Betrayed by the silence that followed, Beril turned to leave. Haphazard mirrors leaned against the ledges of the purple-veined pit, reflecting just enough light to see the carved footholes. The unresponsive abyss below apparently didn’t care that she could have died getting here.
Then came a late echo, reverberating with a deeper sound and jumbled words. “Now speak!”
When the orange tents were scattered in the cave, separated by stalagmites with worm-like precipitations hanging from them, Beril began to notice the odd looks. It was a week into the caving excursion.
Negative Two Base was settled on an island surrounded by a subterranean lake. Beril sat near the shore on the limestone pebbles, the emerald water reflecting the light of her upturned headlamp.
Shifting stones beside her showed she was no longer alone.
“They blame me, don’t they?”
Amara bit into a protein bar. “God, I’m sick of this crap.”
“We’re running out of that crap. We’ll have to turn back soon.”
“That’s not your fault.”
“Tell them that.” Beril nodded towards the others, mostly biologists, who crowded around a guide handing out small bowls of food.
“So, what? You’re just not going to eat?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“That’s a lie. Everyone’s hungry. You’ve been climbing down goddamn slippery ropes all day. So have I.”
“Well, they don’t want me to eat. I’m a waste of food.”
Amara sighed. “You need to stop obsessing over that.” She stood up. When she came back, she had a bowl of soup with her and handed it to Beril.
Sniffing it, she sighed. “This is awful. But thanks anyways.” Beril took a reluctant bite.
“You're not a waste of food.”
“Maybe not, but I’m too slow. The guides need to help me at every point.”
“We can come back with a more organized plan.”
“I’m taking up time and they think I’m useless.”
“Do you believe them?” Amara rested her dark brown cheek on her palm.
“I don’t know… I’m used to being an outsider, having to prove I belong places, but this is different. I mean, sure, the alien lives in a cave on a volcanic planet…”
“But I’m an earth scientist. All I can do is tell them about its habitat. If we actually find this thing, I won’t know how to figure out how it works.”
“Isn’t the theory that these rocks have some sort of weird property?”
“You’re a scientist too. You should know it’s a hypothesis. So far, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that. It’s just… limestone. Not much more to say about that.”
“You’re assuming the worst of them.”
Rattling tent zippers and the trembling ground shook Beril awake. All that her sleepy mind could think was how odd it was that the noises of physical objects never echoed through the caves, but voices always did. When she stepped outside, it was pitch black. She flipped on her headlamp, the light bobbing up and down against tan rock. She turned around. Amara wasn’t in their tent.
After grabbing her backpack, she set off down the metal ramp leading over the water. Submerged stalagmites poked out from the dark blue. “Those assholes probably left without me.” She took a shaky breath.
When she got off on the other side of the lake, she noticed the terrain had changed. The stalagmites looked as though they had been bulldozed. The tunnel became tighter. “Amara!” The walls of the cave shook for a moment. The end of a stalactite broke off and Beril jumped out of its way. “Definitely shouldn’t yell right now… No one needs a rockslide after that quake.”
Murmurs leaked through the cracks in the rock. Beril stopped. She put her ear to the limestone.
“Hello? Is someone there? Are you okay?”
“What?” The voice sounded out of breath. Beril couldn’t quite tell where it was coming from.
“It’s Beril Serrano! I’m the earth scientist. Keep talking. I’ll find you.”
“Turn back.” This time, the voice sounded angry and Beril thought it seemed as though it was just ahead of her. She followed the sound down the tunnel.
“What? Why? I’m trying to help you!”
“Weird.” Beril jumped. The voice sounded as though it was right next to her. “Do you believe that?”
Beril spun around, but the light her lamp omitted only picked up the cave wall and settling dust.
Without thinking, Beril ran. She just knew she didn’t want to be around whoever she had just been talking to. Maybe it was one of the biologists, angry that she had come on the trip, or a spelunker who was annoyed about having to help her catch up to the others. Her gut told her it was something else.
The wind was knocked out of her when she turned a corner and ran into another body.
Their arms and hands found each other in the dark. They both switched their lights back on. Wincing at the brightness, they quickly looked towards the wall, directing their headlamps away from each other’s faces.
“What happened? Was there an earthquake?”
Amara stood up and continued down the path. “I heard yelling, so I left the tent. Dr. Gillman and Rowan were arguing about something one of them had said. They didn’t seem to agree on the facts of what happened. I was about to intervene, tell them to keep their voices down, when the lanterns turned off. The ground started to move…”
“So it was an earthquake.”
“No, it felt like one of those airport walkways. It slid sideways. And rocks jutted out of the ground.”
“It could still be an earthquake, but that sounds like a more severe one than what I felt…”
“Have you seen anyone else?”
