Rocks crunched and cracked loudly beneath the treads of the Chariot as it maneuvered through a narrow gorge. The noise echoed up and down the chasm, sounding like a small avalanche was about to drop right on top of the vehicle's occupants. The rumbling of the Chariot's motor only increased the effect.
One pair of piercing, intelligent brown eyes stared straight ahead, ignoring everything but the rough terrain before them. Another pair of eyes, blue and clearly frightened, darted everywhere else.
“Major,” began the quivering voice, already sounding a bit shrill. “You are going to invite an early demise for the both of us if you don't turn around and extricate us immediately.”
Major Don West gave no more than a cursory glance toward his co-pilot who, at that moment, was worse than useless. He decided not to waste his breath on assurances. He liked seeing his passenger squirm. It was one way to vent his frustrations, since his companion typically raised his ire just by doing nothing at all. And that was precisely what Dr. Zachary Smith had done most of the morning–nothing. He'd bellyached about the hard work. He'd complained about the cold. He'd griped about the “deplorable conditions” of their present landing site for at least the thousandth time. But, most of all, he'd grumbled about being cooped up in the small Chariot for most of the day with a man he intensely disliked. At least he liked to pretend he thoroughly detested the pilot of the Jupiter Two, because baiting the major was too much fun to ignore, especially when other activities became boring.
Unbeknownst to Smith, the major was having similar thoughts of his own. After calculating his course through the small boulders littering the path, West allowed his mind a few moments respite. Immediately he dreamed up ways to pay Smith back for having done next to no labor at the first weather station site. Still, he reasoned, the doctor's constant prattling had kept his mind off how routine such work had become. He was grateful for that much at least. Not that he was going to let Smith know it.
The mutual respect the two men had developed for each other rarely surfaced in public. Secretly, West earned Smith's respect because the major was a capable pilot, hard-working, diligent, self-sacrificing for the good of all crew members, brave and steadfast. All excellent qualities for someone interested in exploring the vast reaches of unexplored space.
Conversely, Smith rarely displayed any of those qualities. Nevertheless, West admired the doctor's quick intellect, his adaptability under duress (though he always managed to make it appear as if he was anything but adaptable), his survivor's instincts and his cleverness at getting out of the never-ending chores thrown his way.
The latter assessment brought a quick smirk to his lips. The day was still young, as the saying went. West drew up some hasty plans, along with alternatives, all designed to elicit the most discomfort out of Smith's middle-aged body.
Next to him, Dr. Smith suppressed a shiver, as if he knew what his companion was planning. He pulled the parka closer, trying to hold in the warmth, and reached for the temperature controls.
Irritably, West swiped at the hand, gratified to see Smith jerk it out of harm's way. “Leave it alone,” the major muttered. “You've turned it up three times already. I'm about roasted as it is.”
“Indeed,” Smith sniffed disdainfully. “I suspect you are just as cold as I am; you simply want to see me suffer.” Mentally he flinched, realizing he'd just opened himself up for another verbal attack.
“Who, me?” Don asked ingenuously, hiding a grin–barely. “Nah! But look at it this way, there's plenty of work to do setting up the weather station at the next site. We'll get that body of yours moving and, believe me, all the activity will make you feel real toasty in no time.”
“Oh, joy,” groaned Smith, letting the sarcastic inflection of his words drone out from the pit of his stomach.
Suddenly the Chariot thumped down hard as some rocks gave way beneath the treads. West quickly adjusted the twin levers, pulling the vehicle onto more stable ground.
Grabbing the seat, Smith figuratively bit his tongue, unwilling to distract the Chariot's driver. His breath caught in his throat as an agonizing jolt of heat streaked from his tailbone all the way to his mid-back. The muscles spasmed painfully a few times from the rude jostling they'd just received, but Smith hid the discomfort by sitting up stiffly. Eventually the burning sensation eased and he was able to relax a little.
Out of the corner of his eye, Don noticed the doctor's rigid posture and the tightening of his jaw. That, and the ensuing silence rather than the typical complaints, led the major to ponder previous assumptions.
Smith was always complaining about back problems. Always used the excuse to get out of heavy lifting. No one believed it, especially Don. They'd all seen Smith pull his weight when his life depended on it. But seeing the tension in the doctor's stocky frame made him wonder. Was the momentary jostling just making Smith uptight or had Don really caught a quick glimpse of pain?
Shrugging mentally, West guided the vehicle ever deeper into the ravine. Despite the green-hued atmosphere above them, little light penetrated the depths of the gorge. The colorful strata on the cliff sides became a merged blurring of brown as the light dissipated.
Five minutes later the walls above them merged into one solid canopy. West grunted in consternation. Smith shivered, as much from concern as from the increasing cold. He was about to adjust the heat again, but thought better of it.
