Vanya came to a halt as the pain of a thousand needles jabbed at her side. Huffing heavily, she balanced herself against a nearby wall and scanned the horizon, analyzing every citizen. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. She locked eyes with a frail old woman for a brief moment. Vanya glanced away, but she could see from the corner of her eye, the old woman approaching her.
She was not yet ready to continue running. The pain was still too much. She tried to turn her back, but it was confirmed to be futile when she felt the boney hand gently touch her shoulder.
“Excuse me, miss?”
Vanya cursed under her breath as she turned around. “I don’t have anything, and I’m in a hurry.”
The knee jerk response was lost on the woman. She simply looked back with her sad eyes, her skull too prominent to be healthy. “The famine has taken all I have.”
“I– but I don’t–” stammered Vanya.
“Anything you can offer.”
It pained Vanya to look at the old woman. Her own mother looked like this when she was struggling, but every moment here was time lost chasing her target. It’s been several hours now with no leads, and the frustration has already overwhelmed her. The silence grew awkward, while various scenarios danced around Vanya’s mind. If she couldn’t find her target in this town, she’d have to return back to square one. Finally, she reached into her pouch and pulled out her field rations and handed the woman a coin to dismiss her.
The old woman nodded gratefully as she returned to beggar’s spot.
Vanya’s breath had finally returned, but so did the hopelessness. She once again scanned the area and found the same old eyes were staring at her.
“You’ll miss it if you’re not there,” the old woman called.
“Miss what?” asked Vanya, her face screwed up.
“There’s a dark alley over there that is hidden to all who don’t stand there.” She pointed at the pile of rotten garbage.
The wall across from it was dull, devoid of anything worthy of attention. Vanya skeptically walked over but had to plug her nose for the stench. Her eyes followed the wall opposite her. A few steps away from the garbage, the dark alley appeared before her eyes. It was cleverly obstructed by the architecture of the two surrounding buildings.
Vanya took a few steps in and immediately noticed on the ground, two splotches of blood. One red, one black. With pursed lips, she felt a little bit of regret at how she treated the old woman who ultimately helped her get back on track. A deep breath later, and she was refocused. The new lead filled her with hope once more.
“The queens,” said the elderly man dressed in a black tuxedo, balancing a pen on a single finger with ease.
“Out of the question. You don’t know what you are asking. Absolutely not,” I said. I couldn’t hide all of my annoyance in the last few words. I had to stop to regain my facade of politeness. “I told you. It’s not about money so I won’t be bought. I mean it’s the fate of our species and the planet that we are talking about here.”
“Unlike the methods of my brethren, I have been chosen to use less dramatic methods, although no less damning.”
“You’ve said that already and I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“I will offer this once since you have already accepted the gift. You will be spared the trials that are ahead,” the man said slowly, carefully choosing his words.
I wanted to rebuke him right then and there. The way he said it felt like a slap in the face. But as much as I wanted to, he also emitted a presense that demanded respect. A calmness in his words and actions, but the words themselves seemed more unfiltered than intentionally spiteful or full of pride.
My thoughts regrouped from retort to regard once again. “And what would happen to my bees if I accept?”
“They would no longer be your concern.”
“Would it be you that would take care of them? They are more critical to the ecosystem than ever.”
The answer didn’t reassure me. There was something familiar about him that I couldn’t place and it was mixing up my train of thought.
“I’m one of the last beekeepers. I travel all over the continent, bringing my bees to help the farmers pollinate their crops. Who will–“
“The last,” the man interrupted coldly.
I stared back, brow furrowed, for a good ten seconds. “O’Mallory’s hive is on the west coast. Charbonneau still has a healthy colony in Europe.”
He gazed through me, sending a chill down my spine like he could read my soul. At that moment, he shook his head ever so slowly, and my stomach filled with dread.
“Who are you?” I didn’t want an answer, even though deep down, I already knew.
“There are four of us. That is all I will say. Do you accept?”
“If I accept, I can’t bring anyone with me, can I?” I managed to choke out.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought about those I would not see again.
Each tick of the clock echoing around the lobby reminded me that it’s been two hours that I’ve been waiting to start my new job. Never had I had to wait this long to start before. The receptionist was clearly ignoring my looks now. I don’t blame her, I’ve asked at least half a dozen times when I’ll be starting. Was this another tactic to say I didn’t get the job? It couldn’t be, otherwise why would they say they’ve selected me.
