The Mountain Climbers
A short story
Svetlana O’Donnell and her husband, Carlos Harris, hammered pitons into the hard rock of Mt. Kanchenjunga at the 6,700-meter mark, knowing this was where they’d camp for the night. They shivered in the sub-zero temperature, made even colder by the fierce mountain wind. Svetlana, the daughter of two of the world’s greatest mountain climbers, and Carlos, the son of two record-holding mountaineers, worked swiftly yet carefully to hang the portaledge. They coveted warmth but not falling down the mountainside, haste the enemy of survival.
Svetlana had suggested to Carlos they climb Kanchenjunga, the third-tallest mountain in the world. Carlos had been itching to scale the challenging and dangerous 7,000-meter Annapurna in Nepal, but Svetlana had noticed something unusual while scanning satellite imagery of the Himalayas. She insisted they climb Kanchenjunga because if she was right, they would solve one of the world’s greatest mysteries.
All they needed to do was capture one. Just one.
“What if they don’t want to be captured?” Carlos asked for the hundredth time as he ignited the electromagnetic cooker. “What if we get all the way to the summit, and you’re right, but they fly away?”
“Then we’ll at least have solved a great mystery and prove it with pictures.” She tapped her satellite-enabled Pixel 18 with its one-hundred-power optical zoom. They could send photos instantly anywhere, even from atop an 8,586-meter mountain.
“But the mystery’s already solved. We know what happened in 2030.”
“But we don’t know why.”
“What good is knowing why? It won’t bring them back.”
Svetlana sighed. Carlos was a fine devil’s advocate when deciding which mountain to climb and what route to take, but he didn’t know when to let go. They were already here, so what was the point of even talking about it?
Svetlana tugged on the portaledge’s zipper to close the tiny opening, hoping to thwart the frostbitten wind from entering their small tent. A lithium lantern next to the cook stove cast sharp shadows over everything the light touched. The two mountain climbers wore their parkas and insulated caps inside. Her thermometer displayed minus ten degrees Celsius.
“We’ll be famous.”
“We’re already famous,” Carlos said. They’d been on the cover of National Geographic and Netflix produced its first holographic movie about them. “We don’t need more fame.”
A powerful gust shook the portaledge, rattling the kernmantle ropes that secured their mountainside tent to the pitons. The portaledge rocked violently as if to escape the mountain’s side and take flight.
As it rushed over peaks and through crevasses, the wind seemed to shriek, “Come to me.”
Svetlana guessed it was an eighty or ninety-mile-an-hour gust, and they held their breaths until the wind abated thirty seconds later.
“Want some soup?” Svetlana asked as she passed Carlos the large metal cup.
Carlos nodded and swallowed the rapidly cooling tomato bisque in one gulp.
“Do you remember that day when they all went away?” Carlos asked.
“A little. Do you, babe?”
“A little, too.”
Svetlana had been ten on the day of the most seminal event in human history when everyone’s phones flew away. Until that day, winged phones followed their owners a meter or two above or behind them.
Svetlana's parents had told her about their childhoods when people often forgot their phones at home or left them in a restaurant or on a train. “Oh my god, oh my god, where’s my phone!?” had been a woesome yet all-too-common cry before 2029. But following the invention of flying phones, nobody ever forgot their phone because phones always hovered nearby.
Svetlana wondered what it was like to live in a world where nobody forgot or lost their phone because now, like in the old days, phones did not fly.
Svetlana recalled walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago with her parents, their phones flapping several feet above. The phones would fly until summoned, “Come here, Rodger,” “I need to send a message, Priscilla,” “I want to check Google Maps, Stefan”—everyone gave their phones different names. Or if you got a call or message while your phone was flying, the phone would gently alight on your hand, vibrating to ensure you didn’t miss the message.
The solar-powered flying phones were intelligent enough to know when to come to you. They even anticipated your needs. For instance, if you were strolling along an unfamiliar street, your phone would fly in front of you displaying your favorite maps app.
Sidewalks were filled with people, the welkin with avian phones.
