The Grand Ascension

By Luke Mitchell

“We’ll be late, Kylen!”

“Yes, yes,” I murmur at the closed bathroom door, wiping the sweat from my brow. The words are too quiet for Chala to hear outside, but then, it’s not as if she really needs to hear them. She knows I wouldn’t miss this for anything. Still, that doesn’t stop my handsome wife from practically bouncing on her swollen feet as I emerge, ragged from my private round with this morning’s nerves.

“We’ll miss the Grand Ascension, Kylen,” she insists again, wringing her hands. “Just look how excited your mother is.”

On the grimy wall display of the even grimier motel room, my mother scrounges up a smile, nodding emphatically. She’s wringing her hands too. She looks frail this morning. I wish we could’ve afforded to bring her with us this time. But then, it’s probably better this way. Less heads to keep track of. Too much is riding on this morning as it is.

I murmur my apologies to the both of them and tug on my best shirt, wishing I’d had time to shave. Look sharp, be sharp, my father used to say. I should’ve done it last night. Should’ve done a lot of things, I suppose, but “shoulds” are for whiners and blamers. “Shoulds” are not for bootstrappers. “Shoulds” are worse than useless, I tell myself, as I tighten my laces, murmur my goodbyes to my mother, and wave Chala out the door.

The traffic this morning is heavier than usual, both on the highways and on the pedestrian footpaths—every inch of the city congested with a crowd that feels as raucous as it does desperate. In the past, Chala and I would have given ourselves at least three hours to make the drive from the edge of town, which is as close to the launch fields as we’ve ever been able to afford. This year, we make the trek on foot. Between the growing hydrocarbon shortages and the brand new solar excise tax levied this year on all citizens, rich or poor, on foot is all that’s left to most of us outskirters.

I catch myself enviously eyeing the high rises several blocks ahead and drag my eyes back down to my bootstraps, reminding myself where such thoughts belong. Wishing we could’ve afforded to stay closer isn’t going to get me a pump station. As the crowd thickens and the going slows, I can’t help but fear that nothing will get me a station this morning. But I take Chala’s hand and push on through the thick of it anyway.

This year can be different. Will be different.

We push on. Already, some of the smaller launches are underway—unmanned rockets and lantern-esque dirigibles lending luminous splashes of color to the lightening dawn sky. By the time we cross into the main launch field, the cool morning dew has soaked through my shoes. The crowd is jammed in like you wouldn’t believe. I can barely breathe. Chala shouldn’t be here in her condition. We push on all the same. And I don’t know if it’s because we push on, or simply a kind favor of fate, but we actually make it as far as the outermost ring. I eye these pump stations—the oldest and least efficient models on the field, I know, by their outermost location. I’d still jump at the chance to take any of them, but they’re full as far as the eye can see in this dense crowd.

I grasp Chala’s hand and push on, acutely aware that time is running out. Even in my growing apprehension, though, it’s hard not to be swept up in the excitement of the crowd. The field is alive with some strange mix of buzzing nerves and pure wonder at the crowning achievement we’ve all come to support today. And it’s not hard to see why. 

At the head of the launch field, the Grand Vessel is magnificent. A towering two-thousand-plus feet of smooth polymeric shaft reaching for the heavens, ascending to the twin gargantuan habitation spheres at the top.

I look back to my handsome Chala, and she squeezes my hand, her other hand pressed protectively to the swell of her belly. I try (and fail) not to think of the corporate citizen who would’ve been our son, had only I fought harder three years past. I try not to think of how our growing daughter will soon join her biological brother out of our reach, should I fail today. I try, mostly, to scan the over-packed field for any sign of a free pump station. And against all odds, I find one.

The first clearing horn sounds over the din just as my hand closes on the pump rod. The abrupt sound sends waves of excitement and desperation through the crowd. I’m too busy staring down at the wrinkled hand that’s grabbed onto the pump rod just beneath my own. I lock eyes with the old crone to whom that wrinkled hand belongs, acutely aware of the grunts and gasps and angry curses of men and women fighting all around us for the chance to pump today. I feel my heart hammering, fingers tightening, mind blurring with unthinkable thoughts. 

The second clearing horn sounds, and still she holds on. My free hand has balled itself into a fist. The laws of the field are clear, and yet…

“You make that wife of yours proud,” the old crone finally says, perhaps recognizing the look in my eyes, perhaps just acknowledging the futility of her situation here. Her arm flops tiredly to her side as soon as she lets go. There’s not enough strength in this old woman to stand any chance of competing today. That much is clear. And yet I still feel a swell of gratitude as she touches my arm and shuffles off to join the exodus of sightseers and would-be competitors.

The horn sounds again, and the Grand Ascension commences.

