Kaelyn swam through the cool, clear water, scanning the lake bed with her flashlight. The heart of Lake Mitchell was dim, even at midday. Unlike Kaelyn’s other diving spots, it was eerily still and quiet. There were no plants, no fish – only silt covering the one-hundred-year-old remains of a naval battle.
The beam of her flashlight passed over something round and white. It was probably a skull. Skeletons were a common sight down here. According to the stories, a huge bomb killed both armies, ending the battle as well as Mars’ first and only war. Nuclear fallout, whatever that was, made it impossible to retrieve all of the bodies afterward, so most were left behind.
After popping up to the surface for a breath of air, Kaelyn dove down to get a closer look. She brushed the silt off the cranium with her fingers. The more of it she revealed, the more unusual it looked. She dug it out, kicked off the lake bed, and carried it up to the surface. There, she saw that the skull was more egg-shaped than round. The hole for the nose was smaller, the eye sockets larger, and the curve of the upper jaw narrower. The bone felt heavier, denser than normal.
This wasn’t an ordinary skull. Kaelyn wondered how it got in the lake, and if it belonged to a human at all. Could it have been one of the aliens that her ancestors fought in the war? The longer Kaelyn held the skull, the more uncomfortable she became. Some say that Lake Mitchell was cursed by the ghosts of the fallen, since they weren’t buried properly. Kaelyn didn’t want to risk angering the dead any more than she already had.
She dove back under the water and returned the skull to its resting place. Nearby, she saw the familiar glint of metal. She pulled out a steel rod, perfectly cylindrical, about a foot long. This one piece of scrap could feed Kaelyn for a month. She stuffed it in her bag with the rest of the salvage she had collected and swam back to her rowboat.
When the sky turned red and the heat of the day lifted, Kaelyn made her way home. The dirt road she walked cut through pastures of wild grass.
The dark shape of an animal darted across the road. A gunshot followed. Kaelyn turned and saw two people with shotguns – Ilex, the rancher who owned this pasture, and her son. The son chased after the animal, cursing his missed shot. Ilex stopped in the road to reload her gun.
“Evening, Kaelyn,” she said, breathing heavily. “Can’t talk, I’m afraid. That lizard dog will die tonight, so help me.”
“Good luck,” Kaelyn told her.
“Thanks.” Ilex ran to catch up with her son.
Kaelyn had heard of lizard dogs. Stories of them went back to the colony days. This was the first time she had ever caught a glimpse of one, though. It used to be that they were only seen in wild, desolate places: hills, caves, and deserts. But lately, they’ve roamed closer to civilization, terrorizing ranches and travelers. The dry summers hadn’t been kind to the crops and herds. Maybe they hadn’t been kind to the lizard dogs either. Kaelyn had overheard farmers and ranchers, Ilex among them, concocting strategies over drinks of how to deal with this menace. Were they hunting the dogs now?
The sun began to set when Kaelyn returned to her one-room cabin. It sat under a gnarled old tree on the edge of what used to be a wheat field. The farmer let it lie fallow this year, though Kaelyn doubted he would ever plant here again.
Kaelyn turned on her gas burner and mixed beans, peas, and diced tomatoes into a frying pan. While that simmered, she ate the last of her pork jerky as she sorted through the day’s salvage. She dried off each can, jar, bottle, and scrap piece of metal before tossing it into a blue plastic crate: cans in one, glass in another, and scrap in the third.
After sorting, she dumped the rest of her bag’s contents onto the bed. This was her nightly ritual – spreading out her essentials then repacking them one by one. She found the steel rod among the pile. Kaelyn turned it over, examining it completely.
The steel was rusty red, not silver. But the metal was smooth. The steel hadn’t actually rusted, so the color must have been deliberate. There were peculiar etchings in its surface – angular glyphs shaped like pieces of squares, rectangles, and triangles. She suspected that at least some of these were a kind of identifying mark, but she’d never seen these symbols before, much less make heads or tails of them. This was no ordinary piece of scrap. Maybe this was an intact machine. If so, what did it do?
Kaelyn must have flicked her wrist in just the right way because a beam of bright white light shot out of one end of the steel rod. She dropped the rod in surprise. The light disappeared as soon as the rod hit the ground. Kaelyn turned off the gas burner, picked up the steel rod, and stood in the center of the cabin. She began rotating her wrist, trying to repeat what she did before.
At last, the light reappeared. Kaelyn gripped the rod tightly to keep herself from dropping it. The beam was as long as a sword blade and too bright to look at directly, like a piece of the sun. Heat radiated from the rod. The beam cast no shadow, but on the wall of the cabin, Kaelyn saw swirling heat lines rising up from where the beam was.
The longer she held it, the more sense it made in Kaelyn’s mind to call this machine a light sword. She’d heard stories about light swords, but she thought they were just make-believe. Could the aliens have made one? Did they wield them in the war?
Kaelyn dropped the light sword. It was the only way she knew how to turn it off. There were only two things she was sure of. One, there was no way in hell she was selling this. Two, she needed to know if this thing was really a light sword and who it belonged to. And there was only one person she could think of who might have answers.
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