whom gods destroy
by
dylan jeninga

The Moon a dead world?  Well, it depends what you mean by "dead".  Dylan's tale suggests that though the Selenites are long gone, their remains may include a spiritual booby-trap...  You artifact-collectors, go carefully in those ruins.


 

     Every child was familiar with the first photographs of the three Lunar cities. Great, ivory fingers of skeletal hands, picked clean by time, reaching, reaching, reaching in eons-long silence for the still blue eye of the Earth. Patryk even had several of the original prints in his collection.

     But standing there, staring up at those half-buried antediluvian spires, was different. His usual verbosity was subdued. He felt the press of unfathomable time, the weight of the epochs which had come and gone since even a mote of dust had shifted in that primordial necropolis.

     A moment later the feeling passed, and he regained himself.

     “How’re we gonna avoid the police?” he asked his guide, a Luna-born woman named Waceera, whose grey spacesuit bore a sun-faded decal of a scorpion on the helmet. He had discovered her through the extensive underground channels he had acquired building his collection, and her rates were gratuitous. She seemed to be his only choice - his representatives were rebuffed by every other prospector and smuggler they approached. Still, she had her own rover, and she was experienced with the Lunar wilderness.

     “Well, we aren’t going in there,” she said, glancing at the ancient structural bones as she unpacked their supplies from the dusty rover. “Sensor beams all around. Bring the feds down on us in a second.”

     “It’s the same with the other two ruins?”

     “Worse. The good ones, in Hypatia, have tourists busing in from Utulivu all the time, and the ones Farside are almost as popular. These are smallest.”

     “Hmm,” Patryk half-listened, absently admiring the slender towers. “So what’s the plan?”

     “You’ll see,” she replied, handing him a satchel of spare oxygen tanks, water flasks, spelunking equipment and a flashlight. “I’ll tell you when we’re up in the hills, out of listening range.”

     “But there’s nobody around for miles,” he said, throwing the bag over his shoulder.

     “Not so. There’s a team of archaeologists in a hab not far, and radio sounds wide and clear without air in the way. Lady Luna has no privacy.”

     “If we aren’t going in the city, I don’t see why we need privacy. The hills aren’t under federal protection too, are they?”

     “You’ll see,” Waceera repeated. “Stick to rocky ground. Try not to step in dust; footprints last, make following easy.”

     They made their way up the uneven terrain into the rolling foothills of a towering caldera, no doubt perished long before even the city at its base. Waceera bounced naturally across the sunken boulders, but Patryk was less steady, several times having to stop and correct his balance to keep from toppling.  He had, in the course of his travels, been to every inhabited or formerly inhabited world in the system, but learning to walk again remained a challenge each time.

     “So,” he asked absently, focusing on keeping his footing but unable to stand the silence. “Why did you agree to help me?”

     “The money, friend.”

     “Right,” he said. “But nobody else was interested in the money, once they knew I wanted Selenite artifacts. Is it just the ban on taking them offworld?”

     Waceera was quiet, and Patryk wondered if he had overstepped some cultural boundary. Then, finally, she answered.

     “It’s our heritage, I guess. Many world’s treasures have been taken to Earth.”

     Patryk was incredulous. “I can’t believe there are that many cultural guardians among you. Or if there are, that you’re the only one who could be bought. People like dollars more than history. And besides, it’s not like the Selenites are going to complain.”

     His guide shrugged. “It’s bad luck, messing with moonman ruins,” she said.  “Most of us don’t even visit, except maybe when children.”

     “Ah,” Patryk nodded. “You know, on Mars it's taboo to disrespect a water talisman. I could barely get anyone there to sell me one, Human or Martian.”
     “Why would you want one? You can afford all the water on Earth.”

     “Heh, well, that’s not quite true. But I’m a collector of alien cultural items,” he explained proudly. “I’ve got the most complete arrangement of Callistan prayer shrouds in the system.”

     “Mmm,” Waceera said. “But nothing Selenite.”

     “Not yet,” Patryk agreed. “It’s a hole that’s been eating at me for years.  All the black market options have been fabrications.”

     After an hour of laborious trudging they entered a low, unassuming ravine between two slopes, and Waceera finally came to a halt.

