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With all that has happened since that fateful expedition, I wonder at times if I was wrong to aid Mr. Shortop in his endeavor. Could I, somehow, have known what would result, and prevented it by withholding my services? My dear sister assures me that I could not have known, and that Mr. Shortop would have employed someone else in my place had I not agreed to his contract, yet I cannot stop wondering. Certainly, there are those who hold me responsible for what has since transpired.
It is in part to answer them that I write this letter, and in part it is an attempt to set my own conscience at ease, but it is mostly that there might be a complete and accurate record of those events which led us to this present crisis. Such records have been compiled by others, but aside from Mr. Shortop’s lengthy memoir, no account is offered from someone who was part of the expedition. I, as you know, was there. This is what I saw.
I recall it was a stormy day when Mr. Shortop first approached me. Perhaps he was known in the circles of the Academy of Geological Sciences for his peculiar theories, but to me he was unknown.
“I’m putting together an expedition,” he told me, “and I want you on it.”
This was just after I returned from Peru where I was contracted by an archeologist to aid in the decipherment of Incan quipu. I suppose that my returned status was reflected in my contractor profile, but I was not seeking new work yet, so his offer was surprising. Nor did he provide any introduction or preamble. If you have ever interacted with Mr. Shortop, you will know this is his character; he is perfunctory to a fault.
“What sort of expedition?” I asked him.
He was recalcitrant and would provide few details without a nondisclosure agreement. All he divulged at that point was that the expedition was of a scientific nature and would involve a small team of experts. When I told him that I would need time to consider his offer, he promised to double the payment, and informed me that the expedition was to begin soon, though he would not provide precise dates.
“What I will tell you,” he said, “is that I am approaching you because I consider you the best for this opportunity, and I would prefer not to resort to a backup option.”
My curiosity, and, I will admit, my professional pride being kindled by this peculiar interaction and its concomitant mystery, I assured him that I would provide my response by the following evening and retired to my apartment. In truth, there was little for me to consider. Although Mr. Shortop’s expedition was light on detail, there also was little to attract me to remain at ‘home.’ The pay was above my usual rates, and what I inferred to be a quiet, scientific project was attractive compared to consulting for cybersecurity firms. I accepted Mr. Shortop’s offer the following morning.
After signing what I thought to be a preposterous amount of paperwork for a mere scientific expedition, Mr. Shortop introduced me to the other members of his team, which included two porters, Eldim and Isia, brother and sister, and Mr. Shortop’s nephew, Morrow. Mr. Shortop made a production of ensuring the doors were locked and the shades drawn before he powered up the projector and explained to us to his life’s work.
While I would like to claim that, had I not already signed the contract, I would have backed out then, the truth is that I considered Mr. Shortop’s theories harmless. Despite the conviction with which he spoke, and a great deal of science which I did not understand, it seemed too preposterous to be legitimate. As long as the advanced check did not bounce, I did not worry about the larger implications of Mr. Shortop’s expedition, and I certainly did not lend them credence.
The expedition left under an inordinate shroud of secrecy five days thence aboard a bush plane flown by Morrow. After landing upon a frozen river somewhere in Siberia, we were obliged to hike for two days with all our gear, which was not light, particularly the mining hammers we were all obliged to carry. In that frigid, inhospitable landscape, Mr. Shortop took us unerringly to the cave entrance, and from there we began our journey.
I will not bore you with an extensive reconstruction of the initial days of our expedition. The cave system was extensive, but I saw little to distinguish it from similar caves I saw in documentaries. Once we passed the outer chambers and began to make our way through the deeper places, I suggested that we slow our pace and take greater care, but Mr. Shortop’s urgency was palpable, and we maintained an aggressive pace.
When did I begin to realize that this system of tunnels burrowing beneath the Earth was unique from any other cavern our species has explored? Professional pride, even now, leads me to believe it was earlier than in fact it was; truthfully, the others in our party remarked on it long before I would admit to the difference, so jaded by comparison was I in my chauffeured knowledge. If only that illusion of knowledge had not blinded me, perhaps what followed could have been averted.
For the caves continued downward, long past when, to any conventional understanding of geology, they should have stopped. Deeper than mankind has ever managed to dig. Not that the going was always easy; indeed, it seemed that Mr. Shortop hired me – me, among the most sought cryptographers in the world – to serve as a mere miner, a hammer-swinger. I cleared rocks with pick, hammer, and chisel, allowing us passage where no one had ever been.
All of that was merely a prelude, however, for after many days beneath the surface we reached a place where the tunnels ended. Mr. Shortop said to me: “Here, Mr. Vinalin, we will find answers.”
