Selena focused on keeping her breathing even; in, out. She squeezed through a crevice barely large enough to fit a corgi, keeping her helmet light off so she didn’t accidentally blind herself with reflected light. She wiggled with her arms stretched out above her head so she could read the LCD display on her wrist monitor. Breathe, breathe.
Her belt snagged on something.
Selena paused, cursing her lack of foresight in failing to remove it earlier. She couldn’t now, the passage was too narrow to snake one of her arms back to her body. She would have to crawl back up the ever-narrowing tunnel for nine meters to find a place wide enough to do so.
“How’s it going?” her earpiece crackled. Her telecom line ran alongside her tether, the umbilicus that kept her (for lack of a better pun) grounded.
Selena inhaled and rotated her body 90 degrees. The snag released.
“Slow and steady. How do my numbers look?”
“Just try not to hyperventilate, alright? You’ll be fine. Tell me when you get visual.”
Selena squirmed down into the rock, blind, feeling her way with her toes. When she found she could kick her feet freely she nearly sobbed in relief. There was no solid foothold below, there was just nothing beneath her. She used her tether to rapel twenty feet into the darkness.
She touched down into a small corridor where she could stand at ¾ height, which was at least an improvement. This fed out into a greater area of darkness, one she finally risked clicking on her helmet light for.
The light was fed back to her in many twinkling little dots, like thousands of insects. Selena’s breathing became uneven
“Selena? Your heart rate just jumped.”
Selena forced herself to calm, taking slow, steady drags. “I’m alright. I just…I was startled. I think I’ve arrived.”
Selena set up her lantern, which threw a friendlier light over the place. Untold millions of tiny crystals winked back at her, crusting every surface. The cave was a garden of minerals, its crop growing slowly and steadily over time, unaided by any human hand.
“So you see them?”
“I do. It’s crazy. I never dreamed they’d coat every surface so completely, it’s like the cave’s been frosted.”
“No, do you see them?”
Selena didn’t know what to answer for a moment, not until she turned and nearly tripped on a skeleton laid out near her feet. The crystals grew over every bone, it looked like a macabre coral.
Selena took a shallow breath. “Yes…I see them.”
“You’ve made it to the moon cave. Well done, Selena. You’re probably the first person to lay eyes on this place in a few millennia.”
“Right, if we’re discounting the McKenzie expedition.” Selena accidentally brushed an elbow against the wall and yelped. The tiny crystals were sharp.
“Right, sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I know your sister would be happy to know you made it, even if she didn’t.” Her earpiece went fuzzy as she pulled up some slack on the umbilicus. “Do you see anything?”
“Give me a second.” Arms out for balance, Selena sidestepped a pit with no visible bottom.
The lantern’s rays refracted from every surface, carrying the light farther than it might have traveled otherwise. Now she could see the skeletons, disguised by the crystal growth so that they blended into the rock.
Sweat greased her skin, making the neoprene suit scrunch uncomfortably. It was hot in this cave. Hot and hard to breathe.
“Want to hear a ghost story while you work? The tribe that worshipped in this cave walled off the original entrance they used to get to the place. We figure that’s what the McKenzie group might have tried to do, they tried to reopen the way and, well…I won’t go further into that. Sorry.”
Selena kept her breathing tight. “Keep going. Tell me about them.”
“Well, they called this place the ‘moon cave’ and they sacrificed people to prevent some kind of end-of-the-world scenario. Sometimes it was someone raised for that specific purpose.”
Selena glanced to the side. A lot of the skeletons were under four feet tall. “I see.”
“Well, anyway, they stopped, and not long after they got wiped out by European disease. So in a way I guess they were kind of right. Tell me when you get to the moon maiden.”
“How will I know her?”
“You’ll probably know when you see her.”
Selena almost replied that the bones were laid out fairly uniform, only a few were garlanded with calcified flowers or cloth studded with crystal growth, but then she saw the extreme end of the room. A flicker drew her eyes to a small alcove, as if it were lit by candle. She drew closer and realized no, it was crystals that towered over their tiny brethren like beacons. And in the middle…
Selena drew a deep breath.
