From Into Everywhere
Most of the tombs were small, and most had collapsed or been buried by wind-blown sand that over thousands of years had cemented into friable rock. In certain places, tombs had been built on older tombs, creating tells ten or twenty strata deep. Many were empty, but fragments of Elder Culture technology, usually sympathy stones or the mica chips that contained the entangled pairs of electrons that underpinned q-phone technology, could be found in some, and tesserae were embedded in the walls of others. No one knew if the tesserae had been created by the Ghostkeepers, or if the Ghostkeepers had excavated them from ruins left by other Elder Cultures and used them as decoration or markers for reproductive fitness. Almost all of them were inert and of only archaeological interest; those that still generated active eidolons were highly prized.
Like all tomb raiders, Lisa and Willie had eked out a living from sales of mundane finds while dreaming of discovering the kind of jackpot that would kickstart a new industry or technology and make them so rich that they would never have to work again. They sifted through the middens of abandoned hive-rat nests – the fierce little creatures dug deep and sometimes brought up artefacts. They found their way into intact chambers where eidolons might kindle from shadows and lamplight. When everything else failed, they sank shafts into the mounds of collapsed tombs. Willie disliked digging. Not just because it was hard work, although that was a consideration, but because it disturbed what he called ‘the flow’.
The City of the Dead was a sargasso of history, according to him, with strange tides and currents, backwaters and eddies. Everything flowing into everything else.
If they found no intact tombs or abandoned nests, Willie preferred to dowse rather than dig. He would wander over the parched landscape with two lengths of copper wire bent into a pair of L-rods, delicately pinching the short arms between thumbs and forefingers and narrowly watching the quiver and dip of the long arms. Circling a spot when the rods began to twitch, insisting that Lisa start digging if they violently see-sawed.
Willie’s dowsing had a surprisingly good hit rate – slightly better than chance, according to Lisa’s Chi-squared tests – but he preferred spelunking, and so did Lisa. Finding their way into spaces untouched for thousands of years, where the psychic traces of the creatures that had built them yet remained. She remembered spiral tombs augered into the earth. She remembered labyrinths of broken stone. She remembered one huge, cool, bottle- shaped chamber lit by a shaft of sunlight from a high crevice. As Willie had climbed down the swaying rope ladder, orange fronds clumped in the splash of sunlight on the floor had suddenly broken up and scurried off in every direction, seeking the safety of shadows. A kind of colonial beetle-thing, it turned out, with symbiotic plants growing on its shells. Lisa remembered another chamber, this one long and low, where eidolons had exploded around them like bats: after they’d sold the tesserae that generated them, she and Willie had lived high on the hog for two months.
She remembered the time the truck’s LEAF battery had run out of charge at the western edge of the City of the Dead, a long way from the nearest settlement, with the eroded range of mountains that marked the edge of the Badlands shimmering at the horizon. Willie had pulled his trail bike from the load bed and roared off with the battery strapped behind him. He’d said that he’d be directly back, but a day passed, and another, and there was no sign of him and Lisa couldn’t pick up a phone signal. She discovered that she didn’t mind being stranded. She had plenty of food, enough water to last a couple of weeks. She slept in the back of the truck’s crew cab during the day and watched the starry sky at night. Dissolved into the antique silence of the desert. Looking back, she’d never been happier.
On the fourth day a hot wind out the south blew white sand from the crests of sand dunes. The sky grew milky and the sun faded to a dull smear and the horizon closed in. The truck’s door seals couldn’t keep out the dust and Lisa had to tie a handkerchief over her nose and mouth. Everything was covered with a fine white bloom. Her eyes itched madly.
Willie drove out of the tail end of the storm towards sunset. He’d been caught up in a business deal, he said, but it hadn’t panned out. Lisa didn’t bother to ask. It might have been a lead on Elder Culture ruins or a poker game, a girl or a spell in jail. In the morning they mounted the recharged LEAF battery and drove to Joe’s Corner and bought water and food and went on.
Those were the days of their lives until they finally hit their jackpot. Until the Bad Trip.