High above the earth a hot air balloon floated. Beyond the brightly colored envelope was nothing but blue sky and wispy cirrus clouds. Below were acres and acres of dark green forest. It was a lovely spring day, and Dav took a deep breath of the thin air. On such a day all was right with the world. The fine weather made her feel lucky. As she scanned the woods for signs of what she and her partner, Div, were seeking, she had a premonition that this would be the day that they would hit pay dirt -- discover a lost treasure that would make them rich, rich enough to afford the child they always wanted. She knew it in her bones.
She chuckled. She knew that if she said what she was thinking aloud, Div would shake her head and say, "Always the optimist, Dav." She gave a loving look at her business and life partner sitting on the floor of the basket, her head resting against the tightly woven wicker, her eyelids half closed in a light doze. She seemed so beautiful and peaceful, no one would guess that she was the more pessimistic of the two women.
As the balloon sailed over an ocean of oak, maple and birch with the balloon bobbing and the suspension cables singing, Dav could have imagined herself aboard a sailing vessel on the high seas. But she was not such an imaginative person. No, she was a practical sort. It was her mate, Div, who was imaginative, artistic and a risk-taker. It was Div who had proposed this expedition into the wilderness. Nonetheless, once Dav saw the practicality of it, she was the most enthusiastic. It was though her and Div were two parts of whole, much different in temperament and outlook, yet working and living together like adjoining pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Dav could not imagine life without her.
Suddenly Dav spotted an odd-shaped mound rising out of the forest. She shook Div awake. "There, there," she exclaimed and pointed. "Look to the northwest."
Div popped up and gazed through binoculars in the direction Dav indicated. "I see it. It could be exactly what we've been looking for. I knew that sooner or later we'd find something. Make a new heading."
Dave gave her a mock salute. "Aye, aye, captain."
The basket bounced and jolted as the women manipulated the controls to change their direction. Fan blades on one end of the basket propelled the vehicle when it was not simply drifting with the wind currents. They also acted as a rudder, since they could be swiveled using a steering mechanism. Power was supplied by batteries on a trickle charge from solar panels attached to the balloon's envelope.
As the balloon neared the mound, Div killed the motor and turned off the burner while Dav slowly allowed air to escape from the parachute valve. Gradually the vehicle descended. When they were directly above the mound, Dav threw out the anchor, a pointed barb attached by a long rope. It stuck fast, bringing the basket to an abrupt halt. Luckily, the breeze at ground level was light, so they did not need additional anchorage. The whole maneuver was accomplished smoothly and efficiently. The two women worked well together; they had been ballooning for years. .
They lowered several pieces of equipment to the ground, including a sensitive metal detector, and clambered down a rope ladder. After they settled everything in a heap, Dav turned the detector on, adjusted a calibration control and watched the meters. Her eyes went wide and her heart pumped wildly with excitement as the needle on the meter rose and rose and until it was pinned to the right side. "Holy Medis, we've hit pay dirt. There's tons of metal under our feet."
Div crowded in close by Dav's side. She leaped up and down and gave Dav a tremendous hug. "If we can dig the stuff up, we'll be billionaires," she cried. Then she sobered. "Hauling it out will be the problem though. We'll have to come back to this location with a wagon and a team. And exactly how do we get a horse-drawn wagon through the forest?"
Dav laughed. "Always the pessimist, Div. I'm sure you'll think of a way. You always come up with an idea. We won't worry about that now. First things first. We don't even know exactly what's under there. Let's set up camp at the foot of the hill. Chances are, tomorrow we'll have a lot of digging to do."
The next day they attacked the hill with shovels and picks. It was tough hard work. The soil of the mound was compacted clay. Although they started digging at sunrise, by noon they had only made a tunnel one meter wide, two and half meters high and two meters deep. At that point they struck a stone wall. Disappointed that they had yet another barrier to overcome, Div called a halt for lunch.
As they prepared a picnic from the food they had carried in the balloon, Div asked, "What do you think is here? It's obviously artificial. It kind of looks like a wall."
"Or the outside of a building. Probably the remains of a building so ancient it was buried under wind carried dirt over the centuries," said Dav. "We can either dig along the wall until we find an opening, or break through with picks. Or maybe we should mark this spot on our maps and return with more equipment."
