Miranda groped her way along the cold wall of the cave, ignoring the fresh nicks and scrapes gifted her by the sharp gravel beneath her feet. They were, after all, nothing compared to the hunger.
The sun didn’t shine down here in the bowels of the earth, but she knew, she knew days had passed. Days and days and days. Enough days that she’d begun thinking it might’ve even been weeks, months, years.
How long could a person last without food, anyway? She knew so many other things—things that had qualified her to join up as a “valued team member” on the mission to explore the unexplored. Things like the different types of trowels and what each was best used for. Things like the importance of waterproof paper when taking notes out in the field. Things like songs once sang by the indigenous people of this land, the Fati.
One of those songs came to her now.
“Little child, come and see / What’s to come, what’s to be / You know not all of this land / Let me show you, take my hand…”
Her voice came out as a sad, hollow rasp, but she didn’t care. No one could hear her anymore.
Miranda was alone.
Miranda was alone.
Miranda awoke to the same darkness she’d fallen asleep to. Sleep came so easily to her, now—her body trying to conserve what little stores of energy it had left. Funny how that worked better than any of the melatonin pills she’d ever taken.
Bits of gravel dug into her skin, greedily seeking blood and bone. Her clothes were a disaster of rips and holes, and one of her boots had disappeared. Maybe an opportunistic, cave-dwelling crustacean had appropriated it as a new home. Miranda liked to think so, anyway. For all she knew, it’d been missing for as long as she’d been starving to death.
Her stomach gurgled right on cue. It sounded as desperate as a beggar.
Maybe Miranda could beg. For this all to be a dream. For a way out. For a way to see Jade again. For—
Yes. Right there, by the bloody mess of her fingers. She was touching it.
Whatever “it” was.
Well, let’s see.
“It” was squishy.
“It” was yellow.
“It” was… delicious.
She didn’t remember putting it in her mouth, but oh, was she happy that she did. Mixed with fresh and dried blood from her fingers, she wished she had some water to wash it down, but to have food… to have food again…
Mm! More. She must have more!
Crawling on all fours, Miranda kept to the wall as she’d learned to do on her very first day alone in the dark, eyes peeled for the edible light.
Ah! Another. This one was easier to find, for some reason. But then, she hadn’t really “found” the first one—just stumbled upon it.
Well, details, details.
She stuffed her face. Miranda wasn’t normally a second course kind of gal, but she could hardly complain when it tasted so. Damn. Good.
If only they weren’t so small.
But there would be more, yes. There had to be more.
And there were. Three, four, five—so many she lost count! And each one easier to find than the last. She still couldn’t figure out why, though her vision clearing of tears probably helped.
Ravenous didn’t even begin to describe how she ate. Miranda liked being able to describe things, but that hadn’t helped her escape this hell. Only this food could do that. Give her the energy she needed to heal, to move, to light.
When had the cave become so bright? Bright enough to reveal…
Water! A pool of water, just a few meters to Miranda’s right. And inside, a whole batch of her new favorite food.
She’d take a closer look at it later.
For now, she would eat, she would drink, and then she would sleep.
Miranda awoke to the same light she’d fallen asleep to. Her right hand drooped in the pool, tendrils of blood snaking out across the water.
Eh, it was only her blood. Blinking away the last of her sleep, Miranda unhooked the canteen from her belt—empty for almost as long as her stomach had been before her life-saving meal—and filled it up.
She swiped aside the blood in the water with her other hand, curious to see her reflection now that it was so bright in the cave. How had it gotten so bright, anyway? Food, water, and sleep had helped clear her mind somewhat, and—
Miranda screamed, flinging the canteen across the pool by reflex. It skittered onto the rock on the other side, water and blood spilling out the open top in equal measure.
The light… she was the light. Her skin. Her hair. Her eyes. All… light. The only identifiably human thing about her was her general shape; she could feel her clothes, but they, too, were hidden by the light.
How had she not noticed when she swished the blood out of the way to see her reflection? Or when she dipped her canteen for water? Or when the cave started getting brighter, and brighter, and brighter…
While she ate.
Panicking, Miranda scrambled in the water, searching for more of the stuff she’d eaten. Had she eaten all of it? No, there was still a slight glow in the pond—there.
She pulled it off the rock. Some kind of lichen, so far as she could tell. She was an archaeologist, not a botanist. Did botanists even study lichen? Were lichenologists a thing?
Well, the fact that she wondered about such a thing meant she was gaining her faculties back, slowly but surely. She might not have looked human anymore, but apparently her brain still worked.
She wished it’d been working while she mindlessly consumed an entire colony of bioluminescent lichen.
Okay. So she was glowing. At least that’d be useful in escaping the cave, right? Think. What direction had she come from?
She didn’t want to admit it, but she thought it was…
Yes. A hole gaped in the ceiling, too high for her to reach, tatters of her shirt dangling from the rock. Even with her light, she couldn’t see very far beyond, as the cave curved and blocked off further sight.
That didn’t mean there wasn’t another way out. Miranda had come here with the expedition knowing this wasn’t just one cave, but a whole system of underground tunnels. Dead ends were possible, but she was never one to accept dead ends in her research. Barely lucid, she hadn’t accepted that her life had hit a dead end, either. She’d survived because of that lack of acceptance. A strangely useful quality for an archaeologist to have.
At first glance, the cave had no other exits, but she made her rounds. Feeling at the walls for cracks and crevices. Ducking in search of passages that led further down. Double- and triple- and quadruple- checking.
