Over an hour went by before the pains subsided completely. Sam was utterly done in, and feeling weak as a near drowned kitten.
"How… much… longer?" he wanted to know. The cold was creeping insidiously deeper and deeper, biting into the very marrow of his bones, turning his blood to ice in his veins.
Al consulted his hand-link, frowning and pelting it with the heel of his hand as if he could get the clock to count down faster.
"You just gotta wait a coupla hours more Sam." Al replied, keeping it vague. "Hang in there, buddy."
Al calculated that in his present condition it would take Sam a long time to retrace his way to the end of his tunnel to finish breaking through the barrier. He didn't want Sam exposed to the elements any longer than necessary, but neither did he want the team to miss him. Time to relocate, he decided.
"You better get in position, Sam."
Sam frowned, uncomprehending. Al explained slowly and patiently that he was suggesting Sam make his way back to the outer barrier, so that he would be ready to break through the last inch or so when the team approached.
Sam looked back at Becky-Lou.
"I don't… think… she'll… make it, Al." In truth, the distance wasn't that great, but it may as well have been a marathon.
Al nodded in confirmation. It would be tough enough for Sam to summon the energy. Becky-Lou's diabetes made her more susceptible to the negative effects of the cold. She was out for the count and liable to remain so until she received medical attention.
Sam reached over and tried to get a hold of the comatose teenager to drag her along with him. He was surprised at how slow his arms were to obey his brain's instructions. He fumbled, un-coordinated for a few moments, until he finally managed to grab the shoulder of her coat. Although he heaved and heaved with all his might, he failed to move her more than a few centimeters. Eventually, he gave up, fatigued, and looked plaintively at his friend. His hands no longer held Becky's coat, but his fingers were still curled.
"I'm… starting… to… get… stiff." Sam complained his voice hoarse and weak.
Al looked at Becky-Lou, and opened his mouth as if he was about to make a vulgar comment, but Sam forestalled him with a look that clearly said, "Don't even think it!" coupled with "I couldn't manage anything if I wanted to!"
"I'd lend you a hand if I could, pal." Al apologized, "You'll have to leave her here. It is more important that the team spots you, and then they can drag her out. Get going buddy, you got some ground to cover."
Inch by inch, Sam gradually clawed and crawled his way back along the tunnel he had sensibly dug earlier, until after what felt like hours of exhaustive effort he arrived back at the remaining blockage. Most of the way, he was on autopilot, barely aware of what he was doing, much less how he was managing to achieve it. Every slight move took its toll on his waning energy reserves.
Sam was way beyond shivering now, Ziggy silently reported to Al through the hand-link that Sam's body temperature was currently at 31 degrees and dropping as hypothermia took a firm hold. A profound numbness crept throughout his body, slowing physical and mental reactions alike. The blood flow to his extremities slowed due to vaso-constriction, sacrificed by his body's natural defenses to allow the flow to remain stronger through his midsection, protecting his vital organs for as long as possible against the relentless assault of the cold. His heart rate and respiration were weakening and his blood pressure was plummeting.
Icy fingers gripped Sam's heart and tried to squeeze the life out of him.
Sam found himself wishing he were a Tower-trained Darkovan Matrix technician, or a Tibetan monk skilled in the art of tummo yoga - the yoga of "vital heat". Either person, fictional or real, had the mental discipline to will an increase in their body heat, enabling them to endure and survive unscathed the bleakest of deep freeze conditions. Though he had studied various meditative techniques and knew the power of a positive mental attitude, the precise skills of tummo were not a part of his repertoire, and so he felt himself slipping ever closer toward loss of consciousness and impending death. His eyes pleaded with Al – 'Get me out of this ice-box…'
"Keep talking to me buddy. You gotta keep that noggin in gear," urged Al. "I know, explain the string theory to me."
"Huh?" Sam's normally razor sharp brain was dulled to the point that it more resembled shaving foam. His thought processes were sluggish, as if his synapses were wearing thick rubber galoshes instead of their usual sprinting shoes, and wading through molasses to boot.
"Too tough, eh?" conceded Al. "Okay, let's start simple and work our way up. How about Pythagoras' theorem? Come on, Sam, what does Pythagoras say about triangles?"
Sam pondered for a moment, struggling to remember.
