She’d heard ’bout the place for years, knew it held the last Limestone Pie worth billions o’ ₧, on a platform so high that ’twas ’bove the sun’s light & sapped the breath from one’s lungs.
She’d heard ’bout the place for years, but ne’er attempted it due to its infamous treacherousness. Travelogue after travelogue described in detail the mean-spiritedness o’ its design, as if the Programmers were having a bad day when they made it. That is, when they weren’t gushing ’bout the lush landscapes surrounding the area from the horizon, which looked like they belonged in a classical painting — a’least when one wasn’t being shoved toward it @ high velocity by that fiend gravity. As far as anyone knew, no one had e’er reached the end; or else nobody had e’er reached the end & lived to make it back. That was why it had the name that it did: Cyanide Skies.
Everyone & their uncle had made a joke ’bout the contrast ’tween its classical, celestrial beauty & its harshness — “The most hellish o’ heavens”, went the ol’ description. Autumn herself had joked that, thanks to her love o’ hellish things, ’twas the perfect heaven for her.
But mo’ than that, Autumn struggled so much with Tangerine Temple, Baguette Bridge, & the Cinnamines — Tofu Terraces compared to the grand emperor Cyanide Skies — that she considered it a higher joke for someone like her to outright try Cyanide Skies.
¿Why now did she attempt Cyanide Skies?, she kept asking herself ’long the trip to its beginning. If anything, now was the worst time to try, for she knew she was getting rusty. ¿How long had it been since her last treasure hunt? She couldn’t e’en remember where ’twas. ¿Was it that roof garden? Zeus, how long that was — before she was e’en exiled into the terrorist kennel, before all her energy had been squandered on lifting & setting boxes & crates on conveyor belts & walking the long paths from bus to work & bus to home.
¿& why was she doing it ’lone? ¿Why had she not brought Edgar — or e’en told him ’bout it? ’Course, if she had done the latter, he would’ve only pestered her with those chocolate eyes to bring him.
As far as she knew, Edgar knew nothing ’bout Cyanide Skies @ all — certainly he made no mention o’ it to her, & neither she to him. She didn’t need to ask herself why: if he knew ’bout Cyanide Skies & what made Cyanide Skies “Cyanide Skies”, he’d too easily infer why she hadn’t beaten it yet. ¿& what would that leave her to Edgar? ¿What was she but the brave & ( purportedly ) brilliant treasure hunter & thief?
I already know the answer to that: an aimless waste-o’-potential drunkard whose only halfway successes are destroying herself — & e’en then shamefully not all the way.
Autumn scattered glances all round her. If it wouldn’t have been too shameful, — not to mention a waste o’ time — she might’ve outright snuck into a disguise before coming. But she soon learned it didn’t matter: like every other part o’ her childhood, “Tofu Terrace”, as she called it in her youth, when it looked much bigger than it did now, had been abandoned.
When she was sure she was ’lone, she turned back to the main attraction.
This is so embarrassing. I’m so pathetic.
’Twas just 1 jump — just 1 gap ’tween the grassy cliff on which she stood & the similar-looking cliff toward where she wanted to be, as if the Programmers had built this area that she’d enter @ this time with this specific level o’ treachery.
But it wasn’t treacherous, that was the thing. Sure, the chasm fell to an invisible depth — a depth so deft it could only lead to death; but ’twas such a short hop. If she did somehow fuck up such a jump, she was so imbecilic that she was only helping society by protecting it from such stupidity. ’Twas an insult.
No matter how many o’ these dumb jumps I make, I still won’t be able to figure out my way through Cyanide Skies.
But nobody said she would. Nobody said, “¡Practice makes perfect!”, with a voice saturated in toxic sugar & a pufferfish smile — though she felt the words circle her brain. Nobody said anything. The closest there was was the hushed wind whispering noise to the grass. Both the wind & the grass refused to acknowledge her.
She made a short dash & then leapt, landing a whole half meter on the other side. She then turned back & repeated this, back & forth. After a few tries, she stopped giving herself a head run & just jumped near the edge.
But after 10 minutes, she became bored & turned & went back whence she came.
