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EP368: Springtime for Deathtraps

By Marjorie James
Read by Dr. John Cmar
Discuss on our forums.
An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Marjorie James — including EP007– The Trouble With Death Traps and EP224– The Ghost In The Death Trap.
All stories read by John Cmar
Rated 13 and up for language

Springtime for Deathtraps
By Marjorie James

The building sat in a small clearing in the jungle, its stone walls
radiating solidity and the midday heat. Giant statues of warrior-gods
crushing skulls beneath their feet flanked the doorway. Xnab looked
from the ornately carved keyhole to his customer and back again.

“And the key is where, exactly?” he asked.

“In the treasure chamber,” the big man said in a small voice. “We had
just finished putting everything away and, well, it had been a long
day. I think I must have put the key down on the altar or something.
The problem is, the place locks automatically, and our entire fortune
is in there. We had a few locksmiths out to work on it, but they
didn’t get very far.”
Xnab nodded. He had already noticed the blood spatter around the keyhole.

“So that’s why we called you. Everyone said that if anybody could get
in there, it would be you.”

Xnab accepted that, not as a compliment, but a statement of fact. He
was a specialist the design and construction of booby traps, deadfalls
and other, largely fatal, security options. He was a small man, thin
and wiry, his shaved head still smooth and unwrinkled despite years of
working in the sun. Despite making a very good living, he wore a plain
tunic and no adornments at all. In his business, he considered it a
bad idea to have anything extra hanging around, and he was very good
at his business. In fact, anyone who knew anything considered Xnab the
best death trap designer alive.

Which typically would have been reason enough to turn down a job like
this, but in this case it was actually why he was there.

“How long have you owned the temple?” he asked the man, who had
introduced himself as Tuak.

“Just a couple of months, actually,” Tuak admitted. “It’s not really a
temple. I think the statues of the gods are just there for show. The
family who used to have it used it to store their treasures and they
spared no expense on the security.” He sighed heavily and stared up at
the tiers of stone vanishing into the jungle. “It seemed like a good
idea when we bought it.”

Xnab’s apprentice, Qualenizmunetil (Qual to anyone who couldn’t be
bothered) came back from where he had been examining the walls of the
entrance and joined them.

“They’re perfectly smooth, sir,” the boy said with something close to
awe. “I can’t even find a tool mark.”

“And you won’t,” said Tuak, pride of ownership momentarily overcoming
his embarrassment. “There isn’t another building like this anywhere in
the eighteen kingdoms.”

“No,” Xnab said. “There isn’t.”

He spent a moment staring down the apparently open and inviting
corridor, then turned back to his customer.

“You mentioned the previous owners. How did you come to own this place?”

Tuak smirked. “Well, a treasure house isn’t much use if you don’t have
any treasure left to store. You know, all these the aristocrat
families are the same. They go on for generations, saying they’re the
cousins of the wind gods, making everyone lick the stones in front of
them. Then one day they lose a couple wars and the next thing you know
the last of the line is blowing through the money like he doesn’t know
what saving is. The storehouse was the last thing he had to sell.”

None of this was of much interest to Xnab, so he listened with half an
ear as the man turned his attention to Qual, his earlier embarrassment
apparently forgotten.

“I say it’s about time,” Tuak went on. “These old aristocrats are
nothing but relics of the past, and I’m not interested in the past.
I’m in the business of the future. You know what the future is, boy?”

“Yes, sir, I do,” Qual said and was ignored.

“One word: calendars.” Tuak waved his hand at a stack of giant stone
circles leaning against a nearby shed.

“The Oarte eternal calendar, the only time-keeping tool you’ll ever
need.” He reached out and patted one lovingly.

“I’ve revolutionized the long-term planning industry with these
babies. Agriculture, festivals, you name it. Just look right on here
and you can tell how long it is to any day of the year with just a few
simple calculations. Sales have been so strong I’ve had to open a new
production facility in Quivara.”

Xnab knelt down to examine a small pictograph carved into the stone
just above the ground as the man went on.

“And portability!” Tuak leaned on the heavy stone and it rolled
forward a few inches. “See? You can take it with you anywhere you go.”