Two hours and thirteen minutes later, the door creaked open and a sweaty manager stood before me, slightly out of breath. Wet marks spotted the usual places of his shirt and his hair clumped in sweaty streaks.
“Hello, I’m Jacob. I’ll be your manager. Sorry for the delay,” he said. He started to outstretch his hand before quickly retracted it. “Sorry, heavy lifting made my hands sweaty. I’ll give you a quick tour, there’s lots of work to be done so I’ll show you the full tour at a later time.”
He peeked into the hall, looking both ways before beaconing me to follow. Our footsteps were the only noises echoing through the corridor, otherwise it was eerily silent. We passed endless doors until finally reaching the last two at the end. He opened the left door and ushered me inside.
“In here, this is the break room. It has all the necessities. If you smoke, or just want some fresh air, there’s an exit at the back of the room. You are entitled to two breaks and a thirty minute meal time. The next break is in an hour. Now follow me to across the hall.”
As the door opened, a waft of musty air and ammonium smacked me in the face. A room rarely used but recently cleaned, and filled with towering columns of papers and folders. Along the edge of the room were hundreds of filing cabinets, only a handful with wheels.
“We have had a series of leaks and a number of rusty filing cabinets. All the papers needed to be quickly stored in here for safe keeping but we didn’t have any of the new filing cabinets ready. We do now, and that’s where you come in. We need each of these columns to be filed into the appropriate cabinet. The papers are labelled as are the cabinets. That should be all you need.”
He scurried out the door before I could ask any questions. My gaze drifted to the stacks of papers filling the room. Dread overcame me. I was fresh out of college with a degree of system engineering and data analytics, but here I am, filing papers. I’ve done my share of meaningless work. I thought this job was going to be different. I picked up the first few folders and glanced at the titles. “Policy For The Maintenance Of Exterior Grounds. How exciting.” I said snarkily. “Policies And Procedures For Antique Equipment Restoration. I bet that’s for their submarines. Guidelines on the role of company security in protection of civilians… Policy for the storage and handling of confidential and restricted records… Workplace Appliance Safety Protocol. Uggh,” I sighed.
I could no longer focus on which stack went where. I longed for the first break. The exit door sang to me with each stack or folder that was tucked away securely. By the time I finished a single stack of what I counted at least a hundred, I ran to the break room. With the building so large, I was surprised and relieved to see that I was alone. I devoured my lunch and stared at the exit door.
Maybe, they’d think I was going for a smoke. I left the break room and smelled the sweet air of freedom. I started with a casual pace towards the exit gate. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had no encountered a single soul. No explaining what I was doing or why it looked like I was quitting after only an hour. By the time I reached the gate, I was in full sprint. The sweet air of freedom filled my nostrils. I never had to return to that dull excuse for job again.
Three hours earlier
“Jacob, there’s been a grave mistake. Look at this.”
Jacob grasped the wad of papers in front of him. “What’s this? A resume? So. Who is this?”
“It’s the new recruit.”
“Is this a joke, Delilah? He’s not qualified at all. Just tell him, there’s been a mistake.”
“I was about to, look at who authorized his hiring.”
Jacob stared at the top of the first paper before swearing loudly and repeatedly. “Are you… dammit. He’s not qual– This can’t. It’s against policy to hire him. Unless–”
“Someone from much higher up approves it, yeah,” responded Delilah. The two stood for several minutes in near silence, Jacob quietly murmuring to himself. “What if… he were to quit of his own volition?”
“How the hell is he going to do that? He’ll see things we won’t allow him to walk away from. It’s such a clusterf–”
“Make it dull and relentless. By the looks of his resume, he doesn’t stay in one place for long. If he thinks he accepted the wrong job, maybe he’ll quit. Any ideas?”
Jacob fingered the air in thought like he was writing on an invisible chalkboard. At the moment that Delilah became impatient he snapped to, “I got it!”
She shook at his outburst.
“The old conference room still wired up with a camera?”
“I believe so.”
“I need every available body to move all the filing cabinets from the archives into the old room. Every one of them emptied with the papers stacked into columns.”
“There’s still sensitive information in them. How does that help?”
“We’ll put the boring policy drivel on the tops of the stacks. We’ll monitor him to make sure he doesn’t actually read anything that would cause problems. If we are lucky, he’ll leave.”
