Top Of The World

© 2013 Glen Cadigan

Originally published in Top Of The World: A Tale of Survival During The Zombie Apocalypse


When the world came to an end, I was 14,000 feet above sea level and on my way down the mountain after having ascended the summit of Mt. McKinley. It wasn't the first time that I had done so, and it was the latest step towards the completion of a lifelong goal, which was to climb Mt. Everest some day, physical health and financial resources willing. Since it costs about thirty grand to mount Everest, I was a ways away from realizing that particular ambition, but everyone has to start somewhere, and after climbing numerous smaller mountains as part of my training I had since moved on to ascend the top of the tallest one in North America. It was also the coldest, which was equally good training for Everest. After all, no one just rolls out of bed one day and decides to climb the tallest mountain in the world; there's a progression to these things, and climbing the tallest mountain on a neighboring continent was one of them.

McKinley or Denali, as it's called by the locals is over 20,000 feet tall, and that's almost twelve times the size of the Sears Tower. Legend has it that God built it to give people a platform to take their complaints straight to the man in charge, but having ascended it multiple times, I can tell you right now there's no one there. It takes over two weeks to climb four if you're not in great shape and the view is spectacular, but that's pretty obvious, right? I mean, you'd expect the view to be great from the top of a mountain, but still, sometimes it's worth pointing out the obvious.

The first we heard of what happened was after we had reached the summit. It's standard operating procedure to radio down to the base camp to let them know that you've made it, and they relayed what they'd heard on the news. It sounded like a bad joke at first, but by the time we reached the bottom, it was pretty much over. I guess the safest place to be when a plague hits is on the top of a mountain, but that doesn't make it any easier knowing that everyone you've ever loved or will love is out there somewhere and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. I guess we all expect the world to stand still while we pursue our goals, but the world doesn't stand still for anyone, and the best way to be reminded of that is to go on vacation and come back to find out that someone set it on fire while you were gone.

The base camp did the best they could to keep us informed, but they had their own problems, so by the time we finally reached where we had begun, it was virtually deserted. Base camp on McKinley is 7,000 feet above sea level, and you have to be flown in to get there. Luckily for us a sense of duty persisted in the pilot and his wife, so they were present and accounted for when we returned. They were transplants from the lower forty-eight, so even if they wanted to return to civilization to be with their families, the quarantines that had been enacted by the federal government prevented that from happening. By that point, it didn't really matter anymore, anyway. The federal government wasn't still standing, and neither was the rest of the world.

*****

As a native born Alaskan, I always used to enjoy the outdoors. I learned to hunt and fish at an early age, and even as a youngster, the mountains always beckoned. My family was originally from Washington state, but I guess that wasn't far enough away from people for my parents, so they relocated before I was born. A sister and a brother followed, and my childhood was a happy one.

When I turned eighteen, I moved to the lower part of the country to attend college. I met lots of people that desired to experience Alaska's "purity," and most of them were either hippies or stoners, but they all had one thing in common: everything they knew about Alaska, they learned from watching TV. It was either Sarah Palin or Northern Exposure, with the Iditarod thrown in for good measure. From a distance, they saw Alaska as this mythical place: equal parts Shangri-La, Jack London, and Walt Disney, but the reality was much different than that. People there are like people anywhere else; they get up, go to work, and cheat on their taxes the same as every other American. Or at least, they used to, back before the plague hit.

The advantages of growing up in the boonies are often the same as the disadvantages. For one thing, you're off the beaten path so you're not affected by the same things as everyone else. That includes bird flu, SARS, leprosy... you name it, we didn't have it. All of that stuff was miles away in the days before the world ended, and it was a big factor in making Alaska a relatively safe place to live after the plague hit, too. I say "relatively" because the plague reached America's forty-ninth state the same as it did all of the other stars on the flag, except it didn't knock it out the same way that it did the rest of the country. Due to its low population density, my home state wasn't hit nearly as hard as some other places, but it was still a far cry from what it used to be.

No one knew exactly where the plague had started, but what was indisputable was that it spread fast. Airports, bus stations, and other terminals that existed only to transport human beings from one place to another were shut down almost immediately, and even then, it was too late. Whether it was airborne or transmitted by bodily fluids was another mystery, and ultimately it proved academic. What people knew for certain was that it changed you, and not for the better. It didn't take long to kick in, either, and no one recovered. It didn't matter if you were insured or not, if you caught the plague, then you weren't getting well ever again.

