The following day, the Robot discovered a source of fresh water and set about purifying it and refilling the storage tanks of the Jupiter 2. At the same time, Doctor Smith located several berry bushes and wild fruit trees. He brought back several samples and analyzed them to see if they were fit for human consumption. He resisted the temptation to sample them before analysis was complete for fear another illness would delay their rescue mission, possibly permanently. Once a few of the fruits were deemed edible, he secured several large baskets full for the Jupiter's stores and packed some for the journey to wherever the Robinsons had been taken. He also packed several canteens of water and a few critical medical supplies.
The Robot rolled up to Doctor Smith as he was finishing packing the last of the supplies. "Doctor Smith, I will go scout the surrounding areas to see if I can discover where the aliens went."
"Wait. Do your sensors detect anything within a 10 mile radius?" the doctor queried.
"Negative," the Robot replied. "No alien life forms, buildings, or other structures."
"Then it will take you far too long to scout than I wish to wait," Smith replied. He pointed to the mountain just north of their campsite. "If I were a betting man, I would bet any alien structures in the vicinity could be seen from such a height."
"Doctor Smith, you ARE a betting man," the Robot pointed out. "However, you are probably correct. Are you really going to scale that mountain?"
"Me?" Smith placed a hand on his chest. "Scale that?" He nodded toward the mountain. His hands then moved to his lower back. "No. My back is too delicate today," he said with a smirk. "I was thinking of using the space pod. It could easily attain such a height quickly and record whatever is seen."
"The hatch was damaged during landing. It will not open," the Robot explained. "There is no way to access the space pod until the hatch is repaired."
Having no desire to spend any more time on repairs, Smith eyed the mountain and grew weary just thinking about the immense effort, not to mention time, it would take to scale it. He shook his head and muttered to himself. "There has to be an easier way." His mind attacked the problem from every possible angle, leaving out climbing as an option. The only possible solution left then was almost equally as detestable. Almost. Therefore, it was the only solution available to him. The jet pack. He wrinkled his nose in distaste at the thought of strapping himself into that contraption. He had no other choice, so he resigned himself to the adventure. He hesitated to even mention his plans to the Robot. He knew what the response would be. But, he screwed up his courage, put on his game face, and announced, "What about the jet pack?"
The Robot emitted an odd, wheezing sound that the family had come to interpret as laughter.
"What's so funny, you cackling cannister?" Smith asked indignantly.
The Robot abruptly stopped laughing. "You are serious about using the jet pack?"
"Why not? It seems easy enough. If Professor Robinson can master it, so can I," the doctor boasted.
"The jet pack is not very easy to control, Doctor Smith. It takes much practice and skill. Professor Robinson is trained to use it. You are not," the Robot warned.
"Do you doubt my abilities?" Smith snarled.
The Robot remained silent. From many prior conversations with the doctor, he recognized this as an argument he couldn't win. No matter how he answered, the doctor would still do what he wanted to do, despite his protestations. He didn't wish Smith to come to harm, but neither did he want to incur his wrath.
Smith glared at the Robot for a few seconds and then entered the Jupiter 2 to retrieve the jet pack. He emerged a few minutes later with the apparatus, wearing a jacket and helmet. Handing the jet pack to the Robot, Smith turned around to slip his arms through the harness straps. He secured the harness and double checked everything. Grasping the handles of the device, he walked into the clearing.
He studied the controls on the two handles. Both looked very much like joysticks on an old fashioned arcade game. Placing an index finger on the left control, he cautiously bent the stick forward and then moved it around in circles. He heard the faint noise of the nozzles in the back, shifting position in response to his movements. "This must be the rudder," he concluded.
"Yaw control," the Robot corrected. "You were in the Air Force for 16 years, not the Navy. You should know that."
"I'm a doctor, not a pilot," Smith shot back. "Anymore..." he muttered under his breath. "And this must be the throttle." He attempted to move it as he had the yaw control, but it didn't budge.
"You have to twist it, like you would a motorcycle throttle," the Robot offered.
"Ah!" he said, understanding exactly what the Robot meant. Grasping the handle firmly, Smith gave it a quick and thorough twist. The Robot heard a loud shriek which quickly shrank in volume as the doctor rocketed skyward.
"Doctor Smith!" the Robot yelled after him. "You forgot the binoculars," he groaned, as he lifted one red claw holding the equipment.
Smith released the throttle as if he had just burned his hand on a hot stove, realizing too late that was the worst possible action to take. He plummeted back toward the planet until he again twisted the throttle, more gently this time. He hovered a few seconds, taking deep breaths to regain his composure and calm his pounding heart, then slowly began his ascent again. He practiced ascending and descending a few hundred feet at a time until he felt comfortable with the control.
Having gained enough confidence in the use of the throttle, Smith experimented with the yaw control to guide himself toward the looming mountain. He gently pressed the stick to the left. He quickly shot much farther left than he had anticipated and leaned right trying to compensate, which didn't work. He slammed the stick to the right and the quickly overshot his intended target again. Feeling slightly nauseous from the motion, he simply hovered for a few moments, wiping the thin sheen of perspiration from his forehead with his left hand. He had to give the Professor credit. This was much harder than it looked.
