It was the tallest mountain Koring had ever seen. The tallest mountain in the solar system. It claimed him the moment he stood in its monolithic shadow, and he swore that he would be the first to stand on its virgin peak.
“No,” his guide said in the fluting tongue of the local people. “No one climbs the mountain. It is forbidden.”
“Who forbids it?” Koring asked.
“The Gods. It is said that from the top, one can see to the end of the earth. Only the Gods are allowed that privilege.”
“So your people will not assist me if I attempt the summit?”
“No. No one will help you.”
“Will you try to hinder me?”
“We will not hinder,” his guide answered. “We but convey the message of the Gods. It is up to them to cast their judgment on you.”
“Very well,” he nodded. “May I stay among you while I prepare?”
“Yes, but please do not ask any of us to climb the mountain with you. It would be…impolite.”
He probably means ‘blasphemous’, Koring thought. They were certainly some of the politest and inoffensive people he’d ever met. Well, he’d need their help on the horizontal, if not the vertical portion of this venture. “Of course,” he agreed. “It will take some time to prepare. Where can I stay?”
He was taken to the guide’s own home, and there began his lengthy preparations. The mountain was so tall, he would require a full pressure suit and oxygen for a great portion of the ascent. Numerous camps were needed along the route, so he called the numbers on his list, and told them what he saw blocking out most of the sky. They did not believe him, but they came anyway, and stood looking with stunned eyes and dropped jaws at the monster he proposed to conquer.
“You’re crazy,” they said. “You’ll never make it.”
“Yes I will,” Koring answered in that unyielding tone his fellow climbers knew so well. “Would you like to help me do it?”
“Hell yeah,” they all answered. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”
Slowly but surely, the equipment and the camps crept up the mountain. It was like crossing a vertical continent, leaving established settlements behind, and moving on into increasingly hostile territory. Part-way up the mountain, they started naming the camps — death-zone camp one…death-zone camp twenty-seven…death-zone camp fifty-three — as they set up the pressurized tents, complete with airlocks and space suits for those choosing to venture outside.
At those heights, the mountain was an airless, frozen rock. It may as well have been a moon, pulled out of orbit and stuck like a mole on the planet surface, without the benefit of reduced gravity. Every step was as heavy and painful as the one before.
Some days the climbers barely made it out of the airlock before being driven back by vicious storms – winds howling at the speeds of jet-liners that ripped away tents and instantly killed any unprotected flesh they touched. Their progress, already at a crawl, slowed to an agonizing creep.
Finally they passed through the tropopause, breaking into the tranquil stratosphere. They moved quickly, cannibalizing equipment where they could, doing without where they couldn’t. The end was in sight – not in view, but Koring’s instruments told him that three years of seemingly endless effort was just above him.
The final day, the last hundred meters to go. Only one climber set out as his companions watched. This was his climb, his summit. They would get their moment after he had finalized his claim — stood at the peak and taken the mountain for his very own.
Step by painful step, Koring forced his beleaguered body up the final incline. He no longer remembered what it felt like to walk on a flat surface, to breathe fresh air, to feel the wind on his face. He had become a creature of technology and artifice. He barely knew what it meant to feel human. All that remained was the massive pile of tortured crust beneath him, and the smoothly serene sky overhead. Even his will was no longer his to command. His feet moved because it was all they knew to do.
And then there was nothing more to climb. Koring stood on the highest tip of the tallest mountain in existence with the sun and the stars shining in the darkness above. They winked at him in welcome, and he breathed harshly against his facemask, standing in the place where the earth ended and the heavens began, and wondered what the gods of this world thought of him now. As if in answer, a line of light streaked across the sky. It grew thicker, brighter.
Not brighter – closer. He watched as the radiance increased — swallowing the stars, obscuring the sun, filling the sky with fire. With a roar of superheated rage, it fell past the mountain and flung itself into the clouds below. He saw the ripples form, like a pebble dropped into a pool. He felt the explosion of impact fifty kilometers below his feet. He witnessed the mushroom of debris erupt from the hole punched through the sky.
From the top of the mountain, where the natives said one could see to the end of the earth, he stood like a god and watched it happen.
© Erika Wilson
Erika Wilson lives and writes in Maryland. She received a Philosophy degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis. Her work has been published by Everyday Weirdness, Moondrenched Fables, Strong Verse and Every Day Poets.
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