The Caves of Hephaestus Island

Standard

“The volcano was so huge that when the sun rose in the east, it would crest upon the highest peak of the volcano, and it would look like the volcano was bringing the light of the sun to the people who lived below.”

I crossed my arms and peered at Thera.  She swept her gaze around the table, summoning everyone’s attention to her as she continued.

“But there’s no volcano there.”  That was Conrad.  The new guy.

“Not today,” I said.  “But there used to be.  About three thousand years ago.”

“A few times in history,” Thera explained, “a volcanic eruption has been so tremendous that large portions of the planet were affected by the lingering particulate debris in the air, which blocked sunlight for months on end.  Research division at HQ put the pieces together from what little physical evidence we found and historical accounts, even some legends.  They believe that one of these rare volcanic eruptions occurred right where we’re headed.”

“So what’s there now?”

I rose and joined Thera.  I too swept my gaze around the table.  “What’s supposed to be there is…nothing.  That volcano was supposed to have consumed everything, including itself.  But we’re seeing something.  Something is giving off enough of an energy signature for several terrestrial and even a few orbital detectors to register the signal.  At first it was logged as some kind of interference.  But after almost a year of people putting their data together and sorting it, we have triangulated—for lack of a better word—the general area where that signature is coming from.  It’s a very small island in the southern Arabian sea, kind of between the Seychelles and the Maldives.  The first team to land has already found evidence of a previously unknown ancient civilization present on the island.  A major find.  The professor here has pieced together a key to translating the text found on some of the artifacts that we’ve begun to uncover and retrieve.”

Conrad narrowed his eyes a bit.  “Which government is claiming these artifacts?”

“None for the time being.  The Agency is collecting them under the watchful eye of our international partners.”

“So we’ve only begun to scratch the surface on the cultural significance?”

“That’s correct.”

“And so far, we haven’t found any chests full of stolen treasure for anyone to fight over,” Thera said.  “Let’s hope it stays that way.”  She crossed the first two fingers of her right hand and held it up.

Conrad’s eyes relaxed.  He smiled at her and dropped his gaze.

“Despite the extraordinary discovery,” I said, “the first team has not managed to find what they actually went there to find, the source of this signal interference.  They’re tagging out for a bit.  It’s our turn to go take a look.”

“And you’ll be coming with us, ma’am?” Conrad asked.

I took in a breath.  I’d known the moment would come, when my presence on the team would be questioned.  But I’d gotten caught up in Thera’s presentation, and I’d forgotten.  The question caught me off guard for a moment.  I crossed my hands in front of me, as I stood beside Thera and before the three other people who would be on the team.  I was the only one wearing full business attire, heels and matching belt included, on a ship that was already cutting its way through choppy waters.

“Yes,” I said.  “The first team isn’t leaving us empty-handed.  They have a lead, a system of caves.  They turned the mappers on for us.  We should be able to hit the ground running when we arrive.”

***

When I got back to my cabin, I changed.  We wouldn’t be arriving for another day or so, depending on the weather and the conditions of the waters we were traveling on.  I didn’t even know if we were in a sea or an ocean.  I looked down at myself.  Of course the attire was more comfortable.  And I had to get everyone used to seeing me dressed that way.  But I just felt awkward.  Ironic, considering the first time I walked into an administrative meeting at Agency headquarters, wearing a power pantsuit and black pumps, I’d felt awkward too.  Like a kid dressing up in her mom’s work clothes.

I thought about maybe taking some files with me to dinner, even though no “shop talk” was typically allowed at dinner on the last night before embarkation.  I did want to take a second look at the latest reports.

At the last minute, I left the files in my cabin.

It was a good thing I did.  Dequan confiscated any mission-related materials and put them in a cardboard box before allowing anyone into the mess room.

