River Styx

By Sanguine

Episode 9.14

Part One

 

MacGyver wasn’t overly thrilled with the rickety green and white bus that was ferrying him and his companions through the dense woods. The driver was going at least sixty miles per hour, and Mac’s teeth jarred with every single bump in the rough gravel road. To distract himself from the constant shaking, he glanced out the window at the endless waves of green leaves and wet logs. The forest seemed endless, almost claustrophobic compared to the dry and open spaces of Southern California. The trees seemed to spin as they rushed past, and he quickly glanced back at the other people on the bus.

“Am I the only one who feels like he’s gonna be sick on this ride?” he said.

From the seat across from him, MacGyver’s friend Willis nodded in agreement. “Definitely going to get sick. Probably as soon as we stop.”

“It’s a miracle that this bus still has a suspension at all after all of this.”

“If you think the path is bumpy now, just wait until you’re inside the cave,” remarked the middle-aged geologist sitting behind Willis. She tucked a lock of graying red hair behind her ear as she looked up from her book with a smile. “This trail is going to seem smooth in comparison.”

“Yeah, but we’re not going to be going seventy miles an hour in there,” Willis replied.

“I’m just so excited,” said the local university student who’d been acting as the group’s research assistant for the past week. “It’s going to be so great to get out of the bunkhouses and into Mammoth Cave! There’s no telling what we’ll find down there!”

MacGyver smiled. “With any luck, our new navigational systems will help map out all your discoveries a lot faster.”

The last member of the group, a lean-muscled speleologist named Daniels, shook his head. “Maybe, but all that new technology can’t replace a good old-fashioned pencil and paper.”

“You’ve got no arguments from me,” MacGyver said, cutting off Willis before the Phoenix researcher could jump in to defend his new favorite project. “But you have to admit, sometimes the new stuff can help out. At the very least, it can’t hurt to have a machine there to double-check your measurements.”

Daniels shrugged, but said nothing else.

MacGyver sighed and shook his head at Willis discreetly. The researcher frowned and slumped back against the bus seat, but followed Mac’s lead and kept his mouth shut.

The group dynamic had been like this for days: everyone preparing for their mapping expedition down into Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and everyone excited about testing out the Phoenix Foundation’s experimental navigation device---except for Ryan Daniels, the Cave Research Foundation worker who refused to even look at the Phoenix equipment, let alone consider using it. MacGyver had dealt with that type of stubborn person before, but Willis was an idealist and he was proud of his creation, so naturally, he took everything personally. MacGyver bit back another sigh as he watched Willis, almost able to see the gears in his friend’s head turning. Surely Daniels would come around after he saw how helpful the computerized mapping device would be…eventually.

“All right, everyone, get ready to hop out. The entrance is just ahead,” the park ranger driving the bus called out. She parked the bus with a hiss of air brakes and opened the front door. The team of volunteer explorers followed her out onto the gravel and up to the cave entrance. “Remember the protocols for caving in the New Discovery area. Respect the landmarks, record as much data as you can, and above all, remember that it’s safety first. The National Park Service has rescue teams standing by, but if anything goes wrong, it’ll be hard for anyone to reach you once you’re down into the deeper levels. I know that all of you have already gone over this during the trainings earlier in the week, but I just want to be doubly sure that you remember to be cautious. Don’t forget that people have died in this cave before---lots of people. We don’t have any clue what’s down there in the unexplored parts, which is why we appreciate your contributions to mapping these sections of the cave---but it’s also why you’ve got to be careful. Does anyone have any questions before you head inside?”

Silence and headshakes greeted Ranger Ellis’ warnings, so she shrugged and unlocked the padlock on the steel door set into concrete. “In case you missed this during the seminar, this is one of our manmade entrances. The park service blasted it just before World War II, but the war put the tours here to a stop. After that, we decided to keep this area off-limits except to researchers. Consider yourselves lucky---not many people get to see this.”

“Thanks,” Willis said as he stepped through the door that she was holding open.
“Oh, before I forget,” Ellis added, “Your scheduled return times have all been logged. If any of you are two hours late getting back, we’ll start sending out the search parties. Happy hunting.”

MacGyver zipped up his blue winter coat as he followed Daniels and Willis down the steep metal staircase. He could feel the cool cave air cutting through the Kentucky heat as the group descended deeper into the damp darkness. At the bottom of the stairs, the path was lit for a short distance by old electric lights, but beyond their range everything was black and unknown.