*****

The first time I climbed McKinley was after my junior year of college, and that was when I met Mark and Nancy. They were only dating then, but it was already serious. They met on the mountain, if you can believe that. Mark was a pilot, and Nancy was a climber, just like me. She had ascended to the peak enough times that Mark kidded that she was only doing it to get his attention, and she replied that there was more than an ounce of truth to it. They were married shortly after I graduated, and they even invited me to the wedding. I had become a frequent climber of the mountain myself by that point as I intended to fund my own eventual pursuit of Everest by showing others the way to the top of McKinley. It was more than a good idea; it was practically in my backyard, and it was also good practice.

I am now, and always have been, a practical man cursed with imagination. What that means is my ideas are big, but unlike other dreamers, I am able to break those ideas down into their component parts and I do not skip over the details. If I was going to climb Everest, I reasoned that it would have to occur while I was still young enough to shrug off the responsibilities of adulthood. So it was that I deferred my entry into the workforce in order to accumulate the necessary capital to finance such an expedition.

Truthfully, we were more like co-workers than friends, but the world had changed, and anything familiar was a bond that was not to be discarded. When we eventually reached base camp, there they were. It was necessary to stay at 7,000 feet to readjust to the atmosphere, but my paying customers, the Hamiltons, were eager to get back down on the ground and find out what was going on. It was one thing to hear about it and another to see it, and they wanted to witness it with their own eyes. Maybe there was even a part of them that didn't believe that it had happened, and I have to admit, the thought had also crossed my mind.

The fact that base camp was virtually deserted told us otherwise. There are always people ready to make their way up the mountain even as you're coming down, and the complete absence of customers was telling. In our minds, we still saw the world the way it was the way we had left it and the new reality was slow to take effect. Without a visual reference we were mentally off-balance, and only first hand confirmation seemed to be the cure.

Once we had acclimated to the elevation, Mark and Nancy flew us down to the local airport where I said my good-byes to the people that had paid me to take them all the way up to the peak, then my colleagues brought me home. The Hamiltons a nice couple from Milwaukee were eager to try and make contact with the grown children that they had left behind, and they even offered to pay Mark outrageous sums of money to take them all the way to Wisconsin, but based upon what he had heard before he returned to pick us up, he counseled against it. He told them that they were better off where they were, but also understood their urgency. He said he'd let them know if there was anyone else that was willing to fly them south, but there was nobody, and so they drove. I hope they made it all right, but Milwaukee was a long way away, and they weren't exactly in fighting form. It's one thing to climb a mountain and another to fight off the infected, and the closer they got to civilization, the less likely they were to be successful.

*****

I lived in an apartment then, but it was in a house in a fairly isolated area, so I was pretty safe. After Mark and Nancy dropped me off, the first thing I did once I determined that my landlord and upstairs neighbor wasn't home was I tried to make contact with my parents. The phones were down, so that was that. Had I an answering machine instead of voicemail I might have heard their last messages to me, but technology doesn't matter when it doesn't work, and it wasn't the last time that I cursed our over dependence on it. Coming from a man that spends a lot of time on a mountain, that attitude shouldn't be too surprising. All I knew for certain was that they knew where I was, and that I was most likely safe because of it. My brother and sister were away at school, and given the rapidity with which the plague had spread, I hoped for the best, but secretly believed in the worst. It's a lot like having a missing child in that they aren't dead until there's a body, but even then you know in your heart that they're gone.

Over the subsequent months, Mark and Nancy and I kept in touch, and the friendlier of the survivalists communicated with us. I considered doing what the Hamiltons had done namely, drive off to find my family but if they were still alive, my presence wouldn't help them out. I'd be just another mouth to feed, and if they were dead, then it didn't matter, did it? I told myself that one thing that probably kept them going was the knowledge that I was safe, and how did I know that they weren't making their way up here to find me even then? We could be like ships passing in the night, and I don't know about you, but I'm not real eager to be a character in an O. Henry story. I was safe, and there was no reason to jeopardize that. If trying to find them got me killed and they were still alive, how stupid would that be? All I had to do was stay right where I was and wait for the whole thing to blow over.

