Authors: Isaac Hooke
Military Science Fiction
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A CAPTAIN'S CRUCIBLE
This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, organizations, places, events and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or used fictitiously.
Text copyright © Isaac Hooke 2016
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be copied, reproduced in any format, by any means, electronic or otherwise, without prior consent from the copyright owner and publisher of this book.
Cover design by Isaac Hooke
Cover image by Jason Moser - maverickdesignworks.com
Approximately eight hundred meters from the summit of the mountain, one of the frozen bodies moved.
Jonathan paused. He stared at the human figure lying there in the snow some distance away, near a precipice. The body wasn't moving anymore. Maybe he'd witnessed some post-death spasm. Or perhaps Jonathan had merely imagined the incident.
It was the seventh frozen body he'd passed on the way to the summit. He wondered why no one bothered to send up robots to retrieve them. Probably because it was good for public relations—the owners didn't want the mountain to cede the title of deadliest climb in the galaxy.
The air he exhaled from his oxygen mask misted, partially obscuring his vision. Beyond the body, the gas giant dominated the sky, colored a bright white against the blue firmament. Standing there on that mountain, Jonathan almost felt like he could touch the planet overhead.
He could just make out the grid of satellites designed to deflect and absorb the immense radiation the giant produced. Ten blinding pinpoints of light shone from key points in the sky—giant mirrors that reflected rays from the distant sun.
Beside him he heard the incessant hum of the tiny, self-charging selfie drones that accompanied the party and documented their climb. Tiny, buzzing bees.
"Jonathan, what are you doing?" That was his climbing partner: Hartford Knox, top of the class at the Academy, son of the founder of Nova Dynamics, the robotics megaconglomerate. "Come on! We're already going to summit late!"
Jonathan didn't move. "I think that body is alive."
Hartford kept hiking. "So? We can't help her."
"He's right," the sherpa agreed. "We must move. If we stay any longer, we'll have to turn back."
Alfred Holmes, standing beside the sherpa at the fore of the group, said nothing. He was their guide, the man Jonathan and Hartford were paying half a million to lead them up the mountain. The sherpa worked for him.
"Just a second." Jonathan approached the body.
"Jonathan!" Hartford ordered. "Get back here!"
"Just a second!" Jonathan carefully planted each crampon in the snow. Though the slope was shallow, it wouldn't take much to slip. He didn't relish the thought of plunging over the nearby ledge.
Despite the fact that he was decked out in full climbing and thermal gear, he was terribly cold. His extremities throbbed painfully—the internal heat radiators in his gloves and boots had long since exhausted their power sources. The only way to stay warm now was to keep moving.
As he walked, he removed one of his gloves and shoved the hand inside his jacket under his armpit. The warmth of his body restored feeling to the fingers.
The insistent whirring of the selfie drone beside him became distracting. He recalled the drone and stuffed it into his pocket. The small drone probably wouldn't start up again—it was already operating way beyond the manufacturer's recommended temperature and pressure specifications. But somehow, it didn't seem appropriate to record a dying woman with a selfie drone.
He neared the body. It was a woman. Her gloves were abandoned in the snow beside her and her jacket was pulled halfway down her torso as if she had tried to remove it. Paradoxical undressing, it was called: a symptom that some climbers experienced when freezing to death, in which the brain for some reason believed the body was overheating. The exposed skin of her face and hands was colored a deathly porcelain. Her abandoned oxygen mask lay on the snow beside her.
She was lying on her back, with her arms, legs, and head dangling sickly to one side, toward the precipice.
When he approached, those eyes fluttered opened.
"Help me." Her white lips barely moved, and her voice sounded more like a hiss than actual words.
Jonathan knelt and gazed into bright blue irises that were made all the more startling by the backdrop of that pure-white face. It gave her an elf-like, eldritch appearance. And yet the eyes themselves were vacant—the pupils large, empty holes.
Jonathan removed his oxygen mask, pressed it against her face, and opened the valve to high flow. He checked the level of the oxygen tank she wore. Empty.
It was possible to survive at that height without extra oxygen, for a time, though reaction time was reduced, and judgement often clouded. However some climbers flat-out refused to wear masks when entering the death zones of mountains on terraformed worlds. Jonathan was never one of those climbers. Already he was feeling dizzy and short of breath without the oxygen.
He tried the comm that was built into the ski goggles he wore. "Climber to base camp three, over."
He navigated through the menus on the aReal—augmented reality—display built into the goggles, and tried another frequency band.
"Climber to base camp three. I'm near the Crab Hook. Got a fellow climber in need of rescue."
He retrieved her abandoned gloves and slid them over the grotesquely swollen masses of her hands. Her arms were floppy: she offered no resistance, nor help. He pulled up her jacket and zippered it closed. He raised her ermine-lined hood and tied it tight.
"What's your name?" he asked her.
She looked at him vacantly. "What?" Her voice sounded muffled behind the mask.
"Famina," she said after a moment.
Jonathan glanced over his shoulder. The climbing party waited for him on the main route. He waved them over.
None of the others approached.
Jonathan shrugged the oxygen tank from his shoulder and set it against her chest. He tried to wrap her flaccid arms around it but the limbs kept flopping back to the side.
"All right, Famina, I'll be right back."
He stood. Brightly-colored phosphenes immediately dotted his vision. He felt extremely dizzy and it took him a moment to recover.
"Why won't anyone help me?" Famina pleaded.
Jonathan turned his back on her and approached the others.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" he said after he reached them. "Where's your human decency? There's something more important than summiting a mountain. And that's helping a fellow climber in distress!"
"Jonathan," Hartford said. "We can help her on the way down. Look, up ahead. Those climbers coming down from the summit. They can help her. They can call in the ARATs to fetch her when they get a signal." ARAT stood for Automated Rescue And Transport robot.