"The squ-hair on…on the… hi-hip-hop-pop-potamus is… equal… to the… sum of… the h-hairs… on… the other… two hides?" Sam frowned as he tried to work out what the heck he had just said. Al was trying to work it out too. Was Sam trying to be funny, or was he really that addled? Al very much hoped it was the former, but knew the latter was more likely.
Ziggy once more surreptitiously updated the observer on Dr Beckett's core temperature, displaying the fact that it was slipping beyond the 30 degree lower limit of moderate hypothermia, and into the far more dangerous severe hypothermic stage. 29.7 degrees flashed on the hand-link, and was almost immediately replaced –
29.6 degrees. Ziggy warned Al that a further drop of 2 degrees would result in coma and almost certain death. As it was, his recent exertions had drained far more body heat than they'd produced, exacerbating his condition.
Even now, it would take more than ten hours of gradual warming to safely restore Sam's core temperature to an acceptable level. Any faster, and the vaso-constriction would be reversed. His extremities would warm at the expense of his core, and the blood would rush away from his vital organs, causing a further deep body temperature drop that would quickly prove fatal.
Al's face could not mask his horror at this prognosis, but thankfully Sam didn't notice. Not only did the darkness of the cavern make discerning such an expression difficult, even with the aid of the holographic glow, but also Sam was becoming increasingly lethargic, withdrawn and apathetic. It was getting harder and harder for Al to get any sort of a reaction from his friend. He was not about to give up though, not while there was breath left in Sam's body. Even if it was so shallow as to be almost down to ten breaths per minute. According to Ziggy, Sam's pulse rate was severely reduced and weak too.
Al checked his watch for the hundredth time. He could only hope that time would not run out for his friend before the rescue team arrived. The observer was tempted to pop outside and see for himself exactly where the search party was, but he was afraid that abandoning Sam for even a moment might allow the opportunity for him to slip too far into the grip of the hypothermia.
At last Ziggy was telling him that it was light outside, and the team was well on the move.
"C'mon buddy, hang in there," he encouraged, "Not much longer now, pal. Talk to me, Sam. How're you feeling?"
Al had learned that he had to keep it simple; Sam's genius mind was so much sushi at the moment. It was only his iron-willed determination to survive and even more, to keep his promise to get Becky-Lou out alive that was keeping the physicist conscious.
"My… body… feels… like… lead, yet… my…my head… seems… to… be… floating… weightless. Is… this… what… death… feels… like, Al?" Every hoarsely whispered word was hard won, and marked by a blink of concentration. The spaces between words were getting longer and longer.
"Hold on, buddy, don't give in to it," pleaded Al. "You gotta fight it, Sam. Stay with me, now." Al was gripping the hand link as if it were a rope he could throw to a drowning Sam. He willed the leaper to find the strength to survive...
"They're almost here, Sam, time to dig out." Al finally told his friend.
"C-a-n-'t… m-o-v-e." It was all Sam could do to remember how to form words.
"You have to, buddy." Al told him gently, but seeing that his friend was slipping into further unresponsiveness, he changed his manner. Putting on a stern expression, and pointing his finger for emphasis, he made his tone harsh and commanding, "Come on damn it, move yourself, soldier, that's an order."
How many times had Al needed to apply tough love to pull Sam through a crisis? Too many, and should Sam survive this current ordeal, Al had little doubt that this wouldn't be the last.
For a few moments more, Sam remained still, eyelids drooping, on the verge of giving in and passing out. If he was still breathing, his lungs were unaware of it. Then Al used his trump card, the one thing guaranteed to galvanize Sam into action.
"Sam, you get your butt back in gear and start digging right now, or Becky-Lou is gonna die in here with you." He chastised.
As predicted, that penetrated Sam's befuddled, benumbed brain, and caused his eyes to open wide.
"That's it, pal, c'mon. You can do it."
Sam tried to move, but his cryogenic carcass was totally unresponsive to his mind's incoherent commands.
"Can't!" he repeated; the word expelled on a strained breath.
"Sam, I don't wanna hear you can't.' admonished the Admiral, as if he were chewing out a raw recruit. "Now get to it. Becky-Lou's in big trouble, Sam. You gotta get help, and you gotta do it now." Al was beginning to worry that he had already left it too late.
Little by little, Sam woke his slumbering muscles. It was no easy task. Intense concentration brought barely a flicker of movement.
