Under a waning moon, the climber climbed. We sat in the shadows, not twenty feet away, holding our breath. All things considered, a very fitting image, we thought: here was this perverted creature, putting left foot right foot left foot right foot on that porous rock, on which the Lord is my witness he did not slip once. The dull moonlight turned the image positively grisly, and we hoped that it was not only the half light of the day we were witnessing, but God willing also the last half hour or so in the life of this cursed being.
According to Hayman's dossier, climber C141 hailed from Low Pittington, near Durham. Before his descent back into animal, he had been quite a respectable fellow it seemed. But that did not come as a surprise. Hayman had said a lot of them were, by and large, normal folk like you and I, and isn't that a scary thought? If it could happen to a professor at Durham University, and of anthropology no less - there's a joke in this somewhere - then there's no earthly reason it could not also happen to a carpenter or cab driver or whoever. Unless it's the same thing as when a psychologist, exposed day and night to the most outlandish things, phobias of everything under the sun, catches a whiff of it himself one day and ends up mad as a cuckoo, looking for wiretaps in the soles of his loafers. This former anthropologist, now – and he would of course object to the “former”, since he was still posing as one in the daytime – might just have looked a tad too deeply into one of his test subjects. That's all I'm saying.
But back to the dossier on the ghoul from Durham. The “professor” once had a name, too, of course. He was Dr. Martin Abbott, forty-seven years old. He had a wife, Karen, a pediatrician, and two children, boy and girl. The boy, Nathan, was seven years old; the girl, who was five, was named Natalie. None of them would have been aware, of course, that their little family had been, for at least the past two years, down to seventy-five percent human. I had seen pictures of the kids. Cute kids, both of them. The wife, a real looker. The house almost a palace. Porsche in the driveway. It's a mystery. What drives these people to cast away their lots and turn ape again? I know, I know, Hayman says it isn't a conscious decision at all. They can't help it, he says. Some lever is turned inside them, some button pushed, and this gruesome process is set in motion.
“We should all feel sorry for them,” Hayman famously said at the 14th Hayday Parade last summer. I'm sure you all remember. “They need our help,” he said, “not our resentment. And by God, we will deliver unto them the help they need.”
And I am all for helping them. Don't get me wrong. I do feel the Empathy. It's why I signed up for Descent Control, after all. The Empathy is strong in me. All tests have shown that, or I wouldn't be in this position. Still, you can't help but wonder. I for one find it hard to believe there isn't a thing they can do about it themselves. There's a lot of stubbornness going around is what I believe. Stubbornness and meanness, too.
I still remember the day the letter arrived with the news. My father was the proudest I had ever seen him. He even wept a little, though he hid it well. “..wish to inform you of our decision to accept you into the ranks of Descent Control,” the letter read.
Further tests had to be conducted, of course, to confirm there hadn't been a screw-up with the numbers and I was indeed proper Descent Control material. In the end, I aced them all. Immediately after, I was shuttled off to John o'Groats for training. Two years, to be exact. Grueling stuff. But necessary, of course, all of it, and worth the hardship. And now, at long last, this: my first assignment. No more practice runs. A true SID: soul in distress. Dr. Martin Abbott, now C141. The 141st climber detected this year. A high number. In fact, disturbingly high. Meaning above all one thing; that none of us can afford to deny any longer the reality of the resurgence. Ten years ago, there were only a handful of climbers detected each year. The numbers rose after that, but not dramatically so. It was only five years ago that a real shift took place. Why, no one knows. All we know is that from one year to the next, the number of climbers we found spiked from 15 to 68, to 91, 96, 109, and now reaching a new sad high with 141, and it is only the beginning of August.
We watched the creature formerly known as Martin Abbott doing his thing upon the rock – extending one hand upwards, checking for loose stones, then, when properly satisfied the rock was solid and would carry his weight, hoisting himself up.
Everything they had told us at DC prep camp was true: it really was a sickening sight, and they really had no scruples. No scruples, no conscience, and no trace of decency. It took a tremendous effort to keep a violent anger from bubbling to the surface, but I managed it. I mustered all the Empathy I had stored up and watched poor Dr. Abbott freakishly gyrating about like an orangutan, daring him to lose his hold on the rock so we could receive him down here and take away his sickness.
