Reading Time: 4 minutes
“Davis?” His voiced dropped to a whisper. Davis wasn’t in the cave. “Where the hell did you go?”
Chisholm turned in a slow circle. The cylinder tucked under his arm illuminated the empty floor around him. His sleeping sack and shoulder bag had vanished along with his companion.
Why would Davis leave? Chisholm knew he treated the man like a teenager, but this was hardly an appropriate moment to rebel. They were camped in a cave on a lifeless rock in the middle of nowhere. Why now?
He peered out into the silent black. The darkness felt heavy; it squeezed the thin halo of light against his skin. He looked down at the object cradled in his hands. A Solar Locust frozen in an amber bubble, one of the very creatures that had just destroyed Chisholm’s home. He and Davis had barely escaped the apocalyptic swarm of flesh eating insects. A shiver jangled through his bones. He needed to put the thing down. Needed to, but couldn’t.
Instead he closed his eyes, breathed the thick air, and listened. Nothing. Complete stillness – only his heart pushing blood through his body, speeding its pulse as he attended more closely. Trickles of sweat seeped from the pores under his arms. His breath caught. He opened his mouth, focused on a long inhale, and opened his eyes.
Pitch black. The light was gone.
His body jerked and the cylinder dropped from under his arm. It blinked dimly for a moment as it clattered on the cavern floor, offering Chisholm a brief flash of hope before plunging him back into darkness.
“This. Is. Not. Okay.” Chisholm said. He carefully sank to his knees. Then yelled: “THIS IS NOT OKAY!”
There was no echo to keep him company, just a thin reverb reminding him of unseen space looming in the darkness.
“Einstein,” he swore. “Roll your dice.” Chisholm had never been a religious man, but he was humble enough to hedge his bets. “Todar, bind the moment. Atru, tell me a way.” He whispered to the gods of Earth Science, Nazarai Magic, and the Duneer Narrative, then chuckled. “Pull yourself together, Chisholm.”
He tilted the entombed Solar Locust into his right hand and groped around the floor with his left until he found the photoelectric cylinder. He shook it, tapped it on the ground, and slammed it down one time, hard. Nothing. The battery had drained completely.
The muscles of his torso contracted, holding his abdomen tight against the fear that threatened to liquefy his insides. Chisholm didn’t like the dark.
He lifted his face. There was an exit just a few yards in front of him, up a small incline, but he couldn’t detect any shift in the density of the blackness, no starlight, no ambient atmospheric glow, and no draft across his sweat moistened skin.
Sitting back on his heels, he cupped the World Eater again in both hands. He’d found the thing by accidentally kicking it across the cavern floor, so he knew it wasn’t fragile, but he held it like a precious baby, a delicate egg. He began to stroke the stone. Smooth and symmetrical, like blown glass or a perfect loaf of Tareth bread, the satiny surface seemed to caress him back.
“Let’s find our way out of here,” Chisholm murmured to his treasure and rose slowly to his feet.
The World Eater wriggled in his hands.
“Jesus H!” Chisholm screamed and dropped the stone, leaping back in the darkness. His calf hooked on a stalagmite and he tumbled, falling hard onto his side and banging his head and shoulder on another protuberance on the cave floor. “Roll your dice! Bind me, bind me, bind me.” Chisholm muttered frantically. The thing wiggled. “Atru, tell me a way.” He did feel it wiggle. It was alive!
He sat up.
Where was it? Chisholm shook. He jerked and spun at the sound of his own movement. He froze. His clothes stuck to his skin offering no comfort against the chill that leaked from his bones. He stared into the black straining desperately to see. Anything. He realized that he’d prefer to know exactly where the thing was than have it squirming around somewhere in the dark. Sucking air, he leaned forward and began to crawl. His hands tapped lightly, tentatively scouting ahead.
He recoiled as his fingertip hit something solid, then he slowly extended his hand. It was hard, smooth, but not glassy like the Locust stone. It was just a stalagmite. Probably the one he’d tripped over, which meant that his prize would be a few feet further in that direction. Unless it crawled away.
He continued forward and knocked something that rolled away with a rattle. He startled back again before processing the noise. The photoelectric cylinder he’d dropped earlier. He reached forward and grabbed it, relieved. With fresh confidence, he used it to tap ahead as he crept.
Tap. Tap, tap.
He carefully placed the cylinder on the ground and reached his hand forward. He drew back when his fingers touched the unmistakable polish of the stone, then reached forward again. He very lightly felt over the round surface. It hadn’t cracked or opened. Chisholm breathed in and out, trying to release the tension in his limbs. He laid his palm gently atop the stone but his hand, shaking, couldn’t listen for movement within.
With a sudden crack and crumble, light flooded into the cave over a tumble of rocks as the entrance cleared. Blinded by the sudden illumination, Chisholm couldn’t dodge the chunks of stone that rolled towards him but he scooped up the World Eater and rolled. He landed on his back, the stone held above him.
“Davis?!” Chisholm shouted hoarsely, relieved and exasperated. “Where in Darwin’s name have you been?!”
“Chisholm?!” A female voice. Not Davis. “What are you doing here?”
“It appears he’s found our quarry.” Another voice.
“Indeed it does.”