Want to have an Adventure in the Andes? Or go Camping with Cryptologists? How about a nice old fashioned Fairy Tale? How about a nice romance with Cupid’s Conundrum? Something appeal to you about A Robot’s Rebellion? You could also visit a Castle of Conundrums! And what happens when a simple roleplaying game becomes a bunch of Dicey Dealings? If you’re feeling like a Christmas tale, how about the adventures of Peppermint the Elf? You can find a nostalgic kid-detective story with The Pepperoni And Cheese Detective Agency. Battle a troll as you take classes at The Adventurer’s Academy. Or be the kind of monster that saves the day in A Dragon’s Quest. Or a Merry Merry X-Mas Story (which might be a little bit dark.) How about a perfectly tongue-in-cheek mystery with A Bother for the Butler? You can check out the hardships involved with dental retrieval through Trouble for the Tooth Fairy. Or, see how a private detective is crucial to Santa by keeping someone on The Nyce List.
(These are some of our older stories. Go read them if you want to kill some time.)
“Do you know what I love about working in Antarctica?”
You roll your eyes at Kimberly. “No one forced you to come here.”
She shakes her head. “May as well have. The whole field of Paleontology got so swamped with researchers, all the good excavation sites were taken.”
She has a point. Certainly at one point, Antarctica was part of Pangea, and there had to have been life on the continent at one point. It’s just that in the extreme cold, digging for dino bones is miserable and largely fruitless. The ground is frozen solid, meaning the digging goes slowly. The cold means you can’t be out digging for very long, meaning the digging goes even more slowly. Also, almost everyone on your team wants to go home, so the digging is, for all intents and purposes, not really happening.
You finally managed to erect a tent over the dig site. On the plus side, this means you can introduce a certain amount of heat into the area. In the minus column, you’re working in extremely cramped conditions for paleontology. Usually, the bigger the space you can dig, the better your odds of finding something. Looking in the space where just one tent is set up is almost entirely certain to be a failure.
Almost certain. And so you dig.
Digging through frozen soil has all the charm and entertainment value you’d expect, which is to say none. The dirt quickly turns to mud, which refreezes almost immediately onto your clothing. Progress has been slow, not only because of the climate, but because of morale. The work is so frustrating, as the lead at this dig, you constantly have to send the work teams out so they can go and enjoy the spectacular, unblemished surroundings and get their heads back together.
You stopped calling this “taking a few minutes to cool down” after week one for obvious reasons.
The mornings are the best. It’ll be a few hours before you need to remind everyone not to dig so hard they risk damaging any of the fossils which might potentially be under your feet. Though to be honest, your hopes are simply not very high. After a picturesque walk from the base camp to the dig site, you and Kimberly pick up your tools and begin your work. The labor is Sisyphean, and you know the best way to get through it is to keep your head down and try not to notice how much every single piece of rock and debris hidden in this bitterly cold mud looks exactly the same with no variations whatsoever . . .
Except that bit.
No, that bit looks quite entirely different. It nearly glows in comparison to its drab surroundings. Hematite possibly? Though normally you need to polish hematite to get that much of a shine, and besides if that indentation in the ground is an indication . . . it’s huge.
“Kim!” No one has needed to shout in the confines of the tents for so long that your voice breaks with the effort. All eyes are on you, and not only Kimberly, but the entire team is suddenly around you. Everyone’s been doing the same thing as you have for so long that there can be no doubt as to why you called them over.
There is a fury of very precise and careful work. You’re all trained at such digs, and it’s vitally important that you work as hard as possible to prevent damage to whatever it is you just found. After what seems like an impossibly short time, however, the surface of your find has been cleared out. You all stare at what you’ve uncovered, trying to find some way to explain how this could be what there can be no doubt that it is.
Kim is the first one to say it out loud. “It’s metal.” She swallows. “It’s forged metal.”
“It can’t be,” Sanderson replies. No one bothers to correct him or point out that it obviously is and couldn’t be anything else. Sanderson didn’t seem to believe himself when he said it, but all of you were thinking it.
It can’t be.
It simply can’t possibly, through any means, under any circumstances, be.
