Художественная литература

Roger Zelazny. This Mortal Mountain


I looked down at it and I was sick! I wondered, where did it lead? Stars? There were no words. I stared and I stared, and I cursed the fact that the thing existed and that someone had found it while I was still around. "Well?" said Lanning, and he banked the flier so that I could look upward. I shook my head and shaded my already shielded eyes. "Make it go away," I finally told him. "Can't. It's bigger than I am." "It's bigger than anybody," I said. "I can make _us_ go away..." "Never mind. I want to take some pictures." He brought it around, and I started to shoot. "Can you hover--or get any closer?" "No, the winds are too strong." "That figures." So I shot--through telescopic lenses and scan attachment and all--as we circled it. "I'd give a lot to see the top." "We're at thirty thousand feet, and fifty's the ceiling on this baby. The Lady, unfortunately, stands taller than the atmosphere." "Funny," I said, "from here she doesn't strike me as the sort to breath ether and spend all her time looking at stars." He chuckled and lit a cigarette, and I reached us another bulb of coffee. "How _does_ the Gray Sister strike you?" And I lit one of my own and inhaled, as the flier was buffeted by sudden gusts of something from somewhere and then ignored, and I said, "Like Our Lady of the Abattoir--right between the eyes." We drank some coffee, and then he asked, "She too big, Whitey?" and I gnashed my teeth through caffeine, for only my friends call me Whitey, my name being Jack Summers and my hair having always been this way, and at the moment I wasn't too certain of whether Henry Lanning qualified for that status--just because he'd known me for twenty years--after going out of his way to find this thing on a world with a thin atmosphere, a lot of rocks, a too-bright sky and a name like LSD pronounced backwards, after George Diesel, who had set foot in the dust and then gone away--smart fellow! "A forty-mile-high mountain," I finally said, "is not a mountain. It is a world all by itself, which some dumb deity forgot to throw into orbit." "I take it you're not interested?" I looked back at the gray and lavender slopes and followed them upward once more again, until all color drained away, until the silhouette was black and jagged and the top still nowhere in sight, until my eyes stung and burned behind their protective glasses; and I saw clouds bumping up against that invincible outline, like icebergs in the sky, and I heard the howling of the retreating winds which had essayed to measure its grandeur with swiftness and, of course, had failed. "Oh, I'm interested," I said, "in an academic sort of way. Let's go back to town, where I can eat and drink and maybe break a leg if I'm lucky." He headed the flier south, and I didn't look around as we went. I could sense her presence at my back, though, all the way: The Gray Sister, the highest mountain in the known universe. Unclimbed, of course. She remained at my back during the days that followed, casting her shadow over everything I looked upon. For the next two days I studied the pictures I had taken and I dug up some maps and I studied them, too; and I spoke with people who told me stories of the Gray Sister, strange stories.... During this time, I came across nothing really encouraging. I learned that there had been an attempt to colonize Diesel a couple centuries previously, back before faster-than-light ships were developed. A brand-new disease had colonized the first colonists, however, wiping them out to a man. The new colony was four years old, had better doctors, had beaten the plague, was on Diesel to stay and seemed proud of its poor taste when it came to worlds. Nobody, I learned, fooled around much with the Gray Sister. There had been a few abortive attempts to climb her, and some young legends that followed after. During the day, the sky never shut up. It kept screaming into my eyes, until I took to wearing my climbing goggles whenever I went out. Mainly, though, I sat in the hotel lounge and ate and drank and studied the pictures and cross-examined anyone who happened to pass by and glance at them, spread out there on the table. I continued to ignore all Henry's questions. I knew what he wanted, and he could damn well wait. Unfortunately, he did, and rather well, too, which irritated me. He felt I was almost hooked by the Sister, and he wanted to Be There When It Happened. He'd made a fortune on the Kasla story, and I could already see the opening sentences of this one in the smug lines around his eyes. Whenever he tried to make like a poker player, leaning on his fist and slowly turning a photo, I could see whole paragraphs. If I followed the direction of his gaze, I could probably even have seen the dust jacket. At the end of the week, a ship came down out of the sky, and some nasty people got off and interrupted my train of thought. When they came into the lounge, I recognized them for what they were and removed my black lenses so that I could nail Henry with my basilisk gaze and turn him into stone. As it would happen, he had too much alcohol in him, and it didn't work. "You tipped off the press," I said. "Now, now," he said, growing smaller and stiffening as my gaze groped its way through the murk of his central nervous system and finally touched upon the edges of that tiny tumor, his forebrain. "You're well known, and...." I replaced my glasses and hunched over my drink, looking far gone, as one of the three approached and said, "Pardon me, but are you Jack Summers?" To explain the silence which followed, Henry said, "Yes, this is Mad Jack, the man who climbed Everest at twenty-three and every other pile of rocks worth mentioning since that time. At thirty-one, he became the only man to conquer the highest mountain in the known universe--Mount Kasla on Litan--elevation, 89,941 feet. My book--" "Yes," said the reporter. "My name is Cary, and I'm with GP. My friends represent two of the other syndicates. We've heard that you are going to climb the Gray Sister." "You've heard incorrectly," I said. "Oh?" The other two came up and stood beside them. "We thought that--" one of them began. "--you were already organizing a climbing party," said the other. "Then you're not going to climb the Sister?" asked Cary, while one of the two looked over my pictures and the other got ready to take some of his own. "Stop that!" I said, raising a hand at the photographer. "Bright lights hurt my eyes!" "Sorry. I'll use the infra," he said, and he started fooling with his camera. Cary repeated the question. "All I said was that you've heard incorrectly," I told him. "I didn't say I was and I didn't say I wasn't. I haven't made up my mind." "If you decide to try it, have you any idea when it will be?" "Sorry, I can't answer that." Henry took the three of them over to the bar and started explaining something, with gestures. I heard the words "...out of retirement after four years," and when/if they looked to the booth again, I was gone. I had retired, to the street which was full of dusk, and I walked along it thinking. I trod her shadow even then, Linda. And the Gray Sister beckoned and forbade with her single unmoving gesture. I watched her, so far away, yet still so large, a piece of midnight at eight o'clock. The hours that lay between died like the distance at her feet, and I knew that she would follow me wherever I went, even into sleep. Especially into sleep. So I know, at that moment. The days that followed were a game I enjoyed playing. Fake indecision is delicious when people want you to do something. I looked at her then, my last and my largest, my very own Koshtra Pivrarcha, and I felt that I was born to stand upon her summit. Then I could retire, probably remarry, cultivate my mind, not worry about getting out of shape, and do all the square things I didn't do before, the lack of which had cost me a wife and a home, back when I had gone to Kasla, elevation 89,941 feet, four and a half years ago, in the days of my glory. I regarded my Gray Sister across the eight o'clock world, and she was dark and noble and still and waiting, as she had always been.


