Aztlan: A Dane and Bones Short Story
“Holy crap, it’s hot out here.” Bones Bonebrake mopped his brow and cast a challenging look at the sun high in the cornflower blue sky. “And don’t give me that ‘It’s a dry heat’ stuff. Hot is hot.”
“No argument here.” Dane Maddock plucked at the neck of his sodden shirt. It wouldn’t stay damp for long in this dry climate. He hunkered down on the tiny rock ledge where they’d stopped to take a breather, took a bottle of water from his pack, and took a long drink. He gazed out at the parched red landscape of southern Utah. Sharp peaks and low hills dotted the horizon, all shades of the same reddish-brown as the mountainside on which they perched. It had been a long time since he’d ventured into this part of the country, and he realized he’d missed the open skies and sweeping vistas.
“Are we close to the top?”
“Why? Are you ready to wuss out on me?” Bones’ heavy breathing belied his bravado.
“Hardly. We both know I’ll reach the summit before you do. Why don’t you just give it up?”
“Not on your life.” The tall, powerfully-built Cherokee squatted down beside Maddock, removed the tie from around his ponytail, and let his long hair blow in the breeze.
The two made an odd pair: Maddock was fair-skinned with blue eyes and short, blond hair. He stood just a shade under six feet tall, but alongside the six and a half foot tall Bones, he looked small.
Bones stood, knuckled his back, and turned to examine the rock face above them. “Only about fifty meters to go. Shouldn’t be too bad.”
“Remind me again why we decided to free climb here?” Maddock asked, tucking the water bottle back into his pack and rising to his feet.
“Because no one ever has. Because it’s awesome.” Bones bared his straight white teeth in a wolfish grin.
“How’d you find out about this place, anyway?”
“My cousin Isaiah.” Bones’ cousin, Isaiah Horsely, was a professor and archaeologist working the American Southwest. “He found out about it from a local storyteller who says few people even know this place exists.”
“I don’t wonder,” Maddock said. “Considering how much trouble we had just getting here, much less climbing it.”
Motec Mountain’s height and steep sides made it look less like a mountain and more like a butte that had been stretched out until it touched the sky. Nestled in the heart of Utah’s Red Rock region, it was one of the most remote locations Maddock had ever visited in this part of the country.
“He told me some other stuff about it. Legends mostly. Weird stuff but pretty cool.”
“Tell me when we get to the top. The longer I stand here, the more I think about the cooler of beer waiting in the car.”
“Dude, you can drink beer any time. How often do you get to boldly go where not very many men have gone before?”
Maddock frowned at Bones. “Seriously? We do it all the time.”
“And that’s why we rule. Now let’s get back to climbing.”
Upon reaching the summit, Maddock expected to be rewarded with a refreshing breeze and a spectacular view, but he found neither. A fine mist hung over the landscape, slowly swirling in a clockwise pattern and giving the air a tepid quality.
“This is weird.” Bones waved his hand in front of his face, the mist curling around his arm. “It’s like it wants to grab ahold of you.”
“Nothing about this makes sense,” Maddock said. “We’re in an arid climate. Why doesn’t the fog dissipate, or at least burn off? And where is the moisture coming from?”
“The storyteller said there’s a lake up here. Want to check it out?”
Maddock gazed at the curtain of mist. It was odd, to be sure, but it didn’t seem to be dangerous. Curiosity winning out over caution, he nodded. “Let’s see what’s up.”
The way was smooth, with only a few scattered boulders here and there to impede their way. Though the mist shrouded the landscape in white, it was thin and visibility was more than adequate. Soon they came to the edge of a dark lake.
“Want to go for a swim?” Bones asked.
“I don’t know.” Maddock felt uneasy as he scanned the surface of the water. He realized in an instant what caused his discomfort. “The water doesn’t move at all. Look at it. It’s like a sheet of glass.”
“Maybe it is.” Bones knelt down and touched the surface. It scarcely made a ripple. “This is jacked-up. It’s water, all right, but it’s like there’s a surface tension holding it in place. I don’t know how to describe it.”
“I think you describe it just fine,” Maddock said, dipping his own finger into the water. “It’s warm, too.”