It was a nice dinner.  I didn’t have much of an appetite, but it was comforting to learn that both Thera and Conrad had also never been out to sea like this before.  Fortunately, none of us were suffering seasickness.  For me at least, that probably had more to do with the skill of the pilot and the people who constructed the ship than with my steady constitution.  At some point, Dequan revealed that he loved magic and performed some sleight-of-hand tricks with a crinkled deck of cards that someone managed to dig up.  Thera then folded two of those cards into a paper biplane.  Conrad showed us pictures of his daughter’s science class project, where she grew pea plants to demonstrate genetic heredity (he admitted to helping just a little).  Even the typically reserved Jae wordlessly rose, grabbed a few unopened fruit cups and began juggling them.

I wasn’t sure how dinner had turned into a talent show, but it didn’t help to allay my concerns about being this field unit’s lead.  I had no expertise in exploration, scientific research, history, sociology, nothing that would be of particular use.  I was the unit lead only by virtue of being the administrative lead for the larger team of fifty-some people.  But really, I was just there to keep everyone organized, accountable, and safe.  An expedition like this one, where a ground-breaking discovery had already been made and was yet to be fully studied, was best-served by someone who could temper everyone else’s excitement.

Essentially, I was the team’s party-pooper.

***

“Fire.  Ash.  Smoke.  Destruction.  Destruction.  Destruction.”  Thera turned to me as we sat on the boats that were taking us to shore.  “Those were the words of a scribe recalling what he saw from the boat he was escaping on as it floated away.”

I pressed my lips together as I watched the shore draw closer.  It was gone, the volcano.  It had died long ago, destroyed itself.  But the mountains not too far from shore kind of looked like a volcano.

“It’ll all be worth it once you get that promotion, huh?” Thera said.  She elbowed me gently in the gut.

I must have looked as tense as I felt.  I honestly never realized how ludicrous it was for humans to be carried in flimsy cups made of wood, plastic, and tin over oceans of water so vast and deep that an entire civilization could be lost for millennia underneath.  What chance did a single puny human have?

“You said you wanted to get together.  Just the two of us,” I said.

Thera laughed.  “Yeah for coffee or dinner or something.”  She shook her head.  “Something away from work.”

Thera was married to my cousin.  But I was closer to her than I was to him.  Or I was until about five years ago when I was first promoted.  I didn’t realize how much time had gone by while I kept postponing plans with everyone.  I’d been delighted when I heard Thera had joined the Agency and was headquartered in the same division as me.  When I’d told her I hoped we’d run into each other at meetings or in the break room or hallways, she’d laughed and shook her head at me.  She told me she would take me out for my birthday, and as she walked away, she used the first two fingers of her hands to make a shape in the air.  The shape of a square.

Sure enough, she came by my place on my birthday.  I hadn’t taken the day off that year.  I was too tired to go far, so she took me to the diner down the street.  We ate breakfast for dinner and talked until closing.

We hadn’t seen each other in years, but picked up where we’d left off.  She knew me better than I remembered her knowing me.  I wasn’t surprised she’d guessed at my reason for embarking with one of the nearly dozen units of the second team to explore the island that everyone was unofficially calling Hephaestus, after the Greek god of the forge.  (The god’s Roman counterpart, Vulcan, was the origin of the word “volcano,” but everyone thought that was a little too obvious).

“All those things we used to complain about in the break room,” I said, “about the Agency.  The waste.  The bureaucracy.  The inconsistency—one division running like a state-of-the-art machine while another one seems stuck in the age of ditto machines.  I could be in the position to help with that if I get to where I want to be.”

Thera nodded.  “Okay.”  I felt as if there was something unsaid in that “okay.”  But she said no more before we reached shore.

The mappers were done with the main map of the cave system.  There seemed to be two systems, but some of our cave-diving and geology experts had taken a look at the images and observed that the two systems connected through a single narrow tunnel.  The team of fifty-six would be split up into ten units, three of which would stay at base camp collecting and processing data from the other units, checking in with the units, and preparing to rotate in when it was their shift.

I’d thought about taking turns going with other units.  But it made more sense to stay with one, so I wouldn’t throw off the workflow, the unit dynamics that developed.  And as much as she ribbed me for it, and as little as I would actually be doing, I was excited to be working alongside Thera.