The following morning I sent the messages. Out across the light-years like cosmic carrier pigeons they went. They winged their ways to some persons I hadn't seen in years and to others who had seen me off at Luna Station. Each said, in its own way, "If you want in on the biggest climb of them all, come to Diesel. The Gray Sister eats Kasla for breakfast. R.S.V.P. c/o. The Lodge, Georgetown. Whitey." Backward, turn backward.... I didn't tell Henry. Nothing at all. What I had done and where I was going, for a time, were my business only, for that same time. I checked out well before sunrise and left him a message on the desk: "Out of town on business. Back in a week. Hold the fort. Mad Jack." I had to gauge the lower slopes, tug the hem of the lady's skirt, so to speak, before I introduced her to my friends. They say only a madman climbs alone, but they call me what they call me for a reason. From my pix, the northern face had looked promising. I set the rented flier down as near as I could, locked it up, shouldered my pack and started walking. Mountains rising to my right and to my left, mountains at my back, all dark as sin now in the predawn light of a white, white day. Ahead of me, not a mountain, but an almost gentle slope which kept rising and rising and rising. Bright stars above me and cold wind past me as I walked. Straight up, though, no stars, just black. I wondered for the thousandth time what a mountain weighed. I always wonder that as I approach one. No clouds in sight. No noises but my boot sounds on the turf and the small gravel. My small goggles flopped around my neck. My hands were moist within my gloves. On Diesel, the pack and I together probably weighed about the same as me alone on Earth--for which I was duly grateful. My breath burned as it came and steamed as it went. I counted a thousand steps and looked back, and I couldn't see the flier. I counted a thousand more and then looked up to watch some stars go out. About an hour after that, I had to put on my goggles. By then I could see where I was headed. And by then the wind seemed stronger. She was so big that the eye couldn't take all of her in at once. I moved my head from side to side, leaning further and further backward. Wherever the top, it was too high. For an instant, I was seized by a crazy acrophobic notion that I was looking down rather than up, and the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands tingled, like an ape's must when, releasing one high branch to seize another, he discovers that there isn't another. I went on for two more hours and stopped for a light meal. This was hiking, not climbing. As I ate, I wondered what could have caused a formation like the Gray Sister. There were some ten and twelve-mile peaks within sixty miles of the place and a fifteen-mile mountain called Burke's Peak on the adjacent continent, but nothing else like the Sister. The lesser gravitation? Her composition? I couldn't say. I wondered what Doc and Kelly and Mallardi would say when they saw her. I don't define them, though. I only climb them. I looked up again, and a few clouds were brushing against her now. >From the photos I had taken, she might be an easy ascent for a good ten or twelve miles. Like a big hill. There were certainly enough alternate routes. In fact, I thought she just might be a pushover. Feeling heartened, I repacked my utensils and proceeded. It was going to be a good day. I could tell. And it was. I got off the slope and onto something like a trail by late afternoon. Daylight lasts about nine hours on Diesel, and I spent most of it moving. The trail was so good that I kept on for several hours after sundown and made considerable height. I was beginning to use my respiration equipment by then, and the heating unit in my suit was turned on. The stars were big, brilliant flowers, the way was easy, the night was my friend. I came upon a broad, flat piece and made my camp under an overhang. There I slept, and I dreamt of snowy women with breasts like the Alps, pinked by the morning sun; and they sang to me like the wind and laughed, had eyes of ice prismatic. They fled through a field of clouds. The following day I made a lot more height. The "trail" began to narrow, and it ran out in places, but it was easy to reach for the sky until another one occurred. So far, it had all been good rock. It was still tapering as it heightened, and balance was no problem. I did a lot of plain old walking. I ran up one long zigzag and hit it up a wide chimney almost as fast as Santa Claus comes down one. The winds were strong, could be a problem if the going got difficult. I was on the respirator full time and feeling great. I could see for an enormous distance now. There were mountains and mountains, all below me like desert dunes. The sun beat halos of heat about their peaks. In the east, I saw Lake Emerick, dark and shiny as the toe of a boot. I wound my way about a jutting crag and came upon a giant's staircase, going up for at least a thousand feet. I mounted it. At its top I hit my first real barrier: a fairly smooth, almost perpendicular face rising for about eight-five feet. No way around it, so I went up. It took me a good hour, and there was a ridge at the top leading to more easy climbing. By then, though, the clouds attacked me. Even though the going was easy, I was slowed by the fog. I wanted to outclimb it and still have some daylight left, so I decided to postpone eating. But the clouds kept coming. I made another thousand feet, and they were still about me. Somewhere below me, I heard thunder. The fog was easy on my eyes, though, so I kept pushing. Then I tried a chimney, the top of which I could barely discern, because it looked a lot shorter than a jagged crescent to its left. This was a mistake. The rate of condensation was greater than I'd guessed. The walls were slippery. I'm stubborn, though, and I fought with skidding boots and moist back until I was about a third of the way up, I thought, and winded. I realized then what I had done. What I had thought was the top wasn't. I went another fifteen feet and wished I hadn't. The fog began to boil about me, and I suddenly felt drenched. I was afraid to go down and I was afraid to go up, and I couldn't stay where I was forever. Whenever you hear a person say that he inched along, do not accuse him of a fuzzy choice of verbs. Give him the benefit of the doubt and your sympathy. I inched my way, blind, up an unknown length of slippery chimney. If my hair hadn't already been white when I entered at the bottom.... Finally, I got above the fog. Finally, I saw a piece of that bright and nasty sky, which I decided to forgive for the moment. I aimed at it, arrived on target. When I emerged, I saw a little ledge about ten feet above me. I climbed to it and stretched out. My muscles were a bit shaky, and I made them go liquid. I took a drink of water, ate a couple of chocolate bars, took another drink. After perhaps ten minutes, I stood up. I could no longer see the ground. Just the soft, white, cottony top of a kindly old storm. I looked up. It was amazing. She was still topless. And save for a couple spots, such as the last--which had been the fault of my own stupid overconfidence--it had almost been as easy as climbing stairs. Now the going appeared to be somewhat rougher, however. This was what I had really come to test. I swung my pick and continued. All the following day I climbed, steadily, taking no unnecessary risks, resting periodically, drawing maps, taking wide-angle photos. The ascent eased in two spots that afternoon, and I made a quick seven thousand feet. Higher now than Everest, and still going, I. Now, though, there were places where I crawled and places where I used my ropes, and there were places where I braced myself and used my pneumatic pistol to blast a toehold. (No, in case you're wondering: I could have broken my eardrums, some ribs, and arm and doubtless ultimately, my neck, if I'd tried using the gun in the chimney.) Just near sunset, I came upon a high, easy winding way up and up and up. I debated with my more discreet self. I'd left the message that I'd be gone a week. This was the end of the third day. I wanted to make as much height as possible and start back down on the fifth day. If I followed the rocky route above me as far as it would take me I'd probably break forty thousand feet. Then, depending, I might have a halfway chance of hitting near the ten-mile mark before I had to turn back. Then I'd be able to get a much better picture of what lay above. My more discreet self lost, three to nothing, and Mad Jack went on. The stars were so big and blazing I was afraid they'd bite. The wind was no problem. There wasn't any at that height. I had to keep stepping up the temperature controls on my suit, and I had the feeling that if I could spit around my respirator, it would freeze before it hit the trail. I went on even further than I'd intended, and I broke forty-two thousand that night. I found a resting place, stretched out, killed my hand beacon. It was an odd dream that came to me. It was all cherry fires and stood like a man, only bigger, on the slope above me. It stood in an impossible position, so I knew I had to be dreaming. Something from the other end of my life stirred, however, and I was convinced for a bitter moment that it was the Angel of Judgment. Only, in its right hand it seemed to hold a sword of fires rather than a trumpet. It had been standing there forever, the tip of its blade pointed toward my breast. I could see the stars through it. It seemed to speak. It said: "_Go back_." I couldn't answer it, though, for my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth. And it said it again, and yet a third time, "_Go back_." "Tomorrow," I thought, in my dream, and this seemed to satisfy it. for it died down and ceased, and the blackness rolled about me. The following day, I climbed as I hadn't climbed in years. By late lunchtime I'd hit forty-eight thousand feet. The cloud cover down below had broken. I could see what lay beneath me once more. The ground was a dark and light patchwork. Above, the stars didn't go away. The going was rough, but I was feeling fine. I knew I couldn't make ten miles, because I could see that the way was pretty much the same for quite a distance, before it got even worse. My good spirits stayed, and they continued to rise as I did. When it attacked, it came on with a speed and a fury that I was only barely able to match. The voice from my dream rang in my head, "_Go back! Go back! Go back!_" Then it came toward me from out of the sky. A bird the size of a condor. Only it wasn't really a bird. It was a bird-shaped thing. It was all fire and static, and as it flashed toward me I barely had time to brace my back against stone and heft my climbing pick in my right hand, ready.