But quite clearly it is.
No human civilization ever existed on Antarctica. The continent was always too inhospitable, and besides what little information you’ve gathered from the surrounding fossil remains is that whatever you’re finding dates to more than a few million years before the dawn of mankind.
So clearly somebody at some point in history carried a huge piece of metal (unlikely) far into the vast frozen lands of Antarctica (yeah, right) and for some obscure reason (speculation at best) they underwent the Herculean task of burying the thing in the frozen soil (inconceivable) without leaving any trace of having done so (dubious at best).
“All right, so clearly this is weird.” Heads nod all around you as you find your voice. “We still haven’t uncovered the whole thing from what I can see. What we need to do is . . . What’s that sound?”
That sound is a rumble. You suddenly realize that you’re not so much hearing it as feeling it. You’re feeling it coming up through the ground below you. You stare down at your feet mouth agape, once again telling yourself that what you’re experiencing really shouldn’t be possible. This must be some sort of earthquake. Sure it feels like machinery activating beneath your feet, but certainly something so long buried couldn’t possibly function even if it were . . .
Things become considerably more academic very quickly. The rumbling ends with a sudden click that you tell yourself could not possibly be the final stages of an automatic door unlocking. As you start to fall — you, Kim, and about half a ton of earth which apparently were standing on top of this hatch which now opens beneath you — you reassess your position. Whether it can be or not doesn’t matter. It is, and you’ve got to deal with it.
Assuming you survive this fall, of course.
You awaken. Simultaneously, you realize that awakening indicates you must have lost consciousness, at least for a moment. Slowly, you sit up, taking inventory of your body parts. Your head feels a bit tender.
Obviously, you struck it on the way down. In other words, you were probably limp when you hit the ground, which is why, aside from some wicked bruises on your left side, you appear to be uninjured.
There is no answer, which makes her safety your first priority. You struggle to your feet, pleased that you experience no dizzy spells. A concussion would make this even harder.
Again, she does not answer. You scan the soil-strewn floor of … wherever this is, until you see her. You rush for her prone form, and you breathe a sigh of relief when she moans and turns over.
“Think I broke my wrist.” She cradles it in her other hand. “What did we fall, about fifteen feet?”
You look up to judge the distance, and your mind freezes. What had struck you as light coming down from the opening at the top of the hole is, in fact light coming from what you can only call the ceiling. The light is a square pattern surrounding the hatch which you fell through.
The hatch which is now sealed shut.
You can hear, sort of, your crew on the other side of the hatch pounding to get in. You shout up to them, but it’s obvious that the sound is not getting through to them. Nothing is really getting through to them.
Which means you’re trapped here.
“What do we do now?” asks Kim.
Chosen: Rely on your team to find a way to open the hatch. Your priority is to treat this location as an archaeological dig.
You shake your head to clear it. A metric ton of emotions (fear chief among them) run across your mind. You take a deep breath watching it turn to fog as you exhale. Calming your nerves, you respond with what you know is the right decision. You know it’s the right decision, because it’s not the one you want to make at all.
“We have no way to get up to that hatch.” You jut your chin upward, trying to tell yourself that the banging up there hasn’t gotten less emphatic. “And frankly, I’m not optimistic that we could find another way out. There’s no guarantee there’s another door out of this room, and if there is, going through it could just get us locked behind something else the team would need to pry us out of.” You shake your head. “No, I don’t think the two of could get out of here, so what we need to do is examine our surroundings. This could be the biggest discovery in the history of mankind, but we have to be careful. The more we mess around with this place, the more likely we could contaminate the data.”
“So look, but don’t touch.” She stares ruefully at her injured wrist. Not touching something doesn’t seem like it will be a problem.
“Or at least, don’t touch much. Remember, King Tut’s tomb was important precisely because it wasn’t disturbed for so long.”
“I’m a paleontologist, not an archaeologist.”
You shrug. “Hopefully the skills transfer. Besides, we don’t know for certain this wasn’t made by really smart dinosaurs. Let’s start with a cursory examination.”
You begin on the closest wall. Some of the frozen soil on which you stood struck this wall on it’s way down. There’s less dust than might have been if the soil wasn’t mostly frozen, but enough of it struck the wall to leave a mess.