It didn't. Time came and went, and eventually people just got used to it. The TV stations didn't come back on the air, and rumors spread via short wave and CB about the current state of the world. It became hard to remember a time when things weren't always that way. There were still the infected roaming around, but like I said, due to the low population density, it was manageable. The mystery then became what was causing them, assuming that they had been recently turned. There was no way to prove that, either, unless it was someone that you knew, and so far that hadn't happened. We didn't exactly live in a large town it would've been stretching things to call it a village, even so seeing them was like seeing a deer: it happened occasionally, and the rest of the time, you didn't think about it.

Overall, we held up pretty good. From time to time we'd even hear from other towns, but for the most part, we didn't really know what anyone else was going through. It must have been like that in Europe during the Black Plague, I thought. Summer was nearly over by then, and with winter on the way, it seemed to be a natural defense against any infected that might still be out there, wandering around. They may have been hard to kill, but they were still human, and if they didn't kill each other, the cold should have finished them off. That was what we believed then, anyway. Needless to say, the mountain climbing took a hit or so I thought.

*****

Alaska is filled with its share of mountain men and anti-governmental residents, so if there was one place on Earth to ride out a plague, the Last Frontier was it. The disease itself was a mystery, and it wasn't eager to be solved. It didn't even have a name, and no one knew where it had begun, but that didn't stop people from speculating. Some said China, but if you ask me, that was xenophobia talking. It was every bit as likely to have been born in the good ol' U. S. of A., especially when you consider the attitude of the scientific community towards all of the germs locked up in Pandora's Box. Don't tell me that scientists don't monkey around with things that are better left untouched; this world is living proof of their arrogance, and when that happens, everyone else has to pay the cost.

What was less ambiguous was the effect that the plague had on people. The infected acted on aggression, and that may have even included sexually. It's hard to say, as reports were often contradictory in the early days, and there haven't been any since. One thing was for certain: they were damn hard to kill, and people had tried. It was like they were insensible to pain, so nothing less than a blow to the head, or stabbing them through the heart, worked. Blowing out their brains was also satisfactory, as was cutting off their noggins altogether. Given the state the world was in, we weren't taking any chances, and people had long since given up on the idea of a cure. It was kill or be killed whenever you came face to face with one of them, and with those the only two options available, plenty of people opted for door number one.

Their behavior was difficult to quantify. It was as if they operated purely off their brainstems, and higher mental reasoning seemed to elude them. They were also like sharks in that regard, and when you consider that the human brain registers pain in addition to cognitive functions, that the plague had attacked their brains seemed to be inarguable. After all, it's the brain that controls the body, and if you gain control of it, then you control the body, too. The logic was simple enough to follow, but how it spread nobody knew. Even up in Alaska, with miles to separate people, the infected could be still be seen wandering around, looking for trouble. Down in the lower forty-eight there was a greater sense of urgency, so people didn't waste any time trying to analyze the situation. They were too busy fighting for their lives to take notes.

*****

Mark and Nancy had a plan, and I thought it was a crazy one. They weren't on McKinley by accident. Like me, they had designs on climbing Everest one day, but finances and everyday life had gotten in the way. Now that the world was broken, they had reevaluated their priorities and decided that Everest was back on the agenda. What were they waiting for? They didn't see a whole lot of sense in bringing children into the world, and there was no point in saving money now that the economy had collapsed. We were back to barter as a way of life, and even if someone snapped their fingers tomorrow and the plague stopped, it would be years before things were back to normal, assuming that we'd live that long. The infected were still out there, and if they didn't get us, there was always the chance that we would become one of them. We still didn't know how they were "born," and that uncertainty added an edge to life that it had previously lacked. In the absence of qualified information, fear reigned.

What was more, Mark knew something that most people didn't. Gasoline goes bad after it sits for too long, and eventually it would be like pouring vinegar into motors, assuming that you could even find it. No one was out there refining oil in those days, and no one was drilling for it, either. Pretty soon, every car, plane, and truck would be nothing more than hunks of iron, so if people had designs on using them, the clock was ticking on that particular venture.

I told them they were crazy. Hell, it was too dangerous to climb McKinley anymore, let alone Everest! But they had it all figured out.

"What if the world never gets better?" they said. "What if this is as good as it gets?"

