They squeeze between amber stalagmites and squat beside a man whose patience abandoned him before his spirit. An ice axe remains frozen in his hands, its tip slathered with the red lacquer coating his face. The holes in his forehead could be mistaken for spider eyes.
“What was the hurry?” says Trevor. “I heard death by hypothermia is painless.”
“How does anyone know that?” says Gaspar. “Were volunteers assigned different ways to die and asked to rate them?”
Their breath expands and dissipates in the cave, joining frenzied thoughts long ago freed from the ice man’s skull. The flashlight summons forms from the void like a wand brandished by sorcerers. A mushroom of ice towers over them, its oak-thick stem withering below a luminescent rotunda. The shapes on the ground are not rock formations. Not yet.
“Look what some of them are wearing,” says Trevor. “I’ve only seen gear like this in old pictures.”
“They didn’t fall in at the same time. Look what else they have. Does that book look familiar?”
“What an interesting coincidence.”
“I see the beginning of a pattern,” says Gaspar. “I’d say this warrants skepticism of the remaining chapters.”
“What else would they have been reading, a book on beekeeping?”
“They should have. It’s an interesting hobby with few casualties.”
“How could waiting to die be the lesser evil?”
“No accounting for taste. Maybe they came back after going down there.”
The passage descends toward a purple light surging beneath chandeliers of fused crystals and aborted supernovas. Calcite nubs protrude from the path like hands reaching for their ankles.
“Let’s wait for help,” says Trevor.
“My survival instinct says we should be a bit more proactive. Patience hasn’t been an effective strategy here. I’ve heard of waiting rooms but this is ridiculous.”
“Dr. Zardeen was next to us when the crevasse opened. There’s no sign of him.”
“What’s the bad news?” says Gaspar.
“Gentlemen,” calls a distant voice.
“Doctor, did you notice a group of climbers in the passage back here?” shouts Trevor.
“They might need first aid,” says Gaspar, “but take your time.”
“They are quite dead. They were probably too frightened by what’s over here. Hurry, gentlemen. This is what I have been looking for.”
Strange light caricatures Gaspar’s and Trevor’s silhouettes as they approach, as if in mockery, making them appear no less fantastic and alien as the indigenous formations. In darkness the ice men continue their vigil, rebels holed up against the army of time, saved by an intercessor no less ruthless.