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The Last Mountain

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It was April, and the world was ending. Pierce, Astin, and Darley stood on the deck of the Sir Edmund, watching the lights of New York slip away. The lights glittered as they always had. Even a mile away, all looked well. The spire atop the Empire State building burned purple into the sky. Headlights flitted over the bridges and down the canyons between skyscrapers.

Pierce said goodbye to the city, quietly. It had been his home for the last six months, after Texas started to succumb to the instability. He didn’t know if anyone he’d left behind was dead. They were lost to him, at any rate. Maybe his parents had made it up to Seattle or Minneapolis. Maybe his sister had been caught in one of the earthquakes. Maybe his friends didn’t get out before the roads cracked, and were making their way north on foot, plunging unprepared into the desert with only the hope of staying ahead of the crumbling edge of the Earth. It was all a lot of maybe.

Astin finished a cigarette, then started another. There were only so many cigarettes left in the world now. Each one he smoked was one fewer. Astin had the better part of a carton squirreled away on the ship, and by that count there were one hundred and twenty-four cigarettes left in his world. One hundred and twenty-three soon. Astin’s wife had begged him to quit smoking.

Darley looked to the north. There was a twinkle in the sky, a new star, over the North Pole. That was where they were headed. Darley had been there—well, everyone had been there—the last time a new star had appeared in the sky. They knew what it was, of course. The thing about astronomy is that it’s pure math, everything known; give an astronomer an orbital trajectory and they can tell you where a chunk of rock will be at 3pm on October 9th eight million years from now. So Darley and her colleagues had known from the first sighting what would happen. It was all waiting after that.

She had waited, and tried to shield herself from the panic as best she could, as the new star grew larger in the sky every night. As the news started to understand. Darley hadn’t gone out much during that time. You could still buy things then, so she’d made her apartment into a little nest. Big, soft, pale gray comforters. Hanging pots with trailing vines. Twinkling LEDs on a string. She’d learned to cook new recipes and she’d talked cheery nonsense to her cat. And she’d hoped the cat—Mr. Miffles, gray and stocky and always trying to chew the vines—would die of natural causes before the time came that she had to make a decision.

Mr. Miffles, that goddamn bastard cat, was thirteen years old and still fat and perfectly healthy when the new star became a new sun. It didn’t happen quickly. As if to add insult to injury, the new sun hung in the sky for days, weeks. People had to commute to work under it. Darley, for her part, calculated the rising and setting of the new sun, the nights that were scorched with light and the days when the sun rose twice.

The sun became a star again, receding into the blackness beyond, not to reappear for (by Darley’s reckoning) one billion, six thousand and twenty-nine years. But the damage was done. Days and nights became shorter, not by a lot, a few minutes. To an astronomer, someone who measures things to the nearest million lightyears, those few minutes were colossal. As perfectly as the gears of a watch, every movement inevitable, the Earth began to unravel at the Equator. Mountains became valleys, valleys became rifts, and month by month the rifts deepened and widened until they cracked and the two halves of the Earth spun free.

Darley had moved north by then, spreading a gray comforter on the back seats of her car so Mr. Miffles could sleep on the way up from Albuquerque to… to wherever was north. She had thoughts of trying to cross the Canadian border, getting up on Ellesmere Island somehow, surviving to the bitter end of the end. With every mile of Earth that crumbled behind her, the question whispered louder in her ear: “why do you want to survive to the end?”

And then, one night in a rat-bag motel in North Dakota, a particularly bad earthquake shook the fake-wood-paneled CRT television off a dresser and onto Mr. Miffles.

Darley lost a few days after that, and when Dean invited her onto the Sir Edmund, she figured she might as well as not. It was still science, of a sort.

-

Dean was belowdecks, missing out on the view, sorting and counting supplies. They had enough food and equipment, but it was all scavenged, cobbled together, and needed to be picked through. Dean had put the expedition together hastily, reaching out to a few old friends in the climbing world, getting answers back from even fewer. There was no reason for his plan, no fame in it. Except this: They would not cling to life; nor would they welcome death. In the face of certain oblivion they pursued what was still uncertain.

They were going to climb the mountain at the end of the Earth.

-

The Sir Edmund carved into the black sea, rounding Canada, staying far from land. In deep water a tsunami feels like nothing more than a bump. Onboard, the climbers spent their days with Dean, planning. They didn’t speak much to the crew of the ship. The crew seemed like ghosts, and Darley came to understand that they were; with no climb of their own, and no hope of return, they were empty inside. The captain spoke, and smiled sometimes, and looked right through walls.

