They squabbled as extinction approached.
– Anonymous – circa 2040 (old calendar)
No one fears extinction anymore, now that twenty thousand people live within one day’s travel, forty thousand if you include men. Yet standing here at history’s door, preparing to break in, I sense the nearness of ancient despair. When I dream of the past world, I never include its end.
I tighten the harness straps around my thighs, avoiding Dray’s eyes, though I’m sure my trembling hands reveal me. The whole week of planning was a fun exercise. I never saw myself going through with this.
I’m at the eastern edge of a raised patch of woodlands. At least, that’s what it looks like until you get right into it. From here, I can see that the whole area is covered by irregular mounds of earth, the lumpiness hidden by vegetation. I can’t help but wonder if I’m on top of a buried debris field.
I try to focus on breathing. A light, April breeze whispers a secret I can’t quite hear as it flows across the rolling hills, carrying the fresh, earthy scent of the wilds. No one ever comes out here, but let’s be sure. I climb to the top of the twelve-foot mound and scan the surrounding wilderness one more time.
In the far distance, the skyline of the shell—the crumbling remains of a once great city—is a faint cluster of spikes on the horizon.
Much closer, a few miles to the south, jagged lines of collapsed walls mark what’s left of a vast industrial park, dead now for well over a century. Like the rest of the Before world, it has been largely reclaimed by nature, and is of no interest to anyone but Historians. As a historical Before site, that whole area is off limits to men. The area in which we now stand was thought to be free of dangerous ruins, so no one cares that we’re out here. But if they knew about this…
I fill my lungs with cool air and snug up the zipper of my jacket as I descend the mound to focus again on the exposed goose-neck air vent in front of me. The waist-high opening, big enough to fit my shoulders, protrudes from the side of the small bluff behind it, facing down to keep the rain out. From the erosion pattern on the bluff, I’d say the side of the mound collapsed to reveal this vent within the past year. What could possibly need a vent this big?
Dray grips the harness around my waist. “Tye, look at me. You can do this. You’re a natural explorer.” At thirty-two, he’s my elder by less than a year, yet he still treats me like a child, as if I need his encouragement. My eyes cling to the deep brown reassurance in his. He knows me too well.
I pull away and nod, checking my short ponytail to make sure the elastic is secure. “This is what we’ve been looking for, I’m sure of it.” What I’ve been looking for. I’m the one who likes to play Historian in my spare time, a role forbidden to men. Dray just likes scavenging. If it weren’t for my mother’s ancient, discarded map, we’d be off every weekend, blindly scavenging elsewhere. But the map shows something out here—something she could never find—and now I’ve discovered this.
I should have reported it to the authorities. It’s stupid of me not to. The law is clear about historical sites. They are off-limits to men, and violators are dealt with harshly, often taken away and never seen again. But Dray loves to break rules, and besides, they’d send Historians out here and I’d never hear another word about it. I want to know what this is.
But ruins are deadly dangerous places. Is this worth dying for?
I grit my teeth. Is it worth clinging to a small, irrelevant life as an inconsequential man? Anything would be better.
Dray puts a calloused hand on my shoulder. “I’ll be right here. I’ve got your back.”
“I know you do.” If anything goes wrong, there’s no way he can get in to help me.
“Look, Dray, this far out in the wilds, we’re on our own. If something goes wrong—”
“Nothing’s going to go wrong.” He brushes his wavy black hair back from his eyes and it flutters around his shoulders.
“But if…don’t get yourself in trouble by telling anyone we did this, okay? Just say I disappeared.”
“You’re going to be fine, Tye. This will be a big payday. I can feel it.”
There’s a rich timbre to his voice that inspires confidence, whether he knows what he’s talking about or not. It’s easy to be optimistic when you’re oblivious to the risks.
“Dray, it’s not that simple.”
“You’re sure, right? You’re sure there are artifacts down there?”
Of course I’m not sure. “That’s what I’m hoping, but—”
“Because everything is riding on this.”
I nod and take a deep breath. Two weeks. We’ve got two weeks to pay off our debts. “Don’t worry. You’re not going to end up back in the homeless shelter.”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. It would be nice to eat three meals a day again.”
“Can we go five minutes without talking about food?”
