Phillip glanced up, searching through the haze for his guide. It was almost impossible to see her, even though her entire outfit was a glaring neon orange. He knew she was there, maybe ten or twelve feet above him, but she might as well have been a hundred feet away.
He tugged on the rope, testing their connection as well as signaling to her. It was firm. Good. That gave him some sense of security. As long as they remained connected, there was hope of getting out of this alive.
Why, oh, why did I have to come up here? he asked himself for the umpteenth time.
Because you wanted to prove something to yourself, a little self-deprecating voice taunted in reply. Because you wanted to show you’re just as virile and strong in your fortieth year as you were in your twentieth. And your thirtieth. And because you’re a glutton for punishment, you idiot.
The rope jumped in his hands. Two hard, definite jerks.
Peering upward, he tried to spot her, but the relentless storm blinded him. He thought he heard her voice shouting down at him. It sounded like she was trying to tell him…
“A cave! There’s a cave!”
The rope moved again, silently urging him to keep climbing. Using his left hand for control, he dug into the solid sheet of ice with the pick in his right. One inch…two inches…slow but sure.
A pair of gloved hands reached under his arms. She pulled, he heaved, and together they managed to bring him over the lip of the ledge she was resting on. With her help, he crawled farther inside the depression before dropping onto his side to rest.
“Are you okay?” she almost yelled into his ear.
“Yeah. Thanks. Where the hell did this storm come from?”
“It does that this time of year. Totally unpredictable.” She pointed behind her. “Let’s move inside. We can weather the worst of it in there.”
He followed her on hands and knees, sometimes having to resort to sliding on his belly like a penguin, before they entered a larger, cave-like structure. Except it was another ledge that ended about a meter away from the far wall. Daylight barely filtered inside, but by this time their eyes had adjusted to the dimness.
“Be careful you don’t roll over,” his guide half-teased.
He watched her reach inside one of her coat pockets and pull out a small bag. She opened it, extracting what looked like a piece of jerky. She noticed him eyeing her and held out the bag.
“Thanks.” He plucked a piece. Lifting his face mask, he popped it into his mouth. It was dry and tough, but it tasted wonderful once his spittle softened it. They ate in silence until he asked the obvious question. “How long will we have to remain here?”
“Maybe you’d be better off asking how long that storm’s going to last,” she countered.
“That long, eh?”
She answered with a snort. “Maybe we’ll get lucky, and this thing will blow over soon.”
“No pun intended?” he tossed in.
“Okay. What happens if this doesn’t end anytime soon, and we get trapped up here?”
She shrugged. “It’s been known to happen.” Her dark eyes slanted over at him. “That’s why you signed the release.”
Phillip studied her as she shrugged off the backpack and gear she carried, and set it next to her. Beneath her heavy jacket and layers of insulated wear was a twenty-something woman with jet black hair and eyes almost the same color. Initially, he’d been reluctant to have her sign on to be his guide up to the summit of this mountain, but he’d relented once he’d checked with several of the other sherpas and discovered she was as capable, if not more capable, than they were.
That, plus she was the only one left to hire.
She smiled. “You have a very good memory, Mr. Case.”
“Phillip,” he gently corrected.
She smiled again. “And how does Mrs. Phillip feel about you traipsing about the world on your own?”
“I’ve never been married.” At her astonished look, he continued. “I’ve been so involved in my work and trying to build my business from the ground up, I never found the time to fall in love, much less have a family.”
“I read your resume.” Jaylianna waved a hand at their surroundings. “This doesn’t look like something that has anything to do with your business.”
“No. It doesn’t.” He also divested himself of the forty-plus pounds he carried, laid it beside him, and leaned his back against the rocky wall. “When I was in college, a group of friends and I decided to hike through Europe one summer. I was twenty. It was such an exhilarating and life-changing experience, I decided to do something similar when I hit thirty.”
“And that was?”
“I traveled the complete length of the Amazon by boat.”
She nodded her head. “Impressive. So for your fortieth birthday, you chose to climb to the summit of the Himalayas?”
“It seemed safer than to try for Everest,” he halfway jested. “I have to admit, it was quite a surprise to find someone like you hiring herself out as a guide.”
“Girl’s gotta eat,” she quipped.
“You’re not afraid of some client…” He let the rest slide. Somehow he knew she’d understand what he meant.
A hardness came over her features. “I’m not as weak as some people believe.”
“I know.” From what he’d observed over the past few days, he had no doubts she could hold her own.
“And, because I know you’re going to ask me sooner or later what’s a girl like me doing on a slope like this, let’s just say I come from a family of mountain climbers.”
