2946-07-09 - Tales from the Inbox: The Heights of Herakles

Nojus was alone. 

He preferred it that way; he’d had partners in the past, but they always seemed to get in the way and cause. He was getting old, but he figured he had ten years left, if not fifteen, before he began to slow down. His followers would be heartbroken the day he hung up his survival multitool and retired to some tropical paradise on a pleasant world, of course; but they’d get over it in time to buy his memoir a few years after that.

Nojus glanced up at the pair of camera drones which hovered a few meters above and behind him. Green lights on each indicated that they were recording. Taking a deep breath of the thin mountain air, he turned around for one last look at his campsite. All the trappings of technology were piled next to the wind-proof tent, already half-buried in driving snow. The weather was far from perfect, but the viewers wouldn’t mind. After all, Nojus’s datasphere audience consumed his footage to see an explorer brave the harshest conditions on any world, armed with nothing but his trusty Reed-Soares Portable Survival Utility, and his sponsors at Reed-Soares Industries were happy as long as their product was occasionally waved where the audience could see it.

Wrapping his simple cloth cloak around his broad shoulders, Nojus turned toward the ridgeline which he’d come to scale. He was already two thirds of the way up to the top, but the final third of the climb was known to be the most perilous, and that would be what the viewers would want to see most. With a flick of his wrist, the big man altered his multitool to take the form of a climber’s pick and tied a length of simple polymer cord to its handle. Technically, rope bent the rules for his videos, but any time he was climbing, he brought some along; the viewers understood his desire not to plummet to his death in a remote mountain gorge.

Despite its reputation for being a perilous ascent which claimed many climbers, Nojus found the ridge ascent surprisingly easy; the rock and ice was crisscrossed with ridges and cracks that provided plenty of handholds, and once he started, the mountain’s shoulder blocked the worst of the wind-blown snow. He’d climbed far worse mountains with far less imposing reputations in the past; once again, he was being disappointed by a peril not quite living up to his expectations. The drones, unperturbed, hovered overhead, and he remembered to occasionally give them a good shot of his trusty, gleaming survival tool. He even made it look a bit more challenging; Nojus would never fake a near miss, but he did put more heaviness in his movements, as if the cold – which was unpleasant, but not a real concern – was seeping into his bones bit by bit. It would build suspense, and keep the audience invested in his journey longer.

The first time Nojus saw the claw-marks, he didn’t think anything of them. They might have been tool-marks from previous climbers – dozens of teams had climbed the ridge since Herakles was colonized, and many had vanished trying. The second time he spotted the marks, he began to realize what he was seeing, and by the third set, he began to grow concerned. Mountains on most worlds were lifeless wastelands, of course – a large animal climbing so far would be rare. Herakles, however, had an unusyally thick atmosphere that was breathable by humans even at the tops of the tallest mountains. It was quite possible, he decided, that local wildlife might prowl the peaks. Nothing of the sort had been in the reports he’d read about the place before climbing it, but even a Core World still sometimes had surprises for its human inhabitants.

Two hours after leaving most of his gear behind, Nojus stood only a few meters from the crest. Beyond, he knew the ridge dropped down at a dramatic angle to the plain on the far side, looking out over a largely uninhabited but lush region of jungles and marshlands. If the weather was clear, he might have been able to get a shot of himself standing there, with the gleaming sea in the far distance – but given the overcast and snow, he knew he’d be lucky to get a shot where the next peak on the ridgeline could be seen over his shoulder.

There was a tremor in the rock under the explorer’s boots as he took a step toward the lip. Frowning, he looked around, wondering whether he’d triggered an avalanche. He saw nothing, but the mountain blocked his view in three directions.

There was another tremor. In front of Nojus, a giant black paw reached up from below and gripped the top of the ridge. As he took a surprised step backward, the creature it belonged to clambered fully up onto the precipice. Nojus doubted the beast was in the Heraklean catalog; he’d heard of nothing like it. Its powerful, vaguely catlike form was almost eight meters tall at the shoulder, and its pelt of ropy, black hairs seemed to defy the driving snow. At first, it didn’t seem to notice that it was not alone on the summit. Nojus crouched low, quickly punching a new code into the handle controls of his multitool. It lengthened and flattened into a machete shape, with a long, curved cutting blade. It was the closest thing to a weapon pattern he had available, since he’d uninstalled the fishing harpoon configuration to make room for a few others that might be more useful when climbing a mountain. 

The creature eventually noticed Nojus and, as if surprised, wheeled its head toward him, roaring into the blowing wind. The camera drones were, of course, still recording. 

“What a pleasant surprise!” The explorer shouted back, raising his blade-configured multitool in challenge. He had begun to worry that footage of his adventure was turning out to be distressingly dull. 

Some of you probably recognize the name of the audience member who submitted this story - it's none other than Nojus Brand, a vidcast personality in his own right with a massive audience.

Nojus sends us this story rather than publishing the full-capture drone footage because, according to him, the creature he encountered on the mountaintop snapped up his drones, then darted away. He sent a video of himself telling the story our way, hoping I could do something with it. As an occasional consumer of Mr. Brand's vidcast content, I was only too happy to oblige.

Any of you who know the work of Nojus Brand know that he is somewhat given to getting carried away in recounting his own exploits. I don't think this story is made up wholesale, but I do confess I suspect it might be exaggerated. The creature in particular was probably a Heraklean mountain lion, despite his assertion that it was unknown to the human population of that world, and according to information I could find, they never get larger than about three meters tall at the shoulder. That's still a gigantic predator, but we can forgive Nojus for overestimating its size in his excitement.