West spent the remainder of the predawn hours coaching his reluctant companion on the intricacies of communications equipment. Smith nearly fell asleep on him several times. He'd jerk into wakefulness, look attentive, and then proceed to drop off again. Eventually Don felt somewhat confident that Smith could do the job.
The real question was, what were the odds that Smith would actually succeed? Slim to none, he realized. As brilliant as the doctor could be, he'd never shown much of a proclivity for electronics–aside from demonstrating basic skills. If anything, he was like a gremlin around them.
Oh, sure, he handled the Robot well. Scuttlebutt at Alpha Control said that he'd designed it–from a theoretical standpoint, of course. Certainly he could program the Robot himself. But since that initial period of sheer genius, he'd consistently chewed up electrical devices.
Don shook his head and rolled his eyes. He had to face facts. There really was no option but to demonstrate some faith and send him out on his own. He settled back on his makeshift bed and watched the doctor prepare for his journey.
After downing another cup of coffee, Smith's limping form slogged down the ravine. The part of his mind that typically wanted to devise work avoidance schemes cringed at the difficult job ahead. The rational part only wanted to finish up as quickly as possible.
It was with relief that he located the sloping path leading up to the proposed site. The equipment thumped into his back, reminding him of how heavy it was. Then the path steepened and grew rockier. Still, it was a path, natural though it might have been. Glancing up, he found the spot described by the major. It wasn't all that far–as the crow flew. Though no one was around to hear, he griped about the deplorable conditions as he pushed himself on. Grumbling took breath, but it made him feel better.
Soon he was panting too hard to waste energy on complaints. Perspiration beaded up, rolled down his back, then it cooled rapidly. He began to shiver again, his teeth chattering when he relaxed his jaw.
Higher and higher he climbed. Near the top of the hill, his aching ankle turned beneath unstable rocks, sending him to his knees. A clipped cry burst forth, but he stifled it.
Slack-jawed, he staggered to a nearby boulder, his shoulders heaving as he tried to catch his breath. “Almost there,” he coaxed his tired body.
His back screamed its indignation at him when he straightened up, but by that point, it was just one more annoyance. Slowly he set one foot in front of the other.
Left, left, left-right-left, he heard the military cadence in his thoughts. His feet obeyed. Left foot, right foot, his mind wandered further. Left foot, left foot, left foot, right–feet in the morning, feet at night.
A tight smile curled up the corners of his thin lips. He must've read that children's book to his young nephew fifty times. He could hear its rhyming cadence, see the words in his head. Unconsciously switching to autopilot mode, he scrambled up higher, repeating the book's words twice over.
How Smith wished he were back in that place again. His thoughts drifted backward in time to picture an auburn-haired three-year-old snuggling up to him, pointing out the pictures and shining adoring eyes on him. They'd finish reading, share a cup of hot cocoa and he'd tuck the little fellow into bed amid a stream of hugs and wet kisses on the cheek. He could almost smell the bubble bath his sister poured copiously into the tub and the scent of Sesame Street bubblegum-flavored toothpaste.
“Good night. I love you, Uncle Zach.”
And then, almost before he knew it, he topped the rise.
Open-mouthed, slouched over, he fought for breath. Sitting down appealed to him but he refused to give in to the idea. If he sat down, he knew he'd refuse to get back up. The wind howled around his hood, nearly blowing it off. It shrieked past the fur edge, worming its icy fingers into his ears. Jerking the strings tighter, Smith turned his back to the cold blasts and set his pack down. His shoulders and back cried out in glorious relief.
First he tried the small hand-held portable. “Jupiter Two, this is Doctor Smith. Do you copy? Over.” He waited a minute, then tried again. Nothing, aside from a static hiss. The next ten minutes were equally devoid of success. Surely Mrs. Robinson and the children would be near the ship and answer if they could.
He tossed an absent-minded shrug into the wind. Numbed fingers began to hesitantly pull out the equipment. Following the major's instructions he carefully assembled it. He fumbled a few of the pieces, but eventually arrived at the point where his task was completed–he hoped.
Activating it as instructed, he repeatedly called for assistance and reported their position. To his shocked dismay, there was no response, not even the expected static. He rechecked his work, discovering that he'd inaccurately connected some wires. As the sun rose higher overhead, he made another attempt.
This time he got the requisite hiss in between his SOS. But no human voices bounced back at him.
Smith fought his nature, which was urging him to give up. He kept at it for what seemed like another hour. Smith never expected the professor to reply. He'd hoped that Robinson was already out searching for them. But surely at least one of the family members would have displayed the sense to stay behind and man the radio, just in case.
Still nothing. The whipping cold was knifing through bone and muscle. Smith made one final attempt at delivering a message. Static spit back at him. He finally did sit down. Scratching the dark stubble on his chin, he glared at the unit and wondered what to do next.
Whirling toward the downward slope, Smith threw his arms wide and howled hoarsely into the freezing wind. “Thank you so much, Major, for supplying me with a contingency plan!” Whether West actually heard it wasn't the point.
Once more he hunkered over the unit. Leave it and come back? Dismantle it and lug it back down? After all, he wasn't kin to a mountain goat. The extra weight could easily make him fall.
“That's all I need!” Smith grumbled aloud. “I'll likely end up prostrate in some crevasse, totally paralyzed and frozen until I meet my untimely demise!”
The thought occurred to him that, just maybe, winding up pod food might at least have been a quicker death. Memories of it made him shiver. “Perhaps not,” he whispered.
After making one final half-hearted attempt at contact, he began the tedious chore of disassembling the unit and repacking it. Lugging it downhill wasn't going to be fun, but he didn't want to return to camp empty-handed and find out there was a need to trek back for it.
