The Viperob Files: Chapter One
Ethan repositioned his satchel on his back as he broke into a run along the deserted south road. The day was already baking hot and humid. Sweat trickled in rivulets from his hairline, soaking dark patches under his arms and down his back.
Abandoned tenements lined either side of the street, ruins left from the previous century. Bare brick walls reached for the sky like desiccated carcasses, while empty windows stared blindly into space. A few still retained part of their roofing, but generations of tropical cyclones had reduced the majority to deformed skeletons. The ground between buildings was mostly barren. Any grass cropped down to the dirt by omnivorous Tri-Claw at night, giving the ruins an appearance of a well-kept graveyard.
Ethan spotted his mate waiting at an intersection ahead and slowed to a walk.
“About bloody time,” said Jaego as he stood and stretched his legs. “I was beginning to think you’d chickened out.”
“Not likely. I think you’re mistaking me for yourself, mate.”
“Yeah, well that was before your dad got an insurance policy for us. Can I have a look at it?”
Ethan glanced over his shoulder to ensure they were alone, then opened the top of his bag so Jaego could see his new bang stick. “Pretty cool, eh?”
Three lengths of jet-black steel lay at the bottom. Ethan pulled them out, quickly screwing the ends together to form a metre-long pole.
“This is the powerhead,” he said, pointing at a ten-centimetre section of steel screwed onto the end of the metal shaft. “It holds a .303 round. Once the safety pin is removed, all you have to do is push the end of it firmly against the target, and it’ll deliver a bullet and gas expulsion. Dad said before sharks went largely extinct, spear-fishermen sometimes carried them as an insurance policy. It should work just as well against Tri-Claw.”
“Can I try it?” asked Jaego. Taking it and holding it like a spear, he practiced stabbing it forward in the air.
“Nah. I’ve only got a handful of .303 rounds for it.”
Jaego grunted disappointment. “Fair enough,” he said, handing it back. “Where did your father get it? I thought they were illegal.”
“He didn’t say exactly.”
“It was probably Marco Russo,” said Jaego. “My old man says he runs the local black market. If you can pay the price, he’ll get whatever you need.”
Ethan shrugged, “As long as I’ve got it, I don’t really care where it came from.” He glanced to where the sun soared above the eastern horizon. “We should probably get moving. My mum asked me to try and catch something for dinner while we were out. What do you reckon, lay the nets for Tri-Lob, then dive for a couple of hours?”
“Sounds good to me.”
The two boys followed the downward sloping road to the water’s edge. Broken houses stood like sentinels to either side of the street until, at the shoreline, they descended out of sight below the surface to a depth of forty metres.
The ruins closer to shore had been picked over by generations of boys, however, Jaego and Ethan planned to go deeper. They spent most free days in the water—it was the best way to survive the cloying heat. Over time, each had slowly increased the length of time they could hold a breath, and subsequently, the depth to which they could descend.
“My dad told me there was a sunken mansion a little farther off shore, but it had always been out of reach for him and his friends to explore,” said Ethan as he placed his bag above the high tide line.
“Around twenty metres.”
Jaego whistled. “We can do it, but it won’t give us much time at the bottom.”
Ethan removed his shoes and shirt then waded off shore to knee depth. A mesh bag hung from one corner of his waist to hold any small finds. Countless hours in the sun had tanned his chest and back a deep brown. The water caressed his skin like a bath, but at almost blood temperature, it provided little relief from the morning’s heat. Small crustaceans with wedge-shaped heads scurried away from his feet. He watched them for a moment, then leant down and darted a hand beneath the water to catch one. On the third try he succeeded and lifted the specimen for a closer look, holding onto the outer shell carefully. Three pairs of jointed legs wriggled beneath the creature, the body flexing and extending fiercely as it tried to escape his grip. No matter how many times he saw the creatures, Ethan found them fascinating. Trilobites had been thought extinct for over 250 million years, but that had all changed a century earlier.
The Petroleum Age had warmed the oceans and began a melt of the ice caps with stunning ramifications. As the enormous weight of ice sheets overlying the west of Antarctica had lessened, a chain of almost one hundred dormant volcanoes erupted with devastating effect. Lava had turned ice into rivers and dumped massive amounts of water back into the world’s oceans, raising sea levels by over thirty metres in the space of a decade. Along with the devastation caused by land loss and displaced populations, the eruptions released a plague upon the world’s oceans. Trilobites, unseen for 250 million years, began to proliferate once again.
Escaping dormancy deep within the ice sheets, they had filled gaps in the food chain left by prior aquatic extinction events and were immune to the increasing acidity of the oceans. Making up for lost time, the initially benign variants had mutated rapidly, and now ranged in size from the harmless version in Ethan’s hand to the lobster-like breeds he planned on catching for his mother’s dinner. Unfortunately, they got bigger still, until they filled apex predator positions vacated by sharks who were now all but extinct. It was these monsters that had forced the abandonment of properties within easy reach of the water.
