Chet Flash wuz here Circulation: 96,860,727 Issue: 187 | 22nd day of Eating, Y7
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Avalanche: Part Two

by extreme_fj0rd


"All right." Thomas dropped a bundle of climbing equipment at the bottom of a sheer cliff and looked around at the Aishas. "Here we are. Jamie, you belay for Sonja, then Sonja, you'll belay for Josh." He nodded towards a white Aisha. "And so on."

      Sonja nodded to show she understood, and began to put on the harness while Jamie untangled the belaying cords.

      The tests went slowly for Jamie, who had to wait until the last for her turn to prove her skills. It seemed an age before she finally got to swing herself up the cliff, her paws finding out cracks in the rock to rest on. She went to the top of the cliff, like the others had done, then climbed back down.

      "Good," Thomas said with a nod. Jamie grinned breathlessly and started to unstrap the harness. "We'll go back now," the Starry Aisha added. "In the morning, we'll assign people for the test run. Remember, this is just for practice-if someone can't do it, just send them back down to the camp, and we should all be back by sundown."

      They nodded.

      "Also, don't push them too far. This is pretty much just for teaching them. Remember that. I'll take that," he added, stretching out a paw for the harness Jamie was holding. The spotted Aisha passed it over.

      "And if you hear anything odd-anything at all-tell me, then get your group down."

      They nodded again; this particular instruction had been given to Jamie at least nine times, she thought wearily. Right now she just wanted to rest; walking all day and climbing a large cliff took a lot out of someone.

      "Good work. Now, back to camp."

      The Aishas scattered, some racing back and some trudging. Jamie was one of the trudgers, and got to the tents a good minute after the others.

      "How'd it go?"

      Jamie didn't have to turn to know it was Reggie. "Well. I'll tell you in the morning," she added, and crawled into her tent. She tried to sleep, but the sun was still up and it shone brightly through the thin cloth wall of the tent. After ten minutes of tossing and turning, she gave up and poked her head out again. Someone had started a fire in the center of the ring of the tents, and the others were sitting around it. Jamie did a quick count and found that two were missing-two of the others who'd been tested.

      She walked over to join them with a sort of grim satisfaction that she wasn't the only one to be exhausted by the day's exercise.

      "Tired?" Reggie asked when she sat down beside him.

      "Tell me about it." Jamie managed a weary laugh. "Is there food?"

      "Not yet."

      "Gah." The spotted Aisha twitched her ears irritably.

      "Aye, but it'll be done soon enou', matey," said a familiar voice on Jamie's right.

      "Hello, Sonja," Jamie said, glancing over at the Pirate Aisha. "How'd your test go?"

      "Arr, it went good."

      "Well," put in a timid Desert Aisha from the other side of Sonja. "It went well. 'Good' isn't an adverb-" She shrank back as Sonja turned to glare at her.

      Jamie smiled and shook her head. In response to Reggie's puzzled look, she said, "I'd almost be worried if someone corrected Sonja's grammar and she didn't jump at their throat about it."

      Reggie laughed. "I think we all would be." He paused. "I still think Pazo's journey is a metaphor for the journey towards truth," he remarked.

      "Oh, Fyora. I thought we settled this ages ago," Jamie groaned. "I mean, really. Your statement is so obviously not true that it doesn't merit being brought up again." Despite her words, her eyes twinkled with laughter.

      "That's what you say," Reggie countered. "But that's just because you don't want to debate it like civilized people-because you know you'd lose if we did." He grinned.

      "Of course, that's just it! Not," the spotted Aisha said, mock-glaring at Reggie.

      Their argument lasted through dinner; Jamie called a halt to it later in the evening, saying that she was exhausted. Reggie gave her a teasing response, saying that she was just saying that to get out of losing the debate, but wished her a good night anyway. Jamie left the circle of firelight and returned to her tent, where she fell asleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow.

      The next morning dawned bright and early. Jamie stared up at the tent wall with sunlight streaming through it for a long moment, then sat up. Her long earstalks brushed the top of the tent as she looked around the tent.

      Sonja and Angela were both still sleeping soundly, unaware of Jamie's scrutiny. The spotted Aisha smiled and dressed quickly against the early-morning chill. Then she scrambled out of the tent and wandered over to the fire ring. Only a few lit embers were left of the last night's fire, but she stirred them with a long branch and blew on them to get them burning.

