… continued from Cavern
Anna opened her eyes to gloom, dimly lit from one side. She lay on her back on a hard, rough surface, and briefly wondered who had hammered a chisel through her forehead. Had she cracked her head against the ground? Had she fallen? She could not clearly remember, and for a moment remained uncertain about her whereabouts. Her head hurt monstrously, she was certain of that, and her stomach…
She turned to her side and retched, dry-heaving her already empty stomach. The effort caused a sharp pain in her chest, and when the heaves stopped she groaned. The pool of light to her side shifted and moved, then a bright light shone on her face. She closed her eyes against the glare.
“Anna. Anna, it’s me, Laxmi. I’m here. You’re safe.”
One final heave, then Anna gasped for breath.
“Where… what happened?” Her throat burned, and the pounding in her head grew worse. She shielded her eyes with her hand, then Laxmi moved the light away.
“You passed out. Do you remember? You panicked when we realized the table’s purpose, and you ran to the rope, and then you collapsed. How are you feeling?”
“Awful. My head hurts terribly, I’m nauseous. I passed out? But… but why? And why do I feel so awful? Did I have a heart attack? I’m not old enough for that!”
“Here, take this. With a little water. It’ll take care of the headache.” Laxmi passed Anna a pair of tablets and a bladder to drink from. “You went down into the gully to tie into the rope, then you knelt down, and then just collapsed, unconscious. I wasn’t sure what was happening at first, so I jumped in after you, and it nearly got me too. It was a close thing.”
“What nearly got you? I’m really confused.”
“The argon. It sinks and collects in depressions. It displaces the oxygen if there’s nothing to disperse it, so when you crouched down in the gully, with your head below the level of the cave floor, you passed out. I nearly did, too, but as soon as I felt light-headed I stood up, and that was enough, to get my head above floor level.”
Anna drank more water while she thought about this.
“Slowly. Don’t drink too fast, or you’ll make yourself nauseous again.”
“So I suffocated on argon?”
“How did you get me out?”
“With some difficulty. I had to get your head above floor level right away, and that meant I had to get down low with you again to lift you up while holding my breath. I’m sorry if you’re a little scraped and bruised, Anna. It wasn’t easy, and I was panicked myself. I’m afraid I dragged you pretty roughly up and over the edge of the floor. By then you weren’t breathing, and I really thought I would lose you.”
“I stopped breathing.”
“Yes. And if your chest hurts, it’s because of the CPR. I don’t think you have any cracked ribs, but I might have bruised one or two. Fortunately it only took a moment to get you breathing again. You didn’t have a heart attack. Your heart’s still in great shape. Trust me, I checked.” Laxmi patted the small medical kit laying on the floor beside their packs.”
“How long was I unconscious? It seems brighter in here than I remember.”
“It is brighter, though it’s almost evening. You were out for about three hours. The good news is the storm outside seems to be abating, judging by the noise and the light. It’s ending almost as quickly as it began.”
“Three hours? That seems like a long time.”
“You’ve been under a lot of stress, Anna. Like all of us, but maybe even more. And it was a pretty tough hike to get up here. I don’t think it was all because of the argon. I think maybe you just needed it.”
“Laxmi, why didn’t you wake me? Have you heard from Jaci? We’ve gotta get back down there, see if he’s ok.” Anna sat up and started to get her feet under her. Her head swam, and she quickly sat back down.
“Hey, slowly. Take it easy, give yourself a minute. I didn’t wake you because you needed to heal. And besides, we weren’t going anywhere. The storm was still raging outside. We still can’t raise Jaci on the radio. I’ve tried. We can try again when we get outside, but if you don’t take it slow, and accept my help, we aren’t going to make it outside.”
Anna sat back and took a few deep breaths, then looked into Laxmi’s eyes. She saw determination there, and after a moment she nodded.
“Ok,” Laxmi continued. “The rope’s still setup for rappel. When you’re ready, we can climb back up into the tunnel, just the way we planned earlier.”
Anna breathed deep, then reached for Laxmi’s hand. With Laxmi’s help, she slowly stood up.
“Thank you. I’m ok now. We can do this.”
Laxmi took the lead. She hopped down into the gully, careful to keep her head high, and secured their packs to one end of the rope, similar to how they had done outside. Anna followed her down and secured the same end of the rope to her harness to anchor it down. Laxmi tied a pair of small lines to the other length of the rope with slip knots, then used a sling tied to the upper knot to secure her harness. With another sling tied to the lower knot, she fashioned a pair of loops.
Laxmi gave Anna a nod and a smile, then slid the upper knot as high up the rope as she could. She lifted her feet and let her harness take her weight, the pressure tightening the knot around the rope, until she sat in the harness, dangling just above ground level. Her weight pulled all the slack out of the rope, until the other end pulled up on Anna’s harness. The rope stretched, its elasticity allowing Laxmi to sink down further, until her head was almost below the lip of the gully.
She started to hyperventilate.
“Laxmi, climb! Hurry!”
Laxmi gasped for a breath. Anna reached over and helped her push the lower knot up to meet the upper one.
“Stand up in the sling!”
She did so, taking her weight onto her legs and the lower knot, relieving the pressure from her harness. Her head came higher, and her breathing eased. She turned to face Anna, looking a little frightened.
“It doesn’t take much, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t. Get going. I don’t want to stay down here.”
Laxmi slid the upper knot high, then sat in the harness, then slid the lower knot, then stood in the sling, gaining height up the rope. She repeated this motion, over and over, and traveled smoothly up the wall until she reached the tunnel. Once there, she shortened the leg sling so that she was able to use it to lever herself up and over the edge.
Once safely in the tunnel, Laxmi re-anchored the rope inside so that Anna could follow her up by the same method.
They pulled up the packs, retrieved the rope and anchors, and shuffled the eight meters through the narrow tube until they once again looked out at the fading light of late afternoon.
The storm indeed had abated. Occasional gusts brushed against them, but the rain had stopped and visibility was greatly improved. A low cloud layer still mostly covered the sky, but shafts of sunlight broke through gaps from behind the mountain to the west to paint the clouds fiery orange. Farther east the colors shifted through deeper red and violet hues, falling toward darkness where a dim line defined the ocean horizon. Outside the lagoon, the tallest wave tops foamed and glowed orange where fading light lit their peaks atop an indigo sea.
“Anna, do you see that? What is that?”
Laxmi pointed out to the dark sea. At first, Anna saw nothing unusual, until a flash of brighter red gleamed from a wave top. A moment later it disappeared, swallowed in the dark trough between waves. Anna reached into her pack and retrieved her binoculars. She searched the waves until the flash reappeared.
She watched the brighter object crest the wave, then fall behind it when the wave rolled on ahead. The object did not move as fast as the waves, but it was moving, following their direction, riding them.
“Can you make it out?”
“Yes. Yes, I see it.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a sail.”
“A sail. It’s a boat. There’s someone out there. And I think they’re heading for the lagoon.”
… continued with Fire in the Dark
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