Xnab looked up from what he was doing just in time to catch his
apprentice frowning at the calendar’s face.

“You said this calendar is supposed to work forever?” Qual said.

“That’s right, only calendar you’ll ever need. Big selling point, that.”

“But it doesn’t. If you look here, it’s clearly going to run out in
about five thousand years.”

“Oh, yeah?” The big man shrugged his shoulders. “Well, that’s pretty
close to forever, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but–”

“Listen, boy, I’ve made more money selling these things than all your
figuring is going to earn you in a lifetime. You know why I bought
this place? Because I needed somewhere to store all the things you’re
never going to be able to afford.”

“And right now they’re all locked in there, along with the key.” Xnab
had heard just about enough. The kid spent most of his time being too
smart for his own good, but that didn’t mean Xnab was going to let
anyone else talk to him like that. He picked up his toolbox and gave
the man a curt nod.

“I think I’ve seen everything I need here. I’ll be back in a half hour
with my team to get started.”

Back at the camp Tbalen, the young woman who served as Xnab’s accounts
manager, was in a bad mood.

“I really don’t see the point in this,” she said as he laid out and
inspected his tools. “I just got that Paia temple job lined up for
you, and I’ve been trying for months to arrange a meeting on the
underground city deal, and you go and drop it all to come open some
fool’s storehouse for him? You have to realize that this sort of thing
is completely beneath you.”

“It’s an Ilhan,” Xnab said.

“Oh,” said Tbalen.

“Who?” said Qual.

“Ilhan,” Tbalen repeated. “He is… I mean, he was…”

“The greatest death trap builder of all time,” Xnab finished flatly.
“I’m taking the job.”

Ilhan. The reason Xnab was only ever called the greatest living death
trap engineer, because the all-time-number-one spot was taken. Ilhan
the Ingenious.

Xnab’s customers called him plenty of names, mostly after they saw his
bill. But he could never be Xnab the Ingenious, because that one was
taken.

He tested the edge on his chisel, found it good and slid it into its
place in his tool belt before turning back to his employees.

“Qual, I want you to get the men up to the entrance in ten minutes.
Tell them to bring the standard tools, and no one touches anything
until I get there. Tbalen, I want you to go find the idiot who owns
this place and see if he has any documentation on it. And I mean
anything-I don’t care how unimportant or irrelevant he thinks it is.”
Xnab drew himself up to his full five feet of height and stared into
the middle distance.

“We’re getting into this place,” he said.

Xnab looked down at the bisected corpse with his eyes narrowed and arms crossed.

“I thought I that no one was supposed to touch anything. Was there
something not clear about that?” he said.

“But he wasn’t one of us,” Qual said. “He was already here when we
arrived. Only there was only one piece of him then.”

“Yeah? Doing what?”

“He said he was one of Tuak’s stone carvers, and that his boss sent
him to help us. I told him we didn’t need help, and then he said it
was very simple, we should just set off the traps from a distance, and
once they were already sprung we could go right through. And then he
took this stick,” Qual indicated two pieces of a long pole that were
lying next to the halves of the body. “And he used it to set off the
first trap-by the way, it looked like a number seven curved blade to
me-and tried to go through. And then it fired again.”

“And you didn’t try to stop him?”

“I didn’t think it was necessary, sir.”

“No, I guess it wasn’t.” Xnab knelt down to sight along the body in
the direction where it had been struck. “Well, that answers that
question, then. I was pretty sure this was the place.”

“Sir?”

“Water-powered traps. The only setup of its kind. Ilhan never built
another like it. I don’t know how much that guy paid for the place,
but there’s no way it was enough.”

“Water-powered, sir? I don’t understand.”

Xnab looked around at his men and realized that the feeling was
universal, so he stepped back from the doorway and took a stylus out
of his pocket.

“It’s simple,” he said as he made some quick sketches in the muddy
ground. “Simple, but damn hard to execute. You see, where we might use
springs or counterweights to power a trap, he used the power of water
under pressure. There must be a river around here somewhere that he
diverted in to serve as the source. The big advantage is that you
never have to reset anything-no cranking springs back into place, no
hauling giant stones back up onto ledges once someone comes through
and sets it off.”

