“Doctor! Doctor Welty! Come quick! You need to see this!” Jeff hears the panicked cry from Sam as it pierces through the air like a thrown javelin.
Their voice is cracked and breaks in a way that only helps to further convey the urgency of their words. However, those words are not delivered in a manner that suggests that they themself are in any danger.
Regardless of the Jeff’s assumptions, he immediately does an about turn. However, he finds himself alone, much to his surprise.
Frantically his head turns about as he stays rooted to the spot. Roughly the same spot, give or take a metre across the x and z axis, upon which he is stood and has occupied for…He doesn’t know. From the stiffness in his legs it could be four or eleven human hours.
That doesn’t matter now! The voice, his voice, screams in his head to make sure he does not lose focus on Sam having called for him. But without them being present before him he does the only thing he can, “Sam! Where are you?” His voice is louder than he expected it would be and immediately he regrets it, feeling as if he has broken an unspoken and unknown decree that this cave he is in should be a quiet place. Why such a thought exists within him or forced him to chastise himself he cannot determine and yet it was the only option available to him seeing as sadly no form of communications will work in this cave, even if only one party is within it. That nugget of information is one of the few details Sam conveyed to him over however long he’s been examining the mural and actually sunk in, resulting in a nod of confirmation and understanding at the time.
“Second branch!” Sam’s voice, sounding more even than it did before, calls back in reply.
Without consideration as to whether the second branch Sam is speaking of is the second tunnel or something else entirely, Jeff races down it. If he were not reacting automatically he may have been inclined to properly consider if what his immediate conclusion was is the correct choice. However, such things are not factors he is currently able or willing to contemplate as he rushes as quickly as his heavy environmental suit boots caked with now dry alien ‘mud,’ which has turned a deep red, will allow.
He doesn’t remember the boots feeling as heavy as this before. That either means he is tired and in need of rest and recuperation, or the ‘mud’ is adding significant weight that is stopping him from being able to hurry as swiftly as he would like. He again doesn’t consider this. It is neither the time nor the place for that. If he were to, however, he would quickly conclude that it is the latter of the two options. Probably just as well he can’t as he might otherwise fall into the trap of wishing to properly analyse the ‘mud’ to determine how and why.
Nevertheless, as a result of the added weight to his boots, which has slowed his pace to little more than a brisk jog, it takes Jeff several minutes of rushing, his heart thundering loudly in his ears as he does so, to navigate the twisting decline of the tunnel heading toward what he hopes will lead him to Sam.
Subconsciously he labels this tunnel the intestine of the cave without explaining to himself the reasoning for doing such a thing.
Then he bursts from the intestinal tunnel and out into what he can feel is a massive vaulted space which Sam is stood near, what he determines without thought or consideration, must be the edge of sheer drop.
Jeff comes to a skidding halt as he blurts between deep inhalations to try and ease his thundering heart, “What is it?”
He looks Sam directly in the face seeing as they are stood, body side on to him, gazing in his direction. Their face is more severe than he feels it should be. Though, his initial belief that they are in no danger themself seems to be accurate. He’s relieved about that and results in a slight easing of pounding heart.
However, before Sam can say anything Doctor Welty catches sight of something dashed across a nearby, and decidedly less flat, section of wall. He turns his attention toward it immediately, feeling unable to resist the urge as he recognises the sight before him as yet another mural. Instantly, he is drawn toward it and mutters, “Is this what you wished me to see?”
If it is then he does not understand the alarm with which Sam called for him. It could have waited, especially as this mural is significantly less detailed and exquisite than the one in the belly of the cave above them.
However, something about this mural even though far more primitive and perhaps amateur or childish than the first he finds haunting, spine-chilling even. He can’t quite place why but from his few seconds of study he surmises that this depiction, unlike the one in the belly of the cave, is not of the history of the species that call this planet home, but of something else…An invasion perhaps. He finds that confusing. But determines it isn’t clear, and with so little time to study the clearly rushed hand of the artist it is difficult to be sure. So, it could be a celebration, a banquet or some other form of merriment, yet the chills tell him it is war. Not at all depicted like those in the belly mural above, which seem almost musical in the way they have been drawn, but apocalyptic.
