by Jeff Williams
Mare Inebrium Universe Created by Dan Hollifield
It had all started with a bet Sheffield Light recalled as he hung suspended over a raging wall of searing energy. "Well screw yer bet!" Light yelled, and his voice echoed throughout the shaft he was trapped in. How the heck did it come up, he thought to himself as he fumbled for his tool belt. Oh yeah, he thought as he began unwinding the bolts securing the panel over the junction box. It all started when that henchman for the arch-criminal known as Grym showed up at the union meeting of the United Brotherhood of Cutthroats, Thieves, and Second-rate Villains, Local 282.
"Gentleman, fair ladies, and beings of distinction" the man in the bright green suit named Lewgan said in a deep voice. "Thank you for allowing me to speak at your union meeting. First, let me assure you that my employer, Mr. Grym, fully supports you in your endeavor to secure better working conditions for all independent entrepreneurs in City of Lights. It is an admirable cause, a step that should have been taken long ago." He lowered his head so that his green eyes peered over his green glasses. "And, may I personally say I am quite impressed with the UBCTSV health and pension plans. If you should ever open your roll-books to second-tier management..." He smiled mischievously, and much of the union hall erupted in laughter or at least the equivalent noises for the various races.
"Because Mr. Grym thinks so highly of you all, and because he wishes to see your union achieve its goals, my employer is prepared to donate one million credits to your war-chest!" He slapped his hand on the podium to emphasize the drama, and the union hall switched from laughter to oohs and ahhs. "Furthermore, he offers members of the United Brotherhood individual cash payments in the amount of 500 credits each!" The head of the union, Vigol Hytdonia (Vigol the Jekyll to his friends) banged his gavel on the podium.
"Order...we will have order!" Vigol yelled after a considerable pause while his translator worked out the meaning of his beeps and grunts. "Hear Mr. Lewgan's plan out!"
"Let me assure all of you," Lewgan continued, "that this is a sincere offer from Mr. Grym. All of you, without exception, know for good or for ill that Mr. Grym always keeps his word." He paused again, scanning the union members with his eyes. Slowly, he relaxed and walked about with one hand placed casually in his pants pocket. "There is, by the by, one small catch. One tiny thing that must be accomplished first before this act of generosity can in good conscience and good faith be carried out."
The union hall grew deathly silent as even the most hardened criminals paused as one to hear the plan. One million credits would go a long way towards funding the union, and though 500 credits each wasn't necessarily that much, it was money free and clear, picked up with no effort, or so it seemed.
"Mr. Grym," Lewgan continued, "gives you this challenge. Virtually all of City of Lights is...'open'...shall we say. To the enterprising entrepreneur, there is an entree into virtually every business, every bank, every shop, if the cards are played right and if the man or woman is quick, smart, and intelligent. Every building is transparent to your skills and talents under the right circumstances. Every building, that is, except..."
"You can't mean...," Vigol started to say with horror.
"Yes!" Lewgan yelled. "The Mare Inebrium Tower, the great enigma at the heart of City of Lights!” Murmurs of disbelief washed through the crowd, and cries of “Can’t be done!” and “You’re insane!” were hurled towards the podium.
“The Tower, my friends,” Lewgan continued in a deep voice. “The one building that has never been burglarized beyond petty drunks stealing petty bags of petty peanuts. Nothing more than the occasional ashtray or shot glass. Nothing of any consequence besides bathroom towels. No one in this room, indeed, no one in the history of Bethdish has ever broken into the Mare Inebrium Tower and stolen anything of value."
"Mr. Lewgan," Vigol muttered, "this task, it is impossible. Mr. Grym must be out of his mind!" Lewgan approached Vigol, towering over the three foot high mass of arms and fur. He then turned to the crowd and smiled.
"Oh, I assure you that Mr. Grym is in full possession of his wits. He simply wants to see the last symbolic bastion of law and order crumble under the mighty thumb of organized crime." Lewgan pushed his glasses up on his nose and then brought his left hand to his chin, tucking his right hand under his left arm. "Of course, now, my employer is also looking to exploit himself any weakness or weaknesses that may be found. To wit," he reached into his pocket and pulled out a business money voucher clearly made out for 500,000 credits, "Mr. Grym is prepared to give extra compensation to the group or individual who succeeds in breaking into the Mare Inebrium building and who can provide documented proof of a successful visit as well as detailed descriptions of how the robbery was pulled off and of any other weaknesses that may be found!" Lewgan's voice had risen steadily until it reached a high and fevered pitch.
“Still,” Vigol said, “the Tower, the Tower is…”
“Can one small obstacle such as this truly stand in the way of an assemblage of this magnitude?” Lewgan asked, scanning the crowd. “This Tower tasks you. It offends you. It and everything it stands for must be toppled like so many dominoes!"
Several attempted to take up the challenge, each under the direct auspices of the Brotherhood, particularly the Jekyll. Vinny the Zit had been the first to attempt the impossible. He had embarked on a cold night for the building and at 2:30 in the morning activated a matter dispersal unit--a device that made his body virtually transparent and capable of passing undetected through other matter. The makers had guaranteed that anyone could pass through virtually anything unharmed, with the possible exception of the cores of active stars.
Vinny waved goodbye to the two other Brothers who had come to see him off, and then he flipped the switch, smiling as his acne encrusted "face" vanished. It was, however, the last any saw of him, and at the ceremonial dinner in Vinny's honor (sponsored by Consolidated Cosmetics, Inc.), his passing was mourned.
Two days later, a second attempt was made, this time by a wily thief named Hue-brihs and its assistant Cordon. After a year, the video footage of their attempt was found by workers in the City of Lights Sewer Maintenance Department.
"Oh gods!" Hue-brihs whispered breathlessly into the camera, a pair of eyes staring from beneath a knit cap. "I pray that this recording survives. So much of what we attempted to..." The footage blanked out for several seconds due to massive interference. "...since I last saw Cordon. What we saw there was...was...was..." The sound of something huge shuffling towards the camera could be heard, and Hue-brihs looked about, terror stricken. "I may not have much time! Do not...do not attempt..." The footage again blanked out, but not before a blood-curdling scream was heard on the soundtrack.
It was the same story over and over again as seven more attempts were made. Not all of the participants disappeared. Bypassing elaborate plots, Karla the Kay attempted covert entry using a standard transporter. She used coordinates set for the 56th floor, and all was normal as her assistant energized the system. Five hours later, stinking of garbage from the dump she'd materialized over, a place that was fourteen blocks off target, Karla made the attempt again. By morning light, she returned, limping after a hard fall on the pavement just outside Tower.
Karla and her assistant suspected trouble with the targeting system for the transporter, but two days of checks revealed that it was 100% accurate. However, after she materialized in the subway tube and was nearly hit by a train, no further attempts were made using the transporter.
Light pulled open the junction box and stared at the wires before him. "By the great moons of Jove himself!" he whispered when he was faced with a precisely ordered mass of bundled wires and fiber-optic lines. His eyes scanned the thousands of choices before him, trying desperately to discern which one bore some control over the electrical infernos above and below him. "Clever bastards! Clever, clever bastards! Thousands of choices and," he pointed at tiny block boxes that seemed to hover over the bundles, "and booby traps attached to randomizing modules." He reached up and adjusted the focus on the tiny vid-recorder attached to his head. "Yully," he said, referring to the Thief's Apprentice he hoped to one day see again, "I doubt you've seen these little buggers before. Randomizing modules continually assign and reassign the wires that will trigger off traps or alarms of one sort or another. You can be working on a safe line, and then you're sliced to ribbons when it suddenly becomes active." He exhaled, and sweat began beading on his brow. He watched the wires, trying to discern if any changes overcame them, alterations that would clue him into which wires were actively trapped at any given second.
