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The Emporium

By L. H. Davis All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Scifi

The Emporium

Captain Rigs didn't wake me until after we had docked at Jackson's Dome. As soon as I opened my eyes, he yelled in my face and yanked me out of my A-cell. I recognized the gleaming coffin for what it was, although at the time I didn't realize I'd been locked inside it for five months. After spending that much time in transluminal flight, the syrupy fog of the A-cell induced coma was practically oozing from my eyes and ears. I tried to understand Captain Rigs' instructions, but I suspected later--by the way things turned out--that I got something screwed up. But then again, had I known at the time he had kidnapped me, I would have killed him myself.

"I'll ride down in the lift with you," Rigs said, "but I'm not babysitting your ass until Finch shows up."

"Finch?" I asked. The word lingered in my mouth, tasting of burnt iron and onions. I'd never flown in space before, so I didn't realize the taste and grogginess were normal side effects of traveling faster than the speed of light. At the time I assumed I had just blown my entire paycheck again down at Mary's Place but would be fine after a hot shower knocked the edge off my hangover. Of course it did worry me that a big man calling himself "The Captain" had hoisted me out of bed. I'd been drunk before, more than once, but never that drunk.

"This is your ID card," Rigs said.

The captain, a very wide, middle-aged man, stood well over six feet. I was barely twenty-one and just under four-foot-ten, so when Rigs pushed that plastic card into my hand and shoved me backward through the hatch, I went. Stumbling across the opening, I found myself surrounded by the blackness of space--and little else. Sensing freefall, my stomach and bladder were on the brink of disaster when my ass kissed the outer glass wall of the boarding elevator.  Captain Rigs then followed me inside, which I took as a good sign. The tawny green metal of the ship's exterior loomed beyond the glass wall behind Rigs, but standing so near the hull made it difficult to get a feel for the size of the spacecraft. The distant horizon formed by the ship's spherical hull, however, indicated the vessel was quite large.

I looked up at Rigs and asked, "Where the hell am I?"

The captain smiled but didn't seem to be in a hurry to answer my question. I turned to the glass wall behind me as the elevator began to drop, hoping to see a landmark and get my bearings. Discovering we were still a thousand feet above the surface, I put a death grip on the handrail and choked down the stomach bile gurgling in my throat.

"Welcome to Wadi," Rigs said with a chuckle.

Wadi? What happened to Abydos? I thought. The taste of bile, burnt iron, and onions made speaking, if not impossible, highly undesirable. I had heard stories about Wadi, mostly while drinking down at Mary's. I assumed most of the wild tales, if not all, were fabrications, mellowed and aged by good whiskey. But as I looked out over the huge geodesic dome below, Jackson's Dome, and the sprawling city within, it became obvious the stories were at least somewhat true.

Wadi wasn't a real planet, not by any reasonable definition, although it was large enough to be classified as one--had it officially existed, which it didn't. Having disappeared more than a thousand years earlier, Wadi had been written off as dead and gone, destroyed by some catastrophic natural event. The place didn't look dead to me now, but it didn't look entirely alive, either.

The exposed surface of Wadi seemed to be a solid sheet of black rock, or maybe iron. Its undulating surface, smooth and continuous to the horizon, appeared as might a huge dark lake that suddenly solidified, capturing a few gently rolling waves. An enclosed walkway ran perfectly straight from the dome below us to another in the distance, possibly twenty miles away. Wadi had no atmosphere to diffuse or even dull the light of a billions stars, which seemed to hover just beyond the horizon.

"Now, listen to me good," Rigs said, turning me by the shoulder. "When we reach ground level I want you to keep moving. Don't stop and don't answer questions for nobody. You got a right to be pissed off, nobody denies you that, but you're here on Wadi now. And there ain't no way to get back to Abydos. The sooner you accept that fact the sooner things will start working in your favor. If you start kicking and screaming, or some nonsense like that, I'll just go back up to the ship and leave your ass down there with security. I'll admit right now that I kidnapped you from Abydos, but that was my job. You're here and you're healthy, so mission accomplished. No harm done."

"No harm done?" I said, sounding completely dumbfounded. Sadly, however, I knew he was right.

When I was a little kid, my mother and I used to wake up in so many different doorways that half the time I never knew where we were, and I'm pretty sure she rarely did either. One of my earliest memories was of her waking me up in the dark to strap a pair of rusty braces around my legs. The metal rods never did pull the bow out of my knees, but the pitiful looking devices did help keep our bellies full of food. Mom would truss me up and then prop me against a wall out by the sidewalk in time for the morning rush. I would smile and wave, and maybe throw in a little cough. It took a real hard-ass to walk by without dropping a few coins in my cup. We'd milk a street for a day or so and then move over a few blocks, set up house in a blind alley, and start working the new faces. Living on the street wasn't all that bad, except when it rained, and I never spent an entire winter outdoors until after she died. Mom always seemed to meet a nice man, usually one in uniform, just about the time the weather turned cold. He'd rent a room, and they'd moan and groan for an hour or so, but then he'd leave and somehow we always managed to hang on to the place until early spring. It's kind of funny; Mom would have probably liked Captain Rigs. All of her boyfriends wore hats with gold braid thingamabobs, just like his.

"No harm done?" I mumbled again, wiping my tongue on my sleeve. Someone should go to jail...if only because of this nasty taste in my mouth.

 "Glad you agree," Rigs said. "Just remember, nobody on Wadi gives a damn about anything that happened on Abydos or any other planet ruled by the Universal Imperium. You'll be welcome on Wadi, and free to do whatever you want, as long as you can produce that ID card and don't get in other people's business. Without that card you're automatically guilty of spying for the UI, and they'll throw your ass in jail until you can prove otherwise. Try doing that from a jail cell on a planet where nobody knows you."

"But--" was all I managed.

"But nothing," Rigs said. "When that door opens, walk straight ahead and down the tube. The airtight emergency doors are about fifty feet down, just outside the dome. Right before you reach the doors there's an alcove off to the right. A security guard will be sitting next to the ID station. He won't say nothing if you don't, but he does expect you to insert that card into his machine. Just look into the optical scanner and put both hands on the glass plate."

I stared at the card he had given me, surprised to see my picture. It wasn't a good one, but then again there was no such thing as a good picture of me. Rigs had gotten my name right, too: Thaddeus J. Styx. I felt like thanking him for not spelling out Jasper.

"What do you think?" Rigs asked as I examined the card.

"T. J. would have been better," I said.

"Sorry," Rigs said, "but at least it's official. As captain, I can issue ID cards for my passengers, but it's still no good until you run it through that machine down there. It puts your data out on the Wadi net, which makes you a real person. No data goes on or leaves the Wadi network unless it's on one of these cards. That's how they can keep the location of this place a secret. That means you might exist on Abydos, but you don't exist here until your card is blessed by that machine. Any questions?"

"Do I have any question? You've got to be shitting me."

"Besides the obvious," Rigs said, "I don't know why Finch wanted me to bring you here. He caught me as we were leaving for Abydos and told me he would cancel my bar tab, if I brought you back with me. We were already in the jump routine, so I didn't have time to ask questions. I don't even know how he got that message out to my ship; that's not supposed to even be possible from Wadi."