Their guide, Alfred Holmes, finally spoke. "Jonathan. You have to ask yourself, how badly do you want the summit? Look at her. She's not going to make it. Even if we got her to the robots of camp three, she's a lost cause. There's no guilt in leaving her behind."
"There is, for me," Jonathan said.
"You spent a lot of money, not to mention time, on this," the guide continued. "You're eight hundred meters from the summit. Are you sure you want to turn back now?"
"I do. I don't care about the summit, or the money spent."
"Fine. Stay if you want." Hartford turned toward the guide: "Can you take me to the top? The sherpa can lead him back."
"We came here to discover who we were," Jonathan said softly.
who you are," Hartford sneered. "Because I'll certainly do the same. I'm not wasting half a million dollars on a dead woman."
He turned his back and continued the ascent. The guide hesitated, exchanged quiet words with the sherpa, and then followed Hartford.
The sherpa nodded toward the woman. "Let's get her, then."
When Jonathan and the sherpa reached her, she was barely conscious. Jonathan left his oxygen mask strapped around her face, and he and the sherpa lifted the woman's dead weight between them. Her legs were jelly; her arms flopped about like a rag doll. Jonathan marched very carefully, ever aware of the precipice beside him.
By the time the group returned to the main route Jonathan was already gasping for breath. As was the sherpa—and he was still wearing his oxygen mask.
"We can't do this—" the sherpa began.
"We're doing it!" Jonathan said.
They began the descent. The route was relatively non-technical: the slope remained an easily-manageable twenty degrees for the next five hundred meters or so. Though how they were going to proceed when they reached the first of several steep cliffs, Jonathan didn't know.
The aReal display overlaid the required descent route over his vision, presenting a three dimensional, rectangular green wireframe above the snow to ensure he didn't stray. The deep footprints from other climbers served as additional route markers.
He continued panting from the lack of oxygen, and at last had to take the mask from the woman. She was completely unconscious by that point. The sherpa refused to give her his own mask.
The pair continued downward.
Feeling very weak, Jonathan stumbled frequently. The sherpa fared somewhat better, but even he tripped a few times, and once nearly pulled the three of them over a ledge.
Other descending climbers arrived, accompanied by selfie drones. At first they pretended to be interested in helping, and one of them gave the woman oxygen on high flow. She didn't rouse.
"We can carry her between us," Jonathan suggested.
The climber who donated his oxygen mask pressed his lips together. "We have barely enough strength to get ourselves back. If we linger here, wasting our precious reserves on her, we'll never make camp three. It's going to be dark soon. I'm sorry, we can't help further."
Jonathan and the sherpa rested for several moments, watching the party go. Then the pair hoisted the woman between them and continued.
They reached the first cliff. Famina remained unconscious.
Jonathan prepared a rappel from their spare ropes and anchored it around a rock near the edge. He tied the rope to the woman's waist and then he and the sherpa lowered her. It was an excruciating, exhausting endeavor, and by the time she reached the lower ledge Jonathan was thoroughly winded.
He rested for several moments, letting the sherpa descend first. Jonathan couldn't catch his breath. He checked his tank levels.
Out of oxygen.
He removed his mask and forced himself onto the rope. He climbed down, panting the whole way. Phosphenes covered half his vision. When he finally reached the lower ledge he lay back and shut his eyes. He just wanted to die.
"We can't do this," the sherpa said, tossing aside his own empty oxygen container. "We can only save ourselves now."
Panting, feeling like he was choking, Jonathan looked at the woman. He knew the sherpa was right.
"I'm sorry," he told the unconscious woman. "I'm sorry, Famina."
He and the sherpa abandoned her to continue the descent on their own.
Jonathan trekked through a tunnel of phosphenes, his vision nearly consumed by the stars of hypoxia. The breeze had picked up, assaulting his body with a wind chill of minus forty degrees according to the aReal.
He couldn't feel his fingers or toes. Though he had tied his hood so that only his goggles were exposed, his face felt numb, too.
Jonathan constantly tried to raise the ARATs over the comm. Originally the local government had planned to install signal boosters, but apparently the mountaineers complained, saying that it reduced the thrill of climbing the deadliest mountain in the galaxy. The sense of isolation, and the inherent danger such isolation entailed, was part of the sport, they said.
"Climber to base camp three," he panted. "In need of rescue."
"Base camp three to climber," a voice finally responded. "We read your position. We're sending ARATs."
"There's a woman," Jonathan said. "On the last cliff to Crab Hook. You have to get her."
"Roger that," came the response. "We're on our way."
The pair struggled onward. When the sun set, painting the sky the ghostly purple of twilight, the wind picked up further, becoming a howl. The aReal goggles registered the temperature as minus sixty degrees.
Jonathan and the sherpa dug out a bivouac in the snow and huddled together for warmth. He wondered if Hartford and the guide would survive out there. They had summited so late. Too late. And what about the woman?
The spider-like forms of the climbing robots appeared downslope, their navigation lights glistening above metallic shells. When the automatons arrived, they immediately hoisted the obviously exhausted pair onto their rectangular backs.
"Everything will be fine now," the robot told him. A telescoping limb strapped him in and then lowered an oxygen mask over his face. Another limb injected a needle through his shirt and into his arm.
"Wait," Jonathan said. "There was a woman. Near the Crab Hook. And two others. Our partners. Wait."
The robot didn't answer, and instead continued the descent to camp three.
Jonathan was too exhausted to protest.
The fresh oxygen had a soporific effect. Or perhaps it was the needle, or because he was lying down. Whatever the case, he closed his eyes and slept immediately.