It was slow going. Too slow. Smith moaned with indecision. Knowing he'd pay for it later, he mentally reviewed the procedure for doing a fireman's carry, then clipped the flashlight to the holster belt. He angled it as far as it would go so that the ceiling was lit a short way ahead of him. The rocks overhead barely reflected the light downward but it was sufficient for his purposes.
Gently he positioned his companion's body, then got into position himself. With one massive heave he got West upright and onto his shoulders. He grunted as his back muscles cursed at him. For a second, he stood unsteadily, then realized this was do-able.
Cautiously, he edged his way down the corridor, placing each step firmly. The frigid air made his chest hurt and he quickly grew out of breath but forced himself onward. Several hundred feet farther, he located a small notch in the wall. Behind it was a small area that had been carved long ago into the rock. It wasn't very large, but it was a good area for him to get a better look at the major and yet compact enough to protect easily against the winged creatures.
With extreme care, he settled West down onto the rocky surface. In the back of his mind, Smith noticed the change from sand to smooth rock, but didn't dwell on it. Instead, he murmured, “I'm going for the equipment. I'll be right back.”
Smith’s unsteady legs refused to bring him to a hard run, so he jogged back toward the central cavern. As he puffed along he prayed that the things hadn't taken an interest in the packs. He didn't know what he'd do if they were gone. Panic, run blindly and, most likely, accidentally kill myself, he mused wryly.
To his immense relief, the equipment was where they'd left it, untouched by anything other than human hands. Smith heaved a weary sigh, then paused to catch his breath. All the while he stared at the entrance to the cavern, watching for signs of life. When none was forthcoming, he quickly shouldered his gear. Then he struggled with West's pack. Ultimately, he decided the major's gear would best be carried on his back; his own lighter pack could be carried in one hand.
Staggering under the weight of it all, he called back down the hallway, “Major, if we survive, believe me, you'll pay for this! Oh, the indignity of it all,” he grumbled as he trudged onward, bowed down by pain, exhaustion and the weight of the equipment. Still he forced his aching legs to make haste.
As soon as he returned to their small nook, Smith yanked out the first aid kit and the two survival blankets. Carefully he rolled West onto one of them. Next he removed his own gloves and blew on his fingers to warm them a bit more before he began his exam.
Once again he checked the wound, which was still weeping fluids. He grunted in consternation when he reviewed the contents of the kit. There wasn't much there useful for such an injury, not even pressure bandages. Retrieving scissors, he cut away the burned portions of tunic in preparation for the task ahead. Smith noted the exposed, unburned skin dimple from sudden exposure to the cold.
Taking several large gauze squares, he carefully rolled them, trying to keep his dirty fingers off the center portion of the pad. Next he broke open a small capsule of antibiotic powder and sprinkled it inside the wound and placed the rolled bandage directly over the wound. He pushed down lightly.
West let out a soft moan. His eyes flickered open briefly before he slipped back into unconsciousness.
After positioning the gauze, Smith took another large square and laid it flat over the entire wound. Tearing off several long strips of adhesive tape, he tightly affixed the bandages to the major's skin.
Had he been back at the Jupiter Two, he would have done many things, including debriding the dead tissue. He would also have administered a stronger antibiotic and sutured the wound. Then he would have secured the dressing by rolling gauze entirely around West's torso. That would have held the bandages more securely than strips of tape would. But, Smith thought ruefully, there's no use wishing things were different. Certainly if he had such power, he would have wished this whole adventure out of existence.
In the deep recesses of his mind, he wished up a comfortable lounge chair beneath a cerulean blue sky, warm sunlight reflecting off the clear water of his in-ground swimming pool; the same pool that stood beside an older colonial style home. Images of that home flitted through his mind, with its supple leather sofa and chairs, beautiful oil paintings–some done by his own hand, adding life and color to the earth tone walls. He could picture the solarium with its riotous growth of flowering greenery, as warmth flooded inside to heat up the highly polished oak floors. An enormous and costly Persian rug sat before a huge stone fireplace, also absorbing some of the sun's golden rays. Lord, how he missed that home with its rare treasures prominently displayed–treasures collected during his many trips abroad. He grew enormously homesick.
All of it was gone now, he knew. After disappearing, his family–what remained of them, probably declared him dead. He'd left everything to his sister, whom he adored like no one else. As he sat beside the major, wrapped in the icy arms of doom, he wondered if she derived as much pleasure from his home as he had.
