by Brian K. Asbury
A remote device found on the unconscious Ornitho opened up a heavy steel door at the far end of the chamber, and the seven surviving members of the raiding party hurried through it. They found themselves at one end of a long corridor. Suddenly, lights came up at the other end, revealing a scarlet-robed old man standing there, arms akimbo. He had a neatly trimmed white beard and wore an ornate triangular skullcap over an otherwise bald head.
“Congratulations,” the old man said. “You have done well to defeat my guards, albeit at the cost of one of your number. Were it not that I now feel obliged to kill you for your act of trespass, I might almost be inclined to offer you employment in their place.”
“Stick it!” grumbled Jall Tannuz. “If anybody’s going to die here, it’s you, old man.”
Celebrand held up a hand to silence him. He moved closer to where the old timer stood. “I take it we are in the presence of the Custodian?” he inquired. The old man nodded. “Just you?” said Celebrand. “Where are your curators?”
“I have sent them deeper into the Vault, where they will be spared the distress of seeing your demise,” replied the Custodian calmly.
“I don’t like this,” Dartalg whispered to Celebrand. “He’s too confident. Why?”
“This is why,” their leader replied. He held up a small device in his hand. “There’s an invisible force-field stretching across the corridor just in front of him. An extremely strong one.”
“We’ll see about that!” declared Elvo. He ran toward the old man, swinging his Powersword. There was a blinding flash of light as the blade connected with the unseen barrier, and Elvo was flung back.
The old man smirked. “Did you seriously think even that remarkable blade could penetrate my protective shield?” he said. “I’m bitterly disappointed in you, Elvo Elvar.”
Elvo picked himself up. “You know me?”
“I remember you. You were such a promising student, Elvo. You’d have made a fine curator. But that sword belongs in the Vault. Such a shame I will have to kill you to ensure it is replaced there. As for this shield, please do not waste any more effort trying to break through it. It is a Coluan design — quite impenetrable and powered by the very core of this planet. Not even someone with the power of Superman could breach it.”
“And how exactly do you think you’re going to kill us, hiding behind a force-field?” sneered Jall Tannuz.
The Custodian removed his skullcap to reveal a golden mesh of circuitry sitting atop his skull. “I control every trap, every weapon, every device in this Vault. One might almost say that the Vault and I are one. Observe.” Not a muscle moved, and his expression showed no change, but several hatches suddenly slid aside in the corridor, revealing a variety of deadly looking weapons that were all trained on the seven raiders. At the same time, the door by which they had entered slammed shut.
“I give you a choice,” said the Custodian, his expression unchanging. “You can either surrender, and I will call in the troops that are now waiting outside to arrest you, or you can be blasted into oblivion where you stand.”
Immorto glared at his shape-shifting companion. “You just had to ask, didn’t you?”
“Wait!” said Celebrand, stepping forward. “Before you go any further with this, don’t you want to know why we’re here?”
The Custodian snorted derisively. “Why should I care? There have been at least twenty attempts to breach the Vault and steal its secrets since I have been Custodian, and there will be many more after I am long dead and gone. You have managed to get farther than any of the others, but you are still of little interest to me. And if this is a pathetic attempt to buy yourselves time, I am not impressed. In fact, please. Come closer. All of you. Step right up to the force-field, if you wish, and say your last words. I give you one minute. If you have not surrendered by then, you will be dead, that I guarantee.”
“Very well,” said Celebrand. He stepped closer, stopping only when he reached the point where Elvo’s attack had been repulsed by the force-field. The others followed, somewhat less certainly. “Custodian,” he began, “I have heard much of this Vault and the man who is responsible for it. Tell me — is it true that you are unbreakable?”
The Custodian nodded. “I have been engineered in our clone banks to be completely resistant to torture or any other form of persuasion. Furthermore, my unique brain patterns are impervious to telepathic probing. Whatever your powers, even if you could penetrate this field, you could not persuade me to allow you farther into the Vault, and if you were to attempt to do so, then you would not make it more than a few meters before falling foul of the many traps within. Your assault upon this facility was always totally futile. Surrender now. You have less than thirty seconds remaining.”
“So force or telepathy would be a waste of time. But how about love?”
“Love?!” The Custodian spluttered the words. “Do you mean him?” He pointed to Apollo. “The Geeqouite’s pheremonal emanations cannot reach me through the force-field. And even if I was female, my altered body chemistry makes me immune to such things. As it is, I am male, which means it would not affect me, anyway.”
“Of course not,” agreed Celebrand. “But I wasn’t talking about Apollo.” He tipped his head toward Apollo, who reached out and pulled Psyche’s hood from her face.
“Time for you to shine, my darling,” Apollo said. Psyche smiled and stepped to the front of the group.
The Custodian folded his arms and at first stared at her with a mixture of disdain and curiosity. Then his expression seemed to melt. His eyes opened, and his jaw dropped. “By the Great Spirit of the Galaxy…”
“Remember what we rehearsed, Psyche,” said Apollo quietly. “Say the words…”
The girl looked pleadingly at the Custodian. “Please let me through to you,” she said imploringly, spreading her arms wide. “I love you…”
“And… and I love you… too…” said the Custodian, his voice barely a whisper.
