by H. Pueyo
A small logotype in their space suits said ESPACONO above two rows of sponsors and brands, just like anything ever made in Latin America. The Institute for Space Development in the Southern Cone could have had a better acronym, or included countries above the Tropic of Capricorn, but bureaucracy ruined all the attempts to fix the mistakes. The same symbol could be seen outside of the base, located at the core of planet SANTA MARIA-02.
“Such formidable formations,” said Professor Cervelim with pomp, gesturing at the dark land ahead. He observed the geological patterns through rimless glasses, patterns that looked very similar to crop circles in their particular artistry, at least as far as the aerial view was concerned. “Makes one wonder what’s the exact meaning of this—what are they trying to convey with their symbols? A religious ritual, an attempt to communicate with the unknown? Maybe, only maybe, they were just like us…”
The girl by his side raised two straight eyebrows.
“Maybe it’s a road.”
The planet’s humid umber brown and juniper green shades were reflected in Professor Cervelim’s beige face, lightening up his middle-aged complexion. Gabriela crossed arms and analyzed the long oval entrance, resembling a crack in the rock.
“A road, you say…” He repeated the words slowly, and the other four people—two researchers, two security agents—near the jeep-like vehicle looked at the highest authority in exoarchaeology of the team. “An interesting hypothesis, but…”
“Whether it’s interesting or not, decide that later. We need to report to the base.” Agent Gambazza, a truculent medium-sized woman carrying a small tablet with a five-centimeter protection layer, decided to intervene. “Now, team, pay attention. The procedures are simple. Agent Solano and I will call each one of your names, and you’ll give me your audio signature, which will make an official attestation saying you were aware of the risks before entering the cave. Then, you can go.”
Professor Cervelim, Gabriela and Abel, an angular blond man who hadn’t said a word until then, exchanged looks, faces covered by transparent headgears from the front to the back of their necks, whose crystal look allowed them to notice each other’s uneasiness.
“That‘s why I oppose Space Security as a field of study,” said Professor Cervelim, shaking his salt and pepper head. Underneath the potent glass-like material of his helmet, his thick curly hair was tied to a low ponytail, smelling strongly of rue. “It’s full of negativity. Very militaristic… I feel aggressive vibes coming from agent Gambazza and agent Solano. If this keeps going, it might interfere with my research…”
Abel cleared his throat.
“Engineering for Space Security is a respectable field, as respectable as mine or yours.” He was the youngest after Gabriela, and the only biologist of the team. His graphite space suit, like theirs, was solid and close-fitting, a model suitable for Santa Maria’s atmosphere, allowing moderate mobility and good protection. In one arm, he had ESPACONO written in blue and green, and in the other, a blue and white flag with the Sun of May in the middle, the same as Agent Gambazza. “Can I start?”
Agent Solano activated the tablet, talking in clear Spanish:
“Santa Maria-02. First human exploration mission, led by agents Macarena Gambazza and Amaru Solano.” His voice sounded vaguely robotic through the transmitter of his suit, and the tricolor flag of Paraguay looked dark under the planet’s natural dim light. The machine answered, repeating the entire Attestation of Awareness code, line by line, making it very clear that they were responsible for possible casualties, namely their own. “Please say your name, function and nationality.”
“Abel Villegas, exobiologist, Argentina. I am aware.”
The machine beeped, illuminating Agent Solano’s dark amber face. Attestation saved. Then, he walked to Gabriela.
“Uh… Gabriela dos Anjos, assistant exoarchaeologist, Brazil? I’m aware.”
Attestation saved. Agent Solano stared at Professor Cervelim in apparent challenge. The other man either ignored him, or wasn’t aware of his frowned forehead:
“Álvaro da Rocha Cervelim, chief researcher and PhD in exoarchaeology, Brazil. I am very much aware.”
“Attestation sent.” Agent Gambazza told the device, and one minute later, she received a confirmation from the only human in the base:
“Rosario talking. You can go.”
After the device was back to the harness in her thigh, they activated the micro cameras and lanterns of their suits, and prepared to enter the cave.