Okay, Sheff old boy, he thought. What do you know about this place that'll clue you in to how to do this?
Just after Shorty Wigwam was discharged from the hospital to begin the long and arduous task of rehabilitating himself, Light and Yully had stood in front of the M.I.T Information board, which contained information gleaned from the previous ten unsuccessful attempts to infiltrate the Mare Inebrium Tower.
"Tell me lad," Light had said to his apprentice, "what do you see when you look upon this board, eh?" The boy, originally a native of Ullalome, looked over the board with his three eyes and scratched his chin with his right claw.
"Mahster Sheff-eld," Yully replied, "I see ah rott-en boonch ah fail-ahz." Sheffield's face scrunched up in disgust.
"Young man," Sheffield murmured testily. "Get some experience beneath yer belt lad before you criticize like that! These, my boy, are pioneers, researchers into the unknown. Trailblazers." Sheffield traced his finger down the board. "Each of these brave souls teaches the discerning eye valuable lessons of what not to do." He vigorously tapped the board and stared as best as he could into the puce eyes of his trainee. "And, if ya read carefully between the lines, my boy, you can see emerging patterns to tell you what to expect from the future. Now," he tapped the top of the list, "look again, lad. Look alive! Use those beady orbs of yours and see what's there!"
"Yas, Mahster Sheff-eld," Yully replied.
"Vinny the Zit attempted entry using a matter reduction device and disappeared. Lesson!" He pointed at Yully.
"Lezzon is, the building is sec-hured against entry in that manner."
"Obvious," Light replied, "but good. Next, boy. Hue-brihs and Cordon tried to gain entry through the sewer systems using high-tech drilling equipment. They apparently died in the process, and something stalked them. Lesson!"
Yully sighed. "Lezzon is, the building is sec-hured against entry from beneath, pohs-eb-lay by dead-lay cretchur."
"Obvious again," Light replied. He read over some of the other instances--Othlan Kyno's attempt to fool the locks and security systems with an elaborate decryption palm-computer, which resulted in his being caught and deported from Bethdish without ever gaining unauthorized entry; Persias Lambada's attempted seduction of Max (the main bartender and manager of the Mare Inebrium) and her subsequent psychiatric treatment to get over her "infatuation" with him; Pol Ghuit's attempted psionic penetration of the structure, an attempt that caused him to literally lose his mind for 72 hours. When it returned, there wasn't much left of it to allow Ghuit to function in society anymore.
The list of high-tech and sneaky attempts rolled on, ending with Karla's attempt to transport her way in to the building, Shorty's method was still undetermined since he was too unwell to be debriefed.
"Lezzon is, the building is sec-hured and deaf-leks transport be-ams."
"What, then," Light stated, "is the overall lesson to be learned from this?" Yully pondered, his skin turning bright orange as confusion took over his brain. Finally, he clicked his claws three times-- the signal that he had given up.
"The lesson is, dear chap, that high-tech methods do not work." He pointed at the board. "Every clever plan using underground access with precision drilling equipment designed specifically for the Tower. Up in flames! Every attempt to penetrate the walls with matter reduction gizmos and transport beams. Failed. Every attempt to break in through covert co-operation of the staff. Dismal failure! If you study this chart, Yully, and if you keep in mind the entire attempted break-in history of the Mare Inebrium Tower, it becomes clear as purified Gynite that no one has ever tried to gain access the old fashioned way."
"What is that, Mahster," Yully asked, confused, and Light broke into a wide, toothy grin.
"Cat-burglary," Light replied. "Old-fashioned breaking and entering. With your help, lad, I shall be the first to use the old tried and true!"
As Light stared at the bundles, he lost his grip on one of the bolts he'd removed. It fell ten feet before it was incinerated in an electrical inferno so bright that the thief couldn't see for almost a minute. When his vision cleared, Sheffield found himself panting, close to hyperventilating. To be on the safe side, he double-checked the hooks and ropes keeping him secured to the side of the shaft.
Two hours before he wound up in his predicament, Sheffield had flown above the Tower on a regularly scheduled passenger shuttle flight. It had disembarked from the spaceport, bound for Archimedes Station and transfer to an outbound passenger cruiser. Sheffield, however, never planned to go that far. Thanks to Yully's diligent efforts at bribing or blackmailing ground personnel, Sheffield had successfully smuggled himself into the cargo hold of the ship. Once airborne, he pushed as much material to the cargo doors as he could, and as the ship neared the tower (which he tracked using a simple GPS device), he strapped on his crude but effective parachute.
Yully had argued vehemently when Light described his plan. "Mahster, it is su-ey-side!" he had protested over and over again.
"Don't ya see, lad?" Light had asked with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. "Transport into the building failed, and taking the lesson to heart, you must assume whatever deflected the beam would do so from the roof as well. Direct attack on the building triggers defense mechanisms I scarcely wish to contemplate, me bucko. Someone gently landing onto the roof either in a small craft or after a gentle fall would surely be noted. So, Yully, my fine apprentice. What is the solution to our fine equation, eh?"
Standing by one of the doors, his finger on the open button, Light waited until the shuttle was in position, watching carefully as the numbers flipped by on the GPS display. Tension flowing through his entire body, he struggled to relax himself enough to be able to go through with his plan. Finally, at the exact second the numbers flipped red to indicate they'd reached the preprogrammed settings, Light and almost half of the cargo were sucked out of the shuttle when the thief pressed the release switch, and all began plummeting to the ground.
Careful to keep himself within the debris field while at the same time assuring himself of not being hit, he watched as City of Lights rushed towards him. The timing was crucial as he couldn't break from the pack until there was virtually no time left. Finally, with the exponentially growing Tower in sight, and at the last possible second, Sheffield pulled the cord.
He fell hard onto the roof of the Mare Inebrium Tower, the chute having had only enough time to bleed off sufficient energy to keep Sheffield from dying on impact. Quickly, before any overhead scanners had time to distinguish him from the rest of the falling debris, he collapsed the chute and secured it to the roof. The night was cold, and his muscles and bones ached terribly from the crash (there really was no other word for it). Light sat motionless behind a power transformer, listening and waiting for any sign that the plan had failed and he'd been noticed. If he had been, his career as a burglar would certainly be over. Burglary raps could be difficult enough, but now, he knew, after the shuttle line put two and two together, he'd be facing more charges stemming from the endangerment of passengers, equipment, and property his stunt had caused. Fortunately, at least as he thought at the time, he seemed to have remained undetected.
With the landing behind him, Sheffield rose to a crouch and began scanning for the roof for any possible point of entry, and he quickly settled on six--the two access doors leading from the roof to the 100th floor below him (which was a restaurant as far as he knew), a grating that more than likely led to a central ventilation shaft, a darkened skylight again to the restaurant, a fire escape, and a sewage gas escape system.
Sheffield again scanned the roof for any sign of others. Though he had escaped detection as an intruder, the falling debris had surely attracted attention, and Tower security or the local constabulary would undoubtedly arrive at some point to investigate. He quickly packed the chute and tossed the pack (and its luggage tag for a nonexistent passenger) in with the rest of the debris.
The thief again scanned the points of entry and quickly ruled out each. The restaurant might have its own alarm system, so neither the access ways nor the skylight were practical. The sewage gas escape tower looked to have very little maneuvering room for someone his size, and the gases inside held the potential for incapacitation after enough had been inhaled. The fire escape, while simple, also provided the greatest potential for detection. Finally, there was the ventilator shaft, and though he thought it a trifle obvious to use such a tried and true point of entry, it also seemed to the only one no one had tried here yet.