“I’m leaving it to you then. You have two hours to move all that you need.” Delilah began to walk away but a thought tugged at her to stay a moment longer. “Work up a sweat. The more inefficient this place looks, the more unappealing it will be.”
Jacob sighed. “It better. If he goes for a smoke, we’re clear.”
I didn’t hear him approach. My headache distracted me from anything but my current task. Even that was hard to focus on with the words disappearing from the screen from time to time.
“Devlin? You, uh, able to meet for a moment?” he said with a drawl. “We have a few, uh, things to discuss. It won’t take long.”
Yeah right, I thought. Declare a five-minute meeting that lasts for hours. I couldn’t say no, however, he’s my supervisor. “Yes. I’ll be right there. I need to lock my computer.”
I had one last glance at my screen. $580 and four hours flashed across my eyes. A much better cost than $48,000 that it was before. Too bad I couldn’t pocket those savings. I let it slip once that I could see the savings, but my colleague just scoffed at me.
In the boardroom, three others sat opposite to me, waiting for me to take a seat. As I leaned over, my head pounded like never before. I must have visibly squirmed because it caught the attention of the others.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I think I have a migraine. My head hurts like hell, and I can’t see straight.”
“Then we’ll make this quick. You can take some medicine. We need you working late for this one.”
I didn’t have time to rebuke his statement, even internally as he started right away.
“Mark here has brought to our attention that your code commits from three weeks ago has some severe flaws.” The code was on the screen within moments: $ 7,400, 37 hours. “Mark?”
“Yes. Thank you, Alfred. So, uh, Line 781. The equation is subject to the potential of being uninitialized for variables here, and here throwing notices and storing incorrect values that would affect the dollar values our clients receive.”
“Anything that affects money received by our clients is a critical matter, Devlin. It is not to be taken lightly. You should know better. Mark, what do you propose?”
“Uh, yes. I have that ready.”
I sat quietly. Any other day, I would have defended myself, but the pressure was mounting up in my temples. I needed to be out of the room as soon as I could.
Mark fumbled at the keyboard, pecking away with two fingers until finally, the revised code was visible. $230,500, 201 hours, and 2 jobs. That was new. I stared at the screen, looking for the problem. Nothing stood out to me, except the horizontal scroll bar. Something was off to the right that I couldn’t see.
“I don’t think that’s an improvement. Something looks off.”
“This is not a debate,” interjected Robert, the other supervisor. “Mark has been here much longer and knows the system better than you do. Your coding has been slack as of late. As such, we need you to work late for the next four weeks, migraine or not. That is all.”
I had no fight left in me. I was happy to get out of there. I could hear Mark muddle something about his other project, but I didn’t care, nor hear them properly. As I was slipping out the door, I caught one last look at the screen. While my migraine was still playing tricks with me, hiding words and code in various places, I saw something I’ve never seen before. 2 lives. I tried focusing in, but it was difficult from across the room to make out what I was reading — some conditional statement.
The supervisors were now glaring at me as I overstayed my welcome.
“This meeting is no longer for you, Devlin. What are you still doing here?”
“There’s a serious prob–“
“What do you know of this project? You’re not assigned to it, nor have the permission to view it. Leave now, or I’ll make it five weeks.”
I closed the door slowly as I processed what I just saw. For the first time, lives were the code of that code. Peaked by my new found curiosity, I ignored my headache best I could and raced to my desk. I pulled up my code revision manager and stepped through each commit looking at the cost. Every line brought up only dollar values and hours. The occasional memory spike, too.
Nothing I worked on could have any life-changing impact. It must be through another project that the company works on that I needed to check. Stephen, a relic at the company, is notorious for leaving his password as a post-it note by his desk. A lousy practice for someone who is supposed to be the code branch master. He didn’t even have two-factor authentication like myself. I needed to visit him; my work can wait. A pleasant man but he can ramble on sometimes. Luckily for me, I saw the note, as well as he had some ibuprofen.
The pain starting to subside by the time I got back to my desk and my newly acquired credentials, I restarted my code revision manager with elevated permissions. There were a lot more code bases than I thought the company had. One particularly caught my eye named Operation Iron Fire. Skimming through it, I finally found another line that reported a life. I looked at the code but being unfamiliar with it, I couldn’t see why it too would cost a life. I checked the commit, and Mark made it.
