Alice was still breathing when Oliver checked at sundown, but it was raspy, hard to hear over the harsh wind that howled through the great plains. The air was cold and getting colder now that night had fallen, and despite the thermal grid in his gloves his fingers were starting to feel numb. Whatever idiot had classified this jump as J4 must have been here during the warm season.
At least the ground was flat and relatively featureless, and the light frosting of ice helped the runners of his makeshift sledge skid along the ground without too much resistance.
Their flitter had crashed after an unexpected gust had sheared off one of the control flaps, and Alice hadn’t been able to correct the spin. Oliver hadn’t even been able to open his eyes.
He hated the flitter. Hated anything that took him more than five feet off the ground. His stomach rebelled, his mind recoiled in terror, the very fabric of his soul tore itself to ribbons.
Alice never mocked him for his phobia, and he never complained. He had always known what he was getting into with her.
So she flew the flitter, and he sat beside her with his eyes clenched shut and his hands clamped to the armrests, as they hopped the Spires to places where only the rangers had been before, climbing through the endless iterations of worlds. They had seen things no other humans had ever seen before; they had left their footprints in soil that had never known any other life; they had made love under stars unmapped and uncharted.
And still it wasn’t enough for Alice.
“What are you running from?” Oliver had asked her once. “We could pipe in supplies to any one of these places and never see another human soul again.”
But she had shaken her head, and said, “I’m not running from anything. I’m running toward something. I don’t even know what it is yet. But we’ll find it. I know we will.”
Oliver wasn’t running away from or toward anything. He was running to keep up.
It had been eight hours since the crash, but somehow it felt like longer. Maybe it was because the day-night cycle on this world lasted less than two hours, but he felt like he had been walking forever.
When he’d started out from the crash site he hadn’t thought they had that far to go. He could see the Spire, clear as anything from back the way they had come, and in spite of it all, in spite of the blood coming from Alice’s temple, and the terrible rasping sound of her breathing, he had let himself hope. They had a chance, a good chance. All they had to do was make it to the Spire. Okay, that wasn’t all. But he wasn’t letting himself think too far ahead yet.
One step at a time. One foot in front of another.
The Spires were the linking points between the worlds, the only sure common denominator between each place. No one knew who had placed them there, or why. No one knew how many worlds they spanned. In the days of exploration the Rangers had jumped to millions of worlds, making cursory notes on the viability of each world, but there was no way for them to be thorough. Most people stuck to the C2-5 worlds, the thousands of lush planets with perfect climates serving as a practically endless Garden of Eden for humanity. There was no more overcrowding, no more starvation, no more need.
And yet here he was on a grey, barren, freezing moon with a cold blue planet hanging in the sky and a distant star rising and setting every few hours.
By the time he reached the Spire, Oliver wanted to lie down and give up. He was exhausted and he ached everywhere. But the power meter on his wrist showed the thermal grid was more than three-quarters gone, and it was going to be a long, long climb.
All he had to do was reach the peak, and set off the beacon that was wired into the rift. The rangers would get the message. They would be there in a matter of minutes.
He put his foot up on the lowest rung, and grasped the ladder with his left hand, trying not to think about what he was doing. He pulled himself up, and stepped higher. That was all he had to do. One rung at a time, until he was at the top of the tower.
He was only twenty feet up the ladder when he made the mistake of looking down and a wave of dizziness crashed over him. Alice was lying there in the makeshift cocoon, eyes closed, looking small and distant already. Brave Alice. Fearless Alice.
He squeezed his eyes hard shut, then turned back to the sky and started to climb again.
Why couldn’t it have been me? Alice wouldn’t be afraid.
Alice loved to climb. On their seemingly endless jumps from world to world they found an island where huge pink gasbags floated at the ends of thick branching vines. Alice climbed halfway to the top without even a safety harness. She would have gone higher, but one of the branches snapped beneath her weight, and for a terrible second she was hanging by one hand a hundred feet above him. Oliver’s stomach twisted into a terrible knot, but a moment later she regained her footing, and he could hear her laughing.
Was she laughing at him?
He had been climbing the Spire for ten minutes. He refused to look down again, so he had no idea how far he’d come, but he could see that he still had a long way to go. The wind was a constant howl now, icy cold fingers that threatened to tear him off the ladder with every second.
Had she been laughing at him?
It was a stupid question. Wasn’t it? Alice was always laughing. She said he was funny. He’d always assumed she was talking about his jokes, but really those were all lame puns and knock knock jokes.
Stop thinking like that. This isn’t the time.
Left hand, right hand, left foot, right foot, repeat, repeat, repeat.
Don’t stop. Don’t look down.
His arms were starting to get tired. His hands were starting to go numb. There was only ten percent power left in the thermal mesh.
The sun was back up again. The sunrise had lasted less than a minute, and now the blazing blue star was nearing the zenith of the sky.
Had she been laughing at him?
All this time had he been a joke to her? A cowardly little mouse she kept around like a pet to keep her company?
Sometimes they came across other explorers. Not often, but it happened. Once while exploring a scorching desert of green sand they picked up another flitter beacon. They found a man neither very young, nor terribly old, with a wild black beard that whipped in the wind like a frayed flag.