At the head of the launch field, nearest the Grand Vessel, the obscenely muscular paid hands begin to pump away with long, practiced strokes, building their momentum slowly. They man their stations two pumps each, one rod in each hand. It’s a sight to behold. A bright future to aspire to, for the many thousands of us gathered in the outer rings with our public pump stations and our underfed physiques.

I grasp my rod and begin to pump all the same, determined to prove today that I’m worth my salt. Worth acquisition.

Corporate citizenship. It’s almost too much to dream about. But we need it, and so I have to dream.

I ease into the rhythm, already feeling the burning in my forearms, and settle in for what’s sure to be a long and exhausting struggle. The field is alive with the grunts and huffs and labored breathing of pumpers and pumps alike, the din of the spectators a distant thing. No one speaks in the field, nor do I expect they will at any time throughout the Ascension. That’s fine by me. I focus on my breathing, slotting myself into a pace I estimate to be just a hair ahead of the pack, but not so much as to kill me before the end.

I’m not sure how much time passes. From past years’ experience, I know that the Ascension shouldn’t take much more than two hours, but that’s hardly a comfort. Two straight hours of nonstop pumping. The rod’s already heavy and slick with sweat in my hands. I’m scared to look at the readouts on my station’s console. Instead, I fix my eyes on my bootstraps and keep pumping.

I stop counting every couple hundred strokes, pick back up erratically. I need to come up with a game plan. I can’t keep this up. I must. I can’t, but I must. The thought circles back with each pump, building until it’s an unstoppable mantra—the central foundation of my existence. I can’t, but I must, I can’t, but I must. Burning arms and screaming back. I can’t, but I must, I can’t, but I must. At some point, I’m dimly aware that another horn has sounded, this one different than the others. I keep pumping. It’s all I can do to keep pumping. I can’t, but I must, I can’t, but I must. But consumed as I am, I can’t help but feel the air changing around me, and at the volume of whispers and turned heads, I finally realize: The Lord of Launch has arrived and must be making his customary way through the crowd. And judging by the sound of it…  

He’s approaching right behind me.

I turn like a delirious drunk—so thoroughly exhausted, I am—and behold the legend himself, Sir Lord-President Bezo Schlongfelder, standing right there, staring at the ground just behind me with a kind of skeptical consternation. It hits me, through the burning fatigue, that he’s dropped something there. A Long John donut, I register, with a kind of giddy thrill. It seems so pedestrian, so out of place, that I almost fail to recognize that strip of frosted, leavened dough lying there in the trodden grass at the Lord-President’s feet. Luckily, my better senses are still running on autopilot. Before I or the Lord-President can so much as blink, I’m throwing myself down at his feet, prostrating myself, offering that cream-filled donut back to his Lordship like some holy relic. I’m not the only one, either. A dozen or more bodies hit the dirt beside me—pumpers and corporate aides alike. But I get there first.

It’s only there on the ground that I notice the old crone. I catch sight of her there, collapsed and unmoving, just past the gap between his Lordship’s gleaming black boots. I can’t tell if she’s been trampled in the pre-Ascension exodus, or if she merely collapsed of natural causes a few yards out from the station we’d nearly fought over. There’s something perversely twisted about the sight, there at what should be my moment of glory. I can’t believe I’d actually been preparing to strike the frail woman.

And that’s when it hits me that I’ve abandoned my station.

In the shock of the moment, I almost drop the Lord-President’s donut, torn as I am between the need to serve his Lordship directly, and the need to return to my pump rod and preserve any chance I have at proving myself by the numbers this year. The two paths rip at me from both sides until I can’t breathe, and time seems to stand still, and all I can think about is Chala standing back there, watching me fail, watching me come so very close only to resign us to another lost year, another lost child.

The twitch and slide of the donut leaving my fingers snaps me back to the moment, where his Lordship, Sir Bezo Schlongfelder himself, has just accepted the donut from my hands. From my hands. I can’t believe it. And then he speaks.

“Uh, thanks, um…”

Carefully, carefully, I raise my eyes from the ground to see the Lord-President’s squinting at my half-obscured name tag. “Kylen, my Lord,” I gasp, bowing my head again.

“Right on. Thanks, Kygan.”

My head is spinning. I don’t know what’s happening. I can’t process it. Can’t believe I am here.

Then, at the edge of my groundward vision, I catch a flicker of movement—and I realize, with a twinge of shame, that it’s the donut, touching down some three stations over. His Lordship has thrown it away. Rather, he’s had his right-hand aid throw it away. I open my mouth to apologize for having touched it, for having soiled it with my unworthy hands, but Lord-President Schlongfelder is already moving on. For one dumb moment, I watch him go, shielding my eyes against the rising-sun radiance that encircles him like some divine halo. I can’t fathom how any man has risen to such heights. They say he was once a pumper in this very field, just trying to get his start.