Adrenaline pumped through me, knowing I was peering at code I shouldn’t even be looking at. I had no idea when a manager would walk by, but standing up to look around always made them suspicious. I had to work quickly. Filtering now only by Mark, I brought up all his commits, and there were many. His code seemed inefficient, always costing several thousand per line. Then I saw it. 13 lives. A few commits later, another 4. This was absurd. I caught another number out of the corner of my eye but only caught the first number before shuffling from behind me made me shut down the manager in a panic.
Coming to rest on the partition behind me was Alfred. “So, uh, Devlin. We’re gonna have to ask you to come into the boardroom once again. So, I hope you got your medicine. Otherwise, it will have to wait until after.”
Entering the boardroom, I noticed their demeanor was very different from when I left an hour or so before. Mark seemed all chummy, and the two supervisors were smiling their stupid grins.
“So, uh. We’ve discussed this, and despite your previous costly mistakes, you are ready for an increase in responsibility. Mark has brought us up to date with his project so far, and we’ve decided to increase productivity on that particular project, you are to be brought on and help with it. You’ll reap all the benefits this new project will bring. As you have successfully served as an integration specialist on other projects, we’ll be bringing you on primarily for that role as well as any code updates that need to be done. This way, the client can put a name and face to the project. Mark, please bring Devlin up to speed.”
“Certainly. The product is currently called Diamond Shoulder unless marketing comes up with a better name. Any code changes will be done to the project called ‘Operation Iron Fire.'”
My heart fell to the floor, and I almost threw up over the table. The next few moments were a blur as thoughts and questions raced around my head. I didn’t listen to a word Mark was saying. After some time had passed, he stared at me, nodding in his head. “Any questions?”
I could only think of one. “Has this been released already?”
“Uh, yes. The client has had it in testing for a year now, it’s just gone live two days ago. I’ll get you set up with the code by tomorrow, and then you’ll be good to go.”
My head spun. I felt sick. I dismissed all attempts at asking questions to get back to my desk as quickly as possible. I didn’t have permission to be looking at the project just yet, but I no longer cared. The client had the code. I knew the price of each line, but I could never tell when it would come to collect on the cost.
I returned to view any commit made by Mark in Operation Iron Fire. Each commit had hundreds of lines of code, scanning them all, I found those I found earlier, 13 and 4 lives. A few older with a cost of 2 lives and another with 78 lives. I could no longer hold in nausea. Wiping my mouth with my sleeve, I dared to continue. Then I saw that number from earlier. 181,301,291.
I closed the manager and sat with a cold sweat beading on my head. Over the next few days, I dodged any attempt to confirm any access to the project, making up excuses and carefully avoiding being at my desk with Alfred or Mark tried to approach me. After a week, I could take it no longer. I called in sick, blamed it on the migraine which came and went over the next few days.
The migraine did return and lasted for one day longer than I expected. When I finally was able to return to work, I was greeted by a flurry of red and blue lights by the front doors. Uniformed men were scurrying around several of the other programmers and salespeople were sitting on the curb smoking. One of them saw me darted towards me.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“You. You not hear? It’s all over the news.”
“Millions dead. The government is saying it’s from our software.”
“What do you mean, ‘already?'”
I stammered a few times, unable to find a voice until a suited man approached me. “Excuse me, sir. Do you work here?”
“Yes, I’m, uh, Devlin.”
“We’d like to ask you a few questions. If you would follow us this way.”
I rubbed my clammy hands under the board room table. It felt like I was waiting alone for hours while the clock only registered 10 minutes. I could see out of the frosted windows that the agent was still there talking with someone. The moment he broke away and pushed the door open, adrenaline surged through me. I braced for what I expected next.
“Mr. Johnson,” said the agent, staring down at a series of papers gathered before him.
He didn’t look up at all. “Devlin, as I understand it, you are a software engineer here. Is that correct?”
“You were granted access to a project known as Operation Iron Fire?”
“Yes, but I didn’t–“
“You worked alongside a Mark Falitashi?”
“Not really. We worked in the same–“
“Did he give you access to the project I mentioned earlier?”
“I’m not sure. I was at home sick since I had a meeting with him.”
“Did you have access from home? Be it offline copies, FTP, VPN or otherwise?”
I stared intently at the agent this time. Every attempt to express my lack of involvement went unnoticed. “If I did, I didn’t use it,” I said shortly. I jerked my head back as he raised his eyebrow at me, unsure if I crossed a line. “Mark should be able to vouch for me.”
