Slowly Don pushed against his door. It didn't budge. He pushed harder and was rewarded with a metallic groan. Finally, the door sprang open and he slid outside. A quick view of their surroundings revealed what he'd most feared. “Sealed up tight,” he called out to Smith.
“Obviously, otherwise we'd be seeing sunlight. Don't waste your breath stating what is already evident. I'd prefer to hear your suggestions concerning our escape from this granite sepulcher.”
“You want the good news or the bad news first?” Don replied, not without a strong note of sarcasm. He heard a door open and the sound of booted feet hit the sand. Presently, Smith joined him in the illumined area in front of the Chariot.
Giving West a piercing look, Smith muttered, “Kindly refrain from playing games with me, Major. Right now it all looks like bad news to me and my sole interest lies in whichever direction extricates us most expeditiously.”
Tight-lipped, West shook his head. “Why does everything you say turn into a dissertation? Just for once, can't you talk like a normal person?”
Smith frowned, the creases on his brow buried deep in shadows. “Fine. Get me the heck out of here,” he growled a moment later. “Satisfied?”
A clipped, humorless chuckle rushed out of West's parted lips. “Yeah, it'll do. For now.” Pulling his parka tighter about him, he cautiously picked his way through the rocks to the mountain of boulders stacked before him. Climbing up a few feet, he gave a few haphazard shoves on some of the higher ones, causing some loose dirt to trickle down. Nothing else budged. Not that he expected much.
With more haste, he returned to the Chariot and examined the exterior communications array. Though he knew the odds of it having survived weren't good, he'd hoped to get some positive news for a change.
“Well?” Smith prompted from below him as he gazed up expectantly.
“Damaged beyond repair,” was the despondent reply. “We won't be sending any messages, that much is for sure. Not that it matters. I don't think it would transmit through this much rock anyway.”
“I thought we had portable communications equipment. Perhaps we can use that.”
Don shook his head. “Not with all this over us. We'll need to be outside, free of any obstructions, in order for it to work well. Besides, it has a limited range. Once we get out of here, we'd have to climb up to a reasonably high point to use it to its best advantage.”
Smith plopped down wearily onto the Chariot's tread. “Oh, woe, we're doomed!” he cried to no one particular. “I don't want to die like this. In fact, I don't want to die at all.” Suddenly, as if realizing he needed to turn self-pity into accusation, he glared at Don. “Major, you're to blame for all of this. That short cut of yours is going to cost us our lives. No one knows we're here and we have no idea if there is another way out. Your suppositions could have us walking into a dead end, provided there is sufficient oxygen to get us that far. And at the rate things are developing, I'll likely exsanguinate before the air runs out.” He thrust his chin out belligerently, though the lighting was too poor for the gesture to be seen.
Walking over to the doctor, West thrust his face right up to Smith's to the point where their noses were almost touching. Startled, Smith lurched back, banging his head against the vehicle's door. Before he could completely recover, he heard West murmur in a devilish tone, “Given your earlier medical assessment, I wouldn't worry about bleeding to death, Doctor. However, if you make one more complaint, I am going to strangle you. And when I get out, I'll simply say the rock slide got you!”
Rubbing the developing bruise on the back of his skull, Smith glared back and growled, “You wouldn't dare harm me!” Seeing the evil-shadowed façade before him, he amended more meekly, “Would you?”
Although Don doubted that Smith was genuinely humbled, he let the situation blow over without response. Let him think I'd do it, he laughed to himself. Maybe it'll make him more compliant for a change. After all, he had enough troubles and he had no desire to see Smith countermanding his orders every step of the way.
After a few seconds, he sat down next to the doctor and pondered his next move. There were enough supplies to last them two days. Certainly, long before then, the Robinsons would be looking for them. If the terrain remained unchanged, the tread marks might still be left in the dirt, acting as a signpost to indicate the direction traveled. Of course, their luck might have run out. The robot had reported snow was on its way–again. If that happened early on, it might obscure their tracks.
Mentally he chided himself once more. Smith had been right. This was his fault. His own bursts of animosity toward the doctor had clouded his judgment. Still, the temptation to blame the doctor was overpowering. It almost always boiled down to Smith having done “something.” How often had Smith brought danger down on all of them? How often had danger stalked them due to Smith's cowardice? And how often had his avarice for wealth or a fast ticket back to Earth gotten him into tight situations where he invariably required someone else to rescue him?
Worse yet, Don was forced to recognize that Smith's doom-saying often turned into a fulfillment of that prophecy. The doctor's instincts were too good in that regard. West had made the cardinal mistake of ignoring his warnings simply because they were delivered in such an incessant, irritating manner.
Uncharacteristically, the doctor remained silent. Briefly, Don wondered if there was a problem. Smith's shoulders were hunched, his head hanging listlessly. In the dim light he could see Smith's hands hanging limply between his legs. Sitting there would do them no good at all, Don knew. If he waited much longer, he feared Smith would become too depressed to be of any use whatsoever.