I sat in the small, dark room and watched the spinning, colored lights. Ultrasonics were tickling my skull. I tried to relax and give the man some Alpha rhythms. Somewhere a receiver was receiving, a computer was computing and a recorder was recording. It lasted perhaps twenty minutes. When it was all over and they called me out, the doctor collared me. I beat him to the draw, though: "Give me the tape and send the bill in care of Henry Lanning at the Lodge." "I want to discuss the reading," he said. "I have my own brain-wave expert coming. Just give me the tape." "Have you undergone any sort of traumatic experience recently?" "You tell me. Is it indicated?" "Well, yes and no," he said. "That's what I like, a straight answer." "I don't know what is normal for you, in the first place," he replied. "Is there any indication of brain damage?" "I don't read it that way. If you'd tell me what happened, and why you're suddenly concerned about your brain-waves, perhaps I'd be in a better position to...." "Cut," I said. "Just give me the tape and bill me." "I'm concerned about you as a patient." "But you don't think there were any pathological indications?" "Not exactly. But tell me this, if you will: Have you had an epileptic seizure recently?" "Not to my knowledge. Why?" "You displayed a pattern similar to a residual subrythm common in some forms of epilepsy for several days subsequent to a seizure." "Could a bump on the head cause that pattern?" "It's highly unlikely." "What else _could_ cause it?" "Electrical shock, optical trauma--" "Stop," I said, and I removed my glasses. "About the optical trauma. Look at my eyes." "I'm not an ophtha--" he began, but I interrupted: "Most normal light hurts me eyes. If I lost my glasses and was exposed to very bright light for three, four days, could that cause the pattern you spoke of?" "Possible...." he said. "Yes, I'd say so." "But there's more?" "I'm not sure. We have to take more readings, and if I know the story behind this it will help a lot." "Sorry," I said. "I need the tape now." He sighed and made a small gesture with his left hand as he turned away. "All right, Mister Smith." Cursing the genius of the mountain, I left the General Hospital, carrying my tape like a talisman. In my mind I searched, through forests of memory, for a ghost-sword in a stone of smoke, I think. Back in the Lodge, they were waiting. Lanning and the newsmen. "What was it like?" asked one of the latter. "What was what like?" "The mountain. You were up on it, weren't you?" "No comment." "How high did you go?" "No comment." "How would you say it compares with Kasla?" "No comment." "Did you run into any complications?" "Ditto. Excuse me, I want to take a shower." Henry followed me into my room. The reporters tried to. After I had shaved and washed up, mixed a drink and lit a cigarette, Lanning asked me his more general question: "Well?" he said. I nodded. "Difficulties?" I nodded again. "Insurmountable?" I hefted the tape and thought a moment. "Maybe not." He helped himself to the whiskey. The second time around, he asked: "You going to try?" I knew I was. I knew I'd try it all by myself if I had to. "I really don't know," I said. "Why not?" "Because there's something up there," I said, "something that doesn't want us to do it." "Something _lives_ up there?" "I'm not sure whether that's the right word." He lowered the drink. "What the hell happened?" "I was threatened. I was attacked." "Threatened? Verbally? In English?" He set his drink aside, which shows how serious his turn of mind had to be. "Attacked?" he added. "By what?" "I've sent for Doc and Kelly and Stan and Mallardi and Vincent. I checked a little earlier. They've all replied. They're coming. Miguel and the Dutchman can't make it, and they send their regrets. When we're all together, I'll tell the story. But I want to talk to Doc first. So hold tight and worry and don't quote." He finished his drink. "When'll they be coming?" "Four, five weeks," I said. "That's a long wait." "Under the circumstances," I said, "I can't think of any alternatives." "What'll we do in the meantime?" "Eat, drink, and contemplate the mountain." He lowered his eyelids a moment, then nodded, reached for his glass. "Shall we begin?" It was late, and I stood alone in the field with a bottle in one hand. Lanning had already turned in, and night's chimney was dark with cloud soot. Somewhere away from there, a storm was storming, and it was full of instant outlines. The wind came chill. "Mountain," I said. "Mountain, you have told me to go away." There was a rumble. "But I cannot," I said, and I took a drink. "I'm bringing you the best in the business," I said, "to go up on your slopes and to stand beneath the stars in your highest places. I must do this thing because you are there. No other reason. Nothing personal...." After a time, I said, "That's not true. "I am a man," I said, "and I need to break mountains to prove that I will not die even though I will die. I am less than I want to be, Sister, and you can make me more. So I guess it _is_ personal. "It's the only thing I know how to do, and you're the last one left--the last challenge to the skill I spent my life learning. Maybe it is that mortality is the closest to immortality when it accepts a challenge to itself, when it survives a threat. The moment of triumph is the moment of salvation. I have needed many such moments, and the final one must be the longest, for it must last me the rest of my life. "So you are there, Sister, and I am here and very mortal, and you have told me to go away. I cannot. I'm coming up, and if you throw death at me I will face it. It must be so." I finished what remained in the bottle. There were more flashes, more rumbles behind the mountain, more flashes. "It is the closest thing to diving drunkenness," I said to the thunder. And then she winked at me. It was a red star, so high upon her. Angel's sword. Phoenix' wing. Soul on fire. And it blazed at me, across the miles. Then the wind that blows between the worlds swept down over me. It was filled with tears and with crystals of ice. I stood there and felt it, then, "Don't go away," I said, and I watched until all was darkness once more and I was wet as an embryo waiting to cry out and breathe. Most kids tell lies to their playmates--fictional autobiographies, if you like--which are either received with appropriate awe or countered with greater, more elaborate tellings. But little Jimmy, I've heard, always hearkened to his little buddies with wide, dark eyes, and near the endings of their stories the corners of his mouth would begin to twitch. By the time they were finished talking, his freckles would be mashed into a grin and his rusty head cocked to the side. His favorite expression, I understand, was "G'wan!" and his nose was broken twice before he was twelve. This was doubtless why he turned it toward books. Thirty years and four formal degrees later, he sat across from me in my quarters in the lodge, and I called him Doc because everyone did, because he had a license to cut people up and look inside them, as well as doctoring to their philosophy, so to speak, and because he looked as if he should be called Doc when he grinned and cocked his head to the side and said, "G'wan!" I wanted to punch him in the nose. "Damn it! It's true!" I told him. "I fought with a bird of fire!" "We all hallucinated on Kasla," he said, raising one finger, "because of fatigue," two fingers, "because the altitude affected our circulatory systems and consequently our brains," three, "because of the emotional stimulation," four, "and because we were pretty oxygen-drunk." "You just ran out of fingers, if you'll sit on your other hand for a minute. So listen," I said, "it flew at me, and I swung at it, and it knocked me out and broke my goggles. When I woke up, it was gone and I was lying on the ledge. I think it was some sort of energy creature. You saw my EEG, and it wasn't normal. I think it shocked my nervous system when it touched me." "You were knocked out because you hit your head against a rock--" "It _caused_ me to fall back against the rock!" "I agree with that part. The rock was real. But nowhere in the universe has anyone ever discovered an 'energy creature.'" "So? You probably would have said that about America a thousand years ago." "Maybe I would have. But that neurologist explained your EEG to my satisfaction. Optical trauma. Why go out of your way to dream up an exotic explanation for events? Easy ones generally turn out better. You hallucinated and you stumbled." "Okay," I said, "whenever I argue with you I generally need ammunition. Hold on a minute." I went to my closet and fetched it down from the top shelf. I placed it on my bed and began unwrapping the blanket I had around it. "I told you I took a swing at it," I said. "Well, I connected--right before I went under. Here!" I held up my climbing pick--brown, yellow, black and pitted--looking as though it had fallen from outer space. He took it into his hands and stared at it for a long time, then he started to say something about ball lightning, changed his mind, shook his head and placed the thing back on the blanket. "I don't know," he finally said, and this time his freckles remained unmashed, except for those at the edges of his hands which got caught as he clenched them, slowly.