She sighed, tapping her foot, looking down. There was still blood on her from earlier, but she wasn’t bleeding anymore. Had eating the lichen… healed her wounds, somehow? She couldn’t feel the prick of the gravel beneath her feet, either. As if she’d grown so many calluses that nothing could penetrate her hide anymore.
Great. She was a glowing rhinoceros woman. Now all she needed were horns.
After three more checks, Miranda sat on a relatively smooth rock outcropping hanging over the pool. It was deep enough that she could dangle her feet and only just scrape the bottom with her toes. Where there wasn’t blood, the water was cool.
She reached down toward another patch of lichen, wanting something to chew on while she thought things through. Maybe if—
She tumbled into the pool, splashing enough water to knock her canteen further back along the gravel.
The lichen must’ve been further down than she thought. It…
It was in a cave.
A cave beneath the surface of the water.
No dead ends.
Miranda dove in without a moment’s hesitation, her bioluminescence lighting the way.
What a stupid idea.
Miranda surfaced for what must have been the tenth time. No dead ends was one thing, but no air was another thing entirely.
Miranda had considered herself a strong swimmer, once; she’d quit swim team halfway through high school because girls could be bitches. Though her skills hadn’t entirely atrophied, it had been a while—and having recovered from the brink of death mere hours before didn’t help. In another life, however, she could see herself as an Olympic athlete rather than an archaeologist.
Thinking about other lives was key to her chosen profession. How did others live in the past, and what lessons could humanity take from them? What made them laugh? Cry? Did they believe in a higher power, or did they believe no one controlled their fates but themselves? What were those fates, and why did they matter in the grand scheme of things?
Did they develop breath-holding techniques that would make the Olympic swimmers of today look like landlubbers?
She couldn’t try again. She couldn’t. She’d stopped bleeding, but now her lungs felt fit to burst.
Inhaling deeply, relishing the taste of stale cave air, Miranda acknowledged the choices she now had. She could continue eating the lichen until it ran out, which it nearly had already. She could suck it up and try swimming until her lungs did burst, knowing she’d at least tried her hardest. Or she could sit here until she either died of hunger or killed herself, bashing her head against the cave’s rock walls.
Until, until, until.
That reminded her of another song the Fati who once lived here—or above here—sang.
“Until you come home, until you come home / Life can’t go on until you come home / I miss you, I miss you, oh dearly, I do / When you come home, I will renew.”
Such a sentimental people. Almost all Fati songs had to do with love, with loss, with life. Every song that covered other topics at first always turned back around to those three fundamentals.
Love, they said, was the light in the darkness.
Loss, they said, was the darkness in the light.
Life, they said, was light and dark become one.
The metaphorical irony was not lost on Miranda, glowing in the dark of the cave like a million matchsticks.
She looked at her hand. Now, even the blood that had dried there was gone, thanks to her fruitless trips down the water tunnel. She was the essence of light come alive.
If being stuck in a cave at the bottom of the world could be considered life.
… No dead ends, right?
Not if she wanted to see Jade ever again. But what would Jade see? A sun in the shape of a woman she once knew? Quite frankly, Miranda didn’t know how Jade would react.
And quite frankly, that excited her. The unknown had always excited her, even if it was always frightening at first.
Why should the underwater tunnel be any different? Why should death be any different?
And so it was that Miranda lowered herself into the pool, taking one last look around the cave. The blood on the floor where she’d scraped herself along, hungering for lichen. Her canteen, discarded and forgotten—useless now, but a point of connection to the expedition. The hole in the ceiling, where she’d been spat out after falling, falling, falling from above.
Not a place she would mind leaving behind.
Miranda awoke to a face she didn’t recognize, half in the light of her glow, half in the dark of their surroundings. No, it wasn’t dark—just dark compared to her.
The face turned, shouting to someone—or someones—she couldn’t see in a language that sounded somewhat familiar.
No… more than somewhat familiar. A language she’d deciphered. A language she’d studied. A language she’d taught herself to speak—and to sing.
“Where… am I?” Miranda asked in Fati.
The person—a woman in what seemed to be traditional Fati garb—turned to her. “You are home, Cliua. With your people.”
Cliua? The Fati goddess of light?
Okay, where was she?
As Miranda sat up to get a better look around her, years of research clicked into place. There to her left was a steaming bowl of thiera, a heavily spiced Fati farina prepared only for special occasions and holidays—like the return of a god after a long absence. On her right, a set of Fati prayerbooks, said to be written by the gods during their absences. And before her, five living, breathing Fati—including the woman who’d mistaken Miranda for Cliua. Five… the traditional number of people allowed to be in the presence of a god simultaneously without incurring divine wrath.
For as much as Miranda felt her wrath should have been incurred, she felt strangely at peace—like she really was home, as the woman had said. And yet, she couldn’t lie to these people in good conscience. She had to get home, to her real home, to Jade…
Wait a minute. What on Earth was she thinking?
So far as she could tell, she was actually among the Fati—the ancient civilization she’d dedicated her life to understanding. And, so far as she could tell, they believed her to be Cliua. Assuming this wasn’t a dream, or that she hadn’t died swimming through that underwater cave…
No. Jade could wait. Miranda couldn’t leave.
Cliua couldn’t leave. Not again, not right after her absence. Her people had need of her. She would have divine wisdom to impart to them, things she’d learned of and about while she was away.
As long as her light shone, there would be dead ends no more.