Sheffield, in a sudden fit of panic, felt his tool pack but found to his satisfaction that everything seemed to be in place. Slowly, he crept towards the grating, ducking every time a spacecraft passed over the building. Finally, upon reaching the grate, he carefully examined the seal around it.
There was a latch as well as a socket for an ordinary pad lock, but none was present. The grating was old and somewhat rusty the thief observed as he touched the metal and watch flakes float in the air, but it was definitely movable. It would provide no challenge to open and no challenge to close. Still, something didn't seem right, and the thief carefully looked at the base upon which the edge of the grating rested. Sure enough, there was something there.
It was a thin strand of copper wire, barely thick enough to be noticed by even someone with Sheffield's trained eyes. The wire circled around the base of the grating, meeting at a point just in front of the socket. Any move to lift the grating would break the connection and, more than likely, trigger an alarm.
Slowly, Sheffield lowered his pack and tugged on the zipper, revealing the carefully laid out contents within. Moving adroitly to the exact spot he wanted, the thief pulled out two extra long pairs of tweezers and a length of copper wire with connectors on either end.
A nearby power unit for one of the elevators began humming, startling Sheffield, but he recovered quickly and slowly began maneuvering the wire into place with the tweezers.
The sound of a rising elevator grew closer as Sheffield snapped the first connector into place. The second fell into place as the dinging sound of an elevator passing floors grew louder. As the elevator doors opened, the thief had already opened the grate, entered, and lowered it again, making hardly a sound.
"Man, there's a ton of junk up here," Max the bartender said as he and Larrye stepped onto the roof.
"Talk about your lost luggage, sheesh," Larrye said just before tripped over a bright red suitcase with gorilla hairs and scuffmarks plastered all over it.
"Years, my lad, literally years since I've done anything so simple," Sheffield said with some degree of amusement and sarcasm as his eyes scanned the wires. "I'd give anything if a simple jump would do the trick here, laddie." The thief's eyes continued to focus on the junction box. A trickle of sweat ran down his cheek and off his body, falling and incinerating in the beams with much more ferocity than Sheffield expected from something so insignificant.
The climb down had initially been simple. Once the sounds on the roof had disappeared, the prowler had used two Mark III Egress Grips. The devices cupped under the user’s hands and dug into sheer surfaces with micro-tines tipped with diamond and titanium cutting implements. The grips had proven very effective, and Light had no trouble scaling the walls of the shaft even though they were heavily armored. As he slowly made his way down, the thief found himself with few options to choose from initially. There was the occasional junction box or a vent too small to be entered, nothing that provided any enticing options. As he carefully descended, Sheffield stopped looking for ways out and concentrated instead on not setting off any alarms.
The journey was slow, partly because of the number of randomly placed pressure sensors embedded in the sheer walls. The average burglar wouldn’t have even known what to look for, and even experienced operators like Light had trouble finding them if they were cleverly concealed, as were the ones in the shaft. To the untrained eye, they would have appeared to be ordinary fastening rods. The sensors, however, bore a slight but barely perceptible color variance from the other rods in the shaft.
“You see it, Yully! The slightly grayer tinge,” Sheffield said into the microphone. “This lot of sensors must have been incorrectly coated during installation. They’re losing luster a bit faster than the rest.” Sheffield slid down more, carefully navigating through the maze of sensors like a man crawling through a field and tagging land-mines. “See now why ya can’t be color blind when you join the apprentice program? Learn yer color charts, lad! May save your arse one day!”
All initially went well as the thief progressed down the shaft, and he successfully navigated through every sensor field between the 100th floor and the 88th. As he began to lower himself through the 87th, however, all seemed normal until the grips touched the walls. Suddenly, and with a loud screech, the devices lost their hold on the surface. The thief, suddenly in great danger of falling to his doom, scrambled to grab hold of anything, but the grips simply wouldn’t dig into the armor that began at the 87th floor.
After three seconds, the uncontrolled slide began past the 87th floor, the 86th floor, the 85th floor, each passing faster than the first. Sheffield, breathing hard and nearly screaming, saw his illustrious life flash before his eyes before the grips, between the 84th and 83rd floors, suddenly dug in again. His arms aching terribly, his face drenched with sweat, the thief opened his eyes and discovered to his shock and amazement that he had not splattered himself at the bottom of the shaft. Looking up, shivering, the cause of his fall became immediately obvious. The armoring between the 87th and 85th floors was made of a dramatically different material than the rest, and on top of that it was coated with super-slick Teflon.
“Good gods, Yully! Ya see it, boy? That’s extremely expensive stuff, that armor, not to be wasted on just any old construction project! And the coating. Theatrical dramatics! What can be that bloody important?” Twitching nervously, Sheffield focused the camera on the walls. “When you transcribe this tape, make note of this. There must be something of amazing importance behind it, but I’m never going near the 86th floor again!” Light shook his head and was preparing to descend further when his heart suddenly froze. Something in his brain frantically tapped on the shoulders of his mind. Looking slowly up, he confirmed consciously what his subconscious had already seen.
Four pressure sensors were blinking rapidly in the semi darkness of the shaft. Breathing deeply, and just before the walls of energy threw themselves into existence, Light rapidly murmured, “In situations such as this, my lad, keep in mind that the thieves’ code of conduct permits colorful expletives and excuses uncontrolled bodily functions…”
The wires stubbornly refused to yield clues. Sheffield watched them during his period of enforced rest and contemplation, trying to use his well-trained eyes to pick out differences, any differences—color, texture, sound, anything—but none were there to be found. The randomizing modules were doing their jobs quite efficiently, and the thief found himself admiring the craftsmanship that went into them, despite his own predicament.
“It’s a coffin, Yully,” Sheffield said, more as an externalized comment that as a statement to his apprentice since he no longer expected to see him. “Maybe with a computer, a supergig analysis translator…” These items he had deliberately left behind since they violated the low-tech edict he was following for this job. Light stared at the wires, and the bundles blankly returned his stare.
Reaching into his pack, the hanging thief pulled out a squeeze bottle of water and dejectedly forced a burst into his mouth. The heat generated by the energy fields was becoming quite intense, adding layers of liquid to the nervous sweat already covering his skin. “If you go too the great clover patch, lad, best to go in the saddle.” Holding his body erect, he silently toasted himself and his profession and then resigned himself to his eventual fate, whatever that fate might be.
As he lowered the bottle, however, he shifted a small wrench in his pack, a tool already loosened when Sheffield had reached for the water. It moved, hesitantly at first, towards the opening of the pack, gravity countering the resistance of the material. Sheffield took another drink, raising and lowering his arm, and in the process disturbing the pack and the wrench even more.
“I used to pack a flask, Yully,” Sheffield said mournfully, “in case a tight like this one arose. One final toast to a career well-done.” The thief sighed. “Stopped three years ago.” The wrench wriggled free and fell towards the energy barrier.
While relatively small, the metal in the tool reacted violently with the barrier, sending intense, blinding light and fierce, sizzling electric sparks cascading throughout the shaft. Sheffield, who had been lost in his reverie, was caught completely off-guard. Involuntarily, he screamed, and his body flailed about in surprise. In the process, his hand squeezed tightly on the water bottle, sending a stream into the junction box he’d tried in vain to bypass. A further volley of sparks showered the thief who, in addition to wishing for whisky, was now also desperately wishing for a clean set of clothes. He hung, silently, his arms protectively covering his body. Finally, one eye popped open and relayed the information to the rest the body that it was still there. The other eye soon followed.
