“You’d never see me chance that vertical graveyard again. I tried once, many moons ago; went up there with thirty-one good friends and eighty times our body weight in soylent rations. I was the only one who came back, y’hear? Wandered back into town two months after we set out with no memory of what happened after we set up base camp.” The aged reptile shivered, despite the genetic conditioning. He cringed, rubbing a circular scar on his forehead. “It hurts to remember their faces.”
“Your folksy local stories were supposed to instill me with confidence, and you’ve failed terribly!”
The bell dinged. He smiled grimly and handed me a freshly-grilled burger covered in sawdust, along with my change. I pocketed the pennies and dropped the quarter and dimes into the take-a-penny tray.
“I’ll be back for my petty change,” I said threateningly.
Most amateur adventurers would tremble from the mere sight of 18 kilometers of solid mountain. Some would even say that climbing the galaxy’s biggest mountain — solo — was only for the experienced, the fit, those whose lives were already forfeit.
But I had a whole weekend to kill.
While devouring the burger I mentally planned out my outfit for the following day. I’d be scaling a snow-covered peak up into the hyper-thermosphere, so... shorts and sandals. Definitely. Probably socks.
“There was... I remember, there was a dreadful wailing sound,” the servitor called after me as the door fwooshed shut. “Like icy wind blowing through a... through a harmonica...”
“I guess they really were making a mountain out of a molehill!” I laughed heartily. Another mile, another musing.
The hardest part of the ordeal was by and far the loneliness. I coped by inventing several imaginary people and filling in their back stories on the way up. There was Reg, the overconfident professional daredevil who just couldn’t turn down a chance to climb a mountain on Hacknor; Kris, an avid snowboarder looking to promote her new book, “Board in the Balance”; three red-shirts of various nationalities, genders and species, all named “Smitty”; and Mr. van Velvet, as we called him, whose peculiar mannerisms and dapper clothes gave him an aloofness that drove the others to exclude him from their reindeer games.
After eight hours of nonstop climbing with my bare hands (pinkies, specifically) I soon stumbled onto an old abandoned camp on a broad ledge. I knew it was abandoned because the mangled skeletons that littered the interior of the cave had mission badges indicating they were from the missing McGriddle Intergalactic Mountaineering Expedition of 1908.
“‘Funny... audio contact with the MIME was lost... exactly 100 years ago today,’ whispered Mr. van Velvet,” I said with an Austrian accent. “Knock it off, van Velvet!”
I picked up one of the skulls by a strange circular hole in its forehead. “Looks like we’ve got a mystery, gang! ‘You’ve been watching a little too much Scooby Doo,’ scoffed Reg. ‘This is like, a crime scene. We should send up a flare for the authorities-’ no, Reg! We can’t afford any more delays. He nods.”
A gust of frozen mountain air filled the cave with a sudden burst of pressure. As it passed over the skeletons, a strange whistling sound emanated from the damaged skulls.
“The old man at that burger joint said something about ‘glass harmonicas’ or somethings,” I said to myself. “‘And doesn’t the hole in that skull remind you of a certain scar?’ Reg leered. You’re right, Reg. Whatever killed these overwhelmed bureaucrats could still be here! Reports of disappearances on the slopes of Elferkill have been in legal books since the first Hacknorian colonists’ ski lodge vanished... without a trace, exactly 200 years ago today!”
“Smitty #1,” I pointed to a stalagmite, “you wait at the mouth of the cave. Take Smitty #2 with you. If you see something, both of you call for help. ‘Should we use these bones as clubs?’ Yeah, sure, I’m sure these poor people would gladly give their left femurs to take out whatever killed them.”
With that taken care of, I leaned against a corroded ansible-radio transmitter. “Mr. van Velvet? He turned. Aren’t you some kind of mechanic? ‘I’m certified for radio repair, if that’s what you mean.’” God, it’s not what he says but how he says it. “See if you can get this thing working. We’re around the peak, and before we continue it’s our duty to make sure our fellow mountaineers receive a proper burial. ‘I fully understand.’” Hate that guy. Him and his arrogant handlebar mustache.
“‘Wake up!’” I yelled. Rolling over angrily, I pounded the cave floor and flipped open my portable watch. “It’s half past noon! Why did you wake me so early?! Is the ice on fire?! ‘It’s Smitty!’ Kris’ words stopped me dead in my tracks. ‘It’s gotten Smitty!’”
Barreling through the cave opening, I scanned the ledge for any footprints. None but my own. A sudden updraft set the skulls off again on their hauntingly beautiful whistling. “What’s got Smitty? ‘That... that thing,’ Kris moaned, waving over the ledge.”
Then I heard a new sound. Not the whistling, but a more guttural, primal growling, coming from below us. “Maybe we should abandon camp now and... head for that bridge. ‘Ten steps ahead of you, mate.’ Mr. van Velvet and Reg stepped out with their backpacks on. I’ll be with you in a minute; let me take one more look at our... accommodations.”
