Emma stood in the mouth of the cave, marveling at its height. She felt like a mouse standing on the tip of a lion’s tongue as she stared in at the long teeth-like stalactites hanging in rows along the ceiling.
Jungle sounds echoed around her, ricocheting off the stone entryway and disappearing into the darkness. The tiny hairs on her arms bristled with excitement.
She sucked in a breath and held it as she took her first step inside, bracing herself as though she might be transported somewhere else entirely. And, in a way, she was. The familiar sounds of the outside world vanished behind her like she had entered the vacuum of space. It was eerily quiet now that she was within the stone cavern.
But, no, that wasn’t right. The cave had its own sounds. They were just smaller than the outside world’s; quieter and careful in the darkness. Emma closed her eyes and let the rhythms of this new world show themselves to her: the slow drip, drip, dripping of condensation falling from the long, twisting stalactites; the fluttering of insect legs scurrying along the walls around her. The cave was indeed alive with undiscovered sounds and secrets.
Emma opened her eyes and let them adjust to the darkness before walking deeper into the cave. Thin strands of bioluminescent moss pulsed blue light along cracks in the stone walls and ceiling, lighting her way as she explored further.
She ran a finger along a line of moss lightly and it glowed brighter around her fingertips. Pointy barbs poked out in search of insects to skewer and digest, but their needles only tickled Emma’s flesh before pulling away quickly.
A sound of fluttering echoed above and Emma looked up to see a large shadow flying close to the high ceiling. She tracked the dark creature until it blended in with the blackness and the sound of its wings dissipated into the distance.
The ceiling of the cave was impressively high, but Emma could see that it sloped down further ahead.
She looked back towards the cave’s high opening to find it was almost out of view. She’d come so far that the moss’ dim blue shine was her only source of light. She stood still for a moment to take in the light show. The way its ripples cast blue shadows on the rocks made her feel like she was underwater. Emma thought it was magical. And just like when their tiny escape pod had flooded with the blue light of the moon so long ago, her heart felt full and her stomach was fluttery with good feelings.
She turned towards a blur of motion and saw an insect as long as her arm and twice as fat skittering along the wall next to her. It moved swiftly on hundreds of spindly legs as though it had somewhere important to be. Its backside bristled with millions of microscopic hairs that lit its way in the darkness. Blue barbs erupted from the moss to grab at it, but the glowing insect was too large to be bothered by them.
Emma picked up her pace to follow it. She was curious where it was headed in such a hurry and laughed quietly as she struggled over the uneven stone floor to keep up with it.
She hadn’t chased it far when the insect stopped suddenly. Its three long antennae whirled wildly on top of its narrow head as though searching for something in the darkness.
Emma moved her face closer to study its strange movements. “What are you looking for?” she said softly. “Do you sense me here with you?”
All at once, the light left the creature’s bristles and it became a shadow on the dark wall. Emma heard the flapping of leathery wings and spun around to see a monstrous winged creature with glowing yellow eyes sailing towards her. She screamed and covered her face as the flying animal flew past and pulled the insect off the wall with powerful talons.
The bug exploded with color, its bioluminescence flaring under the attack. It coiled its long tubular body around the winged assailant uselessly as the larger creature torn it in two. Half its body was swallowed by the shadow-bird while the other half dangled limply, leaking glowing white blood along the stone floor.
The cave erupted with sound and Emma looked up to see a swarm of shadows descending rapidly. Hundreds of creatures flew around her, beating her face with leathery wings as they fought to grab hold of what remained of the large insect.
She flailed her arms and spun around to get away from the torrent of claws and flying bodies, but it was like she was caught in the eye of a storm whose winds were too strong to fight against.
Something sharp sliced her cheek and she panicked. Bolting and shielding her face, she screamed and ran away from the violent swarm.
She’d become so turned around she didn’t even know which way she was running, but just then she didn’t care. All she wanted was to get as far away from the horrible screeching of the black birds— away from their gnashing teeth and horrible yellow eyes. Away from their violence.
A moment later her right foot hit a stone edge and she tripped, tumbling forward and rolling down a passageway. Her body was pummeled by the rocky floor as she rolled down the wide chasm until, finally, she landed with a thud on smooth black stone.
For a long while, Emma lay on the cold floor, curled up and sobbing like a wounded animal. The sound of the birds was distant now, overhead and far away like a fading nightmare. She dared not look up for fear of seeing them again and kept her face buried into her folded arms.
Soon the violent call of the shadow-birds died away and the cave was nearly silent again. Slowly, the quieter sounds of the cave reemerged until Emma could hear the drip, drip, dripping of water once more.
She opened her eyes slowly and looked back to where she’d fallen. A large entryway led to slick stone steps that climbed back up to the main cave. She pushed herself to her knees and winced at a pain in her side. Looking down, she saw a wide purple bruise forming above her right hip. She pressed her thumb into it and it turned a sour yellow. Pain shot through her.
She looked back up at the steps she’d fallen down and noticed strange markings around the entryway that fanned out along the walls becoming an intricate mural of crude pictures and writing.
Amazed, Emma rose to her feet and looked around. The same blue moss streaked light along the walls and ceiling, lighting the long anti-chamber enough that she could see some ten feet in front of her.
The pictures and writing continued to adorn the walls well into the darkness. Emma stepped forward to examine them.
Depictions of great beasts, some tall with three long tentacles and angry faces were scratched into the rock. Emma traced the images with her finger. Their etched lines seemed to glow white under the moss’ blue light.
She saw what looked like a flock of not-parrots drawn high above the rest. Then she noticed a series of jagged lines that seemed to form the shape of cliffs.
Are these the same cliffs that bordered the valley close to our camp?, she wondered.