It was hard to argue with that. It was what everyone was thinking, even if they were afraid to say it. Up in Alaska, we could hold out longer than most, but a lifetime ahead that consisted entirely of living off the land wasn't anyone's idea of a dream. We've all seen movies where a disease spreads across the Earth and the survivors are forced to fend for themselves, but as you know, the reality is far different from the fantasy. One only lasts for a couple of hours and the other goes on forever. If you're reading this, then you know which one is which. People used to romanticize about being survivors in such a scenario, but they didn't think things through. First of all, the odds against them surviving were great. If a plague wipes out over ninety percent of the Earth, then what makes them think that they're going to be part of the lucky ten percent? Their parents might have told them that they're special, but the rest of the world isn't as generous. Everybody is ordinary until they can prove otherwise, and most people are suspiciously lacking in proof.

The thing that those people didn't realize about the post-apocalyptic world is that it never ends. It's a concept that a lot of daydreamers just didn't grasp back in the good ol' days. It isn't an opportunity to reset the deck and show what's left of the world how valuable you are, it's something that wears you down, and it grows old after a while. And if that isn't enough, going days without bathing, and wondering where your next meal is going to come from, is hardly an adventure. Civilization exists for a reason: it's the best of all possible alternatives, and it ensures mutual survival. Your day isn't eaten up by surviving and scavenging, with more of the same to look forward to tomorrow. There used to be progress in this world, even if most people just squandered whatever opportunities came their way. Maybe they were afraid to challenge the status quo, or maybe they decided that it just wasn't worth it, but at least back then there was a choice, whereas now your choices are pretty much decided for you.

They wanted me to go along, and I told them that I'd think about it. I guess I increased their odds of survival, and I was certainly qualified to make the journey. They also knew about my ambition to conquer Everest, so, at the very least, they figured that I'd be sympathetic. A lot of people put Everest on their bucket lists, and given the state that the world was in, it was time to start ticking those items off. Unlike those dreamers, though, we actually had the skills to do it. Mark could fly small planes, and he figured that if we could just make it across the ocean, he'd be able to get us the rest of the way there.

That was where Nancy came in. She was a child of privilege, which was why she was able to spend her time living the outdoors lifestyle. That privilege had since run out, but she had grown up on boats, and she knew how to pilot the family yacht. It was a bonding experience for father and daughter, and she said that she could get us across the Bering Strait in the spring. Being as far north as we were, all we had to do was cross the Pacific at its shortest point, as there were plenty of islands along the way to stop off and resupply. It seems sometimes as if man is everywhere on this globe, and wherever he settles, he leaves traces of civilization behind. We could scavenge for fuel and supplies, and even if that didn't work out, a yacht with a sail was all that we needed. The wind could carry us where we needed to go, and the alternative was to stay home and do nothing.

If I agreed to their plan, we had the whole winter to prepare, and that was a long time to decide. You can't just climb Everest whenever you feel like it climbing season is in the spring, otherwise the cold will kill you. They told me to consider it, and I did. I did nothing but think about it for months on end, and even if I ultimately said no, what they had done was give me something to look forward to. They had restored purpose to my life, and they made some good points. What if things didn't get any better? What were we living for, anyway? An endless succession of days of dreary labor? Everyone went a little crazy after the plague hit, and a lot of the people that find their way up to Alaska aren't operating with a full deck to begin with. They're isolationists that are wary of authority, and for many of them, the plague was like a wet dream come true. It was the nihilistic outcome that they had been preparing for all along, and they weren't out to rebuild society and bring back what they had gone up there to avoid. They liked things this way, so if this was the shape of things to come, then they were happy with it.

I spent the winter hunting and living off of canned goods, and with every tin that I devoured, I realized that it was an exhaustible supply. Next winter would be different, and bullets would eventually run out, too, then it would be back to bows and arrows, or else starve to death. I considered building a greenhouse if I was lucky enough to find some seeds, but I was no gardener. I was staring my future smack in the face, and the nights were long and cold. I imagined that many people didn't survive them, or else they took their own lives. Isolation and depression go hand in hand, and up in Alaska, there comes a time when the sun is only a memory thanks to the northern latitude. Anyone who survived that first winter was probably going to last for a long time, but that didn't change the state of the world. This wasn't a temporary situation that we were riding out, this was the new world order, and with nothing else to occupy our time but survival, there was a lot of time to let reality sink in.

Spring took forever, but eventually it came. Over the course of the winter I'd drop by and see Mark and Nancy, or else they'd visit me. Talking about Everest took on the air of a joke in the dead of the season, as if it was a date that would never arrive. It was like planning for a wedding, or picking out a college, or some other far-off goal. It didn't seem real until it got closer, and even then, it didn't feel like it was actually going to happen. What they intended to do was an undertaking under the old regime, and they would have none of those advantages when they set out.

