Roxy Mazona and the Tomb of the Fountain

Four daring adventurers rappelled through a shaft deep in the earth.

There were many tombs, maybe hundreds, branching from the shaft. Each entrance, like an open gullet, undoubtedly led to bellies glutted with treasure. Even so, the heroes had not come to plumb the depths—at least, not before they saved civilization from an untimely collapse. They arrived one by one at the uppermost tomb.

First came the survivalist. All whipcord muscle and sneer, Jin prowled the landing area for traps by the light of her shoulder lanterns. Recent tracks had already upset the dust of centuries. The excavation team had left a few pieces of equipment piled against the wall, but these hid nothing unusual. She worried more about the adjoining stairway, where any number of wicked minions might lie in wait. Last she reviewed the artifacts laid out in a chalk grid on the floor. She was disappointed to find only corroded bolts, an eccentric stand, and crumbling cloth. When she’d finished, she returned to the shaft and tugged the rope three times.

Second came the recorder Saindro, a pale, gawky youth hugging a boxy device. When unclipped from the rope, he dropped to his knees in relief. The terrible black pit had almost unloosed his bladder. He assured himself Roxy had picked him off the street for this elite team because he was strong and brave. Scrambling up, the recorder aimed his camera toward the edge where Roxy herself would soon appear.

Third came the famed archaeologist Roxy Mazona. She descended with angelic grace, her lined bronze face glowing with boundless intelligence and love for all things ancient. The boy was filming, as instructed. One-point-seven billion subscribers would be enraptured by her dramatic entrance. Roxy darted her sharp eyes over the glyphs and sconces marking the walls, past the items catalogued on the floor, to the glitter of glass across the chamber. She traced the outline of the Ceo’s crude pictogram engraved there.

Last came the demolitions expert Wallkoe, inspecting the floor for stray insects before he touched down with two clicks. His sparkling high-heeled boots were stylish and eminently practical. Any doubters must defer to his elegant movements. Chewing a piece of fruity bubble gum, he leaned against the wall and set down his pack of handmade explosives. He searched out the structural weak points of the chamber as Roxy began speaking to the camera.

“Thank you for joining us on Discovery Unlimited. I’m your favorite adventurer, Roxy Mazona. Today we come to you live from the foyer of a late capital-era tomb of the old Usa civilization. You may know the Usacans as pagans without concept of modern technomancy. Nevertheless, their histories assure us that no one before them created guilds and empire on such a scale. The Usacans built the necropolis that surrounds this tomb complex, which is the latest to be unearthed. They buried their great kings in these inverted towers and surrounded them with a labor force and all necessary comforts for the afterlife.”

Roxy lowered her voice. “But for outsiders, dangers lurk in these forgotten halls. One month ago, archaeologists broke the seal on this tomb. They were soon beset by a terrible affliction. My research tells me the Usa architects invested the tomb with a terrible curse. I’ve gathered this team of experts to delve into its heart and turn back the blight. We just passed through the first trap, a sheer pit designed to leave intruders broken and starving at the bottom.”

As the archaeologist delivered her monologue, Jin conferred with Wallkoe, who then started placing charges in the stairway.

“You’ll see an advanced case in Saindro,” said Roxy, and waved for the recorder to turn the camera’s eye on himself. He frowned and swung around to look behind him.

“No, Saindro. If you wouldn’t mind letting them see you. Here, I’ll take the camera. Just stand there.” Roxy lifted the device from his hands. “Now turn yourself in a circle so they have a good look at you. Good. Friends, behold how he wastes away after the manner of the Usa office drudge. Notice the bestial slouch and ghastly pallor. Further, you will find in the choice of clothing that he has lost all sense of personal style. I’ll tell you what you’re not seeing. Saindro’s wrists are enflamed. He has trouble sleeping and exists in a state of endless lethargy. No matter what he eats, his body is decaying on the ancient diet of sweetmeats and fried foods. His eyes are chronically unfocused and his breath reeks of that ancient drink, Cokacola, often used in preparing the body for burial. It destroys the teeth so they can’t be claimed by the fairy who poaches ivory from the sleeping dead.”

Meanwhile Saindro stood like a startled flamingo in the middle of the chamber, wearing a pleasant and slightly dazed expression. He was so enthralled to be the object of his idol’s gaze that he barely heard her blessed words.

