Redline by A.D. Sui
3300 words, 16 minutes reading time
Issue 1 (Winter, February 2023)
1. Drive with (a car engine) at or above its rated maximum rpm.
2. To cancel, abandon or discontinue something planned.
The climbing was the easy part.
Seo-Jun slowly shimmied her way up the rock. The scales along her soft suit glistened like snakeskin against the Martian night. The successful terraforming efforts had developed the Martian atmosphere to something closer resembling the tip of Everest rather than hard vacuum. There was no need for stiff, bulky suits.
The climbing was easy, straightforward. The more difficult task was keeping quiet about the Ganymede Greenhouses contract she found on Ari’s kitchen counter—signed. Ari was a coward, and she was leaving, and there was nothing Seo-Jun could do about either. Ten years of working side-by-side, fifteen years of friendship, gone with a single stroke of ink.
But for now, Ari was below her as her trusted belayer, ready to keep her safe for yet another pitch. In total, Redline consisted of seventeen pitches—stretches of rock long enough to climb on a single rope. At every pitch they would rest and switch places. Seo-Jun climbed this pitch and Ari would the next.
“Do you think Marty’s is still going to be open when we finish? I kind of want a beer.” Ari asked, the beam of her headlamp racing across the wall. They were making their attempt to summit during the night. This way, the ice stayed ice and didn’t melt where outer layers of their soft suits grazed along extraterrestrial rock. When the sun rose and the ice melted, what little friction was would be gone. “I think they’ll stay open. I told them to expect us late.”
“Yup,” Seo-Jun pushed out through clenched teeth, and shifted her weight enough to rest and shake out her forearm. Climbing in one-third Earth gravity was a surprising challenge. Much of the traction between the climber’s fingertips and the rock was created when they applied downward pressure. Less gravity meant that less pressure was to be applied to press off a small rocky chip on the side of the cliff. Less friction meant less stability.
“Crack is coming up in four moves,” Ari said.
When Seo-Jun reached for the first opening, the rope tugged at her harness. “Quit short-roping me,” she hissed.
“I can’t go any higher if you don’t let out more rope.”
“Try faster.” The anger stained Seo-Jun’s tone before she could reel it back. She’d have to apologize for it soon enough.
“Sorry.” Some shuffling below her and then the rope sagged far enough that Seo-Jun was able to reach the crack. Crack climbing was one of the hardest forms of climbing back on Earth. Cramming knuckles, fists, forearms, and entire shoulders into deep cracks in the rock left climbers with bruises across their backs and long bleeding gashes on their forearms. Here on Mars, gashes depressurized the suits. Killed people if they were out for more than a couple minutes. The first time Seo-Jun attempted crack climbing, she had jammed her shoulder into the opening, quickly tearing her soft suit in a fraction of a second, giving her a nasty frostbite. She since modified the suit with extra armour where her body pressed into the rock.
With a final stretch, Seo-Jun shoved her shoulder in the widening crack. She was slender enough that once her shoulder passed, she forced the rest of her body in as well. By pushing against the opposing wall, she was able to finally release her hands and let them dangle by her sides.
With frozen hands she hammered in the pin and tied off the rope. Ari would complete the pitch on top rope, only having to unclip the rope from the carabiners as she went. They’d done this routine nearly every day for the past decade, just the two of them. They argued, joked, confided in one another, but always here. From her vantage point, Seo-Jun watched the settlement off in the distance, pinpricks of warm lights in the otherwise pitch-black world. They would reach the summit together or not at all. It wouldn’t count if they didn’t both reach it.
Seo-Jun waited, and waited, and waited, but the rope remained slack below her. The silence grating at her nerves, she wanted to ask Ari about why she was leaving and why she had failed to tell her (deliberately chose not to tell her). She wanted to know what she’d done wrong (being too self-absorbed) to push her friend to a distant corner of the Solar System after so many years together. Had things grown stale (too much focus on rocks, too little on people)? “Did you freeze to death?”
“No, I’m fine.” Ari’s voice was small against the vastness of the Martian night. “I’m coming.” Slowly, she started her way up, one handhold at a time.
“Well, I’m freezing, so hurry up.”