"He canceled your bar tab?" I said, certain I had misunderstood. How much could this guy drink?

"Well, yeah," Rigs mumbled. "Finch is an old friend of mine, but I hadn't settled with him in...well, maybe ten years...maybe twelve. I'd rather owe it to him than cheat him out of it, so it sounded like a good deal to me."

"A real bargain," I said. The elevator began to slow, so I knew I had to hurry. "Who is Finch and what did you mean by ‘Besides the obvious?'"

"You really don't know who Finch is?" Rigs said as the elevator stopped.

"Not a clue," I said.

"Then the obvious ain't so obvious is it," Rigs said as the elevator door opened. "Move," he said, turning me around. He gave me a light shove, although not nearly as hard as before. "You'll know Finch when you see him," Rigs said. "He's...like you."

I didn't know if that was a slap in the face or not. I highly doubted Finch was a short troll, as I had been described on more than one occasion. Although, the only other option was that he had also been trained as a mechatronic technician and would have a tool bag slung over his shoulder, similar to the one I was lugging.

I kept walking to put distance between us, but, as I closed in on the security guard, I stopped and turned around. I just wanted to glare back at Rigs and hopefully make him a little nervous. To my surprise, he glared first.

"Go on," Rigs said, motioning me on. Turning his attention to something beyond me, he pointed and said, "That's Finch's dog."

Turning, my jaw dropped. A dog? I'm not so sure about that. The thing bounced, pranced, and spun in circles so fast I couldn't tell whether it was cute or ugly. And when it stopped briefly to smile up at me, I still couldn't decide; the dog was a robot. It stood about knee high to most people but thigh high to me--when it stood still. I had been trained in mechatronic repair while in prison as part of my rehabilitation, but I had never seen anything this sophisticated. Long, salt-and-pepper fur covered its ears and the top of its head. The bare metal of its jointed neck glinted under the lights, but fur also covered the top of its back and the last half of its tail. The rest of him was pure mechanism: shiny metal, embedded wires, and clear tubing. Other than being a little thin on fur, it was an excellent likeness of the real animals I had seen in books, although more technically advanced than the robots I'd seen on Abydos. Its green eyes sparkled as it bounced up, eye to eye with me. I thought it was a little strange that it had a blue ball in its mouth. But what part of my day hadn't been strange? It gripped the ball firmly in a set of silvery, needle sharp teeth; the kind that would make anyone think twice before going anywhere near that mouth. I looked over at Rigs. He shrugged.

Turning back to the dog, I got a strong urge to say, "Sit." No robot I had ever seen would respond to voice commands from a total stranger, but then this creature seemed more alive than mechanical. For some reason I thought it might listen. "Sit," I said. And it did. Dropping the ball at my feet, it wagged its tail and smiled up at me. It didn't pant, although I half expected to see a fleshy pink tongue drop out any second.

"What's your name?" I asked, picking up the ball. I would have been surprised if it had answered--but not shocked. It didn't, but it did sprint down the tunnel toward Rigs. Skidding to a halt at his feet, the little guy turned around to face me and barked.

"His name is Gofer," Rigs said. "He loves to play ball. But son, you need to do what I told you. Get on with it."

As Rigs motioned me on, Gofer whined and let out another playful bark, so I tossed the ball to him as I turned back toward the dome. I slung my tool bag over my shoulder to free up both hands as I stopped in front of the security guard. Hearing Gofer's metal toenails clicking frantically on the deck, I looked around. He was running toward me, fast; his legs were a blur.

Rigs bent down to pick up the ball, which had rolled to his feet. "Fool animal" he said as he stood. Rigs then disappeared in a flash of white light as the ball exploded. A red mist filled the tunnel.

Knocked flat on my back, I slid headfirst through the open pressure doors. As I passed, they slammed shut, slicing the legs off the security guard. The smoke and mist cleared quickly, sucked out by the vacuum of space through a crack in one of glass panes near the elevator. Bits and pieces of Rigs clung to the glass and littered the floor. People swarmed over the screaming guard, although no one seemed to notice me.

Still on my back, I watched the commotion between my feet, until a voice said, "Get up. We need to go." Rolling my eyes up, I found Gofer's ugly face staring down at me. "What?" I asked. Turning my head to both sides, I searched for the owner of the voice.

"Get up," Gofer said. "Security will be here any minute."

I stared at the dog's sharp teeth as he spoke--but I forgot to listen. "What?" I repeated.

"If you don't get up right now, I'm going to bite that ugly nose off your face."

That I heard, so I got up.

"Follow me," he said as he turned. He broke into an easy trot and without looking back said, "I'm not warning you again."

So I followed.

Jackson's Dome appeared to be just like every large city I had seen on Abydos; the streets were dirty, the alleys were filled with junk, and the homeless seemed to own the doorways. I began to suspect the only difference was that the sky on Wadi would always be dark, and I doubted if it was ever going to rain. Gofer trotted for about a half a mile without saying a word, which was fine by me; I wasn't used to having conversations with animals. Reaching a large stairwell, I followed Gofer down one level and stepped out into an entirely different, yet similar, city. Gofer started down the street, but I stopped and leaned over the handrail to see if there were more levels below. I didn't have time to count them all before being scolded about keeping up.

"Why should I keep following you?" I asked.

"Because your ID is no good," Gofer said, "and you don't want to go to jail again."

"Okay, but besides that?"

"Because I'll chew off your ass if you don't."

"Understood," I said. "Any other reason...that I might find agreeable?"

"Food, drink, and a pretty woman," Gofer said.

"Just one of those would have been enough," I said, picking up my pace.

I think we walked most of the night, but, since Wadi lacked a sun, we might have walked all day. I do know we walked until my feet hurt and then about twice that far again. I kept asking questions, but Gofer only had one answer: "You'll have to ask Sibylla."

I knew we had reached the far end of Jackson's Dome when the level above us suddenly disappeared, exposing the iron and glass structure of the dome itself. The sky remained as black as ink, but the stars were not as bright as they had been near the ship. When I asked about it, Gofer explained we were now on the poor side of the city, so the glass had probably never been cleaned.

"What do you expect after two thousand years?" he asked.

"Is it really that old?"

"Really," he said. "You don't know about Wadi?"

"Not very much," I said, which was a mistake.

"Wadi," Gofer began, "is the remnant core of a tiny star, even smaller than a brown dwarf. It's composed of mixed metals, some precious but mostly iron. A mining company originally settled Wadi two thousand fifty-four years ago. They went after the surface deposits first, the easy ore. Jackson's Dome is built over the original quarry, which was a solidified lake of pure titanium. After they dug out the ore, the company capped the quarry with this glass and iron dome. The iron core of Wad makes it easy to seal and pressurize. This dome was the first one they built, but now there are ninety-two others. After they capped this place the workers moved in and built the city to raise their families. The next dig was over at Harper's Dome, which is where we're going. The workers lived in Jackson's Dome while they harvested Harper's Quarry, and then they capped that hole, too, and moved on to the next. Wadi is covered with these things, which are all linked together by surface tunnels."