We planned. We mapped and charted and studied the photos. We plotted our ascent and we started a training program. While Doc and Stan had kept themselves in good shape, neither had been climbing since Kasla. Kelly was in top condition. Henry was on his way to fat. Mallardi and Vince, as always, seemed capable of fantastic feats of endurance and virtuosity, had even climbed a couple times during the past year, but had recently been living pretty high on the tall hog, so to speak, and they wanted to get some practice. So we picked a comfortable, decent-sized mountain and gave it ten days to beat everyone back into shape. After that, we stuck to vitamins, calisthenics and square diets while we completed our preparations. During this time, Doc came up with seven shiny, alloy boxes, about six by four inches and thin as a first book of poems, for us to carry on our persons to broadcast a defense against the energy creatures which he refused to admit existed. One fine, bitter-brisk morning we were ready. The newsmen liked me again. Much footage was taken of our gallant assemblage as we packed ourselves into the fliers, to be delivered at the foot of the lady mountain, there to contend for what was doubtless the final time as the team we had been for so many years, against the waiting gray and the lavender beneath the sunwhite flame. We approached the mountain, and I wondered how much she weighed. You know the way, for the first nine miles. So I'll skip over that. It took us six days and part of a seventh. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred. Some fog there was, and nasty winds, but once below, forgotten. Stan and Mallardi and I stood where the bird had occurred, waiting for Doc and the others. "So far, it's been a picnic," said Mallardi. "Yeah," Stan acknowledged. "No birds either." "No," I agreed. "Do you think Doc was right--about it being an hallucination?" Mallardi asked. "I remember seeing things on Kasla...." "As I recall," said Stan, "it was nymphs and an ocean of beer. Why would anyone want to see hot birds?" "Damfino." "Laugh, you hyenas," I said. "But just wait till a flock flies over." Doc came up and looked around. "This is the place?" I nodded. He tested the background radiation and half a dozen other things, found nothing untoward, grunted and looked upwards. We all did. Then we went there. It was very rough for three days, and we only made another five thousand feet during that time. When we bedded down, we were bushed, and sleep came quickly. So did Nemesis. He was there again, only not quite so near this time. He burned about twenty feet away, standing in the middle of the air, and the point of his blade indicated me. "_Go away_," he said, three times, without inflection. "Go to hell," I tried to say. He made as if he wished to draw nearer. He failed. "Go away yourself," I said. "_Climb back down. Depart. You may go no further._" "But I am going further. All the way to the top." "_No. You may not._" "Stick around and watch," I said. "_Go back._" "If you want to stand there and direct traffic, that's your business," I told him. "I'm going back to sleep." I crawled over and shook Doc's shoulder, but when I looked back my flaming visitor had departed. "What is it?" "Too late," I said. "He's been here and gone." Doc sat up. "The bird?" "No, the thing with the sword." "Where was he?" "Standing out there," I gestured. Doc hauled out his instruments and did many things with them for ten minutes or so. "Nothing," he finally said. "Maybe you were dreaming." "Yeah, sure," I said. "Sleep tight," and I hit the sack again, and this time I made it through to daylight without further fire or ado. It took us four days to reach sixty thousand feet. Rocks fell like occasional cannonballs past us, and the sky was like a big pool, cool, where pale flowers floated. When we struck sixty-three thousand, the going got much better, and we made it up to seventy-five thousand in two and a half more days. No fiery things stopped by to tell me to turn back. Then came the unforeseeable, however, and we had enough in the way of natural troubles to keep us cursing. We hit a big, level shelf. It was perhaps four hundred feet wide. As we advanced across it, we realized that it did not strike the mountainside. It dropped off into an enormous gutter of a canyon. We would have to go down again, perhaps seven hundred feet, before we could proceed upward once more. Worse yet, it led to a featureless face which strove for and achieved perpendicularity for a deadly high distance: like miles. The top was still nowhere in sight. "Where do we go now?" asked Kelly, moving to my side. "Down," I decided, "and we split up. We'll follow the big ditch in both directions and see which way gives the better route up. We'll meet back at the midway point." We descended. Then Doc and Kelly and I went left, and the others took the opposite way. After an hour and a half, our trail came to an end. we stood looking at nothing over the edge of something. Nowhere, during the entire time, had we come upon a decent way up. I stretched out, my head and shoulders over the edge, Kelly holding onto my ankles, and I looked as far as I could to the right and up. There was nothing in sight that was worth a facing movement. "Hope the others had better luck," I said, after they'd dragged me back. "And if they haven't...?" asked Kelly. "Let's wait." They had. It was risky, though. There was no good way straight up out of the gap. The trail had ended at a forty-foot wall which, when mounted, gave a clear view all the way down. Leaning out as I had done and looking about two hundred feet to the left and eighty feet higher, however, Mallardi had rested his eyes on a rough way, but a way, nevertheless, leading up and west and vanishing. We camped in the gap that night. In the morning, I anchored my line to a rock, Doc tending, and went out with the pneumatic pistol. I fell twice, and made forty feet of trail by lunchtime. I rubbed my bruises then, and Henry took over. After ten feet, Kelly got out to anchor a couple of body-lengths behind him, and we tended Kelly. Then Stan blasted and Mallardi anchored. Then there had to be three on the face. Then four. By sundown, we'd made a hundred-fifty feet and were covered with white powder. A bath would have been nice. We settled for ultrasonic shakedowns. By lunch the next day, we were all out there, roped together, hugging cold stone, moving slowly, painfully, slowly, not looking down much. By day's end, we'd made it across, to the place where we could hold on and feel something--granted, not much--beneath our boots. It was inclined to be a trifle scant, however, to warrant less than a full daylight assault. So we returned once more to the gap. In the morning, we crossed. The way kept its winding angle. We headed west and up. We traveled a mile and made five hundred feet. We traveled another mile and made perhaps three hundred. Then a ledge occurred, about forty feet overhead. Stan went up the hard way, using the gun, to see what he could see. He gestured, and we followed; and the view that broke upon us was good. Down right, irregular but wide enough, was our new camp. The way above it, ice cream and whiskey sours and morning coffee and a cigarette after dinner. It was beautiful and delicious: a seventy-degree slope full of ledges and projections and good clean stone. "Hot damn!" said Kelly. We all tended to agree. We ate and we drank and we decided to rest our bruised selves that afternoon. We were in the twilight world now, walking where no man had ever walked before, and we felt ourselves to be golden. It was good to stretch out and try to unache. I slept away the day, and when I awakened the sky was a bed of glowing embers. I lay there too lazy to move, too full of sight to go back to sleep. A meteor burnt its way bluewhite across the heavens. After a time, there was another. I thought upon my position and decided that reaching it was worth the price. The cold, hard happiness of the heights filled me. I wiggled my toes. After a few minutes, I stretched and sat up. I regarded the sleeping forms of my companions. I looked out across the night as far as I could see. Then I looked up at the mountain, then