by J. Richard Jacobs
“Largot, water supply is slow. Check the traps.”
“But, Mom, Persh is comin’ over. We were gonna go up to Last Strike.”
“How many times I told you, don’t go hangin’ with that kid? He’s mostly trouble, Son. Now, go check the traps or we’ll be beggin’ water again. And don’t go messin’ ‘round the Elders digs, you hear me? You stay ‘way from Last Strike till they get done up there.”
“Persh says it’s okay.”
“Persh more important than me? Your pa? And you know what your pa thinks ‘bout Before Times stuff, right? No good to be found in it.”
“No buts. Now, get up there and check them traps.”
Largot tightened the last collector tube strap and leaned against a separator panel. It’s coolness felt good against his back. He smiled his satisfaction as drops of precious water formed inside the collectors. The welcome smell of wet sand filled the air and told him the traps were working near full capacity. The voice from behind startled him.
“Sun ain’t gonna stay up an’ wait for us, man. Let’s go.” Pershing stood in the light of the trap shed door, fists jammed into his hips and elbows splayed. “Got your light?”
“No. It’s down in the house. Mom says we shouldn’t go up there. Not till they finish the dig.”
“What? Look, man, we wait till they’re done with the hole, there won’t be nothin’ for us to find. No sense goin’ in a empty hole now, is there?”
“Nah, I guess not, but Pa says the Before Timers are the reason for the way we are. That there ain’t no good comin’ from any of them holes. He says they’re the ones who ruined the weather and dried up all the water. They’re the ones who caused the famines and brought the bombs to make things like Last Strike. He says—”
“Pa says. Pa says. He don’t know no better than anyone else what really happened, you know.”
“Does too. He has a friend whose great-grampa was alive durin’ the changin’. He told Pa all the stories as best he could remember ‘em.”
“Probably all lies. The changin’ happened more than a hundred an’ fifty years ago an’ Last Strike was almost a hundred years before that. Your pa’s friend’s great-grampa wasn’t even borned before the changin’ was over, I think. Now, are you goin’ or not? An’ get your light.”
“I’ll go, but I ain’t goin’ for the light. Mom sees me and I’m stuck here.”
The two boys stood by the edge of a large hole in the ground halfway down the ring wall of Last Strike Crater. The younger of the two, Largot, raised his hood against a frigid breeze sliding down off the crater’s rim. The fur ringing his freckled and wind reddened face flicked at his forehead. He leaned over the edge and peered into the blackness. A darkness so deep that it felt like it was pulling at him. The sun, no more than two fingers above the far side of the ring wall behind them, made it so that no light penetrated the excavation. He shivered uncontrollably.
“How deep’s that hole, Persh?”
“‘Bout ten, twelve meters maybe. Why? You scared?” said Pershing.
Largot took two steps back from the hole’s gaping maw. “I ain’t scared, but there ain’t no way I’m goin’ down there.”
“Why not? Went down there last period right after they opened it up—by myself as a fact. Didn’t hurt me none and I come back out no prob.”
“Sure as I’m standin’ here right now.”
Nobody told me any ordinaries been in the hole after the Elders’ first dig. They said Last Strike was off limit. How’d you get down there?”
“Yeah, been lots of us gone down there. Most every kid in my clan done been down there. Elders don’t own it none, Larg. Just ‘cause they’re Elders don’t signify they’re better than us, right? ‘Sides, they couldn’t do nothin’ to me ‘bout it ‘cause I got an uncle who’s an Elder, so I got family right.”
“Okay, so you got right. Still didn’t tell me how you got down there.”
“Man, Larg, you’s a case. Got a rope with knots goin’ down. Elders don’t be doin’ stupid, right? Well, most ways, anyways.” Pershing pointed to a stake driven into the ground on the other side of the hole. A rope knotted around it snaked down over the edge and disappeared into the blackness.
“Anyone know why they’re bein’ so quiet about it? Nobody in my clan’s been talkin’ about it. Well, other than to be sayin’ stay ‘way from Last Shot.”
“Nope. I ain’t heard nothin’ either. Nothin’ more than that they found somethin’ they say tells ‘em it’s from the Before Times an’ that it probably was an important place during the final days before the changin’. You know, before Crater Days come and brung the Big Cold.”
With that, Largot, feeling just a bit more confident, slipped the leather thong on the end of his club over his head and let the large piece of a tree dangle at his side. He looked again at his friend. Pershing’s expression remained serious. That gave Largot courage.
“You’re not funnin’ me, right?”
“No funnin’, Larg. Could be there’s Before Times treasure down there. Them Elders don’t be knowin’ all that’s down there yet, you know. Maybe we’ll be the firstest to be findin’ it, right?”
Largot flashed Pershing that look of forced youthful confidence, then stepped around the edge of the hole to stand by the stake. He bent down, latched onto the knotted rope leading into the blackness of the hole, looked again at Pershing for reassurance, then began the long descent into darkness. The sun was setting fast and he knew they didn’t have much time left before the dogs began the food hunt. It wasn’t good to be out on the flat much after dark. When his feet touched the floor of the cave, he gave a sharp pull on the rope to signal that Pershing could begin his climb down. Largot wished he had taken the chance to get the light. His family had the only wind-up light in the clan. It was so dark down in the hole.