***

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was manmade.”  The team’s head geologist stood at the podium, addressing the seven units just before they set off for their specific assignments.  He was an expert in cave formations.  “But there are plenty of naturally occurring formations that appear to have been forged by a conscious mind.  We might as well say that we got lucky, because we’re not going to have to do a lot of squeezing.  And no diving at all, though we’ll take our gear just in case.  The mappers are still active, doing some fine-tuning, and real-time monitoring.  But from what we can tell, the entire system is stable.  It’s just really, really big.  And it will take us a while to get through it all, especially if we find some interesting things along our way, which I hope we do.”

I took the podium next, wishing all the units luck and reminding them about the various safety checks and data collection and reporting protocols.

And then we were off.

***

Just as I’d never been on the open ocean before, I had never been inside of a cave before, even a shallow one, much less a system of caves that descended below sea level.  I thought the air would be stuffy, maybe humid, maybe stale.  But there seemed to be a constant though gentle current of cool air moving past us as we moved further inward.

“Are we sure we shouldn’t bring any firepower with us?” Dequan asked.  “Just in case we run into…creatures or albino penguins or something?”

He and Jae were taking the lead, with Thera and me behind them, and Conrad bringing up the rear.

“Not sure it’s wise to bring projectile weapons into an enclosed area with solid surfaces,” Conrad said.

“I have a can of hairspray in my pack,” Jae offered.  “If someone has a lighter, we can make a flamethrower in a pinch.”

Conrad chuckled from behind us.

Thera glanced over at me, grinning.  Her grin faded.  She looked ahead.  “All right guys.  Let’s knock it off.  Our fearless leader is respecting us by taking every word we say seriously.  Until she learns to ignore us, let’s try not to give her a heart attack.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Conrad said.

Jae turned her head back and looked at me.  “Sorry, boss.”

I suddenly realized that I was holding my shoulders all the way up to my ears.  I relaxed them.   “It’s okay, everyone.  Uh…the mappers showed that this upper area is just rock, but we should be actually coming up on some interesting cave art soon.  And other artifacts.”

“Bob thinks that storm surges probably washed all the surface stuff away over centuries,” Thera said, nodding.

Bob.  I had forgotten the head geologist’s first name.  I’d only met him once.  “Is he certain that there won’t be any flash flooding?”  I asked.  The mappers would warn us in time to brace ourselves and put on our masks.  But each of us was only carrying enough oxygen to last for an hour.  And our shift was considerably longer than that.

“He’s pretty confident,” Thera said.  “And he’s not the only one who’s looked at the maps.  And the mappers have done two passes by now.”  She turned to me.  “And we’ve got you to stop us from being reckless, so I’d say we’re in good shape.”

“Boss,” Jae called from ahead.  “Here you go.”  She hooked her lantern to her belt and shined her flashlight on the cavern walls.

The walls were adorned with patterns and images, some carved, some painted with what appeared to be blue and white pigments.  Her flashlight trailed upwards and upwards, maybe thirty feet up.

I’d seen dozens of pictures taken by the mappers, in more detail than my naked eye could see now.  I stopped and shined my own flashlight on the walls.  I tipped my head back to see as far up as I could.  Some familiar-looking symbols caught my eye.  A pattern that looked like waves of water.  Some animal that bore a resemblance to a dinosaur—a triceratops.  Two stick-thin figures facing forward, grasping hands, the free arm of one pointing up, the free arm of the other pointing down.

Thera walked up beside me.

“Do you know what it means?” I asked.

“Not at the moment, but we should get moving if we want to get as far in as possible before we have to head back.  The first team got good records of this.  We need to go deeper.”

I turned to her.  She smiled and tipped her head in the direction we were to go.

I nodded and we kept on.

