by Brian K. Asbury
As they entered the crew lounge, they saw that everyone was now assembled there except for the captain and his co-pilot. “Where the hell have you been, Obrin?” growled Jall Tannuz. “I paged your quarters ten minutes ago. It only takes thirty seconds to walk here from there.”
“Psyche, here, was tired,” said Apollo smoothly. “She had been so distraught since you brought her on board that she hadn’t slept. So I let her take a little nap.”
“How kind of you,” sneered the orange-skinned alien.
“Yes, wasn’t it? It hardly matters, anyway, as the captain isn’t here yet. And by the way, Tannuz, my name is Apollo.”
“Sure it is.”
“Enough,” barked a voice from the door. The heavily built, bearded but balding Celebrand entered. “I’ll have none of you bickering among yourselves, or I’ll put you off the ship — and if you’re lucky I might even do so at a planet with an atmosphere you can breathe! Now, settle down.” He moved toward a holo-projector on one side of the room. Behind him entered a short-haired woman in purple.
“Well, hel-lo,” crooned Apollo. “And who’s this beauty?” He got up and approached her.
“For those of you who haven’t met her, this is Varnu Trala,” said Celebrand. “She’s our co-pilot.”
“I am sooo pleased to meet you, Varnu,” Apollo beamed. “Perhaps we can find time to become intimately acquainted later?”
Varnu said nothing. She suddenly whipped back her fist and socked Apollo squarely in the jaw. He flew back into the arms of Dartalg, who promptly dropped him in disgust. “What the–?” he said, startled. Elvo, Immorto, and Jall Tannuz creased up with laughter.
“Perhaps the captain didn’t explain something to you, pretty boy,” said Varnu, looming over him with a sneer on her smooth features. “Your overrated charms won’t work on me.”
“But how — why?”
“Because I’m not into men,” she said. “Not on any level. My… tastes run to something much better.” She sat down next to Psyche. “Hello,” she said. “So you’re the mysterious package we took delivery of. You’re absolutely beautiful, do you know that?”
“Uh… thank you,” said Psyche uncertainly.
“All right, enough,” Celebrand said. “All of you settle down. Our employer has asked me to brief you on our mission. Firstly, I’m to tell you that if anyone still has doubts, you’re to say so now, and you can go back to your cabins, and I’ll drop you off at the nearest inhabited world.” No one spoke. “Very well. Know that from now on you’re committed to the mission. There’s no dropping out now.”
He pressed a switch, and a holographic representation of a planet appeared in the center of the lounge. “This is our destination,” he said.
A low groan escaped from Elvo. They all turned to face the swordsman, who had buried his face in his hands. “What’s wrong with you?” demanded Celebrand.
“That’s Zerak,” said Elvo, his voice cracking. He looked up. “That’s the planet Zerak!”
“Yes,” said Celebrand. “What of it? Do you know the planet?”
Elvo nodded. “I can’t go there,” he said. “I can’t go to Zerak.”
He looked at them each in turn appealingly. “Because I’m from Zerak,” he explained, “and I was exiled from there years ago. I’m under sentence of death if I ever return!”
“I think you’d better explain yourself,” said Celebrand.
In response, Elvo drew his Powersword. “The reason is this,” he said. “Tell me, Celebrand, this mission — it doesn’t have something to do with the Vault, does it?”
“It might. Why?”
“Oh, my God!”
Dartalg stood up. “What is going on here? What’s this about a vault? I thought we were supposed to be recovering something that had been acquired illegally?”
“Please sit down,” Celebrand said. “All will be made clear shortly. Elvo — you didn’t steal that sword from the Vault, did you?”
“No… no. It belonged to my great-grandfather. It was a trophy of the Foundationer Wars a century ago. But they wanted to put it into the Vault. I couldn’t allow that — hell, I was the only member of my family able to fully utilize its powers for three generations. So I chose exile instead — but if I go back, I’m a dead man.”
“I see. Well, I don’t think that will be a great problem. All we have to do is ensure you’re not recognized. Otherwise, your local knowledge should come in very handy.”
“If you say so,” said Elvo uncertainly.
“Just a minute,” Immorto said. “I don’t understand. What is this Vault you keep talking about. What’s in it?”
“Technology,” Elvo said.
“Very, very dangerous technology.”
Celebrand waved them both to silence. “Please. I think it would be helpful if you all left the explanations to me. Thank you.” He turned back to the holographic planet. “The people of the planet Zerak are a somewhat peculiar race. No offence, Elvo.”
“None taken,” said Elvo. “As a matter of fact, I happen to agree with you. Barking mad, the whole bunch of us.”
“Yes. Anyway, a hundred years ago or thereabouts, the planet was ruled by an oppressive technocracy called the Foundationers. Basically, they controlled all of the scientific and technological knowledge on the planet and viciously suppressed it from the people as a whole by denying them anything other than the most basic education. They used the common people as slaves to work on the most terrible weapons of mass destruction imaginable, which they intended to use to conquer other worlds.
“However, before this campaign of conquest could take place, the people rose up in rebellion and overthrew the Foundationers. They destroyed many of the terrible weapons they had wrought, and the remainder they sealed up in an impregnable labyrinthine complex known simply as the Vault.