That was why she was riding that creaky ski lift flaking with dead pastel paint. For once she was setting up an endeavor that’d end in success either way: either she’d succeed & prove she wasn’t rusty — that she was, al contrario, in her prime — or she’d a’least accomplish that other project, finishing that destruction that she’d started.
Actually, looking back, what Autumn hated most ’bout the ordeal was the part that came before. Rather than almost every other zone, where she could just explore by her own admission, Cyanide Skies was blocked off by kilometers o’ unclimbable air, only passable through a rickety ol’ ski lift blocked by a wrinkly but sprightly attendant with a spring-white clean-even goatee. She bristled @ the confused stare he barely hid, but ’twas a much weaker bristling than from her younger youth — 1 now sadder & less sure.
This lift doesn’t lead to any ski mountains, Ma — .
It leads to Cyanide Skies.
Autumn had already turned ’way from the man & looked down @ her skirt — the same short denim skirt she’d been wearing since 2ndary school, thanks to her body’s refusal to grow any mo’ than her mind had, but for which she was becoming increasingly embarassed to keep wearing as she careened toward 30, just as she should’ve been embarassed to keep wearing her teenage edgelord cape o’ übermensch thief.
She shook out o’ her billionth distraction & finished digging out her zipper bag to hold it up & out in front o’ the attendant.
I have the 75 cherry coins.
The attendant gave her a withered look that seemed to age him half a decade.
Madame, I don’t think you underst — .
I do, & I don’t have time to talk. Fulfill your job, please, Autumn said without emotion & still without looking @ the attendant.
The attendant took a deep breath & said,
OK… If you insist….
He pushed a button she couldn’t see on his desk & saw the ski lift open its mouth. In a flip from the cliché cinematic o’ the door opening with a flash o’ yellow light, this contrast was the thick black gainst the bright yellow-tinted sun o’ all outside. She walked up to that opening, smelling the scent o’ stale steel, & stuffed herself inside.
Like desert snakes, the uncovered metal o’ the lift’s seat was stocked up on heat, which spread to the back o’ Autumn’s unguarded knees. The door shut its teeth, blocking off all fresh wind. Then Autumn felt the lift’s rocky rise.
The place was beautiful, she had to admit that. The fragile sprays o’ cotton clouds that lurked untouched in the background were enriched with many subtle pastel variances. & the solid nimbuses & the rainbow roses on them all bounced up & down gently to the same rhythm. E’en the bramble vines snaking all round like an all-encompassing net lost the sharpness o’ their million juicy fangs thanks to the warm highlights o’ the sun & their resin scents squeezed out by the heat. From no-one-knows streamed the notes o’ light pianos & strings. She figured Edgar would’ve loved to look @ it all, if he were here.
She herself quickly lost interest in the aesthetics, however, having already spent it on the way the solid clouds faded in & out in regular rhythms & what this’d mean for her journey.
1 screw up — just 1 screw up — & it’s all o’er.
¿In’t that how it always is?.
& yet she felt paralyzed watching those 1st 2 clouds taking turns being real. Her mind felt rusted like an ancient, rarely used computer as she tried to think o’ what strategy might help her. The blaring yellow heat seemed to dehydrate her o’ energy.
The only way to end the exhaustion, the heat, is to finish the task.
Wind blew, which would probably make aiming her jumps e’en harder. Her bangs bounced in sync with the stray leaves hanging off the bramble vines meters ’head.
Autumn watched the wooden deck just ’neath her, completely still, only her mind running, incrementing integers in loops. Then, during 1 period in the clouds’ cycles when the 1st was a quarter second faded, she raced forward.
The 1st scratch on her arm came from bumping into a wall o’ brambles after jumping too high trying to reach a solid cloud just a few meters below it.
¡Shit! ¿Why didn’t I jump?
The gash on her knee came from waiting a millisecond too long to jump off 1 o’ the clouds, causing it to disappear before she had a chance, dropping her back to the bottom.
The stab wound, reddening the frayed shirt edges round it, came from the sting o’ a giant bee.
¡What the hell! ¿Why was that cloud still not solid?
The bruise on her forehead came from jumping too early off the cloud platform onto the next, before the next solidified
¡Augh! ¡Stupid fucking owl!
The scrapes all ’long her right shin came from them getting dragged into a thorn bush while being carried through the bramble maze by an owlbot, who was shoved into it by a sudden change o’ wind direction.