Instantly, his reveries were broken. Though only a few seconds had passed during his musings, he chided himself for diverting his thoughts from the direness of their situation. Clenching and unclenching his fingers, he tried to massage new life into them. They were slow to respond.
Dismayed, Smith felt sleep beckoning again. “Don't sleep now,” he said aloud through gritted teeth. Then, with more resolve, “I will not sleep!”
Tightly closing up West's parka, Smith flung open the second survival blanket and tossed it over his unconscious patient. He tucked in the edges to assure maximum heat retention.
Blanketed above and below, the major rested in dreamless sleep. Occasionally Don twitched or half-opened his eyes, but thirty minutes later, he still hadn't regained full consciousness.
The time was not spent in idleness. Smith repacked the first aid kit and their other supplies as well, after giving them a cursory examination. The sealed case for the communications equipment seemed undamaged. He thought about looking inside, but realized he wouldn't know how to properly check it. Horror once more assailed him as he comprehended that, even if they got out of the cavern, he wouldn't be able to operate the radio without assistance. If West died here–
No! He refused to ponder it further. Things were tough enough without surrendering to unhealthy speculations about the future!
Observing the weakened flashlight battery, he replaced it with a fresh power pack. Only two more left, he noted.
To keep from slipping into despair, he continued inspecting their belongings. The sight of their rations reminded him of how hungry he was, and how thirsty. He withdrew the miniature stove from Don's pack and checked the gauges. West had been right. There wasn't much fuel left.
Better to save it until the major is able to eat and drink on his own, Smith decided. Struggling to his feet, he went into the main corridor and collected a few rocks. Withdrawing his gun, he aimed it at the pile he'd set up. Firing the weapon, he watched the sustained blast virtually atomize the rocks. Grimacing, he checked over the gun, hoping to find anything with which to adjust the intensity of the laser. There was nothing.
Sighing, he tried a short blast. The remaining rocks glowed briefly, leaving behind a charred mark.
Smith tentatively stretched out his hand. Some residual heat wafted up against his fingertips, but as he waited the rock grew cold.
Seeing that it retained virtually no heat, Smith slipped his gloves back on and walked dejectedly toward the “infirmary.” He hunkered down against a wall, drank deeply from a canteen, and pondered his next course of action.
Time to move on again.
That was the only option he really had. He was staring at the major when his body was rocked by a violent spasm of shivering. “Definitely must keep moving,” he verbalized to no one but himself.
One pack supplied him with rope. West's pocket provided him with a knife. He tightly bound the blankets around the major, then tied ropes so that he had a handle up near Don's head. Finally he bound the light pack to West's lower legs and shouldered the heavier pack.
Grunting from a renewal of pain, he began a long arduous path down the corridor, towing the major's body behind him.
The smooth surface of the blanket made the task a bit easier, but in no time at all Smith was panting, the chilled air knifing deep inside his chest. His legs grew heavier. Lying down and dying would be infinitely easier, he told himself as he took yet another labored step.
The doctor hauled his cargo a few feet more. Then he noticed a faint glow on the walls. Not from his flashlight, he observed. It was greenish, and grew brighter with each staggering step he took.
Crying out with relief, he gently set all his burdens down and half-ran, half-stumbled toward the light. Just around the next bend he found the opening, about ten feet high and twelve feet wide. Over the nearby hills, the sun was starting its trip into nighttime. Good fortune instantly turned to bad. They had little time before the absence of light made it too difficult to travel.
Scanning the horizon, he looked for a dark spot in the sky. Nothing. If Professor Robinson was using the jetpack to search for them, he wasn't looking in the right area as yet. Or worse, perhaps he'd already checked that region and given up the search there.
Smith swallowed hard, flinching at the raw, parched feeling that followed. He rubbed bloodshot eyes with the back of his gloved hand before wedging both hands inside his pockets. That momentarily warmed them up. The weak sun, though distant, provided a small amount of comforting heat. Barely discernible, true, but better that than the frigid sepulcher behind them.
Smith didn't bother to enjoy the moment. His thoughts were back with the major beneath the ravine canopy. He turned to look back and realized why West had assumed the ravine ran straight through. From this vantage point, it looked like a crevasse between canyon walls rather than the cave it actually was, just as the entrance point had.
He scanned for snow. The ground was clear. So much for the predictions of that worthless weatherman, he thought. Nonetheless, he was grateful. One less thing to fret over.