On Higher Ground
One moment there was snow beneath Kayi’s skis, the next just sky. Her wingsuit snapped in the sudden wind as she dropped off the south face of Annapurna. Her eyes watered despite her mask and the pressure shift of falling thousands of feet in seconds popped her ears with a painful squeak.
Kayi angled her body, tucking her poles in along the line of fabric between her arm and torso and angling her skis up, fighting the air that wanted to push them down and twist her legs up. The land beneath her was black, rust, and white; snow and stone blurring into one as she gained speed. Proximity flying, going so close to the steep slope that she could almost touch the snow, was dangerous. Doing it with ski equipment on was even crazier.
She was the only one she’d ever known who tried. This wasn’t a filming run, the sky was too grey today for that and the wind too strong for the hoversleds to come up this far. Kayi slid sideways along the cliff face and looked down and ahead. Far below the rocky slope turned to pure white.
Her landing zone. She angled her body up and started to rein in her speed. Seconds fled and she hit the point where her chute wouldn’t do any good. No choices now beyond land or crash and die.
Adrenaline sang in her blood and Kayi grinned behind her mask. Screw those assholes who didn’t think she was good enough to compete in their stupid race. She could out-ski the disappointment of being an alternate. The disappointment of never being the first pick. Or the twentieth.
Out-ski? Damnit, she could fly.
Still falling at just over sixty miles an hour, Kayi’s skis touched the snow where the slope leveled out to a fifty degree angle. For a moment she wavered and her poles clipped the thick powder, enveloping her in a thick, cold white cloud.
Then she was down, her wide skis catching the snow and slipping along as they should and only the expanse of the mountain before her. Kayi made wide, lazy turns the rest of the way down, sending up plumes of powder in glistening rainbows as the late afternoon sun finally peeked out of the steely sky.
Andy, her manager, was already waiting with Gem at the hoversled, pacing in the snow. He looked like a dark blot against the bright orange sled.
“Why did you turn your com off?” he said to her as she skied up and pulled off her hood and mask.
“Because I wanted to be alone?” Kayi blinked against the sudden cool air sweeping over her hot skin. She grinned at Gem as he leaned out and signed quickly to her, asking if she’d flown, as he always did after each run.
Tossing her poles and mask into the open bay of the sled, Kayi leaned in and caught Gem’s hand, brushing her chapped lips against his bare fingers before sitting on the edge of the sled to undo her skis.
“Hell of a day to be alone.” Andy had stopped glaring and started to smile, his teeth thick and white in his dark face. “Monica Alveros called. Kip Salander drowned while shooting a surfing video out in the Triangulum.”
Kayi slid her skis into their case inside the hoversled and turned to face him. She had a momentary pang about Kip’s death, but the guy had been a serious show-boater and a total jerk the two times their paths had crossed. In fact, last time she’d seen him had been at one of the qualifiers for the Great Race. When she’d barely missed qualifying, again, he’d sent her an empty bottle of champagne and a blank note.
Anyone who did extreme sports, especially on a galactic level, risked death. She was baffled as to why Kip’s was so important that someone like Grinder Galaxy’s main PR coordinator, Monica Alveros, would notify Kayi and her team personally. Andy’s grin got wider as she stopped unhooking her wingsuit and straightened up.
“Kip qualified for the Asgard race,” she said softly. Her mouth felt dry and she ran her tongue over chapped lips. “Does that mean. . .?”
“You’re in, Kayi. You’re going to get to run the most extreme ski race in human history.”
She was still stiff from the cramped trans-galactic flight from Earth out to Asgard and her stomach was punishing her for every drop of the anti-viral and vaccine cocktail they had IV’d into her for the flight. She’d been poked and prodded. She’d signed about nine-million pieces of legal documents that all boiled down to Don’t Die (which was one of Gem’s cardinal rules anyway) and, if you do die, Don’t Sue (like she had money for an inter-stellar qualified lawyer).
The lodge, tackily named Shangri-la, spread across a valley high in the foothills of the Olympiad Mountains like a giant red birthmark of lacquered steel and plexi-glass. Shuttles up to the cloud of ships orbiting Asgard came and went from the snow field to the east, ferrying those approved to view the Great Race from the hot, plush comfort of the lodge.
Those approved seemed to be all rich ski-TV junkies and overly made-up reporters, Kayi noticed as she stood in the shadows on her narrow balcony. The air here was thicker than she was used to at such altitudes, with an almost smoky aftertaste that clung to the back of her throat.
Her team, being the lowest seed, had been shoveled with little ceremony into one of the bulbous wings of the building, probably as far away from the celebrity contestants as Monica and her people could put them. With the other “hill fodder,” as the more lurid zines dubbed those not expected to finish the Race.
She shivered in her Insulwool jumpsuit. Andy wanted her to get in front of the cameras, to try for a couple “interest” pieces. She shook her head thinking about it. The Girl from Earth or, more likely, The Greenlander, will she survive the descent? Like any of these outerworld-born pale-skins knew shit about Earth or could pick out Greenland on a map. She’d been born in Greenland, sure, but most of her life had been spent in Russo-Alaska and Nepal. Just another way the media idiots showed their true colors.
