by Brian K. Asbury
“Uh… I’ll go get one of the robes we wore as a disguise,” said Dartalg. “Whoever she is, she’s somewhat, uh, exposed.”
Celebrand stared at him as he turned on his heel and started to walk back toward the chamber where they had fought Ornitho and the other guards. His vision was still not completely clear, but was it his imagination, or was the normally cynical ex-assassin actually blushing?
“Get one for me, too. There’s not too much left of this outfit!” This was Immorto, suddenly sitting up and looking as fresh and undamaged as when he had walked in.
“Right,” muttered Dartalg, neither turning nor breaking step.
“Incredible!” gasped Ornitho, staring at the restored Immorto. “What are you?”
Immorto grinned. “Just an average, run-of-the-mill, out-of-work circus performer who happens to be unkillable,” he said. “I’m available for birthdays and bar mitzvahs, by the way. I’d give you one of my cards, but they seem to have burned into ash for some reason.”
“No — joking aside, how do you do that? You were dead. Surely you were dead! Nothing could have survived that!”
“Beats me,” said Immorto. He got to his feet and approached Elvo. “Here, big guy, you need these more than I do right now. They just about survived.” He handed over Elvo’s goggles.
“Thanks,” said the swordsman, dusting them off with his sleeve and replacing them over his scarred eyes. “I was wondering if anyone would remember.” He looked around. “How’s Psyche?”
“I don’t know,” replied Immorto, suddenly serious. He moved back to the unconscious empath and knelt beside her. “She seems OK — which is completely weird, because she should have been fried to a crisp. Whatever that thing was, it didn’t want to hurt her.”
“And what about this one?” said Elvo, walking over to Celebrand. “Who is she?”
Celebrand shook his head. “Bizarre as it seems, I think this may be the energy-creature,” he said.
“Is she alive?”
“Yes.” Celebrand looked at Elvo. “Is your eyesight OK?” The swordsman nodded. “Then tell me if I’m mistaken, Elvo. Who does this girl remind you of?”
Elvo dropped to his knees and studied the girl’s face closely. “She looks a bit like Psyche, Celebrand. Although not exactly. And her hair is more golden in color than Psyche’s ash-blonde. I’d say she’s a bit taller, too, although it’s difficult to tell while she’s lying down.”
“Look more closely. Does she resemble anyone else here?” Celebrand glanced toward Immorto, who was trying to bring Psyche round.
“Gods!” breathed Elvo. “You’re right, Celebrand. There’s a resemblance to Immorto, too. What does this mean?”
Before Celebrand could reply, Dartalg reappeared, carrying two of the robes. He passed one to Immorto and brought the other to Celebrand. “You might be interested to know, leader mine, that there’s quite a delegation outside the entrance. I think half the Zerak army must be trying to get through the energy barrier.”
“Can they get through?” Celebrand asked.
“No.” Elvo and Ornitho chorused it together. Ornitho continued, “Not by force, at any rate. But if they find one of the off-duty curators, he or she might have a key to get them through. It’s only a matter of time.”
“The curators!” Elvo said. “I’d forgotten about them. The Custodian sent them deeper into the Vault, but they’re still around. By now they must be wondering what’s going on. If one of them decides to break out some of the weapons back there and investigate…”
Celebrand had been wrapping the girl in the robe given him by Dartalg. Now he handed her to Elvo and stood up. “That’s a very good point. Time we were leaving, I think.” He started toward the Transmat controls.
“You’ve got to be joking!” Ornitho said. “I’m employed to protect this Vault, and I’m damned if I’m going to just stand by and let you leave, just like that! You’d better be prepared to fight!”
Dartalg sighed. “I thought we’d been through this before,” he said, hefting his blowpipe. “Just how do you think you’re going to stop us by yourself?”
Ornitho stared at him helplessly. “But I can’t just let you go!”
Celebrand had reached the Transmat controls by now. “I’m afraid you have no choice, Ornitho. Whatever you transform into, the four of us must surely be more than you can handle.” He sighed. “Just see sense, please, and let us go. We’ve got what we came here for.”
“Have we?” said Dartalg. “And just what did we come here for, Celebrand? Are you seriously thinking of taking this creature with us, even transformed like that? And what about Hammond?”