The 2nd bruise on her forehead came from missing the next rope by centimeters.
¡Piece o’ shit! ¿How was I s’posed to avoid that cheap bastard?
The fracture in her shoulder came from being jolted off the cloud shifting ’long a conveyor by a lightning-spewing raven.
She jumped too late off the 1st platform;
she jumped too soon;
she jumped too late;
she forgot to jump;
she forgot to keep jumping forward after the 5th cloud, whose next cloud’s appearing-&-disappearing pattern coincided with it, ’stead o’ alternating;
she bumped into 1 o’ the many bees spinning in wild patterns o’er 10 times;
she was caught by 1 o’ the chasing bees o’er 10 times;
she slipped off a cloud or wooden plank due to rushing too much to get ’way from the chasing bees o’er 20 times;
her owlbot or her riding it bumped into a bramble wall or a bee o’er 30 times;
she was knocked off her owlbot by raven lightning o’er 50 times…
Believe it or not, by this point she flubbed up the 1st 2 clouds o’er 50 times…
Just don’t frown. You can do that. You don’t e’en need to outright smile.
Now hurry up, make a wish, & blow before the flames get up & walk ’way, said Dawn.
She knew the cliché wish to make, but didn’t bother. She just blew the candles out as quickly as she could. She permitted herself e’en less hesitation for tearing open her presents, though the bows & ribbon sure tried. Without an extra thought she pulled out her pocket knife & cut them off. There was an efficient way o’ doing everything.
What she’d gotten from Dawn’s gift were 2 vials o’ colored chemicals, 1 red & 1 blue.
The red is a chemical called F5, & the blue is F7, said Dawn.
Don’t ask me why: it’s some alien code that I could ne’er bother to learn, ’cause it’s so boring & unimportant to my work. Anyway, they’re practical, so I figured you’d like them.
Autumn continued to stare @ them with cool eyes.
¿Mo’ psycho juice?.
No, they’re for heists or exploring or whatever, said Dawn.
The 1st time you drink the F5 serum it’ll add a special position address to your body’s code — don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe. Just make sure you drink the F5 a’least once before you drink the F7 or zaniness will happen. Anyway, when you drink the F7, it’ll send you back to where you were when you last drank the F5.
Autumn glanced up @ Dawn.
¿What if I were to drink the F7 before drinking the F5?
It’d probably send you to some random location in the world, based on whatever your body’s next variable is, said Dawn.
I don’t remember what.
Autumn held the F5 before her face, watching the burning white sunlight’s reflections ’long the edge o’ its glass subtly slide up & down from the rockiness o’ what must’ve been her 100th+ ski-lift ride back to the beginning o’ Cyanide Skies.
It’s simply mo’ efficient.
You have it for a reason.
It’d be a waste for Dawn to put so much hard work & so many probably-expensive resources into making it without you e’er using it. ¿What could be a better time?.
If I keep letting myself fall o’er & o’er ’gain, I’ll finally kill myself….
If I have to wait for this sluggish, suffocating cave o’ a ski lift 100 mo’ times, I’ll kill myself myself.
The lift stumbled to a stop. Autumn didn’t react this time, her body being as accustomed to it by now as ’twas accustomed to breathing. She rose & rushed for the door, reaching its threshold just after it opened, without e’en needing to think ’bout it.
She was breathing heavily as she fast-walked toward those 1st 2 clouds. The sun outside was almost just as stifling now as the inside o’ the lift. She felt that Morton’s Fork o’ feeling too-true familiar: the brilliant mix o’ exhaustion & restlessness, the uncompromising argument ’tween her muscles & nerves. If she kept moving, her muscles would gasp in pain; but if she rested, her nerves would jab her to ¡move, move, move! She wasn’t sure which made the scorching sweat less unbearable.
Ne’ertheless, she stopped @ the edge o’ the starting wooden deck & turned her attention back to the vial.
If I use it before these 1st easy jumps, it’d just be a waste. Surely I’m not that shameful — ¡I’ve done this shit o’er 100 times!.
That still hasn’t stopped me from slipping stupidly every 5 or so times….