Div contemplatively stirred her soup before taking two sips. "I'm dying of curiosity. Before we leave I must see what's on the other side of that wall. What could possibly inside that hill that could contain as much metal as our detector showed? I doubt that the wall is more than a third of a meter thick. You brought dynamite, didn't you?"
"Yeah. Why? Oh, I see. You want to blast through the wall."
"A couple of sticks should do it."
While Div returned to the balloon to retrieve their blasting equipment, Dav drilled two holes in the mortar between stone blocks. When Div returned, she placed the dynamite and blasting caps in the holes and ran wires around to the side of the mound where they would be safe from the explosion. When all was prepared, the women crouched down and threw the switch that detonated the explosive. There was a loud roar, and a plume of dust spewed from the side of the hill. They waited a few minutes for it to settle and returned to the site of the dig. More work was ahead of them. There was a lot of debris, broken stone, and collapsed dirt to clear away before they reached the opening they'd created. It was late afternoon when they finished.
"Good job, if I may say so myself," Dav commented. They each grabbed powerful flashlights and crawled through the hole.
Within the gloomy interior, the air was stifling and musty as though they had entered an ancient tomb. They found themselves in an area that seemed to have once been an office complex. The offices were partitioned from each other by low walls inside of which were desks, filing cabinets, and computers of ancient design. In addition, as they waded through the thick dust of a corridor, Dav caught a whiff of decay that turned her stomach. Any minute, she expected to encounter the skeleton of someone long dead sitting in one of the swivel chairs. Under their feet there were eerie vibrations as though heavy machinery on a lower level of the building was pumping and throbbing. That was the only sound in the place other than the clicking of their heels on the cracked tiles. Dav shivered and felt a bit claustrophobic. She never did like rooms without windows.
"Bagods," exclaimed Div, "look at all the metal. Filing cabinets made of steel! We've hit the mother load this time, Dav. There's enough metal in this room to make us millionaires. How could the ancients waste something so precious as steel on office furnishings?"
Dav shrugged and explored a bit. The rusty cabinets were filled with folders stuffed with paper, which crumbled to dust the moment she touched them. "This place is really ancient. At least a thousand years must have gone by since it was occupied."
"Three thousand actually." Div waved her artifact dating instrument.
"What now, Div? Shall we head back to get a truck or explore some more?" Dav hoped that Div would say to return home. The underground building gave her the creeps.
"Let's explore. This place intrigues me."
"Okay, if you want to. But we've got to do something about our balloon. If any one spots it and guesses what we've found, there could be trouble. You remember what happened when those gals found that ancient landfill in the swamps south of here. Everybody and her sister wanted to mine the place. The original finders got hardly anything for their trouble."
"You're right. Before we explore more of the building, we'll collapse the balloon and hide it in the woods. Once we've investigated the whole site, we'll hike back to Eastville on foot and mark a path through the forest for the wagon we'll bring back here."
"But Div, it'll take a month to get home on foot." Dav was not much of a hiker.
"I know, but think of the reward once we start bringing out all this metal. And it'll be all ours. No one will have any idea where we're mining it"
They spent the next day carefully folding up the balloon, covering it with brush and toting equipment that was in it to their camp. The following day, they reentered the ancient building. Beyond the office area, they found an unworkable elevator and stairs leading down. As they walked down one level, the vibrations grew louder. Through the doorway, Dav heard a deep rumbling. "What in the void can that be?"
"It sounds like machinery. But Great Medis, could machines be operating without human intervention or fuel for thousands of years? It doesn't seem possible."
"I don't know. They might be atomic and computer controlled. The ancients had technology that's been lost for centuries."
One door led into some sort of control room. The rumbling and creaking noises were louder there, but came from an even lower level. The dials and meters in the control room registered indications that neither Dav nor Div could interpret. The symbols used were in an ancient forgotten script.
Dav remarked, "It'll take us years to dismantle this stuff."
"Maybe we shouldn't. Possibly, whatever the machinery this controls accomplishes something more valuable than the metal of it as scrap. I'd sure like to learn the secret of how it could run for all that time."
Dav scoffed, "I couldn't imagine what could be more precious than metal, considering the price of steel and aluminum."
Div raised her hands palm up. "It could be anything."
