Des had been unconscious for nearly two days when the swelling in his brain began to subside. He thought he tasted orange marmalade in his dry mouth and felt the sensation of wind around his body, but he still could not see. What had Mitch said? It was “fuck” something, “open the fucking—” what? Eyes? Parachute? Mind? What was he supposed to do?
The gale surrounding him settled and was replaced with the feeling of being suspended mid-air. He was blown sideways by a gust and fell very slowly topsy-turvy, then landed hard on stone.
The wind stopped.
He was bombarded by a constellation of aches and pains. He knew he was badly injured and wondered what bones might be broken. His shoulders ached, his legs were numb, and his chest felt bruised and bloated. He struggled to breathe evenly and thought he was going to die.
He moved his fingers, then wiggled his toes. His mind was detached, but his body was still connected. His head pounding, he lay motionless, trying to regain some equilibrium. Which way was up? Forget the pain. Think! He had been talking with Mitch—climbing with Mitch. He must have fallen. Why would he fall? Something else in the cave. He heard a slithering sound nearby.
The lights—turn off the lights.
Des felt the end of his flashlight and his headlamp—they were both warm. He fumbled with the switch on his headlamp and flicked it off. He groped down the flashlight’s cord until he found its switch and pulled that back as well. He observed no change to the darkness; he had no idea if he could even see. He no longer heard the slithering sound, but he didn’t move until his nausea and pain lessened enough that thirst and hunger began to replace them.
Painfully, Des removed his climbing harness and parachute. Inside his pack, he fingered the two cans of soda Kathy had packed for him. When he opened one, the sound of the pop-top echoed. Des stood carefully; his head was still swimming. No broken bones, he surmised. He pushed up his visor and drained the can. When he brought his face level again, he could make out a faint light in the distance. Well, at least he wasn’t blind. He dropped the empty can without thinking, swung his pack over his back and stumbled through a cave towards the light.
He reached the end of the cave and after walking unsteadily for sixty meters discovered a steep climb leading to a small hole with light coming through it, about one hundred meters up.
Des removed his crampons and started to climb. With thirty meters left, he stopped to rest a moment, his back against rock and his bruised legs swinging below him.
Almost immediately, something grabbed each of his legs and began to pull him down.
The lights. Des’ mind raced to reclaim lost thoughts. As tentacles tugged him downward, Des ripped off his helmet, and turned on the headlamp flinging it away from him. It clattered on the rocks as it bounced down into the cave, its light flashing. The tentacles’ grip loosened as the creature chased after the helmet.
Des clawed upwards as fast as he could. He grabbed for the opening, pulled himself through it, then rolled down a gentle slope into mist.
When he stopped, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He was in a beautiful, colorful rainforest with huge, gnarled trees reaching skyward. Flowers abounded; he saw a bush bursting with huge purple flowers. The slope he had rolled down was dark green and grassy. There was a cacophony of birdcalls. A fawn bounced away from him. He could hear the chatter of monkeys high in the trees. He was astonished by the beauty and gentleness surrounding him; the air was warm, moist and clean-smelling. He carefully removed his pack and Tevlar coat, then sat and marveled.
Nothing made any sense to him. His head and limbs throbbed as he tried to piece together the disjointed information in his mind. An expedition to the North Pole had somehow brought him to a tropical garden. An icy abyss had disappeared. He suddenly remembered Mitch calling to him. Des, open your fucking ‘chute! Now Des realized he must have been falling, although he didn’t remember pulling his ripcord.
Then he remembered removing his parachute in the cave. It had still been packed! So if he hadn’t opened it, he was either hallucinating or dead; there could be no other answer. The pain in his body was proof that he was still alive, so he must be delusional.
Maybe he hadn’t fallen at all. He closed his eyes to aid his concentration. There had been something else in the chasm…something alive. He had just slipped away from a similar creature—or the same one? The tentacles he had seen with Mitch could have stuffed him into a granite crevice where he now lay; this forest could be an illusion.
He opened his eyes.
If this were an illusion, it was a sensational one. The colors were most striking. He had been in a gray world for almost a month, but now he saw color in every direction. He listened to the cacophony and smelled the sweet scent of the flowers, which were everywhere. Some sprouted from the ground, others were on low bushes; even the trees were covered with lavish flowers.
He remembered that Hans had said to stay put, so Des would do just that until they found him. He opened his pack and retrieved a ham sandwich and washed down the food with water from his canteen.
“Now, this is a place I could call home,” he said aloud.
His pain subsided somewhat. Des stood and stretched, now convinced this was a hallucination. He noticed his Timex wristwatch and checked the time and date, shocked to discover that two days had passed since he had been lowered into the chasm.
He suddenly realized that the team must leave today—they had no choice. There would be no rescue! Wherever Des was, he was stuck here!
Des heard a whoosh and a wooden club smashed onto his wristwatch, cracking his wrist. He yowled in pain before something hard connected with the back of his head.