“We must take her!” The voice was feminine, and they all turned at the sound. Psyche was now sitting up. “If we leave her here, they’ll lock her up again.”
“But she’s dangerous!”
Psyche shook her head. “No longer. She can survive now in this form. Isolated as she was before, she was going mad and slowly dying. Her transformation will help her to live in our universe.”
“Do you know what happened?” asked Immorto, helping her to her feet.
“Yes,” she replied. “In order to survive, she needed to become a creature of our universe. She could do this in two ways — merge with another creature, as Hammond wished to do, or use another creature as a template.” She looked at Immorto curiously. “I was trying to give her something of myself, but she could not control it. She would have absorbed me completely if you had not pulled me away. But I sensed that when you touched her, she gained something of you, too.”
“Really,” said Celebrand. His hands were on the Transmat console. “You’ve only got to look at her to see who her parents are. Look, people, we can talk about this later, but we’re not safe here. The Custodian could wake up, the curators might turn the Vault on us, or the Zerak army could get in. We have to get out. Ornitho, are you still determined to stop us?”
“You’re right,” said the winged mutant, lowering his head. “The only way I could stop you is with my Kryptonian winged one form, but that option isn’t available right now. But if I can’t stop you, I’m going to have to come with you!”
“What — so you can try to stop us later?” asked Elvo, who had carried the unconscious girl to the Transmat pad.
“No. It’s simple practicality. I was in charge here. If I let you go, the Zeraks will arrest me for treason — and as a Zerak yourself, I’m sure you’re aware what their system of justice is like.”
Elvo shuddered. “He’s right, Celebrand. If we leave him behind, he’s worse than dead. Trust me on this one, you don’t want to know what they’ll do to him.”
“All right,” conceded Celebrand. “In that case, let’s get everyone on the pad ready to transport up.”
“Including that treacherous snake Tannuz?” said Dartalg with a scowl.
“Yes, everyone. Jall Tannuz, Apollo, Hammond — oh, and someone please go back to the other chamber and fetch Varnu’s body. I intend to take her to her home planet for a proper Imskian burial. There’s no way I’m going to leave her here.”
Two hours later, with their ship streaking away from Zerak safely cloaked and at high warp, Elvo, Dartalg, Immorto, Psyche, and Ornitho sat waiting in the crew lounge waiting for their captain. Very little was exchanged between them as they ate a frugal meal provided by the ship’s robo-steward, and Psyche in particular looked very nervous and apprehensive. In fact, truth to tell, the rest of the group were equally nervous of her, knowing how easily she’d overcome them all in the Vault.
At last, the door opened to admit Celebrand. “At last,” Dartalg said, sitting up straight. Maybe now we’ll get some answers!”
“I see you’ve reclaimed your amulet, Captain,” observed Immorto. “What have you done with Hammond, then?”
“Chucked him out of the airlock, hopefully,” muttered Dartalg.
Celebrand took a step or two into the room. He smiled. “I think you know me better than that by now, Dartalg. I’ve put the psi-restrains on him that were on Psyche before Apollo came on board. He can’t use his powers, so he’ll be no trouble.”
“Good,” said Psyche softly. “Let him find out what it feels like.”
“All right,” said Celebrand. “The point is that he’s rendered harmless, and in the meantime, we’re clear away from Zerak with no sign of pursuit.”
“And what about our Quantum Queen?” asked Immorto.
“Quantum what?” Elvo said, puzzled.
Immorto gave one of his trademark grins. “Well, we’ve got to call her something. The Custodian said she was from the Quantum Two universe, whatever that is, and Psyche said she was a queen, so — Quantum Queen.”
“But that’s not a name, it’s a title,” said Ornitho.
“It’s as good as anything else.”
“I meant her emotions had a kind of nobility about her,” said Psyche. “I didn’t mean she was literally a queen. She doesn’t know who she is.”
“OK, OK,” said Celebrand. “We’ll let her decide for herself.” He turned back to the door. “All right, you can come in.”
And through the door came the blonde-haired girl who had been the energy-creature in the Vault. She was now tidied up and clad in a red jumpsuit. “Hello,” she said.