What would you do? That's what we printed on the leaflets, only a few of months ago, then distributed them widely. There's a good chance you might have seen it. Underneath the title, a picture of a climber, which, by the by, proud to say, was no fabrication. We used a real photograph, taken somewhere in the region of Bryce Canyon, supplied by our North American friends. And speaking of North America, if you think 141 climbers is bad, try eight thousand, even ten thousand climbers a year. Can you imagine the horror? It's easy to overlook the fact, with all the headlines last year being about former VP Alton Benning who – you all know this – was discovered, quite by accident and unbeknownst to his spouse of thirty years, to be climbing the roof of his house every night. What's more, following his arrest and subsequent conversion they found writing in his desk drawer, a tome of eight hundred handwritten pages (written, supposedly, by candlelight after his nightly excursions; did the man never sleep?), entitled “Every Man is a Mountain” and extolling, quite without shame, the wonders of climbing and clambering up anything and anywhere.
Illusions of grandeur, that's what enabled authorities to nab him in the end. You only have to read the first fifty pages of Benning's opus magnum to see where his head was at. Benning exults in some of the most preposterous bragging ever encountered in any writing, claiming, for instance, that he climbed, not once but three nights in a row, the roof of the White House while the president was off at Camp David.
“With Malford gone,” Benning writes, “I basically had the place to myself. Security would be lax, I knew. And by golly, it was! And so for three nights, Monday through Wednesday, while Elaine was asleep and the president's detail were busy hiding the bourbon from him at the retreat, I conquered the White House. My friends, words fail me to describe the experience. I stayed for hours on that roof, and every minute sent shivers down my spine.”
I know, I know. It really makes you gag. But it's important to remember what we're up against. These animals will stop at nothing, not even at the risk of making their wife look like an accomplice.
How do you deal with that? I've often asked myself. It's your husband, the man you've spent every day with for thirty years, and then, out of the blue, the worst comes to pass. He's a climber. What do you do? How do you manage? Well, we all know how Elaine Benning dealt with it. She was first in line at his conversion, the good woman. We should all be so strong. That being said, I'm glad every last copy of “Every Man is a Mountain” has been burned. It was a dangerous book, filled with the worst kind of depravity. The kind of book that had the power to corrupt an entire generation of kids. And pure luck, too, that the vice president grew more and more adventurous in his outings, and foolish to boot, staying out longer and longer each night, until eventually his wife discovered him dangling, by one hand, from the gutter at seven in the morning.
It was Elaine, too, who called Descent Control. By nine o'clock, Alton Benning was tried, convicted, and his conversion well under way. What marvelous efficiency.
But back to our leaflet. That was meant as encouragement to all those neighbors, friends and families, employers, too, and colleagues, who suspected they had a bad apple in their midst and did not know whom to turn to. Needless to say, there was a monetary reward, too, and it was this, we think, more than anything else, that turned the leaflet into a failure. In the end, except for one or two true SIDs, all the leaflet produced were wretches turning in their neighbors to make a buck.
The leaflet was only one of many initiatives we started, back when we first grew aware of the resurgence, some of it born from panic, and none of it meeting with any real success. There were full-page ads in newspapers - front page, no less. Billboards, radio broadcasts, aerial banners, advertising blimps. Our people went to schools and kindergartens. They spoke at sporting events, political rallies, college graduations, music festivals. At the end of the day, none of it worked. We might as well have been waving flags for all the good it did. It merely served to put climbers everywhere on guard, and their numbers only grew and grew.
In the very beginning, we even conceived of an ad intended directly for potential would-be-climbers, those souls not yet lost but definitely on the way to perdition. Everyone who thought they felt an itch to climb a chair, a table – that's how it usually starts – in more advanced cases, then, a ladder, the roof, a tree, a hill. Studies have shown most climbers feel this itch long before acting on it. Just a little tingling in the toes, a prickling sensation as of ants crawling on the skin. Goose bumps at the mere sight of an elevation. For months on end, they hardly notice it, suddenly coming to their senses already with both feet on the kitchen table and their head an inch from the ceiling. It was for those poor folks we devised our ad. And our reasoning, I still think, was sound, considering what precious little we knew about the Descent. We were afraid there might be a great number of afflicted men and women out there, wanting to, but for various personal reasons finding themselves unable to seek help: too proud, too insecure, perhaps ashamed, or unsure if the itch would pass or bloom fully into climber's disease. That, of course, was back when we still thought there might be intermediate stages on the road to becoming a climber, stages at which it might still be possible to turn back and achieve redemption. At such a stage, we hoped, a man would not yet be wholly animal, but merely barbarous.
