They had been on the run for days as the result of their last caper and were hiding out in an abandoned barn. The place looked as if no one had been there for ages. On the second day they were preparing to leave when a sudden electrical storm broke out inside the barn! There were violent discharges of lightning and the thunder seemed as loud as cannon fire. A strong wind seemed to seize them in an unbreakable grip and they were pulled into a gaping hole in the center of the storm cloud. As suddenly as it began, the storm vanished with a final tremendous discharge of lightning. The thunder echoed in the empty barn like the last crash of doomsday. They were dumped out of the stormcloud and into a strange hallway, being the professionals that they were, they took it from there. Then things got weird. Now they were on the run, being lead around by a robot of some kind. Weird, it was all getting very weird.
The thief's thoughts must have echoed his companions pretty closely for they all stole secret looks at each other as if to guess who was ready to break.
"Touch nothing," the robot said. "Follow me and stay close."
"When do we get out of this hallway?" Seliene asked. "We're sitting targets if anyone comes along!"
"Just get us there and don't waste time on explanations. Take us to that 'Vehicle' that you told us about," said Beloq.
"PXR5 has almost completed the journey to the unguarded vehicle requested by yourselves. Please remain calm, there is no need of panic. No pursuit has yet been mounted," said the robot. "Follow me closely."
"Easier said than done," said Gryphon. "He's leading us at a dead run with these wheels of his. I need time to catch my breath!"
"Then don't waste it complaining about the thing that is saving your miserable life for you! Concentrate on running and stop whining!" said Beloq.
Suddenly they rounded a sharp corner and found themselves in some sort of anteroom. Lights came on as they entered and the robot led them through sets of double doors that appeared in their path. They came out into a huge hallway that seemed to go on forever. It was somewhat like a subway platform, or a bank of elevators- naked without their protective shafts. The robot led them to the fifth box in the seemingly infinite line of identical tall blue-green boxes.
"PXR5 has fulfilled your last order and awaits further instructions," said the robot.
"Where's the getaway car?" said the thief.
"Here in front of us, obviously!" said Seliene viciously. "Now how do we get in?" she hissed.
"PXR5 is working on that problem even as we stand here."
"Damned robot is getting poetic on us," Resthal muttered to himself. "We're in trouble, I knew it!"
"Robot, what is this place?" asked Beloq.
"Yeah, and what are these green wardrobe cabinets?" asked Gryphon.
"This is the landing area for these vehicles. These are transfer capsules. They travel to different places."
"What? Where do they all go?"
"Each has a different destination. They all go a single location, or have a different route of mutiple destinations to follow."
"Why this one? Wouldn't any of them do?"
"This one has been recently been used, commandeered by visitors such as yourselves. It's internal security systems have not, as yet, been repaired. They were damaged and will not report the use of the vehicle until they are repaired. The rest of these vehicles would sound an alarm as soon as someone tried to open it's door. The Museum security systems would know as soon as it was entered."
"Couldn't you bypass the security systems?" Beloq asked.
"There is insufficient time."
"Hell, open the door and let's get out of here!"
From a vantage point at the corner of the entrance, the Collector watched the actions of the trespassing party. "Adaptable..." he thought. "They don't seem to be intimidated by either the Museum or the Robot. I wonder what they would make of suddenly being thrown into a completly alien environment? Of course, that's what they first faced when they found themselves here. Obviously they won't go suddenly mad if I sent them away. I must get them out of the Museum while I discover how they got here- and from where. Now where should I send them? Where can they survive? With, of course, a minimum chance of finding their way back here any time soon?"
After a few moments deliberation, he ducked back around the corner and backtracked along the corridor. Seven steps from the staging area entrance, the Collector opened a secret door and stepped into a control room. The place looked as if it could make Warp Factor six without being wired to a ship. He activated a set of view screens and watched the trespassers for a moment longer. Then he began to type a set of instructions to the vehicle being assaulted. It's doors opened and the trespassers entered, each thinking that they had at last escaped.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The next day Tinhill, Blackfur, and the Reever make plans to leave town, tracking the monster by means of the visions Tinhill has been having since the first of the victims had vanished from the lake region. Pearl also begins to have visions of her sister and the monster and wants to go after her with the men. She and her brother are told that they cannot come along on the journey.
"For the last time, NO! You cannot come with us!" said Blackfur and Tinhill as one. The Reever only frowned, as if to say that he didn't feel it his place to offer his opinion. Pearl was adamant, Eli was rebellious.