Kayi unclenched her hands. It was still night, the cycle here lasting nearly seventy hours. She needed to check gear, go over the maps and refresh the memorization she’d done on the space flight. She needed to sleep or at least drown out the heady mix of anticipation and adrenaline that always rushed through her right before a competition. Kayi took in a deep, frigid breath, sucking the snow-scented air deep into her lungs.
Screw it. She needed to ski.
She slipped back inside and grabbed her coat and gloves, shrugging into them before snagging the skis resting by the door, waiting for a wax and sharpening. Andy and Gem were camped in front of the screens in the adjoining room, testing her goggle and shoulder cameras. Technically filming by anyone but the approved Grinder Galaxy camera feeds and satellite crews was utterly prohibited but the support people of a Race contestant could have a non-recording monitoring camera in case the forfeit flare was deployed.
Kayi wouldn’t deploy the damn flare. She’d die out there before quitting that way. She tugged on her ski boots and opened the door. This was why she had to get out, stupid thoughts like the ones chasing their tails around in her brain. Finish or die. Finish or die. Finish…
“Hey!” Andy called out to her, too late.
“I’ll be in soon,” she called to him and pulled the door closed with her elbow before he could say anything else. The back of her neck prickled the whole way down the hall to the slide car, half expecting him to come out after her.
The slide car was an empty sterile lozenge that vibrated its way up to the main wing. She wasn’t sure where other exits were or she would have avoided the hot crush of reports and prep people that greeted her like a babbling gaggle of geese.
Kayi shoved past a group of women in brightly colored down jackets, keeping her head tucked alongside her skis and poles. She wasn’t too worried about being recognized, but the last thing she wanted to deal with right now were the press leeches. There was the slim chance some might have her picture in their Tell-All tablets.
Kayi drafted two men carrying equipment bags out to the hoversleds. Once through the red and black lacquered steel outer doors, complete with faux-Asian patterns, she struck out toward the empty plateau away from the shuttle pad and the bustle. Fresh snow crunched beneath her boots and a sighing wind tugged at her braids. Kayi strapped into her skis and shoved out, heading into the darkness.
She didn’t go far, heading just to where the valley started to slope upward and the lights of Shangri-la didn’t quite block out the heavy veil of stars. The point nine gravity made her whole body seem a little lighter and lent a heady floating sensation as she slid through the powder.
Her eyes sought the North Star out of habit and she wrapped her arms around herself with a grim, rueful smile. No constellations here, no markers to guide her. The mountains loomed, over fifty-thousand feet of white and black, a void in the shimmering skies.
“I am Kayi Akki Akkikitok, called Kayii Tingiyok,” she whispered into the wind, introducing herself to this strange world and whatever spirits might lurk beneath the deep white. “I am here and you will not kill me.” She jammed her poles into the thick snow crust and raised her arms, her orange gloves catching the distant light of Shangri-la and flickering in the darkness.
Kayi stood in the snow until Gem came to get her. He skied across the snow and she barely had to look, recognizing his heavy, sliding gate. He wrapped her in warm arms and for a moment she closed her eyes and let his pine aftershave and clean leather smell envelop her, grounding her where she belonged, on a world too far away.
After a long moment she pulled away, tugging gently on his braided beard so he would know it was time to go. Nine standard hours until dawn. Until the Race began and all the hype, the press, the sponsors, and the bureaucrats wouldn’t matter. Until it was just her and the mountains.
Kayi stood with four other contestants at starting area Gamma up on the summit of Zeus, staring out into the jagged expanse of the Olympiads and already running the race in her mind as she ignored the strobe of cameras from the press area. At about a sixty degree drop, the first pitch was steep but wide, avalanche groomed, and not particularly difficult. It was more a show descent before the real work began. Couldn’t have everyone wiping out and looking like idiots right in front of the cameras.
Sucking on her oxygen tube, Kayi turned slightly and studied the others in her group. Argyle Fontaine was a tall, wan-faced skier with a decent record. He gave her a little nod, though she couldn’t make out his features behind his face mask. Gavin something-or-other stood near Argyle, a skier she’d studied videos of but had never met until the lift up.
Beyond them, in a deep red suit with a gold dragon climbing the back, was Arthur Kyoto. Another one of the “hill fodder” skiers like Kayi, his claim to greatness was coming out of nowhere and miraculously winning one of the main qualifiers. She’d caught a bit of his pre-race interview early while getting ready and found herself riveted by the images of him carrying his twin toddlers down the bunny slopes, laughing in the snow. Her own father had taught her to ski in the same way.
He nodded hello to her and she smiled at him, raising a hand in greeting.
The race coordinators had tried to split up the top five seeds and the darling of this group stood out from the slopes in her signature pink and white plaid. Coraline Alvaros, the younger sister to the PR woman who’d coordinated Kayi’s own journey here. The younger Alvaros had done a metric load of cross-galactic web commercials and was the first woman to ski the Knives on Mirzam Prime. She tossed Kayi a smile which Kayi thought was just for the cameras, but then Coraline whispered “best of luck” in her ear.
On skiing skills alone, Kayi wanted to believe she could beat the people like Coraline. But she didn’t have the funding to afford the top tech, the designer drugs, the blood doping, and all the other stuff that was borderline illegal but allowed for those with money. The low-tech Great Race really had quite a bit of technology. Sure, no GPS, no communications, no little extras. Just poles, suit, one hour of oxygen, all the special sports goo needed to keep fueled for the hours of skiing, and skis.