“You aren’t going to harm me and my friends, are you?” she said.
“No… no, I could never harm you… my love!”
Celebrand was studying his handheld scanner. “The force-field’s down. Everybody forward, now. But no one touch the Custodian. That means you, Jall.”
They moved past the now-deactivated barrier, out of the firing path of the wall-mounted weapons. Dartalg touched Celebrand’s shoulder. “You did it again, didn’t you?” he said. “How in the universe did you know empathic attack was the one thing the Zeraks hadn’t thought to protect the Custodian against?”
Celebrand allowed himself as small smile. “I can’t take credit for this one, Dartalg. Our employer was the one who thought of it.”
“He arranged for her to be bought from Citadel slavers, who in turn had acquired her from the space pirate Roxxas. But without the power-dampening restraints the Citadel had on her, she was too dangerous to simply be let loose. That’s why Apollo was hired — to keep her under control.”
The Custodian tried to reach out to Psyche, but she stayed beyond arm’s length and moved back as he attempted to close the gap. “I — I don’t understand,” he stammered. “I love you. Please, be mine. I must have you.”
“But first you must do something for me,” said Psyche.
“Anything — anything you ask, my love.”
“Except for the energy-barrier at the main entrance, you must turn off all of the Vault’s security systems and traps. Everything!”
“Yes, yes — for you, my love, anything. It is done.”
As the weapons in the corridor retracted back into the walls, Celebrand looked at his scanner. “He’s done it,” he announced. “Everything’s off. We can now go anywhere in the Vault.”
“But just where are we going?” asked Elvo.
“Apollo,” said Celebrand, “tell Psyche to instruct the Custodian to take us to Study Project 4711-Omega.”
“Is that it?” asked Dartalg, doubtfully.
“That’s it,” affirmed Celebrand. “Study Project 4711-omega. Correct, Custodian?”
The white-bearded Custodian frowned. On an intellectual level, he obviously understood that he should not have allowed these people to penetrate this far into the Vault, but he was unable to deny them anything. The overwhelming sense of anguish that Psyche caused him to feel if he tried to assert his own will ensured that he did nothing — could do nothing — to thwart the wishes of Celebrand and his companions.
“Yes — 4711-Omega. Two of my curators should be studying it right now, but I sent them away. They will not return until I give the order.”
“Good,” said Celebrand.
Jall Tannuz peered through the diglass screen that separated them from what was in the chamber. “I don’t get it,” he muttered. “What’s all the fuss about? It’s just a bright light. What’s it supposed to do?”
“The typical reaction of an ignorant off-worlder,” snapped the Custodian. “It’s…” His expression softened as Psyche again manipulated his emotions. “It’s beautiful. Don’t you agree? The perfect creature?”
“Creature?” Immorto had joined Tannuz at the screen. “You mean that thing is alive?”
“Of course. A denizen of what we term the Quantum Two Universe — a higher plane of existence, if you will, than our own Quantum One cosmos. Not for this creature the constraints of mere flesh. It exists as pure energy.”
Psyche suddenly pressed close to the barrier. “She’s in pain,” she said softly.
“What?” said Celebrand.
“She is in pain. She has been imprisoned here such a long time… such a long time… so lonely. Custodian, you must release her. This is so cruel.”
“Yes, my love. Of course,” said the Custodian.
“No!” yelled Celebrand. “Apollo, stop her!”
The sudden cry momentarily startled Apollo, but he pulled himself together and touched Psyche on the arm. “No, Psyche, my darling. Tell him not to release the creature.”
“Please?” The diglass screen was beginning to open. The light beyond it glowed still brighter.
“Custodian, no,” said Psyche. “I have changed my mind.”
“As you will, my love.” The screen closed again. Everyone looked mightily relieved.
Dartalg said, “There’s got to be an easier way to do this, Celebrand. If that energy-creature had been on the ball, then it could have escaped with no trouble at all. Having orders having to pass from you, to Apollo, to Psyche, to the Custodian is ridiculously clumsy. It’s like trying to go from here to this planet’s moon via Earth, Rann, and Thanagar!”
“I agree,” said Celebrand. “However… oh, excuse me.” His communicator was buzzing. “Celebrand here. Yes, sir.” He was silent as he listened to the message coming through his earpiece. “Yes, sir. We’re there now. The creature is in front of us. Of course. I’ll do that.” He turned to the others. “He wants to come down here in person. Custodian, you’ve a Transmat station down here, haven’t you?”
“What’s it to you, Off-worlder?” the Custodian replied sullenly.
“Answer him, my love,” said the sultry Psyche at Apollo’s prompting.
“Yes, there is a Transmat close to where I was waiting for you. But it can only be accessed from here in the Vault. It is designed to scramble any incoming signal trying to transport into here without permission.”
“That’s all right. You’re going to issue that clearance,” said Celebrand. He pointed to the creature from the Quantum Two Universe. “Take us to the Transmat. I want the creature brought there, too.”