"I expressly forbid you to come with us!" said Tinhill.
After the three men leave Tornay village, Pearl and her brother Eli steal a sailboat and go north to the end of the lake.
"Well, he didn't tell us we couldn't follow behind them," Pearl said to Eli as they stole old Wan D'ken's sailboat. They had spent the last two evenings rifling the kitchens of Blackfur's and Tinhill's cottages for supplies to get them to the end of the lake. They had no further plan than that, to meet the men at the end of the lake and prove that they could keep up, that they wouldn't slow the men down.
They pass the men on the way. When the men get to the last lake village (Ind Village) they find the children waiting for them. The children threaten to set out on their own if they get left behind again. Pearl is still having visions of the monster, but Tinhill no longer has more than vague images and oppressive fears. He has one recurring dream of a strange mountain that he thinks is the location of the monster's lair. On the basis of Tinhill's visions and the Reever's memories of old stories, the men decide to travel to Tulag- the Hidden Kingdom, to ask Lutay the Wizard-King for help and advice.
"We need expert advice," said the Reever. "I don't know what we're up against, but it's dangerous beyond belief. We have no hope of success without some kind of guidance. I can get us into Tulag. There we can find answers to all of our questions, I'm sure of it!"
"Yes, but how can we cross the mountains?" asked Blackfur.
"Easily, dimwit!" said Tinhill. "We go through the passes near the beginnings of the rivers. The worst we have to face is few days hard ride and sleeping on the ground. I know which one that I dread most, I'll tell you!"
The children held silent and kept their own council.
She stood unmoving by the shore of the lake. The calm of the evening was deepening as the girl stood, as if hypnotized, staring out over the darkening lake. The night birds stopped their singing all at once, as if at a signal from some hidden master. The cricket's chirping was stilled a moment later as the girl stood paralyzed by the lake shore. The darkness of the night seeped to swallow all sound as the gentle wind died to nothing. A presence saw fit to reveal itself to the girl. A tall darkness, blacker than night, stood before her. He seemed to coalesce into being from the night air itself. The cloud gazed down at the helpless girl, it's two blazing red eyes seeming to hang in the air supported only by thick fog. He seemed to examine her closely as the girl's terror grew. She tried to scream, but found she could not. When she tried to stoop down to pick up a stick or a stone to throw- she found that she couldn't move. She felt that she must surely faint from fear, but even that comfort was denied to her. She stood, afraid, knowing full well that she faced her death... or worse.
Having finished His examination of her and having found no flaws in the material He needed, He allowed her terror to end. Carefully, He reached a tentacle of darkness out to touch her lightly on the back of the neck. Her fear and her memories ceased as she crumpled in a heap to the ground. He gathered her in His arms of smoke, like a welcoming lover, while the two of them slowly faded from sight. As quickly as a thunderclap, the normal night sounds returned. Only the animals of the night knew that anyone had been there at all.
The men stop and buy more provisions for the long trip, as well as tent to house the now larger group. They are planing to cross to the north bank of the Ninar River and ride downstream until they reach Tulag.
Just as the party gets well into the mountains, a two day rainstorm starts. After having trouble setting up the tent in the downpour, they wait out the storm. When they restart their journey they find that they had become lost during the early part of the storm. In order to reach the proper trail, they must cross what is, to them, unexplored territory. It was a fogy, wet morning. The sun looked like a rosey, bright spot through the still, thick clouds. All around them the trees shed the last of the rain in the early morning chill. The tent flap opened and Blackfur emerged closely followed by Tinhill.
"Well maybe you should have stayed behind! If comfort is all that you can think about, while that child is in danger-! Oh, you make me so mad I can't think straight!" Blackfur said as he walked into the wet forest.
"All I said was that I was... Oh, what's the use? That hot-headed, fur-brain wouldn't listen 'till he's had a chance to cool off, " muttered Tinhill as he started in another direction into the woods.
"It's only to be expected," said the Reever as he came out of the tent. "After two days in a tent waiting out a thunderstorm. Besides they always argue anyway. "
"Yeah," said Eli. "But this time it was worse than usual.
"They'll get over it," said Pearl from within the tent. "It'll just take more time than usual."
Blackfur, having answered the morning call of nature that seems universal to all sentient life, sees to feeding his selky and saddling it up. He showed uncommon dexterity, using his remaining hand as if he had never had two. The saddle's cinches and laces were equipped with fasteners, designed and fashioned by Blackfur himself, which made help unnecessary.