“Of course,” he went on. “The disadvantage is that you have to
maintain that water pressure precisely-too low and the whole system
stops working, too high and it blows apart. The rumor about this place
is that that’s how he rigged the self-destruct. Try to interfere with
the operations and the place comes down on your head.”

Xnab picked up one of the halves of the dead man’s stick and tossed it
into the doorway. The moment it hit the floor a huge blade shot out of
a slit in the wall, flashing past in a blur of bronze. Then Xnab
tossed in the other half, and the same thing happened again. It was a
magnificent thing. Xnab did not consider himself a very emotional man,
but the beauty of the precision and power in those blades was enough
to make his throat clench. His men, when he glanced over to check,
looked suitably impressed as well.

“When I say touch nothing, I mean it.” Xnab said. “Make no
assumptions. And if anything looks questionable to you, step away and
bring it to my attention. Are we clear? Good.” He looked down at the
body, congealing in its pool of blood. “Now, the first thing we need
to do is get someone in here to clean up this mess so we can get to
work.”

Xnab split the men into groups, assigning one to find the intake from
the river and the other to carefully searching the area around the
entrance for an access point to the controls for the first trap. It
was slow, tedious, labor-intensive work, not the sort of thing that
the average thief would undertake, but they were outfitted with
sand-and-banana-leaf protective suits, just to be safe. For his part,
Xnab was making a slow circuit of the entire building, with Qual
trailing behind him. Every few feet he would stop and tap on one of
the stones with his hammer, or clear away some of the undergrowth and
dig down into the soil next to the wall. Qual followed him in silence,
and for a long time the only sounds were the constant buzzing of
jungle insects and the distant shouts of the construction team dodging
flying spears.

“Did you ever meet him?” Qual asked at last.

“In a way.”

“Sir?”

Xnab looked over at the boy’s fresh, curious face, and then up to
where the roof of the building disappeared into the jungle.

“I was about your age,” he said. “Had plenty of initiative but didn’t
know what to do with it. Long story short, I fell in with a group of
boys who were into temple-raiding. Some of us were doing it for the
loot, some of us were just in it for the kicks. Most places were dead
easy to crack in those days-maybe a couple of spike pits or a rock
drop. You just had to learn a few tricks and you could walk in pretty
much anywhere.” He took a break from his story to look at a rock on
the other side of the path, then resumed.

“After a while, we got bored with what we had in our little corner of
the world and decided to start branching out. Someone had heard of a
big treasure hall in a palace about a day down the river, so we stole
a boat and went to check it out. And before we even got inside, we
could tell we were in a different league here. It was a big place,
part of a whole city complex, and we had more trouble than usual
getting past the guards. But once we did, most of the group figured we
were in clear.”

“Were you one of the ones who didn’t?”

“Yeah. Me and this other guy, Ism. He was always superstitious, sure
the gods were going to come after us for stealing from them, but I
couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something really different
about that place. I wanted to stop and take a look around, but the
rest of them weren’t interested, so they went on ahead. They were all
killed.”

“How?” Qual asked with professional curiosity.

“Mostly bladework,” Xnab said. “A spinning razor, followed by a
straight chopper from the ceiling, going straight into a three-level
curved horizontal. Ism panicked and ran into a wall of poison darts,
but I think that was mostly there for show.”

Xnab shook his head. “It was amazing. I’d never seen anything like it.
The way it all worked, so simple and effective. I got out of there and
spent the next ten years learning how it was done, so I could do it
better.”

“I see,” Qual said. “Did you?”

Xnab smiled. “That’s what we’re here to find out.”

The storehouse had been built on a hexagonal base of uniform
ten-foot-tall slabs of stone. Not flashy, but solid, Xnab noted
approvingly. Over the years various detritus had piled up against
them-chunks of stone, broken agricultural implements, a cracked bed
frame being slowly consumed by the jungle-which is why they almost
didn’t notice the shack at first. It was tiny, built out of scraps of
wood and metal and clinging to the side of the building like a
roughly-constructed fungus.