Pershing brought a fire kit down with him. Only faint light helped as he fumbled in the pack for the flints and kindling. A few sharp blows and the kindling turned orange and with help of his hand waving over it, the color brightened into yellow-white as they caught fire. He held one of the torches from the pile near the cavern’s entrance over the smoldering kindling until it burst into flame. Orange light played against the walls in cadence with the sputtering torch, casting nervous shadows around them. Largot shivered again, but not from the cold. His muscles tensed. The moving shadows spoke unspeakable things to him. They asked him why they were violating this resting place of the Ancients from before the Crater Days? He put some of the flaming kindling into the mold and wood dust in his fire bowl, just in case. A strand of reassuring smoke curled from the small opening in the top.
“Good,” Pershing said. “Plenty light for lookin’. Would have been better if you’d brung your wind-up, thought. You grab one of them torches, too, just in case this one don’t last. Nah, make it two of ‘em.”
Largot gathered up four. He may have been the younger, but he was the larger and…the smarter of the two, he liked to think.
The echo of their voices off the cavern walls didn’t help with Largot’s confidence. They cautiously worked their way into the passage leading away from the shaft toward a large, rock wall. Largot watched the shadows to be sure nothing else was in there. At the end of the passage was a door in the wall, but nothing like Largot could recall ever seeing. It was shiny and as smooth as the glass in the bottoms of some of the craters. Not quite halfway up from the floor there was a handle. Vague remains of a symbol decorated the surface just above the handle. He remembered seeing something like it in one of the ruins where Before Times City once stood.
“This is new. They’ve been diggin’ lots ‘cause last time I was here they only dug out part of the wall. All that big talk ‘bout what they found gonna be in there, I bet. Wanna see what’s on the other side of that door?”
“You sure that’s good kinda thinkin’? What if there’s somethin’ bad in there? Maybe that’s why they’re sayin’ stay ‘way from Last Strike.”
“We done come this far, ain’t we, Larg? You wanna be runnin’ ‘way from the biggest thing we’re ever gonna see?”
“I guess not, but we don’t know what’s in there. Could be dangerous. Elders teachin’ is that Before Time folk were evil, ya know. They were the reason for the craters and the dark and the cold. They were the reason for the starvin’ times—and the sickies and—”
“You said that before and you worry too much. Won’t know nothin’ if we don’t look, now will we?”
Pershing reached out with his free hand and tugged on the handle. The door moved. Just a little, but it was open. He pulled a bit more forcefully and the door resisted, then reluctantly scraped over the dust and rock on the floor. Hinges squealed out protest. Once the door was opened wide, he thrust the torch through the opening. Inside was an immense room filled with metal boxes against the walls. Cords snaked around on a polished floor covered with a layer of undisturbed dust. The mummified remains of several individuals, their mouths grotesquely open as if silently screaming. Shreds of odd looking clothing hung from them.
“Hey, looky here. We’re the firstest, Larg. No footprints. Elders didn’t open it or, if they did, they didn’t go in. Come on.”
Largot held back.
“What’s a matter, Larg? You ‘fraid?”
“No. Well, maybe some. What about these…bodies?”
“Them. They’re not gonna say nothin’. Come on, ‘fore it gets any later.”
They moved with measured steps through the jumble of remains, metal boxes, and thick cords toward the far end of the room. Largot lit one of his torches from the fire bowl hanging from a cord round his neck for more light. The air was stale, cold and smelled of something he couldn’t identify. Pungent. Sharp. Like the water in Copper Lake Crater where the water was green and tasted awful and could kill you if you drank too much.
“Lots of this stuff looks like what the priests say the Before Times people had. Magic stuff what don’t nobody knows much ‘bout. Hundreds of years ago stuff. Wonder if any of it works?” Pershing said. He stopped by an object on the floor, scratched his head, then picked it up. He turned it over several times, studying it.
“What’s that thing you got, Persh?”
“Dunno. It’s metal and it’s heavy. Wait. I think I know. Before Times folk had them things for killin’ far off. Called ‘em…lazems, I think. Here, you take a look.”
Pershing held out the artifact.
“So, what is a lazem, Persh?” Largot said as he took the object in his hands. A cable connected it to one of the banks of black boxes.
“What? Why ask me stuff like that? It’s from the Before Times—hundreds of years back. Magic stuff. How’m I s’posed to know what it is? Just they were used for killin’ far off, that’s all. You just remember you gotta give it back. I found it, so it’s mine.”
“Yeah yeah yeah, I’ll give it back,” Largot said.
Largot balanced his torch in a notch between two boxes lining the wall. He rolled the thing around in his hands. It looked like it could be used for hammering or something like that, but it fit comfortably in his hand only one way and that didn’t match with it being a mallet. Inside a small ring there was a curved lever of some sort. He put his finger through the ring and suddenly it felt right in his hand, as if it had been made to be held that way. He pulled against the lever. Nothing happened.
“Whatever it is, it ain’t workin’ now. Too old, maybe.” Largot followed the cable to where it attached to the box. There was a handle next to the spot where the cable attached. He turned it. There was a sharp click, then the box produced a soft humming sound. He backed away from the panel. A small red light glowed on the artifact. He gripped it as he had before and pressed the lever.
The flash blinded him and the snap of the thing caused his ears to hum. He could hear nothing else. Pershing collapsed. He lay twitching on the floor. Blood flowed from a smoking hole in his chest. The poignant smell of ozone mixed with the sickening sweet smell of burnt flesh. There was silence.