Mysterious shadows flickered across the sides of the cave walling, and with curiosity in abundance, they walked faster. Rounding a blind corner, Hal saw it. A wide-open precipice, where shallow running water flowed freely, before ending abruptly on a cliff's edge.
'How high up are we?' Rachel asked.
'At least one hundred feet I'd say.' Kelly replied.
Frothy white torrents of freshwater erupted from the jagged rocky verge, releasing musty scents of wet leaves, and damp soil in its wake.
Leaning closer to the edge, Hal wobbled, before falling to his knees.
'Are you alright?' Rachel asked.
Unchecked tears welled up behind closed eyes, opening them slowly, he covered his face with both hands. 'It's all burning.' he cried.
The once naturally flourishing landscape was now a pale comparison, where tattered ruins of recent structures were teetering on the brink of collapse. Throughout the valley below, trees were glowing brilliantly amidst a veil of greying smoke, after being reduced to mere smouldering stumps.
A blurry shape stood out in the distance, drawing Kelly's attention first. 'What's that over there?' she asked.
Hal was the first to react. 'I'll be damned; it's Aspire!′ he marvelled, with heart-warming relief.
Jensen bore a look of surprise. 'The ship's still intact?' he asked.
'It looks like the shielding held, mostly.' Hal replied.
Several sections of the ship's shielding were suffering from cascading failures. One of the giant engines was on fire, where a momentary collapse of meagre defences, must have resulted in an explosion.
The active shielding was emanating off of the ship like an aura, and if not for that small blessing, then there would likely be nothing left oat all.
'We should be able to get it repaired easily enough, and then we can all get out of here.' Jensen announced.
'What we should do is try to save as many people as we can down there!' Rachel scolded.
'That is what I meant to say.' Jensen replied.
'How far away is the ship?' Hal asked.
'I'd say at least seven miles, give or take... what?' Rachel replied.
'Its nothing, you just caught us by surprise is all. Out of curiosity, though, where did you learn how to read the landscape like that?' Hal asked.
'My mom's always looking at old maps; she studies them almost every day.' Connor interrupted.
Hal smiled. 'I believe that I speak for all of us when I say thank you, Rachel.'
'Not to ruin this wonderful news, but how do we get down there?' Kelly asked.
Jensen laughed. 'I take it that you aren't in the mood for a swim then?' he replied.
'You first.' Kelly advised.
'This isn't getting us anywhere; we can't jump off of a cliff. We must go back inside.' Hal said.
'Back into the fire, are you serious?' Jensen asked.
Rachel looked at Hal. 'Not that far back, we'll have to find another route, right?' she asked.
'That's right.' he replied.
They each collected their belongings, and then once again headed back into the darkness.
Through long pitch-black tunnels and too abrupt dead ends, they continued to search for a way out.
'Mom help!' Connor cried, his small voice echoing endlessly throughout the winding caverns.
Hal stopped still, causing Jensen to trip over him. 'I've got you.' Hal said, grabbing onto his arm.
It would have been hard enough to navigate through the maze of tunnels with the blessing of sight, and they did not even have that luxury.
'Why did you stop?' Jensen asked.
'Listen.' Hal replied.
'Mom, mom, where are you?' Connor repeated.
'Where is he?' Jensen yelled.
'I thought that he was next to you!' Rachel replied.
'Where are you, Connor?' Hal shouted.
'Here... down here.' Connor choked the dust from nearby rocks causing him to wheeze and cough repeatedly.
'He's over here somewhere!' Kelly said, stalking forward.
'I'm right with you, Kelly.' Jensen added.
Kelly's right foot swept through open air, as she scrambled to stay on her feet, and falling backwards, she landed on her back. 'Everybody stop! I hear him, Rachel, he must have fallen, and I nearly joined him.' Kelly confirmed.
'Connor, are you still there?' Kelly asked.
'I'm here, you're coming to get me, right?' he begged.
'We are, but we need to know what's down there. What do you see Connor?' Hal asked, crawling closer to the pit.
'It's too dark, wait, I feel rocks and grass.' Connor listed.
Rachel looked confused. 'Are you sure that it is grass, Connor?' she asked.
Connor sighed. 'I know what grass is, mother!'
