Theo held out his thumb as he heard another cruiser coming up behind him. It was really more habit at this point, as no one had stopped for him before. He didn’t blame them. After all, who trusts hitchhikers nowadays?
But to his surprise the cruiser slowed down as it passed him and then stopped. Theo quickly ran to catch up and leaned in the passenger window. Theo had to work to hide his initial reaction – seriously, someone needed to tell this prospector that the beard trend had died in the 27th century.
“Where ya headed, son?” the old man asked.
“Cardiscotia, it’s a suburb inside of New Singjing,” Theo answered.
The old man whistled. “Wow, that’s quite a distance to be walking. Thankfully, I’m headed that way for supplies. My outlet is right within the gates; you reckon you could make the rest of the way on your own?”
“Definitely, thanks so much!” Theo hopped into the cruiser, and they were off. “So, I’m Theo.”
“And you can call me Joey. What’s your story?”
“Well… you want the long or the short of it?”
“Oh, give me the long version. We’ve got quite a while to go yet; I doubt we’ll make it before they close the gates. We’ll probably have to camp outside of the city tonight.”
“Alright then. Well… I guess you could say that this journey is my last chance.”
Joey cocked his head. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Theo ran his fingers through his hair self-consciously. “I’d always been a ‘problem child,’ y’know? I never got along well with my parents, and when I was seventeen I hacked my dad’s cruiser: a vintage Tesla GT9000,” – Joey whistled, impressed – “I know, right? Anyway, I ran away and lived a nice life off the money I made selling that cruiser. But ever since then my family hasn’t spoken a word to me. And that wouldn’t’ve been a big deal, except… well, my Uncle Quincy.”
“Now what about him?”
“He’s the only one who ever believed in me, see? Growing up my sister was so perfect, and I was just a surprise that no one wanted. But my uncle, he was the only one who would remember my birthday and who always told me that I was ‘destined for great things’. Y’know, all that crap that parents are supposed to tell you? He did. And somehow, it actually meant something. Anyway, he was really disappointed when he heard what I had done. And I was so… I dunno, ashamed? Scared of his reaction? I dunno, but I haven’t talked to him in years.”
Joey looked confused. “So what does he have to do with you going to New Singjing? He ain’t dying is he?”
“Oh, no!” Theo laughed. “Uncle Quincy’s too spry to be dying any time soon. No, he called me up out of the blue the other day. I have no clue how he got my number. Anyway, he has this business where he sends explorers – he calls them his ‘Coterie’ – into other countries to collect and acquire rare artifacts for him. He normally has a Courier that brings them to his ‘Museum of Curiosities,’ where he Curates them.”
Joey nods like he understands, before pausing and shaking his head. “Sorry kid, but you’ve lost me. What on earth does this have to do with you?”
Theo laughs. “Well, my Uncle’s Courier recently, well… I dunno what happened. He probably just quit or something. Anyway, my Uncle said that this was my chance to do something with myself. He said that if I could transport this package” – here, he pats the backpack in his lap. It makes a dull metal sound – “safely to his Museum, then he would give me a job as his permanent Courier. I’m sure it’ll be rather dull, but I’ll get to travel and see Uncle, so I agreed right away.”
“Huh. Well that’s a nice little set up that you got there. But that didn’t sound like no package that I’ve ever heard.” Joey nodded towards the backpack, making sure to keep an eye firmly on the road even though there was no one for miles.
“Ha, that’s because it isn’t,” Joey said as he unzipped his backpack and pulled it out. It truly was a thing of beauty. Shiny and silver, with glowing blue lines that crossed and bisected in beautiful, complex designs. There was no hinges or latches that Theo could see, so he assumed that it was some sort of fancy, oblong decoration or something.
Theo looked over to see Joey’s reaction, and didn’t like the look in Joey’s eye. Theo quickly put the package back into his backpack.
“Do you know what that is?! Your Uncle’s swindling you, boy! I know my metals and that’s solid ohmium, I bet my beard on that. And I ain’t never seen markings like that before; that thing’s gotta be worth a fortune! Shoot, at least triple – no, quadruple – what you sold your father’s cruiser for! You could sell that thing and never have to work another day in your life!”
Theo laughed nervously. “Well, I’m sure that’s why it belongs in the Museum. It’s probably a rare cultural piece from Atlantis or something; I dunno.”
“Are ya daft, boy?! Are you really going to just hand that priceless treasure over to a barmy old coot who told you to hitchhike with it?!”
“Yes.” Theo was surprised by how sure, how firm his own voice sounded. “I am. I made a promise, and I’m going to keep it.”
Joey scoffed. “Whatever kid. Luck’s wasted on the young and stupid.”
The rest of the trip was spent in uncomfortable silence. They arrived outside of the locked walls of the city, set up camp, and went to bed, all without saying a word.
While Theo slept, he thought he heard a shuffling sound, then a hiss of released air, and finally a shout followed by a skritch skritch. Theo wondered what it was, but the unconscious mind is often more aware and wiser than the conscious one, and it told Theo to go back to sleep, which he did.
The next morning Theo awoke to find the campsite vacant but for himself. Joey’s sleeping bag was empty and the cruiser was still parked, but without its keys. And, oddly, there was a knife on the ground next to… the package? When had he taken that out? After shoving it back into his backpack, he called around for Joey; but he received no answer.
Long after the gates had opened Theo looked, until finally he decided to check in the city. He stopped by the outlet store on his way in, but none of the employees had seen Joey. When he passed the police station Theo filled out a report and decided to leave it at that. Joey was a stranger, after all; and there was only so much Theo could do.
He finally made it to the Museum of Curiosities and handed his Uncle the package. His Uncle beamed and stroked the ohmium. Was Theo imagining it, or did the blue lines pulse back?
“Do you know what this is, m’boy?” Uncle Quincy asked Theo.
“No, Uncle,” he answered.
“There’s an old legend that says that the rightful owners of these Obelisks shall be blessed with protection and good fortune. But to ensure that no one would try to steal them, within them sleeps a creature that will, shall we say… take care of all those with ill will or dishonest intentions. Ah well, it’s probably just an urban myth. Nevertheless, I’m proud of you, Theopolis.”
“Oh, c’mon Uncle! No one calls me that!”
But as Theo laughed and joked with his Uncle, he couldn’t help the cold shiver that tingled down his spine as a half-remembered sound tickled the back of his mind:
Originally Published in Down in the Dirt.