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The chance that Mr. Green had promised Linc to try some more advanced climbing came a few days into the fourth week. Linc was one of a group of ten who went with Mr. Green and Mr. Orange for a day of intensive instruction on some crags at the far end of the lake. They learned to use ropes and slings, methods of tackling faces and fissures, the arts of belaying and rappelling.

The next day, Green and Orange took the same group up a long, grueling route that ended on a ridge three thousand feet up. Six of the most adept students, including Linc and Hut 2's Patch, were selected for an overnight expedition and introduction to snow and ice techniques that Mr. Green would be leading high in the Sierra.

They set out from the camp in one of the vans before sun-up, and began the actual climb from just below the snowline while it was still early morning. Through the day they labored upward across snow slopes and ice falls, pacing themselves slowly as they learned the new craft. By nightfall they were high on one of the icefields not far below a rocky ridge, where they gratefully shed their packs, stretched aching limbs, and pitched camp. The plan was to cross the ridge and return to the van via a roundabout route the next day.

Linc had never realized that there were so many stars or that they could be so brilliant. The air was cold. He sat in front of one of the four two-man tents erected on shelves cut into the ice, letting the heat from the mug of beef soup that he was clasping warm his gloved hands. Nylon overtrousers and a cagoule worn on top of the layers of clothing muffling him formed an outer skin against the wind, the cagoule's hood pulled up over a woolen balaclava. A loop of line clipped to his waist harness ran through a spike driven into the ice--an unprotected slip on the treacherous slope could send a person rocketing down for hundreds of feet. Above the level of the tents, peaks caught in the moonlight floated like ghostly icebergs on an ocean of night.

He knew now how to pick out the Great Bear with its pointers to the Pole Star, the Belt of Orion, Sirius almost bright enough in the clear air to cast shadows. He realized as he watched that one of the points of light was moving. Some kind of high-flying aircraft, or maybe one of the bigger satellites. He'd never paid much attention to what people were doing up there: in the orbiting stations and space bases, on the Moon, and Mars, and places beyond. . . . (Was Jupiter farther away than Mars?) There were things in the news from time to time about something being built, or when an accident happened and people got killed somewhere, but he rarely remembered the details. They were like the billionaires who owned pieces of South America, or the war going on in China: things that just didn't figure into his life.

"Know much about what's out there, Linc?" Mr. Green had been watching him as he sat a few feet away, heating water for coffee on a kerosene Primus stove. Water took longer to boil at this altitude because of the lower air pressure. That was another thing Linc had learned today--totally useless, but so what? It might win him a bet one day. He shrugged. "Like what?"

"Oh, numbers, for example. Do you know how fast light travels?" Linc shook his head. There had been something once at school about it, but numbers weren't his thing. "Fast enough to go more than six times around the world in a second," Green said. "One hundred, eighty-six thousand miles." It sounded fast, but since Linc had no concept of that kind of distance, he was unable to relate it to anything. "Yet the light from the Sun takes eight and a half minutes to get here; the light from the nearest star, over four years; and from some stars, millions of years," Green said. "Can you imagine how big that makes the universe? You could fit the whole world into the planet Jupiter something like fourteen hundred times. And Jupiter would go a thousand times into the Sun."

Patch looked up from the door of his tent, where he was using a knife to clean ice from his crampons. He was the only one still up with them, the others having turned in already. "So how long is a light-year?" he asked.

"A light-year measures distance, not time," Green told him.

"Distance? A year? . . . How come?"

"Like you might say that Coulie is about two bus-hours from Fresno. Get it?"

"Oh. . . . Okay."

"Do you guys think you could get interested in things like that?" Green asked them. He made the question sound more than just idle curiosity, somehow.

"I dunno. . . . I never really thought about it," Linc answered. He proceeded to do so--maybe for just two or three seconds; but they were the first ones in his life to be devoted to such a consideration. "I guess, maybe . . . if there was some good reason."

Green nodded and seemed satisfied.