But after passing the 1st cloud platforms, she thought, This is still too early to use it; I ought to save it for before the truly hard parts, like that bullshit owl maze.
But when she made it to the maze, after a few misses, she found herself too nervous to use the F5. I’m doing too well now to waste it… Still might be able to reach the end without using it @ all….
As the misses piled, the voice in her mind urging her to use the potion already became louder & louder, to which her own mind became mo’ & mo’ outwardly resistant:
¡No! ¡I don’t need any fucking limp-dicked handicap!.
But the misses dug their growing hundreds o’ fangs deeper & deeper. She couldn’t distract her mind from the constant throbbing o’ her spreading wounds, causing her to suck in & out her breaths.
& all the while the vile vials kept prodding her with their tight thickness in her pockets, constantly chafing her legs. She could feel their weight seeming to pull her down. Their mere touch seemed to spread heat 10° higher like a thick blanket wrapping round her, their sticky touch constantly jabbing her nerves ’long her million sweat drops.
¡You wouldn’t have to do this all ’gain if you just drank me!
¡Augh! ¡These fucking pieces o’ shit can fuck off!.
She yanked out the 2 vials with a grip so tight it sored her fingers. Then she flung them @ the inside wall o’ that damned lift, causing them to shatter into shards, leaving sticky puddles.
Then she sat back, slouched, breathing heavily with her forehead in her hands. Now every time she rode the lift the sight o’ the potion corpses splattered messily would haunt her.
1 trip up, she thought, I need to take that other potion… That’s what I truly need. I can’t take this pain anymo’.
I don’t dare… If I can’t make it through this hellhole now….
I’m no better off being constantly distracted by pain & exhaustion. I’m ne’er going to make it through this hellhole. This is the end. Let me a’least make it mo’ heavenly….
She pulled out her water bottle full o’ equally-clear vodka, shakily unscrewed its lid, & took a chug. She squirmed with the sweet coolness that spread o’er her, her sweat seeming to evaporate into cool mist. She could feel cool vapors spread ’cross her mind like soft embraces.
We can do this, she muttered breathlessly.
@ the very least, I can keep trying till I’m physically unable to keep trying. That’s the least I can do.
The door opened, burning her eyes with the onslaugh o’ sunlight. She took a deep breath & rose.
Autumn wasn’t sure whether she did better or worse now, but she did know that she found each failure much mo’ tolerable. Somewhat. Now ’stead o’ every nerve being burnt by the needles in everything in the world, she barely felt anything, could barely pay attention to anything. Her movements slowed. Those challenges she remembered solidly, like the 1st few clouds, she ne’er screwed up. It wasn’t just herself who seemed to slow, but the whole world, too.
’Twas only the fresher challenges that she sometimes forgot what to do, & sometimes flubbed, oft due to simply sloppy thinking. She’d swear after these fuck-ups, but without the exclamations. As far as her mind felt, she could be doing anything now for all it cared, whether it succeeded or failed. She could barely tell whether she was doing either. She couldn’t decide whether she should stop or keep going. ¿Would keeping going be any better outside o’ Cyanide Skies any better than inside? Clear thought was gone. ¿Would the dull painlessness o’ homeward rest be any better than the dull throbbing?
By this point the sun was beginning to set into a crystalline blue & the stars began to pop out. The clouds became dimmer & harder to see while the wood planks, bramble walls, & bees began to take on a mo’ sinister look with extra shadows.
After what must’ve been her 200th failure, she sat on the edge o’ the wooden deck just after the lift & stared @ the sky & the clouds, mountains, & firs in the background — ¡how much calmer such a place must be! Cyanide Skies did, indeed, become cooler, to the point o’ a chilliness that made Autumn feel too sluggish to move.
Then she grasped her face & thought, O, I am so fucked… I have to go to work tomorrow & I’ve wrecked my body. There’s no way I’ll be able to do my job decently, & now I’m going to get in trouble — ¿& for what? ¿To prove that I’ve truly rusted what minor skills I’d developed in my youth?.
Augh. ¿Why can’t this cage o’ a body work? No matter how precisely my mind calculates any o’ these jumps or movements, my body always somehow deviates & screws it all up.