A pair of aviator goggles sat on an army surplus crate, the type of makeshift furniture and Industrial clothing that characterized the early Intergalactic Expeditions. I put on the goggles. “Hey, Reg! Look! Twins!”
Running my hand over some ice-encrusted field manuals, I pried open what looked like a mission log. Most of the inner pages were covered with circular burn marks the same size as the skull holes. But... what could burn both paper and organic matter?
The bridge looked stable enough. But it was a rope bridge, and given the recent tax cuts in the Elferkill lowlands, I doubted it had been maintained well enough for humanesque traffic.
“Look how weak this post is,” I kicked the left suspension pole. “‘Come on,’ van Velvet gestured, ‘it’s fine!’” On the other side I could see the bobsled tarmac and its resident attendants waving me on. But I still wasn’t convinced of the bridge’s structural soundness.
Unholstering my flare gun, I aimed at the left pole that so mocked my (admittedly pathetic) kick. The anger I’d felt at poles my whole life welled up inside me like a tidal wave, and when I couldn’t control myself any longer I fired sixteen flares into the concrete base. Nothing. “‘Let it go!’ one of the remaining Smitties cried, grabbing my shoulder. ‘Let it go.’ I... okay.” I started walking, crestfallen.
My brisk jog across the bridge was anything but enjoyable. I’d faced down my greatest enemy and failed, and now my fear of suspension bridge poles was absolute. They’re indestructible! “Wait. Aren’t you coming?” I looked behind me. “‘We’ll catch up to you,’ Kris called from the pole. ‘Smitty’s got a fear of bridges. We’ll take the next bobsled.’” I like Kris. Unlike some handlebar-mustachioed hallucinations I could name...
“Are you okay?” asked the balding bobsled guru. “You seemed to be having a little trouble there with that flare gun and you looked like you were talking to yourself.”
“I’ve just lost a team member to some monster, is all. Poor Smitty... the good Smitty...”
He looked around. “Team?”
“Mind your place, you bumbling bumpkin! Now tell me the longest route off the shortest pier!” Error in translation “Tell me the quickest way to the bottom of this pony house!” Language packs out of date...
We galloped to the edge of the tarmac. “This is the bobsled lane, but you can snowboard down, on that side-”
“Are either the bobsled or snowboard free? And what’s your name, glib fella?”
He swallowed. “Um... Pete, and no, you’ll need to put down a deposit for either one.”
“What’s free around here, Peter Piper picked a pocket full-a posies?”
“Uh... there’s nothing free, this is part of the resort.”
“I see. Which way is your outhouse, Petey-pie?”
“We have indoor plumbing, and it’s over there.”
Thanking him profusely, I ran into the bathroom and locked the door. Over the next two hours, I pulled every paper towel from every dispenser in the room, wet them, and stuck them together haphazardly. When I was happy with the size and thickness of the craft, I hauled it past a bewildered janitor out into the frigid Elferkill air. Within minutes it was frozen solid.
“You can’t bobsled on that! It could fall apart!” Pete clamored. “And it’s illegal for us to let you!”
“Well, I’m already doing it, and you can sure expect a lawsuit if I get hurt!” I yelled as the papercraft bobsled glided gracefully over the machine-carved bobsled furrows.
Ahead of me I could see bright lights. The city of Elferkill sprawled the landscape, and I would soon make good on my threat...
“Fifty... sixty... sixty-five.” I counted the change. “Let that be a lesson to you. Nobody doubts my mad mountaineering skills!”
“Who are you?”
I patted the old reptile’s hand and looked at his scar. “It’s okay. I’ll forgive you — this time. Just show more faith in the future.”
“How did you manage to get up and back again in less than two days? My expedition took over three months.”
“I got a lot better millage without carrying around those heavy oxygen tanks and bulky snow clothes. Oh! I almost forgot. I got you a gift.” Controlling my hand using a complex series of nerves and muscles, I placed a pair of 1908 aviator goggles on the counter. He stared at it aghast, quivering.
“They say it’s the thought that counts, but that’s a lie.”
“Where did you get this?!”
He retched behind the register before reaching behind the register and producing a faded, yellowed photograph. “This was the 1908 McGriddle Intergalactic Mountaineering Expedition, before they disappeared.”
“Well, duh. They don’t look like that at all now; they’re all skeletons.”
“I’d recognize those goggles anywhere. They belonged to him,” he jabbed at the photo, “my buddy Reg.” He sighed.
I ran my eyes over the black and white lithograph. Next to the man with goggles was a woman with a snowboard and an ugly little troll with a handlebar mustache. “Ooh! Is that Kris and Mr. van Velvet?”
He turned pale as a sheet. “How did you know their names? The media never reports the names of missing mountaineers, only their weight; it would break the mountaineering code to do otherwise!”
“Because,” I shook like a leaf, “I made those people up. Where’d you get this? Some kind of Photoshop? You’re a plagiarist.” Grabbing my hat, I huffed out angrily. “I’ll see that you never work in the sawdust burger bidness again!”