By the time he dragged himself back to the campsite, the sun had reached its zenith.
Somehow West had managed to keep the fire going. A steady, thin column of grayish smoke trickled skyward. As soon as Don saw his companion stagger into camp, he knew the effort had not been a success.
Painfully he struggled into a sitting position, cradling his arm against his injured chest to minimize movement of damaged muscles. “No luck,” he said, more statement than query.
“Not sure,” was the succinct reply. Smith safely stowed the pack, settled down within arm's reach of the flames, poured himself a cup of over-done coffee and downed it before adding, “There's always a possibility that I got through.”
“You get the radio together properly?”
The pointed question made Smith bristle, but he cooled off quickly. “Valid point,” he acknowledged grudgingly. “I feel certain I successfully assembled the unit. As to why I received no response…” He shrugged one shoulder. “I can make an educated conjecture, but in the long run, what does it matter? The effort was apparently a dismal failure.”
West shut his eyes as if to sleep. Then, after a minute's silence, he said, “Should we stay or go on?”
“You're asking me?” Smith didn't bother to hide his surprised tone.
“In case you haven't noticed, I can't exactly do this entirely on my own. I need to know what you think you can handle, and what you think you can't.”
The old Smith surged up. “I can't handle any of it, Major. I'm weary to the bone, my extremities are half frozen and I can't locate a single place that doesn't hurt. And I'm sorry to say, those rations aren't exactly an Epicurean delight!” Abruptly he threw up his hands in despair. “My energy reserves are nearly depleted, and that's no exaggeration.”
West patiently waited it out. He hid a smile. Part of him was glad to see a resurgence of the old familiar Smith and yet, the journey hadn't ended. He didn't want Smith wallowing in self-pity. “Listen, why don't you take this blanket and catch a nap? I'll wake you in an hour.”
“And after that?” Smith queried, turning wide blue eyes on him.
“We can't stay here. We both know it.”
Within minutes Smith had unceremoniously flopped down on a blanket and plunged into a state of nearly comatose slumber.
Don spent his free time willing himself to get stronger. Mind over matter. But when he tried to get lunch ready, he found himself still very unsteady on his feet, dizzy and weak. Much as he hated to admit it, he still needed to rely on his reluctant companion.
West had a terrible time rousing the doctor, who lay there like a dead man. Eventually he did get Smith awake, cooking dinner and packing the supplies. Despite the persistent weakness, he managed to help in small ways, including condensing their remaining supplies into one pack. He pulled out his compass and calculated what he hoped was their quickest course home.
“Keep us out of the most barren areas,” Smith reminded him needlessly. Don knew how dependent they were on finding firewood along the way.
Just before setting out, the doctor broke open another antibiotic capsule and changed West's fluid soaked bandages. Then he tied a triangular bandage into a sling, using a second one to secure the sling to the major's upper body.
Smith muttered as he worked, but stoically finished his task. With his assistance, Don stood up on wobbly knees.
Once upright, Don threw his arm around Smith's shoulder for added support. He felt an arm reach around his waist. “Thanks,” he grunted, taking a few tentative steps. So far so good. He walked a little further.
Together, the two men trudged onto the plain. The chilled air ripped through their parkas, sapping their strength.
It didn't take long for both of them to grow weary. Together they quenched their thirst from a canteen. The already slow pace dropped to a crawl. Overhead the sun began its descent. It became colder. Clouds drifted in, thickening rapidly as the wind began to whip fiercely around them. White flakes started to fall.
West whipped out a hoarse oath and began to sag. He considered looking for shelter and building a fire, but realized nothing would suffice. The rocks were large, but insufficient for protection from the elements.
The expected scrub trees seemed to have withered away. They had one choice–push on.
Snow began to accumulate at an alarming rate and Smith's strength ebbed with each faltering step. He stumbled a few times, almost dragging West down with him. How he managed to keep going, he didn't know. He was so cold, so very cold. And so tired. He wanted to sleep right there. Curl up in a snowy mattress and drift off into warm dreams. But something unnamed and unrecognized kept Smith on his frozen feet. He kept going. One mile, then two.
Mechanically, West kept his legs moving. He was not going to give up. He promised himself that, over and over again as the snow rose up over ankles then up to their calves. Suddenly Smith stumbled, went down on one knee and, with a cry that was half-pain and half-terror, collapsed face down in the snow.
“Smith!” Don shouted, single-handedly yanking off the pack and rolling the man over. He shoved the doctor hard enough to rattle teeth, but Smith didn't stir. It was then that he realized the awful truth. Neither of them was going to make it.
Falling down, West pulled the blankets out of the pack, crudely doubled them up and covered both himself and Smith with the thin quilt. Why he bothered, he couldn't say.
He curled up against Smith's motionless body, sharing some of his warmth, though he doubted it would help. The wind whistled and whined above them. Twenty minutes later it changed pitch and began to diminish. West hazarded a peek outside and found the flakes falling more sparsely and straight down.
Better than he expected, he had to say that much, but still not good. Once more he covered himself up and waited. He grew drowsy. Just as he was about to drift off, perhaps forever, he heard a resurgence of the wind.
“Dear God,” he sighed. The wind maliciously howled above him, shrieking like a jet engine.
A jet engine! Adrenaline surged. He ripped the covers back and nearly whooped with delight at the sight of Professor Robinson standing nearby with the jetpack on his back. As the professor gently lowered the unit to the ground, West noted all the equipment strapped to the back. He recognized all of it. The lightweight tents, a heating unit– He almost sobbed with joy, and then passed out.