Chapter 67

"Bullshit," Nick replied, only pure willpower keeping his teeth from chattering.

"Not all, I assure you," Mr. Numbers confirmed. "Your parents have all been made aware that you'll be detained for a few more days. No one is expecting you."

"But... why?" Alice asked, perplexity and cold slowing her words.

"Because you were all admitted as part of a very special program, one that is being measured in different ways then just your grades. Think of this as an extracurricular activity mandated by your scholarship," Mr. Numbers explained.

"This is crazy; we'll freeze to death," Vince pointed out. While Vince was admittedly cold, being trapped in a one-man tundra a few months back made it seem more bearable by comparison.

"Now, don't be silly," Mr. Transport said. "We've left you packs filled with supplies and winter wear. You'll find everything you need to reach the top safely."

"So, that's it? We just climb up?" Nick asked, probing for potential pitfalls.

"Well, there are two caveats. You have to reach the summit together, and you need to do it in six days," Mr. Transport admitted.

"Why six days?" Hershel asked.

"Because that's how much food we gave you," Mr. Numbers said. "There's a phone at the top with a pre-programed number. Call us once you make it and we'll come pick you up."

"Wait, you're leaving us?" Alice all but squawked with incredulity.

"Yes," Mr. Numbers said.

"You're Supers now. Supers find a way," Mr. Transport said, and then both men were gone.

"Motherfuckers." Everyone turned in surprise, because that vulgarity was spat out from the mouth of Mary.

*          *          *

Ten miserable minutes of trudging forward had revealed a set of five oversized backpacks waiting in the snow. Each was a different color and labeled with a name. Nick's was golden, Alice's pink, Hershel's a dark green, Mary's red, and Vince's blue. It should be noted that none of them gave a shit about that, though; instead they tore into the bags savagely and began piling on clothing. Only after everyone was coated, booted, and gloved did they begin to contemplate a strategy.

"Figures the one time I'd have an advantage they'd screw me over," Alice complained. "I mean, come on, it's a damn climbing challenge! It was basically made for people with flight. But no, we all have to make it up there together or it doesn't count."

"Forgive my impudence here, but how the hell will they know? They left, remember?" Nick reminded her.

"They'll know," Mary assured them. "They went to all the trouble of setting this up, they'll make sure we follow the rules."

"Speaking of, how did you not see this coming, telepathic girl?" Nick asked.

"I did. I just hoped they would change their minds," Mary explained.

"Nice strategy, that one," Nick scoffed.

"It could be worse," Hershel said optimistically. "At least I have my emergency flask on me. This way Roy can help if we need him."

"Why do you keep an emergency flask of whiskey?" Vince asked him.

"Pretty much for situations exactly like this one," Hershel replied.

Vince placed his fingers on the bridge of his nose and sighed. "It saddens me how much sense that makes in this context. Okay: we know what we have to do, so how are we going to do it?"

"They gave us climbing gear, food, Sterno, flashlights, and water," Alice said as she rifled through her bag to take inventory.

"Aside from which we have a flier who isn't allowed to fly, an energy absorber in an environment with nothing he can absorb, enough whiskey for a few appearances of the one person who could do this easily, me, and Mary the marvelous brain girl," Nick said. "If we're going to build a strategy around someone's powers it looks like Mary is our number one candidate."

"He has a point," Vince agreed. "Could you just lift all of us up to the peak?"

"No," Mary said sadly. "Grabbing hold of a person is a delicate procedure; it isn't like throwing objects. I have to worry about pressure and rupturing organs, that sort of thing. I can do it if I have to with one person, maybe two for short bursts, but I'm not confident I could get us far at all. Certainly not safely. Not to mention that I can't really lift myself."

"Why not?" Hershel asked.

"It's a jarring experience, being dangled in mid-air. It makes my stomach queasy and messes up my concentration, which just makes things less stable in a terrible cycle," Mary said.

"So then, what's our strategy?" Vince asked.

In response Nick rose to his feet, dusted off the snow, and produced a pick along with a section of rope from his bag. "I'd say our strategy is climb like motherfuckers in hopes of making it home before Christmas."

After a moment of staring at each other the rest of the group pulled out their instruments and followed suit.

*          *          *

To say the act of climbing a mountain was grueling would be like saying Genghis Khan had a mild penchant for empire expansion. It was cold, hellish, and hard, but as the five struggled up the mountain, they found it was doable. For the first time they were thankful for the months they had spent in gym. Without Coach George's constant conditioning they would have never had a chance at making viable progress. Proof of this was Hershel, who was forced to use some of his whiskey in the first half hour for fear his muscles would give out and he would go tumbling down. Each of them held this fear, but luckily it wasn't too steep at the mountain's base, and there were plateaus where rest could be acquired. On one such plateau they stopped midway through the day for a lunch of water, jerky, and despair. There was nowhere to go but up, though, so they bucked up and began climbing once more.

Even Alice found herself hugging the side of the mountain as they climbed higher. With each bit of escalation the wind grew stronger and colder. Gliding next to the rocks at least gave her some refuge from the wind's chilling bit. Admittedly she could have flown up to their next logical break stop and waited, but she wasn't confident they would find her once she departed. Besides, even if it wasn't steep, accidents could happen, and she wanted to be close by just in case.

The day wore on and progress grew slower. The mountain was getting steeper and their muscles were growing colder. There was a brief huddle during which they agreed to camp on the next viable rest stop they reached since it would be madness to try and keep going in the dark. Unfortunately, that spot was farther up than they'd expected, and by the time Roy hauled himself over an icy cliff, nearly everyone else was ready to collapse. Mary followed after him, then Vince. Alice floated over to stand with them, trying not to shiver despite herself. Nick was the last man to scale the side, rolling over and resting for a moment before pulling himself to his feet.

"Well," Vince said. "That sure suc-" A loud cracking sound interrupted Vince, coming from the edge they had just scaled. There was a moment of realization as Nick looked down to the source of the noise and saw it was coming from directly under his feet.

"Shit!" Nick managed to say as the ice they had mistaken for rock gave way and he went him tumbling back into the open air.