Above a certain size, climbing a mountain is less an adventure, more a construction project. Base camps must be erected, then advanced base camps, then mountain camps, with trails decided and ropes hung between them. Acclimatizing to the thin air of Everest takes climbers weeks; on the Last Mountain the air would thin into vacuum. It was unlikely the climbers could make it much above thirty thousand feet, and even that would take a miracle.

Still they planned and plotted and pored over maps that Darley sketched of how the Last Mountain would grow and stretch over the coming weeks and months. They listed what they would carry in their backpacks and what they would leave in supply caches.

Darley slept well at night, for the first time in a long time. On the sea there were no earthquakes, and though the winds and currents pulled in strange directions the Sir Edmund was powerful enough to stay on her course. The engines rumbled, stars twinkled outside her window, and every night Darley dreamed of soft warm places.

And then there came a sunrise with no sunset, and the mountain grew in the sky. It was no longer a star but a streak of light, and then a tower, impossibly thin and stretching up into Heaven. In the midnight sun of the North Pole it glowed twenty-four hours a day. Its snowy flanks were broad and shallow, gradually curving upwards until at the center it became a fine spindle of rock. As the Earth had spun down the valleys of the Equator, it had spun up this mountain, and every second it was rising further.

-

The Sir Edmund navigated up an ice fjord, to get as close as she could to the Pole. Shattered walls of sea ice towered over her on both sides, calving icebergs the size of skyscrapers into the water. The Sir Edmund caught a few close calls, but made her way further inland, until she came to the place where rock met water, a frozen beach that seemed to go on forever. She beached herself, destroying her hull; no matter at this point. The instability was accelerating, and by the time the crew could have sailed back to New York, New York would be gone.

Dean and the climbers took a day to unload, and then bid the crew of the ship farewell. They left them with some food. Enough to get them to the end, if they wanted. The captain said goodbye to the climbers, or to something behind them.

-

They set out hauling sleds full of supplies up the slope. At the lower elevations, everything was rock covered with snow. Darley furtively looked around for some sign of life, some long-flying seabird that had managed to come up this far. There was nothing. Theirs were the only footprints in a circle of snow a hundred miles across.

A hundred miles across meant fifty miles to the peak, and when they had been in top condition they might have made it in three days, two without the sleds. It had been a hard year. They took the better part of a week.

There was no night in this place. The climbers rested when they were tired, and started hiking again when they woke. At least their equipment could stand up to the cold; though gathering food for the expedition had been a trial for Dean, high-end snowsuits and subzero sleeping bags were up for the looting.

Astin had gone through his last cigarette on the boat. Instead of being edgy, though, he seemed to gain a certain calm once they were out on the snow. He spoke little. Kept his eyes on the snow in front of his feet. He wasn’t sulking, Darley came to understand, he was experiencing. He was feeling what it was like to have arms and legs, to be cold and sore, to find strength in his muscles. He hadn’t gone dead; he was living in the next step.

Pierce, younger, had less peace. He wanted to talk, constantly, about everything, and Darley indulged him as much as she could. He asked her about astronomy, and Darley told him about the Pistol Star, a hypergiant three million times brighter than the Sun. She told him about the Boötes void, the great sphere in the universe where there are no stars. She told him about the galaxy filaments, the largest things that there are, structures woven from of superclusters of galaxies.

When Darley tired of talking to Pierce, he talked to her, not caring if she reacted or not. It was a stream of thoughts and opinions. The movies he liked to watch, the music he listened to, the girls he had dated. The business he was going to start. There was a broken-down old ambulance in his driveway in Texas that he was going to make into his dream RV, any one of these years now.

Dean walked at the back of the group, just keeping up. He would stay at base camp, coordinating operations and watching the climbers with a telescope. He’d caught a bad virus a few years back, lost some lung capacity, not to where he couldn’t hike, but climbing would be dicey. Also, he couldn’t hike. He tried to hide his gasping for breath, how often he needed a break. When he coughed himself ragged in his tent every night, he punctuated it with a mumbled “sorry!” and “excuse me!” as if every time was a surprise.

-

There was no moment that they knew they were at the true foot of the Last Mountain. The snow slope became steeper so slowly that it was hard to notice. The landscape was almost featureless, except for the bits of sea ice that had been lifted up with the rock. Darley imagined she might see a whale or a school of fish, marooned on the sudden upthrust, but every time she thought she did, she looked again and it was nothing but a jumble of ice.

