CHAPTER 79

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Phoenix stared into the chasm, eyes peering through the faceplate of his helmet, which was ring-locked to his thermal suit. He had been thinking about what Sarah said...about the possibilities of Nova being alive. Resurrecting from the dead. The serum having unfathomable powers. Although he held onto the notion with a few tangled threads of hope, in practicality, he squashed the idea. Even if they could find a way off Titan, they were still two and a half years away from the space station, Arcturus, and any chance of a rescue. With the Titan X spacecraft a burning wreck somewhere on the southern shores of Kraken Mare, they probably weren't going anywhere, anytime soon.

He dropped the rucksack of climbing gear next to the bag that Wolf had carried, knelt down and started removing the rope, carabiners, and harnesses.

"You sure about going this alone?" Sarah said, eyes narrowing into skeptical slits. "I can go too."

"I know." Phoenix closed the rucksack and rose to his feet. "If it's safe, all of us can go, but there's no sense risking more than one of us."

Sarah nodded affirmation. "You're the commander."

"But you're in charge of the mission on this moon, per the admiral. I'm just a pilot." He let that statement hover in the air between them. "But my guess is, you know I'm right, which is why you don't object."

"I agree with your plan, so you're clear to proceed."

"But why does it have to be him?" Ariel said from behind them. "Couldn't he go first?" She jabbed a thumb back at Wolf, who was distracted and busy with setting up the climbing gear.

"I don't know anything about him," Phoenix said. "Not sure what he's capable of. I've done a lot of spelunking. I know what I'm doing."

"What's spelunking?" Wolf asked. "I'm listening, and no, I've never done anything like this before."

"Cave exploration. Back on Earth, back when I had a normal life, I used to hike, dive, and climb...and descend. So, I've got this."

Ariel's eyes drifted over to Callisto.

"Don't even think about him right now," Phoenix said. "He's still hallucinating from hibernation. He'll go with us, once I've determined it's safe."

"Okay." Ariel's voice didn't sound convinced, but she nodded in agreement.

The one good thing about the year 2082: climbing gear had advanced to include battery powered harnesses with electric motors capable of enduring an ice moon like Titan. Phoenix stuck his arms through the thick black vest that resembled bulletproof body armor. In the front, he inserted the lead end of the rope and listened to it wind around a pulley and lock into place. It wouldn't stay in that position. On his wrist display, he toggled to a screen that linked him into the software of the vest. Using a control tab, he fed the rope through the vest and out another hole where he latched onto the end and gave it to Wolf. He'd been busy screwing stakes into the icy tundra while Phoenix thought about Nova. Phoenix didn't fail to miss the unmistakable sneer on the guy's face while he worked and everyone else stood around with their arms crossed. He couldn't blame him for being resentful, having to do all the heavy drilling. Callisto hadn't been helping either. All he could do was pace back and forth, mumbling about Nova.

For a brief second, Phoenix considered pushing Callisto into the chasm. He was the reason Nova was dead. If he hadn't been hiding behind that work table like a coward, Nova might still be alive. But Phoenix bit his lip and shoved away the thoughts of murder. He wasn't a killer. Not yet anyway.

With the end of his rope, secured to one stake and the other end coiled around another one, Phoenix tabbed his wrist display and lowered himself down into the massive hole in the ground.

"Good luck," Sarah said.

"Be careful," Ariel added.

As he descended, his shoulder mounted lights played over the dirty grime of ice and carbon material. The chasm reminded him of a giant sinkhole on Earth.

The further he went, the electric motor buzzing, the grime changed from a mucky brown, dirty mixture, to pure white ice a hundred feet down. As his lights caught the interior walls, he picked up a hint of blue in the mist of the ice. This was a water ocean, frozen solid.

He aimed one of his lights toward the bottom and saw nothing but darkness.

He tapped his wrist display to increase the descent speed. The motor churned louder.

Above him, the others peered down, watching him lower into the hole. No one was talking. If they had been, he would've heard them through his comm system...unless they'd switched to a private channel, but why would they do that? He couldn't think of a good reason, unless they wanted to keep something from him.

Phoenix shook his head. He had no plans of sinking into paranoia like Callisto.

As he plunged into the depths of the unknown, he'd taken his eyes off what lay beneath him. He wrenched his neck around and peered down below. His lights caught the edge of what appeared to be the jagged outlines of rocks. As he got closer, the shapes materialized into dirty ice boulders, some as big as a hover car, others a fraction bigger than his body. Amidst the ice rocks, he saw a reflection of a clear and solid surface—the bottom of the chasm.

And sticking out from the side of a monstrous ice boulder, were two long shaped appendages that could only be a pair of legs.

Phoenix reached the bottom and unhooked from the rope. He hustled over to where the boots jutted into the open of the cavern. He didn't speak. His voice was wedged in his throat, unable to break free.

He traced the boots and legs all the way to the hard edge of the giant boulder that had to weigh tons.

Phoenix sank to his knees; all he found was her legs protruding from underneath the ice rock. There wasn't even any blood. Just a clean crush of unimaginable force, smashing her torso and head into nothing. When the ice gave way under her feet and she plummeted to the bottom of the hole, this colossal rock had pulverized her upper body flatter than flat. Luna was gone. The scientist specializing in geology would never have a chance to analyze a rock from this barren moon.

But what bothered Phoenix more than the loss of a crew member was the fact that he'd never get to prove Sarah's theory to be correct...the one about the serum they'd taken being able to resurrect them from the dead. Those last threads of hope of saving Nova vanished.

In that deflating moment, Sarah said, "Jake? Is that you?"

Phoenix looked up as she darted away from the chasm ledge and disappeared from view. When he drew his gaze back to the bottom of the chasm, he spotted a tunnel leading off into the darkness, and then he saw the case that Luna had been carrying...the one that was supposed to contain the alien artifact.

Because they were in thermal suits, and the case required their thumbprints, they'd have to get it back to Habitat One to open it and see what it revealed.

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