… continued from Inland
With a satisfied exhalation of breath, Laxmi sat beside Anna in the tube’s mouth, her sling of rock tools collected during her climb dumped in a jangling heap behind her, and followed Anna’s gaze out to sea. A hazy mist completely obscured the horizon, sea and sky blended together with no division, but rather a gradient from light grey descending into darkness where the horizon should have been. The distant, tall clouds they noticed earlier had now coalesced into a mass of towering giants, crenellated turrets at their peaks reaching for the heavens, and merging at their base to a solid dark wall. Nearer to hand the sun still sparkled off the sea, all the brighter for the contrasting darkness beyond. A breeze lifted a lock of Laxmi’s hair, and she turned to Anna, frowning.
“Should we be worried about that?”
Anna did not respond for a moment, then lifted her handheld and clicked it on.
“Jaci, do you copy?”
“Loud and clear, Anna.”
“We’ve ascended the rock face and we’re safely in the tunnel we discovered. But Jaci, I need you to secure the camp and make sure the shuttle’s buttoned up as best you can manage.”
“You think a storm’s coming? There have been a few gusts down here, but nothing significant.”
“We can see it on the horizon. It’s still pretty far to the east, but it’s building fast. I don’t know if it’s coming this way, but if it does, there’s no telling how quickly it might arrive. Probably still at least a few hours off, but we don’t know the weather on this world yet.”
“Are you coming back?”
“Negative. We’ll stay here.”
Laxmi gave Anna a confused look.
“Anna, don’t you think we should go back down? If that storm hits…”
“I don’t want to be in the forest, or worse, on the lagoon… Shit!”
A brief burst of static crackled from the handheld, Jaci keying his mic.
“Anna, what about the raft? Is it secure? And without it, I can’t get to the shuttle.”
“Yes, I just thought about that. Ok, we’re coming back. Do what you can for the campsite in the meantime.”
Anna turned to find Laxmi already reconfiguring the anchors for a rappel.
“Be a shame to leave these cams behind, but we’ll be back,” Laxmi said. She looked over her shoulder at Anna, then beyond, out to sea. “Anna…”
Anna turned again, to follow Laxmi’s gaze, when the first raindrops and a stronger gust of wind hit her face. No longer did the sea sparkle in any sunshine, and no longer could she see the peaks of the approaching clouds. In a matter of minutes, the clouds had arrived.
She could see the atoll, and breakers cresting white over the reef beyond, but farther than that the sea was lost in a mass of rain. This side of the atoll, whitecaps broke the surface of the normally calm lagoon, and the jungle seethed as though furious, treetops surging in the rising gale.
“Let’s get those packs up here, now! Set up your belay, and help me haul.”
Their packs still sat at the base of the cliff, anchors for the climbing rope. Once Laxmi was secure, she and Anna began pulling, lifting the tied-in packs hand over hand. With each moment, the wind force increased, rain pelting them, and slamming the packs against the rock face. The packs were not especially heavy, but the wind set them to swinging back and forth, making the lifting effort that much more difficult. It was no more than ten meters of lift, yet Anna still felt relief when finally they dragged up and over the lip of the tunnel.
In that time the visibility had decreased further. No longer could Anna see the lagoon, and even the nearer treetops, just beyond the base of the cliff, were nearly lost in the driving rain. The wind and rain slammed horizontally across the tunnel mouth, right to left, but enough found its way inside that Anna and Laxmi were both drenched, as were their packs. Laxmi cleared the anchoring cams out of their cracks and gathered up the rope, while Anna hauled the packs deeper into the tunnel. With each moment the ambient light faded toward a dark grey gloom as the storm blotted out the sky, and farther back in the tunnel the darkness only increased.
“How did that happen so fast?” Laxmi asked. “When we first looked out, it still seemed far away, yet it got here in just a few minutes.”
“Just a moment.” Anna lifted her handheld. “Jaci, are you there?”
“Jaci? Report. What’s your status?”
“Anna, he’s got to be pretty busy right now. He’ll check in soon. I’m sure he’s doing the best he can.”
Anna looked at the handheld, at the power and status indicator, all green, as if she could will herself through the radio link to find out what was happening. She took a deep breath, looked up, and around at the narrow tunnel.
They had moved in five or six meters from the entrance, far enough that the rain no longer reached them, and only a modicum of wind disturbed the air, yet the howl of its fury outside seemed undiminished. At only a meter in diameter, they could not stand, nor even really crouch, in the tunnel, but simply sat beside the wet packs. Farther in, what light there was quickly gave way to a deeper gloom, yet Anna could see, just a few meters farther, that the narrow tube opened up into some larger space, a black void, the farther extent of which she could not discern. She turned back to Laxmi, then out toward the storm-dimmed entrance.
“I’m sure you’re right. Jaci’s resourceful, he’ll be ok.” She thought about all they had seen, the view from orbit. “There are very few significant landmasses on this planet. Here in the southern equatorial region, it’s all open ocean, and islands like this one are no real impediment to the free movement of air. With a globe-spanning fetch, I suppose there’s not much limit to how fast a storm might build, or move. I don’t know, Laxmi, this was David’s area. He was the planetary and atmospheric scientist. He should have been our weatherman. I just fly the spacecraft.”
“Anna.” Laxmi put a hand on her shoulder. “Remember what I said outside. This is not your fault. And Jaci will be ok. We need you… I need you to help us through whatever comes next. So, there’s nothing we can do about Jaci right now, and we’re stuck in here until the storm passes. We might as well explore, eh?”
“We might as well.”
Anna smiled, and reached into her drenched pack to pull out a drenched headlamp. She settled it over her forehead, switched it on, and turned toward the inner darkness.
“Let’s go see what lies beyond.”
… continued with Cavern
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