For people like Coraline though, this meant high-tech skis that probably could whisk her down a mountain looking like she’d just come off a zine shoot, whip up a pot of tea, and then press her shirts. Before lunch.
Kayi forced herself away from useless thoughts. This was Asgard. The planet had never been skied. Once out on the slopes there would be something much more scary than going up against top technology and training. It was the mountain Kayi intended to race against. A hundred miles of terrain and a descent of ten vertical miles. Winning was not dying in a crevasse, or beneath thousands of pounds of crushing, moving snow, or breaking a limb out where a hovercraft couldn’t reach and starving slowly over time. Winning was survival. The placement was secondary.
She had the advantage of genetics and real experience. There was no room in the Russo-Alaskan winters she’d grown up in for weakness or indecision. No need for blood doping either, her Inuit and Norse blood giving her extra capillaries in her extremities and a higher tolerance for altitude. Also that insulating but not camera-friendly layer of pudge which Andy kept begging her to surgically remove so she could be more marketable. Gem liked her thick and she didn’t see the point of fighting her blood (and stomach) about it, especially when she was the one who had to stand out on freezing mountains waiting on race officials.
The warning horn blew and jerked Kayi out of her thoughts. She turned and duck-toed up toward the line, skiing closer to the leeches. The reporters even looked like invertebrates, all of them wrapped from hair to feet with masks in place reflecting the wan early morning sun and neon-green tents.
“Greenlander! Over here!” One reporter called out, her voice tinny through the microphone piece in her face mask.
Kayi almost shoved forward and ignored the leech, but she could almost hear Andy grinding his teeth back at the lodge as he watched it all on her head-cam. Small concessions. Right. She turned and spit out her oxygen tube, giving a small smile.
The reporter didn’t seem to want a picture but instead opened a file on her Tell-All and then held up the screen so that it projected onto the smooth snow under the dividing ropes between the press line and the starting area. Gem’s face suddenly appeared, his black eyes glinting with secret mirth and his braided beard twitching as he fought down a smile. Kayi’s heart gave a little jerk and she almost started signing to him before she realized it was a recording.
Gem seemed to be waiting, then he nodded, acknowledging some off-camera signal before his long gold-brown fingers spelled out a single word.
Her mask threatened to fog for a moment as she blinked hard against the well of emotions stinging her eyes. Though she imagined this whole golden press-release slash interest story moment had been engineered by Andy, it was just like Gem to turn it into a private, special thing, taking the wide, scary world and pulling her back down to the ground.
“What did he say? What does that mean? Do you have a message to send back to him? How did he lose his hearing?” The reporter’s breath hung in the air like fog before falling away in glittering mist.
“Just wishing me luck. Thank you. I have to go.” Kayi slid up to the starting box, letting her skies poke out over the dramatically carved ledge and stared into the sky.
Asavarma. You love me. It was their silly joke, their code. His way of reminding her why she wasn’t allowed to die out here.
The other four lined up, each ten feet apart. Kayi slipped her oxygen tube back between her teeth, shivering as the frozen spit on it hit her tongue. She shifted her weight from ski to ski, waiting for signal. It was time to leave the world. It was time to fly.
The peal of a heavy bell rang out and she dropped off the edge. For a moment there was nothing beneath her skis and then she hit, carving deep into the champagne powder and leaning her whole body along the steep slope with each turn. The noise from above faded away and it was just her and the mountains. She was almost glad that Coraline, the only other woman in the race, was in her section. The satellite cameras and live feeds would all be focused on pink and not orange. It was something at least.
Kayi let her body warm up and found her rhythm. Flashes of color shifted in her periphery as the other starting groups found the slopes and paths crossed and converged, each of the twenty five skiing their own lines down the first drop.
The next part would be trickier. There were multiple ways down from here and none of them were particularly safe. The fastest route to the finish would be to follow the fall lines of the various slopes and peaks, but that way led through a deep ravine peppered with ice-tunnels and into the Spires, a cave-riddled section of melt-carved granite and quartz which dropped off into Thor’s Hammer, a series of unmapped crevasses. Andy had argued for at least cutting over to the Spires from her planned route, but she’d pointed out no company would sponsor a corpsicle.
Kayi shot across the ridgeline at the base of the first pitch, heading across a mostly flat plateau that would drop away into a series of snow mesas, named Loki’s Steps, which descended toward Mt. Athena and the second leg of the race. The stupid quaintness of the mixed Earth names bugged her. Everyone equated it with “low-tech” and it seemed that Grinder Galaxy had adopted themes without checking any of the history.
She shoved her annoyance away and focused on the next turn. In the periphery of her vision a pink and white blur went flying off a spur of snow-covered rock and headed toward the Spires. Figured.
Ahead of her she caught sight of a red shape and smiled around her mouthpiece. Arthur Kyoto was playing this part safe as well. Finishing, for hill fodder like them, would be enough to get noticed, a badge to stick on the wall of life.
