A faint sound resonated through the deserted building. Frozen by fear, Tanner Ellis listened before resuming his search.
He picked his way through the dark halls, following the old man's directions as best he could. Thin whispers of moonlight leaked through grime-coated windows.
"This had better be worth it," he thought to himself.
A thick blanket of dust, a half-century old, covered everything. The old man's description was accurate. To gain entry, he had to climb a rusty fire escape; something the old man was incapable of doing.
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Just when Tanner was about to give up, he found them. Cardboard boxes. A covey of them. But where was the monogrammed black case?
An unexpected noise, the creak of rusty hinges, echoed down the hall. Tanner's heart raced. He wouldn't leave without the case, not now. Only the councilmen were allowed to have keys - they must have come in through the front. How could they know he was here?
The first two boxes yielded nothing. Cautiously lifting a cardboard flap, Tanner found it.
The noises grew closer. Being there broke the law. If caught with the case, a much stronger penalty awaited him.
Lifting the case, he opened it only to verify its contents, then slipped out the window. With the case pressed against his ribs, the tall boy one-armed his way down the escape. Angry shouts floated down to him. He'd been seen.
Careful not to show his face, he hit Chestnut Street at full run. Tall thistles sprouting from the broken pavement raked his arms. The weeds gave way to vine maples at Cornwall Avenue. At 15, he was faster than any councilman.
Ducking through the thin trees he entered what they called the downtown. The derelict structures cast foreboding shadows, ensuring his escape. A chorus of frogs challenged the silence.
At Holly Street, he turned north. The trail withered from lack of use. He ran on, no longer worried about the council.
The rancid smell of the bay told him he was close. A rusted sign shaped like a rocket lay alongside a small boat with no hull. "Which door is it?' he wondered.
Scant moonlight revealed muddy prints. Tanner shouldered the nearest door. It yielded without effort. The old man sat at a table near the far wall.
"I found it," Tanner said, gasping for air.
The weathered face, tinted yellow by age and candlelight, stared, confused.
"I found the case in the old Herald building, just like you said."
The empty face came to life. Slowly, painfully, he stood. "Will you bring it to me?"
"Not yet," Tanner paused. "I want to know why I risked my life tonight. What's so important about this?" He held the case high.
"I offered books and, if I remember correctly, as many as you could carry. I didn't promise anything more."
Tanner had to weigh his demand. As scarce as fresh meat, books had trade value. The council hadn't outlawed them, yet.
The case he held carried something far worse than worthless. Any device from the machine age was contraband. Possession would send him to the farms and with short rations.
"What makes this so valuable to you? Tell me or I'll throw them in the bay."
Contemplating, the old man spoke. "My name is Gaffer and I lived here once when this city was great. My trade involved recording events by taking pictures, like those in the books.
"The case contains memories. Pictures taken long before your parents were alive. They are of Bellingham, from a time when people traveled in machines and daylight arrived at the flick of a switch."
The old man pondered his next words. "I came back to see those pictures before I die."
"Then show me," Tanner challenged. "I won't tell anyone."
"You can't promise that," the old man exclaimed. "To show you would be like infecting you with a deadly disease. You won't be able to contain it, and when you're caught, they won't be forgiving."
"I don't care. I hate this place, and I hate the council and their rules. My father died in their work camp for something he didn't do. Please show me what it was once like."
Without saying more, the old man reached out his hand to take the case. Tanner, accepting the resignation in his face, relinquished it.
The old man set the case on the table, lifted the lid and removed a single black chip. From under the table, he produced an ancient leather satchel. His hand shook as he undid the clasp.
From within came a rectangular plate an inch thick. It was no bigger than his hand when his fingers were spread. The old man imbedded the chip, tapped on the glass front, and the room lit up with a glow as bright as five candles.