The thief looked around and quickly became aware that the shaft was completely silent save for the sound of his own rapid breathing. Jerking his head upwards, he found the energy barrier gone, and a downward glance showed the same thing. Looking in front of him at the junction box, he saw that it was soaking wet and almost completely inactive.
“Low-tech, Yully!” Sheffield yelled. “Heh! The solution was in my own bloody hands!” As he spoke, however, some of the wires in the junction box began glowing anew. Reacting quickly, Sheffield put his grips back on, dug a hand into the shaft, and disconnected the supporting rope. In an orderly but rapid manner, he clambered down the shaft.
“For future reference, lad,” Sheffield said as he passed the point where the lower barrier had been, “many of these boxes have a self-repair feature. You’ve got a minute at…” The barrier loudly and violently sprung back to life inches above the thief’s head. “Lezzon is, Yully, dawn dah-dle.”
While the burglar was accustomed to working in adverse conditions, he found himself having an increasingly difficult time keeping up with the number of floors he had descended, a problem that came on just after his encounter with the barriers. “We’ll have to watch the tape carefully; it’s vital that ya know where yer goin’ before you go there. This whole trip will be of no use if it can’t be duplicated, will it now.” The scratching of the hand grips echoed in the shaft, an echoing that Sheffield would have sworn was somehow sounding more ominous by the second.
Suddenly, his foot slid forward into an open area below him. At first, he was worried that another trap was being sprung, but after hanging in suspense for several seconds without incident, Sheffield lowered himself until he could get a better look at where he was.
After several hours of climbing, the thief had finally reached cross-shafts large enough for him to move through comfortably, and the relief he felt as he took the pressure off of his arms was exquisite. The shaft was six feet tall and three feet wide—certainly not spacious, but nothing as claustrophobic as some of the places he’d been.
“Remind me, Yully,” Sheffield said as he took his pack off and laid it on the floor of the shaft, “to tell you about the catacombs near the edge of the city. Cramped, lad, cramped. And dank as the crypt. Never been so scared in my life.” Sheffield shown the light in the shaft, looking up, then down, then forward. “Mind you, the Sacred Gems of the Cryzantyne I found there fetched a pretty florin or two!”
The shaft, made of the same material as the main system it exited into, appeared to extend at least twenty feet, but the light wasn’t strong enough to confirm this. Up ahead, there also appeared to be some gratings—gratings, Sheffield assumed, that would give him a way into the main part of the building. He removed the climbing grips and hung them from a loop on his belt. After rubbing his shoulders and trying to work out some of the knots that were forming in the muscles, Sheffield picked up his pack and began making his way forward. “With any luck, whatever’s here will be enough fer Grym and his lot.”
As he moved forward, the hairs on Sheffield’s back began standing up, a sure sign that his mind had latched onto something of importance.
“Wait just a tic, Yully,” he said, looking around him again, this time even more carefully. “Too easy. Too clear cut. Too conveniently placed for those who’ve managed to survive the pressure sensors. It’s another trap, my boy. Somewhere in this parlor’s a spider.” Inching forward, Sheffield carefully looked again. In this manner, he made it seven feet into the shaft. He was preparing to inch forward again when the light finally caught something out of place.
A series of tiny holes dotted the floor and the ceiling, holes that seemed to have no real purpose. At first, Sheffield was at a loss as to what their purpose was, but he was certain they were significant. However, after several minutes, a potential solution came to him. Reaching into his pack, he removed a small bag of talc, which he usually used to dry his fingers before attempting to manually open a safe. He poured a very small amount into the palm of his hand. Then, slowly, he lifted it towards his mouth. Once it was there, he puckered his lips and blew the dust into a thin, chalky cloud. Beams of laser light revealed themselves, virtual prison bars in the darkness.
“Very good, lads!” Sheffield said with genuine appreciation. “You nearly had me.” While he had avoided triggering another alarm, a new quandary presented itself to the thief. The prudent thing, he knew, would be to withdraw and continue down the main shaft. However, and he was savvy enough to understand this, the prudent thing to do would be to get out of his profession altogether. The prudent thing would be to open a HyperBurger stand out near the borderlands where there was precious little in the way of restraints. No thief ever entered the profession out of a sense of prudence. It was Sheffield’s job, nay, his privilege in life to find obstacles such as the one before him and render them impotent!
As an incidental thought, Sheffield remembered that he needed to fill the herbal stimulant prescription his doctor had given him.
“I’m going silent now, Yully. But the tape will keep runnin’. Talk to you soon.”
Opening his backpack, Sheffield felt around for a small canvas bag. As he pulled it out and started to remove its contents, he thought of what he would normally do under these circumstances. Take the guts from a portable communications set, he thought, rig the fiber-optics to a pup-tent frame, and then push the buggers into place to intercept and redirect the beams. It was a brilliant and effective method, one that he had used on many occasions.
This was destined, however, to not be one of those moments. The fiber-optic gear had been deliberately left in his locker at Union headquarters. Too high-tech, he thought. What a bloody fool I am!
From the small canvas bag, the thief removed four small pencil sized rods, which he then telescoped out and connected into a pyramidal frame. Then, he removed a thin roll of material from the bag. It was an insulated covering, something Sheffield had brought along just in case he’d run into a valuable item either too hot or too cold to handle as is during his expedition. Unrolling it, he draped it over the top of the frame, take great care to make sure that it was pulled taut on two sides. As he did so, the super-shiny material nearly perfectly reflected light from his helmet.
“Thank heavens they wanted to reflect thermal radiation,” Sheffield said, forgetting for a moment that he wasn’t talking. Sheffield shook the frame and pushed on the frame, making sure that it was sturdy and that the insulation remained taut. He then breathed deeply, hoping with all his being that the laser system was only interested in continuous reflection of its beams and not in the maintaining of a circuit. That’s the problems with these little devils, he thought, you never can tell which of the two types they are until you try to get through them. He carefully pushed the frame forward, allowing four beams to strike the reflective surfaces on either side of the frame.
Waiting for a few minutes before proceeding, the thief listened and felt for any signs of detection. Nothing had changed immediately when he had pushed the frame through, and no one was bursting through the walls to arrest him. Assuming, therefore, that the bypass rig had worked, the thief lay down on his back and threaded his way through the base of the frame. Once he was safely on the other side of the beams, he wriggled from between frame, leaving the rig in place so that he could exit the same way he came in if nothing of interest appeared.
Inching his way again, the thief moved towards the first of the gratings he’d seen. As he did so, it became increasingly obvious that his depth perception had been fooled. The gratings were farther down the line than they had originally appeared, twenty feet having slipped by without him encountering the first one. Finally, after what he estimated to be fifty feet, his hands touched the side of the first one.
He turned and faced the grating, casting his expert eye on its construction and on the way that it had been fixed into the wall. Sheffield was on the verge of trying to remove it when he became aware of something very unsettling. A distinct aroma was wafting through the grate, an aroma that was dark and musky, that sent a wave of unease down his spine. Perhaps not THIS room, he thought, and he inched his way down to the next grate some ten feet down the line.
Again, he appraised the construction of the grating. As he did so, however, he became aware again of the musky aroma, and as his brain processed this information, it was startled by another sensation.
Something shuffled slowly behind the wall.
Not good, Sheffield thought, not good. Best leave these be. Standing up and stepping back, Sheffield moved down but this time did not stop until he had passed five gratings, adding another fifty feet of space behind him. He stopped to listen again but this time heard nothing. Thinking that he had passed the set of rooms the creature he presumed to be there had occupied, he again examined the grating.