He clapped Smith on the shoulder. The other man jerked as if startled. “Come on, Smith. Time to head out.” Turning behind him, he pulled neon yellow equipment bags out of the Chariot. Hastily, he placed the contents safely back inside the vehicle, and then jury-rigged the equipment bags to act as backpacks. “Here,” he grunted, thrusting one sack to Smith, who took the item reluctantly. “Open it up, will you? We haven't got all day.”
Smith threw West a scathing look, but offered no rebuttal. Still shooting daggers at the major's back, he pulled the yellow bag open and waited. Several items were stuffed inside. A first-aid kit, half of the prepackaged survival rations they had with them, several power packs for the flashlights, a lightweight survival blanket, some of the cooking gear and a large jug of water. Don threw a tablet into the water. The naturally occurring compound, one they'd discovered on a previous expedition, was not only safe for ingestion, but lowered the freezing point of fluids.
When Smith's sack was full, he unceremoniously pulled it from the doctor's hands and sealed it up. He parked it against Smith's legs to keep it upright and handed over the second pack. In it went the rest of the food, a second blanket, two wraps designed to protect the lower face from cold, some tough rope, a hand-held medium range walkie-talkie and the communications equipment.
Smith grunted as Don released the larger radio into the bag. It wasn't hard to reassemble and was quite compact, but inordinately heavy for something so small. Mentally Smith began planning how to pawn that particular pack off on the major. He didn't relish being a packhorse for anyone, but if he had no choice in the matter, he was going to take the lighter of the two loads. A small spasm crept up his spine in anticipation of the work ahead. He flinched slightly at the discomfort. It poked at him again as if to show him who was boss, then went dormant.
Working efficiently, Don continued to pack. In his own pockets he stuffed the compass, a large folding knife and a warm pair of gloves. He gave a second pair to Smith, who didn't hesitate to don them immediately.
Much to Smith's delight, the major took the heavy sack and set it down on the tread. Bending down, West picked up Smith's pack and held it out. When the doctor simply stood there, Don physically turned him and slammed the pack against Smith's spine. In that position, Don didn't see the slight grimace on Smith's face as a sharp edged “something” pushed into his delicate back. Nevertheless, the doctor stuck his arms through the straps.
Feeling a tad guilty at being so rough, Don helped maneuver the burden higher and tightened the straps. Next he shouldered his own bag, securing it as he had Smith's–not failing to notice that the other man had made no move to help him. Par for the course, he muttered mentally. Finally he strapped on a laser pistol and handed one to Smith, who grimaced distastefully at it before belting it around his waist.
“I presume we're to follow this path back into the bowels of the earth,” Smith blurted out the obvious as the major secured the Chariot, turned head lamps off and flashlight on. When no answer was immediately forthcoming, he added bitterly, “I hope you're correct about an exit farther down. I loathe the thought of trekking for miles only to meet an early demise in this God-forsaken place.”
In irritation, Don swung the flashlight full into Smith's face. The doctor flinched, but made no effort to protect himself. Don noted the blood-streaked face, disheveled hair and gray pallor of the skin. The fine dust stirred up by the cave-in appeared to coat nearly every inch of Smith's exposed skin. In brief, he looked terrible and Don felt a momentary spark of pity for the man.
Withdrawing the light, he muttered, “Let's go. I don't want to delay any longer. The quicker we move, the more daylight we'll have waiting for us when we get out of here.” He hoped the positive words would provide an encouragement.
Smith sniffed petulantly. “Humph! You mean if we get out of here.”
“Smith!” Don barked angrily, making the other man jump. West was about to unburden all of his frustrations on the defenseless doctor, but thought better of it. Slowly he uncurled his balled fists. No use beating you to a pulp, he mused to himself. I'd only have to carry you out of here.
As if aware of his companion's hostile thoughts, Smith took an unwary step backward. His boot heel snagged on a rock and he felt himself pitch over backward. Arms akimbo, he flailed for balance. Suddenly a strong hand clasped his and pulled him upright. Taking a few deep breaths, Smith almost said “thank you” but he had no intention of expressing thanks for anything at the moment. After all, he wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place if that pig-headed major had listened to him right from the onset.
During the same moment, West was actually considering leaving Smith behind. The man was worse than useless in these situations. He daydreamed briefly about how good it would be to unburden himself of this sorry excuse for a human being, then felt his face grow hot. Leaving Smith behind would make him no better than the individual he professed to loathe.
With a self-deprecatory grunt, he snagged Smith's sleeve and physically propelled him into the dark corridor.
“I shall never survive this, I tell you!”
After walking three miles, Smith was still intoning a string of negative sentiments, all of which centered on his own discomfort. He asked for another rest stop, but Don ignored him. Finally he switched tactics. “Major! I simply can't take another step. If I don't rest, I'll collapse.”
“Be my guest!” muttered West, flashing a bold grin. He wasn't worried. Unless Smith turned on his flashlight, the doctor would never see it.
Smith's tone changed. It sounded odd and almost child-like. “Really, Major. I must have twisted my ankle when I stumbled by the Chariot. The pain grows worse with each step.”