"I think I saw one of them as I left the ship." Since I had him talking, I asked, "Why'd you kill Captain Rigs?"

"You threw the ball," Gofer said.

That pretty much shut me up for awhile. I didn't feel like talking again until after we entered the glass and iron surface tunnel leading over to Harper's Dome. A grating attached to the sides of the ten-foot diameter pipe formed its four-foot wide walking surface. A sign over the entrance read: "Harper's Dome, 18 Miles, Caution: Tunnel NGZ."

The tunnel didn't curve right or left, but it did follow the natural contour of Wadi's rolling iron ground. For the most part, the semigloss black surface of Wadi remained as smooth and undisturbed as it had the day it solidified. Roughly every hundred feet we would pass one of the original construction sites, where the workers had used lasers to cut and weld sections of the tunnel. These areas were covered with burn marks, odd pieces of steel, and broken glass. At one of these sites I noticed a selection of abandoned tools, which I figured might be collectable antiques, if I could figure out how to recover them.

"What does ‘NGZ' stand for?" I asked, hoping the simple question wouldn't get me into trouble.

"Natural Gravity Zone," Gofer said.

"Which means...what?"

"It means that in about another hundred feet we're going to be completely out of Jackson's Dome," Gofer said, sprinting ahead.

I turned to see if someone, or something, was attacking us from behind. We were still alone, but I ran after him anyway. "Why are we running?" I asked.

Gofer didn't respond, but he did jump and began to glide.

As I tried to process this visual information, the grating beneath me dropped away--sort of. Feeling as if I was running down hill, beyond my ability to keep up, my feet got all screwed up. I went down--headfirst. I wasn't sure what happened, but I had plenty of time to think about it before I hit.

"And that's why you shouldn't run in these tunnels," Gofer said as he walked slowly back. "You hurt?" he asked.

I wasn't, but we had been walking for at least twenty hours and stretching out in the reduced gravity felt pretty good. "I had no intention of running," I said.

"I know," Gofer said, "but I couldn't help it. Dogs like to run."

I glared at him.

"Woof," he said, not even pretending to bark.

"Just admit it," I said, rolling onto my stomach. "You did it on purpose so I'd bust my ass."

"I can't admit that," he said. "I'm a dog; we're sneaky."

"Dogs aren't sneaky," I said, getting slowly to my feet. "Cats are sneaky, but you don't act like a cat either, or a real dog."

"Have you ever met a real dog?" Gofer asked.

"I've seen them in videos," I said. "They're helpful and loving."

"Videos?  So those could have been actors."

"I suppose," I said, yanking my tool bag from the floor. I pulled so hard in the reduced gravity that the bag nearly took my head off as it flew toward the ceiling. Struggling to get the bag under control, I asked, "What happened to the gravity?"

"Each of the domes on Wadi has a gravity-convergence plant," Gofer said. "GC plants generate artificial gravity and, as a side effect, create steam, which they use to make electricity. The gravitational field is proportional to the size of the generator, and we just walked out of range. In a couple of miles we'll reach the G field of Harper's Dome. Between domes you're on your own. Wadi's natural gravity is about one tenth of a G. Just move slowly until you figure out how to glide. And try not to bounce."

I crashed a few more times until I got the hang of gliding, which I liked a lot. Once up to speed, we covered the remaining distance to Harper's gravity field in just a few minutes. Feeling my full weight return, I moaned, "Why don't they just turn off gravity? It's easier to move around without it."

"Apparently the miners prefer to work in one G," Gofer said. "The reason they installed the GC plants in the first place was to improve productivity. Mining is still the only real industry on Wadi, but now it's all underground. They export the metal on the black market and import everything else. Electricity and thrust were just lucky side effects of the GC plants."

"What kind of thrust?" I asked.

"GC plants and CG drives, like they use in transluminal ships, work on the same basic principle. They both focus the weak gravitational pull of millions of distant bodies into a singularity. With a little modulation, it achieves resonance and releases its energy in a small localized gravitational field. Small being a relative term, of course."

"Of course," I said, but I still missed the connection. "And thrust?"

"GC drive engines," Gofer said, "are tuned for maximum thrust, tension actually. They basically pull the spaceship toward those distant gravitational fields, approaching the speed of gravity itself. That's why they can achieve speeds greater than light. You really should have finished school."

"I didn't want to limit my options," I said. "I went to prison instead."

"Wise decision, I'm sure," Gofer said. "Spacecraft take advantage of the gravitational field generated by the GC engine, but GC plants are tuned to optimize that gravitational field, so the natural thrust vector is not nearly as strong. It's basically ignored, wasted you might say. Except here on Wadi."

"And what makes Wadi so special?"

"The Universal Imperium doesn't believe Wadi exists...because they can't find it. And why can't they find it?" Gofer stopped walking as if waiting for my answer.

"It's a big dark universe," I said, thinking I nailed it.

"Wrong," Gofer said.

"I'm pretty sure it is a big dark universe," I said.

"Okay, it is," Gofer conceded, "but that's not why the UI can't find us. They can't find Wadi, because it's not where it's supposed to be."

I nodded, and we started walking again.

"You don't have a clue do you," Gofer said.

"Nope," I replied.

"Fifteen hundred years ago," Gofer explained, "after the mining company abandoned Wadi, someone...who will remain anonymous...pointed out that if all ninety-three GC plants networked their thrust vectors, we could modulate and control the planet's orientation and velocity. Not long after that...Wadi disappeared. It wasn't where it was supposed to be, so it was assumed to have been destroyed."

"Why?" I asked.

"The only other option," Gofer said, "was that it had become invisible. Which sounds more plausible to you?"

"I'm not stupid," I said.

"Then prove it," Gofer said.

I looked down at him and thought about giving him a good swift kick in the teeth, but then I decided I'd much rather keep my ass--unchewed. "Why would anyone want to move Wadi from one place to another?" I asked to clarify my question.

"The group that runs this place, the Free Society, doesn't want the UI to find Wadi."

"Why?"

"Maybe it's because the Free Society is composed largely of smugglers, escaped prisoners, and political refugees. And another reason...might be...that the twenty thousand miners still working this place don't want to pay UI taxes. Money made on the black market is tax free."

"Why am I here?" I asked, hoping to catch him off guard.

"Good try," he said, "but you'll have to ask Sibylla."

"Not Finch?"

"Feel free, but I suspect he knows less than you do."

As we left the tunnel and entered Harper's Dome, I asked, "How much farther?"

"About a hundred feet," Gofer said as he hung a hard left, almost tripping me. After recovering with a small hop and a short foot-slapping jog, I found myself facing a wall of dark polished wood, fifty feet wide and twenty high. Two large doors, each seven feet tall and four feet wide, were centered in the wall. Each door was inlaid with twelve panes of amber colored glass, six rows in two columns. A hand-width of dark wood formed the structure of the door around the glass. Thin runners of wood separated the glass panes from one other, while shiny brass hinges held the doors in place. Although massive door pulls were provided, each the size of my arm, no locks or knockers were apparent. The remaining wall, above and flanking the doorway, was made of the same highly polished wood. I couldn't see a single fastener or seam in the entire structure. Finding this odd, I looked more closely at the entire façade and realized there were no fasteners or seams anywhere, not even around the doors. The hairs on my neck stood up.