The going was peaceful, her thighs starting to burn a little as she worked her legs to glide along the almost flat ridge. The rising sun cast diamonds of light across the snow, reminding her that she’d better reach the Steps before it got too high. The radiation would heat the snow, turning the lovely powder to crud and raising the risks of slides and avalanche significantly. She had hours though, thanks to the long cycle. As long as she stuck to the plan, the route she’d memorized, she’d be down by mid-morning.
In her mind, she heard Daddy quoting Sun Tzu about how no plan survives contact with the enemy. For a brief moment she could almost smell the thick musk of his pipe tobacco as he leaned over, checking the bindings on her skis as they set out into the Saint Elias wilderness to rescue the mountain’s latest lost soul.
Kayi turned her head slightly and stared out to where the huge glacial latticework and arched summit of Mt. Athena poked above the surroundings, still many thousands of feet beneath the long ridge. Her father had never left Earth. She wondered what he’d have thought of Asgard and the Olympiads. The atmosphere was thicker than Earth’s, but the gravity slightly less and humans could stand at heights here no one at home would attempt. If she’d been allowed her wing-suit, Kayi could have just dropped off the ridge and tried to fly down, beyond Mt. Athena. Miles and miles sailing beneath her body.
She checked her oxygen gauge and decided she could ski without using the tank for now. The cold, thin air cut into her throat as she inhaled a shallow breath and tucked her mouthpiece into its pocket on the collar of her ski suit, shutting off the flow from the refillable oxy-packet sewn between the bright orange layers of thermal suit on her chest.
Kayi fell into a rhythm and only slowed after many miles as the ridge began to drop to her right and the cliff drifted into more of a slope. Kayi spied a red shape ahead and grinned when the still-weak sunlight caught a glint of gold.
She skied up alongside Arthur Kyoto and cut sideways, halting next to him on the edge of the Steps. The pitch here dropped down at about a fifty-degree angle, less than the first descent but a prime angle for avalanche risk. The air was still lip-chapping cold and this descent lay in shadow.
“Looks like a heavy snow hit here recently,” she said, eyeing Arthur.
“Yep. Should be okay though if we stick to the fall lines and don’t disturb the snow on those outcroppings,” he said with a broad motion toward the plateaus.
They did look alarmingly top-heavy. Kayi abandoned her plan to ski down using the flatter parts as a way to slow and ease her descent. Threading between the Steps would mean a quicker, less controlled path. It sounded a lot better than accidently dropping off a bluff and taking a few tons of snow down on top of herself.
“Looks like fun,” she said. Her heart started to sing with adrenaline again as she stared down into the deep white expanse.
“You want to go first? I don’t want either of us to get caught up in the other’s sluff,” Arthur said.
“Nah. You were here first. I’ll hang until you get past the first Step and then follow, sound good?”
He nodded and they shared a grin, his white teeth flashing against cracked, grease-smeared lips.
“Safe skiing,” she said lamely. She wanted to say something about his kids, to tell him how she admired him for doing this when he had other commitments, other lives depending on him.
“Good luck, Greenlander,” he said before she could find the words. With a shove of his poles, he dropped down onto the slope, skis kicking up sluff in a plume behind him until his red form looked like a cardinal trying to out-pace a winter storm.
Kayi waited until he shot past the first plateau and cut out of sight, following the natural lines of the mountain. Then she, too, dropped down, crisscrossing his winding trail. The susurrus hush of the skis as she shifted her weight lulled her as she tracked Arthur’s progress.
Intense pressure in her ears broke her out of her pattern. She shook her head, stretching her jaw. As her ears popped, the silence was broken by a crackling rumble that grew louder like a wave crashing down. Kayi watched, horrified, as huge slabs of snow broke away immediately in front of her, and then as the slabs were followed by a huge mound of snow tumbling off a plateau just above where Arthur’s red shape wound down the slope.
She tried to scream out a warning, the distance hopelessly far. His red shape hovered on the edge of the snow wave for a moment, then was suddenly gone.
Her scream was lost in another loud cracking boom, this time so close she felt the vibrations before the snow gave way beneath her skis and suddenly she was surfing along a cresting wave of thick powder that rumbled and hissed like storm-churned waters. For a brief, terrifying second, she hung on that crest, upright and she stretched toward the edge, willing to believe she could ski out of the avalanche’s path.
Then the snow sucked her down, as treacherous as any ocean wave, and closed above her head. Kayi jerked her arms in, one hand reflexively reaching for her avalanche chute, forgetting that she didn’t have one this time. More snow smashed into her left side, shoving her hard into another wave and her legs wrenched as her bindings, set tight for this run, strained. Cold clogged her nose and she shut her eyes behind her mask on reflex more than necessity. The tumble whipped her neck forward and she tried to tuck her chin in, ride it out.
Then it was over. The world went still and all she could feel was horrible pressure as though someone had pinned her beneath a wet wool blanket. She opened her eyes and her mouth, regretting it instantly as loose snow smashed into her teeth and she choked hard, the cough emptying the last of her air from starved lungs. The world was clear blue now, as though she encased in glacial ice. Entombed.
No. Stop. No dying. Gem. Must get back. Remember his rules. But she couldn’t. She could barely find his face in her mind. No. Move. Move. Please.