“Unfortunately, Mark has been arrested on suspicious of radicalization.”
The next few moments were in silence as he leafed through his papers. I ran through scenarios in my head and potential conversations on how I will get out of this. Mark was handing me a project that killed millions and now I was a possible suspect. How could I not be?
“Am I in some sort of trouble?” My voice cracked despite willing myself not to.
“No,” he said coldly. It was an unconvincing response, not because it lacked confidence, but that it was void of all emotion and could not be read through his body language or tone. Like reading a single word typed out on a piece of paper by itself, except that would hold more meaning than his answer would. For the first time during these questions, he looked up and began to scrutinize my response before he asked his next question. “Were you aware that lives would be lost with the project that you would have worked on?”
My heart sank. A blood-curdling fury at Mark and a nauseating panic flooded my sinuses. The emotions battled for who would dominate me. Fear won out as I lied.
The agent squinted at me. He rifled through the papers once more and pulled out another one and began reading.
“On January 20th, 4 years ago, you had a conversation with a Ms. Claire Chelly:
“‘I can see what it’s going to cost. Like how much time we’re going to have to spend supporting it afterwards,’ you say.
“‘I get that you’re the best quoter here,’ Ms. Chelly says.
“‘No. You don’t understand. It’s any bit of code. I can see what it will cost without even running it. CPU spikes, hours spent cleaning up the data, hell, I also know how much memory the code will eat up.'”
I sat there wrinkling my brow so hard, it started to ache. “How did you–?”
“I’ll ask again, Mr. Johnson. Were you aware that lives would be lost with the project that you would have worked on?”
He clearly knew more than he was letting on, and there was no use trying to hide. “Yes,” I confessed. I wasn’t prepared for his next response.
He carefully pushed another piece of paper towards me, on it were three blocks of code. He indicated that each block was a snippet from an actual system already developed. To my surprise, there was enough code on each of them for me to see the cost of each, on paper of all things. One was blank, apart from the code itself, the second cost an enormous dollar value, the third… a life. Two lives actually. After asking me to pick one, I point to the safest.
“Why not the other two?”
“Well, the second will cost a lot to support.” I hesitated for a moment, his eyes always watching me at this point. “The third is… dangerous.”
“How so. Be specific.”
“Someone will die. I think. I mean. I’m not sure.”
The agent breaks his stare to look down at the papers once more than at the frosted window before back to me. “Just one? Or more?”
“Two, I think. Well, I see two, but I don’t know if it’s certain or not. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Once again, the agent gets up and steps out of the boardroom, leaving me to stew in this weird blur of a day. My colleague arrested, our company turned inside out, and some software that killed millions. But instead of being interrogated continuously, I began to feel like I was a lab rat being prodded and studied.
He returned quicker than he did last time, much to my relief. This time with another paper. I knew the drill, look at it and pick the best. It was a language I didn’t understand the syntax but was asked to choose one anyway. He seemed disinterested in my answer and probed for one more. If there was a difference in the last two. For a moment, I thought there was a difference. One seemed to chill me to the bone, while the other was filled with anger. But the more I stared at them, the less I knew which invoked which emotion. Eventually, I shook my head.
“Mr. Johnson. This next question is an important one. Please answer it truthfully as you can. Could you write code that is used to kill others?”
I almost choked on my own spit. “No,” I blurted out.
“What if it was for national security. Or for our allies. Would you write code that would defend our nation, even if it meant killing others?”
“Well, I guess I could.”
The agent looked back at the frosted window and nodded. “Mr. Johnson. You have a unique talent. One that we are very interested in. I do not represent any agency that you know of, but the opportunities are beyond what you can imagine. I’m here to ask if you would come to work for us. We can help you learn the limits of what you are capable of. Should you accept, you’ll be sworn to secrecy from here on out.”
I didn’t hesitate one moment this time. “Yes. [redacted]”
“We are nearing the destination. Changing our approach to hide us behind their moon. They can detect us now if we are not careful.” The guide prodded the holographic console, altering the trajectory of their ship without any effect of inertia.
“I don’t see why we need a guide get us on the ground,” said Daude.
The guide looked back at Daude and the others. “The latest security measures are adapting very rapidly lately.”
“How so?” asked Vafir.