"Like it?" Gofer asked.

He caught me off guard, and I jumped, ducked, and sidestepped all at once.

"That was some move," Gofer said.

"Damn!" I said, turning to face him. "Don't do that."

He chuckled. "Do what?"

"That thing gives me the creeps," I said, nodding toward the entrance. "What is this place?"

"Big letters above door," Gofer said. "I'll even give you a clue. The first word is 'The.'"

I knew there was nothing over the door, but I looked up anyway--and nearly crapped in my pants. Thirty seconds earlier there had been nothing in the polished wood panel above the entrance, but now "The Emporium" was deeply engraved in ten-inch-high letters.

"That...just...appeared," I said.

"Gotcha," Gofer said with a laugh. "It's a hologram. One of my jobs around here is to make sure the sign is turned on every night: RF remote. I just wink my ass and the sign comes on."

"Really?"

"What an idiot," Gofer said as he turned. "We need to go in the back. Follow me, but don't look at my asshole," he said as he trotted off.

I followed, but of course I couldn't look at anything else. "What does a robot do with an asshole?" I asked.

"I usually take them in the back door," he said, "so my friends don't see me with them."

"Jerk," I said.

"Troll," he replied.

We walked a good two hundred feet back into the alley before we reached the rear of The Emporium. Dark and littered with debris, it was not a place I would have ventured alone. I followed Gofer along the scratched and dented corrugated metal wall, but I didn't see a door until Gofer stopped walking. Then one materialized--out of thin air.

"Did you just wink again?" I asked.

"Sort of," he said as we stepped inside.

As the blackness swallowed us, I whispered, "I can't see anything."

"Just wait for your eyes to adjust," he said.

I reached out with both hands and moved slowly toward the sound of his voice. I heard distant footsteps, but they seemed to be fading. "Who is that?" I asked.

"Hush," Gofer said.

So I did.

The weak light from the open door behind us cast a pale wash across the floor, so I focused on that to retain my balance. I took another step, bumping into Gofer. He growled but said nothing. "What are we doing?" I asked.

"Waiting," Gofer said softly. A few seconds later he added, "I think it's clear."

A motor whined as the door behind us closed and latched, plunging us into total darkness. I swayed, overcome with vertigo, but then a soft red light filled the tiny, empty room. Another door stood before us. I searched for a latch until a motor whined and the door popped open on its own, just a crack. Gofer nosed it open farther and stuck his head inside. I leaned in above him.

Cluttered shelves and tables filled the inner room. Most were stacked high well above my head, but with what I couldn't tell; the details were lost in the shadows, although I sensed the value. The far end of the room opened onto a corridor, also filled with overflowing shelves.

A treasure trove of antiques. My palms began to itch.

"Don't touch anything," Gofer said as if reading my mind. "Stay here."

"Hell no," I replied.

Gofer glanced up at me and said, "Wuss. Okay, but stick close and don't step on me."

"Why are we sneaking around?" I asked.

"We're not sneaking," Gofer said as he stepped inside.

"It sure feels like we're sneaking."

Well, we're not," he said. "Things will just go a lot smoother if we keep a low profile until we find Sibylla. There's another bot in here, like me, but she's not as personable as I am...especially with visitors." Reaching the corridor, Gofer looked both ways before turning left, as did I.

On my left, shelves ran the full length of the corridor, the highest tiers lost in the darkness above. A milky white fog obscured the far end, but I could see enough to know the building was much larger than it appeared from the outside. On my right stood the ends caps of freestanding shelves, which ran perpendicular to the corridor on twenty-foot intervals.

Gofer glanced down the first aisle as we passed but continued straight ahead. The mist at the far end of that aisle glowed warm and yellow as might a lobby or showroom, although I still had no concept of what they sold in The Emporium. Small amber lights hovered in the darkness, ten feet over head. Each offered little more than a six-foot oasis of visibility every twenty feet. The vast room was a hodgepodge of shadows and washed out colors, highlighted here and there by glints of light reflecting on glass and shiny metal mixed among the menagerie of objects.

Reaching the second aisle, I asked, "What do they do he--" I stopped as a blast of frosty air slammed into the side of my face, nearly knocking me off my feet. The scream of the high pressure air bored painfully into ears. I turned to see what hit me, even before I considered running, which was the luckiest thing I ever did. Had I run, I would have been torn to shreds.

Although slow to react, I finally realized we had been discovered by Gofer's counterpart. Gofer, however, had dramatically oversimplified their similarities. The creature in front of me stood on all fours--yes, "like" Gofer--but as I looked up, the beast batted aside one of those distant overhead light bulbs--with its ear. The animal turned its long slender face toward Gofer with what appeared to be a stare of reprimand. Then, looking back at me, the beast retracted its lips, exposing a mouth full of glistening spikes. The monster moved closer, sniffing, but then it sucked in a great volume of air as if savoring my scent. Backing into the shelves, I squeaked, "Gofer."

The beast's nostrils were larger than my fists. A frosty residue within hardened as it exhaled but then turned to slush as it inhaled. In between, a thick moist residue dripped from each crusty hole. I found myself staring, entranced by the pulsating horror less than a foot from my face. When the creature leaned nearer, I pulled back, striking my head on something behind me. Nearer still, the utter coldness of the beast drew the warmth from my body. I closed my eyes to wait for death and smelled the rancid odor of mildew growing deep within the thing's ugly head. The wolf--how I envisioned the creature in my mind--inhaled, drawing the hair from my scalp deep within its snout. I whimper and shivered at the sound I made. The wolf then exhaled, which struck my face like an explosion of ice. The horrid smell took my breath and forced open my eyes. Staring again into the mouth of the wolf, with its double rows of needle sharp teeth, I screamed but managed to make only the sound of a dry retch. My lungs were empty--as was my bladder. As its warmth spread down my thighs, I gasped.

"Candy! No!" a voice said.

The beast withdrew, slightly, but enough that my lungs began to fill, putting out the fire ragging within. I was grateful for the air, but it was so saturated with stench I could taste the beast.

"Styx," Gofer said, "this is Candy."

His voice seemed small, miles away. I continued to stare at the wolf's great mouth as my mind tried to organize Gofer's words into a meaningful sentence. "What?" I finally managed. I glanced at Gofer and then looked back at the wolf.

"Back off, Candy," Gofer whispered. "Sibylla's coming."

Candy snorted in protest, washing me with a cloud of vapor, but then she obeyed.

"What the hell is that?" I asked.

"That's just Candy," Gofer said.

"Just...Candy?" At the sound of her name coming from my lips the beast lunged forward, causing me to strike my head solidly on something behind me. My knees buckled. I thought the blow might put me out--although I might have simply been fainting. Either way, as I struggled to stay on my feet, Sibylla spoke to me for the very first time. Her voice floated like sweet smoke down the misty corridor, yet it demanded obedience.

"Sit," she said, which I did without question. As I dropped, I turned to face her, as I knew I should.

