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 Category:  Mystery and Crime Fiction
  Posted: May 19, 2022      Views: 11
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Patrick P. Astre, CFP, EA, RFC is a recognized tax and financial expert specializing on the economic issues of longevity. Patrick is independent and has been advising individuals and corporations since 1969.

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Chapter 16 of the book The Devil's Caldera
Bernard struggles to survive on the mountain.
"Bernard Struggles on the peak" by Patrick Astre
A terrorist plot to destroy half the landmass of the US is under way. Only a couple of investigators, a Mossad agent and a specially gifted young man can prevent it. But no one believes them

Bernard’s Story:
      He awoke to a howling gale blowing ice and snow across his face.  The wind held a savagery almost feral in its intensity.  Twisted clouds raced across his vision, horizontal at this altitude beneath a higher ceiling the color and texture of dark cottage cheese.  The desolation was intense.  Bernard might as well have been at the rim of Mare Crisium crater on the moon.  An old National Geographics article he’d once read flashed through his memory.  On one of these mountains, climbers had found the remains of a hunter estimated to have died some five thousand years ago. Frozen and mummified, his remains contained scraps of clothing’s and weapons preserved as if he’d died just a few years ago.  Bernard wondered if that would be his fate, dying on this eternally frozen mountain, found millenniums from now with future scientists speculating about his clothing and artifacts. 

      The batteries in the thermal suit were running low and the deep freeze was beginning to seep into his body.  Thin oxygen at that altitude made it worse and he felt his stamina rapidly ebbing, the message clear:  Move, find shelter, or die.  He rose, joints creaking, nerve endings in his bruised body screaming.  He stumbled, recovered and walked, keeping close proximity to the wall of smooth granite seeking some footholds, or path to climb and eventually reach some kind of terrain where he hoped to somehow send a signal or perhaps during one of the rare weather clearings, be visible to the ever-watching satellites. 

      Thousands of years of blistering winds carrying snow and ice particles had sandpapered the face of the cliff rendering any kind of footholds impossible.  With no climbing gear at all, the task was hopeless.  Still he didn’t give up.  Then he saw the slight curve of the mountain give way to a straighter path, and there beneath another overhang, his eyes met an incomprehensible sight. 

      Under the ever-present overhang, partially sheltered by a natural barrier of cut stones, a set of stairs appeared, carved out of the very mountain.  The sight was otherworldly, strange and impossible, but there it was.  Someone or something had carved stairs over twenty thousand feet above sea level, stairs that headed downward and ended at the mouth of a cave big enough for a man to walk through.  At this point if Beelzebub himself had showed up in a skull chariot, he would have taken it, without question.  Slowly, hugging the cliff wall, Bernard walked down the stairs and entered the mouth of the cave.

      Once a few yards inside the cave, the wind ceased biting at him and the temperature seemed to rise, not warm, no, not warm at all, but the killing freeze had been banished.  He walked further in and the interior grew dimmer as the light from the entrance faded.  But the temperature had also risen to the point where he saw fat drops of moisture slowly dripping down the wall telling him the air had reached above freezing.

      He stopped and squatted at the base of the side of the cave, a place that now resembled more a tunnel than a cave, and the strangeness persisted, growing worse.  How had this place come about?  He could not recall in all his studies of mountains and the special warfare they sometimes generated, ever hearing about such a place.  The shape of the cave was the top half of an oval, resembling more a railroad tunnel carved into a mountain than a natural cave. Huge slashing marks decorated the walls as if carved by some ogres with tools that cleaved the stone walls like they were made of thin plaster, creating a tunnel for passages of creatures whose purposes and origins could not be discerned. 

      The tunnel ran straight for a few yards and curved enough to hide what lay beyond.  But around that curve a glow replaced the dimming light of the entrance, completely replacing it and growing brighter as he approached the source of the light.  Bernard’s heart soared with hope at the thought that perhaps he’d entered some sort of climbing base and that might bring rescue.  He took out one of the remaining power bars, chewed it slowly, drank the rest of the water in one of the flex-pouches and slowly made his way down the tunnel to the source of the light.


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