The narrow tunnel emerged into a cavernous chamber. It had been clear for some time that the structure had been carved deliberately, and was not a natural cave; its purpose, though, had been less obvious. Henri had insisted that it must have been a mine, but Rosamund hadn’t been convinced, and now she was vindicated. The interior of the chamber was intricately decorated, but not in any manner Rosamund had ever seen before. Instead of the usual hand prints and representations of animals which ancient peoples of Earth had used to map the skies, these were geometric patterns, seemingly embossed in the stone, and they glowed. What could explain this perfectly-preserved luminescence? Certainly Rosamund could imagine the natives mixing up some sort of pigment from the local flora and fauna, but the fact that it hadn’t degraded in all this time—it defied any ready explanation.
She lowered her torch, eyes protesting at the dancing shapes. She might even be able to entice Havva to make her way through the tunnel, despite her misgivings, with the promise of a mathematical problem to solve.
The others had been cautious, wanting to wait, report back, have the structure assessed for safety—that could take weeks! Rosamund had lain awake, unable to sleep in the lightweight tent, listening to the giant insects throwing themselves against the canvas. They had been assured that the insects could do them no harm as long as they took their pills. Rosamund privately felt that they might have been better off taking their chances against the insects. They were horse pills, and long after you had swallowed them you still had the phantom sensation of something lodged in your throat. Besides that, they gave Henri terrible sweats, and Havva nightmares. Rosamund alone had escaped any serious side effects—Rosamund had a constitution like an ox. She was descended from a long line of hardy potato-farmers, and never caught so much as a cold. Her grandmother was still living, last she’d heard, at nearly a hundred and ten.
Unless sleeplessness was a side effect. Rosamund had never had trouble sleeping before. But who could say whether it were the pills or this strange jungle? She had travelled all over the world, from the Arctic Circle to Death Valley and many places besides, from savanna to volcanic island, but none could compare to this environment. It was humbling, to be among the first humans ever to set foot here—and Rosamund was not a woman easily given to humility. So she had lain awake, thinking about the possibility of missing this opportunity. Of reporting their find back to the council and being told to flag it and move on, of it being handed to some other team, of being a footnote in its discovery—no. It would not do. She had slipped out of the tent and made her way alone into the tunnel armed with nothing but a torch. By the time her recklessness struck her, it was too late to turn back, and then she had emerged into this, this inexplicable cathedral of light.
It has been so long, she thought, since I have had a visitor.
What? What did that mean?
What offering have you brought?
These were not her thoughts, and yet they came to her as if they were. For the first time, Rosamund was afraid. She’d never had cause to doubt her own sanity before.
What are you?
Rosamund spoke aloud without thinking about it. She didn’t know to whom or what she was talking, nor if it would understand speech, but it seemed better than attempting to reply in her head, and if she were making a fool of herself, or the pills were making her hallucinate after all, there was nobody down here to know about it. Besides the entity, if it existed. She cleared her throat.
“I’m a visitor from far away,” she said, then wondered at her mealy-mouthedness, as if she were talking to a dim child. “I’m from another planet,” she said more firmly. “I’m an explorer. I stumbled upon your—this. I didn’t know you where here. I’m sorry, your people—are gone. We think. I don’t know who you are, and I didn’t know I was supposed to bring an offering. I hope you won’t hurt me, whatever you are.”
Usually they bring me offerings. I must feed.
Rosamund grit her teeth. “I’m afraid that’s not going to be possible,” she said. “I’m not available for being fed on. Besides, it must have been a long time since you were fed, and you’ve managed all right so far.”
I was asleep. You woke me. I’m hungry now.
Rosamund rolled her eyes. She had forgone children precisely to avoid this sort of conversation.
“What do you usually eat?” she asked. Perhaps it was something easily acquired on the surface. They weren’t supposed to interfere with the native wildlife, but this was a somewhat unusual situation and she would be willing to make an exception. Of course, if the thing let her leave the cave (and she had not been aware of a physical presence, so there wasn’t necessarily anything preventing her from doing so), she could always simply make an escape and let it fend for itself—but she felt oddly uncomfortable with the idea. It was not only that it seemed unwise to anger a mysterious alien presence the nature of which she did not understand; it was not even only that this might constitute first contact of some kind, and she should do her best not to cause a potential diplomatic incident. It was that she was struck with a strange, tender pity for the thing in the cave, whatever it was. It seemed lonely and confused, not to mention hungry. Rosamund’s salient instincts were not maternal, and yet there was something appealingly vulnerable about the thing.
“You said you were hungry.”
On the other hand, this was rather irritating. The thing seemed to have the power to communicate telepathically, in English no less, and yet, while it knew the words ‘hungry’ and ‘feed’, it did not know the word ‘eat’. How vexing!
“Eat,” she said impatiently. “Food! What food do you eat?”
There was a scuffling noise, and Rosamund wheeled around, torch held aloft. Was the thing revealing itself? Curiosity warred with fear; as usual with Rosamund, curiosity won out.
But it was not the creature; it was Henri, emerging from the tunnel and throwing his hand up to protect his eyes from the glare of her torch. Rosamund lowered it, disappointed.
“There you are!” he said. “This was reckless, Rosamund, reckless! Though I don’t know why I’m surprised.” Then he glanced around. “My God. Not a mine, then.”
“There’s something down here,” said Rosamund.
“I can see that.”
“No, something! An entity, a creature, a… consciousness.”
“Where?” asked Henri, looking around, excited and fearful.
“I don’t know,” admitted Rosamund. “I can’t see it, I can only hear it. And not… hear it, precisely. It seems to communicate through some form of telepathy, but it understand me when I speak aloud. For the most part.”