Don flipped on the headlamps, illuminating the path before them. It was narrow, distressingly so. They couldn't see much farther than the next bend. The only advantage was that the rocky terrain had leveled out a bit. The surface appeared sandy and darkly colored, like crushed obsidian.
“Major,” Smith barked suddenly, “surely you can't mean to head in there? Admit it! Your short cut has turned out to be a dismal failure! Reverse our course before you wedge us in so firmly we can't extricate ourselves!”
Abruptly Don brought the vehicle to a halt. Wordlessly he scanned the increasing darkness before them, as if he could pierce it just by concentrating harder. Under ordinary circumstances he would have heeded the advice and backed out. But it was Smith issuing the orders and Don was never one to let the doctor's blustering manner force him into surrender.
Cautiously, he slid out his door, stood on the tread a moment, then dropped lightly to the ground. The sand beneath his boots hissed as his heels sank in slightly. He reached back inside, retrieved a flashlight from behind his seat and turned the beacon on. It flashed high overhead and bounced back at him blindingly.
Inside the Chariot, he could hear Smith yell. No doubt the doctor was already attempting to shield his eyes, just as Don was. Almost immediately, West lowered the beam to the sandy surface. He waited a few moments, trying to rid his retinas of the orange orb that remained in his vision. Not too far from him, he could hear Smith shifting in his seat.
“Major, where are you?” The tone was hesitant and frightened.
“Here. Don't sweat it. I'm not going anywhere until I can see better.”
Sounding a bit calmer, Smith murmured, “Well, at least you can see something. I think you should know you've blinded me, thank you very much!”
West let a small smile perk up the corners of his lips. The peeved tone of his companion let him know there was nothing seriously wrong.
It took several minutes before the after-image faded away. Gradually, West brought the beacon upward, using his hand to block out most of the light overhead. Brownish, glittering veins shot throughout the walls, mingled with equally numerous veins of shimmering orange crystals. The canopy seemed to swirl with gleaming laser-like particles. Closer to the bottom the walls were smoother and didn't reflect nearly as much light. If anything, the sediment seemed to absorb it. The Chariot's powerful head lamps didn't illuminate much beyond twenty feet and that was pushing it.
“More strange anomalies,” Smith grumbled aloud. “Why can't these misbegotten dustballs follow the principles of geology and physics?”
As his voice echoed toward the major, Don turned slightly but made no comment before continuing on. There was no point in arguing with Smith, who probably knew next to nothing about those scientific topics beyond Geology and Physics 101.
Besides, at that moment, Don only wanted to consider two things connected with those subjects: One, whether it would harm them in some way right then, and two, whether it would harm them in some way later on. He hoped they wouldn't be remaining on this world long enough to worry about the planet's natural inclinations, whether they followed “universal laws” or not.
There was one fact he did know. Unlike Earth, this inhospitable ball of rock didn't have a particularly strong molten core. Little lived on the surface. And, from past explorations of small caverns near the landing site, they knew that this planet's underground temperature was considerably colder than Earth caverns, which tended to maintain an even fifty-five degrees.
West's breath rolled out in vaporous white waves. Arriving at the bend in the cavern, he carefully trained his light beam on the sandy bottom and moved it until it hit another smoky-looking wall. “Too narrow,” he muttered. “For the Chariot at least.”
Much as he was loathe to admit it, this short cut through the small mountain range had turned out to be no short cut at all. Perhaps they could walk, but he had no more desire to haul equipment than Smith did. Darn! He was sure they were fairly close to the weather station coordinates. Now they'd have to turn back and start from scratch, which meant spending more time with Smith's grumbling, on top of all the other aggravations.
Without comment, Don climbed back up into the Chariot. He slammed the door hard enough to make it rattle and wished he hadn't. In the greenish glow of the instrument panel, he saw the doctor turn to face him.
“You should have at least arranged for air reconnaissance prior to getting us into this predicament,” Smith said smugly. It was an “I told you so” statement if ever there was one.
Don rewarded him with a glowering glance but refrained from comment. West had to admit it. Smith had brought it up shortly after they'd deviated from the prescribed route. “Don't worry,” the major had boldly stated. “I've found a great short cut.”
“When did you locate this?” Smith had queried, uncertainty in his voice.
“I've passed the gorge before. I'm sure it'll exit just about near where we need to be. I've seen the exit point on the other side and the slope's gentler from there.” Seeing Smith's continued frown, he'd added, “I'm doing this for you. I know how you hate rough climbs.”
Of course he could have discussed his plans prior to leaving the Jupiter Two. The professor would have gladly donned the jet pack and reconnoitered the area before they had actually set out on their trip, but no, Don had let self-assurance cloud his judgment.