Try as he might, no matter how gently he worked the yaw control, he constantly moved much farther than he anticipated. Frustrated, he moved the stick hard forward, only letting up when the mountain was nearly close enough to touch. Smith noticed the smaller lever on top of the yaw control and moved it experimentally with his thumb. He smiled as he realized finer adjustments could be made with the smaller lever. He moved the small lever back until he'd moved back to a point where he was sure he'd clear the rocky outcropping above. Then he continued ascending until a small flat area on the top of the mountain came into view. Focusing intently on the landing target, he slowly and patiently worked the controls, moving toward the spot in small increments until finally his feet touched ground.
He was so elated to be on solid ground again, he was tempted to kneel down and kiss the dirt, but quickly realized the bulk of the pack made such a gesture much more of a chore than he cared to perform. He looked out to the horizon on the other side of the mountain from their camp. Realizing he'd need some optical help, he searched his person for the binoculars and quickly realized he'd left them behind.
He released a string of expletives and then fortified himself for the trip back. Since he was headed for a large flat area around the camp and not a small target on a mountain top, he wasted no time on precision control. He landed about 30 feet from the Robot, quickly covered the rest of the ground on foot, and snatched the binoculars from the Robot's claw. "I'll be needing these." He draped them around his neck and was off again into the wild blue yonder.
Smith's ascent to the mountain top went much smoother than his first attempt. He reached altitude quickly and guided the jet pack forward towards his previous landing spot. He noticed he was starting to lose altitude, so he gave the pack a little more throttle. That had the opposite result and he began to panic. He quickly realized the jet pack was running out of fuel, so he jammed the left control hard forward, hoping he made it to ground before he started free falling.
The pack sputtered and quit all together as Smith reached a small ledge below the landing spot. He landed hard against the mountainside, nearly knocking the wind out of him. He clawed to gain a hand hold, but soon realized the controls of the jet pack were making that impossible. He slid precariously close to a sharp drop off. While his left hand held on for dear life, his right hand fumbled desperately to release the harness. He barely heard the click of the catch releasing over the pounding of his heart. He shrugged his right arm out and quickly grabbed at the loose earth trying to secure himself. Then he held his left arm out and let the entire pack drop. It skidded over the ledge and bounced off the rocky outcroppings below, flipping end over end before coming to rest in a crevice. He wasn't sure whether to mourn the loss or wish good riddance to the contraption.
Smith dug his toes in and pushed upward while his hands scrabbled in the loose dirt. He grabbed an exposed root and tested it. It held and he grasped it firmly. With a secure hand hold, he pulled himself up, his arms finally gaining purchase on the flat ground above. In one last burst of effort, he shoved himself up and rolled over the ledge to find himself yards from his chosen landing spot. He came to rest spread eagle on his stomach, not bothering to move until his heart stopped pounding. He let out a despondent moan when it suddenly occurred to him that the loss of the jet pack meant he'd have to climb down the mountain.
Putting the thought out of his mind for the moment, he pushed himself up to a sitting position. Immediately, the strap of the binoculars, which were hanging down his back, dug into his neck. He struggled with the tangled strap for a moment before finally freeing himself. He stood and brought the binoculars to his eyes, looking to the northeast, the direction the Robot had said the aliens had come from.
In the distance, some 15 miles or so away he judged, he saw a small hill that seemed to have some sort of complex built around it. Fortified, by the looks of it. It was too far away to distinguish if there were any aliens, or humans, there, but it was the best and only place to start looking at the moment. He swept the binoculars across the horizon, not finding any more alien-made structures. He focused back on the hill and studied the complex for a few moments more, mentally calculating the best route to take based on the terrain.
Smith settled the binoculars on his chest, placed his hands on his hips, and set his mind to calculating the best route off the mountain with no rope, no pick, no crampons, no knife, no flashlight, no matches, no canteen, no food, no gear whatsoever... except fairly useless binoculars. He turned in a circle, trying to decide which direction to study first. He looked for what he hoped was a gentle slope and walked as close to the edge as he dared. Peering over, he found a sheer cliff. "What have you gotten yourself into, Zachary?" he said aloud, no one there but himself to hear it.
Small pebbles his boot had knocked loose showered over the edge, ticking against the cliff face as they fell. Smith backed slowly away and walked toward the southern end of the mountain top. There he found a more promising slope. Daunting, but probably not impossible. He still hoped there was something better, an elevator he had perhaps overlooked. He spent the better part of half an hour studying all sides of the mountain before he decided on the southern route.
Afternoon was slowly waning and Smith had no desire to spend the night on the mountain. He had to get started soon if he wanted to avoid climbing in the dark, though with the three thousand feet or so he had to traverse, chances were he'd still be on the mountain after dark anyway. Even so, he lingered a few minutes more on the peak, absolutely dreading the task before him. The next time he had cause to make repairs to the Robot, he was definitely considering upgrading him with a rocket pack, which would come in handy for emergencies such as this.