I used to love museums.  But I hadn’t gone in a long while.  This was like being in a living museum.  The cave art continued, changing in quality slightly as we moved further in.  But I couldn’t tell if it was getting more or less sophisticated.  Or if it was just different.  We collected a few small artifacts, though most we left in place, taking pictures and notes along the way.  There was a constant but quiet chatter as five people made audio notes on their specific observations.

Aside from a momentary scare from Dequan’s mention of cave monsters, I was most afraid of running into a cavern full of bats.  The mappers hadn’t registered any large living creatures in the cave systems.  To speed up the mapping, they were programmed to ignore small things.  That usually meant insects.  But if someone was in a real hurry, they could program mappers to ignore slightly larger animals, like lizards, mice, and bats.  I wondered though if a huge hoard of bats hanging from the ceiling would register as a large animal.  If the mapper that spotted it would stop and take a picture.

We didn’t run into any bats.  Or cave creatures.  And we didn’t get overrun by flash floods.  We made good distance that first day.  And we found much of archaeological interest.  But I didn’t need to do any goading to get my unit to head back.  We’d found enough and we were ready for a break.

Thera was all too happy to return with a treasure in tow.  She’d found a tablet, marked with a language written with wedge-shaped characters.  She called it cuneiform.  She was eager to get back to base camp and start translating it.

I stayed up until the last of the teams checked in for the day.  Everyone came back safely, and everyone came back with more discoveries.  Another unit had found a tablet similar to the one Thera brought back.  We rested and we prepared for day two.

***

We went deeper into the cave system on the second day.  The mappers provided a few revised layouts.  As we returned to the caves, shift after shift, day after day, my fear of floods and bats began to fade.  But a new feeling, a kind of unease, set in.  There was a people here once.  Finding the remnants of their civilization, seeing it in person, mingled with the knowledge that I could now call myself an adventurer, on the first day, it was all exciting.  But after seeing those remnants day after day, being surrounded by the marks this people made on their walls, the everyday tools they crafted, walking in the ghosts of their footprints…

“Why haven’t we seen any bones?” I asked.

“Maybe we will,” Conrad said, moving past me purposefully as if he’d spotted something.  “Deeper down.”

We were already deep into the caves, into the zone where no natural light penetrated.

“What if we don’t?” I asked.  “What could that mean?”  None of the teams had found any human remains yet.  Only artifacts.  “Didn’t any of the ancient people hide here from the volcano? Or just get lost and die? Hasn’t anyone ever even been shipwrecked on this island?”

“This definitely looks manmade.”

We moved toward Conrad, seeing the structure he was standing before.  It looked like a column.  The base was covered in rock, but the top appeared to be ornately carved in leaf patterns.  There were grooves along the column.

Thera reached out and touched a piece of the base.  “I think there’s some inscription here, but it’s covered in fungus.  We’d have to do some imaging to see it.”  She glanced at me.  “Yeah, I think Bob may have been wrong about the natural formation thing.  I mean, he’s the expert, but this cave system seems…designed.  Aside from trip hazards, we haven’t encountered any difficult points.  We haven’t had to squeeze through anything, or climb up or down anything.”

“Well, we did have to climb down that one part, but it kind of was like a really rough ramp,” Jae said.

We moved onward and found more evidence of columns supporting either the natural roof of the cave, or a constructed roof that had been damaged.

“So, was this stuff built after the eruption, or before?” Dequan asked.

“Everything we’ve found so far has been before,” Thera said.

But say it was built after,” I said, “maybe by survivors, what happened to those people?”

“The survivors didn’t have much land to live on,” Conrad said, trudging behind Thera.  He was bringing up the rear again.  “This is the tiniest island I’ve ever landed on.  Nothing’s growing here.  I don’t think I’ve seen a single bird.  Wouldn’t there be evidence of civilization on the surface?”

“Did you guys hear that one of the other units found some kind of barrel that they think might have contained beer?” Dequan said.  “I mean, what did they make the beer out of?  That’s all got to be pre-volcano, right?”