“You can talk?” said Immorto. “But Psyche said you couldn’t remember anything!”
“She got it from us,” Psyche said. “You and I, when we touched her.”
“I thought she might want to join us,” said Celebrand, indicating that she should join the others on the couches. She walked past him and dropped heavily on the nearest one, almost catapulting Elvo off it.
“Gods!” he exclaimed.
“Oh, I like this,” the girl said. She bounced up and down, oblivious to Dartalg’s gulp as her breasts jiggled with the motion. “It’s fun!”
“Yeah… yeah, I’m sure it is,” said Elvo. “But for now can you sit still, please? I’ve just eaten!”
“Oh, sorry…” she said. “It’s just that this is all new to me. This is a very comfortable seat.” She found herself looking straight at Immorto. “And I like Quantum Queen. I might keep it.”
“See?” said Immorto.
Dartalg cleared his throat. “If we can dispense with the fun and games, Celebrand, where are our other two crewmates — if that backstabbing scum Tannuz can be considered as such still?”
“They’re both still unconscious,” said Celebrand. “I could have brought them around, but I thought it would be better for everyone if the autodoc put them both in recovery capsules.”
“So they’re in stasis?”
“Yes. Jall Tannuz has shown he can’t be trusted, and Apollo…” He indicated the two females. “Under the circumstances, I felt it would be preferable to keep him out of the picture.”
“Very wise,” said Elvo, noting a look of relief that had come over Psyche’s face.
“And now,” Dartalg said, “are we at last going to get some answers? Are we finally going to be told just what this mission was really about?”
“Of course,” said Celebrand. He moved forward to join them around the table.
“Firstly, let me apologize for deceiving those of you who came on the mission with me,” said Celebrand. “It’s not the way I usually work, but in this case there were special circumstances.”
“One question before you continue,” said Dartalg. “Who are you, Celebrand? Are you a cop?”
“That’s two questions,” said Quantum Queen with a smile. “Sorry… I’ll keep quiet.”
“That’s OK,” Celebrand said. “No, Dartalg, I’m not a cop. But I am working for the Science Police in this case. I owed them a favor from the past, and they needed someone for this mission who wouldn’t be recognized as a police officer. They knew that Hammond was recruiting people for a mission, and they arranged that they should hear about my reputation as a freelance troubleshooter and that I was available.”
“So they knew the boss was Hammond all along?” said Elvo.
“Yes. They’ve been after him for a long, long time, and they saw this as a perfect opportunity to spring a trap on him. Hammond is not easy to deceive, but my training at the Institute on Titan, coupled with the protection my amulet gives me, enabled me to fool him into thinking I didn’t know his identity and that I was a perfect tool for him to use.”
“So why didn’t you tell the rest of us what was really going on?” asked Immorto. “Why keep us in the dark with all that crap about trying to recover some piece of technology stolen from him?”
“Two reasons, Immorto. Firstly, we didn’t know what Hammond really wanted from the Vault — only that it was the mysterious Study Project 4711-Omega. And secondly, while I could deceive Hammond, none of you would have been able to. The only way to lull Hammond into a false sense of security was for him to think no one suspected a thing. One stray thought from any of you suggesting you knew what was really going on, and he’d have never shown up.
“As it was,” he said, “I was perhaps overconfident in my ability to stop him once he did put in an appearance. If it hadn’t been for Ornitho, the whole mission might have gone belly-up. None of us really realized that Hammond could control you all at the same time.”
“Why didn’t you just get him while en route here?” asked Ornitho. “Surely if he didn’t suspect anything, you could have surprised him on board ship?”
Celebrand smiled. “I know I told you he came on board just after we picked up Elvo and Dartalg, but that’s only what he wanted us to think. He was never really on board this ship at all,” he explained. “Where he actually was I don’t know, but I suspect he was following us in another ship, with a Transmat unit linked to the one on board this one and an open comms channel designed to make us think he was in a sealed compartment locked away from us. It was when I detected that signal that I realized what was going on. When he transported down to the Vault, he just relayed the signal through this ship’s Transmat.” He paused. “I just hope he learns something from this. When they let him out of Takron-Galtos — if they let him out — I hope he has the sense to retire to somewhere quiet and stop trying to be a world-conqueror.”
