How to Climb a MountainAntjie Coetzee had been working at Tau for years. She didn’t particularly like it, but the money was good and it wasn’t that stressful. Her job was that of a gunner, working the Omega Space Gun, launching satellites and space probes. Most of her time was spent preparing for launches: making sure the payload was secure, that the casing would hold up, checking weather stats, and doing ballistics calculations. The actual firing of the gun, the one thing her title focused on, was absolutely trivial. Sitting comfortably in her Pilot Seat she would with the flip of a switch push a ton of steel and circuitry up through an extensive tunnel lined with electromagnets continuously accelerating the payload to escape velocity.
Every launch was an amazing feat of engineering, but from Coetzee’s point of view it was banal. She would hit a switch, hear the bombastic sounds of the payload shooting off, and then soon after she would get a video feed of the thing leaving the barrel followed by an automated confirmation: launch successful. Then there would be a string of information specific for that mission. The launch message was generated and broadcasted by a surface platform known simply as Omega. Omega was like Phi that it didn’t have a standing staff. But unlike Phi it didn’t have any workers either. Almost everyday Coetzee would walk through the connector tunnel from Tau to Phi in order to work, so in a way it was populated almost at all times. Omega, on the other hand, was just a fixture point for the Space Gun and didn't need any supervision.
Coetzee had heard about the Curie going there occasionally to perform maintenance or check something or the other, but to her it just felt like a very solitary and vacant place. She found herself trying to get a sense of what it was like up there whenever they launched something. The video feed that would pop up on her HUD intrigued her and she often tried to imagine what it would be like to be up there, alone in the middle of the ocean. It had to be better than down here, right?
She had been thinking about it a lot lately. It had been a year since the comet killed the planet, shot down communication between the abyss and the plateau, and activated WAU in the most devastating way possible.
Coetzee’s colleague, Tsiolkovsky, used to say that being buried alive would be a step up for the people at Tau. At least then you knew you were dead. In the abyss, looking up at the dark water pushing down on you, you couldn’t help but feel that there was light way up there, somewhere. It wasn’t for you, but it did translate into a tiny amount of hope and that hope kept you from accepting a peaceful death and instead perpetuate a futile struggle for survival.
Coetzee had, unlike the others, given into the idea of dying. She was no longer concerned about a life after death, since in this case there wasn’t much life before death either. What Coetzee struggled with was to try to find an end that she could accept without feeling like a failure. What she wanted wasn’t anything dramatic. She just wanted to feel something that wasn’t frustration, pain, or hunger. She wanted to feel genuine in the way that she could recognize her feelings as not something that of an animal, but a human being with dignity and honor.
It was those video feeds from the lone Omega platform that inspired her to do what she did that day.
Coetzee watched the last few videos generated during the final launches. The screen would shake and then pan side-to-side to show marker buoys on the horizon. But Coetzee was watching that sliver of the Omega platform that got caught in the video. There was something so inviting about it – peaceful. That’s when she realized what she wanted to do. She wanted to go there.
It was a crazy undertaking – it had never been done before and it would never be tried again. She was going to climb it. She felt herself getting excited by the prospect of making her way to the surface. It would be a one way street, for sure, but she was okay with that. More than okay with it. As she thought about it she couldn’t even consider wanting to go back into the abyss again, even if the surface was all in flames.
The Omega Space Gun barrel was not a straight vertical line towards the surface, it was a slope spanning more than five kilometers. It was going to be a long climb, but she figured it could be done. At first it seemed like climbing inside the barrel would be the safest bet, but considering its construction – divided into vacuum filled sections with multiple locks – it all seemed too complicated. Even if she sabotaged the gun and filled it with water the slippery surface would make it too difficult to traverse. No, it had to be climbed on the outside, she would have to climb it like a mountain.
Coetzee set off in her Power Suit, carrying three extra tanks of oxygen and a technician’s tool belt. It was surprisingly easy to climb, but it was exhausting. The constant angle of the barrel made it feel like she was climbing the longest staircase in the world.
She thought back on her childhood, hiking with her parents on the Tafelberg just out of Cape Town. She couldn’t remember how long it would take them to cover the distances, but they did get a lot walking done in one afternoon.
The climb was long and confusing. The darkness surrounding her was so overbearing that it felt like she wasn’t going anywhere at all. She focused on the few meters her floodlight could illuminate and kept telling herself that she just had to reach the next section, and then the next section, and the next after that.