An old decorative panel with all the gilding scraped off seemed to be
serving as the door, so Xnab stepped forward and knocked on it.

There was an outburst of giggling from inside, then a period of
silence, then finally a voice.

“Come in,” it said so quietly that Xnab wasn’t sure he really heard
it. He pushed the door open, leaning clear and feeling for a trigger
switch out of habit. Nothing happened, so he opened it the rest of the
way and looked inside.
The only light in the room came from the cracks in the walls and roof,
and it was a moment before Xnab’s eyes had adjusted enough to identify
its only occupant. It was a man, stick-thin but young for a hermit,
sitting cross-legged on the tattered remains of what had once been a
very fine weaving. He was holding a toad on his lap and stroking it
gently under its speckled chin. As Xnab and Qual peered through the
doorway he smiled and held it up.

“Say hello to my little friend?”

“Hello,” Xnab said, noticing as he did that the man’s pupils had
consumed the entire centers of his eyes. “I hope we aren’t
interrupting anything.”

“Oh, no. Please, come in, come in. I was just having my morning constitutional.”

It was well past noon, but Xnab didn’t see any profit in mentioning
that. He ducked through the doorway, examining his surroundings as he
entered.

The hovel was built around two low walls that protruded from the main
building, sheltering a slanted depression in the wall. It was filled
with bits and pieces of old furniture and decorative objects, most
looking like they were worth something when they were new and
undamaged. An open stove with a collection of chipped and dirty
cooking pots sat in one corner and the other wall was entirely taken
up by carefully maintained wicker cages, each holding a toad like the
one in the man’s lap. The interior was surprisingly cool after the
tropical heat outside, and smelled faintly of mildew.

“My name is Xnab,” Xnab said. “This is my apprentice. We’re here to do
some work on the traps in this building. Are you familiar with them?”

The man laughed, more in pleasure than derision.

“Hello, Mr. Xnab and apprentice. Yes, I know this building very well.
My name is Eztlical. Prince Eztlical, if you like.” He bowed, which
was something of a feat from his seated position. “Welcome, guest, to
my ancestral home.”
Xnab thought back to the conversation with his client.

“You used to own this place? Sold it to this Tuak guy?”

“Guilty on all counts, I’m afraid. For generations this was the
storehouse of my family’s treasures. Until… well, times change you
know. The gentleman with the calendars has been very nice about
letting me stay on here. It’s not such a bad life, really. I have my
little jobs to do and, of course, my little friends for company.” He
bent over and licked the toad’s back a few times, then sat back
smiling.

“You have a beautiful aura, by the way. Very strong. Is there
something you wanted?”

It wasn’t the most promising start to an interview, but Xnab needed
information and he wasn’t about to be picky about where he got it.

“I was interested in anything you might know about the traps in this
building,” he said. “I understand it’s an Ilhan original?”

“That’s right. The only one like it he ever built. Of course, that was
well before my time, but I can tell you one thing; if you want to get
into this building, you’re going to need the key.”

“But if we don’t have that key? Say, for example, if it got locked in
the treasure room?”

The prince looked at him for a minute, swaying gently, then burst out laughing.

“Oh, that’s wonderful. Wonderful! But I’m sorry, in that case I’m
afraid I can’t help you. No one can get in there without the key. I
mean, it’s an Ilhan! Everyone knows he was the best ever.”

“Yes,” Xnab said. “Everyone does know that. Well, thank you for your time.”

Qual followed Xnab out of the hut, into the afternoon heat and
sunshine and walked directly into a small tree.

“Sorry, sir,” he said as he untangled himself. “I was having trouble
with the light.”

Xnab, who had spent a large part of his life dealing with dangers in
dark places, merely grunted and led the way down the path.

“I was thinking, sir,” Qual said as he struggled to keep up. “Maybe
we’re approaching this from the wrong angle. Do you think we could try
the roof? The building must have some kind of ventilation system.”