She traced the cliff’s lines until she noticed a section that formed a kind of face, vaguely human but for its wide features and round eyes that peered up at a massive circle higher up on the wall. The round etching dwarfed the other images below and, at first, Emma thought it must be the sun. But something about it reminded her of the giant red gas planet that was always visible in the sky, night or day. The way the figure’s mouth stretched open as it watched the sky made Emma think of the wide mouth of the cave she’d just entered.
Past the cliffs Emma found etchings of the beach, their small lagoon, and the endless ocean beyond where pictured tentacles pierced crudely drawn waves.
A thought rushed through Emma’s mind and she became excited. She stepped away from the wall to take the larger canvas in, holding her breath for a moment as she put it all together.
It’s a map of the moon, she thought with glee and spun around to view the wonderful mural in its entirety.
She gasped at the enormity of it. The little beach and patch of jungle they called home, their waterfall, the cliffs and valley beyond, were only a fraction of the land the map depicted.
Emma walked briskly, moving further into the cave to study the endless images of land and strange animals. There were also markings that looked like writing, but she couldn’t make sense of them. They were more like shapes than the letters she was used to: squares and long ovals, triangles punctuated by sudden slashes of angry single lines. She was desperate to know what they meant.
As she studied the symbols, Emma wondered what the ancient beings who wrote them might have been like, and what some future race might think about humans if they ever landed on Earth and read their languages and studied their drawings. Of course, that was assuming there would be anything left on Earth to find.
Emma remembered her father speaking of great fires ripping through vast areas of land on Earth, destroying everything in their path.
Maybe, thought Emma, despite all of our technology and books, all that will remain on Earth one day will be scratches in caves like these ones.
Emma felt proud suddenly, like she’d made a most amazing discovery. It was exactly what she’d hoped for— a secret knowledge all her own. Something she could study and learn from.
With her pulse pounding, Emma continued down the long chamber, tracing the shapes of creatures and landmarks, periodically looking back at the image of her lagoon to determine how far off some of them were. The jungle went on forever, the images becoming wilder the further she got from their beach. The animals depicted became larger and the terrain seemed to rage and swirl around them. Then, at the very center of the wall, a tall peak shot up from the jungle very suddenly, dwarfing everything around it, including Emma herself.
She strained to see the top of the peak, craning her neck and following it up to where the wall curved into the ceiling. Countless thin lines streamed from the top of the tall plateau, looking something like water to her. Was it another waterfall, or something else entirely?
Emma brought her gaze back down and turned her attention to the open cave. Her eyes were finally adjusting to the dark, so the shadows that loomed further off were beginning to take shape. She thought she could actually see the chamber’s end now, the smooth stone of the back wall aglow with more drawings.
But there was something else. Emma strained to make it out, but all she could see was a shadow twice the size of a human man and wider than three Pins put together. It seemed to stand on two squat legs, broad shoulders hunched forward like it might run at her.
Her first thought was that it was a man standing at the far end of the cave, watching her from the darkness. She stiffened and her heart began to race. She almost turned to run but when, after a moment, the shadow didn’t move she relaxed again.
She slid along the stone floor slowly, focusing her eyes on the figure at the end of the chamber until it began to take shape.
A great skull rested on its top. It towered over her, large, open eye sockets leering out across the room menacingly. Its long mouth hung open to show rows of sharp teeth. It was vaguely bird-like, but too big to be a not-parrot
Clusters of smaller skulls and bones ran down either side of the shape from there, forming the rest of the figure. It looked like a statue. Folded arms constructed of varying sizes of bones and skulls crossed at the chest, their crude hands grasping something. Emma moved closer to see the object— a long, silver bar made of what looked like metal. It seemed out of place in the rocky cave, surrounded by smooth, bleached bones.
Emma noticed something familiar suddenly. Each of the figure’s hands was made of two skulls distinctly unlike the rest. She tracked back up to examine the features of the other skulls. There were hundreds, piled in a mass to form the terrifying statue before her. Or was it a suit of some kind?
Little care seemed to have been given to their placement, and many had similar animal features. Why then, were these two rounder, medium-sized skulls given such specific placement?
The two skulls on the backs of the towering figure’s hands reminded Emma of the one she’d found when they first arrive, the one that had scared Pin so that he—
Emma heard the shuffling of quick steps behind her and froze. Something grabbed her shoulder roughly and she screamed as she was spun around by a strong arm.
“What are you doing in here?” Pin asked in a hoarse, angry whisper. He gazed past Emma and scanned the great figure made of bones. Then, looking at her worriedly he said, “We’re leaving,” and pulled at her to follow.
“But—” Emma began to protest.
“Now!” Pin said as he pulled her back towards the stone doorway.
Emma continued to argue as they moved through the entrance, up the stone stairway and into the high cave.
“Did you see the drawings?” she asked quickly. “It must be a map of the moon. And the big statue, did you see it? And there was writing, I think. And, oh Pin, don’t you want to learn more about where we are? Don’t you want to know about the ancient people who lived here long ago?”
Pin stopped suddenly and put his hand over Emma’s mouth to quiet her. Together they listened, Emma wondering what for, but the cave was silent save for the ever constant dripping of water.
Pin whistled a short, high-pitched whistle. The sound of it bounced off the stone walls until it hit the mouth of the cave. It was quickly met with another whistle and Pin urged them forward.
“What’s going on?” Emma asked as they made their way back towards the cave’s opening.
“The ancient race you discovered,” Pin started sternly, “are not so ancient.”
“You mean...” Emma began, her face falling as a wave of fear ran through her.
“They’re coming,” Pin finished. Then he picked her up and quickened his pace.