The Captain was nearly at the top of the ridge. Climbing was much harder than she remembered; it was not helped by the skin of sandy soil, sliding around on top of the stonework walls and plazas that seemed to make up the skeleton of this structure.
She’d taken a few more samples, and as she pulled herself up onto the narrow cusp of the ridge at the top, she pulled out the scanning equipment and took a moment to calibrate it before really taking in the vista herself.
It was one hell of a vista.
Looking back towards camp, she could see the shine of the lake in the golden glow of the planet; she could see a distant shore of cinnamon-dusted cliffs with bluegreen trees; she could see, right at the edge of her vision, a large bank of clouds, the first she’d seen at all.
Looking away from camp, the view stretched and stretched and barely changed; just rolling undulations of tree-covered hills, not even another ridge in sight. In the distance she thought she caught another hint of clouds, but she couldn’t be sure. The scanner would pick it up.
While it clicked and beeped and did its thing, she adjusted her perch, and looked down the far side of the ridge. Going down there would put her too far from camp to get back for dinner, and it wasn’t that she was curious, of course, this was all a foolish quest, but there was what looked to be an opening in the side of the ridge.
The Engineer had asked her to get underground if possible. And if the Captain could do that as part of this excursion, then everyone could stay focused at camp until the ship was void-worthy again.
It was clearly the practical choice.
So she slid down the far side of the ridge, carefully, slowing herself on outcroppings of the stonework ruins, until she was beside the hole she’d seen.
It was bigger than she’d been able to tell from above; easy enough to slide through.
Her headlamp showed her similar terrain inside as out; slopes of sand laid over stone blocks. Easy enough.
The first stage, while the light of the sky still crept in and illuminated the cavern, was straightforward. The rocks were a little more slippery, but it wasn’t a problem.
As the Captain made her way deeper into what was turning out to be a deep crevice within the ridge, and the skyglow faded away behind her, things started to feel damp. The stonework was covered by a thinner and thinner layer of sandy soil, and a chill set in.
Carefully, she reached the end of the tunnel and felt a cool breeze on her face; she’d reached a huge cave. Below, the slope she’d been making her way down sharpened quickly into a drop, and the dust and grit she disturbed rattled down until finally it splashed into hidden water.
The Captain got out the scanner again, planning to do one or two more scans down here and then head back up; the rest of this cave was well beyond solo climbing, she was certain.
She perched the device on one knee and initiated it. As before, it whirred as it extended antennae.
But she had misjudged how long those spinning antennae were, and it smacked her on the nose as it revved up, which made her jump, which made it wobble on her knee, which made her try and lift her leg to steady it, which unbalanced her, which caused her to throw her hands behind which was stonework too slick to be grabbed properly. Which was why she fell.
It was a rough fall, sliding down first on her ass and then, unfortunately, rolling sideways down the sharper slope. Stonework pummeled her as she braced her arms around her face and pulled her legs up into a ball – and then suddenly she was free falling through the clammy air.
She couldn’t help herself – the darkness brought out the wrong instincts, and she extended arms and legs in desperate need to stop her fall. Which meant that she was all the wrong shape when she hit the water, and the shock of it pushed the air from her lungs.
When she found the surface, it was with hacking gasps and loud splashes. She could feel her whole body stinging from the impact, and her headlamp was on crooked, though mercifully still working. There was no shore to be found; the cave walls were vertical or worse at water level.
If she’d had her spacesuit, this would be no problem, but no, she’d gotten comfortable in mere fabric clothes, and she felt panic rising as she spun herself in circles, trying to find anywhere to climb out of the cold water, even just halfway.
And there! finally! a rocky island.
Swimming felt strangely awkward, but she made it to the isolated outcrop of stone blocks, and clumsily dragged herself up onto the small, uneven surface.
As the Captain lay on her back, breathing out the panic, she gently scanned herself for injury, flexing her fingers and toes and as she shifted her left leg, there it was, the lightning bolt of pain. She’d done something to her knee; something that made her yell aloud as she tried to put any weight on it. Even just sitting up and stretching the leg out was desperately painful, but she needed to see.
But for all it cost her to sit up, straighten her headlamp, and take a good look around, her reward was a bitter one. She was stranded, on one of a very few small stone islands, in a briny subterranean lake bordered by cliffs of stonework and sand.