dropped my eyes slowly among tomorrow's trail. There was movement within shadow. Something was standing about fifty feet away and ten feet above. I picked up my pick and stood. I crossed the fifty and stared up. She was smiling, not burning. A woman, an impossible woman. Absolutely impossible. For one thing, she would just have to freeze to death in a mini-skirt and a sleeveless shell-top. No alternative. For another, she had very little to breath. Like, nothing. But it didn't seem to bother her. She waved. Her hair was dark and long, and I couldn't see her eyes. The planes of her pale, high cheeks, wide forehead, small chin corresponded in an unsettling fashion with certain simple theorems which comprise the geometry of my heart. If all angles, planes, curves be correct, it skips a beat, then hurries to make up for it. I worked it out, felt it do so, said, "Hello." "Hello, Whitey," she replied. "Come down," I said. "No, you come up." I swung my pick. When I reached the ledge she wasn't there. I looked around, then I saw her. She was seated on a rock twelve feet above me. "How is it that you know my name?" I asked. "Anyone can see what your name must be." "All right," I agreed. "What's yours?" "..." Her lips seemed to move, but I heard nothing. "Come again?" "I don't want a name," she said. "Okay. I'll call you 'girl,' then." She laughed, sort of. "What are you doing here?" I asked. "Watching you." "Why?" "To see whether you'll fall." "I can save you the trouble," I said. "I won't." "Perhaps," she said. "Come down here." "No, you come up here." I climbed, but when I got there she was twenty feet higher. "Girl, you climb well," I said, and she laughed and turned away. I pursued her for five minutes and couldn't catch her. There was something unnatural about the way she moved. I stopped climbing when she turned again. We were still about twenty feet apart. "I take it you do not really wish me to join you," I said. "Of course I do, but you must catch me first." And she turned once more, and I felt a certain fury within me. It was written that no one could outclimb Mad Jack. I had written it. I swung my pick and moved like a lizard. I was near to her a couple of times, but never near enough. The day's aches began again in my muscles, but I pulled my way up without slackening my pace. I realized, faintly, that the camp was far below me now, and that I was climbing alone through the dark up a strange slope. But I did not stop. Rather, I hurried, and my breath began to come hard in my lungs. I heard her laughter, and it was a goad. Then I came upon a two-inch ledge, and she was moving along it. I followed, around a big bulge of rock to where it ended. Then she was ninety feet above me, at the top of a smooth pinnacle. It was like a tapering, branchless tree. How she'd accomplished it, I didn't know. I was gasping by then, but I looped my line around it and began to climb. As I did this, she spoke: "Don't you ever tire, Whitey? I thought you would have collapsed by now." I hitched up the line and climbed further. "You can't make it up here, you know." "I don't know," I grunted. "Why do you want so badly to climb here? There are other nice mountains." "This is the biggest, girl. That's why." "It can't be done." "Then why all this bother to discourage me? Why not just let the mountain do it?" As I neared her, she vanished. I made it to the top, where she had been standing, and I collapsed there. Then I heard her voice again and turned my head. She was on a ledge, perhaps eighty feet away. "I didn't think you'd make it this far," she said. "You are a fool. Good-by, Whitey." She was gone. I sat there on the pinnacle's tiny top--perhaps four square feet of top--and I know that I couldn't sleep there, because I'd fall. And I was tired. I recalled my favorite curses and I said them all, but I didn't feel any better. I couldn't let myself go to sleep. I looked down. I knew the way was long. I knew she didn't think I could make it. I began the descent. The following morning when they shook me, I was still tired. I told them the last night's tale, and they didn't believe me. Not until later in the day, that is, when I detoured us around the bulge and showed them the pinnacle, standing there like a tapering, branchless tree, ninety feet in the middle of the air.


We went steadily upward for the next two days. We made slightly under ten thousand feet. Then we spent a day hammering and hacking our way up a great flat face. Six hundred feet of it. Then our way was to the right and upward. Before long we were ascending the western side of the mountain. When we broke ninety thousand feet, we stopped to congratulate ourselves that we had just surpassed the Kasla climb and to remind ourselves that we had not hit the halfway mark. It took us another two and a half days to do that, and by then the land lay like a map beneath us. And then, that night, we all saw the creature with the sword. He came and stood near our camp, and he raised his sword above his head, and it blazed with such a terrible intensity that I slipped on my goggles. His voice was all thunder and lightning this time: "_Get off this mountain!_" he said. "_Now! Turn back! Go down! Depart!_" And then a shower of stones came down from above and rattled about us. Doc tossed his slim, shiny, case, causing it to skim along the ground toward the creature. The light went out, and we were alone. Doc retrieved his case, took tests, met with the same success as before--_i.e._, none. But now at least he didn't think I was some kind of balmy, unless of course he thought we all were. "Not a very effective guardian," Henry suggested. "We've a long way to go yet," said Vince, shying a stone through the space the creature had occupied. "I don't like it if the thing can cause a slide." "That was just a few pebbles," said Stan. "Yeah, but what if he decided to start them fifty thousand feet higher?" "Shut up!" said Kelly. "Don't give him any idea. He might be listening." For some reason, we drew closer together. Doc made each of us describe what we had seen, and it appeared that we all had seen the same thing. "All right," I said, after we'd finished. "Now you've all seen it, who wants to go back?" There was silence. After perhaps half a dozen heartbeats, Henry said, "I want the whole story. It looks like a good one. I'm willing to take my chances with angry energy creatures to get it." "I don't know what the thing is," said Kelly. "Maybe it's no energy creature. Maybe it's something--supernatural--I know what you'll say, Doc. I'm just telling you how it struck me. If there are such things, this seems a good place for them. Point is--whatever it is, I don't care. I want this mountain. If it could have stopped us, I think it would've done it already. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it can. Maybe it's laid some trap for us higher up. But I want this mountain. Right now, it means more to me than anything. If I don't go up, I'll spend all my time wondering about it--and then I'll probably come back and try it again some day, when it gets so I can't stand thinking about it any more. Only then, maybe the rest of you won't be available. Let's face it, we're a good climbing team. Maybe the best in the business. Probably. If it can be done, I think we can do it." "I'll second that," said Stan. "What you said, Kelly," said Mallardi, "about it being supernatural--it's funny, because I felt the same thing for a minute when I was looking at it. It reminds me of something out of the _Divine Comedy_. If you recall, Purgatory was a mountain. And then I thought of the angel who guarded the eastern way to Eden. Eden had gotten moved to the top of Purgatory by Dante--and there was this angel....Anyhow, I felt almost like I was committing some sin I didn't know about by being here. But now that I think it over, a man can't be guilty of something he doesn't know is wrong, can he? And I didn't see that thing flashing any angel ID card. So I'm willing to go up and see what's on top, unless he comes back with the Tablets of the Law, with a new one written in at the bottom." "In Hebrew or Italian?" asked Doc. "To satisfy you, I suppose they'd have to be drawn up in the form