Beril took a quick glance backwards.
“You seem… on edge.”
“I mean, yeah. It’s kind of crazy. But I’m glad you’re here now.” Beril turned her lips up into a tight smile.
“In a different way. You look like you saw a ghost.”
As if prompted by the word, moans echoed through the cavern. Amara picked up her pace. The stalactites became sharper and pointed inwards as they crouched between them. The tunnel opened up and dropped straight down. White calcite streaked the walls in a spiraling pattern that seemed to point to where the sound was coming from. Down in the trench, were two bodies: one lying down and the other hunched over it. Eyes darted up.
“It’s Dr. Gillman!”
“Help!” A claw-like hand rose up into the beam of Beril’s headlamp.
“Who is that with you?”
“It’s Rowan! We fell down here.”
“He fell on my leg! It feels like it’s broken!”
Amara turned to Beril. “Do you have your gear?”
Keeping her eyes on the two figures, obscured by the shadows falling at the wrong angles, Beril opened her pack.
“How are you going to get two grown men up a ledge this high?”
“You say that like you aren’t going to help me.”
“Someone has to stay at the top.” Beril wasn’t in the mood to jump in and help someone who had called her a waste of food before she thought it about herself. If anyone deserved to be at the bottom of a pit it was Dr. Gillman.
Amara began to tie the rope around a stalagmite. She threw both ends down. As her friend lowered herself into the mouth of the trench, Beril kept her eyes on the rope. It bobbed with every slight movement on the other end.
There was another slight rumble. Behind Beril, the rock that held Amara’s rope began to shrink into the cave floor. The line slipped off. Barely able to process what she saw, Beril dove towards it. The rope burned her hands as she held on. Amara yelped below, probably falling about a foot. Her heels dug into the slippery rock. Beril slid forward, pulled by the weight of another person on the other end of the rope. The rubber of her boot caught onto a dip in the cave floor. Beril stopped. She let out a sigh. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah… I’m still hanging on. What happened?”
Beril opened her mouth to respond, but didn’t get the chance. There was a crisp, nylon snap. She fell backwards with the force of the rope breaking. Leaning forward, Beril saw the trench spiral down further into the cave floor, dragging its three inhabitants with it. Wide mouths and eyes were all that could be made out as they fell. The rock closed the opening off like twisted glass, leaving a smooth tunnel in front of Beril.
“Amara!” Beril didn’t care if she caused a rockslide anymore. Tears streaked her face.
A faint sound came from deep under the rock.
Beril wiped her face frantically. “Are you okay? Are you in there?”
“I’m here!” The voice was muddled, but definitely there. “There’s another tunnel down here!”
“Should I stay here? Can you find me?”
“I have no idea! That advice really only works when you’re five and you lose your mom in a mall. We’re five miles under an alien planet!”
“I can’t do this without you! I’m going to die here!” Beril’s voice cracked.
“I said-” Beril put her face in her hands. “This cave wants us dead…”
“You are strong, Beril!” Her voice seemed to be getting farther away.
“The universe isn’t against you. It’s indifferent.” It was definitely Amara’s voice, but with a strange twinge of monotony. “Go into the cave, further.”
“Amara?” A disturbing silence followed. “Amara! Help!” The last word echoed for longer than it should have. Because she didn’t know what else to do, Beril followed the sound of her own voice bouncing off the jagged cave.
As she walked, Beril left a trail of things she found in her bag. When she ran out of pieces of trash, she began pulling the buttons off her flannel. It wasn’t long until she ran out of those too. Desperation led her to detach the headband from her light and leave the band behind as well. She rifled through the bag, but all she found that could be left behind was a hammer.
Out of boredom and hopelessness, Beril hit the hammer against a stalagmite. To her surprise, it rang out with an extended metallic noise.
“They’re singing rocks…”
As the noise carried down the cave, bursts of bioluminescent blue lit up the trail ahead. Beril turned off her headlamp. Tapping the hammer against the rocks that grew from the ground, she followed the path the cave showed her. Further into the tunnel, the limestone faded into swirling marble. Icy blue and vibrant purple streaks painted the walls. Beril ran her hand over the smooth rock, wondering what had caused the right amount of heat and pressure to transform the rock.
The light became dimmer before the cave dropped off into a pit below. If she wanted to get closer, Beril would have to leave the lamp that she now held in her hand behind. She regretted tossing the band that strapped it to her head. Beril set her pack down. Rifling through the first aid kit, she found a mirror inside. She stepped on it with her boot.
Taking a deep breath, she set the light on the edge of the pit. Beril began to climb down. “They may think I’m slow, but I’ll be the first one to see this alien in person.”