Finally Dean just called it. “We’re building base camp here,” he told the group, and although here looked very much like there, they agreed. They set up a mess tent, sturdier than the little mountain tents they had slept in on the way, boiled snow for water, and had a proper hot meal indoors.

They’d dealt with the privations of the trail before. None of them were Everest climbers, but they weren’t novices. Pierce, wiry and nimble as a cat, had made a minor name for himself in bouldering and solo climbing. Astin was less graceful; small and hard and as implacable as a glacier grinding over rock, he had spent his twenties on long backpacking trips crisscrossing the Rockies. Darley had been out of the sport for a few years, as the demands of work had crept up on her, but still made it out to the climbing gym when she could. She was the tallest of the climbers, lanky as a deer, and she made up in reach what she lacked in power.

The last time all four of them had climbed together was years ago, in the crags over Donner Pass, the altitude cutting the summer heat thin. They’d spent two weeks camping rough, sleeping under the stars among the dusty brown rock and wind-bitten krummholz. The men’s beards grew long and their hair tangled, until it seemed like their faces were only eyes peeking through curly brown fuzzballs. Darley, fuzzy enough herself, laughed at them, as they passed a pipe around the fire and howled up at the Milky Way.

And then at the end, when it was time to return to their lives, she caught a van down into Reno and booked a room at a casino hotel. The room was a different world from the life of the mountains, all straight lines, soft fabrics, impossibly clean. Darley’s first shower in two weeks was a relief and a sorrow, the wildness swirling black and brown down the drain, perfect little soap bubbles chasing it down. The soap smelled like lemon and herbs.

On the Last Mountain, Darley sat on the floor of the tent and sipped hot broth from her little tin cup. Outside the tent, Astin had taken his shirt off and was basking in the sun. Though the Sir Edmund had battled strange and fierce winds on the way up, here at the North Pole the air was calm, and despite being freezing cold it had no bite to it. Pierce sat down next to Darley and started telling her about some girl he had taken on some hike somewhere—a total beginner nature walk, but get this, she didn’t know what a stinging nettle was and when she went to pee in the bushes she wiped herself with—and Darley smiled and nodded for him. Dean was setting up his telescope to scout the ridges and gullies of rock that lay ahead.

-

The next day they started climbing in earnest, sleds left behind, roped waist to waist to waist in case of crevasses. There were no glaciers here, but the rock could be treacherous in places, and a thin crust of snow might cover a bottomless chasm. Pierce led the three of them, probing the snow ahead with a long bamboo cane; Darley was in the middle, and Astin last.

As the slope steepened, there was less snow and more bare rock, and for a few hours the climbing was easier. At this point there was still no real technical aspect to it; it was just a long walk uphill. The air was starting to thin. Thin air isn’t something you can feel, not directly. You feel your lungs starting to ache. You feel your feet growing heavier. You realize it’s harder for your body to hold heat, and even when you’re warm in your snowsuit there’s a chill that won’t go away.

It was the air that stopped them, which they had expected. This wasn’t their big push, but an acclimatization hike. They’d set up an advance camp, spend a few nights teaching their bodies to make the most of the limited oxygen, then go down to base camp to recover and refill their supplies.

Even after hours of climbing, they had no appetites. Darley forced herself to at least drink water and have a few nibbles of trail mix, then sat outside the tents, looking downhill at the way they had come. The sky was gray and a light snow was falling, but the visibility was still good. She could see all the way out to the ocean, to the inlet where the Sir Edmund had come ashore. The distance was too great for her to make out the boat itself, to see if it was still there or if some ripple off the cataclysm had washed it away. Besides that there was little else. The world was a white circle in a blue infinity, broken up only by the ice that had been beached and the ice that floated free.

The next two days they spent at the camp, making little reconnaissance walks. Not that there was much to reconnoiter. The real work was being done by their bodies, speeding up their breathing, thickening their blood, preparing them for the heights above. It was tiring enough just existing up there.

Base camp was still far above sea level, but returning was a relief. They had left most of their gear at the advance camp, making the downhill hike easy work, though not without its hazards.

Pierce hadn’t slept well in the thin air, and he slipped on an icy slope, falling hard on his back, dragging the roped-together group downwards. Instantly, by instinct, Darley and Astin turned uphill, slamming their ice axes into the snow, digging their feet in. Self-arrest is one of the first skills a new mountaineer learns, and the training had been etched into them long ago. It worked; they only slid a few feet before friction caught them and they stopped, with Pierce still gasping at the end of the rope. “Shit, guys,” he said. “Shit, I’m sorry.”

