The dirt ended just a few yards ahead. Beyond that the tunnel was a cylinder of curving, polished metal that threw back their guttering torchlight. Murphy breathed in deeply. “A human lair. From before the Reckoning.”
“Human lairs had traps.” Frey’s nose twitched. “Clockwork guards that moved on their own. Powerful human hexes.”
“Are we afraid of hexes?”
“Just because something’s dangerous doesn’t mean we have to do it.”
“Nonsense.” Murphy pressed on. After a hesitant moment Frey followed.
Their leather boots sank into the accumulated dirt of centuries. Reflected firelight swirled across the concave ceiling and walls. With every step Murphy’s pulse pounded more fiercely.
Then the tunnel angled sharply and when they rounded the bend they stood before a heavy-looking, circular double door. Next to the doorway was a small recessed shelf, set in the wall at shoulder height, exactly the size of the stone that Gianna had recovered during her survey. Murphy fumbled in his pouch and withdrew the artifact. Frey opened his mouth as if to say something. Murphy slid the slippery-smooth, cloudy crystal into the slot and it snapped into place. There was a moment of stillness, of expectation. Then a wave-shaped crack widened between the two half circle doors and they slid away from each other. Beyond them was a vast chamber, and as they watched it filled with a soft white light that glowed from the ceiling and the walls.
“This is a bad idea,” Frey said. Murphy strode forward.
They entered a domed room. A black band of opaque glass followed the wall in a great circle around them, gleaming like a perfectly still pool. Beneath the band were instruments, knobs that looked like jewels and clock faces of a complexity and sophistication that made them appear more objects of art than science. The floor was some material Murphy had never touched before. And in the center of it all was a statue made of metal, an exquisitely crafted representation of a mightily clawed, sleeping mechanical beast.
“I’d heard they were rich.” Murphy realized he had stopped to gape. “But I never imagined anything like this.”
Frey gazed about in shared awe. But his voice, when he commented, was instructional. “The humans probably didn’t build this themselves, of course. Their robotic slaves were capable of the arts of manufacturing and service as well as war.”
“Needless to say they had other powers as well. Before the Reckoning, humans were able to transmit messages instantly around the world.”
Frey tugged on his whiskers. “You understand we have to leave.”
Murphy looked at him. “Leave?”
“Whatever secrets lurk here, this is where they must be left.”
Murphy shook his head and walked over to get a closer look at the instrument panels.
Frey was undeterred. “The knowledge here destroyed human civilization. Why drag it back out to do the same thing to ours?”
“Moles aren’t humans. We’re wiser.”
“How do we know? With all the tools they made, humans probably thought they were wise, too.”
“Wisdom is more than knowledge. In any case, we deserve our own chance,” Murphy insisted. “To fail or succeed.”
“When they failed it destroyed everything.”
The point Murphy really wanted to make was too self-evident to say. They were going to explore this place because it was here. It existed. It was part of the world yet still unknown. Instead he said, “Then let’s learn from them, to discover their mistakes so we don’t repeat them.”
The mechanical beast moved. They both heard it at the same time: a strained grinding of gears, the scrape of metal on tile. They spun to face the automaton as it shuddered and unfolded itself, revealing sharp claws and glowing eyes. It rose.
“What do we do?” Murphy hissed. Frey backed away slowly, his eyes on the beast.
The constructed creature lunged, its limbs scissoring the air.
Murphy turned and ran. Frey remained frozen in place, staring in awe at the construct as it closed the gap between them. Murphy grabbed Frey’s arm and pulled the young artisan along after him as he barreled out the door. At some point he dropped his torch. As soon as he had cleared the threshold Murphy yanked the stone off of its shelf. Behind him metal claws clattered on the slick floor, and Murphy glanced over his shoulder just in time to see the machine-beast leap. The two halves of the door slammed inward simultaneously and crushed its torso, almost cleaving it in half.
Murphy skidded to a stop and looked back at the creature. It twitched, its long claws jerking open and closed, and then it slumped, still. Its head and limbs hung like snapped branches. Dark smoke twisted up from its broken frame.
Murphy dropped his hands onto his thighs and leaned forward, breathing deeply. When his heart had calmed he rose back to his full height, slowly, and put his back to the gate. “Let’s go.”
“We can’t go,” Frey said. “The ancients’ machines have awakened. We have to know what that means for us.”
“You said—” Murphy just shook his head, too overwhelmed to argue.
“It doesn’t matter what I said. That was before. This is our reality now.”
Murphy turned to look at him. Frey walked up to Murphy and took the key stone out of his hand.
I’m the one who wanted to discover this place, Murphy tried to tell him. Not you. But his throat felt too tight to form the words.
“I wouldn’t have made it this far without you,” Frey assured him, as if reading his mind.
Murphy nodded and started back down the tunnel, alone. He trailed his hand along the wall as he passed out of the range of Frey’s torchlight. There had been no need for Frey to tell him the rest: that explorers like Murphy had mattered up until the moment they found what they were looking for.
This is Aaron Emmel’s third story for Every Day Fiction. His stories have also appeared in sub-Q Magazine, Jitter, Riding Light, and other publications.