“All these are effects of the curse. How then, you ask? Ancient spirits are rising from this tomb to possess the bodies of all who enter. They consider us invaders in their dread domain. Saindro was infected two weeks ago while filming the survey team. By now we can only assume the same fate is befalling the rest of us. Yet we came here to avert that very fate for all people who have been exposed by the unsealing of the tomb. One simple ritual in the chamber of the Ceo will reverse it.”

Roxy returned the camera to Saindro. Seeing tears rolling down his cheeks, she paused. “Are you alright, Saindro?”

He nodded. “It’s just so overwhelming.”

“Just focus on your role,” she said with a reassuring smile. She turned to the survivalist standing by the stairs. “Jin! Have you anything to report?”

“We’re setting pressure-detonated charges for anyone who might be hiding in the stairway,” said Jin. “If they try to approach this way, they’ll have a nasty surprise.”

Roxy’s expression soured. “You’d damage the priceless Usa architecture with such brazen disregard?”

“I’m very sorry, Ms. Mazona. Only for our protection. Your nemesis…”

“Is a secondary concern. We must work with absolute respect for the antiquities,” Roxy said. “We’re babies in this great underworld. Imagine what our viewers will think—the Discovery Society—the ancient Usa spirits which must already possess our bodies!”

“Of course, Ms. Mazona.” Jin was not fazed by the prospect of a ghost squatting in her bones. She’d learned to adjust for Roxy’s exaggerations. They made good entertainment, but Jin must attend to practicalities.

Roxy turned her attention to the chamber’s innermost wall. It gleamed with panels of glass, dusky after all the years. The main panel, large enough to enter, was inscribed with the pictogram of this tomb’s great Ceo. The others contained patterns typical of the local Usa style.

“There are various other chambers inside,” Roxy said, “but it appears the survey team hasn’t yet penetrated this entrance. We’ll have to find our own way in.”

She laid a cheek against the precious glass. It had weathered countless generations intact, and may endure for many more yet. Alas. She reached out to the side where Saindro was filming her communion. “Sledgehammer, please.”

With his free hand, Saindro grasped the tall handle sticking out from his pack and placed it in her hallowed palm.

“Thank you, Saindro.” Roxy brought the hammer’s head crashing through the facade. Wallkoe leapt back into the room with a burst of boot clacks. A smile bloomed across his face. Roxy struck another devastating blow at waist level, raining glass all around. Saindro gaped in shock.

Livid, Jin yelled, “Is that quite necessary?” She pointed to the side, where a fresh tunnel had been carved into the rock some days before.

Roxy stared at it. “Of course I knew,” she bluffed, handing the hammer back to Saindro. “I merely wanted to demonstrate to the Usa spirits how serious we are in our mission. The sacrifice is most regrettable.”

Hypocrite, Jin thought. We can’t blow up the stairway to save ourselves, but we can smash a priceless window for intimidation?

The tunnel led into a room with cracked boxes jutting from the walls and peculiar chairs arranged around a collapsed table.

“Ah, the mummification chamber,” Roxy said. “Known to the Usacans as ‘brekrum.’ You can see this was once a table, fashioned of the finest materials possessed by the Ceo. It may have come from halfway across the world. The Usacans had no systematic contact with supernatural dimensions, but they were able to build a vast trade network through the natural-space domain. There were furnishings out in the entry chamber, but exposure has reduced those to mere scraps. By contrast, you see how the sealed condition of the tomb has marvelously preserved this table despite the primitive Usa construction methods.”

“The chairs seem in better condition,” Wallkoe pointed out.

“Yes, these chairs are made of that fabled material that never dies. There were many generations of alchemists who toiled to create the perfect substance: a living, everlasting stone called plastic. Their efforts to transmutate gold finally succeeded with the first plastic image of the virgin goddess Barbi. In celebration of their achievement, plastic was showered on every continent and ocean of the world.”

Jin was bent over a figure crumpled on the floor. Seeing it, Roxy pushed her aside and waved Saindro over. “Here’s our first glimpse of an Usa mummy. When the Ceo died, all the office slaves killed themselves as well. You’ll see the neck hunch and other flaws I noted in Saindro. It’s possible that the spirit once inhabiting this body is the same one that claimed poor Saindro!”