Sibylla emerged from the darkness into a cone of light at the far end of the misty corridor. Pure white and totally nude, she seemed to glide through the fog as might an angel, exuding confidence and order. She moved swiftly with her breasts swaying gently and her silky golden hair billowing behind her, filling the full width of the corridor. As she passed again into darkness, I glanced at the beast above me and then down at Gofer. Both were sitting, eagerly awaiting the woman's next command, as was I. When Sibylla emerged beneath the next light, she seemed more mature, and her hair flowed elegantly around her face and shoulders. And to my great disappointment, she now wore a full-length formal gown, which precisely matched the color of her hair. A golden chain with fine wire links, swayed tauntingly in the valley between her full breasts.

Smiling down on me, almost glowing, Sibylla said, "You must be Styx."

I stared up into the bluish-green emeralds of her eyes as she reached down to me with her delicate hand. Her fingers were long and slender with perfect nails, buffed but not polished. I hesitated to take her hand, but only because I didn't want my ugly paw to contaminate the vision.

"Please, let me help you," she said.

When I took her hand, which was soft beyond description, I seemed to float onto my feet.

"I must apologize for my children," she said.

Although faint, Candy and Gofer both whimpered.

In spite of my clammy pants, I said, "No harm done." No harm done? I should have been pissed, but for some reason I just wanted to say whatever would make her happy. So I said, "I'm sure it was just a series of misunderstandings and unforeseeable events."

"That's kind of you," Sibylla said. "But it was not an accident. Gofer wanted to see how far he could lead you inside The Emporium before Candy caught you. Candy's job is to guard the doors. You would have never made it all the way inside without my protection. Gofer knows."

"I wouldn't have let Candy hurt him," Gofer said.

I looked down at Gofer and asked, "Does she listen to you?"

"Most of the time," he said.

Most of the time? His answer made no sense. Robots have protocols and Candy was either programmed to obey Gofer in a slave-master relationship, or she wasn't.

"A few years ago," Sibylla said, "Finch managed to load a subroutine into Candy that sometimes conflicts with her normal programming."

"Who is this guy Finch?" I asked. "Rigs mentioned--" I stopped, remembering the explosion. "Why did Gofer kill Captain Rigs?"

Sibylla stared down at me but said nothing.

"I'm sorry," I said, afraid I had offended her. "I didn't mean to dig into your personal business, but would you mind telling me why I was brought to Wadi?"

"Does it bother you that Rigs is dead?" Sibylla asked.

I thought it was an odd question, although expertly phrased to learn who I was before admitting any association to the crime. I was pretty sure it was still a crime to blow up someone, even on Wadi. "My ears are still ringing from the blast," I said, "but I suspect they'll clear up soon enough."

Sibylla smiled and said, "I'm very pleased you were not seriously injured." She reached up, placing a hand on Candy's shoulder. The creature leaned toward her as Sibylla dug her nails into the animal's sparse fur. "What do you think of my children?"

I looked again at Candy, this time through eyes not clouded by fear. She was similar to Gofer in design but larger--ten times larger. Candy was powered by pneumatics, compressed air, while Gofer was fitted with hydraulic cylinders, pressurized liquid. Candy's bigger frame offered more space for the larger, yet relatively lighter, pneumatics components. "They're both amazing creations," I said. "I've never seen such advanced robots."

Sibylla smiled as I spoke, and I felt the need to continue. Something about her made me want to bare my sole to her--along with any other part of me she might want to see.

I nodded at Candy and said, "I think she has a burned-out solenoid valve in her condensation reclamation circuit, but I think I can fix it. And I'm sure Gofer needs a good kick in the ass...but all in all I'm impressed."

"I appreciate your candor," Sibylla said. "If you were to stay on Wadi, what on Abydos would you miss the most?"

I pretended to think about the question but already knew the answer. "Mary's Place," I said. "It's a hell of place to kick back after work."

Sibylla's eyes sparkled as she spoke. "Please, follow me. I must show you The Emporium."

Sibylla took my hand and led me up the aisle toward the warm glow of the front room. We passed through a lighted section where an incomprehensible variety of collectibles filled the selves on both sides of us. Countless boxes overflowed with coins of every imaginable metal. Statues, vases, and paintings were randomly intermixed with electronics and weaponry: knives to M20 lasers. We passed through a fifty-foot section of the aisle lined with body armor, antique on the right and state-of-the-art on the left. A peculiar smell made me suspect that a few of the pieces might still be occupied by the original owners, or at least the last user.

We stepped out of the passageway into a work area behind a counter. Looking both ways, I realized we were standing behind a bar, a liquor bar, at least two hundred feet long. The dark wooden counter top, ornately carved and highly polished, spanned the full width of the room, clearly segregating the work area on the near side from the public area on the far side. Drinking utensils lined the helves beneath the counter, mostly mugs in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Further down, inverted champagne glasses sparkled in their hangers above a selection of gleaming shot glasses. The end caps of the storage area--which I later learned were called the stacks--formed the back wall of the work area behind the counter. These end caps were fitted with colored lights and glass racks, which displayed the largest selection of liqueurs I had ever seen or imagined. Seeing the exquisite decor and sheer expanse of The Emporium made me realize that Mary's Place had been a dump. But I've called worst places home.

Sibylla lifted a hinged section of countertop, so we could walk out into the public area. Seven distinct cones of weak, yellow light filtered down through the mist from unseen fixtures high above. Each islands of light contained a dark circular table surrounded by seven high-backed chairs. The line of tables zigzagged across the room at forty-foot intervals. The nearest, centered in the vast room, sat no more than thirty feet away, but a gently swirling fog obscured the legs of even this one. A fine engraving covered the table's wooden surface. Although highly polished, the wear and tear from extensive use remained apparent. The backs of the chairs, each unique and rambling, looked as if they had grown from the seats of their own accord.

While the vast expanse between the tables would afford some level of privacy to the individual groups of patrons, the layout seemed odd. It's only a ruse...to give the impression of privacy. Electronic devices in the tables themselves would even struggle to record a conversation whispered directly in the ear. Either way, the room wasn't right. Just like in the stacks, the available space was much too great for the external structure of the building. The Emporium, like the robots, harnessed technology not yet known to the general public.

Releasing Sibylla's hand, I moved to the table in front of us and reached out to caress the smooth contours of the ornate chair. The wood felt quite warm--and squirmed--as my fingers made contact. "What the hell was that?" I said, yanking my hand away.

The Emporium groaned.

"This is Thaddeus J. Styx," Sibylla said, as if introducing me. "He is our friend."

I turned to Sibylla with a hundred questions, but the complacent smile on her face told me all I needed to know: "My children."

"Please, sit with me," Sibylla said, slipping into a chair. The light over headed changed from yellow to pink as she settled in. She motioned for me to take the chair beside her.

Warily, I probed it with my finger. Nothing moved. It's just playing dead. I sat, anyway.

"Ask what you will," Sibylla said, again taking my hand.

The pink lights accentuated her beauty. I wanted to be with her more than any woman I had ever met. "I don't want to offend you," I said. She kidnapped me; why am I apologizing to her? However, my gut instinct screamed that it was important to keep Sibylla happy. Maybe the three years I'd spent in prison conditioned me, but I knew Sibylla was calling the shots and even disappointing her could be fatal. She brought me here for a reason, and I will not let her down.