“So, first observation, the walls are not perpendicular to the ground, though they do appear to be square with each other. This room, or whatever, looks roughly like a cube, except that curved wall on the far side.”
Kim nods. “So not being square with the ground is what? A strange architectural choice?”
“Maybe. Can’t rule it out.”
“Or everything could have been level at one point and it was swallowed into a sink hole.”
You nod. Now she’s getting into the spirit of things. “Or, something in the sky crashed into the earth and buried itself in here.”
Kim squeezes her injured wrist to her chest and turns to face you. “Are we both trying not to say this is an alien spaceship?”
“It’s not the bottom of my list of possibilities, but the origin is unknown. I can’t prove it’s not extra-terrestrial, but I also can’t prove this isn’t an antechamber to the lost city of Atlantis. Or maybe someone with a lot of money tried to build a nuclear bunker and just did a great job of hiding the fact that they did it in Antarctica.”
“We didn’t see any evidence the ground had been disturbed in the last century or two,” Kim points out.
“True, but we assumed it couldn’t have been, so we might have been discounting any such evidence we did notice.”
She rolls her eyes at you, then goes back to looking at the wall. “This surface is different than the rest of the walls. I’m not sure what . . .” She stops abruptly. “What do those look like to you?”
You follow where she’s pointing with her good hand. “Those are a couple of dirt spots on the wall.”
“Yes, but what do they LOOK like?” She looks in your direction, telling you with a glance not to insist on empirical data. “If you saw these in a Rorschach test, what would you say they were?”
“Muddy footprints which have dried out a long time ago.” You could argue against the likelihood of it, but you’re walking a fine line between not jumping to conclusions and being willfully obtuse.
“So perhaps what’s now the wall was meant to be the floor?” She gestures to the top. “If that’s the case, it appears there is a passageway turning off to the left if we wanted to climb up there and take a look. The hallway, or whatever, would lead down to where we’re standing, and there’s about a ton of frozen soil between us and wherever that would lead. Maybe a door? Maybe a dead end? No way to know.” She shrugs. “Or perhaps it’s not the floor and I’m just wrong about that.”
“I can buy the floor idea. That makes the hatch we came through part of the wall, and it explains the curve on that wall on the opposite side. If that was originally a ceiling, no need to make it flat.” You turn slowly in place.
“There are more lights over there near what’s now the ground. Maybe that’s another hatch which was meant to be on the far wall?”
Kim frowns as she looks at the light. “It’s amazing to me that any light source still has power under any circumstances. Even a nuclear power source would have run through its half life if this is dated to anywhere near what the surrounding materials would seem to indicate.” She takes a step forward to look more closely, then stops, cocking her head to the side. “Do you hear that?”
You swallow past the dryness suddenly in your mouth. “Yes. It could just be some weird acoustics making the banging from the hatch sound like it’s coming from somewhere else.”
You can tell Kim is getting a little frustrated with you. “Okay, fine. Sure, that’s what it could be. Does it sound like that’s the case?”
You shake your head.
“What would you say it sounds like if you had to guess?” She focuses on you with a grim set to her face. “And you do have to guess, because I’m going to punch you in the throat if you try playing devil’s advocate here.”
You nod to indicate the point is taken. “If I had to guess, I’d say it sounds like there is some knocking and banging that’s coming from somewhere else, somewhere other than from the hatch above us. And I would further say …”
Kim waits for a full ten seconds before helping out. “You would further say what? That the rhythm of that banging sounds way too much like ‘Shave and a Haircut’ to be, I don’t know, anything other than that?”
You dearly wish you could say she doesn’t have this pegged on the nose. The problem is, in this hollow environment, there are so many echoes you’re not sure where that sound could be coming from.
Chosen: Call out. Make noise. Try to let whatever’s knocking come find you.
Kim is frozen, not with cold, but with indecision. Her eyes dart all around, vainly trying to detect the source of the sound.
You reach down, and grab a hunk of rock. Handing it to Kim, you make your intentions clear. “Start banging on the wall with this. Shout, make noise, that sort of thing. We have no idea where we are, but it sounds like there’s somebody nearby who does.”