Cautiously, Smith sat down and took a deep breath. He rolled onto his stomach, slowly pushed himself over the side, and lowered himself down to the first ledge, some nine feet below. He slid down the slope and sighed in relief when his feet met solid ground. He claimed a small victory and he brushed the dirt from his hands. "Well, Zachary ol' boy, only two thousand nine hundred and ninety one feet to go!"
The ledge was fairly wide, about four feet, and continued alongside the mountain in a gradual grade for a few hundred feet before it ended in a drop off. Smith traveled the length of the short trail looking for the next advantageous spot to negotiate. He found a promising incline that he could traverse fairly easily for several hundred feet. Standing sideways to the incline, he placed one booted foot in the loose dirt. It slid a few inches and then gripped the newly packed earth beneath it. He took a step with his other foot. Slowly and methodically, he worked his way down the grade sideways, occasionally slipping and planting a hand to steady himself. He could see a small meadow at the bottom and promised himself a rest when he reached it.
Eventually, one dirty boot trampled down newly sprouted grass, then another, and soon Smith's entire backside plopped down at the edge of the meadow. He licked his dry lips and silently cursed himself for neglecting to bring a canteen. Then he cursed himself for neglecting to check the jet pack's fuel levels before he took off with the binoculars.
After a short rest, though not long enough for Smith's standards, he continued his descent. He encountered a few small challenges along the way, resulting in a nice collection of scrapes and bruises, but nothing that he couldn't handle.
Around dusk, he came to his greatest challenge yet. He had scrambled up a large boulder, which, he knew from earlier study higher on the mountain, led to well worn path that meandered all the way down the rest of the mountain. He was almost home free. What he had not seen while further up the mountain was the ten foot gap in the middle of the trail created by some long forgotten landslide. He shook his head dejectedly, almost ready to resign himself to a night on the mountain, if not longer. The wind picked up and, despite his jacket, it cut into him. He stood near the gap, just staring into it. The longer he stared, the bigger it looked. He looked around, hoping for another option, but finding none. He had climbed himself into a corner, as it were.
Smith slid a weary hand along his lightly stubbled face. He agonized. He paced. He peered into the abyss. He did everything but face the challenge head on. His inner coward wouldn't let him, it had him in a vice grip and wasn't letting go so easily. Scaling such heights with a jet pack on your back was one thing. Flinging yourself into space without absolute certainty you'd land safely on the other side was quite another.
He mulled the choices in his head one more time. Don't take a chance and die on the mountain. Do take a chance, fail, and die on the mountain. And the long shot, take a chance, make it, and live to see another day. That, of course, was his favorite, but the odds were long. Suddenly, he realized that there were six other lives that rode on his decision. That only tormented him further.
He argued with himself for a few more minutes, then cursed loudly, realizing he was about to commit himself to something that every fiber of his being screamed loudly at him not to do. He set the binoculars down so they wouldn't prove a hindrance. They were now just one more piece of lost equipment to add to the growing list. He sprinted toward the gap as fast as he could and leaped with all the strength his weary legs would afford him. The landing was bone rattling, but he managed to end up with most of his torso on solid ground. As he tried to pull himself up, he lost ground, inching toward the abyss. The growing wind did nothing for his concentration or grip. One particularly strong gust actually pushed him backwards and he grasped desperately at his shrinking real estate. His feet searched frantically for something solid, but found only air.
Out of his peripheral vision, Smith saw a large shadow rise up next to him. He had more important things to worry about, so he paid it little attention. If it was some large winged scavenger, it probably wouldn't have to wait much longer anyway. Just then, a few inches of the ledge gave way and he lunged forward to catch the remaining ledge with his hands. He sat there dangling, knowing he had but seconds left, when over the roar of the wind he heard, "Doctor Smith, care for a lift?" He turned his head as best he could and caught sight of the space pod, the Robot at its controls. He nodded, eyes wide with fear.
The Robot positioned the space pod close enough for Smith to plant a boot firmly inside. He carefully raised the pod a little, allowing the doctor to use the new foothold to get better position on the ledge. He held out a red claw for Smith to grasp. Smith reached out a hand and grasped the Robot's claw, while simultaneously pushing off with the other hand. He wobbled inside the door frame, gravity threatening to pull him back out, before the Robot shot out his other claw and pulled him inside the hovering craft. The hatch quickly closed behind him. Smith threw his arms around his cybernetic savior and held on tight, thankful to finally be grasping something solid, even if it was the ninny.
After a few moments, Smith looked up towards the Robot's bubble and slowly removed his arms from around him. "No one is to know of this," he stated.
"It's forgotten," the Robot replied. He knew full well how the doctor operated. This was an ordeal so traumatic Smith did not want it to be mentioned again, especially his uncharacteristic display of thanks. He would comply, but it warmed his sensors just to know the doctor was truly grateful.
The Robot steered the space pod back to camp. When Smith had sufficiently recovered, he asked how he had managed to get the space pod out of the Jupiter 2. The Robot told him that he had started repairs to the damaged hatch as soon as Smith left with the binoculars.
"It took me most of the day," the Robot explained. "Since you had not returned by the time I was finished, I became concerned for your safety and came searching for you."
Smith simply nodded and looked quietly out the portal for the rest of the short trip.
Continue to Chapter 4: Together Again