Now we know differently. There may of course be intermediate rungs, so to speak, on the ladder to climberdom – dozens, if not hundreds of rungs, in fact – but we know that it doesn't matter in the slightest, and that it doesn't pay to involve ourselves with them intimately. Once the process of climberfication has begun it cannot by human means be halted. That is the sad truth.
Luckily, along came Richard Hayman and Descent Control. Lucky not only for us, but for the climbers, too. After all, Hayman's conversion remains the only known cure for an SID. You would think they would show more appreciation. If it were me in that position, let me tell you, if push came to shove, I couldn't put up with it. Watching your body and mind deteriorate like that, watching it all go. I'd call Descent Control so fast it would make their heads spin, offer up my flesh and blood for conversion and do penance in the next life, then hope for forgiveness.
But that's me.
One who obviously felt otherwise, and strongly, was C141, aka Dr. Martin Abbott – important always to remember the name, in order to fill up the Empathy - still engaged in his sinful acrobatics and looking positively chipper, the poor bastard. To the untrained eye, of course, it would have looked quite harmless, even sweet and wonderful. Since, however, all in our group had been tutored extensively on all the signs and symptoms, we knew that what appeared like healthy enjoyment was really an unnatural strain, and what looked like glee on the face of C141, blood-red cheeks, eyes bulging, was in fact a mask, betraying all the horror of realization, and brought on by the soul fighting, inwardly, against the foreign invasion.
The scientists still haven't figured it all out, by the way. They don't know if it is a virus, a fungus, or some other kind of infection. If it is man-made (most likely), or extraterrestrial. But they're still looking for it under microscopes all over the globe.
When one day they discover it, C141 will not be around anymore. His hour arrived, as we all knew it would. Around five in the morning, the sky took on a faint glow. Clouds became visible. They turned a dark bluish, then grey, then almost white. In the distance, there was a hint of the sun. And as the day broke, so too C141 came down from the mountain, first carefully descending, then as the elevation was reduced, ambling along buoyantly. He was a hundred yards away, then fifty, then ten, then finally stumbling, wide-eyed, into the net we had prepared for him.
He put up no fight. In fact, when we spread him out on the stretcher and got the fire going underneath him, there was still some of the rosy glow left on his face, as if even now the disease was churning away inside him, unwilling to give up its prized possession. We proceeded carefully, mindful of every step, from time to time consulting Hayman's manual. The manual had been published only a few months ago. Before, Hayman had personally been present at every conversion. Then that became impossible due to the sheer numbers, and so now we have a manual. It's a sign of trust, too. Hayman telling us we're strong enough on our own. He doesn't have to eat the brain anymore, like he used to do. No one else was allowed to eat the brain, you see, for fear of overburdening the eater. The infection was thought to be strongest in the brain – running rampant there, in fact - and so handing the task over to a novice might, Hayman said, lead to a false conversion, converting not climber to human, but human back to animal. And so for five years, the brain had been the sole responsibility of Richard Hayman who would be called in at the very end to complete the conversion.
“How's our little birdy?” he would say, and sometimes “How's our little piggy?”, depending on what sort of reaction we drew from the climber. He reserved birdy for the more mild-mannered of climbers, the pleaders and supplicators, the ones who wept, who mentioned they had a wife and kids back home, who did not fight back but bargained with their saviors for a second chance.
“But you're getting your second chance, little birdy,” Hayman would say, patting them on the head. “It's what we're here for.”
The more obstinate cases he called piggies. These were the ones who scratched and clawed, and sometimes even tried to bite team members. There were altogether more piggies than birdies, it must be said. Seventy to thirty, I'd say. But no matter if birdy or piggy, Hayman treated them all lovingly, as if they were all his sons and daughters, and with saintly affection he raised them out of the ignorance one limb at a time.
C141 promised to be a dear little birdy, until halfway through the conversion he turned into a squealy little piggy.
“It's the disease talking,” I could hear Hayman's voice in my head like a driving instructor, drowning out C141's screams. “It feels the good we're doing, and it hates it.”
There were five of us. Solemnly, we chewed the flesh, all the while thinking the conversion-thoughts they had taught us at prep camp, designed to turn the bad flesh good again as it entered our bodies.
Hayman had picked Danielson to eat the brain, for he was the most experienced of us, and he ate it well.
The morning arrived. It was a beautiful morning, and with Dr. Abbott safely distributed among us, we packed into the old DC convertible and drove to Durham to help his family, too.