“I am.” They were at pitch ten and still had a long way to go. Without much of a warning, Ari yelped into Seo-Jun’s earpiece and instantly the rope went taut, pulling Seo-Jun’s body into the wall. Silence, and then, a quiet, “I fell.”
“I can see that. I’ll lower you and you can start over.” Seo-Jun said, the trembling of her voice betraying her otherwise calm tone. She checked the ropes herself; they were in good shape. But even so, seeing your friend disappear into the black wasn’t light on the nerves.
Each pitch had to be cleared in one go, those were the internationally agreed rules on Terra and Seo-Jun was adamant about enforcing them here. If one climber fell, she would have to repeat the pitch until she did it fully, only then they could move on.
Once Ari stopped swinging, Seo-Jun lowered her to the starting point and she tried once more. But when Ari reached the transition below the crack, she fell again. She cursed loudly this time and kicked the wall. “My hands are frozen.”
“So are mine. Try again.”
“I don’t think I can,” Ari said, and Seo-Jun nearly shouted at her for being a twice-over coward, for giving up on both her and the summit. But the route was punishing, and they were both tired, and she couldn’t spend their last climb angry with Ari, no matter how much she wanted to be. Seo-Jun called on her anger to carry her through the night, but the cold and the fatigue were draining all the rage from her. At her core, more than the cold, more than soreness, was hurt.
“Do you want to go home?” Seo-Jun asked. It was disappointing to end the night on pitch ten, but she needed Ari if she wanted to claim the summit.
“No.” The ray from Ari’s headlamp focused on Seo-Jun. “I know you want this.”
“You said you were freezing.”
“I can climb freezing.” Ari laughed softly, and gestured for Seo-Jun to lower her. She fell five more times before she finished the pitch. The only silence that reached Seo-Jun were soft sorrys every time the rope tightened by the pull of Ari’s weight.
Finally finished with the pitch, the two women sat back on their ropes and stared above at the sheer cliff. They had seven pitches to go and four hours to cover them.
“I think Marty’s is going to be closed,” Ari said.
Seo-Jun looked away. She wouldn’t start the conversation now that they were a little more than halfway to the top. There was no need to sour the already strained mood, to stress Ari out even more. She always did get stressed far too easily. No. Tonight they would climb. Tomorrow, if Ari was even still there in the morning, she would bring it all out in the open. “Ready when you are.”
It was Ari’s turn to belay, and she moved to assume the position. “Oops.”
Seo-Jun listened to Ari struggle against the rock, then a soft screech reverberated through the wall. “Air tank is stuck in the crack.” She struggled some more. “Yup, stuck real good.”
Seo-Jun brought her headlamp to the high edge of the crack. The dark outline of the air tank disappeared into the crack. Seo-Jun yanked on it gently, and a soft screech resonated through the rock. “It’s stuck real good.”
“That’s what I said.”
There was no way to negotiate with a stuck air tank. At best, Seo-Jun could try to wiggle it free and puncture the outer lining in the process. At worst, she would create a small spark that would blow the whole thing up. Instead, she unclasped it from Ari’s thigh altogether. “Just leave it be.”
“But I need a spare.”
Seo-Jun handed Ari her own spare tank. “I can supplement with my filters. It’s not a big deal.”
“It’s totally a big deal if you run out of air.” Ari gestured at the barren atmosphere around them.
Seo-Jun figured that this was a poor time to tell Ari about her experiments of holding her breath raw, oxygen mask down low around her neck, timing how much time passed between when the first frost settled along her nostrils and when her lungs screamed out in agony. “I’ll be alright. Don’t worry.”
They were going to have a fight, weren’t they? They were going to say things they couldn’t take back and throw away fifteen years of friendship. Seo-Jun couldn’t have that. She pulled herself upright against the wall and started off again. She couldn’t fight with Ari if she was a whole pitch ahead of her.
The first stretch of the eleventh pitch, Seo-Jun made in silence. They had practiced each pitch individually many times over, but the wall remained unforgiving. She had been dreaming of the pitches, the choreography across the rock for many years now. Every so often, Ari would inquire about Seo-Jun’s status as she let out more rope, and Seo-Jun would reassure her that it was alright, despite the clattering of her teeth, and the frost nip forming along her cheeks.