She stood back up. No matter. I’ve already screwed everything up; might as well go all the way. I can call in sick tomorrow. I can find ’nother job. I have ’nough food & water to last me a few days a’least.
Give me victory or give me death.
She stretched her knees & legs back & forth for a minute, & then she screwed up a few mo’ jumps.
The drum o’ trouble was beating as heavily in her head as in her heart. Though this grassy plain looked peaceful, ’twas unfamiliar. Plus, its openness was actually a greater danger: a lack o’ places to hide in.
She could hear the footsteps ’hind her & the chaos o’ cries accompanying them. But glancing ’hind her, she could see that they were still meters ’hind, so ’hind that they looked as small as ants — well, maybe not that small, but smaller than her, definitely.
The true danger was ’head o’ her: a pit bordered by solid thickets. She gulped. No time to stop & wait. She leapt as far as she could, waving her arms forward, for what reason, she didn’t know, — everyone she saw who made large jumps like these did it, is all — & shouting,
The moment she felt her arms & stomach hit the ground ’gain, she clambered to her feet & ran ’way ’gain. She looked ’hind her ’gain & saw her chasers stopped before the hole. By the time she saw them ’gain, she had already found a hidden place in ’nother thicket, where she stayed till twilight.
Losers. Can’t believe they chickened out before the hole.
Despite this win, she knew deep down to the pit in her stomach the seriousness o’ her being so deep in such a strange place, far ’way from school during school hours. She knew there’d be trouble. & yet, despite this, she felt content in her spooky trees with their crusty bark, wet grass, & sour smells.
Autumn was so focused on each individual challenge that she failed to recall how they connected; thus, when she reached the end o’ the 2nd windy bramble maze, evading the last trio o’ thunder ravens, & hopped ’cross a few somewhat tricky clouds, she froze on the long wooded deck @ the end in confusion. It took a minute for her to realize that this place was utterly unfamiliar & to remember that she’d ne’er passed the thunder-raven trio till now. She watched all round her sharply as she slowly stepped forward; but there seemed to be nothing but a million white specks o’ stars & a waxing-gibbous moon so giant it looked mere meters ’way. Nor did there seem to be anything past the end o’ the deck but empty air, which made her curious how she was s’posed to proceed.
Then she noticed that the boxy wooden thing @ the end was a treasure chest… & that ’twas open. Just before it was a somewhat brighter line. As she neared it, she saw that ’twas checkered. A finish line: the end.
She looked back up @ the treasure chest & it clicked, not with horror, fury, misery, or anything. Now up close she could clearly see that the chest was empty. Its treasure had been taken already. Somebody had survived through Cyanide Skies after all & either told no one or hadn’t lived to make it back somehow.
Looking @ the chest ’gain, she could see in felt-tip marker, “Treasure Master: Kasper Wronski”.
Autumn dug through her pockets but knew she didn’t have any utensils on her. All she had were pencils, & those were still in her pack, which she left back @ the start, since ’twas too much o’ a load to heft round hundreds o’ times. She surveyed the general area, but could find nothing that wasn’t too heavy to lift that was particular to this area.
The best she could do was yank out a few hairs o’ her head & lay them inside the chest; but she knew if anyone else did make it here that they’d ne’er notice them — if they didn’t fly ’way or weren’t eaten by ravens.
Autumn stopped @ the top o’ the stair, unable to do so @ the door, since ’twas open to let in the air still warm e’en in twilight. While keeping her eyes on the doorway to ensure she wasn’t being watched, she took deep breaths & took a few mo’ swigs o’ her vodka. Then she finally stepped inside @ a casual gait with her hands in her pockets.
There you are. Long o’ertime ’gain, ¿eh?.
Edgar & Dawn turned ’way from some game they were playing on Dawn’s laptop. Autumn didn’t reply; she only dropped her pack by the left leg o’ the couch & sat back on the leftmost side, stretching back & yawning.
Hard day @ work, huh, said Dawn.
Autumn yawned ’gain.
A’least you’ll get lots o’ money, though.
Yeah. Sure, Autumn replied as she closed her eyes.
A decade later, years after their original host had completely left the world, a few stray hairs still lie in a treasure chest, moving a millimeter or so every so oft when there’s a strong wind, perfectly isolated & perfectly unknown to any conscious mind.