     “Here,” she said, turning and looking him over. She tutted quietly. “You’re covered in dust, that’s no good. Could get in the joints of your suit, make a leak.”

    “This is it?” Patryk breathed, looking around. “Is this a trick?”

     Waceera removed a magnetic wand and played it over him, disarming the static that made the Lunar regolith cling to him.

     “Not trick. Look, in the dark there,” she said, pointing.

     Patryk followed her finger up to a jagged promontory standing over the gully. Shadows on Luna were sharp-edged and solid, but the dark beneath this boulder gave the impression of a black hole, a gaping maw set to swallow him and his Lunan guide.

     “There’s nothing there,” he said.

     “There’s a cave,” Waceera replied dryly. “In the shadow, look!”

     Continuing to examine it, he saw what Waceera was directing him to: there was indeed an opening, tall and narrow as a man, which he somehow had not seen in the concealing gloom.

     “What is it?” he asked. “A lava tube?”

     His guide shook her head. “Don’t know. Funny sort of lava tube, if it is. But what’s inside is more interesting.” She handed him a flashlight, taking one herself and ascending to the slender aperture. Patryk lagged despite his excitement, taking a moment to gather himself before following.

     “It’s a squeeze,” Waceera warned, tossing her satchel into the crevice and sliding after it. “Careful not to knick your suit on anything.”

     “I’m not completely incompetent,” Patryk replied, waiting for her to pass through. “And this isn't my first airless world. I’ve been around the System a few times.”

     “Oo, big fancy Earther.” Her voice came out of the black. “You’re good, come on.”

     Patryk lobbed his bag after her. “You want my money or no?”

     “You see this,” she replied, “you’ll pay me triple.”

     Patrick inched through the claustrophobic mouth, holding his light before him to avoid tripping on the rugged floor. The passage went further than he expected, cutting into the hillside, and finally he emerged into a wider, tubular cavern.

     Waceera was waiting for him, playing her light over smooth, obsidian walls cut in wavy, undulating segments as if by a colossal earthworm. Twisting nautilus patterns adorned every surface, half-obscured by ageless dust, and the only sign of life was a mess of footprints - presumably left by Waceera’s previous sojourn into that twisting corridor.

     “Follow,” she ordered, cutting a path through darkness that seemed to retreat with reluctance, as if begrudged to vacate for even a moment the realm which it had ruled unchallenged for countless millennia. The tunnel split and split again, bifurcating like the channels of a long forgotten subterranean river, which it may have been - Patryk was no geologist. He doubted, though, that a river could cut such smooth, ebony passages as these.

     They trudged through those blind, winding tunnels for what felt like an age. Patryk became absorbed in examining the designs on the tunnel walls, endeavoring to determine if they were artificial or if perhaps they had been formed by some mysterious natural process.

     Suddenly, and with alarm, Waceera bid him to halt. He realized they were standing at the precipice of a yawning chasm, utterly concealed in the dark.

     “Close one,” his chaperone muttered, shining her light over the edge.

     “Thank God for you.” Patryk exhaled. “I would’ve fallen, without you.”

     “I thought the drop-off was further down. Didn’t expect it yet.”

     Patryk stared down into the abyss, unable to see the bottom. “We must be making good time. Makes sense you’d be faster, your second time around.”

     “Makes sense.” Waceera assented. She dropped her bag and removed her spelunking gear. “We’ll need these.”

     “Have you explored all this?” he asked as they strapped on their climbing harnesses, Waceera helping him fasten his tightly.

     “No.” She replied. “Only been down once, didn’t stay long.”

     “Then how do you know where we’re going?”

     Waceera directed her flashlight at the floor behind them. “Following my tracks,” she said. “Footprints last, remember? Also simple to find your way back.”
     “Right,” Patryk nodded, casting his light on the double sets of footprints. “And how did you find it in the first place? It’s pretty well hidden.”

     “Accident. I was prospecting.”

     “For what? Gold?”

     Waceera chuckled. “Titanium.”

     “Mm. And afterward, you didn’t show it to anyone?”

     “Just you,” said his chaperone. “Like I said, bad luck to mess with ruins.”

     “But not such bad luck you’re unwilling to bring me here, even though I’m playing the glorified tomb raider.”