They quickly made it past the eleventh pitch, and then the twelfth, and then so on. Neither woman was talking now, only exchanging the occasional hand sign. When they rested, they rested in silence, passing between them a single half-eaten granola bar that neither wanted to finish. The rests stretched out longer as the pitches came faster. Yet, Seo-Jun remained stoically mute.
“Hey,” Ari asked softly. “You okay there?”
Seo-Jun rested her face in cold, sore hands. She wasn’t okay, she was in fact nearing tears from both physical and emotional exhaustion. They had two pitches to go, and then Ari would get on a ship and leave to the other corner of the Solar System, and any joy Seo-Jun experienced from the summit would be rendered irrelevant. “Yeah,” Seo-Jun whispered. “I’m just resting.”
With a groan, Seo-Jun pushed off the rock and reached for the first hold on the roof—pitch sixteen. She willed herself present, willed her heart into a manageable rhythm. Slowly, she inched her fingers towards the upside-down jug, a hold large enough that she could sink her entire hand into it. One hand. Second hand. She pressed her feet into the opposing wall and pushed as hard as she could.
The cold, oxygen-poor air from the filters burned her lungs as she reached the next hold. The key to roof climbing was to keep tension in the body at any cost. Relax, and your body would sag away from the rock, pulling you off. She was three holds away from the edge of the roof when Seo-Jun noticed she couldn’t pull on the rope anymore. “Give,” she ordered.
Seo-Jun yanked again, and the rope slowly followed up in her hand. It was so heavy, and she was already at her limit. She needed to rest again, but if the rope kept dragging, she wouldn’t reach the next proper rest point in time. Lodging her knees between the overturned jug and a smaller hold she let her arms go and relaxed into a hang. There were only two options here. One was to give up. The other was far too dangerous, far too stupid for her to even contemplate. And yet—“Ari, I know you’re leaving,” Seo-Jun said, watching the soft light of Ari’s head lamp dance along the wall below. Better now than never.
At first, all Seo-Jun heard was Ari’s breathing, and then, “You’re mad.”
“Only that you didn’t tell me.”
“I couldn’t. You would have talked me out of it.”
Seo-Jun would have tried. But now, hundreds of feet above ground, the entire premise seemed comical. “Why?”
“It’s a good opportunity.”
“Bullshit. There are good opportunities here. What’s the real reason?”
Ari was quiet for a moment. “I think I need to go out on my own. See if I can do this.”
It was Seo-Jun’s turn to be quiet. The rock jabbed at her kneecaps painfully, yet she was still biding her time of precious rest. “And you need to go to Ganymede to figure that out?”
Ari didn’t say yes. She didn’t say anything at all, but Seo-Jun already knew the answer. She reached for her oxygen mask and pulled it from her face. There were two options. One, she could give up. Two, she could ease the drag and keep her hands free by clenching the nearly frozen rope between her teeth. Of course, with the oxygen mask gone she wouldn’t be able to breathe and the chilling air that currently registered at minus sixty would turn her skin and lips to ice in minutes, but Seo-Jun wasn’t in the mood to give up. As long as the climb went on, Ari had to stay.
“What are you doing?” Ari asked, hearing the wind in her earpiece as the microphone inside of Seo-Jun’s oxygen mask dangled around her neck. There was no response. But the rope hadn’t gone taught nor slack, so Ari kept letting it out in equal intervals, hoping for the best.
When Seo-Jun’s lungs couldn’t stand any more strangulation, she briefly tugged on the oxygen mask to cover her mouth and nose, dropped the rope, and took a gasping breath. “I’m fine. Everything is fine,” she said quickly, one arm dangling off the roof. Her lips were nearly frozen solid, her lungs ached from the cold and low atmosphere, but she was so close. “I’m not mad. Everything’s fine.”
“You’re going to wreck yourself and I’ll have to haul your frozen body back home,” Ari protested.
