Val squatted on her heels and slowly ran her gloved finger through the cockroach corpses on the cave’s floor. The density per square foot of dead cave roaches seemed too high, indicative of a slow die-off of thousands of individuals in this particular section of cave floor. Roaches are natural tanks, what killed so many of them?
She carefully examined a few of the dry, brittle bug casings. No discoloration or evidence of fungal infection. Pollution of some kind, some human agency?
Looking across the cave, she could see other members of the expedition engaged in their individual specialties. This particular cave wasn’t very large, no more than about 20 by 45 feet, sloping downward at a shallow angle. Alejandro, the cave diver boss, was talking with Dr. Lopez, the geologist, and pointing at various cave features.
A short way downslope from Valentina, Lucia was taking readings from a laser range-finder and calling out numbers to Nico, who recorded them in his notebook. Lucia was a surveyor, and accurately mapping the cave system was her specialty.
Valentina was crouched in a shallow depression in the limestone floor, shaped roughly like the inside of a skillet, slightly elongated into more egg-shaped down the slope where Lucia and Nico stood together.
Val glanced back down at the cave roach graveyard again and stared blankly at nothing for a few moments. Oh. Oh no!
“Lucy, Nico. Come here, quickly!” Val fumbled her walkie off her belt.
“Alejandro! We need to get the whole team out of this cave. Gas leak.”
To his credit, an experienced cave diver like Alex doesn’t hesitate over the safety of his team. “Everyone back to camp one, right now. Move, people.”
Within a couple of minutes the entire team was re-gathered at the passage between the cenote camp one, where the extra caving supplies were stored, and the first cave.
Val extended a handful of ex-roaches, palm upward. “These hardy little guys are dead, as you can see. I was trying to figure out what killed them, and about ten thousand just like them.”
“Roaches check in, but they don’t check out,” Gabriel quipped, grinning.
Alejandro’s eyebrows compressed, “Gabe, not the time. Doctor?”
“Well, there aren’t many things that can mass-kill a cockroach colony. Maybe a fungal outbreak, or sudden change to their environment due to humans. Eventually, I thought of toxic gasses.”
“Did anyone smell sulfur?” Alex looked around. Heads shake.
“Me neither,” Val added. “So probably not hydrogen sulfide?”
“Doesn’t sound likely. We’ll test, that’s one of the bigger hazards in spelunking. Just not very common in this part of the world. The Yucatan doesn’t have any volcanic activity to speak of.”
“I was thinking maybe carbon dioxide,” Val continued. “It’s more dense than air, sinks and gathers in low spots, and we were standing in a depression at the time.”
“Sharp,” Alex flashed a warm smile at Valentine. “Gabe, dig out a pair of Oxy masks and the multi-gas meter. Take Doctor Lopez with you and test for gasses in the cave. Could be methane or.. I don’t know what else, see what the meter says.”
Turning back to Valentine, he settled a hand on her shoulder. “Doctor Garcia, thank you for thinking quickly and not hesitating. You can save lives in a cave system like this, just by noticing something no one else spots.”
Her cheeks colored, hazel eyes downcast. “If it was hydrogen sulfide someone might be coughing up blood by now. I think I was too slow.”
“Absolutely not,” Alejandro scowled. “I should have already had a gas meter available. It’s my job to keep the team safe. My cave divers know their routine by now, but you and Diego are under my charge this trip. It was a good save, take the win.”
Stepping back with the pretense of reshouldering her backpack, Valentine was acutely aware of just how closely they’d been standing. She murmured a quiet thank you and turned away.
“Alejandro?” the radio crackled to life. “This is Gabriel. We’ve finished checking the cave, there’s a moderate concentration of CO2 in the roach motel, but nothing measurable anywhere else in the cave.”
“All right, thanks Gabe.”
“Team? It looks like a slow leak of CO2 through cracks in the limestone, that sinks down and accumulates in that roach motel depression. We’re going to wear oxy masks while passing through that cave, just in case, but it doesn’t sound like it will be any particular threat to us.”
Static radio crackle. “No puedes ser la cucaracha, because you have no marijuana to smoke!”
Nico mutters “Shut up, Gabe” to Lucia, and she elbows him in the gut.
“OK, let’s get back to work. Thanks again, Val. Did you get enough mapping done, Lucia?”
“Crude sketch but it’ll do for now.”
The cave expedition was funded by grants from Montana State, and Alejandro’s cave team selected for the job due to their caving experience and residency in the Yucatan. This was, as near as could be determined from Mexican government records, the first expedition into the Tzuluna cenote and cavern system. Doctors Valentina Garcia (Ecology) and Diego Lopez (Geology) were attached to represent Montana State University’s interests.
Alejandro switched channels on his radio. “Carlos, are you asleep up there?”
Carlos Lopez is the Base Camp manager, in charge of logistics, communications and transportation for the dive. He’s currently up top at base camp, just south of the Tzuluna cenote.
“Hello Boss. You’re late checking in.”
“I know, we had a little gas problem but Gabriel promised to lay off the burritos. Just a comms check, and letting you know we’ve left the supply shed in the cenote, moved through Cave one (codename Roach Motel) and are proceeding.”
“You haven’t shared a tent with Gabe, you keep him away from those damned bean burritos. Supply shed, Roach Motel, proceeding aye aye. Call logged and give a holler any time.”
Nico snarked in with “We’d all appreciate the burrito ban on Gabriel, boss. And a few less of his cornball jokes,” which earned him a glare from both Alex and Lucia.
