“You don’t feel comfortable unless you’re alone, do you?” Lamont asked, gasping out the question as they all but jogged away from the forest of knockers.
Captain Carter’s eyes were fixed grimly on the foothills of the inward-curving mountains that loomed before them. In the dusky light, his skin was cadaverously pale. “You’ve picked a poor time for psychoanalysis,” He replied.
“I don’t feel comfortable unless I’m asking somebody questions,” Lamont admitted. He was trying desperately to find a focal point for his thoughts, even as he struggled to keep pace with the long strides of the captain.
Francis stopped and turned around. “You look terrible,” he said.
The biting cold, the thin, metallic air and the oppressive weight of his own body were all beginning to feel overwhelming to the newspaperman. He waved his hand dismissively, despite the fact that it was trembling. “I just wish I had a cigarette,” He said.
“That’s the last thing you need,” Carter grunted. “What you need is oxygen.” He tapped the angular bulge in the breast pocket of his coat.
Lamont had forgotten about it. Hastily, he retrieved the small rectangular case from his pocket, drew out the rubber valve in its side and pressed the button. A rush of pure, rich air suddenly flowed into his lungs. There was a momentary feeling of dizziness, followed by a throbbing ache in the back of his skull, but when he lifted his head, the world looked bright and clear. He could feel the cobwebs being swept from his thoughts. He took another deep breath, this time of the ambient air, and no longer felt the need to gasp.
“Thanks, mate,” He acknowledged, slipping the life-giving supplement back in his pocket and nodding toward the captain.
Carter shook his head slightly. “Do you feel like you can continue?” He didn’t wait for Lamont’s reply before pivoting on his heel and proceeding toward the mountains.
“Ready for anything,” The newspaperman insisted, jogging to catch up. He felt embarrassed now. His journalistic career had taken him into some fairly extreme situations, and the arid mountains of Nepal over which he had tramped weren’t so different from this. He resolved that it wouldn’t again get the better of him.
“You don’t seem bothered by this place at all,” He observed as he fell in step with the captain.
“I’ve been to a dozen worlds outside of Earth before this one, and you know what they have in common?” Carter asked rhetorically. “They all would have killed us the moment we stepped out of the elevator. Every second spent on an alien planet is spent literal centimeters away from instant death. No second chances, no room for error.”
“This must seem like a paradise by comparison,” Lamont admitted.
“It was supposed to be,” Carter said. “The Martian navigational data indicated a world five-to-ten degrees warmer on average, with a thicker atmosphere.”
“As I heard someone point out,” Lamont recalled, “A lot has happened since the Cretaceous.”
“Paleogene,” Carter corrected.
“Anyhow, 50 million years is a long time. It can’t be surprising that things aren’t exactly as described.”
“That’s not what surprises me,” The captain complained. “What surprises me is that no one else on the ship seems prepared to face the unknown. It’s as if a tape deck of Martian data, a boost of Martian technology and a slick marketing campaign is expected to eliminate the sheer danger of it all. Good God, we’re in space! It took strong-arming just to get down here. And now...”
“And now?” Lamont asked.
The captain’s mouth twisted as if he was about to answer emphatically, but he ultimately shook his head, keeping his lips clamped tight. After a minute of walking in silence, he lifted his wrist radio. “This is Captain Carter. Rex, Rosemary, do you read me? Respond.”
The only sound was the faint howling of the wind as it passed through the spaces between the rib-like mountains, and the hollow crunching of the ground beneath their feet.
Next: Approaching Danger