of equations." "No," he said. "Kidding aside, I felt something funny too, when I saw and heard it. And we didn't really hear it, you know. It skipped over the senses and got its message right into our brains. If you think back over our descriptions of what we experienced, we each 'heard' different words telling us to go away. If it can communicate a meaning as well as a pyschtranslator, I wonder if it can communicate an emotion, also....You thought of an angel too, didn't you, Whitey?" "Yes," I said. "That makes it almost unanimous then, doesn't it?" Then we all turned to Vince, because he had no Christian background at all, having been raised as a Buddhist on Ceylon. "What were your feelings concerning the thing?" Doc asked him. "It was a Deva," he said, "which is sort of like an angel, I guess. I had the impression that every step I took up this mountain gave me enough bad karma to fill a lifetime. Except I haven't believed in it that way since I was a kid. I want to go ahead, up. Even if that feeling was correct, I want to see the top of this mountain." "So do I," said Doc. "That makes it unanimous," I said. "Well, everyone hang onto his angelsbane," said Stan, "and let's sack out." "Good idea." "Only let's spread out a bit," said Doc, "so that anything falling won't get all of us together." We did that cheerful thing and slept untroubled by heaven. Our way kept winding right, until we were at a hundred forty-four thousand feet and were mounting the southern slopes. Then it jogged back, and by a hundred fifty we were mounting to the west once more. Then, during a devilish, dark and tricky piece of scaling, up a smooth, concave bulge ending in an overhang, the bird came down once again. If we hadn't been roped together, Stan would have died. As it was, we almost all died. Stan was lead man, as its wings splashed sudden flames against the violet sky. It came down from the overhang as though someone had kicked a bonfire over its edge, headed straight toward him and faded out at a distance of about twelve feet. He fell then, almost taking the rest of us with him. We tensed our muscles and took the shock. He was battered a bit, but unbroken. We made it up to the overhang, but went no further that day. Rocks did fall, but we found another overhang and made camp beneath it. The bird did not return that day, but the snakes came. Big, shimmering scarlet serpents coiled about the crags, wound in and out of jagged fields of ice and gray stone. Sparks shot along their sinuous lengths. They coiled and unwound, stretched and turned, spat fires at us. It seemed they were trying to drive us from beneath the sheltering place to where the rocks could come down upon us. Doc advanced upon the nearest one, and it vanished as it came within the field of his projector. He studied the place where it had lain, then hurried back. "The frost is still on the punkin," he said. "Huh?" said I. "Not a bit of ice was melted beneath it." "Indicating?" "Illusion," said Vince, and he threw a stone at another and it passed through the thing. "But you saw what happened to my pick," I said to Doc, "when I took a cut at that bird. The thing had to have been carrying some sort of charge." "Maybe whatever has been sending them has cut that part out, as a waste of energy," he replied, "since the things can't get through to us anyhow." We sat around and watched the snakes and falling rocks, until Stan produced a deck of cards and suggested a better game. The snakes stayed on through the night and followed us the next day. Rocks still fell periodically, but the boss seemed to be running low on them. The bird appeared, circled us and swooped on four different occasions. But this time we ignored it, and finally it went home to roost. We made three thousand feet, could have gone more, but didn't want to press it past a cozy little ledge with a cave big enough for the whole party. Everything let up on us then. Everything visible, that is. A before-the-storm feeling, a still, electrical tension, seemed to occur around us then, and we waited for whatever was going to happen to happen. The worst possible thing happened: nothing. This keyed-up feeling, this expectancy, stayed with us, was unsatisfied. I think it would actually have been a relief if some invisible orchestra had begun playing Wagner, or if the heavens had rolled aside like curtains and revealed a movie screen, and from the backward lettering we knew we were on the other side, or if we saw a high-flying dragon eating low-flying weather satellites.... As it was, we just kept feeling that something was imminent, and it gave me insomnia. During the night, she came again. The pinnacle girl. She stood at the mouth of the cave, and when I advanced the retreated. I stopped just inside and stood there myself, where she had been standing. She said, "Hello, Whitey." "No, I'm not going to follow you again," I said. "I didn't ask you to." "What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?" "Watching," she said. "I told you I won't fall." "Your friend almost did." "'Almost' isn't good enough." "You are the leader, aren't you?" "That's right." "If you were to die, the others would go back?" "No," I said, "they'd go on without me." I hit my camera then. "What did you just do?" she asked. "I took your picture--if you're really there." "Why?" "To look at after you go away. I like to look at pretty things." "..." She seemed to say something. "What?" "Nothing." "Why not?" "...die." "Please speak up." "She dies..." she said. "Why? How?" "....on mountain." "I don't understand." "...too." "What's wrong?" I took a step forward, and she retreated a step. "Follow me?" she asked. "No." "Go back," she said. "What's on the other side of that record?" "You will continue to climb?" "Yes." Then, "Good!" she said suddenly. "I--," and her voice stopped again. "Go back," she finally said, without emotion. "Sorry." And she was gone.


Our trail took us slowly to the left once more. We crawled and sprawled and cut holes in the stone. Snakes sizzled in the distance. They were with us constantly now. The bird came again at crucial moments, to try to make us fall. A raging bull stood on a crag and bellowed down at us. Phantom archers loosed shafts of fire, which always faded right before they struck. Blazing blizzards swept at us, around us, were gone. We were back on the northern slopes and still heading west by the time we broke a hundred sixty thousand. The sky was deep and blue, and there were always stars. Why did the mountain hate us? I wondered. What was there about us to provoke this thing? I looked at the picture of the girl for the dozenth time and I wondered what she really was. Had she been picked from our minds and composed into girlform to lure us, to lead us, sirenlike, harpylike, to the place of the final fall? It was such a long way down.... I thought back over my life. How does a man come to climb mountains? Is he drawn by the heights because he is afraid of the level land? Is he such a misfit in the society of men that he must flee and try to place himself above it? The way up is long and difficult, but if he succeeds they must grant him a garland of sorts. And if he falls, this too is a kind of glory. To end, hurled from the heights to the depths in hideous ruin and combustion down, is a fitting climax for the loser--for it, too, shakes mountains and minds, stirs things like thoughts below both, is a kind of blasted garland of victory in defeat, and cold, so cold that final action, that the movement is somewhere frozen forever into a statuelike rigidity of ultimate intent and purpose thwarted only by the universal malevolence we all fear exists. An aspirant saint or hero who lacks some necessary virtue may still qualify as a martyr, for the only thing that people will really remember in the end is the end. I had known that I'd had to climb Kasla, as I had climbed all the others, and I had known what the price would me. It had cost me my only home. But Kasla was there, and my boots cried out for my feet. I knew as I did so that somewhere I set them upon her summit, and below me a world was ending. What's a world if the moment of victory is at hand? And if truth, beauty and goodness be one, why is