Darley looked down, and saw a smear of blood on the slope. But Pierce was gathering himself, he just had a scrape on his lower leg where his snowsuit had rolled up a bit, he could keep walking. Astin offered to trade off the lead for a while, and Pierce shook his head. The group continued back down to base camp.

Dean had a pot of hot (if rehydrated) chili con carne waiting for them and it was the best thing they’d ever tasted. He wrapped Pierce’s leg wound and showed the group a map he’d drawn of the ridges above, a route that snaked up the mountain all the way to the central spire. From that point, if they could reach that point, there was no trail to follow.

The air was better here and they slept well, all together on the floor of the mess tent, sleeping bags piled on top of each other. The group had never singled Darley out for being the only woman, sexually or otherwise, and she joined the pile unselfconsciously. The warmth and weight of their bodies, the full stomachs, the light breeze ruffling the tent walls, and everything seemed all right.

-

Their next mission was to build a high camp. They spent the first day returning to their advance camp. Though Pierce had a slight limp, it was easier going than the first time up; the air seemed less painful, and they were able to eat a little more this time, sleep a little more. So the morning after that, they headed up to where life was painful again.

This time, they were carrying oxygen tanks, but they didn’t dare use them. Not yet. The tanks were only to cache at the high camp, for the real climb ahead. Each cylinder was good for twelve hours at the most, and they could only take as many as they could carry along with their tents and food and climbing gear. Even hauling bags on ropes behind them, that was only three apiece. Only enough to climb Everest.

The climbing was more technical now, though the too-regular shape of the mountain made it oddly monotonous, and the thin air made it slow. Pierce would climb up a pitch, clamber his way to a ledge, and fix the rope before the others followed him up. The climb was still not quite vertical, but it was steep enough now that they were on bare rock with only stray patches of snow. It was too cold for bare fingers, so they had to climb with gloves on, awkwardly. There were moments when Darley’s heart caught and she thought she would lose her grip and they would all plummet down together; but they never did.

After hours of climbing, they finally made their high camp on a ragged little spit of rock standing out from the wall. It wasn’t flat, only less steep than the rest; there was nowhere truly flat that was bigger than a foothold. The air was thin, the sun unrelenting. Any exposed skin would burn while it froze. The fringes of their hair, the only parts of them not wrapped in snowsuit or goggles or scarf, sparkled with ice crystals.

They didn’t sleep that night. They were yards below the edge of the death zone, the altitude where the air can no longer support life. Below the death zone, a human body can acclimate, however slowly or painfully. Above it, acclimation is not possible. The body’s oxygen balance goes negative, each breath blowing out more oxygen than the next can take in. With math as cold and simple as the spinning of the planets, a person in the death zone dies a little more with each breath.

This camp was tiny and miserable. They couldn’t step more than a few feet away from the tent, even to relieve themselves, and there was no warmth to be had. They boiled hot tea on their little stove, but water boils lukewarm at altitude, and it was slight relief. Their guts had stopped working completely; it was an effort for Darley to gulp down her cup of tea, feeling like she had to work her throat manually. Even Pierce had gone quiet. Sympathetically, she tried to cheer him with astronomy facts, but she could feel herself babbling. Her memory was gone, her tongue thick. “Quasars,” she started. “Um, quasars are really big. They’re really far away.” She realized how she sounded, and stopped.

They lay in their sleeping bags until they gave up on trying to rest, then left what they needed to cache and climbed down again. They spent the next night at the advance camp, still not comfortable, but able to sleep. Darley dreamed of being smothered, something strangling her, and woke up to find Pierce had crawled out of his sleeping bag and wrapped his arms around her. It wasn’t affection; it was desperation, an animal seeking heat, a child seeking comfort. She tucked him back into his sleeping bag and he only half woke, making little whimpering noises before falling back asleep.

In the morning Pierce admitted he was too tired to lead, so Astin took point instead, in his quiet and steady way. They trudged down to base camp silently, joylessly, but there was no thought of abandoning the mission. They had planned their climb, and they would climb the plan. Three days of recovery at base camp, then back up to advance camp for a night, then high camp, and then the final push, whatever that meant. It was a rushed schedule for high-altitude climbing, but it was all the time they had. If they fell behind by a day… Darley had done the math a long time ago.