“They–” The guide stopped short when he noticed the perplexed looks on the faces of his passengers. “You don’t know who ’they’ are do you?” After letting the silence confirm his suspicion, he continued. “They call themselves humans. Organic creatures of simple intelligence brought in about fifty thousand years ago. Oh and before I forget, make sure you take your translator capsule before you get off. You don’t want to be speaking like us down there. Humans are vocally monotone. Um, oh yes, they have advanced recently to reach into space and littered it profusely. Needless to say, they can now see us if we are careless.”
“I don’t remember hearing of any humans being set as guardians of the old ones,” said Daude with a scowl.
“The old ones are a dying myth,” retorted Vafir.
“Then why did you tag along?”
“To prove you wrong of course.”
Daude snorted in response and averted his gaze.
“Sooo…” said Forvi, breaking the silence. “Why don’t they mention humans on R113–er, Earth?”
“Yes, remember to use their naming from now on. It’s their planet and it will rouse less suspicion that way. As to your question, Earth is not interesting. At least it wasn’t up until recently. With so little interest from the council, they didn’t see the need to update the records. I mean it probably says that the current defensive measure is a massive ice mass. At least the reptilian beasts of the previous era were a better deterrent.
“Luckily, Earth doesn’t get many visitors. Just the occasional doubter. Sometimes those who are simply curious about the prison of the old ones. There are others who wish to ensure the security is tight. And those who wish to attempt to awaken the old ones are caught long before even they know they wanted to. By the way which are you?”
“Well I’m definitely the curious one,” said Forvi.
Vafir said nothing for as long as he could. The stares from Forvi eventually drove him from his silence, sighing heavily. “I’m the doubter.”
They all turned to Daude who never looked away from the screen showing the ship coming to rest in a small clearing in a densely wooded forest. “Must I have to fit one of the remaining stereotypes? Why do I have to fit one at all?”
“I bet your checking the security,” smiled Forvi.
“This is it,” interrupted the guide. The screen flickered away from the outside camera and to that of Earth’s map. Pointing to a region on the map, he continued. “We are here. Do either of you remember what place this is called?”
“Uh, Kandahar?” asked Forvi.
“Canada,” corrected the guide. “Specifically Manitoba Canada. It’s important to remember. If you forget, just say you are tourists. The humans will accept that.” The three gathered their things and stood at the exit of the ship. They received many more instructions before they finally stopped out into the crisp Canadian air.
The guide waited until the took the last step off the ramp of the ship. “This is where I part. I’ll be back in seven Earth days. Don’t be too disappointed when you meet the old one.” The door hissed closed before they question him further. The ship lifted into the air silently and popped away instantly. The three wasted no time in heading to their next destination.
Hours had passed until they reached an otherwise insignificant lake. One scan of the lake confirmed their hypothesis, a small cavern resided deep at the bottom of the lake. Daude took an eager step into it before Vafir yanked on his arm.
“Look. Out there, someone sits on a tiny island. Think it’s a human?”
“Might be,” said Forvi. “My human disguise still holding up? Good. We can’t use our regular rebreathers then. We have to use the ones that humans appear to use. The scrubs?”
“Don’t matter what they are called,”said Daude. “Let’s just get these on and get going.”
They struggled fiercely to get the suits on. Daude and Forvi had to help Vafir get the tank attached to his back. Neither of them heard the low rumble of the approaching motorboat.
“Greetings fellows,” called an older man from the boat, looking then up and down. “Looking for a swim?”
The three, startled, looked at each other. “Uh, yes. Just a swim.”
“You with the Ministry?”
“Ministry? What do you mean?”
“The weird scuba suits and all that fancy techno gizmos you got there,” he said, pointing to their partially covered gear.
Vafir stepped in front to obscure his view. Daude splashed loudly to his side, distracting the old man. “Uh, no. We are, uh, under water swimming. Looking for caves. Know of any?”
“Caves,” laughed the man. “Heavens no. No caves around here, not this lake anyway. I don’t dive though so take that with a grain of salt.”
“Take a grain of salt?” asked Vafir.
“You what now?” Asked the man in return, the wrinkles increasing on his brow.
“Where is the lake the deepest?” Asked Daude, once again distracting the old man.
“Oh, uh, it’s just a little off center, closer to the east bank. I can take you there if you wish. Save you from having to swim there yourself.”
“That would be kind of you,” said Forvi.
