and you're part of that, too. I tried to invite Svetlana but she blocks my communications; and Suzumi -- well, obviously she couldn’t come. So I'm very glad you could, Scotia. But you're not the guest of honour or even the guest of dishonour. You're just a guest. Okay?"

Scotia seemed puzzled. "But aren't you streaming this?"

I shook my head. "Nope. At least, I'm not. Rolo? Sum? Maddy?"

"What kind of a degenerate would stream a private dinner without consent?" scoffed Rolo. "I'm not an animal."

Scotia narrowed her eyes. "Then what's the point of acting all forgiving toward me if there's no audience? What kind of twisted game is this, Claire?"

"It's just real life. There's no score. No influence index. No trending in the library-commons. Just how we feel and what we see."

"But what everyone saw is my curated stream. And I cut it the way I cut it before you could cut something worse, and I didn't know you'd be forgiving me, so it's cut that way and that's the way it's linked and trending."

I looked at her blankly.

"You haven't watched the stream set, have you?"

I shook my head. "Maddy and I don't subscribe. Too expensive."

Rolo snorted. "I've seen it. And you make out Claire to be a monster, you cow." He turned to me. "I didn't say anything because I didn't want to upset you. It's a cruel portrait. You pre-signed consent when you configured the beads for a group documentary. I even consulted a barrister complex about it for you, but it said censorship would cost a fortune."

"I don't mind," I said, waving that away. "Why should I care about something I'll never see?"

"Everybody thinks you're a loser," Scotia said quietly.

I startled her by laughing. "Sister, I'm fat. Even after climbing a mountain I'm still fat. And do you know what that means? It means most people already think I'm a loser, no matter what I do or say or stream." I forced my expression to sober as I reached gently across the table and touched Scotia's hand. "You can't take away from me what I've never had, Scotia. I'm not popular. And I won’t be. You may see that as something I'll never have, but I just see it as something I'll never need."

Scotia didn't know what to say. Rolo got up to come over and squeeze my shoulders. "Excretums," swore Maddy. "That was nicely delivered, sis. It really is too bad nobody's streaming out."

Awkwardly the retro steward tilted its head and made the sound of clearing its throat. "Actually I stream out everything. It's a terrible habit. Large following, and so on. I'm afraid my charming hostess will have to forgive me for having just made the last seventy-two seconds of her life a top trending topic globally."

Rolo straightened. "I can't believe it -- you really are Sum Sander!" He reached out to shake the steward's hand.

"Sum Sander?" choked Scotia.

I turned to Madeleine. "I should really start reading the news more often, shouldn't I?"

"Reclusive transport magnate and vicarity advocate Sum Sander?" said Madeleine, eyes on the robot. "Housebound, rich and single? You dog, Claire -- I hardly bothered with my hair!"

"Your hair is sublime," said Sum through the steward. "Like candy-floss fire."

I rolled my eyes. "I'm going to switch seats," I said, getting out of their way. "I'm going to scooch in next to you Scotia."

Scotia threw up bits of salad into her lap. She covered her face with her hands and stumbled to the kitchen.

"That was off-putting," said Rolo, pushing his own salad away. He drained his wine.

"Poor Scotia!" I said.

Rolo looked at me around his wine glass. "You're incorrigible. Can't you hate her just a little, Claire? Try. At least try to try."

I shrugged and took up my own glass. "I can't see the point. She already hates herself enough for both of us, so."

Rolo refilled his glass and we had a little private toast. "Here's to that," he said.

"You're mean," I told him.

"The world is mean."

"Maybe. But I've walked right out of the world, and up top there's nothing but silence and a magnificent indifference."

"You still haven't told us what it was like. You've told us everything else, but nothing about what it was actually like up there, when you were at the peak."

I looked down bashfully and swirled my wine. "That's because it's mine."

"It was too awesome for words?"

"In a way, yes. But not because it could never be described. But because it shouldn't. Because my time there was too real to be ever brought down to the ground with words. I was there, and those moments are just for me. I think if I tried to share them they'd dissolve. You can't tell somebody about standing in space. It has to be lived."

Scotia was throwing up in the kitchen. The robot proxy and Madeleine had their heads inclined toward one another and were conversing quietly. Nobody was eating the poor oven's roast. Rolo poured another round of wine.

We touched our glasses together but said nothing more. Nothing more needed to be said.


We walked to space.

Nearly all of us made it back. Some of us who made it back made it as a shadow of their former selves, but some of us came back more ourselves than ever. Some of us got knocked down to humility, and for some of us our humility allowed us to stand taller than we’d ever stood before. One kind of person goes up the mountain and another kind comes down. It can be surprising to find out who is who.

It isn’t for people up there. But none of this world is. And looking down from above the sky helps remind us of that. A confluence of technology and history steered by the benevolent self-interest of a giant fungal spore is all that stands between civilization and ruin. The air we breathe barely clings to this world, and so so do we.

We aren’t supposed to be here, but we’re here anyway. We exist in spite of it all. If God had a plan for us it was probably irretrievably derailed the day we left the Earth behind. The promised land, the covenants, the miracles -- we live and work and eat outside of their country now. And so I guess maybe our luck is our own. And maybe if we’re damned we damn ourselves.

I choose grace. I don’t want to punish myself anymore. I believe there’s a future where we all get to laugh a lot, and I can get there if I try.

Space itself couldn’t stop me. What chance does anyone else have?


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