there always this conflict among them? The phantom archers fired upon me and the bright bird swooped. I set my teeth, and my boots scarred rocks beneath me. We saw the top. At a hundred seventy-six thousand feet, making our way along a narrow ledge, clicking against rock, testing our way with our picks, we heard Vince say, "Look!" We did. Up and up, and again further, bluefrosted and sharp, deadly, and cold as Loki's dagger, slashing at the sky, it vibrated above us like electricity, hung like a piece of frozen thunder, and cut, cut, cut into the center of spirit that was desire, twisted, and became a fishhook to pull us on, to burn us with its barbs. Vince was the first to look up and see the top, the first to die. It happened so quickly, and it was none of the terrors that achieved it. He slipped. That was all. It was a difficult piece of climbing. He was right behind me one second, was gone the next. There was no body to recover. He'd taken the long drop. The soundless blue was all around him and the great gray beneath. Then we were six. We shuddered, and I suppose we all prayed in our own ways. --Gone Vince, may some good Deva lead you up the Path of Splendor. May you find whatever you wanted most at the other end, waiting there for you. If such a thing may be, remember those who say these words, oh strong intruder in the sky.... No one spoke much for the rest of the day. The fiery sword bearer came and stood above our camp the entire night. It did not speak. In the morning, Stan was gone, and there was a note beneath my pack. _Don't hate me,_ it said, _for running out, but I think it really is an angel. I'm scared of this mountain. I'll climb any pile of rocks, but I won't fight Heaven. The way down is easier than the way up, so don't worry about me. Good luck. Try to understand._ S So we were five--Doc and Kelly and Henry and Mallardi and me--and that day we hit a hundred eighty thousand and felt very alone. The girl came again that night and spoke to me, black hair against black sky and eyes like points of blue fire, and she stood beside an icy pillar and said, "Two of you have gone." "And the rest of us remain," I replied. "For a time." "We will climb to the top and then we will go away," I said. "How can that do you harm? Why do you hate us?" "No hate, sir," she said. "What, then?" "I protect." "What? What is it that you protect?" "The dying, that she may live." "What? Who is dying? How?" But her words went away somewhere, and I did not hear them. Then she went away too, and there was nothing left but sleep for the rest of the night. One hundred eighty-two thousand and three, and four, and five. Then back down to four for the following night. The creatures whined about us now, and the land pulsed beneath us, and the mountain seemed sometimes to sway as we climbed. We carved a path to one eighty-six, and for three days we fought to gain another thousand feet. Everything we touched was cold and slick and slippery, sparkled, and had a bluish haze about it. When we hit one ninety, Henry looked back and shuddered. "I'm no longer worried about making it to the top," he said. "It's the return trip that's bothering me now. The clouds are like little wisps of cotton way down there." "The sooner up, the sooner down," I said, and we began to climb once again. It took us another week to cut our way to within a mile of the top. All the creatures of fire had withdrawn, but two ice avalanches showed us we were still unwanted. We survived the first without mishap, but Kelly sprained his right ankle during the second, and Doc thought he might have cracked a couple of ribs, too. We made a camp. Doc stayed there with him; Henry and Mallardi and I pushed on up the last mile. Now the going was beastly. It had become a mountain of glass. We had to hammer out a hold for every foot we made. We worked in shifts. We fought for everything we gained. Our packs became monstrous loads and our fingers grew numb. Our defense system--the projectors--seemed to be wearing down, or else something was increasing its efforts to get us, because the snakes kept slithering closer, burning brighter. They hurt my eyes, and I cursed them. When we were within a thousand feet of the top, we dug in and made another camp. The next couple hundred feet looked easier, then a rotten spot, and I couldn't tell what it was like above that. When we awakened, there was just Henry and myself. There was no indication of where Mallardi had gotten to. Henry switched his communicator to Doc's letter and called below. I tuned in in time to hear him say, "Haven't seen him." "How's Kelly?" I asked. "Better," he replied. "Those ribs might not be cracked at that." Then Mallardi called us. "I'm four hundred feet above you, fellows," his voice came in. "It was easy up to here, but the going's just gotten rough again." "Why'd you cut out on your own?" I asked. "Because I think something's going to try to kill me before too long," he said. "It's up ahead, waiting at the top. You can probably even see it from there. It's a snake." Henry and I used the binoculars. Snake? A better word might be dragon--or maybe even Midgard Serpent. It was coiled around the peak, head upraised. It seemed to be several hundred feet in length, and it moved its head from side to side, and up and down, and it smoked solar coronas. Then I spotted Mallardi climbing toward it. "Don't go any further!" I called. "I don't know whether your unit will protect you against anything like that! Wait'll I call Doc--" "Not a chance," he said. "This baby is mine." "Listen! You can be first on the mountain, if that's what you want! But don't tackle that thing alone!" A laugh was the only reply. "All three units might hold it off," I said. "Wait for us." There was no answer, and we began to climb. I left Henry far below me. The creature was a moving light in the sky. I made two hundred feet in a hurry, and when I looked up again, I saw that the creature had grown two more heads. Lightnings flashed from its nostrils, and its tail whipped around the mountain. I made another hundred feet, and I could see Mallardi clearly by then, climbing steadily, outlined against the brilliance. I swung my pick, gasping, and I fought the mountain, following the trail he had cut. I began to gain on him, because he was still pounding out his way and I didn't have that problem. Then I heard him talking: "Not yet, big fella, not yet," he was saying, from behind a wall of static. "Here's a ledge...." I looked up, and he vanished. Then that fiery tail came lashing down toward where I had last seen him, and I heard him curse and I felt the vibrations of his pneumatic gun. The tail snapped back again, and I heard another "Damn!" I made haste, stretching and racking myself and grabbing at the holds he had cut, and then I heard him burst into song. Something from _Aida_, I think. "Damn it! Wait up!" I said. "I'm only a few hundred feet behind." He kept on singing. I was beginning to get dizzy, but I couldn't let myself slow down. My right arm felt like a piece of wood, my left like a piece of ice. My feet were hooves, and my eyes burned in my head. Then it happened. Like a bomb, the snake and the swinging ended in a flash of brilliance that caused me to sway and almost lose my grip. I clung to the vibrating mountainside and squeezed my eyes against the light. "Mallardi?" I called. No answer. Nothing. I looked down. Henry was still climbing. I continued to climb. I reached the ledge Mallardi had mentioned, found him there. His respirator was still working. His protective suit was blackened and scorched on the right side. Half of his pick had been melted away. I raised his shoulders. I turned up the volume on the communicator and heard him breathing. His eyes opened, closed, opened. "Okay...." he said. "'Okay,' hell! Where do you hurt?" "No place...I feel jus' fine....Listen! I think it's used up its juice for awhile....Go plant the flag. Prop me up here first, though. I wanna watch...." I got him into a better position, squirted the water bulb, listened to him swallow. Then I waited for Henry to catch up. It took about six minutes. "I'll stay here," said Henry, stooping beside him. "You go do it." I started up the final slope.