From above, Santa Maria looked like a sphere of carved wood, contoured by spirals of giant and complex embroidery, creating lozenges and twisted lines. Natural activity couldn’t create precise patterns like the ones recorded by satellite, nor leave behind fragments of eroded machine.
Besides the curious formations, gigantic caves populated the planet, sprouting from the ground like horizontal buildings, some of them as tunnels leading underground, others only as large, expecting mouths.
“Look at this,” Abel whispered to Gabriela, pointing at the highest level of dried rock. In pictures taken by the first rovers, the grottoes were shaped like slugs, with rugose backs, amorphous bodies, and pointy, wrinkled protuberances like antennas. “The sonar detected water in the underground.”
“It’s almost too perfect to be accidental, right?” Gabriela smiled at him too. The two had known each other since they were both graduate students in a three-month program on Extraterrestrial Civilization and Spacial Exploration in Montevideo.
She was from São Paulo and he was from Córdoba, she studied Archaeology and he was a Biologist, and they were only a pair of years apart, so they clicked immediately and maintained contact from then on.
“Yeah. The walls look like they were almost sculpted for something, or someone to come in. It’s even warmer inside.”
“Come, you two.” Professor Cervelim talked in a very loud voice, pushing their backs for them to walk more quickly. “There’s no time to chat, we are making history.”
They rolled eyes, used to this kind of interruption coming from her boss whenever they tried to engage in a conversation. The teacher, just like an overprotective parent, didn’t like Abel, and made up all possible excuses to keep him and his assistant apart: Gabriela, can you take me to the doctor? Gabriela, I need you to participate in this workshop…
“Ooh, look at this!” Professor Cervelim’s tone was aloof, as if he wasn’t quite there. Gabriela looked over his shoulders, at the dense goo dripping from stalactites. He used a small metallic vessel to store a few globs of it. “It’s like a dense moss. Maybe Mr. Villegas can give us a light?”
Abel’s wheat blonde eyebrows furled, the same shade as his long hair. He had to pull it into a bun to fit the headgear, like Professor Cervelim with his ponytail, and Gabriela with her voluminous curls.
“Let me see,” he answered, raising the vessel and squinting his light eyes. The viscous substance looked more like a body fluid than a plant, but the green color and the tiny leaf-like forms were easy to mistake. “I don’t think…”
“Ooh, this can’t be anything but a door made by sentient beings,” the teacher interrupted him again, in his usual monotone. The cave’s entry was a wide hall to another smaller gape, about three meters long. “Look at this framing, this vesica piscis shape… It’s rudimentary, yes, a tad primordial…”
Gabriela stretched her neck to look inside. She touched the wall, feeling its warmth, and the wall moved like a switch, opening and closing slowly.
“Step aside!” Agent Gambazza pushed her to the ground with a strong arm, checking the walls with all the devices she owned. Gabriela curled her full brown lips, her eyes hurting because of the flashlight above her helmet.
“What was that…?”
“Searching for any possible danger,” Agent Solano anwered.
Gambazza didn’t help her stand up again, only glared with revolt at her carelessness. The other woman’s big droopy eyes were brown, and her pinky skin was painted with dark circles, heavy eyebrows, and a bulbous nose, close to a mole the size of a nail. After confirming the walls were safe, Gabriela leaned against them, her back getting more and more comfortable.
“She’s so rude,” Gabriela whispered to Abel. She touched the wall again, and widened her eyes. “Abel, check this out.”
Near the entrance, Agent Solano turned the tablet on again.
“Rosario, can you hear me?”
A small pause, and then the current operator of the Santa Maria-02 Base, who was tracking their path through the cameras, answered:
“Yep. Look, Solano, we don’t have any result on motion or signs of life, but there’s some interferences in the signal, so watch out.”
Abel spied on the agents with the corner of his eye, and then nodded.
“The heat is incredible,” he said, touching the wall as well. “It’s the perfect temperature, and…”
Before he could say anything else, Professor Cervelim interrupted Agent Solano, talking to the screen:
“Rosario, my dear, the agents are overreacting. We’re in front of a beautiful, primitive door, and now we’re getting in. Please watch carefully from the base, you’ll surely love the sight…”
“Álvaro…” Rosario tried to argue, but Professor Cervelim disconnected the machine.