He’d suspected as much. She had a strange accent. Hard to place, but pleasant to listen to. “It’s in the blood.”
She chuckled. “That’s one way of putting it.”
She pulled out their satellite phone from a side pocket of her backpack and turned it on. “Base Hugo. Base Hugo. This is Expedition Argos. Base Hugo. Do you copy? This is Expedition Argos.”
The phone crackled. “This is Base Hugo. We copy, Expedition Argos. You’re in one hell of a shitstorm. Have you found shelter?”
“We’re in an ice cave at thirty-nine thousand feet,” she informed the man on the other end. “What’s the forecast?”
“Not promising. Looks like this thing’s going to last at least through next week. There might be a small window to send a helicopter in to bring you out this Saturday, but that’s iffy at best. Hope you’re ready to hunker down and wait it out.”
“We’ll keep in touch,” Jaylianna promised. “Our next call will be at…” She checked her wristband. “Sixteen hundred hours.”
“Copy that. Talk to you then. Hugo out.”
She turned off the phone and tucked it inside her inner coat pocket. “Unless you get cold, we need to save our Sterno packets for when we really need them.”
“All right. When they say it’s time to go meet the chopper, is there any place in particular we rendezvous?”
She motioned downward. “There’s a slope a hundred or so meters beneath us that’s wide enough to allow a helicopter to lower down a ladder.”
“So I take it this is as high as I’ll get on this mountain.”
She smiled, but he didn’t see any humor in it. “You managed to reach thirty-nine thousand six hundred and eighteen feet. That’s higher than a lot of expeditions managed to reach before they had to be called off.” She cocked her head to the side. “Disappointed?”
“Hell, no. The simple fact that I was able to get this far is enough for me.”
“So getting to the top wasn’t a big priority.”
“It’s the adventure I’m after. Being able to tell others what I’ve done. Personal satisfaction.”
That seemed to appease her.
“In the meantime, what do we do until it’s time for you to check in again? Swap stories?”
“I always prefer to rest. Catch a few ZZZs.”
He acquiesced. “That would’ve been my second suggestion.” Digging his hands deeper into his coat pockets, he watched Jaylianna lie on her side and make herself comfortable, using the backpack to pillow her head. “Out of curiosity, have you ever made it to the summit?”
“Once? More than once?”
She rolled her eyes up at him. He quickly waved it off. “Never mind. It’s nice to know I have an expert at mountain climbing.”
She murmured something that sounded vaguely like, “If you only knew,” but he dismissed it.
Taking her cue, he tried to settle onto his backpack but he was too stressed and anxious to feel sleepy. Curiously, he watched as she removed one of those little wind-up lanterns from her gear. She cranked the handle several times until it emitted a glow, then placed it on the floor between them.
A cracking noise came from overhead. Phillip sat up in alarm and stared at the ragged ceiling of ice a few meters overhead. He glanced over at Jaylianna just as a second loud snap resounded. A look of worry crossed her face as she also rose into a sitting position.
“That can’t be good, can it?” he whispered.
“It could be the ground shift—”
The floor suddenly collapsed. Jaylianna shrieked as she, the lantern, and her backpack went plunging down into the dark morass. Phillip scooted as far away from the hole to keep from also falling, when the ice ledge crumbled beneath him, and he found himself tumbling backwards.
It was almost a straight shot down until he hit the pool of freezing cold water. He struggled, flailing his arms and kicking his legs in an attempt to get his head above the surface. It was all he could do not to succumb to the icy liquid trying to suck him under.
He wasn’t expecting something to grab him. He tried to fight it off, afraid something diabolical or supernatural had risen from the depths.
“Breathe!” a voice yelled near his ear.
He hadn’t known his face was above the water until he heard the word. Obediently, he gulped in a deep breath.
There was no light coming from anywhere. It was dark. Apocalyptic dark. A shudder went through him.
“Stop struggling!” the same voice ordered.
He froze. Water splashed up his nose. His arms and legs felt heavy. Even though his clothing and outerwear was waterproof, it didn’t mean it couldn’t get waterlogged. Especially when immersed and held underwater.
The arms tightened around him, and he realized she was keeping his head above the surface. “Jay?”
Something slapped his legs. She was trying to keep them both afloat.
A hardness pressed against his back.
It was all he could do to find the wall of ice and try to keep a grip on it. The arms released him, and he got the impression Jaylianna had gone under.
Holding onto the wall with one hand, he swept his other arm outward, hoping to find her and bring her back to the surface. He was shocked when a tiny light appeared a short distance away. In its glow he saw the woman appear and shake the water from her eyes. Her parka was missing, leaving her dark hair hanging like a black curtain over her shoulders.