I swung and I cut and I blasted and I crawled. Some of the ice had been melted, the rocks scorched. Nothing came to oppose me. The static had gone with the dragon. There was silence, and darkness between stars. I climbed slowly, still tired from that last sprint, but determined not to stop. All but sixty feet of the entire world lay beneath me, and heaven hung above me, and a rocket winked overhead. Perhaps it was the pressmen, with zoom cameras. Fifty feet.... No bird, no archer, no angel, no girl. Forty feet.... I started to shake. It was nervous tension. I steadied myself, went on. Thirty feet...and the mountain seemed to be swaying now. Twenty-five...and I grew dizzy, halted, took a drink. Then click, click, my pick again. Twenty.... Fifteen.... Ten.... I braced myself against the mountain's final assault, whatever it might be. Five... Nothing happened as I arrived. I stood up. I could go no higher. I looked at the sky, I looked back down. I waved at the blazing rocket exhaust. I extruded the pole and attached the flag. I planted it, there where no breezes would ever stir it. I cut in my communicator, said, "I'm here." No other words. It was time to go back down and give Henry his chance, but I looked down the western slope before I turned to go. The lady was winking again. Perhaps eight hundred feet below, the red light shone. Could that have been what I had seen from the town during the storm, on that night, so long ago? I didn't know and I had to. I spoke into the communicator. "How's Mallardi doing?" "I just stood up," he answered. "Give me another half hour, and I'm coming up myself." "Henry," I said. "Should he?" "Gotta take his word how he feels," said Lanning. "Well," I said, "then take it easy. I'll be gone when you get here. I'm going a little way down the western side. Something I want to see." "What?" "I dunno. That's why I want to see." "Take care." "Check." The western slope was an easy descent. As I went down it, I realized that the light was coming from an opening in the side of the mountain. Half an hour later, I stood before it. I stepped within and was dazzled. I walked toward it and stopped. It pulsed and quivered and sang. A vibrating wall of flame leapt from the floor of the cave, towered to the roof of the cave. It blocked my way, when I wanted to go beyond it. She was there, and I wanted to reach her. I took a step forward, so that I was only inches away from it. My communicator was full of static and my arms of cold needles. It did not bend toward me, as to attack. It cast no heat. I stared through the veil of fires to where she reclined, her eyes closed, her breast unmoving. I stared at the bank of machinery beside the far wall. "I'm here," I said, and I raised my pick. When its point touched the wall of flame someone took the lid off hell, and I staggered back, blinded. When my vision cleared, the angel stood before me. "_You may not pass here_," he said. "She is the reason you want me to go back?" I asked. "_Yes. Go back._" "Has she no say in the matter?" "_She sleeps. Go back._" "So I notice. Why?" "_She must. Go back._" "Why did she herself appear to me and lead me strangely?" "_I used up the fear-forms I knew. They did not work. I led you strangely because her sleeping mind touches upon my own workings. It did so especially when I borrowed her form, so that it interfered with the directive. Go back._" "What is the directive?" "_She is to be guarded against all things coming up the mountain. Go back._" "Why? Why is she guarded?" "_She sleeps. Go back._" The conversation having become somewhat circular at that point, I reached into my pack and drew out the projector. I swung it forward and the angel melted. The flames bent away from my outstretched hand. I sought to open a doorway in the circle of fire. It worked, sort of. I pushed the projector forward, and the flames bent and bent and bent and finally broke. When they broke, I leaped forward. I made it through, but my protective suit was as scorched as Mallardi's. I moved to the coffinlike locker within which she slept. I rested my hands on its edge and looked down. She was as fragile as ice. In fact, she was ice.... The machine came alive with lights then, and I felt her somber bedstead vibrate. Then I saw the man. He was half sprawled across a metal chair beside the machine. He, too, was ice. Only his features were gray, were twisted. He wore black and he was dead and a statue, while she was sleeping and a statue. She wore blue, and white.... There was an empty casket in the far corner.... But something was happening around me. There came a brightening of the air. Yes, it was air. It hissed upward from frosty juts in the floor, formed into great clouds. Then a feeling of heat occurred and the clouds began to fade and the brightening continued. I returned to the casket and studied her features. I wondered what her voice would sound like when/if she spoke. I wondered what lay within her mind. I wondered how her thinking worked, and what she liked and didn't like. I wondered what her eyes had looked upon, and when. I wondered all these things, because I could see that whatever forces I had set into operation when I entered the circle of fire were causing her, slowly, to cease being a statue. She was being awakened. I waited. Over an hour went by, and still I waited, watching her. She began to breath. Her eyes opened at last, and for a long time she did not see. Then her bluefire fell on me. "Whitey," she said. "Yes." "Where am I...?" "In the damnedest place I could possibly have found anyone." She frowned. "I remember," she said and tried to sit up. It didn't work. She fell back. "What is your name?" "Linda," she said. Then, "I dreamed of you, Whitey. Strange dreams....How could that be?" "It's tricky," I said. "I knew you were coming," she said. "I saw you fighting monsters on a mountain as high as the sky." "Yes, we're there now." "H-have you the cure?" "Cure? What cure?" "Dawson's Plague," she said. I felt sick. I felt sick because I realized that she did not sleep as a prisoner, but to postpone her death. She was sick. "Did you come to live on this world in a ship that moved faster than light?" I asked. "No," she said. "It took centuries to get here. We slept the cold sleep during the journey. This is one of the bunkers." She gestured toward the casket with her eyes. I noticed her cheeks had become bright red. "They all began dying--of the plague," she said. "There was no cure. My husband--Carl--is a doctor. When he saw that I had it, he said he would keep me in extreme hypothermia until a cure was found. Otherwise, you only live for two days, you know." Then she stared up at me, and I realized that her last two words had been a question. I moved into a position to block her view of the dead man, who I feared must be her Carl. I tried to follow her husband's thinking. He'd had to hurry, as he was obviously further along than she had been. He knew the colony would be wiped out. He must have loved her and been awfully clever, both--awfully resourceful. Mostly, though, he must have loved her. Knowing that the colony would die, he knew it would be centuries before another ship arrived. He had nothing that could power a cold bunker for that long. But up here, on the top of this mountain, almost as cold as outer space itself, power wouldn't be necessary. Somehow, he had got Linda and the stuff up here. His machine cast a force field around the cave. Working in heat and atmosphere, he had sent her deep into the cold sleep and then prepared his own bunker. When he dropped the wall of forces, no power would be necessary to guarantee the long, icy wait. They could sleep for centuries within the bosom of the Gray Sister, protected by a colony of defense-computer. This last had apparently been programmed quickly, for he was dying. He saw that it was too late to join her. He hurried to set the thing for basic defense, killed the force field, and then went his way into that Dark and Secret Place. Thus it hurled its birds and its angels and its snakes, it raised its walls of fire against me. He died, and it guarded her in near-death--against everything, including those who would help. My coming to the mountain had activated it. My passing of the defenses had caused her to be summoned back to life. "_Go back!_" I heard the machine say through its projected angel, for Henry had entered the cave. "My God!" I heard him say. "Who's that?" "Get Doc!" I said. "Hurry! I'll explain later. It's a matter of life! Climb back to where your communicator will work, and tell him it's Dawson's Plague--a bad local bug! Hurry!" "I'm on my way," he said and was. "There _is_ a doctor?" she asked. "Yes. Only about two hours away. Don't worry....I still don't see how anyone could have gotten you up here to the top of this mountain, let alone a load of machines." "We're on the big mountain--the forty-miler?" "Yes." "How did _you_ get up?" she asked. "I climbed it." "You really climbed Purgatorio? On the outside?" "Purgatorio? That's what you call it? Yes, I climbed it, that way." "We didn't think it could be done." "How else might one arrive at its top?" "It's hollow inside," she said. "There are great caves and massive passages. It's easy to fly up the inside on a pressurized jut car. In fact, it was an amusement ride. Two and a half dollars per person. An hour and a half each way. A dollar to rent a pressurized suit and take an hour's walk around the top. Nice way to spend an afternoon. Beautiful view...?" She gasped deeply. "I don't feel so good," she said. "Have you any water?" "Yes," I said, and I gave her all I had. As she sipped it, I prayed that Doc had the necessary serum or else would be able to send her back to ice and sleep until it could be gotten. I prayed that he would make good time, for two hours seemed long when measured against her thirst and the red of her flesh. "My fever is coming again," she said. "Talk to me, Whitey, please....Tell me things. Keep me with you till he comes. I don't want my mind to turn back upon what has happened...." "What would you like me to tell you about, Linda?" "Tell me why you did it. Tell me what it was like, to climb a mountain like this one. Why?" I turned my mind back upon what had happened. "There is a certain madness involved," I said, "a certain envy of great and powerful natural forces, that some men have. Each mountain is a deity, you know. Each is an immortal power. If you make sacrifices upon its slopes, a mountain may grant you a certain grace, and for a time you will share this power. Perhaps that is why they call me...." Her hand rested in mine. I hoped that through it whatever power I might contain would hold all of her with me for as long as ever possible. "I remember the first time that I saw Purgatory, Linda," I told her. "I looked at it and I was sick. I wondered, where did it lead...?" (Stars. Oh let there be. This once to end with. Please.) "Stars?"

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