Thera nodded.  “Yes, I heard.  And I’ve heard that another unit thinks they might be close to finding the source of the signal interruption that led us here in the first place.”

It was strange that I often forgot about our first objective when we were in the caves, finding the signal interruption.  I’d only remember when we returned to base camp and I received the shift reports from all the units.

“Whoa!”

That was Dequan.  Thera and I rushed forward.

Dequan had his flashlight trained on Jae’s chest.  Something unexpected sat perched on the zipper of her vest.

A butterfly.

It was small.  Four of them could have fit in the palm of my hand.  Its violet-blue and lavender wings glittered in the light of our lanterns.

“Has this little guy been with us the whole time?” Conrad said, moving forward.  He bent toward the butterfly. “Did you hitch a ride on Jae?”

Jae moved her head slowly and looked at me.  “Can someone catch him?  I’d feel terrible if we left him down here.”

“Where did he even come from?” Dequan said.  “I haven’t seen any butterflies on the island.”

The butterfly fluttered its wings and suddenly rose up and away from the circle of humans that had gathered to peer at him.  We directed our flashlights to follow him.  He was flying deeper into the cave.

Conrad’s eyes were the keenest.  He tracked the butterfly even when the rest of us couldn’t see it.  And he took the lead now, chasing after the unintended sixth member of our unit.

He dashed ahead and I tried to keep up, glancing around for any hazards as Conrad blindly walked on, his eyes on the butterfly.

I heard him exclaim and suddenly stop in his tracks.  He swiveled around to face the rest of us.  “Lost him.”

“At least you have a story to tell your daughter,” I said.  “About chasing butterflies in a cave.”

He shook his head.  “If I’d caught it, maybe.  But I can’t tell her I left it behind.”

“The good news is, we have a reason to stick around here for a bit,” Thera said, catching up to us.  “And maybe Jae’s little friend will want to land on her again, and we can still carry him out of here.”

She raised her lantern, and I looked around.  We were in a junction, a cavern with several openings leading to various paths.  But in the chamber where we now stood, there was something else we didn’t expect to find this far into a cave.  Vines.  It looked like some kind of ivy, crawling along the floor and the walls.

“We’re in the dark zone now,” Jae said, “where there is no natural light.  We shouldn’t be seeing vines.”

I stepped toward the walls.  The ivy was green.  It was living.  “Jae, could the mappers have done this?”

“Plants can grow in the light from lanterns.  So we’ve always been careful about controlling the lights that the mappers and explorers bring into the cave systems we explore.  But we haven’t been on Hephaestus long enough, and anyway, I don’t think…we wouldn’t see a plant like ivy.  It would just be ferns, mosses.”

“Are we sure we’re in the dark zone?” Thera asked.  Her lantern was still raised.  I followed her gaze and saw what she saw.  The butterfly.

Only…this was not the same butterfly.  This one was orange, like a monarch.

“Here’s another,” Conrad said.   Around his head, there was yet another butterfly.

I turned to Thera.  “Can butterflies survive in caves?  They need be outdoors, don’t they?”

She shrugged.  “I think so.”

“They need sunlight,” Conrad said.  “For heat.  Or else they don’t have the energy to fly.”

Thera nodded.  “Okay, so we have ivy and butterflies.  If they are surviving all the way down here, without sunlight, there must be some other source of heat, and maybe light.”

Conrad rubbed his chin.  “That makes sense, but from where?”

“I don’t think we’ll be able to just follow the butterfly again,” Thera said.

As she spoke, the two butterflies flew toward each other, seemed to dance around, and then flew, one behind the other, toward one of the cavern openings.

Thera glanced around at each of us.  “Or…maybe we will.”

***

The butterflies led us to another large cavern where we saw more vines, a few different species according to Jae.  And some grasses growing on a dark, softer earth than the rocky ground we’d walked on till then.

And there were more butterflies.  Dozens upon dozens.  Different wing shapes and sizes, variant patterns, and so many hues from a vivid fuchsia and magenta to a calming moonlight blue.