"Ask," she said.

"Why did you kill Captain Rigs?"

"I admire your frankness," she said, "so I will reply in kind. There were several reasons. For one, Rigs was conspiring with Finch to murder me and take control of The Emporium. There were other reasons, as well, but mainly...I didn't like Rigs; he was a pig. When a man chooses to put his hands on a lady and refuses to pay for the privilege, he will not live long on Wadi. The reason I didn't kill him sooner was because of his association with Finch. There were details to work out, and Rigs was the tool I needed to accomplish my goal."

"Rigs thought I knew this Finch guy," I said. "But I don't. Who is he?"

"Finch is officially the proprietor of The Emporium. I don't like to deal with finance and legalities. I made Finch the legal owner, so he could manage those aspects of the business. This allows me to focus exclusively...on customer relations. But Finch is getting old, and I'm afraid he's gone completely insane."

"Why not just fire him?" I asked. "Or have Candy run him off?"

"I need him," she said. "Finch is legally the owner. If he disappeared, ownership of The Emporium would revert to Harper's Dome. I'd lose everything. The Emporium is my home...and my family."

Sibylla seemed genuinely distraught, but I sensed there was more to the story than she was telling me. "What makes you think Finch is trying to kill you?"

"Look what he's done to me," she yelled. "He's draining my energy...my beauty. I'm supposed to be a twenty-five-year-old woman!"

I don't care how old you are, I almost said, but then I reconsidered the wisdom of making any comment about a woman's age. "Then come away with me," I said. "We'll leave. I'll take care of you." I wasn't sure how, but if she wanted to leave I was willing to die trying.

"I can't leave," she said, burying her face in her hands. "Finch and Rigs have violated Candy. She has been programmed to kill me if I attempt to leave The Emporium."

"But I just saw her obeyed you," I said.

"Candy loves me," Sibylla explained, "but she'd still tear me to shreds if I try to go near one of the outer doors."

"Have you asked anyone for help?"

"Since this began, Finch and Rigs have only allowed their close friends to come into The Emporium. They're all in on it. Finch has convinced them that I'm the crazy one."

"How do I know...you're not?" I asked. The look on her face suddenly told me I might have just stepped over the line. I hoped it wasn't that fine line between life and death.

But she smiled. "I like you more by the minute," she said. "You don't, but if I was delusional why would I be telling you this?"

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Before I can...terminate Finch, I must find someone to take over his position as proprietor of The Emporium; someone...like you. Would you be interested?"

Hell yes! But I knew there had to be a catch. "Why me?"

"Why not you?" she asked.

"Not good enough," I said. "There has to be a reason you brought me a couple of light years across the universe. Why me?"

"I'd like to say it's because of your qualifications," Sibylla said, "but you'd know I was lying."

"I might have bought it," I said. "I'm pretty gullible around beautiful women."

Her face lit up. "I noticed, but to be honest, I asked Rigs to bring me someone with robotic training to take care of my puppies. And, I need someone who will not be missed on Abydos...or want to go back."

I had been thrown in prison on trumped-up charges and never understood why, but I did get certified in robot repair. My prison's robotic school had a reputation of being one of the best mechatronic training centers on Abydos. "Rigs said Finch asked him to bring me here."

"Because Rigs believed he did," she said, "but the message came from me. Finch doesn't even know you're here. And we need to do this before he finds out."

"Do what?"

"I created Finch," Sibylla said. "I gave him his identity. Now, I want to give it to you."

As long as his ID didn't come attached to his head, or his heart, or any other body part, it didn't sound too bad. "You want me to become Finch?"

"I do," Sibylla said. "If you assume his identity, you take control of The Emporium, as well as her financial accounts."

"What makes you think I won't screw you, just like Finch?"

"Will you?" Sibylla asked.

I was scamming people on the streets of Abydos long before I went to prison. I was good at it, but I sensed Sibylla was better--much better. Besides, running a place as nice as The Emporium--even if it meant being this pretty lady's whipping boy--sounded pretty damn good to me. "I won't screw you," I said, and then I surprised myself by adding, "unless you want me to." Why the hell did I say that?

Sibylla smiled. "Thank you, Thaddeus. I will remember that generous offer."

"Call me Styx," I said.

"Alright...Styx. Let's complete this before Finch returns."

"Where'd he go?" I asked.

"It seems an old friend of his was tragically killed yesterday," Sibylla said. "Finch went over to Jackson's Dome to find out what happened."

I laughed and said, "I heard about that." I pulled on my ears. They were still ringing. "I heard it had something to do with a nasty little dog and a blue ball."

"You threw the ball," Gofer said from somewhere below the table.

Having lost track of him, I just about jumped out of my chair. "Stop saying that," I said. "It was your ball, and you know it."

"But you threw it," he repeated.

"Gofer," Sibylla warned.

"Oh, all right," Gofer said dejectedly. His motors whined as he trotted out from under the table and down the length of the bar. Crossing under at the walk-through, he disappeared into the gloom of the stacks.

"Gofer was fond of Rigs," Sibylla said. "They would play ball for hours."

"That's too bad," I said.

"He'll get over it," she said. "Are you ready?"

"Is this going to hurt?"

"I just need to capture some of your biometrics," she said, "and manipulate them into the system. We can do everything right behind the bar. You'll find that I'm an expert hacker."

I grinned. "Well...you sure got the body for it."

She seemed confused at first, but then she smiled. "Hacker, she said, "not hooker."

"What?" Slowly, it sunk in. "Sorry," I said, a little disappointed. Realizing she hadn't answered my question, I asked again, "Will it hurt?"

She stared at me for a moment as if at a loss for words, but then she smiled and said, "Not at all." She stood. "Let's go back to my work station." As we walked, she said, "Like you, when Finch came to me he didn't exist on Wadi, so I created an identification for him by loading his biometrics into the system. That makes me the administrator of his data and gives me the privileges needed to update or change them."

I followed Sibylla behind the bar to a kiosk on an end cap of the stacks. She opened a pair of large doors, exposing a monitor, keyboard, and various devices, which I assumed would capture my biometrics--whatever those were. Seeing the variety of complex looking equipment, I laughed and asked, "Do this often?"

"Every fifty years or so," she said.

I laughed again, but she didn't. "Why don't you...become Finch?" I asked. "I mean you could just enter your own data." The question appeared to strike a nerve.

"Do you want the job or not?" she asked. "If you have any doubts about it, please speak up. Right now, you can just walk right out of here, but I'll be honest, once I give you his ID it'll be a lot harder to leave. You will...be him."

Being him has got to be better than being me. The first clean bed I ever knew was in prison. I looked down the expanse of the elaborate bar, loaded with its grand selection of fine liqueurs, and then back at Sibylla. Drop-dead gorgeous. "Oh, I'm taking the job," I said, "but can I change my name back to Styx? Finch sounds a little too...wimpy."

"I can make that happen," Sibylla said, "but not today."

"No hurry," I said. I watched her work for a few minutes but just couldn't let it go. "So why don't you use your own biometrics?"

Sibylla put her hands on her hips as she turned to face me. "Do I look like a man to you?"

