A storm was raging under the sea. Clouds of dark sand lashed about under the dusky glow – even near noon, the crew had to bring lanterns to travel this deep – as stinging thermals, reeking faintly of sulphur, raced across the ocean floor. Precious little life ventured into the badlands of Lagash, and what few creatures were left after mining started – mostly slugs and starfish in this barren terrain – slunk into crevices for shelter.

“Move!” – roared a distant voice, muffled by the current. “You’re not paid to dawdle!”

From a fissure in the ground, which had been widened to about three yards across for the ore bowls to move in and out of what was known as Site Eleven, emerged a gaunt figure. Its rubbery, mottled-gray skin was covered by drab peasant’s garbs – a threaded greenish-brown shirt, a pair of loose leather trousers, and a thin kelpen scarf wrapped around the lower half of its face, topped by a pair of large, bloodshot, slitted eyes. No helmet covered this poor miner’s bald and spiny head. He held a short rod topped by a sphere glowing with greenish-amber light in one webbed hand, and removed the scarf with the other, revealing a pair of nostrils and a wide mouth lined with tiny triangular teeth, framed by an angular jaw festooned with thin ropy strands of flesh.

As the foreman, clad in scaled skins and an iron helmet, swam down through the clouds, cutting his way across the streams with his wide and powerful webbed feet, he saw the workman and turned to face him. “What’s wrong with the lot of you?”, he bellowed. “It’s been almost a turn o’ the clock since I’ve seen anything come outta there!”

“It’s something we hit, master,” the crewman shouted. “We’ve been trying to clean it up and… best you see for yourself, sir.”

The crewmaster dove into the aperture. “It ain’t gold that you dug up, is it? You worms think you gonna sneak gold under my chin, you got something else coming!” He weaved through the tunnels, guided more by the faint rumble of discussion coming from below than by the trail marked by the lanterns stuck to the cave wall.

“…should just bury it right back and leave it well alone,” a voice floated up. “You’re a dolt,” said another, “we’ll go home a rich bunch o’ bastards, mark my words!” A third cut in: “Nah, he’s right, smells like trouble to…”

“What are you barnacles blabbing about like a gaggle of old wives?” – the foreman burst into the discussion. The miners were in a chamber along the newest shaft, circled around a nook in a wall, their tools fallen to the ground far below. The lanterns pressed together close to their object of attention looked like a shimmering sun on a rippling surface.

“We was about to call you down here, master, just wanted to make sure–” one of the workers started, before his boss shoved him aside and pushed his way into the circle. “What you got here, worms?” – the foreman asked.

Their response was just to swim away, letting him have a clear view of the niche. The wall had a hole about four feet across, and embedded a foot or so into the rock was a smooth metal surface. It was inlaid with perfectly straight lines, and a foot-wide depressed metal square was set above a series of intricate etched patterns.

“We put that cover right back on, master,” a crewman said almost pleadingly. “It was giving us the willies. I say we leave it well alone and pretend nobody saw nothing.”

“Silence!” The foreman struggled with the square lid. He could feel it coming loose, but it had no handholds. “Gimme something to pry it out!” He swam down to the ground, grumbling, to pick up a wedge as his crew floated about mouthing half-formed excuses.

He finally tore out the thick metal cover. As it clattered down, he knocked into the smooth, hard surface under it. “I’ll be damned,” he said, “a plate under a plate. This some worm’s idea of a joke?”

“Master…” One of the miners spoke in a thin voice. “Look again. Into the plate.”

“What do you mean, into the…” He raised his lantern, and caught a glimpse of it. The light seeped into the hard surface, broken up, as if into a crystal, only clearer… and this material had something set deep into it.

The foreman bolted away reflexively, mouth agape. He looked around at his underlings, who silently nodded. He swam back and pressed both his face and his lantern into the crystal. The shape inside was unmistakable. He had seen it before, in carvings and statues – there was a large one, supposedly life-sized, in the children’s center he was raised in. This one was a thin, slumped figure, much different from the triumphant pose he recalled from memory… but there was no doubt that it was one of them. One of the ancients.

A human.

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