     “Sure. You gave me your money, get cursed if you want to.”

     “Well,” Patryk said, “I think I’ll be fine. This is certainly an odd little maze, but nothing suggests it’s Selenite. If I weren’t out a few thousand bucks, I’d bet it really is a lava tube.”

     “It’s money well spent, friend,” Waceera assured.

     They rapelled together down into that cimmerian pit, Patryk taking it slowly, and he was surprised to discover the descent wasn’t nearly as prolonged as he anticipated. The dusty onyx floor was less than a hundred yards down, and when they reached it they replenished their oxygen, dumping their expended air canisters beneath their hanging ropes.

     The incongruous geometric swirls which had until now twisted unerringly on every surface converged sharply to flow into a single, confined passage that burrowed further into the stygian depths. It was down this passage that Waceera strode confidently.

     “How far down are we, do you think?” Patryk asked.

     “A mile, maybe more.”

     “Gonna be difficult to collect artifacts this far down, if there are any.”

     “I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Waceera said, stopping and holding her flashlight ahead of her. The polished black gullet through which they were trotting ended abruptly in an embankment of grey Lunar rock, rent through the center by a jagged fissure wide enough to pass through. “After you,” she gestured as Patryk ducked through the shadowy cleft.

     He was confronted with a large, cephalopoidal eye.

     Surrounding him on all sides were hundreds of stark, white monoliths, twice his height and shining like bleached bone, each possessing a carven, inhuman eye. They stood like a sentinel army, positioned at regular intervals that faded into the inky recesses of a spacious, rocky cavity. Nautilus whirls were drawn into the timeless detritus of the floor, touching and circling the statues in an ancient, ethereal dance.

     “Incredible,” Patryk breathed, walking ahead among the rigid columns, shining his light over their alabaster surfaces inscribed with thousands of churning, intricate fractals that hurt his head and seemed to imbue the figures with a sort of illusory life. He squinted, reaching to rub his brow, forgetting for a moment that he wore a helmet.

     “Worth the price, eh?” Waceera jested.

     “I’ll say,” Patryk said, laying his hand on the nearest monolith. Even gloved it was chill to the touch, as if rendered in dry ice. “How many are there, do you think?”

     “Don’t know. Didn’t count them.”

     “I wonder what they are.” Patryk wandered further into that legion of cyclopic sentries. He tried to make a rough accounting of the monoliths, approximating how many aides would be necessary to retrieve these treasures while maintaining the secrecy imperative to circumventing the law.

     “Waceera.” he said, looking about. She was now some distance behind him, judging by the bobbing point of her light.

     “Yeah,” she replied. As her voice clicked off, Patryk thought it was tainted by faint interference.

     “You got any friends? Lunar citizens with tight lips and empty pockets?”

     “Could be I do.” The static was definitely noticeable now, as if the mass of pillars were blocking her signal.

     “I’m getting some interference on my end.” As he spoke, the beacon of Waceera’s flashlight seemed to go out, as if smothered in a tenebrous blanket.

     “Hey,” Patryk said, “turn your light back on.”

     His only answer was a brief and sudden burst of static, trailed by silence.

     “Waceera,” he called, “I can’t see you. Turn your light back on.”

     Another bought of pitched static sounded in his ears, this one shorter than the last.  Patryk glanced around, his light creating long, split shadows that obscured more than they revealed. It occurred to him that something might have become of her, that perhaps her suit had failed her unexpectedly or some other disaster had befallen her. His soul shivered at the thought of being stranded alone in that sunless Tartarus, and he made hastily for the cavern’s entrance, casting his beam back and forth and calling for his guide desperately.

     After a few moments of nervous bounding, he thought that he must surely have arrived at the fissure. Nothing, apart from the numberless columns, surrounded him, their crescent pupils inspecting him dispassionately. His mind began to play tricks on him, so that the dark was filled with teeming spirits, skittering shadows that stood his hair on end. His breathing was light, even as he rushed, and he felt the perspiration collecting on his brow. Training his light on the furrowed ground, he remembered Waceera’s advice about footprints, and began following his own trail anxiously, hoping that his missing companion would appear again before him.