The shrunken face had lost most of its teeth, perhaps to that fairy. Its clothes clung to the desiccated body in tatters. Near the waist were scattered several thick cards with rounded edges that retained some color. Jin had picked up two of these as a matter of professional curiosity. Roxy collected another for the camera.

“These plastic cards,” said Roxy, “are talismans of luck and prosperity. Every Usacan carried at least one with their name and image, along with some others, each for a particular god they wished to honor.”

Standing, she continued to tour the room. “A preservation unit. It’s fused shut, but inside you would find a feast stored in sacred plastic boxes for the Ceo and his slaves to enjoy in the afterlife. A wash basin for ritual ablutions. Usa water was mixed with certain compounds to maintain a purity of essence. What’s missing here? …Oh.”

Wallkoe, who’d been mourning the deaths of the ancient slaves in his heart, noticed the worry in Roxy’s tone. “Something wrong?”

The fearless archaeologist composed herself. “The fountain of life should be in this chamber,” she told Wallkoe, who reacted with a long blink. Roxy then faced the camera with narrowed eyes. “Some context. The Usa ancestors crossed the ocean in search of a city of plastic and a legendary fountain. Instead they discovered the fountain in a city of gold. Henceforth, the Usa prepared sacred jars of plastic to carry forth its restorative waters. The jars were portable fountains, and many Usa tombs are stocked with such a jar. It often sits on a pillar, about waist-high, awaiting the day of holy rebirth, known as ‘zombe pocalyps.’ We’d expect to find the fountain in this chamber.”

“Eathro?” said Wallkoe.

Roxy nodded. “My nemesis, Doctor Eathro. I feared she would beat us here. She belongs to a group of museum curators of most villainous reputation.”

Saindro gasped.

“Alas, it’s true. Of course, we may simply find that the Ceo of this tomb preferred to keep the fountain in his royal chamber or someplace else. We have no reason to be alarmed, unless Eathro has already absconded with the fountain. Its water is essential to banish the curse. She’s a cunning foe, and she may have left behind traps for us. Jin, I expect the gold in your purse will sharpen your senses to prevent us from coming to harm.”

“You haven’t paid me yet,” said Jin.

Dismay filled Roxy’s face. She turned an imploring look at the subscribers out in the world. “Did you hear that, my faithful followers? You must recruit other viewers to subscribe so that Jin can be paid! Only you have the power to keep our mission alive.”

Jin rolled her eyes but kept all complaints to herself. She didn’t want to draw attention, lest the viewers noticed her reappropriating antiquities. Her motives were pure, of course; these things needed protecting from common tomb robbers and corrupt officials. But people might misunderstand.

“My materials are rather expensive too,” Wallkoe hinted, glancing at his stylish boots.

“You see?” said Roxy. “Our need is dire. I cannot impress upon you, dear viewers, the gravity of your support. If these earnest appeals fail, consider yourselves! You too are vulnerable to the contagion of this rampant curse. Imagine a world of Saindros!”

With that ominous pronouncement, she marched to a doorway opposite the tunnel where they’d entered.

Jin passed her to scout ahead. In the corridor, Jin’s foot sprang a tripwire just as she was passing a door. It burst open and a writhing avalanche engulfed her. “S-s-snakes!” she shrieked, flailing to get free of the horrible mass. Roxy jumped after her with a battle cry, scooping away tangled heaps of tiny snakes. Saindro wailed. Wallkoe watched, frozen in horror.

“Wallkoe!” Roxy said. Their bites were sharp for such small critters. Venom coursed through her. “Torch them! This is your destiny!”

“All life is precious!” Wallkoe said.

“Just do it!”

“You’ll die, sweet Roxy!” said Saindro, trembling at the knees.

“Wait.” Wallkoe swooped forward and pinched one of the snakes between his fingers. It was sparking. He frowned. “These aren’t snakes.”

Jin twitched and froze where she’d fallen. “Tell me they’re not worse,” she said.

Roxy paused to look at the fistful of slender cables in her hand. She retrieved her light for a clearer look and laughed. “No. These are ancient lectrical cords! Our enemies must have split them open and packed them into this closet. They probably managed to get the lectricity running again with a bit of magecraft.”

“Are they dangerous?” Jin said.