The gear neatly packed away during the distraction, they awkwardly piled into the boat and sat patiently as the old man drove to only where he knew to go. They politely listened to him blabber on about the new motor his son has purchased for him and he quiet it was. He stated baseless facts on how this has an effect on the fish. None of this made any sense to the three and they were relieved to be at the location the old man had indicated at last.
One by one the jumped over the edge and sank into the water. With each jump, the boat rocked harder and harder until finally the old man began spouting curses and flailed his arms in anger. Forvi looked up at the boat as it started to fade from view. As it settled down to a gentle sway, he continued on with the others, knowing their human friend was safe.
The swim down did not take long, but it was dark at the bottom of the lake. The lights on their headgear lit up the floor for a small distance. Daude pulled out his flexible tablet and held it out in front of him. The surface he could see was reflected in a wireframe representation on the tablet. Turning slowly, he surveyed the lake bed all around him. Finding nothing, they continued on.
“Hello? Does this? I can speak in this mask. Good. Can you hear me?” Said Forvi at last.
“Yes.” Replied Vafir.
“So do you honestly hope to find nothing?” said Forvi at last.
“I didn’t say hope. Honestly, I don’t know. I had no idea that humans existed so I don’t know what to think.”
“I’m surprised the council would slip on updating information on Earth.”
“They are a useless bureaucracy,” said Daude coldly, still scanning the floor.
Forvi gasped. “They’ve kept us at peace for millennia. Hardly useless.”
“History is written by the victors right?”
“Why are you here if you are so cynical of the council? Why work on the security measures of this place?”
“I like to point out there flaws. They run things horribly. What better way to improve than to have someone reveal your weaknesses.” Silence once again followed until Daude saw the tablet reveal a blocked cave entrance. “Over here.” a few moments of clearing the entrance and they saw the way in.
The cave stretched on for what seemed like forever. Forking and merging with other passageways. Daude motioned for Vafir to release his device. A tiny flashing red light split into a hundred smaller lights and took off quickly in every direction. They gathered around Daude’s tablet and watched the cave structure appear. Reach probe further mapped the cave system. One probe found a path that led straight down until it vanished from the screen. The three looked at each other briefly before setting out for that deep lone tunnel.
“This must be it,” said Daude. “The probe didn’t make it this far.”
“I think I see the end,” said Forvi. The dimly lit cave floor brightened as their helmets illuminated the small area. Forvi stood frozen, staring at another tunnel, too clean cut to be a natural formation.
“What’s the matter?” Asked Vafir. “I thought you were excited to see an old one.”
“What about you? I thought you didn’t believe.”
“Haven’t met one yet. I can still doubt.”
“Enough talk,” spoke up Daude. “We are close.”
The walk was short but slow, the pressure from the water still present. A glow ahead flickered inconsistently. It was then they realized the water mysteriously ended held back by an unknown force. Daude took the first steps beyond the threshold.
“It’s ok. We don’t need the helmets here.”
“About time,” sighed Vafir in relief.
“Who disturbs me,” boomed a deep resonate voice.
They all stood still, glancing around with their eyes only. The sound originated somewhere deeper in the cavern, closer to the source of flickering light. Daude once again took the first step towards the light to get a better view. The massive object blocking the light from them shifted. A single eye came into view, peering at them.
“Are… are you a great old one?” Asked Forvi, voice quivering.
“It is as you say,” the voice boomed back.
“How are you awake?” Daude asked.
“The humans, with their radio waves.”
“And you sit and do nothing?” Said Daude, annoyance creeping into his tone. He walked around to get a better look at the source of light. “What are you looking at?”
“Humans call it television. This screen is the internet. Vastly entertaining.”
“That’s it? They lull you to laziness with screens?”
The old one groaned and returned to stare at the television.
“How did you get these to work down here?” Asked Forvi.
“I always could interpret their signals. This is easier.”
Daude threw his hands in the air in disbelief. “Did they lull the others too then? Are all the old ones as lazy as you now?”
“Oh, no. But passage to them are barred.”
“For what purpose do you wish to know?” rumbled the old one.
“Uh. Ensuring their security is intact,” responded Daude.
“You cannot hide your motives from me, not that I care.”
Daude’s face flushed.
“Such sorrow. You carry a heavy burden. You would make the choice, I can see.”
“I’m here to look at the security,” snapped Daude, looking nervously behind him at Forvi and Vafir.
