The thing about climbing mountains is that the first day is pretty much the easiest. From then on you're dealing with sore muscles, thinning air, and often-increasing steepness. The five of them made it to the third day with their free-climbing strategy, but a couple of close calls forced them to regroup and examine their options. None of them had any experience on a mountain; however, they did grasp the basic concepts of ropes and hooks, so after some debate and the working out of a few details, the strategy was officially changed.
Now they had Alice fly up ahead of them and secure several hooks, linking the rope and then attaching it to her friends at the lower altitude. It took several tries for her to get the hang of it, but by the time they stopped to rest at the end of day four she was able to work reliably and with increasing speed. That was good, because communication was breaking down.
After that first night they'd been too tired to really converse when they camped. It had turned into slinging out the tents, stuffing down some food, and collapsing within. If the day had been particularly hellish they might eat around a can of Sterno, but those were limited and it was mutually understood that they were to be used sparingly. Vince was another asset they tapped for warmth, huddling around him on breaks for a quick wave of precious, precious heat.
They were cold, they were miserable, and they were tired. They were making progress, though. On the fifth day, Hershel drank the last of his whiskey for Roy's final appearance. Vince developed a nosebleed midway through the day and Alice's head began to throb in pain. They pressed as far as they could, but they could feel themselves slowing down. When the light began to fade they were forced to camp, though they hadn't gotten as far as on previous days.
"So I hate to be the buzzkill," Nick said as they huddled around the final can of Sterno. "But what happens if we miss the deadline tomorrow?"
"I don't think they'll let us die, but... I guess maybe we fail?" Alice said uncertainly, her fingers gently rubbing her temples.
"Which entails... what, exactly?" Hershel interjected.
"I think it means we're done," Vince replied somberly. "They're testing us, just like George and Persephone. I imagine failure here has the same result."
"But that's not fair! We've passed all the same standards as everyone else. Why would they hold us some ridiculously higher standard?" Hershel asked.
"Because we're different," Nick replied automatically. "We're not like everyone else, so it makes sense that we have different criteria to fulfill."
"They warned me to expect it when I took them up on the offer to enroll in Lander," Mary agreed.
"Me too," Vince said.
"Ditto," Alice chimed in.
"Roy and me, too," Hershel said, dejectedly. "I just never thought they meant this."
"Wish you hadn't taken the offer for Lander?" Alice asked him.
"Not even a little bit. Yeah, this sucks, but I've had so much fun these last few months. I never knew what it was like to feel normal in any group of people. With Alex and you guys, though, I'm not the freak. I'm just another Super," Hershel admitted.
"There are days I think that's the real reason they gave us the offer," Vince speculated. "They wanted us to have a chance to see what regular Supers felt like, so we could blend in later on."
"Maybe so," Mary agreed.
"Not that it will matter much if we can't finish this mountain tomorrow," Nick pointed out.
"We don't know that," Alice countered.
"But we have excellent grounds to suspect it," Nick shot back.
"Then there's only one option," Vince said, a surprising resolve echoing through his voice. "We don't fail."
The others were silent for a moment. Vince was so cheerful and easygoing that they often let it slip their mind how determined he could be when the occasion demanded it. It could take them back a step.
"I hate to point this out, but you guys realize tomorrow all you'll have is me, right? And I doubt I can climb as fast as Roy," Hershel said.
"Maybe not, but you're fresh," Mary said encouragingly. "Roy's done all the labor, so I bet you can easily keep up with our worn out bodies."
Hershel was about to voice his own lack on surety in just that subject, but the looks on his ragged friends’ faces made him think better of it. Instead he took a cue from Vince and mustered up his resolve.
* * *
If the other days were hard, the sixth day was impossible. They had to move fast to make up for lost time, and as such didn't permit themselves as much time for breaks. That strategy showed its downside within the first three hours as sore hands struggled to hold grips and weakening spirits began to falter. Each of them wanted nothing more than to slide down the mountain and collapse into a pile of sweet, exhausted sleep. Instead they kept going up. They halted briefly for lunch and a Vince warm-up, then got right back at it. The day wore on, and as the sun began to descend, hope trickled out of them. If it was dark they were done. The cold and wind made it too dangerous, and that's ignoring the problem of seeing their way without light. With Alice placing hooks there were no free hands to hold flashlights.
Hershel was puffing hard as the shadows grew longer. He hadn't been given several months of intense conditioning; he'd let Roy handle that. The only thing that kept him moving was the knowledge that this was only a sixth of the torture the others had endured. As he cursed under his breath and hoisted himself another few inches, Hershel made two promises to himself. The first was that he was going to start getting himself into passable shape, and the other was that he was going to start carrying a bigger emergency flask of whiskey.
Vince's nose was bleeding freely again, so he tore off a few scraps of cloth, stuffed them in his nostrils, and let it be. At this altitude there was nothing else to be done; the only way out was at the top.
Mary and Nick were holding together okay, though Nick had several close calls and was able to save himself only thanks to his excellent reflexes. Mary was able to press herself close to the rocky surface of the mountain and a few times actually held herself up telepathically so she could rest her aching hands. It was dizzying and dangerous but an assessed risk she deemed to be worth it.
Alice's head was still pounding, but she did her best not to show it. She pulled free some hooks from below her team and flew up higher to reattach them. They were coming up on a cliff that jutted out slightly, blocking the view above. It would be tricky to climb so Alice decided to attach the hooks on the plateau the cliff would be concealing. She floated up past the side, blinked, and moved up several more feet to confirm what she was seeing. When she was absolutely sure she dropped back down and yelled to the others.
"The top! We're almost at the top!" With her news delivered, Alice flew back up to re-secure the hooks.
As for the other four, while weariness and fear can do a lot to drag down the human spirit, suddenly finding out your goal is in sight can kick the shit out of nearly every negative feeling you've got. Such was the case as the cries from their aching muscles and cold bodies were no longer nearly as relevant as the sense of almost being done. They hurled themselves upward with the last of their strength, leaving nothing behind in their quest to finish. Within half an hour the last of them, Hershel, was pulling himself over the side and flopping onto the cold, but level, ground.
They rested for a brief moment before dragging themselves vertical to complete the final task. It was Nick who found the phone, using his power and picking a direction randomly. He pulled the device from the snow and removed its waterproof cover. He glanced at his teammates and waited. Then he stepped forward and handed the phone to Alice.
"Make the call," Nick told her.
"Because I'd be dead, and none of us would be up here, without you. Now call those bastards and let’s go home," Nick said.
Alice nodded and accepted the phone. She punched a few buttons, and in mere seconds a familiar voice greeted her.
"Hello," Mr. Transport said placidly.
"We did it," Alice said, her voice weary and cracked, but her tone full of pride.