"Not even close," I said. "Got it. Thanks."

"Besides," Sibylla said, turning her back to the monitor, "I'm already in system. As the administrator I can update Finch's biometrics...palm, voice, and retinal scans...but only with new data that's not in the system. To use existing biometrics I'd have to delete all prior instances and all references of the owner from the entire network, which is impossible. But since you bypassed security when you entered Jackson's Dome, you don't exist in the Wadi network. All I need to do is update Finch's ID with your data. And then you will be him."

"Lucky I didn't get through the--" I stopped, realizing this woman had arranged that, as well. She had timed the explosion to prevent me from entering my data into the system. Just one more good excuse to waste Rigs.

She pulled me next to her and said, "Put your palms on this glass and look in here. Read the words out loud as they scroll by. You do read?"

"I like pictures better," I joked, "but I did learn how to read, so I could figure out what the words were on my diploma: Master of Science in Mechatronic Engineering."

She took my face in her hands and said, "I love it when you talk dirty." But then she slammed my face into the eye thingamajig and said, "Read."

I deserved it; my proclaimed fancy degree was actually just a vocational certificate in robotic repair. But I think she already knew that even before the machine made me reread several of the words.

"Congratulations, Mr. Finch," Sibylla said as the screen acknowledged the changes. "How does it feel to be the proprietor of The Emporium?"

"It makes me feel thirsty," I said, turning toward the bar. Spotting the beer tap, I moaned. Its jewel encrusted handle--at twice my height--looked as if it might be a challenge. But then I noticed the steps and the catwalk, which ran the full length of the bar. "Nice," I said, dropping my tool bag next to the steps. Climbing onto the catwalk, I ran my hands over the polished surface of the bar. The wood cringed at my touch, as the table had done, but quickly settled down. "We're going to get along just fine," I whispered.

"No celebration, yet," Sibylla said. "Follow me."

"But," I said, turning to protest. The look on her face told me to save my breath, so I grabbed my bag.

Back in the public area, we walked the length of the bar to an alcove hidden in the gloomed at the far end. I stopped short of the recess as Sibylla disappeared into the darkness. Slowly, a dull red light blossomed, revealing a massive metal door fitted with gears and three huge cross-latching draw bolts. The mechanism covered the back wall of the alcove from floor to ceiling, the first one I'd seen since entering The Emporium. Sibylla stared at the door, absently fingering the gold necklace around her neck.

"This will be the ultimate test of your new identity," she said. "Only Finch can open that vault."

"What's in it?" I asked.

For a moment she said nothing, but then she solemnly said, "The heart and soul of The Emporium and thousands of years of history."

She spoke so softly I thought she might be on the verge of passing out. "Are you alright?" I asked.

Realizing she had nearly zoned out, she turned to me with a look of surprise and then batted her long eyelashes. She grinned as she chirped, "And my best jewelry."

"Why would he lock up your jewelry?"

"He knew I wouldn't leave without it," she said. "It's been in my family for hundreds of years. Please...open the door."

Starring at the iron monster, I said, "That's a lot of door for a vertically challenged person."

"If you are Finch, it will open for you," she said. "Just grip the handle and tell it to open." She pointed to a long tapered glass rod mounted horizontally near my chest. The rod appeared to be an inch in diameter where it attached to the door, but it enlarged to twice that size at the free end. Engraved with fine scrollwork, the glass handle glowed with a golden internal light.

"What if it's not buying?" I asked.

Sibylla stared at me, as if I had suddenly grown a second head.

So I tried again by saying, "I mean, what if this thing is smart enough to realize that I'm not really Finch. Will it fry me or something?"

"Open the door," Sibylla said, no longer asking.

"Yes," I said, no longer afraid. The door would either open, or I would die trying to open it for her. Both serve Sibylla, which is all that matters. Gripping the handle, I said, "Open." A burning sensation in my palm flowed up my arm, but it faded before reaching my elbow. I blinked as a beam of light swept across my face, hovering briefly over each eye. Motors whined as the handle began to rotate.

Grabbing my shoulders, Sibylla pull me back and said, "You did good...very good."

Wrapping her arms across my chest, she squeezed me back hard against her. I could barely breathe. But feeling her breasts bulging around my neck and resting on my shoulders, I wished for nothing--except to turn to face her. When the door swung open, however, her grip increased, painfully shifting my focus from cleavage to air. I struggled, but Sibylla's hair snaked around my neck. Fear cinched my gut--until her animated locks began caressing my face and probing my ears. Under other circumstances I would have enjoyed the sensation, but I had to assume that only my lack of oxygen had brought her curls to life. Dying in her arms would have been a victory; however, as I stared into the vault, I noticed many good reasons to live. Look at all that shit! This has got to be Finch's personal stash.

A huge ornately carved bookcase, with an integral desk, covered the wall to my left. The upper shelves were filled with large books and fat ledgers, gilded with gold and silver leaf. That desk alone will take me years to explore. At the far end of the vault, where Sibylla had focused her attention, stood a jewel-studded vanity with three large mirrors and a delicately engraved and upholstered stool. Matching wardrobes, each large enough to hold me--and all my friends--stood on both sides of the vanity.

Releasing me, Sibylla walked directly to the right-hand wardrobe. I followed her inside. Ancient weapons hung from the wall on my right, although not the practical battle ready weapons like I had seen in the stacks. Fabricated from precious metals and studded with jewels, these swords, lances, and daggers, were the toys of kings, certainly long dead.

"Nobody's made this kind of stuff in ten thousand years," I said, reaching for a sword with a blade as long as I was tall.

"I wouldn't touch that," Sibylla said. "Things are rarely what they appear to be in The Emporium."

She didn't have to warn me twice.

"Come," she said. "I need your help."

Turning, I stared into the now open wardrobe, where dozens of heavy necklaces hung from the crossbar on small silver hangers, curled at the ends to cradle the chain.  All of the chains appeared to be identical, each formed of links made from gold wire as thick as my little finger. Sibylla removed one of the chains from its hanger and sat at the vanity facing the three mirrors.

"I'm ashamed to even look at myself," she said, averting her eyes.

"But you're beautiful," I said.

"Yes, I am," she replied, "but you have yet to see me." She lifted the ends of the heavy chain to her throat, allowing the golden links to drape across her breasts. "It feels wonderful," she signed. "I'm stronger already." Rocking slowly, she began to moan.

I knew women appreciated jewelry, especially middle-aged women, but the amount of pleasure she appeared to be getting from that necklace seemed a little over-the-top. As I watched her face in the mirror, her eyes sparkled like diamonds. Then they began to twinkle and flicker. As I leaned in for a better look, her eyes flared with high voltage.

What the--? I stepped back but held my tongue, hoping to keep it a little longer.

"Please," she said, waggling the ends of the necklace behind her neck.

I took them but had to study both ends of the clasp before deciding how they should mate. Sibylla moaned loudly as I engaged the ends and twisted, snapping the clasp.

"Remove the old one," she gasped as if in pain.

"I'm sorry if I hurt you," I said. She shook her head in reply, so I reached for the fine thread of gold she had been wearing all along. "This necklace is almost worn through," I said, grasping the clasp. "I hope I don't break--" was as far as I got.