“Is it me, or…are they glowing?”  The plants, the butterflies.  They seemed to be producing a light of their own.  A greenish-yellow light mostly.  Like fireflies.

“Bioluminescence,” Jae said.

The butterflies seemed to be clustered on several areas on the caves walls.  Thera approached one cluster.  The butterflies burst apart and flew off.  Thera watched them scatter, and then she looked again at the spot where they had been gathered.  She swept aside the vines.

“Eureka,” she said.  She took a breath and exhaled through her lips.  She set her pack down, put on a pair of gloves and reached through the vines.  She pulled out what looked like a huge tome.

I approached.  “Is that a—book?”

Dequan helped her wrap the book up as Jae took pictures of the recess in the wall where it had been set.

Conrad approached another butterfly cluster and they too burst away from each other.  “Folks, I think we might be in some kind of library or archive.”  He gestured with his thumb to the spot where the butterflies had been roosting.  “There’s another one in here.”

“Should we take them all?” I asked.

Thera nodded.  “As many as we can carry, so we can start preserving them.  And maybe trying to read them.”

“Is it me,” Dequan said, “or…are they like, leading us to these discoveries?”  He bounced the light from his flashlight between the various clusters of butterflies that were still roosting on the walls.

“Of all the cave creatures and creepy crawlies we could have run into…I’ll take it,” Thera said.

“But…it’s not my imagination, is it?  Or coincidence?”

“It’s neither,” Thera said.  “There’s a reason they’re roosting in these specific spots.  And why they were inclined to come in here.  It doesn’t mean they were leading us.  And there’s something going on with the ecosystem down here that we need to investigate.  And there’s these texts we need to research.  It’ll all add up to something—maybe even that signal interference we still haven’t found—and it’ll probably be something that isn’t as creepy as whatever you’re thinking.”

I nodded.  “Let’s get back.  We have a lot to report today.”

***

We were due a couple of days off, but Thera was excited about the translations that she and a few other linguists and archaeologists from the other units had done so far of the documents that we had recovered from the butterfly archive.

She called us in to the research tent to tell us what she’d discovered, reminding us that the translations were preliminary and incomplete.

“Okay, so near as I can tell from the translations—and mind you, they’re rough—“

“We understand, Thera,” I said.  “Go on.”

“—the civilization that once lived here, thrived here actually, seemed to—worship is too strong a word—believe in two gods.  One of them, they admired.  These gods are either genderless or they shift genders often, but for the most part, the one they liked was female.  And then there was the one they feared, who was usually male.  But they seemed to respect both, and honor both in their ceremonies and festivals.  I’ve never heard of either god before, which is strange, because I recognize every other part of their civilization.  They seem to be very similar to the ancient Sumerians.  They had about a dozen city-states, a cuneiform written language, a pretty well-established system of trade, especially over the sea.”

“So these books we found.  Are they histories?” I asked.

Thera nodded.  “I was worried that they’d just be ledgers of accounts or something, but so far, these all seem to be books of history.  Alison from Unit Eight found one that seems to be poetry.  I’m not a poem person, so I’m letting her take that one.  But this one…”

She pressed her hand on the open tome, made of thin slates of clay punched and fastened together along one edge with what looked like wooden rings.

“Now, it’s very possible that I’m either reading this wrong, or that the people themselves changed their own history and turned it into myth,” she continued.  “Because I think these two figures might have been historical figures, very early rulers of the civilization.  The city-states had various different rulers and were constantly warring, but there’s mention of a kind of ‘golden age’ during which they all fell under common rule.”

I crossed my arms and leaned back.  “Let me guess.  One of these characters that later become their gods.”

“Close.  Not one.  Both.”

Conrad sighed through his nose.  “My dear professor, I assume there’s a reason you’ve gathered us here on a day when we’re supposed to call home to our families and sit on the beach drinking whatever spirits we’ve managed to smuggle out here.”