Kayi panicked for a moment, trying to move her limbs as her heartbeat grew louder and louder in her ears, echoing the rushing of the avalanche. Her right arm was crushed up against her collar; her glove brushing the raw, exposed skin under her chin.
Oxygen. She needed to breathe. With painful slowness, Kayi worked her fingers over to the pocket with her mouthpiece. She shoved upward with her shoulder, trying to create enough room to push the device up to her mouth. Her shoulder popped and pain radiated down into her arm and through her back. Pain was good. Pain she could use. She clung to it, to this sign of life and twisted her head toward the freed mouthpiece.
It popped in between her lips and she choked hard trying to get enough space to suck the flow valve open through the melting snow filling her mouth. Air. She’d always found the slightly chemical taste from the sealants in the pack annoying, but this time it was the best thing she’d ever breathed, thick and revitalizing.
And going to run out in probably less than half an hour. With that sobering thought, Kayi lay, staring up, or at least what she hoped was up, into the glacial blue. No one was coming to dig her out. A whimpering sound broke through the rushing pulse in her ears. For a moment she wondered if someone was out there. Then she realized she was making that noise, deep in her throat. She sucked in another sweet breath of air and forced her scattered brain back into problem-solving.
Rule zero of any activity, according to Gem, was “don’t die.” Was she facing toward sky? Or hundreds of feet of snow and rock? She tried again to wiggle her feet. The right one had a little movement to it. Her left leg was twisted out to the side and from the pressure she thought her ski was still attached and being pulled by the snow, weight on top of a fulcrum.
Kayi wormed her hands up over her chest and made half-scooping, half-breast-stroke movements, shoving her upper body into the little bit of space cleared. Movement was good for her psyche even if she couldn’t tell what progress she might be making toward freedom. Blood rushed in her ears and she found herself timing her struggles upward to the thud of her heart.
Scoop, shift, scoop, shift, scoop, shift, scoop, shift. The light above turned from glacial blue to a clearer blue, then, suddenly, her hands scooped and pushed through, the orange gloves disappearing for a moment into the world above. Kayi flopped and wriggled like a landed salmon and her head broke through. Muscles protesting, she worked to sit up fully and spit out her oxygen tube.
She’d been wrong, before. This, this was the best air she’d ever tasted. Crisp, clean, best of all — unlimited.
She dug her legs free and took stock. Her skis were still attached and intact, though one only by grace of the leg strap, the binding itself had released. She snapped it back on, after checking it for damage, and stood gingerly, looking around. One pole jutted awkwardly from the snow just below her position. The other was buried most likely, her straps snapped in the mad tumble down the mountain.
And she had tumbled far. The snow had carried her down almost to the Spires. She oriented herself with the lace-like shadow of Mt. Athena and the farther-off shadows below that Kayi hoped were the granite and quartz formations.
The shivers hit her as adrenaline faded with the recognition of relative safety. With them came coherent memory.
Arthur Kyoto. She spit into the snow and tried to work a yell out of her sore, scraped throat. She managed a credible croak but not much more. Kayi twisted, frantically searching for some telling sign of where he might have ended up, some break in the newly smooth landscape. A hint of red. Anything.
Her injured shoulder protested as she twisted the other direction and Kayi gritted her teeth, side-stepping down the hill to get her remaining pole, taking it into her left hand.
The mountain was quiet, the stillness eerie after the explosion of snow.
Explosions. Kayi shivered again as she forced herself to remember what had happened. They’d been careful, taking a line that shouldn’t have disturbed the packed snow, not this early in the morning. Vibrations, and that weird pressure in her ears. Sub-sonic avalanche charges? Had someone rigged this slope to blow?
The mountain doesn’t kill you, her father had always said. The mountain doesn’t care enough to bother. People kill themselves on mountains.
Not this time. Kayi’s numb lips set into a hard line and she felt like collapsing. Grinder Galaxy. The Great Race, her ass. She’d known it would be a kitschy, glam, inter-galacticly annoying media-whoring sort of spectacle, but naively she’d figured the deadly terrain and sheer length of the race would provide enough fodder for the masses.
She had a camera on. So did Arthur. They also had locator chips sewn into their suits so that the live feeds could track and broadcast the contestants when they hit interesting points in the race and fill the between times with cutesy bio-pics and one-on-one filmed weeks ago interviews interspersed with the person in question skiing down some slope or another.
Kayi could put it together. Someone in Grinder Galaxy might have rigged the slope; probably long before the Race since there had been recent, heavy snow. They’d waited until she and Arthur were both on the slope and blown the charges. Maybe there wasn’t real malice in it; maybe some idiot didn’t realize that avalanches like that moved at speeds of over a hundred miles an hour.
Fat chance. Anger got her blood moving again as Kayi pushed off and tested her legs with a careful, controlled turn down the slope. They had just made the term “hill fodder” into a gruesome, literal phrase.
Murder. That’s what she would call it. If anyone would listen, would believe something that was hardly more than a gut feeling. Kayi’s neck stiffened. Cameras had to be on her. Digging her way out must have gotten millions of live views by now. Andy would be shitting himself over the potentials of this now that he was likely done panicking about her getting buried alive. She sucked on her teeth and pulled her collar up to hide her mouth, hide her expression in case someone was zoomed in, and resisted the urge to look up into the sky.