“No Doctor, it is not. I wish it was.” Sam’s voice is hollow, sad, perhaps even grief-stricken. He turns toward her and they lock eyes for the second time while in this place. Though, his own eyes dart rapidly back and forth on the spot as if he is trying to analyse her, but cannot get a read.
“What…” Is all Jeff manages of whatever question was going to pass his lips that even he isn’t sure of the content of. He never finishes it though as Sam extends their arm and points.
Except Sam is not pointing outward across whatever this space they are in is. Instead, the single index finger of their left hand is pointed downward. Jeff’s brow furrows as confusion quickly frames his face.
His confusion does not last as intrigue overrides everything else and forces him to shuffle forward closer to the edge of what he is still sure must be a sheer drop. How far down it might go Jeff isn’t sure. Truthfully he’d rather not find out, yet it seems he has no choice now that he is dragging his body, semi against his will, toward the void to discern whatever it is that Sam seems so adamant that he see.
When he reaches the edge, or to be more accurate close enough to it so he can peer over, he feels his body stiffen and his eyes lock. Immediately he wants, no demands, he pull himself away but finds he can’t. His eyes fixated on the sight below now that they have glimpsed exactly what it is that is being illuminated by whatever is the source of the low light in the cave.
“Is…is this…” Doctor Jeff Welty stutters before a catch in his throat stops him from saying another word.
“It is.” Sam assures with a lowered head and a deep sigh.
“But…but…no…this can’t be…I…I don’t…How…?” None of what Jeff wants to say will come out as he stares down at the mountain, there is no other word for it but it is accurate, of bleached pearly white bones in the subterranean pit below them. The sight is barbaric, monstrous, vile, cruel, and so many other words that he just can’t think of right now but knows the definitions of oh so well. Yet, the presence of these bones is not the worst of it. Sure, the presence of bones could simply be a burial ground, but it is clear that that is not what this pile is. No, this structure of death is the remnants of a species wiped clean from existence, exterminated and shattered by whatever cruel and superior force deemed them no longer worthy to exist.
Many of the bleached bones are cracked, caved, broken or shattered, while the walls are scored with markings. In that moment Jeff realises that they are identical to those at the wound that is the mouth of the cave, but are not in any way a language. Instead they are the remains of desperate terrified attempts by the massacred to escape their impending fate.
Jeff feels his stomach flip and a need for his hand to cover his mouth as vomit threatens to spew up and out of his mouth. Somehow he manages to hold out against the reflex and keep everything where it should be. He hasn’t a clue how.
“Is this what I think it is?” Sam asks not wanting to entertain that they may be right about the conclusion they have come to.
Jeff simply nods. He can’t speak at the moment and not just because there is still a danger the contents of his stomach will come rushing out in place of words. And he too barely feels able to comprehend or square away the scale of what is laid out before them both. His rough estimate, and it is very rough, puts the death toll, he can’t think of a better less grim way of putting it than that, at a couple hundred thousand. He could easily be wrong about that, perhaps by a factor of ten in either direction. His hope is he’s gone too high, not too low. Although he fears the reality is that he has not.
“What do you think happened?” Sam queries after a period of silence the duration of which neither can guess at.
Jeff’s eyes having flicked around every segmented zone his head has carved the pit below them into, glimpses back at the rushed mural. How it came to be here amongst this death he cannot say, but he has a newfound respect for it as it likely should not have been possible for the artist to have achieved this. Yet, the answer to Sam’s question, one he himself has been contemplating, is likely in this species extinction mural.
For the first time in his life Jeff wishes he was not himself. That he felt no need to study it and find out. But he must. He knows that. Though, he does not relish the idea, he abhors it.