“I’m sure it does,” Xnab said. “I’m also sure that Ilhan pioneered a
system of collapsible ventilation ducts that are typically rigged to
crush anything bigger than a rat that gets into them.”

“Oh,” Qual said and fell silent for a moment. “What if we trained a
rat to go in and get the key?”

They completed their circuit of the building, Xnab examining any point
where he thought he might find a weakness and Qual debating the
relative merits of weight and trainability between rats and parrots
with himself. Near the halfway point they met up with the team who
were working the river angle, who had found the water intake for the
traps, along with some pressure-loaded spikes and a very active
piranha colony. Xnab sent them back to the camp for bandages and
additional planning and made his way back to the front entrance. By
the time they got there, Qual had settled on macaws on long leashes,
and Xnab was no closer to a solution and seriously considering
investing in the macaws.

Back at the entrance, progress had been about as slow as he expected.
The crew had managed to get the control panel open on the first trap,
at which point the compartment had immediately filled with
poison-coated spines, which were taking some time to remove because of
the arrows that fired out of the compartment at seemingly random
intervals. Xnab was working on devising a suction mechanism to clear
it when Tbalen showed up, her arms loaded with bound scrolls.

“This is going to take forever,” she said once she had looked over the scene.

“Actually, it should only be about five months,” Qual corrected her.
“Assuming no more than a ten percent loss in personnel.”

“Same difference.” She took her armload of scrolls over to Xnab and
dumped them unceremoniously at his feet.

“They didn’t have any plans,” she said. “But the owner’s wife
developed an interest in Ilhan’s work, and she’s been collecting
information about him. She’s a serious bitch by the way. I’m not going
back there unless you give me a really good reason.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Xnab said. He picked up the papers and
unwound a few of them, not expecting to find much he didn’t already
know and not being surprised. It was the usual sort of thing that made
it to the public-rumors and half-truths and inaccurate descriptions of
the business of death trap building. Which was the point, actually;
the whole idea of having a business built on secrets was to keep those
secrets well-guarded. He read the phrase ‘the greatest ever’ a few
more times and then let the scrolls fall back into the pile. If there
was an answer here, it wasn’t in the breathless prose of a
sycophant-historian.

Qual had joined the team working on the first trap, and they had
gotten it firing at a consistent enough rate that they could get
through to set off the second. Xnab watched as the whirling blades
alternated with the huge stone rollers and wondered at the perfection
of it all. It wasn’t just that they worked; they worked beautifully.
In his own projects, Xnab rarely put much thought into the appearance
of his traps; to his mind, lethality was all that really mattered. But
looking at the scene in front of him, he had a moment of regret that
he had never created something so gorgeous.

Xnab stared at the traps as if they could show him the face of the man
who built them. Once again, he went over everything he knew about
Ilhan’s and his work. Born in the high desert, made his name as a
young man navigating court politics in the fortress-cities in the
mountains. Known for elegant, reliable traps, meticulously
constructed. For all his reputation for innovating, the truth was that
he was a very conservative designer; once he found an element or trap
that worked well he would incorporate it again and again, sometimes in
the same build. So why was there only one of these? Ilhan had lived
for years after it was built, and he had hardly had any shortage of
rivers with which to work.

The first of the traps stopped with a thump, sending up a cheer from
the crew, but Xnab’s mind was still racing. The river. Of course.
Ilhan was a desert man, he wouldn’t have known much about jungle
rivers. But even so, could he honestly have missed something so
obvious?

He found Qual examining the control box for the first trap, gently
poking at a lever with a long stick.

“That’s just going to fill it with sand,” Xnab said, just before it
did. “Leave that alone, get your tools and follow me.”

Qual did as he was told, hurrying to catch up with his boss as he
vanished around the corner of the building.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“In,” Xnab said.

Without any stops along the way it only took a few minutes to make it
back to the Prince’s hovel. Xnab knocked on the door, but he didn’t
wait for an answer before entering. Eztlical was exactly where they
had left him, lying on his side and staring at the ceiling. If he was
annoyed at the intrusion, he didn’t show it.

“Welcome back!” he said. “Did you forget something?”

