Owen Lucas, Trisha’s older brother, ran. Behind him were his father Daniel and Ryan’s father Elisha. They crossed the lakebed to the ship—a distance of nearly two miles—in less than twenty minutes, then bounded around the backside a few minutes later. The hole Candice had told them about was another hundred yards from the edge of the ship.
But something was wrong.
Muddy water, red and frothy, bubbled up from where the hole should have been. It flowed out and covered the surrounding lakebed, then quickly sank back into the soil. It hadn’t rained in over three months, so the idea that any water might be present was unexpected. While Candice had mentioned the water in the bottom of the pit into which the other children fell, her frantic explanation was entirely devoid of specifics and inclined toward exaggeration. Water in a lakebed that hasn’t seen water in years? Monsters with tentacles that looked like tree branches? It was too fantastical.
“What is that?” Daniel asked when he caught up to Owen, his chest heaving with the effort of the run.
“Did you bring the rope?” Owen asked his father.
“Elisha has it. You’re not going to go in there, are you?”
“If that’s where they are, then yes. I have to.”
Elisha came to a stop next to them, the rope in hand. He wasted no time. “I’ll tie off to Daniel,” he said. “Owen, take the other end and wrap it around you. Make sure it’s tight.”
Owen did as instructed, and in less than a minute from arriving at the destination, Daniel and Elisha were anchored to the lakebed while Owen approached the hole and the bubbling water.
“Be careful, son,” Daniel said. “If you have trouble, pull on the rope.”
Owen nodded and stepped to the edge of the water. It was cold against his ankles and feet. The animal-hide moccasins he wore soaked up the water and made a mockery of protection. He quickly took them off.
Owen watched the water as it bubbled up, then splashed on the lakebed floor. The dirt around the hole soaked the water up like a sponge, however, impossibly remaining dry. The history of the settlement included stories of the rain the elders had witnessed during their first year after Transit, but since then, rain came only in spurts, once or twice a month, maybe. Water was plentiful from wells and lakes near the settlement, but to this date, forty years since the settlers arrived, there had been no mention of any in or under the lakebed.
This was something new and horrific.
With a deep breath, Owen jumped into the hole, feet first. He knew this hole from his adventures years ago when he was Ryan’s age. Most of the kids knew it, despite parental warnings to never go in the holes. It was a rite of passage, something a kid had to do to prove they could face any trial or tribulation in the future. Of course, that was just an excuse the older kids told the younger ones to get them into the holes with the devious intention of scaring them. Never had anyone who ventured deep down found anything remotely like whatever Candice blathered on about. They were just empty caves, full of rocks and dust.
Now one of them was filled with cold, muddy water and Owen’s sister Trish, brother Killian and Ryan Page were deep in it.
Owen couldn’t see anything when he opened his eyes underwater. Whatever silt or mud that was in the water stung, and he reflexively closed them again. Even though he knew this particular hole and approximately where Candice was when the others fell in the pit, he was in no position to find it. With a frustrated grunt, he pulled on the rope.
In seconds, Owen was out of the water. As he rolled over on the lakebed and took a deep breath of air, his father and Elisha rushed up to drag him from the edge.
“Can’t see anything down there,” Owen said. He let out a frustrated grunt and brushed his long black hair back from his face with a muddy hand. “It’s all mud. Need a mask.”
“They’re rotted. You think a dive light will work?” Daniel asked. “There are some still left on the ship.”
Elisha shook his head. “Whatever lights were left on the ship are rotted, too. The batteries were leaking the last time anyone took inventory.”
Owen looked at the hole. The bubbling water seemed more forceful than it was before. Shadows from clouds overhead darkened as the sun set. Candice broke the news over an hour ago. There was no way anyone was still alive down there.
Daniel said as much. “They’re gone.”
Owen stood, brushed the mud and water from his pants, and picked up his moccasins. The weight of losing both his sister Trisha and brother Killian as well as Ryan pressed down on him. He fell to his knees, his eyes locked on the hole and the newest grave. The settlement had its share of tragic deaths over the years, and each one was painful to the community. But this was different. This really hit home.
Daniel knelt beside Owen and put his arm around his son. They both stared at the hole as Owen tied his moccasins back on. Elisha walked to the edge and screamed his angst. Owen knew Candice was not the cause of this tragedy, and yet as the only one who survived, she would take all the punishment.
Elisha rolled up the rope and threw it to the side. Owen followed the man’s gaze toward the rest of the lakebed, its dryness in contrast to the water bubbling in the hole.
The bundled rope splashed.
Owen looked down. The water was no longer being absorbed into the lakebed. It pooled around both his and his father’s knees and under Elisha’s feet. From the hole, the sound of rushing water increased.
“Dad?” Owen said, stunned.
Daniel squeezed Owen’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, son.”
“No, Dad. Look down.”
Daniel looked at the ground, then stood quickly. What had been a dry lakebed for all of Owen’s life—and, as far as he knew, since the elders first arrived—now showed signs of retaining water. It never did that even when it rained; all water had been mysteriously absorbed the second it hit the soil. It was why the elders called this dry lake the Barren Sea.
As they all stared at the ground, more pools appeared. Owen stood with his father and looked around. Everywhere there were signs of water, not like the mirages they saw on hot days. If the clouds were not so ominously dark, the lakebed might reflect the sky and look like a real lake, not a hardpan plain of cracked dirt dotted with holes.
The holes. Owen looked around. There were hundreds of holes on the lakebed, although most were too small for anyone to enter. All of them, it appeared, seemed to have water bubbling forth from them like muddy fountains.
“We have to go,” Elisha said. He ran over to where he threw the rope and picked it up. “No telling what’s under our feet.”
As if in answer, Elisha’s foot sank into the ground up to his knee. He screamed. Daniel and Owen both rushed to help pull him out. They splashed through the cold puddles and grabbed Elisha’s shoulders. With a grunt and a low sucking sound, they pulled him free.
“Hurt?” Daniel asked.
Elisha nodded. “Knee is killing me.”
“Run, Owen,” Daniel said. He pushed his son toward the lakeshore and the settlement beyond. “Tell the Council. We’ll be right behind.”
Owen ran, his wet moccasins less a hindrance than he thought they would be. The animal skin tightened around his feet and made his steps sure. He bounded between puddles as much as he could and then found true dry ground as he approached the side of the ship, its enormous hull casting a much darker shadow than the clouds did. It looked as if the ground was still dry the closer he got to the shore.
He glanced behind him. His father supported Elisha as they splashed through puddles.
From above, the sky opened up and rain fell.
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