The moon maiden was dressed in reed clothing decorated with indigo patterns. A crown of tiny pink flowers adorned her skull, heavy silver and turquoise jewelry adorned her body. She had clearly been given a place of distinction, surrounded by a mandala of sea shells and bits of semiprecious stone. Selena examined the larger crystals that ringed her body. They looked like they had been plucked from another crystal bed of much older growth and deliberately cultivated around the body. The whole effect was quite tender and worshipful, if you ignored the braided silver wire binding the girl’s wrists and ankles.
“Selena? Selena come in.”
Selena jolted back to herself. “I’m here. I’ve found her, she’s absolutely lovely.”
“Oh good.” Mission control sounded relieved. “Sorry, when you go silent—”
“I know, you don’t have to apologize to me.” Selena played her light around the body. “No anchors, no dig-marks, not even a urine bottle. I don’t think Oriana ever made it down here.”
“It’s okay. I don’t think discovering my own sister’s body would make today any better.” Selena popped a goggle so she could wipe away a tear.
“It was a mistake sending Oriana down there. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, we both knew the risks getting into this life.” Selena propped her flashlight so she could make some adjustments on her oxygen mixture. “I know wherever she is is just as good a headstone as we could have given her on the surface.”
“Yes, but she was the wrong fit for this journey, and I think even she knew that. I think she went to spare you from making this trip.”
“Yeah, but I made it, didn’t I?” Selena’s laughter hit the crystal walls and was perforated into nothing by the thousands of needle-sharp crystals.
“I’m sorry. Anyway, to finish up my anecdote, they called it the moon cave because the moon was their ruling celestial body, not the sun. They kept a lunar calendar and favored silver over gold because it resembled moonlight. How are you settling in?”
Selena laid out a waste disposal bag as a cushion and sat on it. It still felt like sitting on a porcupine. “Fine,” she laughed, “I feel like I’m in god’s waiting room.”
“Look, you don’t need to keep apologizing for jokes, I’m fine.”
“I’m sorry,” the voice that crackled over the earpiece sounded thinner. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
The hair on Selena’s neck raised. “Look, we need to talk about the return. The bend at the daisy-chain caves is going to be a little tricky to navigate backwards.” Radio silence. “Hello? Am I coming in alright?”
A sudden hissing sound made her jump up from her seat. Her imagination went wild as she darted the beam of her flashlight to all the corners of the room, trying to reason that nothing but crystals grew comfortably at this depth. Her heart nearly stopped when she caught sight of a rapid, undulating movement. She pointed her flashlight and found the crevice she’d come through.
Cable, hundreds of yards of cable slithered down into the room, as if…
Selena hyperventilated as she hit buttons. Her earpiece was dead. Her wrist monitor was dead. “Hello? Anyone, hello? Come in! Come in right now!”
The end of the cable hit the floor, severed neatly. The sight of it kicked on her fight-or-flight response, and flight won.
She clumsily put her foot through a skull and fell, catching her body painfully on her elbows and knees. The crystal pierced the neoprene of her suit. She drew back, trying to right herself, and knocked the lantern over. Now it was dark except for her helmet light, which danced spasmodically over rock as she panicked. She sucked in sharp breaths, which did not give her body or brain adequate oxygen to function. She stumbled drunkenly through the cave, feeling surfaces for any kind of opening. She tripped and her helmet went this time, the light along with it. This had an oddly calming effect. She went slower now, feeling her way. The prick of the crystals had become background noise by now.
Her fingers hit an irregularity in the rock. She felt a foot bone bound by wire. She was back at the moon maiden.
Selena turned and lay on her back. The crystal did not hurt now that her weight was evenly distributed, almost like a bed of nails. She laughed deliriously.
In the absence of light, she started hallucinating a pale glow. No, as the glow grew stronger, she realized it was not the Ganzfeld effect, the ceiling really was glowing. Thousands of worms descended now that the competing light was extinguished, lighting up their tails. To her oxygen-starved brain, it looked like the night sky.
Selena smiled. “Oh, it’s lovely, lovely,” were her last words.