Cham's grandfather and grandmother built the house over two hundred years ago, when they came to Madrid and settled the valley. It was nestled in the arms of an extinct volcano he called Old Man, because the craggy cliffs seen from the South had the profile of a hawkish nose and beetling brows. Old Man had been extinct for over a million years, and its sagging slopes were dense with trees and undergrowth. Most of it was from Earth, and hence green, but in places the purple and orange of the native plants broke through. The result was, in Cham's opinion, more otherworldly looking than if Earth's growth had been absent, and only Madrid's plants had cloaked the mountain's flanks.
Cham was trudging up the mountain's side, chopping through the brush with his machete where it got too tangled. He was carrying, besides his provisions for a three day journey, the geoprobe the survey team had dropped off yesterday. His grandfather was busy bringing in the cattle. He had hired two extra hands, but they required supervision. That left Cham to deal with this new and unwelcome chore.
"Yo, pops," he said. After a moment his phone answered.
"'Sup, Cham?" His father's voice from orbit. It was nice to have him to talk to without a lag of minutes or even hours. Cham wondered if his mother was back, too. He might call her later.
"Just passing the time. I'm running an errand for Lieutenant Walker, you know, the new guy on the survey team? He showed up today with a probe he wants me to run up Old Man."
"Why didn't he run it up himself?"
"That's what I'm talking about," Cham said. "He's new, and he has a pretty high opinion of himself."
"Isn't your grandpa bringing in the cattle this week?"
"Yup. He hired a couple guys out of Midtown, but they can't be trusted to do it on their own, so he's out there riding herd on them."
"I hope he watches himself. Without you around to rescue him, would those hands help if something went wrong?"
"No idea. I told him to make a fresh backup, just in case, though. Right after I made mine."
"Huh. Do you have any idea why the survey team has a bug up their ass?"
"No. And Mister Lieutenant High and Mighty Walker wasn't telling, either, even though I asked. He said just do it, and left."
"Well, be careful. Even with a backup it's a pain when something happens. I'm speaking from experience."
"Sure, pops, thanks."
Their conversation drifted off to less consequential things, and eventually Cham said good bye and the phone cut off. Cham brought in a stream of music and continued up the mountain. A stretch of purple Madridian growth blocked his path, and he looked for a way around. He didn't trust himself to be able to tell what was safe to chop, and what should be left alone. Madridian plants produced some saps that people were wildly allergic to.
He had to climb up out of the cut he'd been following. The climb left him breathless. He pulled himself along as scree and gravel rolled out from under his feet, but eventually he stood on a narrow neck of rock that connected to one of the few barren spots on the mountain side, where a recent slide had produced a fan of dirt and gravel and plant debris.
Above him loomed the ancient columns of basalt surrounding the collapsed crater of Old Man. He could cross the debris field and be there by evening, or he could attempt to find a way around, and spend an extra day on the mountain. He called up a recent orbital photo and overlayed a topgraphical map. The photo did not show the slide, so for this part of the mountain the map and the photo were no pretty much useless.
Cham decided to risk it. He picked a path through the boulders at the base of the slide, and soon found himself climbing across mounds of gravel. Here and there trees stuck up through the mess, some still holding on to wilting green or purple. Cham didn't dare trust them to hold his weight. There was no telling when the unconsolidated ground might shift, and a support might suddenly turn and smash a limb.
Uncounted hills of gravel and several close calls later, Cham found himself at the foot of the cliffs. He had been planning on using a path his grandfather had mapped out years ago, but that path now started almost two hundred meters above where he stood, and sheer basalt lay between.