They left the control room and headed down another flight. The stairs ended there, and they stepped through an entrance door. Dav stopped so quickly, Div coming through behind her bumped into her. She gaped, too stunned to say a word. What she saw was incredible. In a room so huge that her flashlight did not penetrate to the end were rows and rows of what looked like metal sarcophagus with transparent tops, and copper pipes and plastic covered cables connected to them. In front of each crypt was a control panel on stand. The stench of decay was quite strong in the room. Liquid gurgled through the pipes, and there was a hissing like that of escaping gas. Dav shuddered. She had a bad feeling about this place, but she hid her anxiety from Div.
Div recovered from her awe first. "What in blue blazes is this?"
"Only the ancients know. C'mon Div, perhaps we'd better get out of here and leave this part alone. That office furniture upstairs is worth plenty. Let's go."
Div hit her on the arm playfully. "Don't be a frightened little goose. I have a feeling that we're about to find something astonishing."
Cautiously the women walked forward, with Div in the lead. When they came abreast one of the coffin-like structures, Dav peered at the transparent cover. She saw nothing but a heavy frost that caused it to become opaque. The hissing was loud; a white gas poured out of a small hole in one of the pipes, but dissipated quickly.
"That stuff looks like liquid nitrogen boiling as it contacts the air," said Div.
"Probably is. Whatever is in these coffins must've been frozen at extremely low temperatures. I wonder what the ancients spent so much on equipment to freeze. And why."
An awful thought came to Dav. She looked at Div, who also had a horrified look on her face. "Human corpses," they said together.
"This must be one of those institutions where they froze women when they died to preserve them," said Div. "The ancients did things like that. The machinery was automated and run by atomic energy. What a waste."
"But Great Medis, three thousand years. How did this place survive the catastrophic wars and other changes?"
"My guess is that it was built to withstand anything. After all, the builders had no idea what the future had in store. They prepared well."
"Yeah, but I don't see how they could plan past a hundred years or so."
"Probably not. Likely as not, they abandoned it during the Great Dying."
"The Great Dying? What was that, Div?"
Div shook her head in exasperation at Dav's ignorance. "You should read more of the classics. Around the time of the erection of this building, there was a war in which biological weapons were used. The women of that time could not halt the spread of a terrible disease, and ninety per cent of the earth's population died."
"Oh My Medis, it must've been horrible, especially for the survivors."
"Do you think that the women in these coffins could be revived?"
Div shrugged. "Should we open one?"
"I don't know. I think we should try to find a cryogenics expert and bring her here. If we fooled with the equipment, we could inadvertently destroy the women in these coffins."
"Where would we find a cryogenics expert? You know damn well that anyone with that sort of technical know-how left for a space colony eons ago. Besides, these women have been here thousands of years. It's a dice toss of whether they'd ever live again, and they knew it."
They chose a coffin at random. Dav studied the controls for several minutes trying to decipher what the hieroglyphics on the panel meant. She decided that pressing a certain button would cycle down the machinery that kept the body frozen. She moved her lips in a silent prayer that she wasn't doing harm and pushed the button. A needle on a meter rose slowly. There was a hissing similar to the sound the escaping frozen nitrogen gas had made. When the needle on the meter was in the green zone, the frost on the transparent plastic cleared, and the coffin cover opened.
Dav and Div stared into it. As they had suspected, there was the body of a woman in the coffin. She was very peaceful and very dead. Her face was the color of white marble, bruised looking, and emaciated with blue lips. Her chest was perfectly still. After a few moments, the terrible stench of death rose from her, and her flesh melted, turning to dust until all that was left was a rotted skeleton.
Div said, "Three thousand years was simply too long." She gestured at the other coffins. "The same thing will happen if we open any of the others."
"Maybe not. Perhaps this one, like the one that was leaking nitrogen, simply failed. Some of them could've survived."
"Always the optimist, Dav. Okay, we'll try a few more, but if the results are the same, I say we go back to the camp and get ready for the long hike home."
"Agreed. We'll open five coffins. If the women are all dead, we'll return to camp."
The results of opening the second and third coffin was the same. After the lid of the fourth coffin opened, the women stared at the body in it.
"She's a freak," Dav said. "Whatever disease she had that was killing her must've caused that strange growth."
"Maybe. Hey look, she's not deteriorating. She's actually breathing. We might be able to save this one."
The Bagod is available at Pageturner Editions and other online E-book sellers.