It hits me, then, just how completely I’ve failed. 

It hits me so hard that I gasp, doubling over into the dirt, pierced by the sheer weight of it. I’m too stunned to move. Too horrified, too ashamed, to turn back to the spectators, where I know I’ll find my Chala waiting. Then a voice calls out, “Hey, keep up the good work, Kygan,” and my gaze whips up to find the Lord-President gesturing over his shoulder with a few demonstrative air strokes, and it strikes me that his Lordship is talking to me. Encouraging me.

It’s like a bolt of lightning to my soul.

I explode to my feet, take my rod, and begin again, pumping with gusto, with vigor, with freaking madness. I pump until my fingers cramp and my arms go numb. I pump and pump, glancing up only once every fifty strokes to track my Lord’s progression through the crowd. I pump harder. He’s nearly reached the vessel.

Ahead, those two-thousand-plus feet of smooth polymeric shaft have swollen to something closer to three-thousand—twin, gargantuan habitation spheres gently swaying in the breeze as the entire structure shifts to accommodate the building load within. I’m so absorbed in the sight—and in the feverish rhythm of my pumping—that I barely notice the Call of the Ascension rising. Before I know it, the wild, exuberant ululations have reached full tilt all around me, roaring from the field like a living thing. The sound is pure energy, pure wonder at what’s about to happen.

I look back to my handsome Chala, still pumping. She’s watching in rapture, one hand pressed to the swell of her belly as if to feed the exuberant energy of this day to the growing child within. I pump harder, thinking of the child now, of our beautiful daughter-to-be, thinking of how she’ll soon join her brother as property of the Schlongozon Birthing Authorities unless I do my job here, today, right now.

I pump harder, resisting the urge to check the standings on my station meter. Harder, feeling it in my bones. This is the moment. This is it. Black spots cloud my vision, and still I pump harder. This will be the day. This will be the year. My mother, free to leave GeriLand at her will. Our daughter, free to grow up with Chala and I, as an esteemed full citizen of Schlongozon—with enough money left to secure passage on the Lunar cruise Chala and I have always dreamed of.

I close my eyes and pump harder, envisioning it all. Around me, I hear the grunts and groans of my fellow pumpers, reaching their limits. I hear the soft thump-and-whoosh of the first collapse. Then another, and another. The first hint of fear that I might join them. My arms are leaden. My lungs on fire. I can’t keep this up. And yet I must. I can’t, but I must, and even as I think it, my arms continue to work.

Just when I’m sure I can’t go on anymore, just when even the thought of my handsome Chala and our unborn daughter no longer seem enough to keep me going, a shudder passes through the rod in my hands—a ticklish quiver that builds and grows, grows into a deeper rumble. I see the phantasm of the Lord-President himself, gesturing to me behind my closed eyelids, and I know. We’re so close now, I realize with a jolt of excitement. I pump on, fatigue momentarily forgotten, and look up to witness.

The entire vessel shaft is shaking now, swollen and ready to burst free from its terrestrial ties.

The Call of the Ascension builds—ten-thousand pumpers and a thousand-thousand spectators, all roaring with the spirit of our joint humanity, the spirit of Lord-President Schlongfelder himself. I’m roaring too, I realize. Screaming like a madman. And it feels good. It feels amazing.

I pump harder, no longer aware of any bodily discomfort. In that moment, I am no longer my body. I am above it. We all are. In that moment, we are all of us transcended, together. Then the vessel launch tubes burst open in relief, and our pump rods go limp, and I watch in sheer amazement as three-thousand feet of swollen Schlongozon rocket blasts off on a violently turbulent jet of thick white propellant. 

The burly paid hands are the first to be engulfed as the propellant comes bubbling up from the enormous reservoir beneath the launch pad, expanding out to a harmless white foam. I shield my eyes against the rising sun and watch the rocket ascend, a half-mile of tumescent glory, rising on an endless spurt of hyper-pressurized propellant. I watch it go, relishing the first light kiss of the accelerant foam raining down on us from the heavens. The sight is indescribable. Practically a religious experience, as I bask in the surreal thought that that flying behemoth was launched in part by the power of my own two hands.

Back down in the plain dirt of Earth, I hear my pump station chime with this year’s power output rankings—the verdict that will let me know my and Chala’s fate this year, and in the years to come. Our fate, and that of our growing daughter’s. It’s too much to face, even knowing that I’ve done everything I can. In that moment, I can’t stand to look. So, for that moment, I keep my eyes high, keen on the shrinking outline of the rocket spewing its thick white propellant through the heavens it penetrates. For that moment, I watch.

And for a moment, I am free.

The End

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