“Okay, but …” She glances meaningfully around the room. “…whoever’s making that noise isn’t part of our team. What if they don’t want us to be here?”
“Our team isn’t equipped to cut through the hatch up there, and from all appearances, the hatch remained closed for a few centuries before that at least. We have no idea what made it open, so we can’t rely on them getting it to do it again. We’ve got no food, no water, and no heat source. We need help if we’re going to be down here for any length of time.”
“We might not have much of a ‘length of time’ if we aren’t welcome here.”
“True, but that’s a maybe. We definitely won’t do well on our own here, so I think our best bet is to rely on the kindness of strangers.”
So saying, you lift up one of the little picks you would normally use to chip away at the soil. You start banging it against the wall. Three short raps, three long, three short again, and then repeat. “Hello!”
The knocking in the familiar Shave and a Haircut pattern ceases in immediate response to your calls. Kim takes this as a positive sign and begins to do likewise, banging away for all she can and shouting with gusto.
Every minute or so, you stop briefly, listening for some sign you’ve been heard. You’re fairly certain there’s some noise from your team up above. They might be tapping something in Morse code. Too bad the only letters you know are S and O.
Other than that, however, nothing further comes to your ears. After fifteen minutes, you take a break as your voice is already raw from the cold and the shouting. You and Kim continue to take turns banging away at the wall, but to no avail.
After a half hour, you give up, at least for now. There hasn’t been a single sound indicating someone is heading your way, and the tapping you heard before has been gone since the start of this exercise.
“Well that’s a bit depressing.” Kim grunts as she lowers herself to a seated position. “If that had worked, we’d have gotten somewhere. As it is, I feel like we just wasted a half-hour, and I’m not sure we had that time to waste.”
“You’re probably right there.”
“Any other ideas?” She looks tired. Pain is exhausting, and with her wrist as damaged as it is, she’s got to be on her last legs. Still, a nap in these conditions is hardly ideal.
“I’m going to dig that tarp out and see how much of it we have. If we can construct a makeshift tent, it will hold in some of our body heat. Maybe there’s something here we can use to keep us off the ground so the earth doesn’t suck all the heat off us.”
She nods, already moving. “I can help, probably. One hand is better for digging than none.”
There is a small stone tied up in a piece of wire. It wasn’t there a moment ago, and it clearly just hit the wall nearby. If you had to guess, you’d say it was thrown from around the corner where the passageway (or is it just a high ceiling) goes almost straight up from your current position.
“Who threw that? Hello, can you hear me?!” Kim’s voice has gone an octave up, equal parts fear and desperation. While Kim continues to shout, you go to the stone. Sketched on either side of it (probably with a softer stone) are crude drawings.
After Kim has shouted herself nearly hoarse (and shared any number of colorful phrases indicating what she thinks of the stone throwers who won’t show themselves) you approach her with the stone.
“If you had to guess …”
Kim glares at you. “I don’t want to guess. I want the jerk who’s obviously within earshot of us to just come out and give us a hand.”
“They don’t appear willing to do that.” You extend the stone to her again.
“Fine.” After a moment, she responds. “Well, this one is obviously fire. I mean, if it’s not, then I have no idea what it could be. On the other side . . . I don’t know. A bald guy with no face and no arms? But the legs are really short, and he’s pigeon-toed.” She turns it around in her hands. “Ok, when I look at it this way, I’m thinking shovel.”
“I came to the same conclusions. There is a picture of fire and a picture of a shovel.”
“Great. We agree. Why did someone send us a picture of fire and a picture of a shovel, and what the heck are we supposed to do about it?”
Chosen: Who cares what it means? Go climb up the passageway and find whoever threw this.
You stare at the area where the rock came from. Kim follows your gaze. “What do you think?”
She frowns. “I can probably make that climb.”
“A fifteen foot fall should not have anything to do with the word ‘probably.’”
“You’re probably right.” She shrugs. “Me first, that way if I start to fall, you can catch me.” She probably wanted nothing to do with the look on your face which indicated your skepticism of this plan. That would be why she continued walking without looking back at you.