“There, let’s go. I can’t wait the wonders waiting for us.”
The gargantuan entrance led to a tighter corridor with pleated sides, whose soft, greenish brown rocks felt squishy to the touch.
“Even the ground is spongy,” Gabriela stepped twice, and then jumped over the floor.
After they were all in, Agent Solano touched the wall again, and the entrance closed. Macarena’s suit started to beep.
“Eh?” She frowned her already wrinkled, large forehead. She pulled the tablet out again. “Rosario, I’m getting signs saying the air is breathable. Check that out.”
“Yes ma’am,” Rosario grunted in return, and Gabriela could almost see that strange, lanky woman rolling her eyes back at the base. “Seems so. That’s weird. I’ll send you the full data.”
As quickly as the message had appeared in the screen, proving that yes, the cave was appropriate for human life, Professor Cervelim detached his helmet, and took a long, deep breath.
Gabriela ran to him, holding the transparent sphere that protected their heads:
“Professor!” she said in a high-pitched voice, looking agitated at everyone, asking for help with her round eyes. “Please put that back, I… We’re not sure yet if this is safe…”
“What a perfect, pure air,” Cervelim answered, closing his folded eyes. “Take yours off too, this is unlike anything seen on Earth. It will purify your lungs.”
“Álvaro.” Rosario pleaded with him as well. She had been friends with Cervelim since they attended college together, and she didn’t sound very pleased at his behavior. “Listen to Gabri. Put that back.”
“He’s right, though.” Agent Solano, to the surprise of the others, did the same and detached his helmet. “It’s almost like being back home.”
“Amaru!” Agent Gambazza looked at the tablet several times, and then to the screen in her inner arm: BREATHABLE. “Are you sure…?”
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Abel added to the chorus, but after the third check up, even Gambazza gave in.
With two clicks, she separated the helmet from the rest of the suit.
“Team, you can take yours off too,” Agent Gambazza ordered. The three were waiting only for Abel and Gabriela to keep going. “Don’t you trust us?”
Professor Cervelim helped his protégée, disconnecting the headgear while she looked miserable with her small eyes fixed on the dark ground. Abel was the last one to do it, and it was true—the air was fresher than the oxygen coming from the helmets, and they felt revitalized from inhaling and exhaling.
The team started walking again, descending the cave’s passageway. Professor Cervelim touched the walls with gloved hands.
“I wonder what kind of malleable material they used to construct this. It’s cushioned, it’s warm, it recognizes the presence of living beings… You can even pinch it and…” He squeezed a bit of the wall, and they all tumbled over when the bottom moved, forcing them to the corners of the path.
Gabriela’s first reaction was a low yelp, and agents Gambazza and Solano hopped like cats back to their feet.
“Ooh, it reacts! This might as well be a covert for a more complex building. Perhaps…! The walls have a recognition technology, and this heating system is very pleasing. It makes me want to take the rest of the suit off to see how it would behave.”
“Please don’t, professor,” Gabriela begged, shaking the man by the arm. She was used to his delirious ideas and eccentricities, but this was out of the norm even for Professor Cervelim. “It’s dangerous, and…”
“For now, I won’t. But look at this…!” Professor Cervelim was back to his feet, and walked in front of all of them. The security agents didn’t seem bothered anymore, and just observed the environment with curiosity, rather than skepticism.
“It’s very nice, indeed,” Solano’s monolids and wide nose were darkened by the change in the position of the lantern, now under his left arm.
“Gabri,” Abel pulled her arm to keep the girl close to him, watching them from afar. “Do you…?”
“… Think they’re all out of their minds? Yeah.” Her eyebrows were down turned because of the stress, and she pulled the entirety of her long afro out, covering the round shoulders of the space suit. “But it’s indeed really impressive.”
The third door was even larger, and the corridor got progressively taller and taller, leading to what looked like a rudimentary ballroom. The roof was translucent, and allowed part of the light coming from the system’s largest star to shine through the thin top in olive rays. They turned the lanterns off.
“Ew,” Gabriela squeaked, taking one foot out of the ground. “It’s all wet.”