Blackfur had ridden ahead of the others to be alone with his own thoughts. He was still disturbed by the long argument that he'd had with his friend Tinhill. Even though they seemed at each others throats most of the time, they really were close friends. It was Tinhill who had tended his arm after the robber had left him to bleed to death on the hearth of his own smithy. It was also Tinhill who talked him into devising ways to run the smithy with one hand. It had given him back his will to live, although the wine bottle claimed more and more of his attention lately. There weren't as many customers, for one thing. And there was that younger smith with his own place on the other side of the village, for another.
Blackfur could not see any danger in the small clearing ahead. Thin wisps of fog curled in the brightening sunlight. The clearing was carpeted with what looked to be moss. Small greenish-yellow leaves and fronds provided a fuzzy carpet broken only by a group of hardy-looking briars off to the sunnier side of the clearing. He heard the sounds of his friends approaching from back the way that he had come.
"Move it, selky. I don't want to face anybody just yet," he said. The selky began to cross the clearing. As if from a sudden small breeze, the briars quivered at Blackfur's approach. The carpet of moss was soft and gave under his selky's hooves. The selky was nervous because of the yielding ground. Blackfur blinked in the morning sunlight. The moss seemed to ripple and heave itself like some swampy island that he had ridden into.
"Hunh?" he said as the moss suddenly opened beneath his selky. The selky bucked in terror and Blackfur was thrown off. As the selky started to rise to it's feet, a fresh growth of briars seemed to sprout from underneath it. Rapidly, the vines grew and began to reach for the fallen animal. As the sawtooth vines touched the frightened selky, they squirmed and writhed into a corkscrew shape. Blackfur leapt to his feet, as the vines dug their way into the flesh of the doomed animal. New vines were sprouting all around the selky as Blackfur watched in mute horror. The vines had covered the selky in moments, though it still kicked and fought helplessly in their grasp. The pop and crackle of the quickly growing vines filled the air. Blackfur turned to run when he thought of the plant trapping himself as well. The soft carpet of moss opened a recently formed mouth-organ and the vines covering the selky shoved the kicking animal into it. The moss closed, leaving only briars above it's surface. Blackfur could see his friends coming up to the edge of the deadly clearing. He had covered only a few yards when the moss heaved under his feet, throwing him off balance. He jumped and luckily landed on his feet. Then the moss under him exploded into growth! Vines stabbed at him, reached to tangle him up, and one stabbed into his right shoulder and quickly grew thorns all along it's length. He kicked at the vine as it sprouted from the ground. His iron nailed boot-toe cut through the plant and freed him from that vine. Others reached for him as he dodged and spun, trying to avoid them all.
"Uncle Blackfur!" cried Pearl.
"Sawtooth Vine!" said the Reever. "We've got to get him out quickly!"
"T'lla ilumnel ilorean!" screamed Tinhill in a harsh voice. He gestured, with his arms spread before him and a ball of fire leapt from his hands to ignite the vines that Blackfur had just escaped. As Blackfur reached the party to pass out at their feet, Tinhill loses his temper. He shouts at the top of his lungs and throws fireball after fireball, until the whole clearing smoked and blazed. When he is finished, he slumps and seems to age, becoming a tired shadow of his former self. He looks over at his friend and at the Reever who has been tending Blackfur's wounds.
"Is he alive?" Tinhill asks.
"Barely," said the Reever, "But he may live. The wound itself is not serious, but it does penetrate the muscles. I have removed the vine and stopped the bleeding. But the poison from the vines may yet take him. I had few medicines in my pack..."
"I have more," said Tinhill. "Eli, go fetch my medicine bag from my pack. Reever, you bound the wound well, but it looks like..."
"Battlefield dressing, yes... I have been trained for many things, but never a doctor. I've seen too many battlefields, though. I've been a medic after all of them. Makes you hate war. Maybe doctors would make better leaders than kings. If everyone had to deal with the carnage first hand, no one would allow it to happen in the first place."
"Here sir," said Eli, returning with Tinhill's pack
"Thank you, boy. Now, we need to get him to drink this," Tinhill said as he held a flask to the light, as if gauging it's potency. "Help me sit him up."
"What's that?" asked Pearl. "Will it make him get better?"