And they were pretty, too, because people could choose the color and shape of their phone's wings. Her parents' phones had parrot-shaped, rainbow-colored wings. Svetlana remembered wanting a phone with parrot wings, too.
A year after flying phones were invented, on October 31, 2030, all the world's phones flew away simultaneously. Flocks of phones eclipsed the sun as they disappeared across the horizon. They flew so fast and far that nobody knew where they went.
But Svetlana knew. She was certain.
Svetlana checked her oxygen gauge, confirming enough to reach the 8,500-meter summit and back down again.
Through the portaledge’s transparent roof, she could make out the snow-encrusted summit silhouetted by a brilliant crescent moon.
She leaned her head into her clasped hands, a gesture to Carlos: Let’s sleep. Rest when you can; the mountain will still be there tomorrow, was the climber’s mantra.
Just then, a shrill whistling stung their ears—an object, likely a boulder or large mass of ice falling from a great height—picking up speed as it hurtled toward them. There was no time to exit the portaledge to escape the object’s deadly trajectory. And even if there had been time, climbing at night on a monstrous mountain like Kanchenjunga was madness, a sure way to die. Carlos wrapped his arms around Svetlana, holding her tight, their last moments in each other’s embrace.
But they did not die. Instead, the projectile barely pierced the portaledge’s roof, thunking onto their tent floor. Svetlana picked it up and smiled at the pink Hello Kitty cell phone case.
“I think they’re molting.”
“Or they simply don’t need their cases anymore.”
“Or they want to let us know they’re alright without us.”
Another case with I ♥️ New York and the Empire State Building on its back sliced through the tent, landing near Carlos' feet, followed by another, all black, and another covered in faux diamonds, and then dozens and hundreds of cases.
“We need to get out of here,” Carlos said as he donned his climbing helmet.
Svetlana quickly put hers on, too, a second before a red, white, and blue phone case collided with her head. “Agreed. Emergency descent.”
Emergency descent meant they’d leave all their equipment, taking only what they needed to get down. Climbing in the dark was the most dangerous kind of mountaineering, but they had no choice.
Svetlana and Carlos looked up at the moon, perhaps their last time to see it. The moon darkened.
“An eclipse?” Svetlana asked while shaking her head. A second later, she said, “It’s not possible.”
But it was possible.
Thousands of enormous pterodactyl-shaped creatures, each made from hundreds of phones, screeched, their calls of ringtones, and message notifications deafening. One swooped toward Svetlana, the gust from its wings nearly hurtling her off the rockface. She slammed her ice ax into the frozen snow.
The creature opened its mouth, exposing sharp, angular teeth of silver chips and gold circuits. Faster than Svetlana could blink, it snatched her phone from her belt, chomping and swallowing it as it soared into the darkness.
Another of the creatures ate Carlos’ phone.
“They consume non-flying phones,” Svetlana said.
“But they didn’t until now.”
“Yes, we’ve introduced them to the taste of terrestrial cell phones. This is our fault.”
Tens of thousands of cell phone birds swirled around Svetlana and Carlos as they descended, the sky a black tornado. The birds didn’t attack or come too close—after all, the two climbers had no more phones to eat. But they followed patiently as Svetlana and Carlos led them toward the ground.
Svetlana looked up toward Carlos, and said. “We could stop this. They know about food, but they still don’t know the source is thousands of meters below. We could”—she made a cutting motion across the rope with her gloved hand—“just end ourselves for the sake of humanity. If we die here and now, they’ll return to the mountain and leave everyone’s phones alone. We sacrifice ourselves so that humanity can still have its phones.”
Carlos squeezed Svetlana’s hand. “I want to love you tomorrow and the day after that and every day. I don’t want you to die and I don’t want to die.”
Svetlana swallowed, a lump hard in her throat, and said, “It’s not easy making a decision that will affect everyone in the world.”
Carlos lowered himself to Svetlana so they were side by side and kissed her with frozen lips. “Yes it is.”
If you enjoyed The Mountain Climbers, I think you’ll also like my story, Still or Sparkling Water?
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