-

When they got back to base camp, Dean was huddled in the mess tent, buried in his own tiny mountain made of all the clothing and blankets and tarps that they had, blood spattered down the front of them. He was breathing shallowly, not even coughing anymore, just puffing out bloody foam.

“Shit, Dean,” Astin said, “You’ve got to get downhill.” Like any climber, he knew the symptoms of HAPE—high altitude pulmonary edema, when a person’s lungs can no longer tolerate the thin air and begin to fill with fluid. Descent is the only cure.

“And then what?” Dean asked in a rough whisper. “And then go home?”

“I don’t want to watch you die,” Astin said.

“I don’t want to die,” Dean said, but his eyes were unfocused. More foam gathered at Dean’s mouth, and he spat it out on the blankets.

Astin and Darley tried to stand Dean up, to see if they could walk him down. It was like lifting a mannequin. His legs buckled the moment there was any weight on them. Being upright seemed to help his breathing, at least; he was able to cough properly, hacking out thick red blood and gasping in some air. Astin and Darley set him down sitting upright, propped up against a pile of equipment, piled his blankets back on him, and stepped outside the tent.

“We could put him on a sled,” Astin said. “We could haul him down. The ship’s crew could take care of him.”

There were several things Darley didn’t say. “It would mean giving up the climb,” is what she did say. “We wouldn’t have time to go back up.”

“I know,” Astin said. “But…” He started crying, silently, not blubbering, just going red and wet in the eyes, his nose running. He wiped at his face with a glove, furtively, only making a bigger mess of himself. “I’m not ready yet,” he said.

“Neither am I,” Darley said. “It doesn’t change anything.” She hugged Astin, and though they had not said their decision out loud, they knew what it was. On any ordinary climb, it would be a mandate, the sacred code of the hills, to give up everything to evacuate a sick comrade. Who cares if it’s a world record climb you’re abandoning, if you’ve spent ten years saving up for it? They wouldn’t have hesitated.

There is an exception. On the high reaches of Everest, where even the whole are barely able to walk, those who fall stay where they fall. It isn’t callousness; above Camp Four, rescue is simply not possible. You stay with the dying and comfort them, give them a drink, pray with them and for them. And when they die you climb on. What choices do you have? They die and you summit, or they die and you don’t summit. Might as well.

When they went back into the tent, Dean was pale and silent. His eyes seemed to be stuck open. He was still breathing a little bit. His friends spent all night taking turns staying up with him, holding his hand, wiping his face.

When he died they buried him in the snow.

-

The plan was still the plan. They spent three days at base camp, not entirely solemn. There was food to eat, there was rest and they had each other. Astin had snuck four joints into his sled and on the last night they lit up outside, looking to the south. The sea had receded by now, falling into mist off the edge of the Earth. The seafloor was bare, sand and stone stretching to the horizon, dotted with a few beached icebergs like eerie blue hills.

“I wonder if we’re the only people on Earth,” Pierce said. He was on his second joint, a little pinner made from a third of Dean’s share. They had thought about leaving it on his grave as a tribute, but then again, who could waste the last weed in the universe? The perpetual daylight felt like night for once, and the three climbers cuddled together, sitting on sleeping bags laid out on the snow.

“I’m sure we’re not,” Darley said. “Someone will have wanted to live until the end. They’ll have boats somewhere up here. They might even be climbing.”

“And there’s the South Pole,” Astin said. “There was a whole research station there. Maybe they got a free ride up their mountain.”

Darley didn’t share her thoughts about how that probably went. “I wish we could see the stars,” she said.

“Maybe we will,” Pierce said. “From the top.”

-

On schedule, they headed back up, Astin leading again. Pierce’s leg hadn’t healed—that wasn’t possible under the conditions—but it hadn’t worsened either, and he could keep up. He seemed cheery on the way up, singing scraps of old pop music, forgetting the lyrics. They hiked up the shoulder of the Last Mountain to the Backstreet Boys and they reached advance camp when he was just getting started on Britney Spears.

Despite the altitude, they ate well at the advance camp. They’d cached stove fuel and freeze-dried food, and now they had hot Irish beef stew on the snow slope, looking out at the dry ocean. The air seemed thinner than it had before, thinner and stiller, and Darley suspected that altitude was not the only reason anymore.