Alejandro nodded at the rest, “Five minutes and we’re rolling. Once more to boldly go, or to go boldly, or whatever.”
— — —
Embedded in the limestone passage wall, a fossil of a shelled sea creature. Val stood entranced for just a moment. How many millions of years since the Yucatan was a sea bed?
“All right, Val?” Gabriel asked, voice rumbling just behind her in the tunnel.
“Oh, sorry, just woolgathering,” she flushed and got moving. Gabriel was…a smoke show, Val simply had to admit to herself. Young, tall, wide shoulders, delightful curly hair she just wanted to run nails through..
“Once, you’re smelling it. Twice, you’re tasting it. Thrice, it’s melted onto a gooey puddle on the sidewalk with ants in it. Giddyup.”
Smiling despite herself. No doubt about it, she genuinely liked these people. And she admonished herself to keep her legs closed, no matter what else happened. Professional. Serious, controlled. And once the job is done, maybe then you can climb up that giant and topple him into a bed as wide as an expansive ocean, as soft as a downy chick.
Another few minutes and the group emerged into another cavern, this one bigger than the others. As they shined lights here and there, monolithic structures of lime and flowstone surrounded them, dangling from above and spearing up from below. A sparkle of reflection, calcite crystals, reflective radiance of a speleothem sparkle. Bats nesting in the heights, swifts nesting on the ledges, troglofauna scurrying to gather food. A wonderland.
Dr. Lopez is entranced, for the first time finding sizable formations of something besides limestone.”Actinolite!” he exclaims, pointing out one of the greenish-white veins running through it. “That’s Nephrite. One of the forms of jade.”
Nico and Lucia have begun mapping, measuring, and testing slopes. Laser rangefinder, clinometer, sketchbook have already appeared.
Val examined the troglofauna, Symphyla (pseudo centipedes) and snails in this cave. The deeper into the caverns they reached, the more generally colorless the fauna became. Not albinism, just entirely white and black. No need for color in a world of darkness. She looked up to watch the bats, sleeping, and the swifts (mostly flown outside the caves seeking food, at this hour).
“Cinnabar!” Dr. Diego cried. “Hematite. There’s some pyrite over there. Hey.. Alex, did come look at these.”
“See the chips here, here, here? These are tool marks.”
“How?” Alejandro wondered. “This is supposed to be a virgin cavern system.”
“Don’t know, but someone was definitely chipping away at this pyrite here. Chips of..” brief pause “That’s obsidian! And chert.”
“No, don’t think so. Didn’t the Olmecs use tools of stone?” Dr Lopez wondered aloud, “I’m no historian but I seem to remember that from high school.”
“Mayans,” Valentina inserted. “But I’ve got something better, Alex. Come look at this beautiful creature!”
Alejandro turned and the glow in her eyes, the excitement on her face, long, wavy brown hair that fell just to her shoulders. A vision, even backlit by the harsh cave lamps..
But she was pointing upward. A thin, pale snake on the side of a stalactite. He failed to see the appeal. His eyes went back to following the soft curve at the small of her back, and the even softer, fuller curve of..
Startled, he shook his head to clear the reverie.
“It’s climbing UP. Oh, my god.”
“That snake is climbing up a vertical, sloped rock face. A rather slippery one, I’d imagine. What kind of snake can do that?”
She’s obviously thrilled, but Alex was slower to catch on this time.
“You’ve got to help me catch it, I’ve got to see it more closely.”
She drew a long, slow breath, calming herself for as long as ten seconds.
“Alex, there is a type of cave snake in Kantemo Cave, Quintana Roo that can hang from the ceiling and even catch bats to eat. But it doesn’t pull itself up like this, it just lives and breeds in cracks in the limestone walls, so it can hang from the ceiling.”
“Now, imagine a snake that can do all of that and climb up a smooth, wet stalactite to reach prey. This is something entirely new. Please, Alex, please help me catch one.”
“What if it bites me?”
“Don’t be silly, look at it. That’s a constrictor.”
“The shape of the head.”
Alejandro, at this point, remembered a nature documentary or two about snakes, but he was also quite enjoying the flush on Valentina’s cheek and the way certain features heaved when she was so excited.
Blank stare, one more time.
“That is much closer to a milk snake than a cobra, trust me. Come on already!”
— — —
Valentina had her two live samples, safe in extra boot cases (imagine a big shoe box but made of a hard plastic, like Samsonite luggage used to be), well ventilated with small holes. The quest involved more team members and several vertical climbs up some rather scary rock faces (without Gabriel’s rock-climbing expertise they’d never have managed it at all!)
She was flushed with excitement and genuinely beaming with joy. Gabriel and Alejandro were pretty proud of themselves, too. As a team building exercise, you probably couldn’t do better. Alejandro kept stealing glances at Val, and Val kept sneaking glances at Gabe.
Nico and Lucia quietly kept making their measurements and sketches. But Nico’s scowl only grew darker as Val’s Quest for Cave Snakes continued.
“If we are quite finished playing with the reptiles, may the exploration continue?” Nico groused in his mildly German accent.
“Right, right,” said Alex.
“Fortunately, there’s not much more to this particular cave,” Lucia gestured at some rocks glowing green.
“Foxfire,” Valentina nodded.
Before it came blurting out, Alejandro bit back a “beautiful.” Stay Professional.
“Let’s go then.” Instead, he just hummed quietly to himself.