Her heart sped up as her foot slipped. Beril quickly lowered herself to the ledge below. She took out a shard of the mirror from her pocket and angled it so it hit the next resting point. Trying not to think about the drop, she continued.
Once five more mirror pieces had been placed precisely, Beril looked down. There was nowhere else to go. No matter which direction she pointed the reflected light in the mirror, there was no way down.
Beril sat on the ledge, legs hanging over, and let herself breathe.
Her breathing stopped when the strangest thing happened.
It was her own voice. Had she said something? How could there be an echo without a sound in the first place? The noise seemed to come from the marble walls of the tunnel leading straight down.
“Is the cave talking to me?”
There was no answer.
She leaned her head over the abyss below. “Speak now!” Though commanding an uncaring cave to do anything felt useless, Beril couldn’t help but feel defeated the longer the silence hung in the air. Beril stood.
The echo seemed to come back louder. “Now speak!”
“The alien we’ve been looking for is an echo?”
“You’re-” Beril was caught off guard. That wasn’t her voice. “-the alien!” But that was.
“It’s not an echo… You’re using other people’s voices. How are you doing that?”
“Singing rocks.” Beril’s own words, spoken by something other than her, seemed to move around her.
The realization knocked Beril to the ground. She sat with a soft thunk. “You’re the rock that makes up this cave. The stretching tunnels, that’s you. The elastic energy gives you the ability to… sing. That’s why everyone has been fighting. You’ve been using our voices to whisper things. But I bet you can’t respond without being struck. That’s why you echo, isn’t it?”
The tunnel was using Amara’s voice now. Beril didn’t quite understand. She sat silent for a moment, waiting for more information. There were too many questions to pick just one. Then she remembered that the alien couldn’t speak without having a voice bounce off it first.
“How much of the cave is you?”
“Limestone is me.” The words seemed to be taken from a bunch of different conversations. Disjointed in tone, the aliens’ voices fluctuated in volume. “But I change. Marble is now me. I want to trash my limestone.”
Caught off guard by the alien expressing what seemed like emotion, Beril let out a breathy laugh. “I think I understand. I’m not too comfortable with parts of my body either.” Maybe it was absurd to assume the rock could feel discomfort. It certainly wouldn’t understand Beril’s experience. Being a metamorphic mineral surely couldn’t feel the same as transitioning from one sex to another. Beril would take a body made of limestone over a male-presenting body any day.
Pulled away from her scientific thoughts by the unanticipated emotion, she asked a question that her peers would probably scoff at. “You must want us to leave if you’ve been the one making us fight… So why did you reveal yourself to me?”
“I am or you are?”
“The group I’m with wants to know more about you.”
Beril’s blood ran cold. That was Amara’s voice. The words fit too well together to be taken out of context.
“Are my friends okay?”
There was no response, just a soft gurgle from below.
“Are they hurt?”
The sound grew, sounding like a waterfall now.
“Go!” The cave screamed in Amara’s voice.
Then the walls closed in around Beril. The ledge she was on let out a metallic droning sound as it propelled her towards the cave ceiling. Beril curled up in a ball, anticipating her bones cracking and her innards squishing together. But nothing happened. She felt the cool marble. It was too dark to see anything, but the chamber she was in was small enough that she could run her hands over all of it without sitting up. Beneath her, the ground shook.
All Beril could do was breathe. There was no clawing her way out. Maybe someday the same scientists who thought she was holding up the expedition would excavate her bones.
Then, Beril went blind for a moment. As her eyes adjusted, she realized she could smell fresh air. Eyes blurry from the brightness of daylight, Beril could just make out the slowly blinking eyes of the other scientists. Jagged teeth loomed over. She recognized the mouth of the cave.
Amara pushed the others out of the way and helped her up. “You’re okay!”
Beril looked behind her. There was a large hole, which she had maybe been pushed out of. “What happened? Did the cave push all of us out?”
With a gust of air through the pit, the cave responded. “This is awful. But thanks anyways.”
With a rough, grinding, twist, the limestone sealed the hole, leaving no other entrance. It seemed the alien did not care to be studied. Beril couldn’t blame it.
Her colleagues looked at her with wide eyes, as though she were someone entirely different from the rock scientist they thought would be of little use on the expedition.
Dr. Gillman cleared his throat. “What now?”
“I think we leave it alone.” Beril stood.
“Are you insane?”
“Considering what we all just heard… maybe.”
“Don’t you think we should excavate? Figure out exactly how it’s body, it’s brain functions?”
Beril turned in the direction of base camp. She didn’t care who followed. Walking over the igneous surface of the seemingly barren planet, Beril wondered how much of the landscape was conscious. Not for the first time, she thought of herself as an alien rather than human. Her fists hardened as if made of stone. The feeling was more comforting than it ever had been.