A light of zealotry was in his eyes, but all of us misunderstood his intention. Hammer rang upon stone, but I could tell that the stone was solid, no tunnel lying just beyond, waiting to be cracked open. “Mr. Shortop,” I declared, “this is the end. Nothing but solid rock lies beyond this place.”
He was insistent. “Do not lose faith now, gentlemen, lady. We stand upon the cusp of the discovery of all human history! Mr. Vinalin, attend.”
I doubted, then, and I should have turned back, but I did not. Mr. Shortop relieved us of our misapprehension, and we put aside our hammers, which produced no effect upon the stone, and Mr. Shortop procured from his gear a kind of analog computer powered by a hand crank, like an emergency radio that people keep for tornadoes. He affixed leads made of tourmaline to four ‘corners‘ of the rockface and beckoned me closer.
“No blunt force could penetrate this doorway. It must be opened, not hammered down,” he explained, and I realized that this contraption of his was a programmable key. I took the controls from him, and he urged me onward, saying “Open the door, Mr. Vinalin, and unearth the truth of my conjectures!”
Would you have turned back, then? Would you have turned away from what could be the ultimate challenge of your profession, a chance to solve the kind of puzzle that some intellectuals deem impossible? I, for one, could not. You can say that my pride and ambition blinded me, or, more generously, my curiosity, to the consequences of my potential success. Remember, though, that success was by no means guaranteed. Trusting to Mr. Shortop’s preparations, I began attempting combinations.
The process was not swift, for it was akin to attempting to open a combination lock by trying every possible combination. We took turns on the crank for three days. It was my turn on the crank, and I will admit that I was dozing off, when on the third day a clacking noise penetrated the cave that was unrelated to any action on our part. Suddenly alert, we all looked towards the impenetrable stone. Another clack followed, then a third, and a fourth. Mr. Shortop leapt to his feet and urged us all back.
From the pictures which have since grown famous (or infamous), I am sure that all of you reading this know exactly what then transpired, but to those of us there it was incredible, in the truest sense of the word, for before our wondering eyes what appeared to be a solid piece of stone, contiguous and indistinguishable from the rock around it, sank backwards a handspan with a grating noise, parted down the middle in a clean, vertical line, and the resulting halves slid to either side.
Even Mr. Shortop, whose theories brought us to this point, was stricken. “My God,” he murmured, and I do not think there was blasphemy involved.
For all the awe with which we observed the opening of the doorway, what its opening revealed was not, from that vantage, remarkable. A dark tunnel extended from where we stood, and though it was clearly wrought, aside from the peculiarity of the door I had no reason to consider this anything other than the result of some secret Soviet project; however, that was not how Mr. Shortop approached it, and our progress from there became a tiresome slog as he cataloged what seemed every stray mark upon the tunnel walls, to the point that I became concerned we would run out of food and be obliged to return to the surface before we reached its terminus.
Yes, I wanted to reach the terminus. Whatever the tunnel’s origins, the peculiarity of the door and the general mystery was enough to arouse the spirit that drove me to this career, and I still could not imagine the terrible consequences that would result from our continuance. I should, by then, have admitted the truth of Mr. Shortop’s theories, and I cannot absolve myself of the guilt of my involvement, but by that point, perhaps it was too late, regardless. Besides, I did not foresee how proving them would shake the world to its foundations in a more than metaphorical sense.
At the tunnel’s terminus we discovered a second door much like the first, but this one opened at a touch to reveal a lift platform descending straight into the Earth’s interior. What we saw, just from the elevator ride, has been the pervasive topic of discussion ever since, for its meaning is incontrovertible. That day, seeing it for the first time, I could no longer deny Mr. Shortop’s theories. To all those who continue to deny what we discovered, I say as one who was there to bear witness: our world is a made world.
My involvement did not end after the expedition; I did not imagine the pandemonium that would ensue when Mr. Shortop’s theories were borne out and verified, and by then I was enthralled by the puzzles left behind by the Worldbuilders. Deciphering an alien script, even after we identified it, makes the Incan quipu seem as easy as Greek. It is the work of a lifetime, more, and I could not turn away. Even if I could go back, I would do little different.
All that followed you already know, and I can add little. The truth we discovered down there has torn our world apart, but the mysteries that remain should concern us more. More than questions about our own origins, I remember what I saw down in that shaft, an access tunnel to our planet’s heretofore unknown infrastructure, and I wonder – who were the Worldbuilders? And where are they now?
Thank you for reading Lloyd Earickson’s short story, In My Defense, an IGC Publishing original story. If you enjoyed the story, please consider leaving a comment or review in the discussion below the story. Be sure to follow IGCPublishing.com for updates, more information, and other freely available stories.
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