      "Good morning," Thomas said, emerging from his small tent at the other end of the circle. "Ready to help people learn rock-climbing?"

      Jamie smiled. "Sure," she said, feeling unusually hospitable towards others. The night's rest had cheered her up considerably, and she'd always liked getting up early.

      "Well, that's good." He sat across the fire from her and helped to stir the embers.

      Jamie nodded.

      Slowly the Aishas began to drift out of their tents, yawning and rubbing eyes sleepily. Thomas went to his tent and came back with a packet of oatmeal, which they cooked over the now-burning embers. They ate it plain, but to Jamie it tasted wonderful. She realized again, as she did every time she got up early, that hunger really was the best sauce for food, and resolved to get up early more often-as she did every time.

      Reggie was one of the last ones to come out; when he did, the oatmeal was already being served. He joined the group and took a bowl in his turn. He didn't speak as he ate, and Jamie was about to comment on it when she remembered that he was afraid of heights. She couldn't imagine being afraid of heights, but knew what it was like to be afraid of something, and let him be.

      After Jamie finished her oatmeal, she went to a nearby stream to get water for the rest to wash their bowls in. That didn't take long, and it was just over an hour later when they assembled in the middle of the camp again, ready to go.

      "All right," Thomas said. "I'm going to teach you some of the basic principles of climbing, and then assign you to groups so you can try it for yourself. Each group will have someone who's climbed before to help you, so if you have any questions, just ask them."

      He proceeded to lay out the safety rules of climbing, and that sort of thing; Jamie'd heard it many times before, of course, and her mind wandered while he talked. It was an effort for her to bring her attention back to Thomas when he'd finished and was about to give out the group assignments, but she managed to do it.

      "Sonja," he said. The Pirate Aisha nodded. "I want you to take Angela, Richard, and Katherine." Richard was a blue Aisha; Katherine was Darigan. They waved to Sonja to let her know who they were. "Josh-" He listed off names for the others, and finally got to Jamie. "Jamie, you've got Breck and Sally." Jamie frowned. She hadn't heard Reggie's name among any of the other groups. "Oh-wait a minute." Thomas flipped sheets of paper on his clipboard. "You've got Reginald, here, too," he added, taking a pencil from his pocket and scribbling something onto the list.

      Jamie nodded and smiled reassuringly at Reggie. He gave her an ironic look back.

      "All right, then-move 'em out!"

      Jamie, Sonja, and the others who'd been tested went to grab harnesses for their charges; then they scattered, each group going to a different cliff face. Reggie trailed behind her; Breck and Sally followed her closely, obviously eager for the climbing. They were both painted Ghost, and looked alike enough to be siblings, if not twins.

      "All right," Jamie said, dropping the harnesses at the bottom of the cliff. She suppressed a small wince at the fact she'd picked up Thomas's habit of saying 'All right' every two words, and went on. "Put on one of these, and, well, we'll get started!" She smiled.

      Breck and Sally went to work untangling the harnesses; somehow they'd gotten wound around each other in Thomas's pack. Reggie hung back uncertainly. Jamie walked over to him; the two others would be all right for a little while by themselves.

      "Look," she said, "it won't be so bad. It's really fun, actually."

      "You aren't afraid of heights."

      She sighed. "I was when I started."

      "When you were two? You remember that far back?" His disgust was plain.

      "No, when I started actually climbing for myself. I was terrified. My siblings helped me, though. They told me later that it was so they'd have another climbing companion, so their motives weren't precisely good, but they did help me. And I'll help you," she added.

      Reggie studied her for a while, his face impassive. Finally he nodded. "I'll give it a try," he said.

      Jamie smiled. "Good."

      "Now you're going to tell me that that was all lies, though," he added, with a trace of his usual good humor.

      "Would I do such a thing?" Jamie pretended offense.

      The cloud Aisha hesitated a beat, then said, "Yes."

      Jamie laughed.

      Breck and Sally had gotten each other strapped into their harnesses-no easy feat, Jamie knew. She suspected they'd climbed before, but didn't want the responsibility of being in charge of others. Despite that, she said nothing but, "Good." She helped Reggie with his harness.

      "You should be climbing soon!" Thomas's voice echoed along the cliffs.

      "Whoops," Jamie said. She glanced at Breck and Sally. "You go along ahead, we'll catch up," she instructed them. "Reggie, you ready to go?"

To be continued...

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» Avalanche: Part One
» Avalanche: Part Three

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