Kayi’s brain dumped ideas and worries down onto her as quickly as the avalanche had dropped snow, bumping into all sorts of ridiculous options and plans. She took another lazy turn and then another, slowly cutting over the slope toward the Spires in the distance. There were caves there, she remembered. A place maybe where she could sit, drink some electrolytic protein-filled goo and rest out of the immediate access of the satellite cameras at least.
Skiing worked the clinging ache out of her sore legs and she kept her arm against her body. There were two local anesthetic patches in her aid kit, another reason to stop. It wouldn’t fix the injury, but removing the pain would have to suffice for now.
Kayi laughed, the sound hoarse and grating. She hadn’t even checked to see if she’d lost anything from her various pockets. They were sealed, of course, but a crushing tumble like the one she’d just taken could break the seals. Her gear wasn’t rated for that kind of thing.
She patted herself and found most of her suit pockets still sealed tight. She had fluids and first aid. The only thing missing was the forfeit flare, which had broken loose of its strap on her belly and was now gone. Not an option anyway, not given what she suspected. No one would believe the accusations of a forfeiter. She’d be buried under so much scandal and so many lawyers for even thinking of about it.
She’d probably be buried anyway. She was the Greenlander, the chubby hick from a system humanity had grown beyond and half-forgotten. Poor Arthur Kyoto was basically the same. No standing, no status, no power. His twins would never know that their father had been murdered, that his death had been pointless. It was one thing to face the mountain and lose, but to fail because someone engineered it was wrong in every way.
Unless you win, an evil voice whispered, sounding in her exhausted mind a lot like Andy when her friend and manager had gotten too deep into the bubbly. A winner of the Great Race would have the purse and the inter-galactic public ear.
Kayi shook her head, wincing again. Up ahead loomed the first series of spires, green and blue-threaded black granite jutting up like totemic icons to long lost spirits. She angled toward one that had a thick shadow, looking for an underhang she could retreat into.
She was so intent on just getting away from the camera she imagined still stalked her from miles above that she missed the tracks in the snow at first. Once she saw them, a single skier winding their way toward one of the thicker Spires, Kayi followed, desperately hopeful that she’d find Arthur holed up the way she intended to do, to find him alive and well.
Kayi reached the stone and pulled up when she heard a woman’s voice. Disappointment brought acid up into her already raw throat. Coraline. But who was she talking to? A wan hope still lingered that Arthur to be here with Coraline somehow, but there’d only been one set of ski tracks.
Her rattled nerves and new-found paranoia counseled Kayi to caution and she slid forward quietly as she could, slipping right up to the bared tower of rock. Peeking around into the deeper shadows of the overhang, Kayi caught a glimpse of three people, two men and a woman. The woman wore pink plaid. Definitely Coraline.
The men, when Kayi ducked back out for a second, slightly longer look, were dressed in the same gear as the workers buzzing everywhere around the event. A looping double G with the tri-star logo confirmed what Kayi already knew.
“Let me check the maps again,” Coraline was saying, reaching for something that one of the men, whose backs where to Kayi, must be holding. “Then you guys can hoversled me through these stupid rocks?” With that statement, Kayi abandoned hope that this was just Coraline forfeiting the race and catching a ride down.
She leaned into the stone and tried to think. It wasn’t just manipulating the race to provide media fodder and life and death excitement, the game might actually be rigged. Might? Kayi bit her lip. It was time to face reality. She considered stepping out and confronting the cheating party right there, but her brush with death held her still. Evidence. Andy and Gem could witness. She was sure they were riveted to her camera, and though Gem couldn’t hear what was being said, Andy could probably make it out even with the low-quality microphone in her mask.
It was too bad that they weren’t recording her feed.
Oh. Kayi almost smacked herself upside the head. Her team could. Nothing really prevented it besides fear of being sued, a fear which seemed suddenly so small and stupid as to have become the molehill in light of the mountain of this deadly farce. All those papers she’d signed promising no recordings were as binding as sunlight now.
Kayi took a deep breath, hearing Coraline asking questions about the route around Thor’s Hammer. Now or never. She had to get this down. Kayi slid backward on her skis, making sure no part of her showed beyond the stone. She could still hear Coraline and hoped her mic was getting it also.
She unsealed her left glove and yanked it off with her teeth. Carefully she signed Gem’s name, hoping that would signal him without being too obvious to anyone else monitoring her feed. Then she told him what she wanted, spelling out the Inuit words, hoping that would be obscure enough that Grinder Galaxy wouldn’t pick up on it.
Even with recorded evidence, Kayi knew she’d still have to make it down to the finish to have a hope of accusing anyone of anything. They had to know that she was right next to their men, however. What else had they rigged out there? There were more ways to die on a course like this than just avalanche. Snipers, worse come to worse, could probably hoversled into the course and just pick her off. Once she was dead, arranging an accident or the disappearance of Andy and Gem probably wouldn’t be that difficult. They were safe now because of the race, because they were surrounded by people. Later, if she died, if she failed, they’d have no protection.
Kayi grimaced and refocused on the conversation, risking looking around the spire again. Coraline was half turned away, studying a tablet. She tapped a pink finger onto the screen and told them she wanted to be dropped off there. Kayi prayed that Gem had gotten the message in time to record all that.