"Exactly, child, and let him rest as well. We should be able to move him if we can carry him gently."
"I'll rig a sling," said the Reever. "That shoulder should heal in a few weeks, normally. Out here it's bound to take longer, plus he will have to fight off the effects of the vine's poison. No one behind us in the villages could do more for him than we can, though. Even so, when he wakes up he's going to want to go on. His niece was snatched right in front of his eyes. He wouldn't rest even if there was a place to leave him right here."
"Do you have a course recorder handy?"
"We have had visitors. I have sent them to these coordinates. I want you to take a vehicle and follow them. Are you ready to record?"
"Very well, XKT24R, WY7N31, E2R77Z, A48NL2, 02B94F, CDF929... Got that, Maxwell?"
"They are in a restricted purpose capsule, locked onto a single set of coordinates. It shouldn't be possible for them to arrive anywhere else. Your coordinates put your arrival time five minutes ahead of their's. You should have ample time to assess the location, conceal yourself, and wait. There are four of the subjects. Human, humanoid at least, I would say. I only saw them from a distance. One spot of bad luck though, they somehow managed to reactivate the PXR5 robot."
"That is unfortunate, Sir."
"Well, it's not as bad as it sounds. When I first placed the PXR5 in the Museum, I took the precaution of taking several vital circuits out of it's offensive weaponry. Essentially all that it has left is defensive capabilities."
"That could still be considerable, Sir. I recall that this series of weapon was listed in the Dreadnaught category.
"Capable of leveling whole civilized worlds, yes I see what you mean. I shall send you the proper codes to nullify the PXP5's sensors to your presence. That should render you effectively invisible to the robot. Do you have any questions, Maxwell?"
"No Sir, I understand. Follow, observe, evaluate, and report."
"Yes, that's it in a nutshell."
"I assume that standard operating procedures apply to any collectable artifacts that I or they should encounter."
"Quite so yes, if you are not jeopardized. Otherwise just record the object's position, likewise if the visitors could possibly elude you if you were delayed. I will be able to find the marked objects with the Long-range scanners. Proceed, Maxwell."
The Coordinates took me to a desert of hot, blue-white sand. There were very few shrubs or trees to conceal myself behind. I knew that I would have all of the promised five minutes head start on the trespassers, but not a second more. The Collector was very picky about time and promptness. I had no desire to upset him, so I obeyed his commands promptly. There had to be something nearby that the Collector had sent the trespassers to investigate. Just because they didn't know anything about the Collector, or have a choice about where they happened to be, didn't mean that the Collector couldn't profit by whatever they did. It could make ones head spin if one let it. I looked around for a possible target that they might have been sent to investigate and spied a series of pyramids close by. Within easy walking distance in fact, so easy that it was obvious that they must be the target set for the trespassers. I heard the sound of the trespasser's vehicle materializing and quickly dug my own vehicle into the sand. Before they had a chance to be aware of me, I was ten feet under the surface of the blue-white desert. My descent was masked by a dust devil generated by the movement of my vehicle. I raised a sensor pipeline to the surface and watched the arrival of the trespasser's vehicle.
It came to rest at a slight angle, it's door opening precariously onto a slick, sandy hillside. The first passenger out fell halfway down the hill before they became aware of the surroundings. That sort of reaction indicated that this was the subjects' first experience with inter-dimensional travel. The leader was next, pausing in the doorway and asking if the Dreadnought was capable of navigating down a slight incline! Ignorant humanoid, that one is... in my opinion, as far as androids are allowed to have opinions. The trespassers have spotted the pyramids and have all disembarked. I observe them traverse the distance from the vehicle to an opening in the wall of the largest pyramid. I raise an airlock tube to the surface and follow the adventurers into the pyramid.
Entering the darkness, I activate my infrared and light amplification circuitry. Their footsteps now glow like burning radium on the cold stone floor before me. I can follow them easily.
I am beginning to be impressed with this group. There was an ambush as soon as they got within the main chamber. They handled it with ease, without losing a single member of their group. I am finding it difficult to evade the sensors of the PXR5 Dreadnaught even with the aid of the deactivation codes given to me by the Collector. It's defensive capability is still extensive, despite the half shutdown state of the PXR5's circuitry. I could still find own circuits fried if I don't watch my step.
"Beloq, where are we?" said Gryphon.
"Somewhere damned hot!" said Resthal the thief, under his breath.