As with all of the others, this was a simple grate, one that he would be able to open with only a few turns of a screwdriver. He reached for his pack but discovered to his chagrin that it wasn’t there.
“Shite!” he said quietly but forcefully, remembering the pack sitting uselessly at the entrance to the cross-shaft. He was getting ready to retrace his steps when the scent made its return to his nostrils. However, an unwelcome additional smell had been added, a smell of decaying meat, a smell that increased and decreased in a rhythmic fashion. Sheffield didn’t want to look. He knew he didn’t want to look. He knew, in fact, that he mustn’t look, that to look would create more trouble than he was probably already in.
He looked anyway.
Bright red eyes shown from behind the grating.
Before he was really cognizant of what he was doing, Sheffield had put fifteen feet behind him and was speeding up. Of course, once he was aware of the fact that he was indeed running, two more things occurred to him. First, he was running the wrong way. The entrance to the shaft was behind him, something that he had failed to notice when the panic hit him and which violated everything from his training. Second, he was aware of a snarling, growling sound coming from the gratings, a sound which followed him along with a sound of something very large, very fierce, and very clawed running along metal floors.
Sheffield was nearly out of breath, but he continued on, picking up speed. The creature’s sound increased in ferocity. Finally, Sheffield became aware of a dim light ahead, and needing something to help him override his aching lungs and legs, he kept thinking Head towards the light! Head towards the light! Head towards the light!
He was very near the light source now, so close that he could smell escape. But, more importantly, he could still smell the creature. Just as he lunged passed the last grating, it flew violently into the opposite wall, ricocheting in the small shaft. Sheffield barely stopped in time to keep from flying into another ventilation shaft though his feet slipped from underneath him and he fell on his back. Lying on the floor, he could see the upside down image of a giant, horribly horned head and one giant, horribly clawed arm protruding from the grate. The creature bellowed in anger at Sheffield, who was safely out of reach. Realizing the futility of its situation, the creature slowly withdrew to its lair, snorting one final snort of defiance and rage as it did so. The red glow from its eyes, however, remained, shining hellishly in the darkness.
“Yully,” Sheffield said after a long pause, “scratch that fellow from the Christmas card list.” Slowly regaining his composure, the thief rose to his feet. His mission was now in deep trouble. The only tools he had remaining were his brain and his climbing grips. The rest were untold hundreds of feet behind him at the opposite end of the cross-shaft, and he certainly wasn’t going to be able to go back for them. He would have to make the best of things now, and he created a contingency plan in his head. The thief was about to execute it when his helmet light caught site of something. There was another cross-shaft directly across from him, and in the opening was…a bag. Putting on the grips, he made his way around the other entrance and stepped in. What he found put him into a cold sweat.
It was HIS bag, the bag he’d left behind.
“Yully, this can’t be,” he said as he rummaged through the contents, confirming that it had to be his pack. “But…but…but…never once did I turn. It was a straight…ohmygod!” Sheffield looked forward and saw his reflection rig still standing, still happily reflecting the lasers. From up ahead he heard a low rumble, like a creature lying in wait for its supper. Jumping up, he reentered the shaft and climbed up five feet. Then, he looked at the walls. He could clearly see the places where the grips had previously dug in as he had climbed down earlier.
“Yully, we’ve got to carefully review this tape when I get out,” Sheffield said. “I think I’m losing my sense of direction. I must have turned somewhere along the way. The shaft can’t be…nah! It can’t be… It…” Sheffield breathed deeply and tried to get a grip on his mind. Once he had calmed down, he removed the reflection apparatus, broke it down, and replaced it in his pack. Then, slowly, he began making his way farther down the shaft.
The climb down had not been a fruitful one, not by any stretch of the imagination. While Sheffield had found several cross-shafts on the way down, they either led to dead ends and served no function, or they contained gratings which were wired up and trapped to the hilt, traps that would have required high-tech tools the thief had deliberately left behind. Nothing about this was making sense to him. “It’s almost as if this whole shaft serves no purpose t’all. But it must. When we debrief, I have to check the tape for hidden doors and other hidden exits. There’s more to this than meets the eye.”
“Yully, I think we’re on to something,” Sheffield said. He looked down and saw a narrow platform below him, in the center of which was a giant ventilation fan, which rotated slowly counter-clockwise. The thief slowly lowered himself until he reached the narrow walk space and examined the fan. It was at least fifteen feet wide from blade tip to blade tip, and even in the light of Sheffield’s headlamp it gleamed. “Well, don’t we have a fine item here for Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop.”
Clearly visible below the fan under the lower left quadrant was a downward opening ventilation grating, and below that was darkness. Sheffield trained his eyes upon the grating, working to eliminate the fan from the mental picture he was making. He concentrated, turning and revolving the image in his head, looking for something, for anything. One corner is lower than the other, he thought. If the grate is meant to be lowered, then there can be hinges only on one side. There’s a weak spot. He scanned the metal on the grate. Light rust mixed in metal. Corroded enough to be weakened but not enough to have too much resistance. Interesting.
“On Earth, lad, there is a fool’s game called Russian roulette.” Sheffield stood up and watched the blades as they passed over the grating. “Most avoid it because of too much risk. Too much chance. Even most of our colleagues.”
“More’s the pity, boy. Watch, listen, observe all. That should be your mantra.” Sheffield looked up the shaft. In the distance he could still see the energy barriers simmering in their surroundings some seventy feet up. Sheffield closed his eyes, turning his mind towards…
The thief moved so that he was standing on the corner nearest the location of the grating.
“If ever a game demanded that mantra more I’ve never heard of it.” Hail Mary, full of grace, he recited in his mind. Blessed art thou… Sheffield removed the pack from his back and then held it as closely as he possible to his body, almost appearing to be stuffing it into his belly.
Sheffield began breathing in and breathing out rhythmically. “The answer is simple, Yully.” Sheffield lowered and raised and lowered and raised his body on his knees.
“Count the clicks, boy! Count the clicks!” Sheffield jumped down, his legs barely avoiding landing on one of the blades. As his feet hit the grating, it failed at the weak-point and collapsed downward, letting Sheffield fall through at almost the same time he hit it. His hair was drawn upwards by the force of the blade, which passed overhead just after he avoided decapitation.
The thief landed hard on the floor, and he fell forward on top of his pack. Every muscle and bone in his body screamed their displeasure, but the adrenaline of the moment temporarily overrode their signals. It was several seconds before Sheffield regained his wits, and he blinked his eyes rapidly in the darkness, the fall having shattered the light on his headlamp. Slowly, he began lifting himself up, and as he did so, his hand touched the cold floor of the room he was in. The texture, the hardness of the floor was familiar, too familiar. Just as his brain was preparing to offer a likely suggestion, Sheffield was suddenly frozen with fear as the room suddenly lit up with a bright and fearsome light. The tape reached its end in the recorder, missing the awful mess forming on the floor around the cat burglar.
The Mare Inebrium was extremely busy, and all of the tables were occupied, some over the limits of their design. No one was complaining, though, the busiest and most overcrowded table having long been occupied by drunken fire and health inspectors.
In a corner near the doorway to the Mortuary, two men in muted business suits were playing chess and sitting at a table, which was itself sitting on a purple rug decorated with golden symbols. Both men looked nearly alike with balding heads and nondescript humanoid faces. In fact, the only way to tell them apart was by watching which chess pieces they moved. Player one, who sat closest to the door, moved the white pieces. Player two moved black. They gazed intently upon the game, which judging by the number of pieces removed was apparently about two-thirds completed. A third man, a bald and bearded arbiter in a white suit, watched the proceedings. Player one made a move and hit the time clock, after which player two began moving his hands towards his selected piece.