"Dammit Sam, try harder." Bullied Al, "Remember that film? 'Lorenzo's oil' - That kid was paralyzed, but he didn't give in. Be like him, Sam, remember, huh? – Now tell your brain to tell your shoulder to tell your arm to tell your hand to tell your fingers to dig out. Do it!"
Sam forced his frozen fingers to flex. Somehow, he made contact with the snowy plug and pawed at it half-heartedly.
"You need to do better than that, Sam" Al chastised, though he knew he was asking a lot. Sam shot him a look that countered, "I'd like to see you do better!"
"Get angry, Sam, let rage give you the strength, get angry with that damned snow." Al suggested. Sam wasn't sure he remembered what anger was. He wasn't sure of anything except that he was desperate to sleep.
"How…where...?" Sam mumbled, forgetting what he was trying to do. Everything seemed remote and unreal.
"You gotta dig out, Sam. C'mon buddy, concentrate. Look, follow my moves."
Al got his hand into position, let it disappear into the bank, and mimed scooping out a handful of snow. He had to do it three times before Sam got the message, and attempted to ape the movement.
"That's it, pal, attaboy, you can do it," encouraged Al, continuing to demonstrate what Sam needed to do. Gradually, Sam got into a sort of rhythm, and Al could see the snow coming away piece by tiny piece.
Stiff, swollen, aching joints made digging with gnarled hands slow, painful strenuous work. Sam worked once more as an automaton, without thought or feeling beyond the repetitive movements being required of him. Al hassled and cajoled and praised every slight achievement, while at the same time checking his hand link compulsively every few moments, to be sure that the team had not passed them by.
Al could almost hear them outside, walking in a line, sinking poles gently into the snow to feel for any foreign objects, calling to each other when an area was clear and they should advance to the next stage.
"Hurry Sam, they're almost here!" Al spurred him to one last burst of effort.
Sam complied, clawed hands scrabbling at the last of the snow as one buried alive scrabbles at the lid of their coffin. Just in time, his twisted fingers grabbed at air, and his hand burst through to the surface, like the lady of the lake reaching up for Excalibur.
"Look! There!" the shout went up, and in moments hands were reaching out, carefully digging away enough snow to find the body that went with the protruding hand.
As they worked, Al promised Sam that everything should be okay now and that his pains would soon be over.
"Doesn't… hurt… any… more. Can't… feel… a thing. Funny, I… thought… rigor mortis… came… after… death."
With tremendous efficiency and practiced teamwork, an ashen-faced Sam was soon extracted from his temporary tomb. When they moved him, he felt he was so fragile - his bones as brittle as glass - that a wrong move would cause him to snap into a thousand pieces. Thankfully, they were gentle and sensitive in their handling of him. They had dealt with enough cases of hypothermia to know what needed doing. They could see how thoroughly the young man was in its grip by the waxy appearance of his skin, the cyanosis of his cracked lips and fingertips and the general rigidity of his limbs and they could feel how very cold he was to the touch. In fact they were amazed that not only did he still have a discernable pulse – just – but he was also still conscious, albeit barely.
"Becky" he whispered simply, his arm feebly pointing back inside to indicate that he was not alone. One of his rescuers dove into the tunnel to investigate.
The rest of the team eased him onto a litter, and covered him with several blankets, tucking them in tightly around his body to prevent further heat loss now that he was exposed to the elements. They discussed removing his damp clothing and replacing it with dry, but decided it was better to wait until he reached the ambulance that was waiting for them at the base of the mountain. The early morning air was decidedly chilly, and the dangers of effecting the change out in the open were liable to be more deleterious than the potential benefits of the result warranted.
Whilst some of the rescuers waited with a second litter for Becky-Lou to emerge, four began the decent with Sam carried between them, all the while speaking reassuringly to him to ease his mental anguish and reduce the effects of shock. Coach Hank Montgomery walked alongside; having insisted on going with the search party he'd alerted after Tammy had informed him of the couple's failure to return to their dorms. He too spoke encouraging words to his student.
Al, on the other hand, regretfully told Sam that Ziggy was predicting Becky-Lou was still in danger, and therefore he had to remain awake a little longer. Sam ploughed every molecule of waning energy remaining in him into keeping his eyelids from obeying gravity's insistent demands. He was teetering precariously on the precipice of that yawning chasm known as coma.