“Barely. The greatest danger is their effect on your mind, dear Jin. They knew your weakness.”

She stumbled to her feet, shaking loose the last of the cords. “A little fakery can’t stop me, Ms. Mazona.”

“Good.” Before she could feel relief, Roxy noticed a wriggle between Jin’s feet. Roxy waded over the jumble of cords, her gaze fixed on the other woman’s face. “Jin, stand your ground. Keep your eyes on me.”

“Ms. Mazona?”

Roxy darted forward, plucked the snake from the ground, and bashed its head against the wall.

A twin screech burst from Jin and Wallkoe at once, like lightning through the narrow hallway. Multiple glass panels exploded in the background. Roxy jabbed Jin in the windpipe, cutting her off. Wallkoe fell silent a moment later. “Shush!” spluttered Roxy. “If you’ve busted the camera with your antics, I’ll bring your heads to Eathro myself. Saindro?”

The recorder thought his eardrums might have burst. Only the calming presence of Roxy kept him standing after that scare. She waved at the camera, and he checked it. “All functional,” he said.

“Life is precious,” Wallkoe insisted.

“I agree,” Roxy said. “I didn’t want Jin dead.”

“You didn’t have to destroy the snake to save her!”

Roxy sighed. She indulged this man too much. “Wallkoe, did you know that according to the Usa religion, every surface in this tomb, and inside and outside our body, there are whole tribes of tiny people called ‘mikrobes’? With every touch, you crush millions of them.”

“Really?” Wallkoe squinted at his hands in horror, looking for smears of blood. “Because of the curse?”

“No. But you’re already a serial killer, so I suggest you rethink your ethics. It’s okay to slaughter helpless people as long as you don’t see them. Say it with me.”

Wallkoe’s eyes looked ready to pop off his face. “Serial…?” Impossible. He consoled himself with visions of big, dazzling explosions. It was a terrible burden, craving destruction without harming the least form of life. He’d spent his life crafting bombs enchanted to spare all living things.

Satisfied, Roxy turned to find that Jin had moved on. The others followed Jin into the next chamber, much larger than the two previous, filled with rows upon rows of chairs with half-preserved bodies.

“Behold the galley of slaves,” Roxy said, spreading her arms. “All this company travels with the Ceo into the afterlife.”

She scanned the area for any sign of Eathro before striding to the nearest slave station. “Here is another typical Usa office drudge, with more card talismans at its feet. Facing the body is a large black tablet.” She stroked the top of this artifact. 

“Every slave station has one. Some have two. Most Usacans also carried a smaller version everywhere. These many tablets were used for diverse purposes: daily rituals, buying and selling, foresight, divine and mundane communications. We know the tablets are connected to the Usa religion because of the sacred inscriptions. To render them in our language, ‘Sansong’ means ‘stars of fate,’ ‘Orakul’ means ‘seer,’ ‘Gugul’ means ‘uncover the mysteries,’ and ‘Appul’ means ‘knowledge of good and evil.’ Those are also the names of prominent Usa gods. As you’ll r—Saindro! Are you crying again?”

“It’s just…so beautiful,” sobbed the boy. “Please don’t stop.”

“Saindro, how am I supposed to get my subscribers while that camera’s rattling in your feeble fingers! And you’re spraying snot over the antiquities!”

“Such poetry!” he cried. “My soul is filled. I can gladly die now.”

“Don’t,” said Jin from several rows away. “We need you alive.”

“Me?” said Saindro.

“We need all of us and everything alive,” said Wallkoe.

“You must keep the camera running,” said Roxy. “It’s without question the most essential role in our whole group. And for that you’ll have to be sober.”

“I don’t drink,” said the boy. “It makes me unsteady.”

“That’s just what I’m talking about. Chin up, cadet! Shoulders square, camera ready. Now, let’s continue.”

Saindro saluted so hard his brain sloshed. He tried very hard to focus on the content of her words and not her elegant articulation.

“Very good,” Roxy said. “The Usa created two writing systems, visible and invisible. Below the tablet you see a flat device with a grid of marked panels. These are the visible alphabet: Q, W, E, R, and about sixty other glyphs. The visible alphabet was used by the common people. The Ceo would employ slaves from an elite class of scribes who knew the invisible writing, a divine code called sofwaar. They were charged to keep their mysteries secret from the rabble.