Elsewhere in the room, Holigoth businessmen rubbed appendages with D’rrish officials taking a break from lengthy and tedious negotiations over the fate of a distant star system unimportant to everyone save the combatants. Troopers in white and black armor sat, helmets off, cheerfully carousing with orange-clad pilots. Escapees from Ragnarok downed flagons of mead, ate hunks of nearly raw meat, and plotted acts of vengeance to be committed upon their return.
“Another Old Time Religion for table 32,” Trixie the barmaid said as she lithely slid by the bar, picking up a tray of tea and biscuits destined for the grouchy man in the technicolour coat who was sitting with an even grouchier, short-haired American woman. Trixie soon returned for the bottle of beer and carried it to table 32.
“You need anything else, hun?” she said, her elfin features sending three nearby men into comas of ecstasy.
“Two more of these, lass,” Sheffield Light, thief and cat burglar, said as he ran his fingers over the slogan on the bottle—There’s Room for a Million More. “After that, Tullimore Dew. After that, a pot of coffee, black.” He handed the waitress a five credit note. “And that, madam, is for just bein’ a beauty helpin’ and old man in me time of need.” Sheffield smiled though his features showed the weight of exhaustion that he was carrying.
“Why thank-you, kind sir,” Trixie purred, executing a perfect curtsey and sending four other men into cardiac arrest. “And, by the way, you are not old.”
“Ah, but don’t I feel that way, lass,” Sheffield said as he drank a gulp of the super-strong beer and rubbed his hand over the new black pants he’d bought from the boutique on the twentieth floor. Looking around again, Sheffield’s eyes caught a glimpse of the chess players. While he’d always liked chess, something about these players gave him the shivers, and he quickly returned his gaze to Trixie’s smiling face.
“Another one of these hoopie things,” a two-headed, three armed man said from a nearby table, pointing to his empty Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster.
“Gotta go,” Trixie said, and she flew quickly to him.
Through the front door of the bar, two uneasy looking people made their way into the crowd, which flowed chaotically into and out of the establishment. The two were forced to bump and push their way in, making their way deliberately to table 32.
“Th-ufferin’ th-ucotash,” a felinoid creature said as he rushed by, “has anyone th-een a goofy lookin’ mutant canary?”
“Was this wise, Mr. Light?” Vigol the Jekyll said as he sat at the table. He pointed to Mr. Scrivener, the Union transcriptionist, who then sat down as well. The two of them appeared extremely uncomfortable and were both very disheveled after their trek through the crowd.
“Why shouldn’t it be, then?” Sheffield asked as he drank another large gulp of beer. Vigol and Scrivener looked about the crowded bar.
“Are you mad?” Scrivener hissed as he took a digi-pad from his briefcase. “A debriefing in the very place you just attempted to rob?” Sheffield laughed bitterly but then brightened as Trixie came by with two more bottles. He smiled as he handed her another fiver.
“Here’s as good a place as any, lads. As good a place as any. Trust me, we’ve nothing to fear because it has nothing to fear.” He finished the bottle he’d been working on and then opened the next. Vigol relaxed into his chair and started to cross his scaly orange arms, but he found to his amazement that he was holding several wallets.
“Old habits die hard,” Vigol laughed to himself as he placed the wallets into his coat pockets and tried to conceal the proud but somewhat embarrassed expression on his purple face.
“Just for the record,” Scrivener said as he opened a file on the pad, “how many of those have you had?” Sheffield laughed.
“This,” he said pointing to the bottle in his hand, “is number six. And if I was younger, bucko, after number seven there’d be an eight, nine, and ten to send me softly to the wee hours.”
“Mr. Light,” Vigol said testily, “we need your mind clear for the debriefing. In addition…”
“Oh, me mind’s clear, Jekyll,” Sheffield interrupted. “All this will accomplish tonight is a blunting of the panic.”
“IN ADDITION,” Vigol growled firmly, “it isn’t as safe here as you apparently think. Grimthor the Snitch has been sighted in the vicinity.” Sheffield paused and then swallowed his beer, looking about with a small degree of anxiety.
“Grimthor?” he said questioningly. “But I thought the union had a reciprocal agreement with the Informants’ Guild?”
“We do,” Scrivener said, “but it only applies to those who’ve joined since we were certified. All the old-timers are still free to finger everyone, union and non-union.”
“Ah well,” Sheffield sighed. “If yer time’s up…” He toasted his two interrogators and downed a good portion of the rest of the bottle.
“If we could get back to the case at hand,” Scrivener muttered.
“Yes,” Vigol added. “We need to update the board as soon as possible since your attempt failed. We’ll need to give our members as much info as possible before the next attempt is made.” Sheffield stopped drinking and stared angrily at the man who was technically his boss.
“Next attempt,” he said deliberately. “Gentlemen, if I can help it, there will be no next attempt!”
“Mr. Light,” Vigol said, “that is not your decision to make. Any independent entrepreneur is free to go about his or her business.” The Jekyll straightened his tie, which then hissed at him and again curled up as it pleased.
“Oh yeah,” Sheffield said angrily, “like ya won’t be encouragin’ more members to throw themselves to the grinder! I’ll have you know that Hue-brihs was a good friend of mine! And Vinny. Aye! And Vinny! Both of them dead because of this fool’s gambit of ours. Who’ll you send next? Yully? Some other apprentice? Some jerk who isn’t up on his dues? Well, I won’t let you sacrifice anyone else! Not me! Not Yully, a fine fine lad I want to see mature into the great thief I know he’ll be! Not anyone!”
“Look,” Scrivener said wearily, rubbing his hands over his throbbing temples, “why don’t you just tell us what happened and let the executive committee be the judge.”
“Alright,” Sheffield hissed. “Alright then, but be prepared to have your hair curl right back into your bodies.”
In the corner near the Mortuary, white king’s pawn blocked black, and the player reset his clock.
“So,” Scrivener murmured as he sipped on the seltzer water he’d ordered from Trixie, “to recap, you made it to the base of the shaft and found a large fan. After ascertaining that the grating, which you said was a metallic composite…”
“Iron based composite,” Sheffield corrected.
“Iron based, right.” Scrivener typed the correction onto the keypad. “After ascertaining that the grating was weak, you timed your jump so that you could pass unscathed through blades and on through the grating, and then you plunged into the darkness. What then?”
Sheffield’s face contorted almost as if he was in pain. “What next? What next! I landed on the floor and smashed my light, but I could still feel. I was just on the verge of recognizing the surroundings when the lights came on.”
“What!” Vigol exclaimed. “You were caught?”
The first chess player at the table near the Mortuary moved his white queen’s bishop into position to take the black king’s pawn.
At the front door, four members of the Reever’s elite guard came in, pushing patrons out of the way without a second thought. A small, green, greasy, lizard-like creature walked beside them. In his palm he carried a photograph, and he motioned excitedly in the direction of table 32. The lead guard looked at the picture, then at the occupant of interest at 32, and then back at the photograph.
“No,” Sheffield said, “worse, lad. Much much worse. I triggered the motion sensors on…” His voice began to crack, and Sheffield found himself fighting off the urge to vomit.
The guards nodded at the lizard.
“Heh-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i,” the lizard laughed in a high pitch, which just about penetrated the whole of the main room, table 32 being one of the few exceptions. The lead guard motioned to one of his underlings, who handed a small purse to the lizard. Opening it, the lizard poured bars of gold-pressed Latinum into his hand. Then, bowing to the guards, he quickly made his way out of the Mare Inebrium.
