Now West was forced to face facts. This idea, however convenient it had appeared, would cause a major delay as they attempted to back out of the ravine. Neither of them was fooled. This wasn't going to be an easy task. There were no convenient places to turn the Chariot around.
Muttering an oath, West switched on the rear spotlights and, looking over his shoulder, prepared to reverse course.
Smith, typically “deaf” when commands and orders for duty assignments were given, jerked his head around and arched one eyebrow. The sardonic look spoke volumes, but for once, he didn't add insult to injury. The major appeared to be in a foul enough mood as it was and he was loath to have West booting him outside. It was uncomfortable enough riding in the sorry excuse of a contraption, but walking would be infinitely worse.
Closing his eyes in quiet contemplation, Smith felt the Chariot shift into reverse. Slowly, it retraced its path.
Expertly guiding the large machine back around boulders and tight bends for about one hundred feet, Don paused to rest. Looking back over his shoulder the whole way was uncomfortable. He thought about utilizing Smith as a guide, but realized it would be like driving blind. Instructions of “left,” “right” or “straight” wouldn't be completely descriptive.
Moving at a snail's pace, they traveled another hundred feet before Don made his decision. “Smith! Get back there and guide me.”
“Surely you jest!” Smith retorted, wondering how advisable it would be to give verbal directions. Without hesitation, he voiced his doubts.
Don sighed loudly. “Don't give me any excuses. Just do it.”
“If something happens, I refuse to be held responsible.”
“Why doesn't that surprise me?” muttered West, once more setting the Chariot in motion, inching backward.
A second later Smith called out, “Left for five feet.”
“Mine or yours?”
“This is destined to fail,” moaned Smith before answering. “Yours.”
West complied. More instructions followed. Amazingly, they made progress without many miscalculations or mishap. Soon the rock canopy's edge drew into view about two hundred feet away. They could see the lime green sky beyond it. An area wide enough to pivot the chariot around presented itself and the major quickly turned the nose toward the sunlight. Seconds later Smith rejoined him.
Well within view of the open sky, both men let out an audible sigh of relief. Then they heard it, an odd rumble. Immediately after, the ground beneath the treads began to vibrate, sending particles of sand bouncing around like water in a hot frying pan. The Chariot began to rock. Don fought with the controls and Smith clutched the seat, white-knuckled and perspiring despite the cold.
The first boulder crashed to their left, sending broken shards of rock through Smith's window. Startled, the doctor howled. One arm flew up to cover his face. As he shied away from that side, he bumped into Don, who was grimly clutching the controls as the vehicle bobbed from side to side. More rocks rained down. One crashed through the dome bubble as another rolled into the Chariot's side. More boulders continued to tumble down. The pile grew higher and higher as the canopy seemed to fold in toward them.
The supporting walls began to give, pouring down like foaming waves. Dust flew toward the helpless vehicle, enveloping it, plunging in through the broken glass.
Suddenly gasping for air, both men could do nothing but fight for each breath. What appeared to last hours was actually over in less than two minutes. An eternity as far as Smith was concerned, though he couldn't clearly recount much of what happened. Brief flashes of imagery raced through his mind. And, along with that, the realization that he was still breathing, albeit barely, and therefore still alive–at least for the moment.
Coughs wracked his body. Minutes went by before he could open his smarting eyes. Somehow he could detect twin beacons of light amidst the swirling dust. It took him a few seconds to realize the Chariot's headlamps had miraculously survived the bombardment. Grunting, he turned toward the major. The sight greeting him wasn't encouraging.
West was leaning back in the seat, head thrown back. All panel lights were out, limiting Smith's visual exam. With trembling fingers, he reached behind his seat and, after a moment's fishing around, managed to locate another flashlight. His fingers refused to cooperate as he attempted to switch it on. He mentally muttered an oath that would have shocked West and the entire Robinson clan had they heard him actually verbalize it.
Finally, he got the light on and focused it on the major. A small reddish bruise was swelling on his temple but, other than that, there appeared to be no obvious injury. Yet the man's stillness brought a touch of panic to Smith's heart. What would he do if West died here? How would he get back to the ship? How would he survive the harsh conditions outside? He had no idea how to answer the questions. The only thing he knew was he needed West alive and in command.
Without much thought, he reached out his left hand. Placing his trembling fingers against the major's neck, he felt for the carotid pulse. Expertly, he located it immediately and almost cried out with relief. The heartbeat was strong and steady.
At the doctor's touch, Don jumped and rapidly regained consciousness. In the barely lit cockpit, he saw Smith withdraw his hand as if he'd been burned. A quick assessment told him his injuries weren't serious. Scooping up his own flashlight, he began a cursory examination of the instrument panel.
As the major performed his preliminary exam of the equipment, Smith collapsed back against his seat, drawing in a ragged breath. Dust particles still floated heavily in the stagnant air. Gradually he became aware of a trickle of sweat rolling down his cheek. Irritably, he swiped at it and immediately felt a sharp stab of pain.
Bringing his own flashlight beam down upon his extended fingers, he noted the red blotches on the tips. Blood. Worse yet, his own blood. Gingerly he felt his face and found small shards of glass sticking in his skin. The panicking part of his brain wondered how much damage there was. The more levelheaded portion of his mind located the painful spots so that he could extract the pieces of glass.
Totally consumed in his task, he wasn't aware that Don had stopped his work.
“You okay?” West queried. He swung the light in Smith's direction and caught a startlingly bloody sight. Genuinely concerned, he hastily searched for the first aid kit, but a firm hand stopped him.
“It undoubtedly looks worse than it is,” Smith calmly informed him. He didn't want assistance; he wanted to get out of there. Now! “Minor flesh wounds on the head often bleed heavily given the skin's higher vascularity in that region.”
“You sound like a walking textbook,” Don complained, wondering if Smith had actually sustained a more serious blow to the head. A Smith who wasn't complaining about pain was a Smith who wasn't normal. “Are you sure you're all right?”
Out of the semi-darkness, Don heard “Oh, the pain, the pain of it all!” Then there was a brief pause before Smith added, “There. Happy now?”
In spite of their situation, West laughed. If Smith could make jokes, especially jokes at his own expense, then perhaps their situation wasn't as bad as he first feared.