So all absorbing was this undertaking, that before he knew it, both he and Becky-Lou were lying in the ambulance, had been taken out of their wet clothes and were being rushed to the hospital in Salt Lake City.
What got his attention at this point, where Al's continued urgings to respond had thus far failed, was the conversation between the two paramedics riding with them.
"I don't think she's gonna make it," announced one, "I've lost her pulse again."
He began massaging Becky-Lou's chest.
The other one took a look at her, commenting on her extreme pallor.
"She sure looks like death." He confirmed, "mind you, so does the other one." He pointed at Sam. "I don't understand why he isn't comatose too." The words were coming to Sam through a fog, and his brain was having trouble processing their implications, but gradually he started to make some sort of sense of it all.
"Maybe we should just concentrate our efforts on him. She doesn't seem to be responding at all. She still feels like ice. At least he stands a chance…" began the first.
"No!" breathed Sam, but he wasn't sure they'd heard. He wasn't even sure he'd spoken aloud.
They had to keep trying; they couldn't give up on Becky-Lou. Sam was feeling like he'd never thaw out either, but he would take his chances. They mustn't let Becky-Lou die.
Sam found himself wishing "Space" blankets had been invented. They did the trick for marathon runners suffering from exposure…
'That's it!' he thought, his brain suddenly energized by the possibility of saving Becky-Lou.
He had to make them understand.
Sam tried to reach up to grab the paramedic's arm, but his own stubbornly refused to move. How could he get their attention? He was so completely and utterly exhausted; he could barely summon the strength to breathe.
Okay then, that would have to do. It was a pity that this was not a decade or so later – he would have had respiratory monitors to alert them to his condition. Unfortunately, the mid-fifties had nothing so sophisticated. He would have to rely upon their vigilance. He drew in as deep a breath as he could manage, and deliberately held it. Just as he was about to pass out from lack of oxygen, the technician closest to him sensed a change in status. Looking round, he called to his partner.
"Ralph, this one's not breathing!"
They turned their efforts to him, instantly attentive, extremely relieved when he spontaneously gasped in a lungful of air.
"…Tinfoil" Sam suggested as he exhaled again, in a barely audible whisper.
The nearest paramedic leaned forward, thinking the boy was delirious "What's that, son?"
"…tin… foil" Sam repeated, no louder than before, straining to get the words through dry cracked still blue lips.
Leaning right down so that his ear was to Sam's lips, the attendant urged him to say it once more, thinking that the lad's judgment was skewed by exhaustion, but grateful for any sign that he was fighting the hypothermia.
"Wrap… her… in… tin… foil" Sam sighed with effort and exasperation.
"Tin foil?" repeated the man incredulously, "What the devil is he on about, Ralph?"
Ralph merely shrugged his shoulders, and then made a circular motion with his finger pointing at his temple. The kid's brain was a frozen Popsicle; he couldn't be expected to make sense.
"Think!" exhorted Sam, who was finding that particular activity exceedingly taxing, along with all the other strenuous pursuits he was being forced to engage in, such as breathing, and staying awake.
"Why… cook… food… tinfoil?"
He could almost see the wheels turning as the two processed this question. Then, as one, their expressions changed, and it was as if he could see the light-bulb switch on in their brains.
"To stop heat escaping!" provided Ralph. "Donny, this kid's a genius!"
"And then some!" Al put in.
Donny leaned forward and banged on the partition that separated the cab from the rear of the ambulance.
A few minutes and a quick stop at the local store later, and they were wrapping both patients in copious amounts of aluminum foil, like a pair of sparkling oven-ready mummies.
When this task had been accomplished, Ziggy squealed.
"That's it, buddy. Ziggy says the odds of Becky-Lou surviving have risen to 52 percent. You did it kiddo. You'll still have to get her skiing again, but the crisis is over for now."
Sam had a strong case of Rip Van Winkle envy.
"If… nobody… minds…" Sam replied by way of acknowledgement, "I think… I'd… like… a little… nap… now, just… for a… week… or so."
Without waiting for confirmation or permission, Sam lapsed into serene unconsciousness.
Only the scarcely discernible rise and fall of his chest at infrequent intervals marked the fact that he was merely sleeping and not dead.