Thera held up a hand.  “Okay, long story short.  Something happened.  Maybe a fallout between the two rulers.  The realm was ‘broken and halved’ and the ‘greater half’ went to the feared one and the ‘lesser half’ went to the admired one.  Now these designations aren’t referring to borders.  It’s referring to the surface world and the under world.  Only not underworld, like afterlife, but underground.”

I uncrossed my arms and leaned forward.  “The cave system.”

Thera touch the side of her nose with her finger, then pointed at me.  “Bingo and get this.  Not long after this split occurred, the volcano erupted.  History and legend get a bit blurred here, so some believed that the feared one—who might have taken the form of something dragon-like—lived inside the volcano, and he lost it one day and that was the volcano erupting.  Historically speaking, maybe it was just a run of bad luck for these people, the end of their golden age, with the splitting of two powerful rulers, and then a natural disaster.”

“And their whole civilization was wiped out.”  Dequan shook his head.

Thera pointed her finger in the air.  “There’s more.  A prophecy—though likely it was written after the disaster happened to add to the legend and drama of the whole thing.  According to this prophecy, the admired one was supposed to save her people.  She was going to ‘give them the gift of her powers’ and that way they would survive the disaster that was caused by the wrath of the feared one and thrive in a new world.  Here’s a passage written by a scholar:

“She comes to us in many forms, forms that delight both her and us.  But we have not seen her since the mount has begun to roar.  She has forsaken us.  Or else, she has already been consumed by her more powerful rival.  She promised to save us.  She promised to lead us.  She promised to share with us her light.  She promised to grant us the gift of her own powers.  Then we too might flee from our enemies and endure any troubles that cast a shadow upon our hearts.”

Thera stopped.  She looked up at us and smiled.  “Many forms.  I think that’s a reference to shape-shifting, or maybe metamorphosis.  And, I translated the word as ‘flee,’ but it could be ‘fly from our enemies.’  I just thought that might be too on the nose.”  She turned over a slate and twisted the book around so that we could all see.

In the midst of the wedge-shaped writing on that page, there was a familiar shape.

A butterfly.

Dequan shook his head.  “Nope.  You said it wouldn’t be creepy.  You lied.”

Thera grinned at him.  “You don’t have to go back into the caves if you don’t want to.”

Jae leaned forward on the table, interlocking her fingers.  She gazed at the slate page.  “Wow, this is quite the puzzle.  Maybe this civilization cultivated plants and animals to survive in the caves, and some of them made it through the eruption.  The bioluminescence might have something to do with that.  Maybe the signal too.  Some new kind of energy?” She paused. “I’m seriously overwhelmed right now.”

Conrad put a hand on her shoulder.

Thera shifted her grin over to me.  “We’re nowhere near done here, boss.  But you are.  That promotion is in the bag.  I say you go claim it and do us a favor, order that a permanent outpost be built here.  We’ll be here a while.  Well…”  She shifted her gaze back to Dequan.  “…some of us.”

He threw up his hands, then pointed at her. “I’ll follow you back in.  Just watch me.”

“Me too,” I said.

Everyone turned to look at me.  I looked at them all in turn.  “A permanent outpost is a given at this point.  With or without me in charge.”

I pulled the clay tome toward me.

“What are they called?” I asked.  “These people.  Do we still not know?”

Thera shook her head.  “It’s in there.  But we haven’t quite figured out the translation yet.  I’ve started calling them the Farashkians in my notes.  Kind of a mash-up of the Arabic words for ‘butterfly’ and ‘people.’  I don’t speak Arabic, but it seems appropriate considering this people’s lineage traces to the cradle of civilization.  But as for what they called themselves, I don’t know yet.”

I rose.  “Then let’s find out.  I want to know.  Our next shift is tomorrow after lunch.  Some of you should stay up here and keep studying the books and artifacts.  The rest, come with me.”

“Yes ma’am,” Conrad said.

Jae smiled.  “You got it, boss.”

Thera nodded to me.

I nodded back.  “Let’s see where the butterflies lead us next.”

 

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

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