“But the story doesn’t end there. The new government of the planet was more benevolent and set about creating a more egalitarian and educated society — but they maintain a deep suspicion of what they consider dangerous technology.”
“Tell me about it,” muttered Elvo.
“Thank you, Elvo,” said Celebrand, silencing him with a glance. “To continue, the rulers of the planet now seem to consider it their holy duty to rid the galaxy of all dangerous technology — or, at least, as much of it as they can get their hands on. It has become an obsession with them.
“For the last hundred years, their agents have roamed the galaxy, seeking out unique technological inventions. Once they have found something, they evaluate whether it fits their definition of dangerous. If it does, they seize it and, to stop it from being duplicated, they seal it up in the Vault with the rest of their collection.”
“Why don’t they just destroy them?” asked Immorto.
Elvo shook his head. “If they destroy something, they can’t study it.”
“Elvo is right,” said Celebrand. “As I said, it’s an obsession with them. They want to make sure dangerous technology can’t be used for evil, but they also want to know how it works. And so a small army of curators work in the Vault, classifying, probing, and analyzing the artifacts in there. Perhaps they hope to find some peaceful uses for the stuff — who knows? But nothing placed in there ever comes out again, I do know that.”
A low whistle escaped from Jall Tannuz. “Moons of Rannapur!” he said. “Can you imagine what must be in there? If anyone got control of all those weapons, they could conquer the galaxy! Hasn’t anybody ever tried to capture this Vault?”
“Indeed they have,” Celebrand said. “Armies — whole battle fleets — have been sent to the planet to try and wrest the contents of the Vault from the Zeraks. None have returned.”
“None. The Zeraks may have locked away all this stuff to stop anyone else using it for evil, but they’re quite happy to use terrible weapons of destruction to protect their own planet. I’ve heard of entire fleets simply dissolving to nothingness as they approached.”
“And you expect us to succeed where they’ve failed?” cried Apollo, his eyes wide in alarm. “Just the…” he counted heads, “…eight of us against a planet defended by the most powerful weapons of destruction ever built? Are you mad?”
Celebrand smiled faintly. “No, and neither is our employer. He believes we can succeed where larger forces have failed, and I believe him.”
“Why?” asked Dartalg. “And why are we doing this, anyway?”
“Our employer believes that the Zeraks have for too long taken the law into their own hands and confiscated technology which does not belong to them and which they have no right to take. They crossed the line when they stole an item belonging to him. He wants it back, and we’re going to get it for him!”
“Is it just me, or do you have misgivings about this, too?” Elvo asked Dartalg. They were sitting opposite one another in their cabin, studying files that Celebrand had given them and ordered them to read and digest.
Dartalg transferred himself to his bunk and lay back, still perusing through the sheaf of plastifoil pages. “It’s natural that you should have some trepidation about going back to a world where you’ve been condemned. I’d feel much the same about returning to Nemral.”
“Yes, my friend, but they don’t want to kill you — they just want you to work for them again.”
“Which I have no intention of doing. For me, it would be the same thing. I’ve had my fill of killing. I’d rather die myself than go back to the life of an assassin.” He put down the file. “This seems to have been planned very carefully, though. I believe our employer is right — your people expect to be assailed by large military forces, if at all. The idea of a small band of specialists attempting it is so audacious that it will take them by surprise.”
“They’re not my people,” said Elvo. “Not anymore. I haven’t considered myself a Zerak in years.”
“I stand corrected.”
“Anyway, even if Celebrand’s right, it isn’t going to be that simple. We’ve still got to get past the guards — and they change them regularly, so we can’t be sure what we’re up against there. They’ve hired some pretty heavy alien mercenaries in the past.”
“I’m sure that between us we can defeat any guards.”
“Possibly. Well — yes, OK, we probably can. But even if we get past the guards, we’ve got to get through the Vault and find whatever it is the boss wants us to retrieve. That’s another thing that bugs me, my friend. We still don’t know what it is!”
“Perhaps our employer’s worried some of us might be inclined to help ourselves if we knew,” said Dartalg. “There are certainly one or two in this company whom I think we’re going to have to keep a very careful watch on.”
“I agree. But the point is, we don’t know how to get through the Vault. No one does except the Custodian.”
“Ah,” said Dartalg, finding a particular page. “This old man who is in charge of the place.”
“Don’t let appearances deceive you,” said Elvo. “The Custodian is not what he appears. Do you honestly think the Zeraks would put the knowledge of how to negotiate a million and one deathtraps in the Vault into a feeble old man? He’s been genetically modified, not only to give him enhanced physical and mental faculties, but also to make him completely unbreakable. He’s totally resilient to pain and immune to all known drugs. His brain patterns have been adjusted to make him impossible to hypnotize — and if any telepath tries to get in there, they’ll get feedback that will probably scramble their synapses. That means it’s impossible to get information out of him — either by torture, chemical means, or even by ESP. Like I said — totally unbreakable.”
“Not totally,” said Elvo. “Have you read this? Our employer believes he’s found the one chink in the Custodian’s armor.”