“Isn’t there a lake in the Middle East where people float really easily?” Bones asked. “You know, like without an inner tube or those water wings you love?”
“The Dead Sea.” Maddock ignored his friend’s jibe. “But that’s because of the high salt content. I don’t think that’s the deal here.”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’m not going to taste the water.” Bones wiped his hand on his shirt.
“And I think we’ll pass on the swimming, too.”
They stood and began to walk along the shore. They quickly discovered that the lake was perfectly round, or something close to perfect. As they walked, Maddock’s discomfort lessened. Maybe this place was more odd than sinister. None the less, he took a moment to dig into his pack for the dive knife he always carried, and hooked the sheath onto his belt. Bones did the same, and they continued their exploration of the mountaintop.
Maddock estimated they’d reached the side of the lake opposite where they’d begun their circuit when Bones halted in his tracks.
“Look at this.”
Maddock followed his friend’s line of sight to where a complete skeleton grinned up at them. A tarnished breastplate covered its chest and a tarnished helmet and the rusted remains of a sword lay nearby.
“Spanish,” Maddock noted. “Probably an explorer.”
“And he climbed all the way up here in his armor?” Bones said doubtfully. “I’m not buying it.”
“It wouldn’t be the strangest thing we’ve seen. Who knows? Maybe there is, or was, another way up.”
“I have another idea.” Bones folded his arms and turned to face Maddock. “Hear me out on this. This is an alien hot zone.” He raised a big hand before Maddock could argue. “Just listen. That could explain the weird water and the mist. And like you said, we’ve seen enough strange crap that it’s not the most far-fetched idea in the world.”
“So the aliens abducted the Spaniard and then dumped him here?” Maddock couldn’t believe he was indulging his friend’s fixation with extraterrestrials, but Bones wasn’t wrong. They’d seen and experienced enough strange things that nothing could be discounted.
“Now you’re thinking like an honest-to-goodness conspiracy theorist. I knew I’d win you over sooner or later.”
“Just trying to follow your train of thought, and believe me, it’s a scary ride.”
They continued on and made it only twenty or so paces before something on the lake caught Maddock’s attention.
“Bones, look at that.” Far from the shore, a dark shape loomed in the mist. At their feet, flat round stepping stones formed a bridge.
“Another of the storyteller’s details I forgot to mention,” Bones said. “There’s supposed to be an island in the middle of the lake. And, of course, it’s cursed.”
“Do you believe in curses?” Maddock asked.
“Other than a woman scorned? Nope.” Bones grinned. “Lead the way.”
Maddock tested the first stepping stone and found it was solid. He tensed slightly as he put his full weight on it, and relaxed when it held. “I don’t know if it’ll support your fat butt,” he said to Bones, “but I’m good to go.”
“Screw you, Maddock.”
Maddock almost felt like he was dreaming as he moved through the mist across the motionless lake.
“I bet this is what Heaven is like,” Bones said in an uncharacteristically soft voice.
“You’ll never find out.”
“That’s cool. Better parties in hell, anyway.”
At the center of the lake, they stepped onto solid stone. It didn't take long to discover that what Bones had believed to be an island was, in fact, a giant stone disc.
"I told you, dude," Bones said. "Aliens."
"Aztecs, more like. See?"
Symbols and other imagery covered the rock beneath their feet. Though he didn't know the meanings of most of them, the patterns and motifs were familiar. "It looks like a giant Aztec Calendar Stone.”
“You’re right.” Bones dropped to one knee to get a closer look. “Doesn’t mean aliens didn’t help them, though.”
“True. Let’s keep going.”
They moved deeper into the mist and soon the dark form toward which they’d been moving began to take shape. They soon found themselves at the foot of a miniature pyramid. At the top stood a small temple, surmounted by a sculpture of the feathered serpent head of Quetzalcoatl. That sealed it. The site was definitely Aztec.
They climbed the dozen stairs to the top, where, just inside the temple door, a tight spiral staircase descended into the darkness. They clicked on their mini Maglites and headed down. Time seemed to slow down as they wound deeper into the heart of the mountain, Bones grumbling all the while about the low ceiling and tight quarters.
Finally, they emerged in a large chamber. Maddock halted at the entrance and ran the beam of his light across the flo ...