“In that period, Inurnet was the most popular book. Its name means ‘all the universe’ and it was compiled with both alphabets. After its creation, it was revered as the most sacred of all texts. Inurnet revived the oldest textual format, the scroll. Readers of Inurnet were known as cyberpunks, a word first recorded in 1984 AAD by a prophet called Gibson. Only fragments of Gibson’s commentaries have survived.”

The survivalist pocketed a bit of jewelry and stole through a doorway. Saindro noticed this from the far side of the room.

“Ah yes!” Roxy said.

Chiding his distraction, Saindro trotted to where she held aloft a grimy cylinder.

“A canister of Cokacola,” she said. “The drink I spoke of earlier, named for the god who provided the fountain of life and melted the polar ice to quench all thirst. Observe the bizarre script. The Usa were fond of inventing all manner of scripts. The most revered scripts included Fiutura, Comiksans, and Papirys.”

Wallkoe’s clacking feet disappeared through that other door too. Saindro started to worry but kept his focus on the celebrity. Further on, Roxy clapped her hands at the sight of a different body. “Oh, oh! Look at it.”

Saindro zoomed in on the mummy’s head. Each deformed ear sprouted a small, dirty seashell with a thread trailing off. 

Roxy tapped one of these seashells. “It’s rare to see these still attached. Many cultures before the Usa learned to extract human organs with astonishing sleight of hand. The Usacans rejected existing methods. Instead they made these tiny surgical assistants to perform the job. The little nodes enter through the ears and vibrate the skull until the brain liquefies. Next the Usa tablets draw out the brainslush through these tubes. Each brain is pooled in the matrix for sorting into the Book of Faces, where all souls are recorded for eternal judgement.”

“Um, Ms. Mazona,” Saindro blurted, “the others, um…”

Roxy appeared to notice their absence for the first time. “Sulking, are they? I do pity them. Not everyone has the constitution to endure these shadowed halls; less so under the influence of a curse. Even I can feel the Usa savages creeping in my blood. We’d better find the fountain before we become new pieces of their Ceo’s collection.”

Saindro marveled at her power to dispel fear. As they picked their way through the maze of slave stations, he wondered which of these lost souls was lurking in his body. Don’t take Roxy, he pled. Just keep me and be happy.

When they arrived at the door, Roxy recognized the layout of the room within. “Resepshen,” she said. “The sacred hall on the other side of the foyer. We’d have come in through here if we hadn’t followed the other tunnel into brekrum. See the shattered glass on the far side? In this hall, the Ceo often showcased his achievements in stelae or enormous tablets. Thus the Ceo strikes fear and awe into all who enter. According to Usa legend, a guardian kept recepshen safe from intruders. Usa mythology admits many fearsome—Saindro! Gods of the ancients, how deep are your tear ducts?”

The recorder failed to respond; the camera drooped in his hands. Roxy stepped forward and frowned at his glassy, dilated pupils.

Pupils that reflected the chilling sight of Inurnet illumination on the walls.

“Clikbayt,” Roxy whispered. “Fools! Avert your eyes before it’s too late!” She spun in a circle, keeping her gaze fixed on the floor while searching for her companions. “Jin? Wallkoe?” Their bodies were angled toward the walls, as their eyes must be. Jin was halfway across the room, straying further. Roxy shuffled closer to the chic boots—Wallkoe—and placed a hand under the man’s jaw. Wallkoe’s heartbeat galloped out of control.

All of them were infected with vague smiles, wide eyes, and speeding pulses.

Roxy returned to Saindro and seized the camera from his limp fingers before the device crashed to the floor. Bent over with the camera in both hands, she said, “This is what I most feared. It is the most invidious, the most insidious trap we have yet encountered today. Clikbayt was an arcane form of hypnosis. It started as an innocent style of illumination on Inurnet pages—much like the decorations you find in the Book of Kells and other Stone Age manuscripts. Yet before long, practitioners of the evil arts began to make clikbayt so powerful it could trap people for days and force them into heinous acts, even self-mutilation or murder. Clikbayt caused the three world wars and the twelve plagues of Usa before every civilization of that era was leveled by the singularity.”

Roxy’s commentary faltered as a vast army of brightly-colored insects marched into view over the floor.