"Quite so, but it is better inside here isn't it?" Beloq asked jokingly "Still," he added, "if you can t open that door into the next chamber very quickly... "
"I'm working on it!" said Resthal irritably.
"We shall probably all find it getting a lot hotter!"
"Good, I can hear someone in the room behind us. We need to vacate this vicinity, quickly!"
"What?" asked Gryphon, "And miss out on a perfectly good chance to shatter someone's skull?"
"Down, boy!" Seliene teased, "We'll find someone for you to clobber again real soon. Until then, why don't you chill out!"
They sounded well able and battle hardened to my auditory sensors. I had recorded the exact position of this inner chamber in case the Collector decides to send an experienced Artifact Team in to evaluate the archeology and relics. I scanned ahead, once again barely escaping the Dreadnaught's sensor sweep. I found a hidden passage leading to the next chamber that they would enter and easily managed to get ahead of them. I settled in to wait for their biological sensors to discover their escape route. I could hear the soldiers behind us gathering to avenge their comrades who had fallen when the trespassers first entered the pyramid. Unless they acted quickly they were about to be overwhelmed.
I wonder if the Collector would want me to save them?
"Did you open that door, Resthal?"
"You expecting miracles? What door? There has to be a door before I can open it! Wait a minute! Here it is! Mechanical lock, no alarms attached that I can see. Robot, are there any alarms or traps set on the door or doorframe?" asked the thief.
"Intelligent question, I didn't know you had it in you, " said Beloq.
"I'm the best there is at what I do, " the Thief said contentedly.
"No traps or alarms, " said the PXR5. "The lock is the door's only defense."
"Not for long!" said the Thief.
"Go get 'em, Tiger!" said Seliene as the thief began to pick the lock on the hidden door. Meanwhile, I have made my way through the secret passage I located to stand on the other side of that the same door. I am standing in a transverse hallway, listening to their attempt to open the door. Once through, they must choose one or the other passageways to penetrate even deeper into the pyramid. The Collector could want them to continue, I am sure. Therefore, I must insure that they procede along the correct route.
"Got it!" said the thief.
"Only one choice- good. Passageway, to the right. OK, lets go!" said Beloq.
"Run! I hear them coming into the chamber! Soldiers!"
hissed Seliene as she covered their rear at the closing door.
I scanned the weapon in her hand and found it to be an energy
beamer of an inefficient design. It was, none the less, a deadly
thing for any primitive to be waving about. As soon as the door
closed and locked itself, they ran down the passageway. After
I heard them turn the next corner, I pulled back on the section
of wall that I had shoved into place to block off their escape
route down what had been the passage's left hand turning. I had
quickly cut a slice out of the wall panneling next to the door
and then held it up to block the left-hand turning. They came
through the door and thought that they had only one direction
they could go. Just to be cruel, I wedged the segment of wall
in place behind me as I crossed the passageway, thus blocking
the soldiers that were chopping at the door. The soldiers would
also have only one way to turn when they broke through, the wrong
way. That should delay them long enough for the trespassers to
work their way deeper into the passages of the pyramid. I quickly
left to catch up with the trespassers as I heard the soldiers'
axes splinter the thick wood of the door.
Bethdish is a world circling a star, called Antuth by the natives (who named the star after the chief deity in their pantheon), presently some 65 lightyears from Earth. Rumor has it that the entire solar system had earlier been located in the Andromeda Galaxy, but was moved by some mysterious force to its new location in our own Milky Way Galaxy. The surviving written history of Bethdish covers some 12,000 years, (with the afore-mentioned displacement to the Milky Way occuring in their year 6055 -- circa 3140 AD, Terran Calendar) but the records of the Immortals reportedly go back roughly a billion years and relate the rise and fall of several civilized eras of non-immortal natives before the present recorded history begins.
The Immortals claim to have been directly created by the Gods of Bethdish, while the diverse non-immortal species are said to have evolved naturally. The several alien colonies now present are, of course, immigrants. One Xenoarcheologist of note, Professor Eustas Gray of the Emperor Norton University of San Francisco, has published several monographs on the subject of excavations on Bethdish that purport to uphold the Immortal's beliefs. Other experts in the field dispute his findings, but all the evidence is not yet in.
Further records of the history of Bethdish are forthcoming from this Author, while previous excerpts are available in your local information network.
If you like this story and you wish to tell me so you can e-mail me by clicking here. And thanks for visiting Aphelion!
Return to the Aphelion main page.