“What…what was it?” Vigol stammered. “Come on, Sheffield. Come on, buddy. What was it?”
The guards began pushing their way into the thick of the crowd though the density of the patrons made moving difficult. Still, they made excellent progress towards table 32.
In the corner, the second chess player saw an opening, one that player one had clearly missed. With one of his black knights, he removed the white king’s bishop.
At the main bar, the phone rang and Larrye put on the headset. “Main,” he said and then listened to the conversation on the other end. All of a sudden, his face blanched, and his skin crawled with goose-pimples.
“I tripped,” Sheffield continued, “I tripped the motion sensors in the men’s bathroom!” At the main bar, Larrye could be seen jumping up and down and frantically waving his arms.
Running so quickly that he ripped the headset cord from its socket, Larrye leaped over the bar and charged towards the guards he’d seen a minute earlier, literally running over patrons to get to them. “You’ve gotta help!” Larrye yelled, his face betraying sheer panic. “There’s a fight in the Pantheon! Hammett and Chandler were arguing about Spade and Marlowe, and then…”
“The Pantheon!” the guard yelled. His lieutenants stopped and stared at him, their eyes wide as the night sky. “By deus, we’re going to need help!” As the guards ran into the elevator, in the process knocking Larrye into the throng of the main crowd, the leader activated his communicator. “Dispatch! Dispatch! Code 141 in the Pantheon! Repeat, Code 141 in the Pantheon! We need a battalion and an unabridged copy of the works of Mickey Spillane!” The elevator doors closed.
“Are you telling us,” Vigol said, “that this entire, well protected airshaft is for the exclusive use of the men’s bathroom on the ground floor?”
“I’m not saying that at all,” Sheffield moaned. “It’s worse, laddies, much much worse!”
Max worked the pre-mixer controls at the Trans-Dimensional Cocktail generator, preparing an advanced order for a group of mice who’d called ahead and booked one of the conference rooms. He’d just injected the first wave of imaginary numbers when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Looking over, he found himself facing a tall, blond man and a younger, dark haired man. They were dressed in black but bore shields on their chests stating that they were from the LAPD.
“Can I help you?” Max asked wearily.
The blond man looked about, seemingly confused, but then he composed himself. The second man’s large Adam’s apple bounced up and down as he swallowed repeatedly and looked about in utter bewilderment.
“Sir, my name’s Officer Malloy, and this is my partner, Officer Reed. We received a call concerning some debris on the roof that you think came from an airliner.” Max gritted his teeth and spun towards the main bar.
“Larrye!” he yelled. Larrye had just crawled torn, tattered, and bruised from the crowd when he saw who Max was pointing to.
“It’s not my fault, boss!” Larrye pleaded. “I called the same number we always call! It’s just this place! You know it is!” Max closed his eyes and breathed deeply for moment.
“Look, if this was a prank call…” Malloy started to say.
“Just…just follow me,” Max said as he threw his hands up in disgust and headed for the lifts. “You’re here, so we might as just go ahead with it.” The three of them made their way through the crowd and passed the chessboard where player one stared at the move player two had just made.
Scrivener and Vigol stared into the blank face of Sheffield.
“Mr. Light!” Vigol yelled for the fifth time. “How did it get worse? How…did…it…get…worse?” Sheffield slowly blinked his eyes and then sat back in his chair. After rubbing his hands over his face, he continued.
“Thinking I missed something, I made ready to climb out a give her another try. I mean, a fan engine is easy to disable, so…” Sheffield moved his head as if he was looking up into a portal to hell. “Above me was a plain, horizontal ventilation duct. There was no large, central shaft. No fan. No energy barriers happily sizzling away eighty floors up. The way I came down was…was gone.”
“I…I see,” Vigol said softly, his expression becoming nearly as blank as Sheffield’s.
“Do you, now?” Sheffield whispered, a dark chasm of fear opening in his soul.
At the chessboard, the first player sacrificed a pawn, clearing a path for his white queen’s rook.
Near the front door, seemingly unseen by the patrons, a tall figure dressed in a tattered black cloak moved silently into the room. The hood of the cloak was pulled so far forward that the face could not been seen. In its right, bony hand, the figure carried a large, gleaming scythe. In its other bony hand, it held up a photograph and seemed to look towards table 32.
“Think about it,” Sheffield said. “Think about it hard, me buckos. I did everything right. I landed undetected on the roof. I used no high-tech gadgets to break in. Through shear brute force I climbed nearly 100 stories down a heavily armored shaft. Through dumb luck I shorted out an energy field that should have killed me. Through everything, I labored and labored until I reached where I was SUPPOSED to go all along. At every point, I should have been caught. I only tripped one alarm, but shouldn’t that have sent the authorities running to me?”
Laughing menacingly, the dark-cloaked figure slowly moved through the crowd, patrons unconsciously parting to make way for it.
“Why weren’t you arrested?” Scrivener asked, looking up from his digi-pad into the eyes of the thief. “That’s a good question. A damn good question. You don’t think…”
“Yes,” Sheffield whispered. “Yes, I do think… I wasn’t arrested because the building toyed with me!” Vigol blinked his eyes.
“You speak almost as if the Tower was alive,” Vigol said. A bar fight broke out, seemingly involving two men locked inside a faulty Cone of Silence.
“Isn’t it?” Sheffield asked. “Isn’t it, in a sense?”
After player two moved his black knight to capture a less important piece on the board, player one moved his queen’s rook forward, putting it into position to capture the black king’s pawn.
Sheffield continued. “Lads, I shoulda been caught, killed, or arrested at any point after the shields, but I was too thankful to be alive to even realize that. But I wasn’t caught. Why? Because the building…didn’t…care!” The last word came out in a hoarse cough. “That’s why we’re here now. Can’t you hear it? The building is laughing at us! It doesn’t care that we’re here; it doesn’t care that I broke in with intent to steal. It doesn’t care because it knows that we can’t do anything about it!”
“Oh my gods,” Vigol murmured. “That shaft, all those traps, all of those obstacles…”
“Were put there for my benefit!” Sheffield continued. “No one will ever be able to break in that way again, lads, because it isn’t there! If you go to the roof now, I guarantee you that there is no entrance to any central shaft. It was all a rouse, a bloody diversion! The shaft, the loop that wasn’t a loop…everything!” The dark figure now stood directly behind Sheffield. It glanced one more time at the photo, nodded its head, and then slowly began pulling the scythe back, preparing to strike.
“Ten brave Brothers…” Vigol said.
“Sacrificed for nothing!” Sheffield hissed. Scrivener dutifully typed the full conversation into the digi-pad even though some form of electro-magnetic disturbance was playing havoc with it.
The scythe was at the high point of its arc. The light just caught the sheen of the blade as it slowly began swinging towards Sheffield.
Player two stared dejectedly at the chessboard.
“Scrivener,” Vigol said like one in shell-shock. “Make a note in the transcript. Pending further review in consultation with the executive committee, all activities in or around the Mare Inebrium Tower are to be suspended immediately.”
Suddenly smiling, player two quickly knocked his black king over, resigning from the game. Player one halted the movement of his rook.
“At 2354 GST,” the arbiter said, “black resigned. Victory goes to white.”
Even as the singing of the blade slicing through the air towards Sheffield filled the bar, the figure in black disappeared, and his implement of destruction soon followed. All that stood behind Sheffield now were two drunken Gamelons dancing with a green witch who was draining her fifth cup of coffee down to the last drop.
“A wise choice, lad,” Sheffield said as he patted Vigol on the shoulder. “A wise choice, indeed.”