“…ten pounds,” Saindro mumbled.

“What was that?” Roxy said.

“Lose ten pounds in a week with this simple trick,” he said.

“You’re not reading the ancient Usa language?” Her eyes strayed upward, but she cast them down with a jerk of her head. “Saindro, you don’t care about dieting.”

He just sobbed with staring eyes.

“Saindro! Look at your idol! Look at me!” She swooped in and planted a lush kiss on his trembling lips. “I love you, Saindro, I’ve always loved you.”

“I’ll do anything to lose weight for you,” Saindro moaned.

“No, no, you need to fatten up. I like plumpness in a lover. Please, Saindro, listen to me.”

The insects had gathered into geometric parades that interlocked and flowed in synchrony across the floor. They didn’t swarm up anyone’s legs, but Roxy disliked the look of them. She hastened back to the demolitionist.

“Wallkoe! Look at your feet! You’re smashing dozens of peace-loving creatures under your fashionable heels!”

Wallkoe ignored her, leaving scores of tiny corpses in his stumbling path. “Dermatologists hate her,” he whispered. 

Roxy fished the fuel canister from Wallkoe’s pack and screwed on the nozzle.

The litany spilled unending from Wallkoe’s lips. “Think you pay too much for your mortgage? The family dog drank all the motor oil. What happens next will shock you.”

“I’m sure it died! All dogs are extinct, by the way!”

Wallkoe didn’t even flinch. “Remember this actor? You won’t believe what he looks like now.”

“No one remembers him!” Roxy shouted. “He was already obscure in his time. Since when do you care about the minor nobility of three thousand years ago!” She pumped flammable liquid all around her in a frenzy.

The rhythm of these insects was mesmerizing. They’re trying to tell me something, she realized. Her movements slowed as she furled her brow and fired up her keen intellect. 

These were Usa glyphs. They formed words beneath a picture coagulated from the many colors of the insects blending together.

“I discovered the secret of eternal life,” she read. “Seven reasons to let me share it with the world.”

Eathro. That conniving cheat must have the fountain. Roxy tried to tear her eyes away, but the Usa dark magic had already hooked her. Unbidden words tumbled from Roxy’s mouth. “Tell me…the reasons.”

“Oh, Roxy,” boomed a new voice, “I’ll tell everything with brio. Shall we now visit the Ceo?”

A woman had arrived in resephsen unnoticed. Plump, half Roxy’s age, with jeweled fingers and a mane of curly hair, Eathro wore poise and power like a cloak. She circled the room and nodded at the transfixed tomb raiders in turn. They’d rushed into the trap like flies to honey…not without Roxy’s usual blithering.

Each of the adventurers flapped and kicked as they were carried out by Eathro’s burly, masked minions. Visions of clikbayt receded, but its thrall displaced all previous desires. Roxy no longer dreamed of two billion subscribers cheering around the world. Jin no longer dreamed of the castle she’d build when she’d sold off the precious artifacts of this tomb. Saindro no longer dreamed of living out the rest of his days as Roxy’s doormat, absorbing stains from her blessed feet. Wallkoe no longer dreamed of dynamite and world peace.

Eathro had them brought through the galley into another chamber, the room of council. The Ceo’s throne stood inside at the head of a long, elliptical table. Overhead hung the Point of Power, an old Usa device that painted walls with light. In one corner stood the fountain of life. Eathro was gratified to see that Roxy barely glanced at it as she was hauled inside. The minions dumped the adventurers in empty chairs around the table.

“You know, Roxy, you and I have not much difference. All we want is a captive audience.” Eathro giggled at her wordplay. She took her position beside the throne, where the once-mighty Ceo sprawled, jaw agape in death.

“I…want to know,” Roxy said.

“Yes, you want exactly what I want you to want. The Usacans were masters of hypnosis. Despite all the resources I command—these strong minions, those insects, my spell to revive ancient technology—still none of my genius plan would work without Usa help.”

“Share your genius with us,” Roxy said. She could muster no irony, only admiration.

Eathro bobbed her head. “I have loaded the Point of Power with diagrams which will illustrate the truth of my cause. Your plan to reverse the curse is perverse. Dear me, I love a good rhyme.” She tapped on to the next slide. “I find myself obliged to oppose you, for the following reasons. First, as your demolitionist often insists, life is precious. The fountain of life is a gift for people and animals everywhere. Look at those cute li’l clipar bunnies hopping through. Don’t they just make your heart melt?”