After two hours she could hear her suit warn her about oxygen and she carefully steadied herself to switch tank. In complete silence she dropped the empty tank into the darkness below her. It was chilling seeing it disappear, like it didn’t exist any more. She didn’t want to acknowledge it, but in the same way she didn’t feel sad about leaving her colleagues down there. In a strange way, just like the oxygen tank, they didn’t exist to her any more. It was not a conscious dismissal, it was just the way she felt.
Coetzee continued and soon after the tank switch she started to notice the tiny shift in the light around her – it was getting brighter. She almost choked from tears of happiness as she crossed into the twilight zone. Seeing natural light, even as sparse as this, was incredible and she felt herself going quicker and quicker, rushing towards the top.
That’s when she slipped. She fell and grabbed on to a metal railing meant for maintenance robots. It was weak and slim - it wouldn’t carry her for long. With mounting panic she fumbled with her tool belt, got a key for the oxygen tank, and opened one of the spares on full. The tank rocketed away, pulling Coetzee with it. The tank carried her up, but she was getting away from the barrel. It took careful aim and a good portion of luck; she managed to steer back over the barrel and let go of the tank. She slammed into the barrel and held on for dear life.
She stayed there, recovering, for the longest time. She knew she was losing oxygen, but she had to calm herself down in order to go on. When her heart had stopped racing, she stood up and carried on with the climb.
After another two hours she switched tanks again. This time she could clearly see the top of the mid-atlantic ridge. She was getting there, but she didn’t want to risk falling again, so she kept her eyes fixed a few meters ahead and concentrated.
At length she realized she could see structures ahead. It was the bottom of the submersed stabilizing parts of the Omega platform. She didn’t know the layout of Omega, but wagered a guess that she was about fifty meters from the surface. She kept moving, concentrating on the steps ahead.
The suit felt heavy as she finally pushed through the surface. The light was blinding for a moment until her eyes could get used to what she was seeing. It was a beautiful day. The blue ocean stretched as far as the eye could see. The burning hot orange sun was covered by what looked like smog or smeared clouds high above. As particles of dirt started to settle on her visor it quickly became apparent that the atmosphere was full of dust and ashes. She checked her suit’s climate scanner:
The air was toxic – better not take the helmet off.
Coetzee climbed the last meters up to where the barrel met the platform. She jumped down on to an observation deck and started looking for a way inside. She cleared the dust from her visor with her hand and was able to locate the door leading inside. It was like a small oil rig, fitted with work rooms, a weather station, a couple of offices and a small habitat with beds and a kitchen.
She smiled and with childish glee she thought I could live here. I could be happy here.
She walked around the habitat and looked through the books and other things that someone had left here. She put her hand on the couch to feel the spring in the cushion. She wanted so badly to sit down and read and drink tea. There must be some in the kitchen, she thought, but first there was something else that she needed to do. As she stood up in the middle of the common room she took a deep breath and unlocked her helmet. She put the helmet to the side and started to step out of the armored suit.
It was warm, too warm, but she didn’t care. Feeling any kind of natural air on her skin was heavenly.
Coetzee started looking through the drawers and the wardrobes in the bedrooms. She couldn’t find anything in her size, but oversized male shirts and jeans were enough to make her feel human again. Step by step, she was shedding the horrors of the abyss. She felt like herself for the first time in years.
Coetzee coughed, and then coughed again. She knew what was happening, but she wouldn’t let that ruin this moment for her.
The kitchen did have tea and some pasta, rice, and other dried foods. It wasn’t gourmet food, but for someone like Coetzee who had been eating basically anything that the body could digest for months, this was a feast.
Coetzee cooked it all and ate as much as she could stomach. She had a hard time keeping it all down, but her overeating just made her laugh. She was incredibly happy.
Her coughing got worse. Blood stained her new shirt. Without worrying, she hurried to replace it. Time was short, she thought, and went out on the observation deck again. It was even warmer than before, but the natural sunlight and the fresh ocean wind made her want to stay out there.
Coetzee pulled a chair from the common room out on to the deck. Grabbed a pile of books and sat them down next to the chair. She brought out a glass and a bottle of whisky she found in the pantry.
Coetzee sat down in the chair. Picked up a book of poems by Keats and flipped through it. She didn’t do much reading, she was so wrapped up in the feeling of being on the surface again.
She coughed. The blood stained the book of poems. She uncorked the whisky bottle and threw the cork into the sea.
As the sun set that day over the Omega platform Coetzee was falling asleep for the last time in her life. She could feel it, she knew what was happening, but damn it was worth it.