Elvo picked up his own copy and read it through again. “Maybe,” he said at length. “I’m not totally convinced. It might work, but the Custodian’s will power is legendary. It might not be one-hundred percent effective.”
“Well, we’ll just have to see.”
“Yeah. Great. And if it doesn’t work, and we can’t get into the Vault even if we neutralize the guards? Or if we can get in, but only so far? Then what?”
Dartalg only grunted in reply. Elvo sighed. He had a bad feeling about this. He also had a suspicion that there was something being kept from them. Something other than the name of their employer and the nature of the thing they were looking for, that is.
As if that wasn’t enough.
“So,” said Immorto. “That’s the Vault? Not very imposing, is it?”
“It’s not meant to be,” muttered Elvo. “It wasn’t built for show. It was built to house some of the most dangerous machines ever built.”
They were sitting, accompanied by Dartalg and Varnu, at a table at a sidewalk café, sipping a local caffeine-rich beverage that tasted something like a cross between peppermint and coffee. The café afforded a good view of the huge, squat, block-like building that housed the Vault, and they could actually see some of the guards from where they sat. Elvo had left behind his customary partly armored costume and helmet and was instead wearing a hooded cloak that covered his head and kept his goggled eyes in shadow.
“I don’t believe they actually didn’t even bother to put a fence around it!” said Varnu, with a trace of amusement in her voice. “And by the way, this is the crappiest drink I’ve ever tasted. Don’t they serve alcohol here?”
“I wish,” mumbled a miserable-looking Dartalg.
“Alcohol is banned in Zerak City,” said Elvo. “One of the reasons I was only too happy to leave, incidentally. As for the lack of a fence, why bother? Fences and boundary walls would have spoiled the aesthetic look of the place, and anyway, who cares if anybody gets in? They’d have to negotiate the maze of death traps in there, and without the Custodian’s knowledge, that’s impossible.”
“Aesthetic design!” spluttered Varnu. “You’re kidding, right? It’s just a huge rectangular block sitting in the middle of the city. It’s hideous!”
“Celebrand did say we Zeraks were a peculiar race,” said Elvo wryly.
“So…” began Immorto. “A handful of guards, and beyond that a collection of deadly traps. And all we’ve got to do is get past ’em. Piece of cake.”
“Not without a sense of humor, are you?” said Dartalg.
“It comes in handy,” said Immorto, grinning.
“Seriously, though,” said the dour, green-clad former assassin, “while we have a plan for getting in, has anybody considered how we’re supposed to get out again when we’ve found whatever it is we’re looking for? One problem with there being no barrier between the Vault and the outside world is that we can’t attack without being seen by half the city. We’re going to have one hell of a reception committee waiting for us when we get out — assuming, that is, everything goes to plan. They’re likely to mobilize the whole damn planet against us!”
“Celebrand says the boss has something up his sleeve,” Varnu said.
“Which, of course, is another juicy little snippet of information he’s keeping to himself.” Dartalg sighed. “And where is our boss, anyway? I assumed he’d be here waiting for us.”
“He’s on board the ship.”
Elvo and Dartalg stared at her. “It’s true,” said Immorto. “He came on board just after you did, apparently.”
“Then where was he?” asked Elvo.
Immorto shrugged. “His compartment is sealed off from the rest of the ship. You can only get in from outside.”
“Likes his privacy, doesn’t he, our mysterious employer?”
Before anyone could answer, a dark shape swooped down from the sky toward the entrance to the Vault. “Ga-lax-y!” exclaimed Varnu. “That’s a Denebian Cloudhawk, isn’t it? One of the fastest and most dangerous birds in this sector of space! What’s it doing here?”
“Watch,” said Elvo with a smile.
They did so. The great bird reached the threshold, and its shape shimmered and twisted. Suddenly, there was no bird there, but a man — a man clad in purple, light blue, and white, and upon whose back were a pair of slightly blue-tinged feathered wings.
“That’s Ornitho,” said Elvo. “They recruit from all over the galaxy for the Vault Guards, and he’s one of the best. I heard they made him captain, in fact.”
“What is he? A Thanagarian?” asked Varnu.
“Nope. Those wings aren’t artificial constructs; they’re part of him. He’s said to be from the planet Pluboss II.”
“I never heard of it.”
“No reason why you should have,” said Dartalg. “It’s a long way from here. But I know it. An inhospitable hellhole of a planet with huge swaths of land still radioactive from a terrible war over two thousand years ago. Half the population are mutants to one degree or another.”
“And a very few, like Ornitho, have developed favorable mutations,” said Elvo. “They say he can adopt the form and exact abilities of any known bird or other avian form in the universe.”
“Big deal,” said Immorto. “Jall Tannuz can assume any shape, not just birds.”
“Yes, I know. But from what Apollo told me, his powers are like those of a Durlan. If he becomes, say, a Zwennian Stonethrush, Jall only takes on the semblance of stone. He’s still really flesh. Ornitho, on the other hand, becomes the real thing!”
“Heads up,” said Varnu. “Here come Celebrand and the others. I think the party’s almost ready to begin!”