Henri crossed his arms. “I see,” he said. “And it did not occur to you that this might be a side effect of the prophylactic drugs, or the sleep deprivation—don’t imagine I didn’t notice—or some sort of hallucinogen present in the environment? A gas, a spore—we shouldn’t be down here,” he said, increasingly anxious.
There are two of you now, whined the voice. Won’t you let me feed?
“You can’t eat him,” said Rosamund.
“What?” said Henri.
“It keeps saying it’s hungry and it wants to feed. The people here used to bring it offerings. I told it in no uncertain terms that it would not be eating me, but we seem to be getting our signals crossed somewhat.”
“We need to get out of here immediately,” said Henri.
“It did occur to me that it might be the drugs,” added Rosamund, ignoring him, “but such an extreme reaction seems unlikely. I’ve never had that sort of trouble before. And as for sleep deprivation, I assure you this is nothing. An environmental hallucinogen is possible, though, I suppose. You must let know if you start hallucinating yourself.” She addressed the voice: “Will you talk to Henri?”
“Even if it does talk to me, it proves nothing. The power of suggestion—” said Henri, then cut himself off. “Oh,” he said.
“It spoke to you?”
“Not precisely,” said Henri. “I believe it gave me… that is to say, I had some sort of image come to mind unexpectedly. Whether it came from an outside source, I cannot say.”
“It communicates with you through images?” asked Rosamund. “And with me, verbally. How interesting. Perhaps you are more of a visual thinker than I am.”
“This is presuming that it communicates with either of us at all,” said Henri, “which still remains to be seen. Indeed, this seems only to make a hallucinogen more likely.”
“What did it show you?”
Henri glared at her. “It doesn’t matter. It is meaningless.”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” said Rosamund. “Do you have paper and a pencil?”
“We’ll conduct a test. I know it won’t satisfy you, but it’s the best we can do for the time being.”
“No! We must leave here!”
“Nonsense. It’s quite safe.” This was, of course, not entirely certain. Rosamund had not discounted Henri’s concerns, but she was loath to leave the structure. She was worried that the voice would not communicate a second time.
I don’t understand you! said the voice.
“We don’t understand you, either,” said Rosamund. “That’s why I want to try something. I want you to communicate with me and my colleague simultaneously, if you can. If not, then one after the other. Henri will write down a description of what you showed him, and once he’s finished, I will describe it aloud. We will compare my description to Henri’s.” She held the palm of her hand to Henri to forestall the anticipated objection. “This will not absolutely rule out hallucination, but it will at least give us more information. Agreed?”
“And then we get out of here,” said Henri.
“I won’t leave you here alone,” said Henri, “and I can’t drag you. But—”
“But you are putting us both in danger by refusing to leave!”
“You’re a terrible prig, Henri. Just agree to the test and we can discuss how to proceed.”
“If you insist.”
“Very well,” said Rosamund with a satisfied nod. “Now, did you catch that?” she asked the voice.
“Do you understand what I’ve asked you to do?”
Yes. I’ll do that now, then I’ll feed.
“Ah,” said Rosamund, but by then the voice had begun:
They come here and rub their bodies together for a long time and put pieces of their bodies inside each other, and I feed. It has been a long time since I fed. I am very hungry.
“Fascinating,” muttered Rosamund. “Henri, did you get anything?”
“Yes,” said Henri.
“Have you written it down?”
“I will… make a sketch,” said Henri.
“Ah, yes, much better! Let me know when you’ve finished.”
She gave him a minute or two to complete his sketch—left to his own devices he would take much longer; he was a dreadful perfectionist.
“It doesn’t want to us eat us; the worshippers used to have sex down here. That’s what it feeds on. And it’s all it seems to be able to think about, now; it’s so hungry.”
Henri wordlessly handed her his folded-up sketch. She unfolded it. “Fascinating!” she said again. “You’ve even got some sense of what they must have looked like.” They seemed to have arthropodic features, from what she could gather, though the position obscured much. “This is wonderful! We can learn so much. We must get Havva down here and see if it communicates with her in yet a third way. This might prove more valuable than cartography!”
“We have mission parameters,” protested Henri, “and no we must not get Havva down here! I wish to God we weren’t down here!”
“Speaking of Havva, I really think we ought to try letting it feed, don’t you? Now that we know it won’t actually consume us.”
“Rosamund,” said Henri slowly, “with the greatest of respect…”
“Oh, not me, you dolt! I know I’m an old woman, and besides, the complete lack of attraction goes both ways, I assure you. I meant you and Havva. Oh, don’t look so shocked—if you’re going to do it anyway, you might as well kill two birds with one stone.”
“We have not—”
“Oh, I know not yet, but anybody can see it’s only a matter of time.”
“And you seriously wish me to bring the matter to a head by proposing to Havvi that we make love here on the floor of this cave, which is either hallucinogenic or haunted?”
“Do you ever feel as if you’ve come into a conversation at the wrong moment?” asked Havvi. Rosamund turned towards her voice, to find that her top half was hanging out of the entrance tunnel.
“Havvi! I was—you don’t understand—Rosamund was—”
“I certainly don’t understand,” said Havvi. “I’m hoping you’ll explain it to me.”
“Havvi,” said Rosamund, “I wasn’t expecting you. I thought you were claustrophobic.”
“I’m slightly less claustrophobic than I am afraid of being abandoned in an alien jungle, actually,” said Havvi.
“Well, the long and short of it is that I’ve made contact with an alien consciousness which appears to feed on sex. It communicates telepathically through—”
“Ya Allah! It’s… it’s like music, but… oh, it’s like maths!”
“Well, there we are,” said Rosamund, clapping her hands together. “Maths and music, eh Henri? I suppose we should have guessed.”
“Hang on,” said Havvi, “what did you say it feeds on, again?”