Walking several paces behind West, he felt both old and new aches plaguing him. The sweat he'd worked up during the altercation was rapidly cooling on his skin. An hour later he was shivering so badly he couldn't keep going. “Wait,” he panted. “Too cold.”
At first he fully expected West to just disappear and keep going. To his surprise, the major stopped and wordlessly set up a camp in the narrow hollow between the walls. The stove threw off a pleasant heat and the coffee brewing smelled like the sweetest nectar.
As they savored the warmth flowing down their throats, West caught Smith's attention with a wave of his hand. “Fuel's almost gone. We'll have enough for one more stop, maybe two at the most. No guarantees. Once we get going, we should push to get outside.”
“Agreed,” Smith replied succinctly. He watched the liquid in his cup ripple as his hands shook. Though warmer, he was still not terribly comfortable. For the first time, he seriously began to wonder if they'd survive this mission. Already he was growing sleepy, not a good sign. Surreptitiously he studied the man across from him.
Staring deep into the bottom of his cup, Major West looked half-asleep himself…and like death warmed over to boot. Draining the last drop of brown liquid, he turned off the cook stove and prepared to stow it again. Within a minute, the device was cool enough to be packed. “One more push toward freedom,” he stated hopefully.
“Freedom,” Smith echoed half-heartedly.
Another hour later they began to slow their pace. Inevitably, Smith began griping about ravenous hunger, assorted aches and frostbitten feet. In fact, they were so cold, he could barely feel the pain from his strained ankle. Previously, it had throbbed without letup, but remained serviceable. Now it felt like someone had replaced the joint with a big ball of pliable rubber. The sensation gave him a queasy feeling when he thought about it.
Then an eerie sound drifted their way, almost like the whuffling of an herbivore, but higher pitched. The further they walked, the louder the sound grew.
Smith shivered again, this time in fear. His danger radar was telling him there was cause for alarm. Warning the major flashed through his jumbled thoughts, but instinct told him West would brush off those fears as exaggerated and unfounded. The endless “worrier,” Smith held out no hope that the major would take anything he said seriously, at least not until whatever monstrosity lurking ahead actually pounced on them.
As he licked dry lips, he concentrated on the noise that rolled down the corridor. The sound changed in pitch, dropping low enough to resemble a herd of elephants rumbling across grassy plains.
The two men rounded a bend in the wall and drew up short. The cave opened up before them, a large domed room thick with huge, rounded, snowflake-like stalagmites. When the flashlight beam hit them, they glowed a bright, blazing magenta. The glow persisted even as West's beam hit other white patches. They, too, shone with that awesome color. Hesitantly, West approached one enormous coral-like mound and stretched out a gloved hand without touching the growth.
“Careful,” pleaded Smith fearfully.
“There's no heat,” West explained.
“You expected some?” Smith asked, perplexed.
West shrugged, a wry grin etched on his lips. His face reflected the eerie light flaring around them. “I'd hoped this luminescence might provide us with some heat, like that species on Orpheus II. Remember?”
Now it was Smith's turn to shrug. “Vaguely. I believe that was your discovery. I remained at the ship that day.”
“Yeah, right. I remember. You spent the entire time enjoying your favorite pursuit–idleness.”
“Major, your continued insults are really beginning to irk me.” Though Smith said it with a tight-lipped frown, his despondent tone didn't lend credence to his words.
Forcing a hearty sigh, West decided to press on. Before they had gotten halfway across the huge cavern, the rumblings began again, followed by a low moan that made both men stand back to back, weapons drawn. Their vaporous breath surrounded them like a miniature cloud. Hastily, West jammed the flashlight in his pocket to free up that hand.
Slowly, from the centers of each mound, regular shaped cracks appeared and silver vines stretched out. The ropy vines vibrated and swayed in a nonexistent breeze. A slight whine filled the air like voltage through power lines.
Smith's breathing grew ragged as the fronds began to vibrate nearby. As if sensing his presence, they drifted toward the vapor trail. “What do we do?” his shrill voice implored.
Smith didn't wait to see if West was following his own orders. Knowing that there was nothing worthwhile behind them, the doctor bolted toward a dark depression on the opposite side of the room.
All around them silver ropes were snaking in their direction. One snagged Smith's uninjured ankle. He sprawled face first onto the hard surface. At the last minute he managed to break his fall with his hands.
A fist grabbed his jacket, trying to jerk him out of harm's way. The vines tightened, cutting off circulation. Tiny thorns pierced Smith's skin. The thing, whatever it was, began to pull him toward the pod. Smith screamed, as much from horror as from renewed pain.
Searing heat flashed past his cheek and Smith felt the ropes loosen. Another burst of laser fire ruptured a pod. The ropy fronds began to sway wildly, and then all of them converged on the humans.
“Run!” Don repeated needlessly.
Already up and running, Smith dodged several snake-like streamers. Thanks to a massive surge of adrenaline, he found himself dodging around pods like a halfback avoiding tackles in the Super Bowl.
A silver curtain formed before him. Once more Smith gave voice to his terror as he fumbled with the laser pistol. He fired into the heart of the curtain, which sizzled, blackened and dropped away. Behind him, he could hear Major West discharging a weapon, but he didn't bother to look.