It would have to be good enough because Coraline and her escort slipped out from the overhang and after a long moment, Kayi heard the whirring of a hoversled. She stayed pressed against the cold stone until it was gone and silence reigned again.
Kayi ducked quickly into the illusory shelter of the overhang. She was still hours of hard skiing away from being in a position to help Gem or Andy. She just hoped they were figuring out some of what was going on. Hoped they weren’t already kidnapped or assassinated or something awful.
She had to trust that they could manage and take care of herself. That was Gem’s rule number one. Always play with the cards you actually have.
First thing, minimize the risk of being tracked too easily. Kayi sucked down a goo packet, the tart lingonberry flavored gel soothing her raw throat. She pulled the rest of the packets out and set them onto a little ledge in the stone.
Next she removed the first aid kit and opened her outer ski suit, then peeled back the insulating under-suit down off her injured shoulder with as little jostling as she could manage. The freezing air felt good, giving her a shock but numbing the exposed shoulder in a way that wasn’t awful. She pressed the Velcro-like morphine patch into her skin. The tiny teeth set and relief washed through her in a tangible wave, radiated out from the little blue patch.
Kayi slid the suit up and closed the insulating layer. She unsnapped her bindings and stepped out of her skis. Her outer suit had to go. The chip that allowed the satellites to easily track and lock her position was sewn into it and the bright orange, designed to be so easily seen against snowy mountain terrain, had become a liability. The quilted, white fabric in her under suit would have to suffice, despite its less than waterproof nature.
Play the cards you have, she reminded herself.
Shivering a little as her wind-breaking layer slid off, Kayi balled up the suit and shoved it into a crevice in the spire. It wouldn’t hold anyone off for long, and she didn’t dare go out without her glare and wind-blocking mask on, so the camera feed would still be there. The hood part of her mask was silver, thank god. She prayed these measures could buy her a little time and breathing room. Her gloves had to stay on, but she turned them inside out, hoping the grey inner layer would be camouflage enough. Nothing she could do about the boots or her skis so she shoved the nagging doubt from her mind.
She snapped back into her bindings and tucked the first aid kit and three packets of goo into the one pocket on her inner suit. Then she took up her pole, took a deep breath, and set out into the Spires.
Kayi skied in silence; her eyes focused on the quickest path through, watching for telling dark patches and odd shadows that might denote caving beneath unstable snow and thinly covered rocks and other dangers. Her ears strained for the sound of a hoversled and her mind kept trying to feed her gruesome imagery of her own mangled body or what the hood of her mask would look like when a sniper bullet exploded her brains all over.
She just wanted to get down the mountain. There was no race anymore. The allure of skiing the virgin snows and dangerous slopes of the tallest ascendable mountains in the known universe had died with the last of her sportsman instincts. Died with Arthur Kyoto in a crushing ocean of snow.
A different fire lit her now, pushing her even as she crisscrossed slopes between the blue and green and black towering stones. She wanted to live, not to beat the mountains, but to beat the people who’d tried to kill her in the name of ratings and profits. They were no less impersonal than the rocks and ice and cold.
The deck was deeply stacked against her, but damnit, Kayi suddenly felt a desperate need to win. Not from bitterness now about equipment or training or the money and ability to ski on more than one little planet.
The slowly rising sun caught the refractive surfaces of quartz spurs jutting like giant diamonds from the granite spires and drew webs of iridescent light between the stones. In the back of her mind, Kayi hoped that Gem was still recording. Was still able to record. She shoved that thought away.
She skied out of Loki’s Spires and turned to the north. She and her team had plotted out multiple courses on the flight to Asgard. They had even plotted the optimal path, what they jokingly had called the “as the crow flies but everyone else dies” course. Through the Spires and then to the north, shooting down a linked maze of steep ravines and directly into the crevasse-laden Thor’s Hammer. From the Hammer there was another steep slope, more of a cliff with an almost vertical slope that could drop her onto the straight shot down to the finish just above Shangri-la.
They’d ruled out that course as suicide. Even if the crevasses didn’t eat her, the hours of extreme carving needed to drop the thousands of vertical feet down the final descent would probably be beyond anyone after the hours of hard exercise preceding.
Kayi pulled her lips into a snarl as she shot down into the ravine maze. Her frazzled brain couldn’t recall what stupid name had been bestowed on this place. Win. This path, if she could survive it, it would beat even cheating. Probably. They couldn’t risk exposure by using the hoversleds too much or by having Coraline show up improbably early. Reporters might be sycophantic glory hounds, but they couldn’t be counted on to be reliable idiots either.
She was onto the final long stretch before Thor’s Hammer when she felt the snow vibrate beneath her and a sonic wave crackle in the air. Kayi screamed, more in fury than fear, and aimed her skis sideways, trying to shoot across the breaking snow.
Then the mountain broke away under her and she found herself perched in the middle of the avalanche plate like a grain of sand resting on the tension of water.
She rode the plate as it hissed and burbled, the edges peeling away as the snow gained speed, surging down toward the glacial blue scars of Thor’s Hammer below. Icy mists clouded up around her and for a brief moment she felt as though she was flying inside a storm cloud.
Just before the crumbling edges of the plate caught up her skis, the world dropped away, taking the deadly snow with it.
