“How the hell do we get down there?” Lamont asked, pulling his head away from the natural window and bracing his back against the cold rock.
“If they did, we can,” Carter answered. He was already making the short climb back down to the ground. “These mountains are full of holes. We just need to find the right one.”
With that, the two men began a rushed survey of the foothills, scrutinizing the jagged rock outcroppings, testing the sizes and peering inside the innumerable cavities that gaped through the teeth of the mountains. The temperature was dropping, Lamont observed. What had started as a bracing cold that nipped his cheeks when they stepped off the lift was now settling in to chill his bones, prompting him to stuff his hands into his pockets whenever possible. As he scampered from hole to hole, he found himself fighting a sense of panic. The overwhelming number of cave openings, either too shallow or too small, the unsubstantiality of the air and the oppressive weight of his own body once again began to create a sense of despair. Finally, with numb and trembling hands, he fished out his oxygen supplement and inhaled a second, life-restoring puff. Sparks flashed before his eyes as he shook his head back into alertness. God, he thought, What if I use it all up?
As he was thinking about that, he noticed that some of the glittering in his vision had not subsided. Tracing his eyes along the bonelike ground, he realized that the effect was caused not by the rush of oxygen, but rather by the trickling movement of a thin rivulet of liquid. His eyes couldn’t make out a definitive source for the tiny stream; it seemed to be seeping up from an otherwise unremarkable patch of earth. It gained definition as it flowed toward the foot of the mountain, disappearing into a crevice that was roughly cut between the bases of two peaks high above.
Lamont cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted: “Francis! Over here!”
After a few more shouted exchanges, Carter appeared from the other side of an outcropping to join Lamont. The captain crouched down, bowing his head until his narrow nose was almost touching the thin liquid stream. He took a deep sniff, then dipped a hand in it and brought it to his mouth.
“Bloody hell, mate!” Lamont exclaimed.
The captain licked his lips thoughtfully. “Water,” he finally concluded. “Extremely mineral-heavy, which may be why it isn’t frozen.”
Lamont waved the dosimeter on his sleeve over the stream and examined it. “Minerals and then some,” he said. “The radiation level is nearly double what it is three feet away from here.”
“Still within tolerable limits,” The captain shrugged. “I wouldn’t drink a cup full.” With that, he sprung up and began to lope with long strides along the path of the rivulet, following its course deeper into the ravine. On either side, the claw-like mountains loomed directly overhead. The wind had been picking up steadily, and it howled ominously through the multitude of cavities in the rocks. Lamont shrank into his coat as he followed behind Carter, who was nimbly bounding between narrow outcroppings to follow the winding course of the stream. He’s in his element, the newspaperman realized. It was hard to believe that the man was nearly twice his age.
“This has got to be it,” The captain called a few moments later. He had disappeared behind a rock formation. Lamont picked his way around it and saw that Carter was crouched near the entrance of the largest hole in the mountainside he had seen yet. It was perhaps four feet tall and twice that wide, and from the deep shadow inside it, Lamont could see that it was carved deep beneath the mountain. The trickle of water flowed through the center of it.
“I’m going in,” Carter said, turning his head to Lamont. “You don’t have to follow.”
“I’m with you,” Lamont assured him, projecting as much confidence as he could muster.
The captain nodded. Standing up, he lifted his wrist radio to his mouth, nearly shouting into its tiny receiver over the howling of the wind. “Carter to the space elevator! We think we’ve found where O’Neil and Wells went; it’s a cave in the mountainside. We’re going to follow them. Do you copy?”
There was a pause, and then a faintly audible response from the speakers on their radios. “Spratt—barely receiving—Westward warns—strongly advised.”
“Did you catch that?” Francis asked, raising his voice to be heard over the wind.
“Hardly,” Lamont admitted.
“This weather can’t be helping,” The captain sighed. “Well, let’s go.”
With that, he clipped his flashlight to his collar, dropped to his knees and began to crawl into the claustrophobic mouth of the cave.
Next: A Tight Spot