That night, while they slept, an earthquake rocked their tent, and a great rumble came from the mountain above them. It was a sound they’d heard before. They ran out of the tent, hastily stepping into their boots. A massive white cloud was rolling down the mountain at them. They didn’t have time to rope up. They linked hands, and a wall of powder snow slammed into them, and everything was white, and then everything was dark.

Darley pushed in front of her face with her free hand, clearing a little pocket. She had some air, then, and although the snow was locking her whole body in place, she was still upright and didn’t seem to be far from the surface. She started digging upwards, one-handed, not willing to let Pierce go.

Then Pierce started pulling on her, and she struggled to drag him back up until she realized that she was on the bottom of the pile, tipped head-down, and Pierce was pulling her up and out of the snow.

All three of them had survived, but their gear was gone. The tents, the food, the stove, the ropes, all had been washed away and buried. They had nothing but the clothes on their bodies and what little was in their pockets.

“Nowhere to go but up,” Pierce said, sounding oddly perky. They did have some supplies cached at the high camp, it was true. More than was left at base camp, and besides, the mountain was still shivering with quakes. Better to get above the snow, then.

They had to climb without ropes and harnesses this time, but they knew the route. Slowly, methodically, they picked their way up the steepening rock until they were at high camp.

High camp was as desperate and exposed as they had left it, but their supplies were still there. They had left a stove and a little fuel, so they could melt water. There were some granola bars so they ate them, even if the altitude meant the granola only sat like pebbles in their stomachs.

There was no question of sleeping, but they rested, until another earthquake came that almost shook them off the spit of rock. They didn’t lose anything this time, but they knew the time had come. Far below, the dry ocean now had a black edge.

The only things they took with them were water and the oxygen bottles.

-

Mountaineering oxygen bottles aren’t like SCUBA tanks; they don’t supply your whole breath. They just give you a little trickle of oxygen, a supplement, not enough to make the air like sea level, only enough to keep your balance from going negative in the death zone. The masks are fighter jet masks, thick black rubber that encloses your face from nose to chin. It feels like you’re suffocating - but take them off for a breath of fresh air, and you’ll know what suffocation is.

So enclosed, the three climbers moved upwards. The mountain towered above them, impossibly tall, but narrow now; sometimes their maneuvers took them all the way around it. The wall was now almost vertical, and every time Astin managed to find a new handhold felt like a miracle. Far up in the death zone, where he should barely have been able to move at all, he was pulling himself up cracks in the rock hand over hand, powerfully, a machine built for climbing. He had always climbed like there was nothing in the world but him and the mountain, and now there wasn’t.

Darley followed, with less abandon but still feeling a strange easing of her pain. Maybe it was the oxygen, maybe it was the inevitability—she was starting to feel good. It was satisfying hauling herself up, her muscles were warming up, maybe she could do this forever.

Pierce slipped. It wasn’t one of the earthquakes, it wasn’t ice or his injured leg; he just plum made a mistake and fell. And fell, and fell. Darley heard his little yelp of surprise and that was it. Pierce was gone.

Astin and Darley climbed on.

-

They hadn’t bothered checking watches or altimeters for a long time, but they had finished their first bottles of oxygen and were on to the second when they came to the needle. Here the rock was fully vertical, but no thicker around than a tree trunk, and still narrowing. Astin threw his arms around it and started shimmying up. Darley followed.

Below them, the Last Mountain had started to unravel. The fjords were gone, the coasts were gone, there was a perfect circle of land perfectly centered around the Pole and everything below that was… it was math now. If she had had her computer, or even paper and a calculator, Darley could have told you where it would be one billion years from now. Some things change. Orbital mechanics don’t.

Still they shimmied upward. They had to turn their oxygen up, to the full blast setting meant only for medical emergencies, just to breathe at all. Their second tanks emptied quickly at this rate, and soon they were on to their third and last. The tree trunk narrowed, from a redwood to a maple to a quaking aspen. Astin could almost reach his hand around it. And then he could. And then, when the rock was hardly more than the width of a pencil, it broke off in his hand. He tossed the rest of the spindle away. They were at the top.

Darley looked around. Beneath her, the snow was disappearing, subliming away into space. The blackness was racing upwards now, devouring the rock, base camp gone, then advance camp, then high camp. Around her, there were no more clouds anymore, no more blue, only blackness and the sun and the moon. Above her, Astin’s boot still had a little clump of moss from some long-ago hike wedged deep into the sole.

Astin reached his hand down to her, and she reached up to him.

The spire shook, and fractured, but they didn’t fall. They floated.

Darley and Astin embraced, surrounded by stars.