America and I exchange a glance, and then he looks at my ankle. "You want me to help you?"
I run my tongue across the back of my teeth. "Fine," I say.
He puts his arm around my waist and helps me limp along as we make our way down the tunnel to Elias and Star. As we travel, the echoing of water becomes more pronounced. The tone and resonance of our own footsteps changes, taking on a hollower sound. My heart pounds against my ribs. We are drawing closer to something—something big.
We follow the gradual turn in the tunnel as the passageway widens around us. I shine my light ahead, and Elias and Star come into view.
The beam of my headlamp casts them in dark silhouettes—two astronauts standing on a ledge at the opening of a chasm. The tunnel forms an archway above them where it expands into a massive chamber. White stalactites ridged with rings of pink and brown hang from the roof of the entrance like giant calciferous teeth in the mouth of some enormous beast.
After traveling a few more yards, we reach the others. America lets go of my waist as we gaze out into the abyss. I stand with my toes as close to the steep slope as I dare. The cavern is nearly a hundred feet deep and extends out wider than a football field on both sides. The four beams of our headlamps dance across the ceiling and floor, becoming lost in the shadows of the cave when they pass over the far end of the chamber.
To the left, rust-colored water drips from a set of stalactites. The sound beats like the ticking of a metronome, amplified by the echo of the huge space. The stone columns extend towards the base of the cavern, stretching toward their partner stalagmites like prison bars. The dripping water collects in a divot the size of a small tide pool carved out between the stalagmites. Water trickles from the smooth, worn-away stone in a small stream like a tiny slip-n-slide toward the pit at the center of the cavern.
The water there is a stagnant pond. The beam of my headlamp doesn't even penetrate its surface. It's a pool of thick, opaque crimson—like a pool of blood.
A chill shudders through me as I think about the monster that attacked us from the air when we first landed. It adapted instantly when we went into the caves, snapping its wings back so it could crawl through the ground. That creature had tentacles, too. What if it also had gills?
I shine my light on the opaque surface of the water, expecting a tentacle to suddenly shoot up from beneath it, or the water itself to pulse and birth some sort of beast into the cave. The larger worm we crossed paths with in the tunnel wasn't viscous, but it was still dangerous. Additionally, it's no guarantee that the next worm we run into won't be infected like the first set.
I search for any sign of movement beneath the surface, but I see nothing. Everything is still—silent—except for the tick of water dripping and the breathing of four humans at the mouth of the beast. We are staring into its belly—its lair.
"We should be able to climb down this." America is the first to break the stillness. He tests his weight on the rocky slope leading into the chasm.
I swallow the lump that's formed in my throat. "Maybe we shouldn't go down there. What if there's something in that water?" I direct my headlamp at the stagnant pond.
"Shawn's right," Star says. "I don't have a good feeling about this, America."
"We came here looking for water, didn't we?" he asks. "Why are you both acting like you've seen a ghost now that we've found it?"
"I didn't expect there to be this much of it," I say. "I thought we might just find a small leak that would lead us to the surface. That pond . . . I can't even see the bottom."
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Down UnderScience Fiction
Shawn, a convicted criminal, never thought she'd see the sun again, let alone call another star system her home. When she's offered an out from her prison sentence, she embarks on a dangerous interstellar expedition along with 18 of Earth's most int...