"This stuff's like concrete," Patch grumbled, grating the knife along a steel spike of the crampon he was working on.

Linc contemplated Green again while he sipped from the mug of soup. "So how about you?" he inquired finally. "How come you're into that kind of stuff? Have you been out there?" He waved a hand upward vaguely. "Is that something you used to do?"

"Careful, Linc. You wouldn't want to get one of the wardens RPO'd, would you?" Patch teased.

"Hell, nobody ever said anything about them not talking about where they came from," Linc replied.

Green nodded. "It's okay. Linc's right." He looked away, up at the sky. He had a craggy face with hollowed cheeks and eyes that not only saw but interrogated everything. It was the kind of face that looked as if it had seen much and been through tough times. Although Green had never talked about much more than the matter at hand, Linc had formed an impression of him as quietly but forcefully competent in everything he did. He expected high standards, but was always able to deliver at a level above anything he demanded from others.

Green looked back down at the billy, which was just coming up to the boil. "Yes, I've been out there. And one day I'll probably be going back. There's something about it like people used to say about the sea. You come back and say you're going to give it up, but somehow it always drags you back again."

"Some of us figured that you had to be military--all of you guys," Patch commented.

"I've done some of that too," Green said.

"Is it true what some people think: that's's where we're all headed for, military recruiting?" Patch asked him.

Green snorted. "Come on, Patch, you know I can't answer that."

"What made you think they were military?" Linc asked Patch.

"Oh . . ." Patch waved the knife he was holding. "Who else would you wanna put in charge of some of the people we've got here? You could find yourself having to deal with some real problem situations, know what I mean?" He swivelled the knife to point it at Green. "I mean, let's face it, man, we haven't given you guys too bad a time. It could have been a lot worse."

"True," Green agreed. "This course has gone smoother than some that we've run. We've had groups go on the lam, sit-ins barricading themselves in huts. We didn't always do everything right. And probably we still don't. We're still learning too." After a second or two, he added, "Don't you guys go getting any ideas, though. There's a PAT squad on-call in Fresno that can be airborne in fifteen minutes."

Linc finished his soup and munched a biscuit, asking himself if any of the talk had brought him nearer figuring out what this all meant. He decided that it hadn't. As far as he could see, the military-recruits theory still made as much sense as anything. He looked at Green again, spooning coffee powder from a tin into three plastic cups by the light of a battery lamp, and thought about the places he must have been to that Linc had never heard of, the things he'd seen and done. In the same way as the things happening out among the stars, there was another universe that Linc didn't know existed, ways of life that he couldn't imagine. There was a whole world out there, and he'd lived all his life on a few blocks of it--literally.

Was there more to it, where things worked the way they did at Coulie? Were there places where people were valued because of what they knew and what they could do, not on account of how much they'd been able to screw out of everyone else, or the wires their friends could pull; where others wanted to know you because of what you were, instead of what they thought they could get out of you?

Quietly competent, he thought to himself, watching Green again. Expecting things to be done right, but always able to do better. That, Linc Marani resolved, was the way he wanted to be one day.

The next morning, they resumed climbing. The weather was fine, and Green decided to carry on over the ridge line above as planned. As they drew closer, the ridge resolved itself into a series of shattered rock steeples protruding up through the upper snow slopes. The bleakness and total stillness of the surroundings were unlike anything Linc had ever known. There was a savage grandeur about it all that produced unfamiliar stirrings in him. Higher still but near now, the icy towers of the Sierra peaks stood outlined against the morning sky. To the rear and far below, the floor of California's central valley stretched away into haze, a miniature landscape painted on a carpet of yellow and brown and green. Down there was a world of invisible, scurrying people beset with their fears and their worries, working themselves into sickness or early graves, robbing and murdering each other over things that didn't matter. But to know the reality that existed up here, you had to look upward and climb out of that. It was the first time that Linc had felt an inner conviction that he was capable of, and had been made for, better things. But exactly what kind of better things, or where he might find them, he still didn't know.

 
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