Escape Pod 368: Springtime for Deathtraps
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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
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.”
About the Author
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.
About the Narrator
John Cmar is an infectious diseases physician in Baltimore who splits his time between treating horrors such as syphilis, and molding the next generation of doctors, while repeatedly washing his hands in between. When not herding his five cats or going fanboy over the space endeavors of his wife Moon Ranger Laura, John infectious various podcast and radio projects with his voice. He is the Chief Medical Officer and Bad Doctor in Residence at his personal blog, Saint Nickanuck.