“If it was broken or badly sprained, you wouldn't be able to walk on it,” Don replied, not eager to face another delay.
“True, but I probably strained it.”
That remark caught Don off-guard. He knew enough first aid to understand the difference between a strain and a sprain. For Smith to select the lesser of two evils, or to give an accurate assessment of his condition for that matter, told West there might be a genuine problem.
“Okay, let's say you did. If we stop, what will you do aside from look at it? You can't bandage it or you'll never get your boot back on. If it's swelling, keeping your boot on is probably the best thing for it anyhow.”
From the near darkness came a dejected sigh. “Very well, Major. Let us proceed.”
The surrender made him feel guilty. “Look, I'll give you ten minutes to sit down and take some weight off that leg, but no more.” He located the nearest wall and propped his back up against it, pack and all. In truth, he didn't want to sit down for fear he'd stiffen up and be reluctant to start out again.
They'd passed the reflective chamber long ago. The ravine had continued to narrow to the point where two men could barely walk abreast. Since the surface remained sandy in most parts, it played havoc with weaker joints. As they'd delved deeper into the cave, Don began to despair of ever finding a way out. Yet, keeping his thoughts to himself seemed best. If Smith panicked, there would be no reasoning with him except through threats and physical violence, and neither option appealed to Don under the current circumstances. He needed Smith whole, fairly healthy and able to carry the supplies. The threats would be saved for a dire emergency if one should arise. They were nowhere near that point as far as Don was concerned.
Taking his flashlight, West laid it gently on the floor. Its beacon shone in Smith's direction.
The doctor had unceremoniously sunk to the sand and was gingerly massaging his ankle. That finished, he removed one glove and tentatively explored the sore spots on his face. He wrinkled his nose with distaste at the constant stinging that had plagued him since their departure from the Chariot. Mentally, he reviewed the items in the first aid kit and found there was nothing in it to alleviate his discomfort. He looked at the slashed sleeve where glass had penetrated right into his forearm. As they'd walked, he'd tried to brush some of the slivers free. He'd been moderately successful, but he could still feel pieces pricking his skin as he moved. Ignoring the major's pointed stare, Smith took a few moments to work the irritating slivers free from the cloth. A contented sigh escaped his lips as he stroked the ripped material and realized nothing remained to stick him.
“Time's up,” West's voice echoed in the cave. Striding to Smith, he extended a hand.
Replacing his glove, Smith allowed West to pull him upright. He brushed off his coat and pants where the crystalline particles clung tenaciously. A sudden chill ripped through him, making him draw his coat tighter around him. In Don's flashlight beam he could faintly see billowing clouds of breath.
“It's growing positively frigid,” he informed the major needlessly. “If we don't get out of here soon, we'll freeze to death. That cooking equipment won't provide heat for long.” He hung back a pace as if expecting West to verbally attack him. He was in for a surprise.
Calmly, Don replied, “I know. The Robot said the temperature was dropping and I'm sure you heard him predict several inches of snowfall. And he's never been wrong–so far.”
“That bumptious booby had better be in error this time!” Smith spat out, then added in a fear-edged voice, “I hope it hasn't already started snowing. The vicissitudes of this journey are trying enough without adding more problems.”
Don shrugged. Worrying about the unknown was a waste of energy as far as he was concerned. Looking back at their rest area, he checked to make sure they still had everything with them. Then he, too, pulled his parka tighter about himself and suppressed a shiver.
As they resumed their trek, the major glanced surreptitiously at Smith from time to time. At first he noticed the faint limp, but that faded as the numbing cold blotted out the pain. Wearily they staggered on. Their burdens grew heavier. Smith began to lag behind, his energy reserves depleting faster. Finally Don was forced to admit that he, too, was running on “empty.”
Abruptly West halted. Smith, chugging along on autopilot, nearly collided with him, but caught himself just in time. “Warn me the next time you plan to do that!”
“Sorry,” Don said quietly. He was too tired and too cold to rebuke Smith's indignant warning. “Time out! Let's fix something to eat and rest a while.” He checked his chronometer. A half-hour break, he promised himself, no more.
Fixing lunch with numbed fingers turned out to be far more difficult than either man wanted to profess. Finally they got the small stove lit, heated up some coffee and some of the dried rations mixed with water. The green mush was distinctly unappetizing, but it was nutritious and warm.
They ate quietly until Smith broke the silence. “This is taking us far too long. I believe you mentioned the foothills above us weren't all that wide. You stated the Chariot could get through the ravine in less than an hour.”
“True,” West admitted without hesitation. “However, what've you observed about our course?”
At first Smith turned a blank stare upon the major. Did West really want him to make an assessment, or was this a chance for the man to denigrate him further? “It's a meandering path.” He paused, gazing at West. “I gather that, in your own inimitable fashion, you are pointing out that we may be physically traversing one mile but perhaps only advancing a quarter of a mile in the general direction of our intended destination.”
“You got it, Smith. That means two things. I have no idea how much farther we need to go, and I can't even begin to calculate how long it will take us to get out.”
A solitary word then echoed softly in the chamber, “Doomed.”
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