Abel knelt to collect the substance, very similar to the ones dripping from the stalactites in the beginning. This one covered a good part of the floor, separated in puddles.
“I wonder what kind of creature could have lived here.”
“Well,” she shrugged, staring at the green goo. “I find it interesting that this structure was at the end of every road, both from the satellite pictures, and the ones we saw in the spaceship. And the roads were definitely not natural. This environment could allow any beings like the ones we know to grow… Even a human.”
“But what about food?” Abel touched another wall, feeling it flustering underneath the palm of his hand. “We’d have to analyze the goo, maybe it’s edible.”
“It’s not the goo!” Professor Cervelim shouted from the other side of the hall. He was right by Agent Solano’s side, and the man had sat on the floor, ripped part of the wall with the fingertips, and forced it into his own mouth. “It’s the walls!”
Gabriela’s heart raced in the moment she saw Solano chewing the piece of wall like food, and she searched for Gambazza, expecting her to do something about that atrocious image. In the few minutes she had focused only on Abel, one agent was nowhere to be seen, the other was eating unknown elements, and her teacher was encouraging the whole freak show.
“Agent Solano!” She ran to where they were, accompanied by an equally horrified Abel. “Please, stop doing this, it’s very dangerous.”
“It’s delicious,” he said, confused by her expression. “Anjos, you should try it too. Smell the walls, you’ll understand.”
Gabriela’s eyes were wide, almost looking big, and she got close to the wall. Indeed, it was fruity and sweet, and her stomach roared with the smell, asking her to eat, to pick at least one piece.
“Maybe it’s okay for us to eat, sure.” Abel’s musical accent pulled her out of her small trance. He stared at Gabriela, frowning his bony forehead, intrigued by the emerald reflection in her dark black skin. “But not before taking the substance to analysis. This is basic, Agent Solano, you put not only yourself, but all of us, in danger. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Thanks,” Gabriela muttered, now feeling lighter. She was still hungry, but she had another thing to do: find Agent Gambazza.
“Now, where the hell is Macarena?” Abel seemed to have read her mind, or shared her worries, most likely. The biologist looked around, and then at her, one more time: “Gabri, can you come with me?”
“Sure… But professor…”
“I’m fine, Gabi,” said Professor Cervelim, gesticulating, his big nose twitching several times. In fact, it had been a while she hadn’t seen such a happy expression in his bearded face. “I’ve never been better, no, I’m superior now that I’m here. I’ve had an epiphany…”
“Cool, but we need to find Maca–…”
“Not even Mr. Villegas can ruin my mood now.” Cervelim kept talking, and he knelt on the ground, changing then to the lotus position, legs crossed, and wrists leaning on his bony knees. “Gabi, I know what this is. This is a higher form of living. This is the perfect house, the supreme symbiont. A house that feeds you, oxygenates you. I don’t doubt that it adapts to each kind of being. See…”
Usually, his meditation position would mean Álvaro wouldn’t talk or move for a while, eyes closed behind his glasses. Now, he moved slowly, first to the left, then to the right, and the ground moved with him, massaging his legs, and raising slowly. Abel looked disgusted when he realized that the meaty floor turned into a very simple bench.
“You don’t even need furniture—the house turns into what you need! Now, I wonder if it has been, indeed, built by a species, or if it’s Mother Nature’s final opus…”
“Okay, I’m done here.” Abel got tired of listening to him blabbing nonsense. “Let’s go, Gabri.”
Gabriela stumbled as he guided her back to the door by the hand, where they could see the sticky stalactites and stalagmites bubbling with liquid, and the sugary smell filled the room like toxic gas.
Abel was sweating under his light yellow hair, distressed and exhausted.
“Álvaro is right. This is too perfect. It’s self-sustainable, accommodates visitors, it’s edible, moves, breathes… And it’s causing us all to be dizzy, strange, even Solano is being amiable…”
“And the walls have no signs of hand or paw prints, no painted drawings, no…”
“This is not a house, Gabri, this is the behavior of a predator, and it’s luring us all in.”
“Abel…” From that distance, she could see his cheeks were red, and his breathing was irregular. “I’m dizzy too, but we need to find Agent Gambazza, and talk to Rosario. She’ll know what to do.”