Known as Tri-Claw, the hippopotamus-sized omnivores were nocturnal feeders. In the evenings, they emerged onto land to feed on vegetation or any live creature they could catch. Standing on three pairs of jointed legs, a Tri-Claw could run faster than a human, their pointed feet clacking on the concrete like knife tips. Thick-plated armour protected the upper surface of the beast, impenetrable to simple blades or anything less than high-calibre ammunition. Twin claws reached out from either side of its head, used to grip and dice prey, while a scorpion-like tail reared over its back to inject venom.
Luckily for the inhabitants of their small island, Tri-Claw retreated into deeper water during the day, leaving the land and shallows relatively safe while the sun was overhead. The occasional swimmer still went missing, disappearing in a haze of crimson, but most accepted the risk. People had always died while swimming whether through beach rips, treacherous currents, or the teeth of a shark, and yet they were attracted inexplicably into the warm water again. It was one of the many vagaries of human nature that was impossible to explain.
Gentle ripples lapped at the edge, the water still as a pond as Ethan dropped the trilobite. He watched it scurry out of sight along the sandy bottom.
“Are you coming or what? Times a ticking, mate,” said Jaego.
Sunlight sparkled over sapphire waters as Ethan glanced offshore. It seemed odd that such a beautiful façade could hide mortal dangers beneath its surface. “There’s a deep trench only a hundred metres off shore here that’s supposed to be a hotspot for Tri-Claw. The chances of us coming across one will be higher than usual.”
Jaego had on his fins and now stood waist deep in the water ready to go. “Look, we’ve already talked through this. Those things almost never attack during the day, and besides, we’ve already picked over the other dive sites around the island. This is our last best chance to find something worth keeping.” He turned his back on Ethan and started walking farther out off shore. “And if we do come across one, you’ve got the bang stick. We’ll be fine, mate, don’t worry about it.”
“Ok, I just wanted to make double sure you were happy before we head out.”
Ethan quickly exited the water and loaded a round into the powerhead of the bang stick. Next, he pulled out an expandable lobster pot lined with wire mesh from his bag, dropped a decaying rat carcass inside as bait and then threw the whole contraption off shore. An orange float bobbed on the surface as a marker. By the time the boys were ready to leave, the trap would likely be chock full. The requested chore for his mum complete, Ethan pulled on his own set of fins, picked up a set of goggles and joined his mate.
The two boys waded a little deeper, then began to swim. Their fins provided added power, legs moving in steady beats that barely disturbed the surface of the water. Underneath, the bottom dropped steadily away. In the calm conditions, Ethan could see to the sandy floor covering the old streets, rising in soft drifts up walls to bury some houses entirely.
Ethan stopped and began to tread water comfortably while he pulled his goggles on, then dipped his face under water again to look about. Deep below, he could see a flat-roofed structure taller than all others. The thick concrete slab was still intact. Sand reached up to the beginning of the second storey, however there were numerous window cavities through which the boys could enter. He pulled his head out of the water again and flicked a fringe of wet hair off his face.
“There’s a big property down there worth exploring. Might even be the one my dad mentioned—it’s at about the right depth.”
Jaego donned his own goggles and took a brief look for himself. Upon surfacing again, he spat a stream of water from his mouth. “Yep, it fits the bill. We’re going to have to dive together though—with the roof intact, the other will be out of sight from the surface.”
Ethan agreed. The two boys started a breathing exercise, taking deep, slow breaths to increase the level of oxygen in their blood, but more importantly, to blow off carbon dioxide. While breath holding, carbon dioxide slowly increases in concentration, dropping the pH of the blood and causing a need to breathe. Ethan turned his attention inward with a basic meditation technique to slow his heart rate, concentrating on the feeling of air entering his lungs, of his diaphragm expanding and muscles relaxing. As he felt all anxiety leave his chest, he opened his eyes again to see Jaego doing the same.
“Let’s do this,” said Ethan as he pushed aside a brief thrill of excitement—adrenaline would only sap his energy faster while underwater. What he wanted was chilled-out, calm movement. And besides, crazy kicking would mimic a wounded fish and attract unwanted predators.
Jaego needed no further encouragement, disappearing under the surface and downwards with a swirl of water. Ethan took a last lungful of air, hit a timer on his wrist-watch and duck-dived, swimming in the wake of his mate.
Ethan loved being underwater. The outside world was cut off, leaving only silence punctuated by the beat of his own heart. A rare school of fish swam nearby, scooting out of reach to allow his passage. Ethan allowed his arms to remain flat against his side, relying on languid kicks of his fins to drive him ever down. As the depth increased, pressure mounted against his eardrums until he was forced to equalise them.
Jaego had reached an empty window of the building, small jags of glass spiking out from around the frame. Barnacles and other weeds had grown over the edges, giving once-severe edges a lumpy, flesh-like appearance. With one glance back over his shoulder to confirm his mate’s presence, Jaego disappeared inside. Ethan followed close behind, already feeling the first tightness in his chest develop. They wouldn’t have long in the room to search before needing to surface again.
Inside the room, the light dimmed to twilight grey. The size of rooms in the ancient dwellings always amazed Ethan compared to his letterbox-sized flat. How rich must these people have been to afford such huge spaces to live? Any wood had rotted away a century before, while the metalwork was rusted, green and distorted. Ethan scanned the walls and floor for anything that looked like the entrance to a safe or valuables lock box.