“Yes. I’m sure you are. Very well. There is an old one in the place called the United States. The humans there are aggressively defensive. You will not find success there. Another is blocked by poverty and the diseases they carry. You best avoid that one. A third is under a place known as Chernobyl, now heavily irradiated. There is one, however, to which the only barrier is that it’s location has been lost. The humans call this place Atlantis but even they no longer know where that is.”
Daude stepped forward but before he could speak, was interrupted by the old one.
“I know what you will say. It is futile. I will not help. Now if you the don’t mind, I would like to return to my shows. I have Reddit posts to make.”
The boat swayed slightly off the coast of the European shore. Daude, Vafir and Forvi were once again suiting up to enter the deep water. The self proclaimed Atlantis expert and human navigator rambled on about his Atlantis theories, proud that their current location was discovered by him alone. The three nodded politely, not wanting to give it away that they were not listening.
“I apologise for the interruption but we must get going,” said Vafir. They jumped off one by one again but this larger boat did not rock like the previous one. They reached the bottom without issue.
“What are you looking for Daude? The guide is going to be back later today. We must be ready.” Forvi said.
“This is the last possible location of the mythical human city. I must make sure I check thoroughly.”
“This is nonsense. We already met an old one and it was already a letdown.”
Daude looked around then at his tablet, straining to correlate something he couldn’t see. Looking back and forth until he slipped the tablet onto his back. Extending his hand, he said “Forvi, the excavator.”
“Aren’t you listening?”
Daude’s hand remained extended.
Forvi tossed the tool to his feet. It barely traveled deep in the water. Daude was forced to walk over to pick it up, letting a sigh out in the meantime. The use of the tool kicked up a huge cloud of dirt. When the cloud was pushed aside, an odd cylindrical some structure was unearthed.
“What is it?” asked Forvi.
“I don’t know. But it leads down. I suspect this was a tunnel into the ground in this Atlantis place. This was flipped upside down.”
“Enough!” demanded Vafir placing a firm hand on Daude’s shoulder. “We’re leaving, now.”
Daude smacked the hand away. “Leave then.”
“You’re no security specialist are you?”
“I can’t let you continue.”
“You know that each old one is awoken differently?”
Vafir grasped at Daude and the two wrestled violently, kicking up the dirt again. Forvi could only hear the occasional grunt over their comms intermixed with heavy breathing. A gurgling sound followed by silence.
Cautiously approaching through the sandy fog, he found Vafir grabbing at his throat, helmet off somewhere on the ground. He rushed over and motioned that we was about to share his helmet. They exchanged the helmet several times until the dust settled and they spotted Vafir’s helmet.
Reunited with each others helmets they looked around for any sign of Daude. Calling him over the comms proved fruitless as well. They saw a whole now existed where the human cylinder was discovered. Looking at each other, they dropped down.
The water was fairly clear on the bottom and they could see the silhouettes of the ruined buildings of a list society. The sense of dread they both felt kept them from admiring the view. They noticed a small dust trail kicked up by Daude moving quickly to an unknown location.
The trail was easy to follow and they eventually found Daude once more, standing alone in an empty chamber.
“It’s over Daude. There’s no old one here. We need to go,” said Vafir. “I’ll overlook you trying to drown me if we just go.”
“What’s this about?” Called Forvi.
“Revisionist history. The council doesn’t give a damn about me. Or my people. Wrote our genocide out of the history books. All in the name of peace. Took away my second family and left me for dead.”
Daude sniffed loudly a few times from within his helmet before continuing. “Twelve children dammit. I had to bury twelve of my children. I wanted to expose them and get justice but the higher I went up, the more corruption I found. I wanted to end it all several times. But then I learned of these great old ones and the fear they brought. I learned all I could until I figured out where they are and how to get here.”
“We can help, Daude.”
“That’s kind of you but you have no idea how many friends have said that to me and either abandoned me or wound up dead. I’ve given up. The old ones will return and they can sort the rest. I’ll see if they can spare you two.”
Daude switched off the light on his helmet and he vanished into the darkness. Vafir and Forvi rushed forward but could not find Daude. Forvi tripped over something only to see that it was Daude’s helmet. Vafir called out and pointed away from Forvi. There in the distance they saw Daude kicking furiously. But before they could approach, his movements stopped and his body relaxed.
Dread filled the two as the light in the chamber faded to complete blackness. A low rumble reverberated within the chamber. Eighteen glowing amber eyes blinked, casting unusual shadows along the walls.