For one thing, acquiring food wouldn't be easy. If they really were going through with this, they could only carry so much, and that was just to get them to the mountain. They'd need supplies to get up there and back, and every supermarket on every continent had long since closed its doors. It was one thing to live off the land in Alaska, but Mt. Everest was located on the border of China and Nepal, and they would have to cross all of Asia just to get there. That's not exactly a barren wilderness, and what's more, it is the most populous region on Earth. There were still the infected to deal with, although they were hoping that they were mostly dead by that time. The infected had no qualms about attacking each other, so as food grew scarce and cannibalism became inevitable, even with over a billion people to take into consideration, a billion people still had to eat every day, and that would cut down on the food supply.

And all of that was assuming a safe voyage across the ocean, which was probably the most dangerous part of the journey. Three inexperienced mariners aboard an unfamiliar vessel would need a lot of luck to cross the Pacific, even if they were doing it at the point where the continents practically reached out and touched. We could get capsized or sink, and then what? There was no coast guard to rescue us, no helicopters to fly out and save us. We were on our own, and spring is not the safest time to cross the north Pacific. Winter storms can be late in leaving, but if we were going to do this, we had to depart by then if we wanted to make it to Everest before climbing season was over. If we didn't, then we'd either be stranded in unfamiliar territory for another year as we waited, or else do the same thing on this side of the ocean, and Mark wasn't for putting it off. Neither was Nancy. I guess you could call it a death wish, or a sense of inevitability, that had taken over them. A lot of people took stock in the aftermath of the plague, and there was a fatalism that swept through humanity. It seemed as if everyone's lifespans had suddenly gotten a whole lot shorter, and if there were things that you wanted to do before you died, then this was the time to do them.

*****

Over the winter, a support network had been established among the people that weren't paranoid, and the plan to climb Everest had leaked out. Everyone thought that they were crazy, and that they'd come to their senses once the time came, but Mark and Nancy proved them wrong. They had maps and lists and contingency plans memorized, and had spent the entire winter preparing for their invasion. It was more than a theoretical exercise to keep them from going nuts; it was now their sole reason for being. Maybe everyone was right; maybe they were off their rockers, but people that climb mountains don't think like other people, and I should know, since I was one of them. When pushed, they argued that it was better to go out and face the world than it was to stay home and wait to die, and when they put it like that, I agreed with them. The longer people waited, the harder it would be to do anything as whatever was left over from the period when civilization ruled would soon run out, and then all momentum would be lost. There was still fuel in tanks and boats that floated and canned goods that survivors had missed, and all of that would vanish eventually. Things would break down and there would be no way to fix them, or even people that knew how. The human race was in a transitionary phase, and before the last echoes of the old days died out, anyone that was left and wanted to do anything beyond hunt for food had to act fast.

The day came when it was time to decide, but in my heart I had already made my choice. Once while we were discussing the possibilities, Mark got to me with an emotional argument that superceded my rational judgement. He said, "Why should dreams die, just because the world did?" and it was hard to argue with that. We were still living and we were still dreaming, and it wouldn't be long before it would be time to put such foolish notions aside and get on with the business of surviving. I had been in my own Peter Pan mode while I ferried people up and down Mt. McKinley, and eventually it would be time for the rest of my life to begin. It would be a different one than the one that I had planned on living, but once it began, there would be no looking back. I didn't know how long I'd last in this crazy world, but I didn't want to be haunted by regrets for as long as that lasted. And if climbing Everest seemed insane, then how was that different from the rest of the world? All of the rules were out the window now. There was no society to judge you, or social standing to be lost by remaining a boy at heart. People did as they pleased, and as long as you didn't cross anyone else, you were all right. It was one last adventure before the final bell of reality rang out, so I said, "Yes."

Continued in Top Of The World:

Tales Of Mystery, Suspense, And Adventure




Seven stories of mystery, suspense, and adventure featuring a coin from the future, a post-apocalyptic nightmare, a soldier surrounded by ghosts, and a rock concert turned seance! Plus a clown war, a scientist who thinks he's found the way to Heaven, and the true meaning of love!

Stories include:

Top Of The World
The Coin
STAY OFF THE EAST SIDE
Houdini
Valentine's Day
Everything Is Everything
Haunted

These are the tales that await within the pages of Top of the World!


© 2016 Glen Cadigan