“Take it easy,” a strong voice soothed. Somewhere deep in the recesses of Don's mind, he knew the person speaking, but he couldn't seem to focus on staying awake. The darkness, warm and pain-free one minute, filled with visions of horror the next, alternately beckoned and repelled him. Still he struggled to sit up, to toss off the night, to fight against creatures spawned by a feverish imagination.
The voice called again. As his eyes opened, he found a familiar face restraining his raised fist.
“Uh,” he grunted by way of greeting as he fell back on a hard surface. He willed his body to relax. As his senses began to return to normal, he felt the warmth of his surroundings and saw the thin canopy of a survival tent overhead.
“I made it!” he whispered, overcome with relief. His next thought had nothing to do with his own safety, but for the safety of another. “Smith?” he called, trying again to sit up. This time he succeeded.
“Never fear, Smith is here,” came a weak, hoarse response from the other side of the small tent.
In spite of everything, Don let a chuckle escape parched lips. Some things never change! And thank goodness for that.
Robinson offered warmed rations to both men before asking the obvious questions. “Will someone please tell me what went on? I searched for you all along the prescribed route. I expected to at least find the Chariot somewhere near the site. When there was no sign of it, I started expanding my search pattern. The only reason I found you was because I spotted the top of a yellow sack poking out of the snow. What happened to you out here? And what in heaven's name happened to the Chariot?”
Looking sheepish, Don explained the sequence of events leading up to the cave-in. He gave sketchy details about their journey through the cave, into the pod room and down the corridor.
“How'd this happen?” Robinson inquired, pointing to the bandages beneath the parka.
“Accident,” West and Smith said in unison, both giving Robinson a wide-eyed innocent look. The professor tried to stare down each in turn but to no avail. He got no further explanation.
Giving up, he pointed to the bruises covering their faces, the purpled marks on chins and cheeks and jaws. “And these?”
“Thanks to an airborne monstrosity,” Smith supplied without hesitation.
“And pod creatures,” added West with a tiny half-smile.
Robinson rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Uh huh, I see. I don't suppose either one of you are going to tell me what really happened in there, are you?”
“Nope!” both companions ingenuously responded.
“Well, I guess that I've done all I can do for either one of you. Since the storm has let up and you both seem well enough to travel, let me get the jet pack ready and I'll piggyback you one at a time.” He crawled toward the entrance of the tent then turned back to face these two men who'd become like family to him. “Who goes first?” he asked.
“Let him go first,” West pointed at Smith.
“No, I assure you, I would rather that the major return with you. He requires more immediate medical attention. Standard triage protocols say he should return first.” Smith's tone implied that he'd brook no argument.
“He's got a point, Don,” Robinson said with a tight smile.
“Got a sneaky right cross and an itchy trigger finger, too,” West muttered just loud enough so that no one but Smith could hear.
“Ah,” sighed Smith with contentment, wiggling his toes inside the warmth of his boots. “Be a good chap and raise the heat a trifle before you depart.” He closed his eyes as if to drop off to sleep.
Robinson exited with a shrug and shake of his head. He'd never figure out the relationship between these two. Perhaps, given time and a return to sanity, one or the other would actually explain what happened during their detour. On the other hand, he wouldn't have bet on it, not in a billion years.
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