“Yes,” Saindro said.

Roxy rather felt her mind melting. Every encounter with this rhapsodic rival was worse than the last. Yet she was powerless to express her true feelings.

“Second, this fountain belongs in a museum.” The previous slide dissolved into a blurry image of Eathro’s exhibition hall. A picture of the fountain bounced in from outside the frame. “I can provide a better haven for the artifact, where children will come to learn about ancient cultures and sip healing waters. Have you thought about the children?”

Jin said, “I have children at home.”

“Good, you see! A village to raise a family.” Eathro beamed. “Third, you claim the curse will damage our great society. Not so. As this chart shows, our health and happiness will increase as we invite the fallen Usa spirits to share the modern world with us.”

Roxy lost track of the fourth point as she noticed Wallkoe stirring from his stupor. The demolitionist slipped under the table while everyone else was absorbed in Eathro’s barbaric presentation.

“Fifth.” This slide embraced the Usa tradition of mixing several scripts of clashing styles. Even while stewing inside, Roxy had to admit the curator had composed it with historical precision. Eathro said, “I don’t need to discuss all these studies of your past behavior. You’ve already shown today that you aren’t preservers but destroyers. One and a half billion people watched you wreck the glass in the foyer.”

One point seven, Roxy thought. The fog of hypnosis lifted slightly as she remembered her audience. Had she dropped the camera back there? Since the clikbayt, her mind was a blur. Furthermore, she couldn’t twist her neck for a glimpse of the table. No doubt Eathro had set up the camera to broadcast herself, leeching Roxy’s subscriber traffic. The woman was vain to the utmost.

“Sixth, an analogy to Usa economics…” Eathro paused, a look of thunder crossing her face. “WHERE is that demolitionist?”

Roxy, Saindro, and Jin dropped from their enchanted bliss in a daze. “He…ran out?” guessed Saindro.

Eathro frowned. “In those heels? Strange we all failed to hear it. I’d congratulate myself on my riveting presentation if I weren’t so miffed about this. Minions, you watch these three. Sib, you’re with me.” She strode through the door with a hulking henchman in her wake.

Roxy listened to their footsteps recede with rising concern. Wallkoe must have a plan, but time was short. Their packs and all conceivable weapons had been confiscated. Scanning the unfamiliar room, Roxy spotted a plastic jug on a pillar standing in the corner. The fountain! Somehow she’d failed to notice it. All they needed was to spill its cleansing waters before Eathro claimed them for her nefarious purposes.

Under the table, Wallkoe continued his work unhurried. Having popped open the thick heels of his boots, he pulled out six spheres and sent them to strategic points in the room.

One minion glimpsed a flash in the corner of her eye. She squinted at the floor, where an eyeball-sized object winked back at her.

Eathro and her underling were returning.

Roxy lunged for the fountain with a holler. Minions sprang to action around her. Wallkoe counted from three, rolled out from under the table, and squeezed the detonator.

An eruption of green roared through the room, ripping out the ground from underfoot and dropping all into the chamber beneath—except Eathro and the big crony. Roxy grasped the fountain jar and bounded off the wall, landing on a chunk of rubble below. Jin slung Saindro over her shoulders and charged for the nearest door. Wallkoe saved the camera from a nasty fall and rolled onto his bare feet. Before the minions could recover, the foursome had escaped into the tomb below. In a striking coincidence, its layout was almost identical to the one above.

Running through the lower-level slave galley, Roxy fumbled with the jar. Its mouth had crusted over. “Jin!” she barked. “I need this thing uncorked!”

Jin planted Saindro beside a slave station and spun around. The survivalist stopped only for one deep breath before chopping with the edge of her palm. The jar’s neck burst open. Roxy wasted no time heaving the jar over Saindro’s head, and a deluge of sacred liquid soaked him through.

“That’s the ritual?” Wallkoe said, raising an eyebrow.

“No time for ceremony!” Roxy said. “Curse cleared. Let’s go!” She seized Saindro’s hand and yanked him along. “Wallkoe, I want you filming!”