“We need to get out of here.” Abel was firm, and she held his hand even tighter, realizing how slow he, too, was being. Gabriela looked everywhere through the now tremulous green lighting: Agent Solano stuffed his mouth with more chunks of wall-flesh, Professor Cervelim muttered a long “mmmmmmm” during his meditation, and Agent Gambazza…
Macarena was standing in front of a wall, still. When they called her name, she sat on the floor, very slowly, in a chair-like shape like the one they had seen under Professor Cervelim.
Sitting wasn’t enough, it seemed, and she looked very relaxed: shoulders down, shaky eyelids, mouth slightly open. She placed her open palms on the floor, rubbing the layer, forcing it down.
“Macarena…?” Abel called again. She looked at him, ignoring she had been called by her given name, and laid there, face down. “Agent Gambazza, what the hell are you doing?”
Only her thin dark hair was visible, draining over her body like weak black snakes. She breathed in and out, filling her lungs with candy air.
“Agent Gambazza.” Gabriela decided to intervene, her curls covering her sweaty forehead. The other woman didn’t move one centimeter. “Please, get up… We need to go, we’re al in danger…”
A grainy, distorted noise distracted them, coming from Macarena’s lower body.
“LAND TEAM… LAND TEAM…OU LISTENI… LISTENING?”
Rosario’s voice was repetitive and dusty, like an old radio. Abel didn’t have any more doubts: he jumped over Agent Gambazza’s petrified body, and detached the tablet from her thigh harness. Gabriela turned the device on while he tried to pull the agent up, but her limbs seemed glued to the floor, and they were melting.
“Rosario, we’re listening, we’re…”
“LAND TEAM… OUT… ET OUT… LAND TEAM…”
“Oh my god..” Gabriela looked to see what Abel was staring at, but the gooey substance had adhered to Macarena’s light olive skin, and even her hair was being teared apart. Whenever the man tried to release her, her skin started to crumble, ripping superficial pieces out and creating fresh wounds.
“OUT… NEED TO GET OUT…”
“Rosario, please, listen,” Gabriela yelled, squeezing the tablet close to her mouth. Her hands were wet with sweat, and she searched for the other two once more.
The gurgling viscosity dripped over Professor Cervelim, who talked alone, thanking the walls and stalactites, and Agent Solano’s stomach was distended, still being filled by wall.
“Gabri, we need to go!”
“… OUT… ALIVE… LAND TEAM…”
“We can’t leave them, Abel, the thing is…!”
“Go, GO!” He grasped her by the arm, trying to run to the entrance, but the muck was slowing them down. The puddles now covered the entire floor.
“IT’S ALIVE… TEAM… LAND… ANSWER… LUG!”
Abel’s right foot got stuck in a cavity, and he stopped abruptly. “Go, Gabri, you need to go!”
“No, no,” Gabriela’s vision was cloudy with fat tears, and she bent down to drown her hand in the greenish sludge. Even with the protection glove, she could feel it burning through the fabric, and her skin melting, like it happened to Gambazza. She clasped his heel. “Kick! Kick!”
“Ugh!” Abel held her up, pulling her over one of his shoulder, to avoid her being pulled by the liquid too. Gabriela hugged his neck, feeling trapped in a quicksand, until it let her hand go. “Go, run, we can do it!”
“TEAM…” Rosario’s voice was clearer as they got close to the entrance leading to the corridor. “LAND TEAM. YOU NEED TO LEAVE. ARE YOU LISTENING?”
“Yes, yes, we’re listening!” Gabriela screamed, shaking the tablet. “Help, we need…”
“LAND TEAM, YOU NEED TO LEAVE. IT’S NOT A CAVE, IT’S A GIANT SLUG. IT’S ALIVE, I REPEAT, IT’S ALIVE.”
The fleshy gape opened and closed like a throat, and they were pushing the slime away, hoping it wouldn’t melt the bodysuit.
“Rosario, please, help, base…”
“YOU NEED TO LEAVE. LAND TEAM… ARE YOU LISTENING? YOU’RE BEING EAT—”
The tablet fell on the goo.
“Adentro” (© H. Pueyo) was published in Issue 10 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.