“What? Are you out of your mind? Do you have any idea just how dangerous that creature is?”
“He’s got a point,” said Elvo. “I’ve got a feeling that trying to move that thing could be a really bad idea. We don’t know what it’s capable of.”
“C’mon, swordsman,” Immorto said, grinning. “Live a little. Take a chance! Remember, this thing is what we came for. How would we look if we wimped out of taking it away with us after we’ve gotten this far?”
“All very well for you to say. You seem to have remarkable powers of recovery, Mr. Schreck. You still haven’t explained how you managed to seem to return from the dead back there after that Garg battered you head-first into the floor.”
The young brown-haired man’s grin widened. “What can I say? I eat lots of fruit and vegetables, take vitamins, drink only Ginseng tea…”
“Will you two pipe down?” grumbled Celebrand. He turned back to the Custodian. “You’re holding the creature in that chamber,” he said. “Could a portable containment field allow us to transport it?”
“Yes,” said the Custodian at Psyche’s urging. “But…”
“Then do it. We’re going to meet our employer, and we’re taking his property with us.”
“I don’t like this,” whispered Dartalg to Elvo as service robots moved the portable containment field into position. “We were told we were raiding this place to recover technology stolen from our boss. We’ve been lied to.”
The pair was standing back from the main group. Elvo rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
“Come on,” Dartalg hissed. “You heard what the old man said — that blazing light is some sort of energy-based life form from the Quantum Two Universe, whatever the hell that is! It has nothing to do with stolen technology.”
“Unless it’s stolen technology keeping it here,” Elvo muttered.
Dartalg shook his head. “No way. Those are standard containment units. Do those fancy lenses of yours show anything different behind that thing?”
“Then I repeat — we’ve been lied to. Gods, what have we gotten into here? Commands passed down a chain like a bucket of water to a fire, a living energy-creature…”
“You guys look awfully serious,” said Immorto, joining them. “What’s going on?”
Dartalg glared at him. “What were you told we were here to do?”
“Eh? Oh, recover something these Zeraks had taken from the boss. That thing.” He pointed to the energy-creature, which was now being pulled from its cell by the robots, safely enveloped in the portable containment field.
“Were you told it was a living creature?”
“You were told it was some sort of technology, right?”
Elvo snorted. “It should be some sort of technology. Damn it, I fell out with the establishment here a long time ago, but I always trusted in their integrity in that respect. I can’t believe they’re holding some innocent creature prisoner here, no matter how alien it is!”
Immorto looked doubtful. “Er… yeah. I see your point.”
“But it is alive,” hissed Dartalg. “And you heard what Psyche said. It’s in pain.”
Immorto stared at him. “Are you proposing that we rescue the thing?”
“We should rescue it,” Elvo declared suddenly.
“What? You were the one saying a moment ago that we should be careful — that it’s dangerous. If we set it free, who knows what it’ll do? It could kill us all.”
“I thought you were the one who wasn’t afraid of death?” said Dartalg sardonically.
Immorto shrugged. “I’m not sure even I could survive being vaporized. I’d rather not find out.”
“Well, that aside,” said Dartalg, “do you actually have a plan, Elvo? Or is this just a righteous reaction to finding out that your people aren’t as morally pure as you thought?
“That isn’t funny.”
“Actually,” said Elvo, “maybe I do have an idea. If Psyche can sense emotions from that creature, maybe she can also induce emotions in it — keep it from going on a rampage.”
“It’s a thought. But Psyche’s under Apollo’s control, and Apollo takes orders from Celebrand. I don’t think he’s likely to cooperate with you on this one.”
“Then we may have to break the chain of command,” said Elvo. He turned to Immorto. “Are you with us?”
“Me?” Immorto shrugged. “Look, are you guys serious? And has it occurred to either of you that our mission might really be to free this creature? Huh?”
“Then why the lies?”
“Never mind that,” said Dartalg. “Why are you assuming I’m with you on this, Elvo, never mind anyone else? I said I didn’t like what was going on. I didn’t say I had freeing the creature in mind, and certainly not unless you can guarantee it won’t fry us the instant it’s free!”
“I just thought…”
The exchange was interrupted by a cry from Celebrand. “I didn’t tell you three you could take a break. You’re not being paid to chat. Pay attention.”
“Sorry,” began Immorto.
“Save it,” Celebrand said. “All right, Custodian, order your robots to move it out to where I said.”
The order was passed down the chain to the Custodian, and the robots began to move the containment field projectors back down the corridor. When they reached the main chamber, a wall opened up, revealing a large Transmat pad and a control console.
Celebrand moved behind the console. “Unlock the controls.” The Custodian did so at Psyche’s urging. Celebrand punched in a set of coordinates. “All right, ladies and gents,” he began. “This is the moment of truth.”
“About time,” said Elvo. “What’s really going on, Celebrand? We came in here to retrieve a machine. What’s that creature got to do with anything?”
“That’s what we’re about to find out,” replied Celebrand. “I just sent a signal to our employer. In just a few moments, he’s going to Transmat down here and join us. And then we’ll all learn the truth!”