Coughing, Saindro skipped after Roxy. Water and tears streamed off his face. He’d felt something like love for that other lady. Now, with his unworthy hand clasped in Roxy’s, Saindro was filled with shame to think of his betrayal.

They piled into brekrum, a dead end. There was no tunnel to the foyer on this level.

“Back!” Jin shouted. “Through resepshen!” They dashed around the corner only to meet with a spray of gunfire. Eathro’s minions had recovered from their fall. The adventurers rushed for cover behind the nearest slave stations.

Shots tore through tablets and mummies around Jin as she hunkered, stroking the Usa talismans in her pockets. She had no other potential weapons. Resepshen was in sight across the aisle, but that path was too exposed to enemy fire. She could get there unscathed, easy; maybe Roxy could too. The others would die or fall injured, a breach of Jin’s contract as survivalist. But she’d escape with treasure enough to buy herself a castle replete with ballrooms and gardens.

Or the heart-rending alternative: sacrifice the few treasures she’d pilfered, save Fanboy and Sparklefoot, and endure a life of abject poverty.

Jin grimaced, brought the plastic cards to her lips, and kissed them. “I’ll draw fire. Get to resepshen and I’ll be on your tail.”

She vaulted over the slave station. The minions’ guns blazed at her as Jin flung the talismans, one after the other. She rolled, dodged, contorted in midair to avoid the flying shots. The spinning plastic sliced through the air. One found its mark, taking a minion through the eye.

At the sound of breaking glass, Jin pivoted and careened through resepshen. Not again, she thought. But she chased her companions through the jagged hole, across the foyer, to the stairway beside the gaping shaft.

Wallkoe was in the lead. He heard someone above bawling, “They’re coming up this way!” He froze on the steps and held his breath until a bright green bang reduced a section of stairs ahead to rubble. A beefy body with a deep-throated wail plummeted to unknown depths, bouncing off the railings as it went. Wallkoe clutched at his chest, sick for the poor soul’s pain.

“We’ve no way out of this tomb now!” said Roxy.

They stared after the fallen crony, panting.

A terrible idea came to Saindro, and he grit his teeth. “Launch me!” he said. “In the shaft. The rope should be in reach. I’ll…grab it and lower it to get us all out.”

Roxy turned on him in wonder. “I knew I chose the right camera boy.”

He blushed.

They hurried back to the foyer below. There was no sign of the remaining minions. Wallkoe watched the broken glass of resepshen as Jin and Roxy hefted Saindro—a foot in each pair of hands—at the edge of the shaft. In synchrony, they tossed him.

Saindro knew only joy that Roxy should be the last to touch him in this mortal life. Valiant to the last, he clawed for that end of rope hanging over the pit. He was flailing, flying, falling, screaming.

The rope slapped his palms and he clung to it for dear love.

Shots broke out below; the others dove for cover.

Saindro had just begun to shimmy up when he came face-to-face with the evil temptress. She held out a tablet in her hand, its face aglow. He couldn’t resist the clikbayt’s allure. He looked, and his pupils started to expand.

Below, Jin sent her last talisman at one of the minions. It slipped between that one’s bared teeth and lodged in his throat. But Jin’s concentration slipped, and a shot sliced through her leg. Roxy broke her fall and dragged her behind a crumbling piece of furniture.

Saindro’s heart bled for Roxy, but his love paled at the clikbayt vision of a kitten, cuteness incarnate.

Eathro reached out and pinched his cheek. “You’re mine, little spider,” she crooned.

Then a connection sparked in Saindro’s brain, and he realized no force in the world could obstruct his adoration for Roxy. “I don’t think so,” he said. He pushed away from her wicked hands, toppling the lady with his momentum. She thumped to the ground. The tablet shattered.

“Saindro?” called Wallkoe.

“I’m okay! I think the scary lady’s unconscious!” he called back.

Roxy sighed with relief. “Hear that, minions?” she said.

Finally, the fitful chatter of guns fell still. “We must save our leader!” cried the assailants as they hurried back to find a way up through the room of council.

Saindro finished climbing and lowered the rope for his friends. Jin orchestrated her breaths to control the bleeding. Wallkoe handled the camera while mourning death, pain, and the loss of his elegant heels.

Roxy grinned. She was sure to get her two billion after this thrilling escapade.