“All right, time to split up and start searching,” said Daniels. “Professor McClure and I will take this passage to the right. We’ll map it with our current equipment. The Phoenix Foundation team will map the other passage with your new navigation system.”

“What about me?” asked the student assistant. “Which team am I going with?”

Daniels shrugged. “Up to you.”

After a glance at the geology professor, she shrugged. “I’ll go with the Phoenix team. I want to see how the new tech works out.”

Daniels nodded. “Sounds good. We’ll meet back here in three hours to report to Ranger Ellis.”

“All right, MacGyver, I guess it’s showtime,” Willis said cheerfully. “Are you ready to switch on the INS?”

Mac nodded and reached over to unzip Willis’ backpack. Nestled inside a cocoon of a soft blanket and some caving gear was a black metal box, about six inches square with what looked like a circuit board across the top. MacGyver gently plucked the device from the pack, handed it to Willis, and zipped the pack up. Willis smiled down at his creation like a proud parent as he flipped a toggle switch and watched the red light on the side flicker on.

“Cool,” said the research assistant. “What exactly does it do?”

“It’s an inertial navigation system,” Willis replied. “It contains three ring laser gyros, three temperature-compensating accelerometers, a GPS receiver as a backup, and of course a temperature sensor and a voltage reference.”

“Basically, it’s a machine designed to be able to calculate your exact position regardless of any external factors. It can tell what direction you’re going, your speed…that kind of thing,” MacGyver said.

The young woman nodded slowly. “So…it’s a GPS?”

Willis’ face took on the aspect of a man forcing himself not to pout. “No. The satellite receiver in this unit is just for a backup, to help in calculations if there’s an uplink. But if this thing functions the way it’s supposed to, it’ll take accurate measurements even without the satellite connection.”

“So, it’s a GPS without a satellite,” she tried again.

Willis smiled and nodded. “Well… Yeah, let’s go with that.” He stuck his hand out towards her with a shrug. “My name’s Willis. This is MacGyver. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name earlier.”

“Elisa Clarkson. Hi,” she replied as she shook his hand.

“I look forward to getting to know you better, Elisa,” Willis said, just a bit too enthusiastically.

MacGyver fought off a smile. Had he ever looked that overeager and awkward when talking with a pretty girl? “C’mon, let’s check this out.”

Headlamps on, the three of them ventured forward into the unknown.

Walking for what seemed like ages, they paced through the passageway, past gypsum flowers, soda straws, and crystal formations that took MacGyver’s breath away. They paused at intervals to check on the navigation machine and take measurements, and during one of these brief rests, MacGyver found himself staring up at the ceiling of the cavern. Or rather, the lack thereof: as he looked up, the beam of light from his headlamp simply dissolved into darkness.

“Wonder how deep we are at this point?” he muttered.

“We’re about six miles underground right now,” Willis answered. “So, to answer your question, very.”

MacGyver whistled. “Impressive.” He shifted his gaze to the cavern wall, the rows of stalactites and stalagmites stretching out to touch each other. “Amazing what a little water can do over time.”

“Kinda creepy,” Clarkson said. “But also really cool at the same time. I’m definitely going to be in the top of my geography class for this one.”

“Oh, you’re majoring in geography?” Willis asked casually, glancing at her sideways from behind the navigation machine that he was holding like a shield.

She shook her head. “No, my major is in education. But volunteering for this cave thing was the opportunity of a lifetime---not to mention all the extra credit. I really hated Professor McClure’s class until this came up.”

“Oh.”

MacGyver hid a smile behind the flashlight that he was shining around the passageway. Willis sounded disappointed in his new friend’s lack of enthusiasm, but Mac was sure that Willis would soon find something else to like about the girl. Why not help things along and change the subject? “What else are you interested in, Elisa?” he asked with suppressed amusement as he peered between a cluster of closely-growing stalagmites.

“Hockey,” she replied, and Mac nearly hit his head on a rock as he twisted to look at her.

“Which team?” he asked, intense seriousness replacing his humor from moments earlier.

“Red Wings!”

“Calgary?”

Her thin shoulders lifted in a shrug. “Sometimes. They’re usually pretty good.” Her coffee-colored eyes glinted. “I really love it when a fight breaks out on the ice. Hockey is just the most violent sport, and I love it. It’s great for getting rid of some of that pent-up rage.”

MacGyver and Willis shared a quiet glance at each other. Slowly, Willis edged away from the pixie-like (and apparently violent) college student, shoving his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. Clearing his throat, MacGyver turned back to the stalagmite formation. How about another change of subject?

“I could be wrong, but I think there might be another passageway back here.”