Kayi sailed through the air on her own now, the avalanche speed flinging her out over the deep crevasse that opened beneath, swallowing the mountain’s might. She tucked forward by habit more than by conscious design. Ahead was the edge of the crevasse. She strained her whole body toward it.
Not that it mattered; she wasn’t going to make it.
Kayi clutched her pole and thrust herself forward, arms against her side. She was just going to miss, the edge so close and yet her ski tips were dropping.
Her tips caught the edge. For an instant she thought she might be okay. Then the lip crumbled under her, frothing as the weak layer of snow broke. Her forward momentum died with a rough jolt and she started to fall backward.
Kayi jabbed her pole out and threw herself as far forward as she could. The pole caught and she gripped it with both hands, ignoring the sudden sharp bite of pain as her injured shoulder woke up from its drugged haze. The pole caught ice and stuck and suddenly she slid just enough forward that her skis caught and did their job.
Another raw scream broke out of her throat, followed by a stream of good Norwegian curses telling the cheating, malicious bastards where they could stick it and how.
The rest of the Hammer was a blur. Sometimes her skis left the ground as she flew over gaps and irregularities, but Kayi was beyond caring. Her shoulder made gravelly sounds and renewed its stabbing complaints with every landing, every sharp turn until finally, blessedly, her right arm went utterly numb.
She almost overshot the final descent but managed to check her speed and drop down onto the nearly vertical face. Each jamming turn was a tiny reminder of the hellish exhaustion she felt from her toes to her teeth. Her suit was soon soaked through and only the exertion itself kept her warm now. She wasn’t sure when she noticed that the snow below was no longer a far-off vertigo-causing shadow and instead had detail and glittering nearness. By the time she did see the far gentler slope and the clot of dark shapes off in the distance where the finish line lay, she was only a hundred feet or so off the curving final descent.
Kayi made a decision and dropped off the mountain. She flew down the last seventy feet; letting her spasming knees take a final jolt as she landed in nearly hip-deep powder soft enough to take a nap in.
The dull roar of excited voices grew as she approached. She hoped from the response that she’d made it down first. To win, then to expose this murderous charade.
The crowd took on colors and shape as she approached, skiing upright through sheer will. Her body felt dead, her right arm entirely unresponsive. It didn’t matter.
Once she won. . . Kayi stopped that thought. Winning meant she’d be mobbed by press. Maybe the Grinder Galaxy folks would find a way to twist it all up, find time to get some story straight. Winning wasn’t quite the answer.
With a hard jerk, Kayi twisted sideways and skidded to stop only feet from the finish line.
She stood there, leaning heavily onto her remaining pole, her eyes scanning the crowd, looking for her team. She didn’t see them at first and then suddenly both Andy and Gem shoved their way through the insectile horde of reporters and stockholders. Gem had his computer perched on one huge arm and hope lifted Kayi’s head as she drew on the last gasp of her reserves.
The crowd had grown silent, chatter dying away as they realized she wasn’t coming across the finish line on purpose. She slowly caught her breath and then pulled off her mask, letting her dark braid drop onto her shoulders.
“This,” she tried to say, but it came out as a raw croak and she stopped, swallowed painfully, and tried again, “This race is a lie, is murder. Kyoto died because of Grinder Galaxy.”
“Five,” Andy called out. “Five racers are dead.”
Kayi shivered and clung harder to her pole. Five. She strained to raise her voice, spitting out the words like broken glass. “It’s a lie. A set-up. Fixed. Manipulated. You aren’t watching reality or fairness.”
Gem smiled at her, teeth flashing white beneath his black beard. He did something on his little computer and suddenly the huge plastic view screens that had been showing her own exhausted image a moment before flashed to a shaky, somewhat fuzzy image of Coraline in her pink plaid glory, her whining, thready voice asking about routes and where the hoversled could drop her off.
For a moment, only Coraline’s damning questions reigned in the dead silence the recording brought on, as though everyone stood in the eye of a storm. The storm broke, people yelling, asking questions. Beyond Gem, the Grinder Galaxy officials who’d been coming out to try to shoo her team back halted on their snowshoes and froze like rabbits in the eagle’s shadow.
Kayi smiled at Gem and raised her left hand, finally releasing the pole. She slowly signed the letters to him. Asavakkit. I love you.
Did you fly? His hands formed the familiar question.
Kayii Tingiyok, she signed back.
She let her legs collapse, dropping into the snow. Yes, she thought as she closed her eyes, Kayi is flying.
Copyright 2012 Annie Bellet
About the Author
Annie Bellet writes speculative fiction full-time. She holds degrees in English and in Medieval Studies and speaks a smattering of useful languages such as Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Welsh.
Her short fiction has appeared in AlienSkin Magazine, Digital Science Fiction, and Daily Science Fiction and is available in multiple e-book collections. A Heart in Sun & Shadow, a fantasy novel set in an ancient Wales that never was, is available now as both an e-book and in trade paperback.
Her other interests include rock climbing, reading, horse-back riding, video games, comic books, table-top RPGs and many other nerdy pursuits. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and a very demanding Bengal cat.
Find out more about her and her books by going to http://www.anniebellet.com or find her on her blog at http://overactive.wordpress.com/