The water-creature swirled around with fluid curves and a sinuosity that was almost completely alien to Taja's eyes: nothing on the burned, parched surface world moved like that. She stood transfixed as it darted towards her, then halted. It couldn't penetrate whatever barrier held the water in place. Its eye regarded her, bright and filled with curiosity, and it blinked slowly.
The hand that fell on Taja's shoulder made her start like a dust lizard taken unawares. She cried out, a brief, loud animalistic sound and turned sharply. Her bruised body, enervated by the days of walking in the desert sun and then battered by the torrent below the earth couldn't take any more and she crumpled to the cold, rock floor of the cavern. She looked up, and saw an elderly man, bright green eyes in an impossibly white face. A ghost, was her last thought before consciousness fled like a startled dust lizard.
She woke, and everything felt wrong. She couldn't move her arms or her legs, something warm and tight was holding her in place. She ached almost everywhere, and where she didn't ache the pain was sharper and more defined. Looking ahead of her the ceiling was too far away and looked to be made of rock instead of tanned hide. The air didn't smell right either, there was no smoke, no taste of ash in her mouth, no burned miasma. The air seemed somehow empty, and was cold too, much colder than she was used to.
She struck out with her arms, trying to pull herself free, and whatever was constraining her jerked and loosened, then stopped. She took heart that her constraints weren't permanent, and thrust against them harder. Something seemed to pull away gradually, and then she had her arm free. Pulling herself up, she sat up and looked properly around where she was.
She was in another cavern, an unfamiliar one. There were rough rock walls all around, with a large passage leading out of the wall on the other side of the cave. She was sitting on an enormous cushion that was long enough for her to lie down on, that in turn was laid on a natural rock shelf a couple of feet of the floor. Her constraints were a large piece of heavy fabric that had been laid over her and then tucked underneath the cushion. Now that she was sat up she could feel the difference between the chill of the cave air and the warmth beneath the fabric.
A noise from the passageway stopped her looking around at her surrounding, and she saw the impossibly white man shuffling into her cave. She tensed, and then relaxed as a wave of pain rolled through her body.
"You're awake, at last, that's good. I'll fetch you some food."
"Wait, who ar-- what are you?" she said. Her voice was a croak.
"There's water by your bed, just there," he said, pointing to a clay beaker on the floor. "Let me get you some food, and I'll answer your questions. I expect you have a few."
He shuffled away and Taja drank the cold water from the beaker. The beaker was as long as the palm of her hand and held a water ration for a whole day, but she drank it greedily in three gulps. As she put the beaker in her lap, the man returned with a clay plate with a mound of mushrooms and some dark meat in a sauce that must have used a full ration of water as well.
"What are you?" she said, accepting the plate.
"My name's Mendeleev," said the man smiling. He pronounced his name Mend-deh-lay-ev. "I'm a man, just as you are a girl. I live here, studying the fauna of this... of this place. I don't see many of your people, are there more of you coming?"
Taja shook her head, her mouth full of mushrooms. She swallowed. "What did I see in that room?"
"That was an Undine, one of the most intelligent species on this planet. I rather suspect she is studying me more successfully than I her." He laughed a little, as though he'd made a joke,
"Why didn't the water fall?"
"I've been trying to fathom that for myself, it's definitely something that the Undine does -- what?" he noticed the puzzled look on her face.
"Ah, of course, with so little surface water you'd not have kept.... Fathom is an old word meaning to discover. Perhaps I should refill your water while you finish your food, and then I can show you around."
Taja held her beaker out mutely; water was far too precious to turn down, ever, and the ghostly white man shuffled out of the cave again.