The Wandering Caverns
They had been walking for well over an hour, and tiresome feet were scraping along the jagged boulder-ridden surface. Aching arms were desperately clutching on to the ancient cavern walls for support.
They were no longer being terrorised by ravaging solar storms down within the uncharted depths of Awen, they were, however, unquestionably lost.
'Everything looks the same down here!' Jensen cried.
'Would you rather head back that way?' Kelly asked, turning and pointing dramatically at the thick wall of darkness behind them.
Jensen shivered. 'No thanks, I'll shut up.' he promised.
'That'll be the day!' Kelly rebuked.
Connor tugged on his mother's arm for attention. 'It's so dark, isn't it?' he asked.
'It is, I'm right here, though.' she replied. If Connor was comforted, she could not tell.
The further they wandered into the hidden depths, the more they noticed the fading of illuminated moss-covered walls, and meagre lighting resulted in hesitant footing.
'Can anyone else hear that?' Rachel asked in a hushed voice almost as soon as the others had stopped talking.
'I don't hear anything.' Jensen replied.
Rachel held her hand in the air, and Jensen walked straight into her. 'Listen.' she said.
The rhythmic melody of trickling water splashing against rocks was unmistakable.
'I hear it too, that sounds like a damned stream! You know what they say about streams Rachel?' Hal asked, eagerly awaiting the chance to tell her the answer.
'I can only imagine.' she shot back.
'Well, my dear Rachel, what does a stream form into? I'll tell you, often enough, it flows into a river. Which for us means...' Hal said, pausing dramatically.
'There's a way outside!' Kelly interrupted, her sudden burst of excitement disappearing as quickly as it had arisen though. 'Do we want to go outside after what we have just experienced?' she finished.
'Talk about jumping out of the frying pan and into the freezer. We can't exactly live down here forever, I suppose.' Jensen interjected.
Kelly stared at him, incredulously. 'The frying pan part I understand, as it's so hot... but a freezer Jensen?' she asked. 'I would kill for a freezer right now, though.' she added.
Hal called for attention. 'The fact is, we need answers, and we need more supplies. There's no other choice.' he concluded.
'I guess that it's settled then, so let's go and have a little sunbathe.' Rachel agreed, she was eager to get outside. Connor, on the other hand, was enjoying the adventure.
After a short respite, they moved onward in search of the stream. They each held on to the hope that it was there; without it, they would be doomed to roam through eternal darkness.
Half an hour later, they finally discovered something new, yet it was not a stream.
'What the hell is that?' Jensen screamed, tumbling into a bog. There was no warning, only the squelching of claggy boots.
Before them lay the carbonised remains of an unknown creature. The surrounding peat-like environment served as a unique preservative. This preservative highlighted for them, every single one of the creature's visible characteristics. The scene was exhilarating, yet also horrifying.
The creature was thin, with six claw covered spindly arms that were almost twice the length of its legs, for what reason, they would be grateful never to have to find out.
It had an elongated muscular neck, connected into a sizeable cone-shaped face, where tufts of rough-cut hair draped back over, much like a horse's mane. The mouth was a pointed beak, a genuinely nasty bear trap, with countless tiny jagged teeth on display.
Tip-toeing around the remains, they could notice that the creature's slotted lizard-like eyes were wide open and gazing forward in terror.
'The thing's just sitting there!' Jensen remarked.
Kelly leaned closer, attempting to avoid any further movement through the bog. Jensen laughed at her.
'Use your brain Jensen, the harder you struggle in a bog, the quicker you sink.' she scolded.
Jensen shrugged, following in her wake. 'Whatever it is, it wasn't murdered as we would say. It appears to have died of natural causes.' he assessed.
'Well, whatever it was that killed it, it certainly took the thing by surprise.' Hal said.
'What's that in the creature's claw?' Rachel asked.
'It looks like wood. A letter perhaps, let's takes a peek.' Hal said, his intrigue was taking control.
Kelly looked sceptical. 'A letter, written on wood?' she asked.
'Yes, a letter. The Romans of old Earth used to use wood for writing, you know?' Hal lectured.
'I didn't know that I suppose it makes as much sense as anything on this planet.' she agreed.
'It's all unreadable; this could be a love letter, a warning, or a damned goodbye letter for all we know.' Jensen cursed.
Kelly examined the creature's face once more. 'Retake a look at its expression, will you? The thing looks both surprised and scared. Does anyone know what could do that to a body?' she finished.
'Excuse me, if I may?' Rachel asked.
'I studied Ancient history back on board 'Aspire', what can I say, humanity's origins are a fascination of mine. You mentioned the Romans earlier Hal, well there was once a great Roman city of which history remembers as being Pompeii...' she started, Connor yawned as if it were on queue.
Rachel smiled, rubbing her hand through Connor's hair. 'The city was once brimming with prestige and wealth; it was a wondrous and sophisticated society within the mighty Roman Empire. Don't worry Connor; I'll get to my point.' Rachel promised.
'Where was I? Oh yes, Pompeii. Despite this city's high standing within the empire, it resided next to an active super-volcano. The volcano was named Mount Vesuvius, and to their peril, in 79AD, Vesuvius erupted. The wide-spread devastation was unimaginable.' she added.
'Archaeologists had discovered evidence of this devastation within the buried ruins of the city. A thick layering of ash and lapilli had preserved almost everything, including human remains along with other fragile artefacts for thousands of years, much like we have here.' she concluded, pointing over at the creature'.
A few minutes of silence had passed as the implications of the remains finally hit them.
'The damage to that creature, coupled with how well it's preserved matches what happened back on Earth. If this planet has been burnt to a cinder before, it's possible that the fires could have somehow reached down here as well. The question is, would fire alone do this? or are we sitting within a cavern carved out by molten rock?' Hal asked.
'Knowing our luck, we should probably just choose the worst-case scenario.' Jensen mused.
Kelly looked stricken. 'What if we are standing inside of a dormant volcano? Will the fire reach us this time, and set it off?' she pleaded.
'I doubt that this is a volcano, it's more likely just to be carved out caverns of rock, as I said.' Rachel replied. Sensing Kelly's unease, she tried to correct herself. 'I could be wrong, though.' she added.
'Those are all excellent questions, and so whatever the answer may be, we have to be quick.' Hal replied. They all darted forward in a panic, struggling to weave through the bog. Rachel fell, and Hal had to help her back up.
'Where's this way out anyway?' Jensen complained. Distracted by the discovery of ancient alien life, the others must have forgotten about it.
There were still no apparent signs of a stream, but there was something very peculiar about the appearance of the cavern walls nearby. There were no luminescent moss growths here; this was something else entirely.
'Is that...' Kelly began.
'It is. It's the same peat-like covering from before, look at it. This whole area is smothered in the stuff.' Jensen added.
The cavern walls expanded into huge hallways of naturally carved stone, and somewhere up ahead, they could hear the gentle splashing of water calling out to them.