Rachel coughed, attempting to cover up her embarrassment. 'I'm sorry, Connor, you're right. What else do you see?'
Hysterical giggling carried through the air. 'There's this strange black goo everywhere, and I've been rolling around in it.' Connor replied.
Rachel howled with fury. 'Don't you roll in anything, Connor!' she ordered, counting down from ten.
Hal shook his head. 'The black goo sounds similar to that peat-like substance which we found earlier. He mentioned grass as well; surely, grass couldn't be growing within an environment like this; there can only be one explanation.' he said.
After a moment of silence, Kelly finally lost all patience. 'Well, what explanation? Hal, you're killing me!' she replied.
Hal sighed. 'As you know, grass requires specific nutrients to flourish, and it needs water, and sunlight especially. I don't see any sunlight in here right now, but...' he began.
'Yes, there have to be at least a few breaks within the cave walls nearby, large enough for light to creep through. Perhaps sunlight shines through this place during certain hours of the day, where something as nutrient-dependent as grass would even have the chance to grow for a short time.' Kelly finished.
'Thank you for stealing the moment, Kelly!' Hal laughed. 'You are correct though, and the point that I was driving towards was that for grass to survive here, our elusive exit must be a lot closer than we thought.'
'Can we please go and rescue my son now Hal?' Rachel asked.
The pit before them was alluring; there was something unusual about the way that it made a person want to jump in. 'What are you doing Jensen?' Hal asked.
Jensen shrugged. 'I had the sudden urge to dive in.' he replied.
'Well, don't.' Hal laughed.
'Everyone mind your footing.' Kelly instructed.
'We're looking for a way down to you, Connor.' Hal said as they each crouched down as close to the cave surface as possible, and stray arms waved frantically around the edge of the pit.
Rachel felt something pressing against her thigh. 'That's not the edge of the pit Hal.' she mused.
'I'm sorry, it's too dark, okay. I didn't feel like falling into the pit headfirst.' he replied.
'I can feel a steep slope, but it can't be too far down if Connor can still hear us so clearly. Let's go one at a time to be safe, who's first?' Hal asked, unable to stifle a short laugh.
'Well don't all volunteer at once, I'll go first Rachel, and then you come down straight after okay?' Hal asked.
'Connor, move back as much as you can without getting too far away!' Rachel demanded. The last thing that they wanted to do was to crush the child.
'We're coming to you Connor, hold on sweetie!' Rachel reassured the boy.
Hal stared down, nervously into the void, before crossing his arms and sliding in with force. 'Yeehaw!' he shouted.
'Yeehaw?' Rachel asked.
'Don't ask me.' Kelly replied.
Hal caught Rachel at the bottom. 'My hero.' she said, before sprinting over towards the whimpering voice of her son.
One by one, the others followed in suit, and Hal helped each of them up to their feet.
'Over here Hal, it's his ankle, could you carry him?' Rachel pleaded.
'Oh why not, Come on Connor, up you get.' Hal conceded. They would no doubt have to take turns in carrying the boy along the way.
They crawled and climbed every step of the way, through narrow caverns to vast stone hallways. Heavy boots flattened dying patches of grass as they shuffled along at a snail's pace. The mysterious peat-like substance was now lining every inch of the cave walls. Large cracks in the jagged stone, forked out like a spider's web, before disappearing.
With bendy arms draped around Jensen's neck this time, Connor awoke to a warm battering breeze which was licking at his tiring and somewhat dirt crusted eyes; the humid air felt unpleasant, yet intriguing at the same time.
There was still no daylight, but they could see each other at long last. 'Mom!' Connor shrieked, swinging down from Jensen's neck, dashing towards his mother.
Hal noticed it next. 'I'm an idiot.' he declared.
'That's not fair, Hal; we're all idiots for missing this!' Kelly added, shaking her head. There were no signs of light because the sun had already set a short time ago.
'I can't believe that it's night time already, it's funny how time flies by!' Rachel said, the thought of finally getting out of the cave with her son was making her giddy with joy.
'I need to find my family.' Jensen announced.
Rachel pressed the palm of her hand on his shoulder. 'You won't be going alone, right, everyone?' she asked.
'The ship is only a few hours away by foot, what are we waiting for?' Kelly replied, running ahead.