They shared a meal and a fire that night, and once, when Alice was out of earshot, the man said to Oliver, “You think it’s a good idea dragging her out to parts unknown like this? Young woman like that is going to want to settle down somewhere sooner or later, and besides, hopping rifts is a dangerous business.”
Oliver was so taken aback by the question he couldn’t answer. How could he explain that it was he that was following along, like a bug clinging desperately to the windscreen of a speeding flitter? How could he tell this grizzled explorer that he was the one that wanted to settle down?
It had been an hour since his feet last touched the ground, and his arms were burning with exertion and freezing with the wind, and there was nothing he wanted to do more than to stop. When he looked up he could see he was getting close to the top, but not close enough, not fast enough.
He had to stop. Had to catch his breath.
He hooked his arm through the nearest rung and tried to rub his hands together as best he could. The thermal mesh had failed completely and he could barely feel his fingers. He clapped his hands together, trying to jolt some feeling back into them. He needed his fingers to work, just for a little longer.
And then he looked down.
He hadn’t meant to. But he was so tired, and it was so cold, and for just a moment he hung his head and let his chin rest against his chest and his eyes fluttered open.
Oliver threw up, liquid strands of bile and spit streaming out of his mouth and then falling away and away and away.
He was already shivering, but now his body started shaking, convulsing with terror. Because now he could see that the Spire was moving, rocking and swaying in the wind back and forth, back and forth in huge arcs like an inverted pendulum.
He couldn’t see Alice anymore. She was a part of the texture of the landscape that spread out below him so very far below. He wished he could see her. He wished she could hear him tell her that he was sorry. He wished he could see her smile, just one more time.
He was selling climbing gear in a small shop on New Heela. The mountains there were a big tourist draw, but it was the off-season, so he was just wasting space till the end of his shift.
And then a girl walked in, leaned against the counter as if she owned the place and said, “I need two tanks of oxygen and 100 meters of Ademantwine.”
“Are you sure? The peaks are closed for the yark migration. Won’t be open for another couple of months.”
She had laughed. “I’m not climbing on New Heela, just stopping off for supplies before my next jump.”
“You’re hopping the spires? Where to?”
“Won’t know till I find it.”
Then she’d smiled at him. She was only just on the pretty side of plain. If he’d passed her on the street he might not have given her a second look. But there was something in that smile that set his heart on fire. It said, “I’m not afraid of anything.”
Oliver had gotten the gear. He’d handed it over and charged her account and then he’d asked, “You going alone?”
“What if something happens to you?”
She locked eyes with him, her eyes playful, but serious too. “What if something doesn’t?”
His gut locked up then. He wanted to say something, wanted to get her attention. She would probably just think it was stupid, but it didn’t matter, because he knew somehow that if he didn’t take this chance he’d never get another one like it. So he said, “You need someone you watch your back.”
She laughed. She was laughing at him, but he didn’t care because it was the most beautiful laugh he had ever heard. And then she said, “Someone to watch my back eh? Someone like you?”
In for a penny… “Not someone like me. Me.”
“Can you fly a flitter?”
“Nope. I’m terrified of heights. Get squeamish on the stepladder.”
“That’s going to be a problem then,” she said, her eyes full of mischief. “Can’t go Spire hopping without a flitter.”
“I’ll close my eyes.”
“You’re really that afraid of heights?”
“Terrified. So what’ll it be? Can see your way clear to associate with a coward?”
She considered this. “I don’t think most cowards go diving toward the thing that scares them the most.”
“Maybe that’s just because they haven’t met you yet.”
She laughed again. And he never wanted that sound to end.
He started to cry. His tears froze to his face, but it didn’t matter. Because he knew he would never be able to move from this spot on the ladder. He would cling here frozen with fear until his muscles failed and he fell and fell through so much space and splattered himself on the ground next to Alice.
He was dead already.
Alice was dead already.
Alice. She didn’t deserve this. She deserved someone brave. She needed someone brave. But what she had was him. He hated himself in that moment more than he ever had before, and in that hatred he found the strength to try again.
He was still going to fall.
But if he was going to die, he would die trying.
It was slower going now, because he had to watch his hands, to be sure the fingers were curling around the rungs of the ladder, and because he could feel the swaying now, could sense the bulk of the whole world shifting beneath him. His body didn’t feel like it belonged to him anymore. He was just a pilot sending commands to a slowly malfunctioning craft. His body was shaking, but he didn’t feel the cold anymore. He didn’t feel anything but his own fear and self-loathing warring within themselves, and even that seemed far away now.
He didn’t know how much time had passed, but the sun was gone again when he reached the top.
He didn’t celebrate, didn’t pump his fist in the air or scream his triumph to the sky. He was too tired for that. Instead he pried open the emergency terminal and with bone-stiff fingers he tapped out the distress sequence.
The wind howled and the spire swayed.
But when he closed his eyes and thought of Alice, the world filled up with stillness.
Albert Berg: Albert was born in the swamps of Florida and quickly developed a gripping writing style by wrestling with crocodiles. It is said that he hypnotized five gators in a row by the age of nine with his melodic prose and infinite imagination. Albert is a true menace in the arena because of a steadfast ability to remain true to his roots of thoughtful contemplation despite the hurricanes that pass all through his state. You never know what you will get from Albert, be it sentient paper products or religious squirrels, but you do know that behind the flash there will be a well thought out story that will make you reflect on your own life. Albert is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.