Max the bartender charged into the main room from the elevators and headed for the counter. Larrye, another bartender named Sleepy Howell, and Blanche were working feverishly to keep up with the avalanche of orders that were pouring in from all corners of the bar. Without a hello or acknowledgement to anyone, he bounded straight for the vidphone.
"What's wrong, Max?" Blanche asked as she finished making a Scotch and soda on helium ice.
"This'll teach me to try making the best of things," he muttered as he entered a sequence of numbers onto the keypad and picked up the headset bypass. "Yes, hello. Is this...is this the Med Center? What? I don't..." Max rolled his eyes. "I don't care what you're calling yourselves these days. I need a MedSquad at the Mare Inebrium immediately. Yes. Yes. Thanks!" Max punched the end button and hung up the receiver.
"Max?" Larrye asked as he sent a properly sealed D'rrish beverage by hover-waiter to the diplomatic party. "What's happened?"
Max sighed heavily and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. "Officer Malloy handled things well when he saw the skyline. Officer Reed...Officer Reed... How can I put this, Larrye? Officer Reed went to pieces."
Larrye gulped heavily. "Is he..."
"He's alive, Larrye," Max muttered. "Alive, but cut up and hysterical. Funny, they never act the way you expect when you meet them in person."
"Max, it wasn't..."
"I know," Max sighed. "I know."
The chess players began cleaning up the board and putting away pieces, all except one black pawn, which player two handed to the arbiter who then stared at it, seemingly without emotion of any sort.
At the main bar, Subject 3233-09222; File Delta Zed 818 (Sheffield MacMillan Light), is talking with Immortal 3832 (Max). Surveillance Audio and Visual Record Appended to Appropriate Sectors. 2431:30 GST. Mark.
“You look tired,” Max said to the thief, who was eating a shepherd’s pie and drinking coffee. Sheffield laughed quietly.
“Ahhh, me boy, if ya only knew what today has been like.” Sheffield dug his fork into the pie. The main room of the Mare Inebrium had emptied out considerably. Many of the patrons were drawn to one of the seedier parts of town when a flyer was circulated showing that a buy one/get one free sale was going on by the spaceport. Exactly what was for sale had been tactfully left out of the circular, but most had no trouble filling in the blanks.
“Well, you can always wash your troubles away here and know that you have a discrete ear at the bar. Being a shoulder to cry on is practically part of the job description.” Sheffield smiled.
“I thank you,” Sheffield said. “This one I’d better keep to myself, though.” Max threw up his arms and grinned.
“I certainly won’t pry where I’m not wanted.”
Note to Diagnostics: Agent Subroutine 3 experienced a significant drop in signal integrity upon leaving the theatre of operations. Check emitter strength during next scheduled reset. 2432 GST. Mark.
The arbiter slowly made his way from the chessboard towards the bar. Seeing him approach, Max, excused himself and moved down the bar to talk to him. While some people were still moving around in the bar, the arbiter maintained a straight and steady course through a narrow corridor of catty-cornered tables.
“How have things been this evening?” Max said, winking knowingly. The arbiter was expressionless for several seconds before he suddenly broke into a polite smile.
“One of the players used an unorthodox strategy. Protect the pawn at the expense of other pieces. A very strange way to play, but it was quite challenging and served its purpose.” The arbiter slowly, in a not quite human set of movements, lifted a sealed tube and gave it to Max.
Signal to Cross-Dimensional Arch: Prepare for opening! Prepare for opening! 2434 GST. Mark.
“The usual?” Max asked the arbiter. The arbiter nodded his head.
“Yes,” the arbiter said. “The usual. Good evening.” The arbiter nodded without blinking, pivoted slowly around, and walked back towards the players.
System reset in one minute. Mark. Scheduled downtime 2435 through 2435.000000001 GST. Analysis shows
Subject 3233-09222; File Delta Zed 818 (Sheffield MacMillan Light) can be moved to inactive status. Terminate active surveillance. 2434:20 GST. Mark.
Sheffield had looked down the bar just as the arbiter was leaving, and he followed him with his eyes until the arbiter was back at the chessboard. “Here every night, are they?” Sheffield asked between bites as he looked back at Max.
Max opened a chute and inserted the tube into it. He closed the door, and a loud hiss could be heard as the tube shot away. “In a manner of speaking. Seems like they’re here all the time.” He grinned widely at the wall and let a few silent giggles escape before straightening his face and turning back towards Light.
System reset in thirty seconds. Mark. Trans-Dimensional Object materializing in Conference Room H in one minute, forty-two seconds. Analysis shows object is no threat. Catalog as Object 9099-86547; File Alpha Alpha 483993. Terminate active surveillance. System reset in fifteen seconds. Mark. 2434:45. Mark.
At main entrance to the bar, two men, one balding with blond hair and the other with longer black hair, came down the steps. One was carrying a large black box and a large red box, and the other was pulling a small cylinder of oxygen on a small cart.
“Los Angeles County Fire Department,” the blond man said. “Did someone here call for a paramedic?” Max’s expression collapsed, and he slapped his hand over his eyes.
“Oh, not again,” Max whispered through clinched teeth.
Across the room where he was bussing tables, Larrye erupted into fits of uncontrolled laughter. Trixie and Blanche, who were working in another part of the room, turned and looked too, and they quickly caught on to what was happening and exploded into gales of laughter themselves.
The chess players quietly and without fuss disappeared, leaving only an empty space near the doorway to the Mortuary.
The room was dark save for a shaft of light that emanated from a tiny pinprick in the ceiling. The shaft then grew exponentially until it lit an entire wall the size of a fourteen-story building turned on its side. Mounted on the wall were several large cases filled with a staggering assortment of items.
There were locks of hair contained in airtight bags. There were cups, certificates, and trophies of every shape and size from an almost limitless number of planets. Discarded limbs from reptilian species, many still clutching a bewildering assortment of tools, sat in a far, dark corner.
There were notebooks, digi-pads, computers, watches, packs of playing cards, bottles of beverages of priceless vintages, jewelry, and clothing packed in other places, all carefully set up to be easily seen.
There were two sections, however, that were the most prominently displayed. The first contained cutting tools, grappling hooks of all sizes and complexities, super-bypass computation devices, and lock-picks both crude and advanced. There were electric shims, diamond tipped blackjacks, titanium drill bits, stethoscopes and other listening devices. Some items were barely recognizable, their creator species needs being beyond those of the run-of-the-mill creatures
The second section, however, was dedicated to chess pieces of all sorts, thousands of them in fact from thousands of different types of chess sets. One corner of this corner seemed to hold particular significance in this area. There were slots occupied by ten pawns, all black and all bearing different faces.
There was a loud hiss in the corner of the room followed by a loud “DING.” A figure, who had been standing in the shadows and admiring the view, slowly walked towards the sound. Reaching up, the figure opened a chute and carefully removed the tube that was within it. Opening the tube, the it pulled out a chess piece—a black pawn-- and then turned and walked towards the chess piece section. A ball of light playfully danced in the air around the figure, glowing with excitement. With a wave of a hand, one of the glass panes was opened though there had appeared to be no opening there before, and the figure placed the pawn with the other ten pieces of distinction, raising the total number in the special section to eleven.
The figure closed the cabinet and walked back towards the shadows, the reflection of gray hair receding from the glass, and he turned back to face the collection. The ball of light settled on the figure’s shoulder and seemingly admired the pieces as well.
Among the pawns in the special section, a new one was present, one whose face bore a striking resemblance to Sheffield Light, thief and cat-burglar.