glacier

Rey took one great swing and buried his ax deep in the ice wall. Spikes from the strike exploded outward, spattering his goggles. Satisfied the blade was secure, he hooked the line leading to his safety belt into the loop at the handle’s end and tested it with his weight. It held.

While resting, he took stock of the competition on either side of him. Five other contestants were making the fifty-five-meter climb at the same time. Two were farmers, two were from inside the City, and another one, like Rey, came from the trading zone outside the walls.

The way Rey saw it, he wasn’t going to be first to reach the top of the wall. Maybe not even second. He knew this and rested anyway, looking up the vertical rise to where his safety rope disappeared over the ridge.

A blue flag fluttered there, and his hand went to the contest baton clipped to his waist. He jiggled it. Even through his glove, his fingers found the breaks in the paint, the blue chipped away with age. Last year he’d chosen the yellow path, the yellow baton.

His safety rope kept moving. Navid was on top of the glacier, spotting him, pulling up the slack without giving him any assistance. But spotters sat twenty meters from the crest, leaving Navid blind to the fact that Rey had stopped. A single tug on the line provided verification. A couple more tugs meant get going; it was supposed to be a race, after all.

Rey imagined the disapproving frown on Navid’s face and snorted. You’re not the one hanging halfway up a glacier, brother. You climb a sheer wall in my crampons before you question how I do things.

Rivulets of water cascaded down either side of Rey’s perch as he took in the view. The glacier sat in the valley between the peaks of Monserrate and Guadalupe, which bordered the City on the east. From this height, he could see the walls that divided the City into three rings, along with most of the roads he knew from his delivery routes.

Off to one side, he caught a glimpse of the tramway Cerebus used to transport the food grown on Earthland. The food they took for themselves. Cable cars loaded with grain snaked through a series of secure warehouses just outside the City, climbed over the ice-capped Guadalupe, then crossed the ice fields beyond before traveling down to the coast.

The cable cars didn’t run all the time. Only when the half-year transport ship arrived from Cerebus to steal Earthland’s bounty. It would dock at the port in another couple of days. Grain had been moving down the tramway for a week in preparation.

Shouts of encouragement from below spurred the climbers on. Most of the crowd of two hundred was rooting for Kiev, the man closest to Rey. He was from the farmers’ group and Rey’s only real competition. He was also a worthless hatchling. Rey watched Kiev approach a slick spot where meltwater had poured over the top and refrozen into wicked long icicles.

The slack in Rey’s safety rope went out again, and this time the three quick tugs on the line were stronger and sharp with Navid’s impatience. Rey got the message. He used a gloved thumb to brush hair from his goggles, then unhooked himself from the hilt of his right ax.

Flexing the handle until it broke free, he continued his ascent. Drops of water from an overhang reminded him of the dangers he’d be facing in the minutes ahead. Not that he needed reminding. He knew what he was doing. He’d been here before.

Looking up as he climbed, he saw Kiev, who’d just crested the ridge, standing with his hands on his hips, smirking down.

Last year during the City’s prelims, Kiev had knocked Rey out of the competition. Then on the last obstacle of the finals, while up against the competitors from Cerebus, Kiev had broken his ankle. He’d hopped the remaining hundred and fifty meters on his good leg to prove himself to the race officials. He’d still come in third.

Typical brown-nosing hatchling. Rey slammed his climbing ax into the wall. As he did, a crack sounded off to the side, and a deep rumble shook the wall. He caught sight of one of the other ropes moving. It was followed quickly by a loud cry. He stamped his crampons into the ice to secure his footing, then turned to look.

The fallen climber swung back and forth, slowly twisting on the rope hooked into his belt. The wall had given way in a spectacular fashion, leaving a giant empty cavity where once there’d been a vertical sheet. Luckily it hadn’t been a cascade collapse, with ice from above crashing on top of the climber. Probably the green route, Rey thought, starting up again.

Another push had Rey cresting the top of the west-facing wall. Relief swept through him as he hooked his axes over the ridge. Navid was sitting on his fur-covered spotter’s seat, dug in, tied securely in place with an anchor rope around his waist, and shaking his head.

“Really, Rey?” he asked when Rey finally gained his feet.

Rey narrowed his eyes, but that was his only reaction to the dig. “Not as wet this year.” He walked over and sat on the ice beside his roommate to remove the crampons from his boots. “Who fell?”

“City guy. Hadfield.” Navid pointed down the line of spotters. “You were right. Green route was risky,” he said, then turned back with a snort. “Kiev had a few choice things to say about you when he crested. Something about you stealing the blue baton from him.”

“Can’t help it if those tree trunk legs of his keep him from sprinting. I wouldn’t doubt he chose the path next to mine so I’d have to watch him climb. Smug bastard. They shouldn’t let hatchlings compete.” Rey jerked at his crampon bindings. “Genetic experiments. This needs to be a competition of normal Earthlanders, not Cerebus’s imported freaks.”

“He’s made it clear that being imported wasn’t his idea. He gets no special treatment. He’s one of us.” When Rey shot Navid a look, he countered with a raised brow. “After a fashion.”

Rey handed Navid the crampons. They weren’t permitted on the trek down the slope of the glacier’s tongue to the lake. “You coming to watch me swim?”

“I want to see the rest of the climbers finish. Go, already. You’ve got some catching up to do.” Navid cocked his head toward the race official. “The lake is absolutely brutal. Completely covered with ice this year. Be safe, brother.”

“Safe’s my middle name,” Rey said, jogging backward toward the man waiting at a table decorated with colored flags, then turning. Behind him, he heard Navid yell, “Fine, but if you drown, I get your pillow!”