     Then, for a moment, the circle of his light flew over something that made him freeze. A distant, pale figure, unnaturally elongated and skeletal, sprinting for him manically.

     All reason left him. His boots beat hard against the soft regolith, kicking up clouds of dust and nearly sending him tumbling, even as the monoliths seemed to close in on him, fencing him in. He weaved between them, glancing behind him and catching only fleeting glimpses of his pursuer, each time closer than before. He came at last to the fissure and dashed beneath it to the place where he and Waceera had rappelled into that abyss.

     He found the ropes still hanging there above their empty air canisters, and he began pulling himself up hand over hand, not pausing to strap into a harness. He flew up the cliff face, his Earthly strength carrying him readily in the Lunar gravity, propelled onward by the nightmare at his heels.

     He reached the top of the precipice and stumbled headlong into the labyrinthine passages that had conveyed him downward moments before. The geometric swirls that adorned the walls boiled like angry clouds, and the very corridors seemed to have shifted and changed, so that he became utterly lost. What’s more, ivory monoliths had appeared in the passages, as if out of thin air, to block his way; their gazes no longer uncaring but seemingly alive with predatory hunger.

     The only sounds apart from his own harried breathing were the regular radio bursts that intensified in sharpness and frequency, repeating like a hellish drumbeat that nearly drove him to rip off his helmet. When he dared to glance behind him, the chasing figure was remotely visible, always at the edge of shadow but bearing down on him implacably.

     Finally he came again upon a set of double boot prints and began to follow them backwards, the screeching in his ears nearly unbearable, until light appeared ahead. He practically leapt to it, tearing through the narrow entrance and out into the blinding Lunar day.

     The radio in his ear screamed. Waiting there, towering, was the figure.

     He swung his bag at it, striking the creature as it tangled him in tendril fingers and began to draw him in. He got an impression of a single, ovoid eye with a crescentic pupil, and then there was a rock in his hand and he was striking it, beating it over and over again, crying with unbridled terror until, finally, the writhing form was immobile beneath him.

     All noise ceased. He sat back, sobbing, his ragged breaths wracking his lungs, the adrenaline making him tremble as he turned his head to the star-spattered void.  He noticed, gradually, that the rock in his hand was flecked with frozen red crystals.

     His gaze fell to the monstrous corpse at his feet. It was unsubstantial, as if out of focus, and he strained to make sense of what he perceived, his mind aching with the effort. The creature, it seemed, had shrunk, or perhaps it hadn’t truly been as tall he had thought. Slowly, details began to coalesce. A grey glove, a battered air tank, a faded decal of a scorpion on a shattered helmet.

     Waceera’s crushed visage within it.

     He looked up from the lifeless body. Poised before him was a solitary monolith, its convex eye cold, its etched surface glaring in the light of the unfiltered Sun.

     He was found there, some time later, by one of the archeologists stationed nearby. The man had overheard Patryk and Waceera’s earlier conversation, and in suspicion, set out to investigate. He was alarmed to discover Patryk kneeling beside his victim, staring off into empty space, still clutching a bloody stone.

     He was taken to Utulivu, where he was charged for the murder of a member of the Lunar citizenry. He insisted on his innocence, but his story was met with skepticism, especially after an official exploration of the cavern revealed a shallow, stunted lava tube, utterly lacking in monoliths or any other Selenite artifacts. An inspection of his suit identified half a dozen tiny dust-born leaks at the joints, and it soon became clear to the authorities that, even if Patryk told the truth, it was a truth tainted by the hallucinations of oxygen starvation. In compensation for his wealth, no bail was set for his sentence.

     Some months later, Doctor Alanza Oliveira was leading an archaeological expedition among the ruins of Farside. She and a team of students were excitedly pouring over an as-yet uncovered foundation which, in every previous survey of the ruins, had been overlooked as a natural formation. They found numerous unique relics which had no siblings in known Selenological lore, among them never before seen tools, artistic pieces, and other items of unquantifiable natures. Additionally, almost missed in the profusion of rarities, she unearthed the fractured remains of what might have been a structural support or idol. Its pieces, worn by time, still retained the remnants of twisting, geometric sigils across their surfaces, and one fragment in particular bore an image of a single, crescent-pupilled eye.