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On the Way Down

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She hasn't been back to Mount Rainier since she was fourteen; breathless with exertion and excitement on the way up, giggling exuberantly over champagne at fourteen thousand, four hundred feet. And on the way down, the long, grave silent walk next to her father's body.

She's heard it's busier now, but mid week in November she isn't likely to see a soul except the Ranger who'd surveyed her solo permit and frowned at her spear, carefully slung through her pack in the manner least likely to run her through if she fell. "I'd leave that if I were you," he offered, handing her permit back. She thanked him with a curt nod and left him behind.

Four men from the boat crew scramble out to meet her when she gets in sight, looking nervous and out of their element, like they've never been on land before. Someone throws another jacket over her shoulders, someone says: "We saw an explosion," someone says: "Where is everyone, is anyone hurt?"

That's when she realises she's probably going to end up in prison, or at least fired.

She says, "No-one else is coming," and ignores all the other questions. Let them think she's in shock. Maybe she is in shock, but her mind's going fast enough. What's she supposed to tell them, aliens did it? So where are these aliens? Oh, they got blown up? They got hauled off the side of a cliff? They left in their spaceship? You mean to say you made first contact and all you got was that lousy spear?

Laughter shakes her and someone clumsily pats her on the back, taking it for a sob. Maybe it is a sob.

She took sixteen people down and came back alone. No-one will ever believe her if she tells them why.

She's tempted, as always, to take the most challenging route, even though that would probably get her killed today. Instead she re-traces old steps, following much the same path she took with her father. Baby's first Grade III.

She doesn't recognise anything; that was July, that was years ago. Glaciers have advanced and retreated since then, the climate has changed, and no climb is ever the same twice running anyway. But she can tell herself that she made this reach at fourteen, she's got no business making hard work of it now.

It's just that she feels like an old woman, healed burns and bruises still jangling at her nerves and making her clumsy and stupid. She feels like a young girl, angry and grieving and lucky not to get herself killed taking one stupid risk after another.

She's been to isolated places before. She's been all the empty, lonely places and gloried in the solitary sound of her own breathing. There are places in the world where it stays 30 below even at midday - midday in mid summer - she's been there, and never felt as cold and alone as she does in the stuffy conference room.

"We'd already gone down by then," she says honestly, "I have no idea what happened up top." She could take a guess. The egg laying ones, they couldn't have killed the drill crew, they never got that far. She found a body just the same, thrown clear of the whaling station. He had a gun frozen tight in his hands and a petrified look of astonishment on his face. She stole his clothes to get back to the boat, closing her arms around her abdomen to cover the blood and the gaping hole.

She should've taken one of the surviving trucks too but she didn't think of it until she was halfway back, headed like an arrow towards civilisation.

Two thousand feet from the top her phone starts ringing. She added it to her kit out of habit, and habit makes her stop, secure herself, and put it to her ear. She's ready to be offered another job, before she remembers.

Then, in defiance of the Leave No Trace principles she's hammered into the head of everyone she's ever taught, she tugs it off and tosses it over her shoulder.

It's a very deep crevasse, and the phone rings all the way down.

"What are we supposed to tell these people's families, Ms Woods?" Graeme Miller had two sons, Jacob and -- she can't even remember the other one. She smiled politely at the photo and his enthusiasm and paid no attention at all. She could visit them, maybe. Tell them Daddy was very brave and probably didn't flinch at all when an alien burst out his chest.

She thinks the real question is: "What are we supposed to tell the shareholders, Ms Woods?" Weyland was wrong, his shares dropped nearly fifteen percent, not ten. Probably they wouldn't feel any better to know he was already dying.

She moves off the main trail to relieve herself, scooping up the result in a blue bag to pack it out. Already she feels guilty about the phone.

On the way back she jumps a crack and slips. The fall doesn't cost her anything. The only mark it leaves is two clear handprints in the snow and there's no reason the sight of those should fill her with despair. She's always tried to tread lightly but the truth is no-one goes anywhere without leaving a trace. Everywhere people go they leave a mess behind them.

She says: "It was a terrible accident."
She says: "I really don't know what caused the explosion."
She says: "We had some C4 with us. Maybe someone ..." and spreads her hands helplessly. They don't look like they're buying it, but then she's got a feeling she'll never be able to pass for helpless again.

It snows a little as she hits the summit, great handfuls flying down out of a pale night sky. Flakes pat her face as she makes two more marks in the ice with the tip of the spear, sixteen names tight behind her teeth. She knows the symbol's not a grave marker, not meant for the incompetent dead, and she's probably meant to do something more glamorous with the spear. It's a prize and a victory none of them earned, but fuck it. Those bastards borrowed her goddamn planet for their hunting game, they can lend her their 'yay, killed an alien' symbol to honour her - friends. Might've-been friends. Her responsibilities, the first she'd ever failed.

And she knows three weeks of training would not have helped against an alien invasion, knows that Gerry Murdoch, in her place, would not have helped against an alien invasion, and still. Still.

"You took all those people down and came back alone, Ms Woods. You must have some explanation for your failure."

She sets her tent but doesn't sleep, just sits and waits, wanting to do things right. She planned to toast the expedition as the sun came up but it's November, sunrise isn't till seven and it's too overcast to see it anyway. She gives up. Cracks the bottle of champagne with a subdued hiss and spends several minutes trying to think of an appropriate toast, aching with grief and failure. All she's got is don't come back here, don't you bastards ever come back here. In the end she downs the whole thing in silence, all alone, swaying on the summit like a flag.

When he cracked his mask the escaping air smelled, for a moment, like the top of Mount Rainier, clean and pure and cold as vacuum; what she felt when she saw his face, clearly for the first time, was not fear but a shock of recognition. As if she was meeting herself, or herself as she used to be: throwing her body against one mountain after another like every cliff was a personal affront, every glacier an enemy.

Every climb a rite of passage.

She thinks about closing her eyes, letting herself fall asleep out here. She thinks about taking the short way down. She rubs the scars on her face and laughs, the sound not as bitter out loud as she thought it would be.

And she gets to her feet, strikes the tent, hauls on her pack. She and her spear and her empty bottle have still got fourteen thousand, four hundred feet to go.