had. Buried deep under the splintered stump of what had once been a mountain there was a thick-walled vault containing objects which the K’leven had felt worthy of such a calculated attempt at preservation. The Spyter which had first scouted out this system discovered this hidden repository on its half light-speed scan-run through. When it had come back Sol at the end of its two year mission and disgorged the information gathered on its travels through uncharted systems, evidence of this vault had come to light. The Prezzies had immediately mounted an expedition to investigate. That’s what Prezzies do.

I had eagerly awaited the first images of what was inside, imagining gold and jewels and priceless works of art, or strangely beautiful alien machinery which might give us whole new technologies. When Dr. Xan and his colleagues had begun proudly showing off what looked like halfmelted bars of rock, piles of dirty plastic-plate- looking things, and heaps of what appeared to be blobs of either brown gravel or fossil turds, I lost interest pretty quickly.

Not my captain, though. She pored over anything they transmitted like it was the latest episode of some sizzy new vidrama. Too long hanging around dead planets with a bunch of yawners like the Prezzies, I figured. That was one more reason to get replaced as soon as I could. I didn’t want the same sort of brain damage to happen to me.

The shuttle bucked slightly as it entered the edges of what remained of the planet’s tainted atmosphere, steadied, continued its slow descent. On one hand I wanted it to go taster, on the other I was dreading the moment when I had to step out onto the bull’s-eye below This didn’t do much to help me relax.

After what seemed like an interminable trip I finally landed at the Prezzies’s base camp, a flat area near the foot of the mountain. Since they were on what had become the most dangerous spot in the whole system, and these were supposedly rational people, I had expected to find them standing by and impatient to climb aboard.

There were several tarp-covered piles of extra equipment and who knew what else off to one side of the ellzee, but the only member of the expedition in sight was Shelby, the big, old-style all-metal free aidroid who was part of their team.

“What is it with these crazy vulk ers?” I grumbled angrily as I rechecked my envirosafe generator and waited for the lock to cycle through. First Captain Chandaveda acts more like she’s in the middle of a tax audit than an emergency, and now the over-educated yozos I’m supposed to rescue don’t even bother to show up. Was it something wrong with the Gibbon’s air?

“Good afternoon, First Officer Ornish,” Shelby greeted me when the lock finally opened and I stepped out onto K’leven’s cold, inhospitable surface. “It is indeed a pleasure to see you again.”

I wasn’t in the mood to swap pleasantries. “Where the hell is everybody?” I demanded.

The aidroid smiled, impervious to my obvious pique. “Why, they’re inside the vault, of course.”

I bit back the urge to yell that I wasn’t an idiot and knew there wasn’t anywhere else for them to be in this godforsaken place! “Why aren’t they ready to go?” I asked, trying for brusque but sounding more like my shorts were in a swiftly tightening slipknot.

“Let me assure you that preparations are well under way.” Shelby gestured toward the tunnel mouth with a blue-steel hand. “If you would accompany me, I’ll take you to Dr. Xan.”

I nervously looked up at the ghostly disc of K’leven’s moon, back inside the shuttle airlock, then at the aidroid. “Isn’t he coming out?”

“Please,” he said, starting toward the tunnel mouth. “He is expecting you.”

I followed after, grinding my teeth together and thinking that at least somebody would get what they expected.

“Nice tunnel, Shelby,” I said to break the uneasy silence of the last few minutes, my voice echoing eerily along the rock-walled tube. The grade was gentle, but there was no mistaking that we were going down—and still farther away from the shuttle. If it hadn’t been for Shelby’s taglite the darkness would have been absolute.

“Why thank you,” the aidroid replied, sounding pleased. “The newest generation of matter compactors are said to be faster, but I find that the old Mark Threes do just as good a job with considerably more modest power requirements. Now the Mark Fours draw—”

“How much farther is it?” I asked to keep him from going on to tell me everything I ever wanted to know about matter compactors but was afraid to ask for fear of a lecture just like the one he was more than willing to give me.

“Not far. Just a bit over 221 meters.”

“They are getting ready to evacuate, aren’t they?”

“Rest assured, preparations are well under way.”

We were just passing through the templock set up between the tunnel and the vault when I got this nagging feeling that he hadn’t quite answered the question I’d asked. But I passed it off as just nerves.

Dr. Xan looked up from the thinga-magrubby he was examining, chubby cheeks dimpling as he smiled. “Ah, there you are, Ornish! So glad you’re getting a chance to see our little treasure trove.” He surveyed his subterranean kingdom proudly. “Isn’t it remarkable?”

Hoverlites drifting near the domed ceiling three meters above us cast a not particularly flattering light across the alleged treasure trove. The inside of the vault was a roughly thirty-meter square box made out of some sort of thick, mold-green concrete-like stuff. Either the effects of the earlier bombardments had been felt even this far underground, or the concept of level floors wasn’t one the K’leven had come up with before they turned each other to vaporized bisque, because the surface under my feet sloped slightly toward one corner.

There was ton after ton of stuff in there, all in piles and heaps and drifts; shelving must have been another undiscovered concept. The only things I could see which appeared to have even the slightest intrinsic value were pieces of the equipment the Prezzies had brought with them, and most of that looked like it belonged in the scrapyard. For instance the areola tor which was keeping the air inside the vault breathable chuffed and wheezed as it did its work. Some of its exposed parts were repaired with tape and wire.

My first inclination was to tell him it looked like the back room from Hell’s Thrift Shop. Instead I let his question pass, facing him with my shoulders back and what I hoped was a properly stern look on my face.

“Dr. Xan,” I said, shooting for the authoritative tone of a ship’s first officer, “You and your people must evacuate this place immediately.” I’m afraid it came out sounding ever so slightly desperate, but at least I hadn’t gone to my knees and begged, an option I was considering.

“Don’t worry, young man,” he said with a fatherly smile. “We are quite cognizant of the precarious nature of our situation. There are just a few last-minute tasks to be seen to, mostly a matter of completing the recordings we want to go on the shuttle.”

“But this place is going to get smutched in—”

“We are well aware of the time constraints. Serafina has seen to that. If you wish to hefp expedite the process, you might assist Clotilde.” He gave me an oddly conspirational smile. “You might even find what she is doing somewhat interesting.”

“What is it?” I asked unhappily, looking around for her.

Tarps had been used to create several work areas. We were in one, the Fritlanders were busy in the one nearest to where we stood. He pointed to another over in the far corner. “Why don’t you go ask her?”

As I’ve mentioned once or twice, the Gibbon wasn’t exactly a state-of-the-art starship. It had taken 48.6 days for her sluggish old stardriver unit to carry us the measly 579 light-years from Sol to K’leven. That included twelve two-hour dropouts back into real-space to let her cranky old statex-citers calm down. We had learned about dropouts as an emergency procedure at the Academy, but plugging them into the flight-plan ahead of time the way Captain Chandaveda had done was something definitely not written into the curriculum.

So it was a rather long trip, made longer by my knowledge of how much faster a decent ship could have covered the distance. By the end of my first week I was bored out of my skull. For the first few days, when I wasn’t standing watch—my orders were that if something went wrong I was to yell for help and for Shiva’s sake not touch anything!—or attending to my other duties, I went to the ship’s salon and tried to make conversation with our Prezzie passengers.

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