“Sorry to bother you again,” said Xnab. “But I just had one more
question for you. You mentioned you did little jobs around here. Would
you mind telling me what those are?”

“Oh. Oh, no. I’m afraid I couldn’t do that. Family secrets and all.
Very important. It’s about all we have left, you see.”

“Yes, I see. Tell you what, how about you give me three guesses, and
if I get it right then you’ll do me a favor.”

“And if you don’t?”

“I’ll go back to Mr. Tuak and tell him that I can’t get the building
open for him, and he might as well go and buy a new one.”
A flash of delight passed over the man’s unfocused eyes.

“That… that would be amusing. All right, then. I take your
challenge. But you should send your boy to get him now, because you’re
never going to guess it.”

“Your job is to climb down through the grate you have hidden in the
back of this room, to a space under the building where you empty the
filters that separate the incoming river water from the input to the
trap system.”
Eztlical stared at him, open-mouthed, then looked around the room in
wild suspicion.

“How did you know that? Did someone tell you?”

“How could anyone tell me? No one knew about it but you.”

“That’s true. So how did you find out? This building has been with us
for generations, and no one has ever found out before.”

“Because he never built another one,” Xnab said. “The only reason
Ilhan wouldn’t repeat an idea like this is if it wasn’t actually such
a good idea after all. The way I figure it, he probably had the whole
place built and ready to go before he realized that there’s a lot more
than water in a jungle river. So he had to retrofit the filters, which
meant adding another access point, so someone could get in to clean
them. It’s a classic design failure, and he could never build
another-even if he did it right, because it would give away the
problem with this one.”

The prince looked crestfallen for a moment, then smiled broadly.
“Well, I guess you won! What was the favor you wanted?”

“Just for you to let me and my assistant down into this basement of
yours. We’ll take it from there.”

“Well, that’s easy enough,” he said, then reached into one of the
baskets and struggled briefly with its occupant before holding it up
in offering. “Join me before you leave?”

“No thanks,” Xnab said. “Where we’re going, we don’t need toads.”

As Xnab had expected, the prince’s hovel concealed the mouth of a
tunnel that led under the building to a set of fine mesh filters that
separated the incoming river water from the traps it powered. There
were a few traps beyond it, but they were simple ones, obviously added
after the fact-the sort of thing Xnab could have gotten through in his
sleep. He and Qual made their way to the treasure room, entering
through a service panel after fixing the catches on both the trap
doors and all five heavy ceiling blades.

“Well,” Xnab said as he stepped inside and looked around. “This is interesting.”

“You’re kidding,” Tbalen said when they told her, back at the camp.
“It was empty?”

Xnab nodded. “All except for the key. Seems the calendar business
hasn’t been that great after all, and our pal Tuak had to sell
everything to cover his debts. And he didn’t want his wife to find
out, because the money was all hers to begin with.”

“He certainly wasn’t very happy to see us when we came out,” said
Qual. “But I didn’t think it was a very good idea of his to threaten
you like that.”

“No,” Xnab agreed, “It was not.”

Xnab did not have a lot of patience with people who made threats to
him or his people; not when he was so much better at it. The
conversation had gone much more smoothly after he pointed out how many
ways there were for a person’s life to become unsafe if someone with
Xnab’s expertise was his enemy.

“So this whole business was a farce?” Tbalen asked. “That man never
wanted you to get the key?”

“Exactly,” said Xnab. “He knew the building was an Ilhan, and he
figured that meant that breaking in was impossible. And just to be on
the safe side he hired me, because if I couldn’t get in, that would
prove that no one could. He could just call it a lost cause and get to
start over, and no one would ever know.”

“It would have been a pretty good idea, if it had worked,” Qual said.

Xnab looked up from where he was carefully packing his tools away in their bag.

“Yes,” he said, and allowed himself a rare, small smile. “Well,
nobody’s perfect.”


Marjorie James is a writer, biotech researcher and native Californian
who lives in the Bay Area because she couldn’t deal with the weather
anywhere else. She is currently working on her first novel and
maintains a blog that has nothing to do with any of these things.

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