A vibration of his watch drew his attention—they’d already hit the two-minute mark under water. Another thirty seconds and it would be time to return to the surface. Ethan ignored the sensation of tightening in his throat and scanned the walls of the room for anything of interest. Nothing. Time to go. He swam over to Jaego, tapped him on the ankle and pointed upwards.
As Ethan exited the window space, movement on the sand below caught his peripheral vision. A spurt of adrenaline sent his heart rate charging at the thought of a Tri-Claw. Instead of swimming for the surface he paused, hanging in space, searching the area for signs of danger, his bang stick in a white-knuckled grip.
A humped rock lay a few metres to the side with two palm-sized trilobites crawling past its base. Nothing else. Ethan berated himself for wasting precious oxygen and began his ascent with Jaego now at his side. As he swam upwards, the contractions in his throat and chest strengthened with an irrepressible need to breathe, arms and legs burning with lactic acid. Finally, Ethan breached the surface, drawing in a lungful of air while treading water. Jaego arrived a split second later, droplets of water spraying Ethan’s face as his mate exhaled forcefully before taking a deep breath himself.
A cyanotic blue tinge to Jaego’s lips gradually faded to pink as oxygen flooded his blood with every lungful. Neither boy spoke for a few minutes until their breathing had settled. Overhead, a bank of clouds was starting to converge, casting a shadow across the water like a change in mood.
“How long were we down that time?” asked Jaego. “My chest was burning something fierce on the way up.”
Ethan looked at his watch timer. He’d stopped the clock out of habit shortly after surfacing. “Around three and a half minutes. Did you see anything worth targeting on the next dive?”
“Maybe. What do you reckon that room used to be?”
“Don’t know. A bedroom maybe?”
“That’s what I thought as well. Saw a square shape in the back wall, which would have been covered by a bed head before it rotted away.”
“You think it might be a safe box?” asked Ethan.
“Would have been a good hiding spot for it. Definitely worth a second look.” Jaego took a deep breath, letting it out slowly through pursed lips. “You ready to go again?”
Ethan nodded. “Keep your eye on the sea floor on the way in though.”
Jaego pinned him with a questioning look. “Anything worth worrying about?”
“Probably not, but there was a boulder under the window that I could have sworn wasn’t there when we entered the building.”
Ethan closed his eyes for a second, trying hard to remember exactly what he’d seen. Visibility had decreased in the intervening minutes and the seafloor was now too hazy to clearly view from the surface. “There were no shell markings that I saw—I reckon my eyes were just playing tricks on me.”
Jaego searched Ethan’s face, his expression serious before nodding. “Ok. One last dive before the weather closes in.”
The boys ran through their breathing exercise before diving once again. This time around, the descent was much different. Gone were any signs of fish, even the smaller trilobites on the sandy floor had disappeared. Ethan suppressed a niggle of trepidation in his gut and focused on the approaching window of the building. The boulder he’d seen earlier was still in place, unmoved.
Jaego entered first, Ethan close behind. Both boys made straight for the square-shaped opening in the back wall, now hard to see in the deepening gloom. Jaego pulled a small pinch bar from the waistband of his shorts and stabbed the sharp end forward. Over a century of rust had decimated the workings of the lock, and the door bent open with ease. Behind it was an enclosed space, and Ethan’s arm disappeared up to his elbow as he roughly swept it back and forth within. His fingers bumped into something, wrapped around a small box that he withdrew and shoved into the mesh net at his waist without further inspection.
Ethan’s chest was beginning to burn for air. He met Jaego’s eyes and pointed for the window and up, his mate nodding in agreement. With a sharp kick of his flippers, Jaego shot for the exit, scooting through the window opening and upwards for the surface, twenty-odd metres above. Something glinted from deep in the safe, catching Ethan’s eye. He stuck his hand back inside to retrieve it, delaying for a moment longer. As he pulled his hand free, he felt a spurt of adrenaline. Wrapped around his fingers was a large silver necklace; however, it was what was threaded onto the chain links that excited him. Five gold rings, each inlaid with gemstones hung off the necklace. Worried that they might slip free of the mesh bag at his waist, Ethan put the necklace over his head and made for the exit.
He grabbed hold of the window frame’s nobbled rim and looked upward, seeing Jaego as a dark shape already treading water at the surface. Triumph surged as he thought of showing his mate their find. As Ethan prepared to launch upward, something black moved below.
Glancing down, he saw that the boulder had moved again. As he watched, two massive claws lifted out from under the sand, and a long tail emerged from hiding, whipping up and over the shell of the Tri-Claw’s back. With startling speed, the huge creature made for him.
Ethan jerked back into the room and away from the window frame. In his haste, he accidently dropped the bang stick over the rim to fall uselessly to the seafloor outside the building. A hinged claw the size of a hubcap snapped through the opening, missing Ethan’s face by centimetres as the creature tried to fit its shelled body into the narrow opening. With the only window exit from the room blocked by a Tri-Claw, Ethan was trapped.
He backed away from the thrashing claw, mind frantically searching for a solution as his throat started to convulsively spasm with the hunger to draw breath.
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