She turned to him. “You okay?”
He coughed and spit. “Yeah. You?”
“I think we fell into a crevasse.”
“Can we get out of it?”
“Yeah. Maybe.” She had a funny expression on her face. He saw her look upward and raise the lantern to examine the sides of the crevasse, and for a brief instant he thought he saw…
She lifted the lantern higher, and what he believed he’d imagined became clearer.
Clearer and undeniable.
“I can climb up to the opening,” she told him. Slowly, she swung around to face him. Between them, a fish-like tail splashed the surface, blue-green scales reflecting in the pale lantern light. “As soon as I reach the cave entrance, I’ll put out an SOS to base camp. Let them know what happened. But you can’t stay submerged in this water long.”
“How are you going to reach them? You put the phone in your parka,” he reminded her.
She pointed to an area above them.
Pointed…with her hoof-shaped hand.
“There’s another phone in my pack. It got caught on something. Once I get up there, I’ll drop the rope down to you and you can haul yourself up out of the water after I make the call. Then I’ll help you up the rest of the way.”
He nodded and readjusted his grip on the wall.
After revving the lantern to a higher brightness, she set it on a small bit of ice jutting next to her. She gave him another unreadable look, prompting him to wish her luck. With a nod, she raised both…arms…
No. Legs. Animal legs. Goat legs. Legs that end in hooves.
…placed them on the wall, and heaved herself up out of the water.
Phillip swallowed hard, his heart pumping frantically in his chest as he stared at the long, sinuous tail, glistening with scales, down to the semi-transparent fins. She maneuvered herself from one tiny outcropping to another, using that tale for balance as she found purchase with her front legs.
It was slow going, but she eventually reached the dangling backpack. Withdrawing the second satellite phone from an inner pocket, she hung the strap around her neck, then pulled out a length of coiled rope. “Phillip?” she called down to him.
“Rope coming down! I attached an ice pick to the end, so heads up!”
She played it out until he heard it hit the water. Despite the dim light, he was able to grab it on the first try. “Got it!”
“Tie it around your waist. After I make the call, I’ll help pull you up. Think you can make the climb?”
“Fifty bucks say I can!”
She laughed, and for the first time he felt hope they’d be able to get through this.
As he secured the rope around his waist, he heard her call in the SOS. When it was over, she yelled down, “They’re on their way! You secured?”
She pulled, and he did his best, using the pick to carve toeholds in the wall as she kept the rope taut to keep him from falling. Water sluiced from his clothing, but he didn’t dare take the time or use the energy to remove any of it.
Eventually, he reached the remains of the ledge, now more of a wide lip at the cave opening. Settling where there was no chance of him falling back in, he took a couple of minutes to catch his breath. At the same time, he made no bones about looking closely at her. At her new form. Her shape. The mixture of human, animal, and fish, clearly visible even in the dank light.
“I’m a Caprica,” she softly admitted.
“A Caprica? Like Capricorn? The zodiac sign?”
“I thought that was—”
“Fiction? Mythology?” She gave a single laugh. “Don’t you know all mythology has origins from somewhere?”
He saw a shudder go through her. Unzipping his coat, he peeled it open, then unbuttoned the flannel shirt beneath it until he got to the thermal underwear before he reached for her. She didn’t object, but scooted next to him and allowed him to draw her against him. Pull her into his lap until their bodies touched, and he could close his shirt and coat around them both so their combined body heat kept them warm.
“Your secret is safe with me,” he murmured into her wet hair.
She continued to shiver. It made her chuckle vibrate. “Who’d believe you anyway?”
Phillip stared out the cave opening at the curtain of snow blowing at a forty-five-degree angle. Here he was, holding a woman who wasn’t a real woman, but more of a combination of three species, and he didn’t feel the least bit uncomfortable. In fact, it felt…natural.
Her shivering lessened, becoming momentary attacks rather than persistent.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Oh, hell, no! Thank you! I wouldn’t’ve been able to make it out on my own.” He snorted. “You’re built for this terrain. Climbing sheer walls. Swimming through that freezing cold water. Can you also withstand blizzards?”
“If I can burrow underneath the drifts, I can usually hold my own until it stops. But I prefer a tent, a blanket, and a hot cup of tea.”
“How about I treat you to that hot cup of tea when we get back to base camp?” he offered. If he didn’t know any better, he’d swear she relaxed against him.
“I’d like that very much, Phillip,” she admitted, and laid her head on his shoulder.For the first time in his life, he didn’t mind having to wait for their ride to arrive.