Dray examines the opening. “Actually, it’s a good thing you’re so small. Who else could fit through that?”
“I’m not small. Five-nine is average for a man.” Average. I’ve spent my whole life looking up at people. “You’ve only got two inches on me, you know.”
“Can we go five minutes without talking about dicks?”
I give him a shove that doesn’t budge him, and we return our attention to the opening. We tried dropping stones in to sound the depth, but it’s too deep to estimate. Something this deep must be important. For a moment I wish our positions were reversed. But I couldn’t bear to be waiting out here, worried about him. He can do the worrying. He’s the strong one.
He dusts off his cargo pants. “The sun sets in just over five hours. We’ve got a three-hour bike ride back home, so if we’re going to do this—”
“We’ve got two hours. I’m ready,” I lie.
“It’ll be like I’m lowering you into a well.”
Yeah. If the well were barely wide enough to fit my shoulders. I’m not scrawny, but I don’t have Dray’s brawn.
“Okay, the pulley’s ready.”
We drop the empty sack in first, strapped to the harness to hang below me. I have to go in feet-first so I’m not upside down in the vertical shaft. Dray gets under my shoulders and lifts until I get my hips on the bend, and I wriggle in from there. Hanging in the harness at the top of the shaft, both hands gripping the rope, I take a moment to catch my breath. I hate the taste of dust. What am I doing?
The shaft is square here, almost two feet to a side. My climbing skills do me no good in a space this cramped, so I’m just along for the ride.
Below me, black depths. A knot of dread in my core makes it hard to breathe.
“How are you doing in there?” Dray’s voice booms and echoes in the shaft.
“You don’t have to yell. Sound carries like crazy in here.”
“Are you ready? Go find us some treasure.”
Treasure. Okay. I ease down into the harness, try three times to get my reluctant hand to let go of the rope, and switch on my headlamp. With the shaft wall only inches from my face, the reflected glare blinds me until I crane my neck to look down. Beneath my feet there is nothing. Just like going down into a well. A bottomless well.
The line jerks as Dray lets off the pulley and I start descending. He checks with me.
My tongue is almost too dry to form words. “Yeah, keep it coming.” I strain to see into the black void below me, but it’s like looking into the future.
This is by far the craziest thing I’ve ever done. By far. I tighten my jaw.
I’m about fifteen feet down now, and grateful for my headlamp. I see the dim reflected glow of daylight above me, too far away to ever reach on my own. My life is now in Dray’s hands. I clutch onto the rope. If it breaks—no, it’s a good rope. I inspected the whole thing myself, double-checked the knots. Stop worrying and focus.
I wish my mother could see me now, doing Historian work, following in her footsteps, even succeeding where she failed. No, I should be glad she can’t see me now. She’d be furious. History is not for men to know.
That was drilled into my head for my entire childhood, as I watched my mother become prestigious as a Historian. She did well for herself, and I always benefited—when she was there. But she was away a lot, more and more so as I got older. And then she was gone. Gone where I could never follow, swallowed up by the dreaded shell. I’ll never see her again, never see where she works. The shell is out of bounds to men. Too much Before history there. Too much death.
And though we’re in an unrestricted area, this must be an unknown historical site, which makes us criminal trespassers. It’s the last thing I want. I’m not cut out for the criminal life. But if we can pawn enough valuable artifacts to pay the bills and get us afloat—
A gleam underfoot catches my eye. An edge. I’m what—thirty feet down? It’s an opening into a horizontal vent shaft. “Stop. I’m at a branch. I’m going to see where it goes.” I hoist myself into the new shaft, pull the sack in behind me, and wriggle my way forward. It’s hard to breathe in here. About twelve feet in, I come to a grate-covered opening in the vent floor, and through it, my light reveals a hallway. I knew it! This is something! I grab the grate and rattle it, bang on it, then kick at it with my heels until it falls open in a cloud of dust.
“I found an open space,” I call up. “Take up slack.” I feel a reassuring tug on the rope, let my legs swing down into the hole and sit back into the harness. “Okay, down again.”
I pant in the foul air. Forget about two hours. I light the floor as Dray lowers me toward it, land on both feet, and I’m in! Shadows leap at me and vanish as I sweep my light around. In where I should not be.
This is crazy! …