Then he heard it, a cry of horror. Sliding to a halt, he pivoted, gun raised. The major was suspended over a pod, tight in the clutches of those silver vines. As the major's body began descending, Smith sent a white-hot burst of energy into the heart of the pod. Wounded, the thing dropped its prey.
West hit the hard white shell, narrowly avoiding falling into its wet, glowing, magenta core. He was off and running before the things knew he was escaping.
Once he was sure the major was loose, Smith resumed his headlong rush toward safety.
Both men scrambled up the rough, sloped surface and plunged into the crevice. As they'd suspected, it was open and deep.
Fronds of silver snaked up the wall, unwilling to give up their prey. Rather than rest, West and Smith immediately bolted down the dark corridor.
Unexpectedly, something large hurtled toward them out of the darkness. They could hear the whoosh of its wings. As Don searched for his flashlight, he heard Smith cry out in surprise. West felt wings flap against his head and chest. Suddenly there was a blinding flash as Smith's laser pistol discharged. The energy bolt flew toward the intended victim. But the creature was quicker than either of them had anticipated. It swooped upward, out of range of the laser, leaving Don standing in its place.
The next second flashed by so quickly, Smith wasn't entirely sure what happened. In the orange flare of the laser beam, he saw the hideous monstrosity pull upward. He saw the laser bolt race toward the major and, indelibly imprinted in his memory, was the stunned look of surprise and agony as the laser caught West high in the chest.
“Oh my God!” howled Smith. At first he was too shocked to do anything but shake and fight to see through the afterimages floating before his eyes. A second later he flew to West's side, kneeling down beside him. Quickly he searched for the flashlight in Don's pocket. It took several more seconds to force his fingers to activate it. As soon as the light blazed forth, Smith turned it on the Major. “No!” he cried aloud. “What have I done?”
There had been plenty of times he would have liked to have been completely rid of the Major, but not like this, and certainly not by his own hand. If the truth had been known, he never would have shot West during the fight. He'd only drawn the weapon in order to put a hasty end to their battle.
“Major,” he yelled, “speak to me!” At first he almost surrendered to panic, but then the doctor in him took over.
Yanking off his gloves, he felt for a pulse. If he hadn't had years of experience, he might not have found it. West's pulse was weak, not a good sign. Pulling back the man's eyelids, Smith quickly flashed light into the pupils, then away. He repeated it several times in each eye. Pupils equal, he observed. He knew they would be. West wasn't suffering from a head wound. But the pupils were only marginally reactive. True, they constricted, but they were sluggish. Another bad sign.
Quickly he fished around inside his pack and began to hunt for the first aid kit. A slithering noise caught his attention. Whirling, he caught sight of a single broad glittering silver rope snaking toward them.
Smith felt his heart jolt up into his throat. Surely the thing could only stretch so far! But there had been a coral growth near the entrance to the corridor. Obviously it was close enough, and hungry enough, to keep trying. The rope slithered on in their direction.
Drawing his pistol in trembling hands, Smith blasted it. It jerked left at the last minute, making his shot useless. This time he clenched the gun with both hands to steady them and tried to anticipate its movements.
The magenta light inside the cavern reflected off the silver fronds as it swayed first one way, then the other. Finally Smith squeezed the trigger and severed the vine closer to its base. The remnant, like a crushed Daddy Long Legs, continued to quiver, but without purpose or direction.
Nerves taut to the breaking point, Smith pivoted once more, facing the opposite end of the corridor. Still crouching down, he hurled a beam of light down it, praying that nothing dangerous lay ahead.
Only bare walls shone back at him. Heaving a ragged sigh, he once more concentrated on his prostrate companion.
West was breathing–barely. His skin had a gray pallor, made more ghostly in the beam of artificial light. He groaned once as Smith attempted to open his parka, then grew silent again.
Laying the flashlight against Don's arm, Smith pulled the coat open, then gently peeled the blackened tunic away from West's skin. “What have I done?” he repeated, guilt roaring through his guts. Nausea churned deep in the pit of his stomach. He fought it down momentarily by taking a few deep breaths, but it surged again when he looked at how much damage his hasty actions had caused.
Black, charred skin blistered back to reveal equally damaged tissues. The blast had effectively cauterized most of the blood vessels, but deeper down Smith saw a pool of blood well up. The traumatized region was already beginning to swell.
Not good, not good at all, Smith muttered to himself.
Suddenly he was consumed by unrelenting waves of terror. He was trapped in this Stygian pit, surrounded by fearsome and dangerous creatures. The man he had trusted to guide him to safety was lying at his feet, possibly near the point of death, an accident he had caused by his lack of caution when discharging the weapon.
He began to shiver uncontrollably, not just from the cold, but from the realization that his situation was truly desperate. He had no idea which way to turn or how to formulate a coherent plan. That had always been West's or Robinson's job.
“Don't die on me,” he whispered, knowing all the while that mere words weren't going to change the circumstances any.
Behind him, he could hear the now familiar rumblings and a scratching sound that told him another vine was headed his way.
Though he doubted West could hear him, he said, “I've got to get us out of here.” Quickly, he closed up the major's jacket to keep some of the heat in, before starting to drag the still form up the corridor.