“Really? Then we should explore it!” Willis said. “This could be an amazing scientific discovery!”

“I don’t know,” Mac replied. “This gap is pretty narrow, and we don’t know how far back this passage goes. It’s probably a dead end.”

Clarkson leaned past MacGyver, peering into the hole. Her headlamp only illuminated the edges of the opening, the light failing to shine against any back walls or blockages. The narrow entryway was just like the rest of the unexplored passages: a mystery. “I can fit through there,” she said. “I can see if there’s anything back there, and maybe I can find another way in so you can get through.”

Willis’ mouth twitched into a frown. “It could be dangerous.”

“I’ll be extra careful,” Clarkson replied as she adjusted her headlamp.

“Are you sure you want to go in there?” MacGyver said, an edge of caution cutting into his voice. “I’m not sure that this is a good idea. We have no way of knowing what’s back there, and Willis and I won’t be able to reach you if something goes wrong.”

“I promise I’ll keep my eyes open and I won’t go very far. Just let me try. If I don’t check it out, we won’t be able to explore it at all,” she argued.

Reluctantly, Mac nodded. “All right. Just be very, very careful, okay?”

“Okay!”

In a flash, Clarkson shimmied through the gap in the rock, her graceful legs touching the floor with a splashing sound just before her compact shoulders vanished into the darkness, dropping out of view in the newly-found cavern. As Willis and MacGyver peered through the aperture, the mens’ headlamps allowed them to see her shining a flashlight around the area.

“There’s a lot of water back here,” she said, “just puddled on the ground in places. I can hear it running behind these walls. And it’s colder here, but I can’t see anything.”

“Do you see another way in?” Willis asked.

She shook her head, causing the orb of light from her headlamp to bob around like a deranged spotlight. “Not yet, but I’m working on it. The space to my left is a wall of flowstone, but it looks like the passage in other direction runs parallel to the one you’re in, so they probably connect back together somewhere down the line.”

MacGyver nodded to himself. “All right, Elisa. You keep going down that passage and we’ll keep going down ours. See if we can find that connection point. But if the tunnel branches off or hit a dead end or something, just come back here and wait for us. We’ll all meet back here in fifteen minutes regardless. Sound good?”

“Sure,” Clarkson replied. “See you then.” Her petite hand waved goodbye to Willis before she headed down the tunnel, a wave of light slowly swallowed by darkness.

MacGyver aimed his headlight down the main passage and adjusted his backpack before beginning to walk, turning halfway to be sure that Willis was with him.

“Do you really think it was a good idea for us to split up?” Willis said after a moment or two of no sound except footsteps and distant running water.

“Not at all, but Elisa seems like she can handle herself. As long as we all keep level heads and watch our steps, we’ll be fine.” MacGyver struggled to keep a straight face. “Contrary to popular belief, you know, sometimes it’s okay to split up. Real life isn’t a horror movie.”

“What if she falls, or there’s a cave-in or something?” Willis said, worried.

“What if there isn’t? Then by not letting her help, we’d be taking away her opportunity to do something that she might love.” MacGyver scrutinized his friend for a second. “I have to wonder if you’d be so worried about her if she weren’t so pretty. If it were me going through that tunnel, you wouldn’t give it a second thought.”

Willis rolled his eyes behind his thick glasses. “You’re MacGyver. You can do everything. I don’t know anything about Elisa.”

“Except that you like her. Be honest with me.”

Willis shrugged and fidgeted with one of the straps on his backpack. “I barely know her.”

MacGyver smiled. “You should ask her for her telephone number before we leave here. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

“I’m sure she doesn’t like me yet. I couldn’t do that. Could I?”

“Have a little courage, Willis! How do you know she doesn’t like you if you don’t try to make friends?”

“We should check on the navigation system,” Willis blurted.

MacGyver rushed to turn a chuckle into a cough as he reached for the zipper on Willis’ backpack and checked the machine. “Yeah, okay, whatever you say. You’re the expert.” Mac looked over the portable computer, examining the sensors and comparing the readings to the measurements he’d recorded in his waterproof notebook.

"Everything looks good here, Willis. I’ll zip you back up. So far, the measurements are accurate within a couple decimal points.” After a moment, he added, “Well, either that or my math’s wrong.”

Willis laughed. “Remember, you’ve got to add first, then you multiply.”

MacGyver grinned. “Oh, so that’s where I was going wrong.”

Their good-natured bantering lasted for a few more minutes as they wandered through the cave…

But then their laughter was cut short by the sound of a scream.

 

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