“I’m fine. I’m fine.” But what she wanted to say was that she was not fine, and for her to be truly fine Ari would have to swear that she would stay. This would make Seo-Jun a terrible friend, something she battled with the entire duration of her and Ari’s relationship. Sometimes being there for someone meant letting them leave. That was the grown-up decision, regardless of how much it made Seo-Jun want to cry. “I don’t want you to go. I’ve been mulling this over since I found out.” She pressed hard with her feet, her body taught and flat against the roof of the cliff face. “I thought if we did this, you’d stay. But I get it. I need to finish this thing with you. I don’t know why, but this has to be your send-off.” There it was, as coherent of a goodbye as Seo-Jun would ever muster. Having taken a deep breath, Seo-Jun pulled down her oxygen mask, and bit at the rope with aching teeth. It was now or never.
She pivoted around the hold so that her feet were leading her over the lip of the roof. She stiffened her foot and caught the edge. Seo-Jun reached around the lip and pinched an indentation in the rock. If she were to look down, she would see nothing but the open Martian plane. She twisted her foot so now the heel was atop of the edge and pulled inwards. Her entire body screamed out in protest. But climbing was never about strength or endurance. Climbing was about how much pain you could bear and for how long. It was about faith, first and foremost, in yourself. In one continuous pull, Seo-Jun shifted her weight onto her foot and pushed up, stretched, until she was once more upright against the cliff. The remainder of the wall lay ahead of her: barren, flat, and welcoming. With wavering strength, she pulled the rope from her teeth and clipped it in. Once the oxygen mask was over her mouth and nose again, Seo-Jun said, “It’s all you now.”
Maybe she needed to be on her own too. Too many days were spent in Ari’s kitchen while her own went unused. Too many nights crashed on Ari’s couch because the night was cold, and she was far too drunk to go back to her own dome. It could be good for both of them. And Seo-Jun reassured herself that Ari would return. She would. She didn’t want to entertain any other option.
Ari climbed the final pitch first. She moved softly, quickly, against the paling sky. Seo-Jun watched her friend climb over the edge of the cliff.
“Don’t go,” Seo-Jun said on instinct.
“Don’t just leave me hanging, I mean.” Maybe she’d find the right words later. But for now, everything she said was rigid, awkward, much like her climbing was. Seo-Jun finished the last pitch with none of the grace she had begun the climb with. By the time she pushed over the edge, her suit was thinning at the elbows and her oxygen was at ten percent. But then it was Ari’s hand that grabbed her and yanked her away from the edge. Ari’s arms pulling her close against her friend’s tiny frame. Still gasping for air, Seo-Jun rested her chin on top of Ari’s head.
“We did it,” Ari’s voice was quiet, but jubilant. “What are you gonna call it?”
Finally, Seo-Jun wrapped her arms around Ari’s shoulders. It was finished. The illusive summit they’ve been chasing for nearly a decade was behind them. Ahead of them was nothing but the unknown. It was dreadful and empty, and lonely, and simultaneously promising. “Redline.”
Seo-Jun managed to smile through the swelling tears. “Because it was hard.”
“If only there was someone here to make a record of it. Make it official.”
Seo-Jun shrugged. “I don’t care much for it being recorded. I just wanted to see if we could do it. We can always go again and make it official.”
“Maybe one day.”
“Uh-huh.” Seo-Jun freed herself from Ari’s arms and dusted off her soft suit. Her oxygen was sitting at nine percent now and she was stiff from the cold. But the day was coming, and the temperature would rise, and the filters were pulling oxygen from the thin atmosphere well enough. She gave Ari one quick hug and pushed herself away. “I’ll see you at Marty’s in a bit. You go ahead.” If only she sounded cheerful enough, Ari wouldn’t suspect a thing.
“So, you’re not mad?”
Seo-Jun headed off away from the path down. The slump of her shoulders was enough to make Ari pause, but not enough to stop her. “Nah,” Seo-Jun said and turned off her receiver. Behind her, dawn became day, and the flickering lights of the settlement shut off. Somewhere, someone was rotating the solar panels to meet the faint solar rays. And in a few hours, she’d be drinking with Ari again, and they would be laughing, and she would be a great friend and encourage Ari on her distant voyage. It would be a proper send off with beer and peanuts, and jokes, and happy memories. But for now, Seo-Jun walked out into the Martian desert, tears freezing along her full cheeks.
“I’m not mad,” she said to herself. “I’m just sad.”