The incline to go up from where you are to the turn in the corridor is steep, but not insanely so. The bigger issue is that the surface is smooth, offering almost nothing to hold on to. You follow Kim, the two of you virtually crawling to the top. By the time you’ve reached it, Kim has tears in her eyes from the pain in her wrist.
It’s considerably worse when you realize you’ve reached a dead end.
If your theory is correct and the surface you just climbed was supposed to be a floor, then the thing on your right is probably a door set a few feet within the new corridor. It’s a door you have no idea how to open, however. There is some kind of access panel on one side, but given the difference between what should be the floor and which way gravity is pointing, it’s well out of reach.
“Are we sure the rock came from here?”
“There’s no other ‘here’ here,” you reply.
“So there must be a way to open this door.”
“I don’t know about ‘must be.’ There could just as easily be exactly no way to open it from this side.” You point to a space near the door where the surface of the wall juts out. “Could that maybe be for ventilation? Maybe the rock came through that. And there–” You were about to take a closer look, when you froze, suddenly.
You swallow. “There are two things. First, when I moved toward the door, I kicked something. I’m pretty sure there are three or four rocks like the one we found downstairs at my feet just now.”
Kim grunts. She is already tired of rocks as a communication system. “You have this tendency to bury the lead. What is the second thing, which I’m guessing is the more important.”
“I’m fairly certain I just stepped on something that made a clicking sound.”
Chosen: It makes no sense that this would be a landmine. Just pull your foot away and stop wasting time.
Kim levels her gaze at you, and the strain of climbing with her broken wrist has clearly worn out her patience. “You heard a click?”
“And this concerns you?”
“So your theory is that in this structure, which has been buried in the soil of Antarctica for potentially centuries, someone threw down a rock with a cryptic message so as to lure us to make a difficult climb and then stand on a haphazardly tilted surface just to blow us up with a landmine which has, to all appearances, also remained untouched for centuries in the Antarctic cold?” She takes a long breath. “Because, with minimal effort, I can think of multiple alternative sources of a clicking sound which do not involve bringing high explosives into the mix.”
“I’m just being cautious.”
“Continue to be this cautious, and I will kill you long before a landmine will.” She shoves you with her good hand, forcing you to shift off of whatever you have just stepped on.
You both hear the clicking sound this time.
There is no explosion, of course, but you briefly see Kim’s eyes widen and her hands move to defensively cover her head. There is no time for you to comment on her hypocrisy, however. You very quickly have a larger concern on your hands.
“So, evidently that was the light switch.”
Kim grunts, not wanting to comment. You imagine she’s not entirely certain which one of you is to blame for your current predicament.
The blackness is sudden, total, and while you could try to step on the switch once again, you decide you’ll have a better chance at finding it if you kneel and sweep the area with your hands.
Promptly you crack heads with Kim who apparently had the same plan. The stars swimming in front of your eyes are the only things you can see.
“Before either of us says anything,” you say in hushed tones to avoid more head pain, “we should remember we are both tired, cold, and recently had a pretty bad fall.”
“Also, we kind of hate each other right now.”
“Agreed,” Kim repeats, but there’s a little smile behind her voice.
“Let me try to find the switch.” You shift your weight back to where you’d meant to search previously. Rock. Rock. Rock. CLICK.
You’ve pressed the switch again, but nothing happens.
“Why is nothing happening?” asks Kim.
For a moment, you say nothing. The cold air seems somehow even more bitterly chilling in the dark. You inhale to speak and you swear your saliva is freezing. “One thought is that this is like one of those lamps where you have to click over a few times before the light comes on.”
“So why aren’t you clicking it again?” You don’t need to see to know that Kim is forcing the words out through gritted teeth.
“Because there is also the option that whatever energy has been running for potentially billions of years in this place may turn off quickly, but will need a few moments to warm up. If I keep clicking, waiting for something to happen, I might lose track of whether I am turning it on or off.”
Kim’s voice goes up an octave as she replies. “Then what precisely do you propose we do?”
Chosen: Try to reach the panel you saw earlier and open the door next to you. Perhaps there’s light on the other side.
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