“So what now?” Ornitho said. “If you were really working for the S.P.s, does that mean they’ll square everything with the Zeraks? Because I tell you, they are not going to be happy about this. And the Custodian is definitely a man to hold a grudge.”
“They’ll certainly try to square it with them, Ornitho,” said Celebrand.
“And what about us?” Dartalg said. “If Hammond is in custody, presumably we don’t get paid.”
“Hey, that’s right,” said Immorto.
Celebrand held up his hands. “Relax. You’ll get paid — there’s a considerable reward for his capture. You perhaps won’t get as much as Hammond was offering, but then I doubt he ever had any intention of parting with a single credit. But that brings me to something I want to ask you all. Ever since I resigned my commission in the space fleet, I’ve been trying to put a team together — a team of specialists, wandering the galaxy, exploring, troubleshooting — hell, just looking for adventure, if you like. I’ve worked with a number of people through the years, but I’ve never had a gut feeling about any of them like the one I have about the people I’ve worked with on this mission.”
He took a deep breath. “So, I have a proposition to put to you all. Join me. Stay on board and work with me. I believe we have the makings of a great team here, and I’d be really sorry to see it break up. I can’t promise you wealth and luxury, but I can promise you that we’ll see plenty of life — and maybe make a difference to the galaxy while we’re doing it. Who knows?”
There was a silence for several heartbeats before Elvo spoke up. “Well, you can count me in. I’ve nowhere else to go, and I’ve enjoyed working with you, Celebrand. Yeah, why not? It’ll be a blast!”
“Oookay…” Immorto said. “Count me in, too. Who needs the quiet life?”
It was the girl in red who spoke next. “Me, too!”
“Are you sure?” Psyche asked her. “You have no memory. Wouldn’t you rather go somewhere where they could maybe help you remember?”
“No, to hell with that,” said Quantum Queen. “I want to travel. I want to see everything!” They stared at her, astonished.
“Well,” Ornitho said. “I’ve nowhere else to go either, since I no longer have a job. And since you seem to have fired your fake Durlan, would an amateur shape-shifter, as he described me, suffice as a replacement?”
“You’ll more than just suffice, Ornitho,” Celebrand said. “I’m delighted to have you on board.”
That left two. Dartalg and Psyche looked at one another. “I don’t know,” the ash-blonde girl said.
“No one’s putting pressure on you, Psyche,” Celebrand said. “After we rendezvous with the S.P. ship, we need to take Varnu’s body back to Imsk and find somewhere to drop off Jall and Apollo, but then we could go to Dalnar and take you home to your family.”
She bowed her head. “No. I can’t go home.”
“Why not?” asked Quantum Queen.
“Because of what I’ve become. The Citadel made a slave of me. They made me do things… things I’m ashamed of. I don’t think I could face my people again after that. They would know…” She fell silent.
Surprisingly, it was Dartalg who took her in his arms and hugged her. “It’s OK, Psyche. We understand. We’re all exiles in one way or another, and if you stay with us, we’ll take care of you.”
“Does that mean–?” asked Elvo.
“Yes,” snapped the former assassin. “Count me in, Celebrand. It’s better than going back to propping up bars on dead-end planets, anyway.”
Celebrand got up and touched Psyche. “That leaves you, Psyche. I’ll understand if you feel you can’t join us. After we used Apollo to keep you subdued, I wouldn’t blame you.”
She shook her head. “I don’t blame you for that, Captain. If you hadn’t done it, it would have given the game away.”
“Then name your destination, Psyche. If you feel you can’t go home, we’ll take you wherever you want us to go.”
She looked up at him. “I don’t know anywhere except my homeworld and the Citadel, and I can’t go there,” she said, then transferred her gaze to each of the others in turn. “I need to make a new life for myself, so if you’ll have me, I’ll join you.”
Celebrand grinned. He picked up a glass from the table. “Then, shipmates, here’s to a long and happy association. We may be homeless wanderers, all of us, but we can make our presence felt in the galaxy — of that I’m more certain than I’ve ever been about anything!”
And they all lifted their glasses in salute to the beginning of a new life together.