Blinded by a flash of hot, blue light, I staggered back, with the buzzing bees of electricity swarming my arms. Coming to on the floor, I stared up at the ceiling, feeling as if my hands were on fire. I held them up and discovered I was still gripping the necklace. Its clasp remained fastened, but the chain had parted. Noticing white smoke curling off my fingernails, I dropped both halves of the chain, which fell onto my chest. My shirt started to smolder before I finally managed to I roll over and get rid of the damn thing.

"What the hell was that?" I asked, getting to my feet. After shouldering my tool bag, I turned to Sibylla. "Are you okay?" She still sat at the vanity, but she didn't reply or move. And I was fairly certain she was not okay. Her hair had woven itself into some kind of golden shroud, or cocoon, which now tightly encased her entire body. "Sibylla?"  I reached out, but I couldn't summon the nerve to touch her; my hands still hurt from the last time. Spinning toward the open door, I screamed, "Gofer." When he didn't instantly materialize, I ran out to find him.

Gofer and Candy sat near the bar looking as if they had just been scolded. A small man, an older version of me, stood facing them. "He's like you," Captain Rigs had said, so I knew the man had to be Finch.

"Thaddeus, what have you done?" he asked.

"Call me Styx," I said, "and I didn't do anything; Sibylla did it. Who are you?" I asked, hoping to bully him first, so he wouldn't bully me.

"I'm the one she calls Finch," he said. "Is she in there?"

"Sort of," I said. "She changed."

"Did you put a new necklace on her?"

"Well, I might have helped...a little."

"Damn," Finch said, stepping back behind the bar. Glasses rattle beneath the counter.

"Make mine a double," I said, climbing onto a stool.

Stepping up onto the catwalk, Finch placed a silver dagger on the counter.

He certainly does look like me. Suspecting my drink wasn't coming, I asked again, "Who are you?"

"Are you really that dense? I'm your father."

"I don't have a father."

"Get over it," Finch said. "You're obviously my son. I sent your mother to Abydos as soon as I found out she was pregnant."

"And you're obviously insane," I said.

"Possibly," Finch said, "but I sent your mother away so Sibylla couldn't kill her and take you as her own...as she did me and my father... and his before him. Sibylla is evil."

"You abandoned me and my mother to a life in the gutters. My mother died coughing up blood in a filthy back alley. And you have the nerve to call Sibylla evil?" I jumped from the stool and started back toward the vault. Finch caught up and turned me.

"You don't understand," he said, waving the dagger in my face.

The polished edge of the blade quickly grabbed my attention, but my mouth didn't seem to care. "You're right...asshole, I don't have understand."

"Sibylla is evil," Finch said, "but I do love her."

"You sure have a funny way of showing it," I said, "but then I suppose you loved my mother, too."

"No," Finch said, "I never did."

That rattled me. "Okay," I said, "I'm glad we got that cleared up." I pulled away and started again toward the vault.

"Your mother was a prostitute," Finch yelled after me.

I couldn't believe my ears. Turning turned back to him, I said, "Every time you open your mouth shit falls out. What the hell are you trying to tell me?"

"I sent your mother to Abydos to protect you," Finch said. "I never intended to have a child, but Sibylla drugged me and brought in that woman. I would never have known about you or your mother, if she hadn't been so greedy. She was taking Sibylla's money but wanted more, so she came to me. I sent her away to save both of your lives."

"She's been dead since I was ten. How do you possibly think you saved her life?"

"That's ten years longer than she would have lived on Wadi," Finch said. "As soon as you were off your mother's tit, Sibylla would have killed her and taken you as her own child."

"Ten years of sickness and hunger," I said.

"Ten years of life...and freedom," he said. "My father worked for Sibylla before me, as did his father before him. The males in our family have always worked for Sibylla, and the females have always died young or disappeared."

"How old is Sibylla?" I asked.

"Nobody knows," Finch said. "She's a mechatronic device of some type...a robot. There are no records of where she came from or who made her. She's thousands of years beyond our best technology, even now."

"That explains a few things," I said, rubbing my palms on my shirt. They were still buzzing. "What's the deal with those gold necklaces? That little one shocked the crap out of me."

"She makes electrical power by breaking down the metal. I think she uses some type of fusion process. Each one lasts her about twenty years. My father, your grandfather, figured out what she was doing and modified the vault, so she couldn't get inside for another chain. He added a DNA scanner and locked it with his own genetic code...our genetic code. I wouldn't open it for Sibylla, which is why she made sure you were born. It's the only reason she brought you here." Finch shook his head and turned toward the vault. "We almost had her this time."

"But she could buy gold on her own," I said.

"No, she can't," Finch said. "She's a robot, which means she can't buy or sell anything. She can't own property. Ownership of The Emporium has been passed down from father to son for countless generations. Sibylla controls The Emporium by controlling us. My father wanted it to end with him."

"Sibylla is a beautiful woman," I said. "Men will give her gold if she wants it."

"That's why my father brought The Emporium to Wadi, fifty years ago. Wadi is a mining outpost and has been thoroughly studied. There are no deposits of gold on Wadi. Almost every piece of gold on Wadi is locked up in that vault. My father bought most of it, and I bought the rest. What's not in that vault is in the hands of people who wouldn't even sell it to their own mothers, much less give it to Sibylla."

"If your father had everything locked up inside that vault fifty years ago, why isn't Sibylla dead?"

"Because I love her," Finch said. "I couldn't bear to watch her die. My father sent me to school on Abydos when I was eight. I was there for ten years and never came back...until I heard he was dying. Sibylla was killing him. She was running out of power, and he wouldn't let her into the vault. My father knew she was killing him, but he accepted that as the price he had to pay for his freedom...and for my mine. He was ready to die; it was Sibylla that sent me the message. She needed my DNA to get inside, and once I was here...well, then it was too late. She can manipulate young men quite easily. I think it's what she was originally designed to do. Nothing else makes sense."

"But why?" I asked.

"I don't know," Finch said, shaking his head. "Maybe she was built as a covert weapon. She could take out a lot of men in one night if she wanted to."

"So now she's a weapon of mass destruction," I said. "You've got to be kidding me."

"I know you can feel the power she has over you," Finch yelled. "You know what I'm talking about."

I did, but I said nothing. I love the way she makes me feel.

"I was your age when I came back," Finch said. "She was too strong for me then, and I let her into the vault...just like you did. But as we get older it's harder for her to control us. And when she is low on power it's even harder, which is why I must do this now." He glanced down at the dagger in his hand and then stepped around me toward the vault.

I grabbed his shoulder and turned him. The blade in his hand brushed the strap of my tool bag, which parted, spilling the contents onto the floor. I stared down at the blade. "What is that thing?"

"An ultrasonic blade," he said. "I don't know what material she's made of, but this will cut through anything."

"You can't just kill her!"

"I promised my father I would see her dead," Finch said. "I hoped she would just run out of power and die peacefully of old age. I do still love her. She aged a lot over the last year, maybe twenty or thirty years, so I know she was running down. But you let her in, so I have to kill her before she regenerates. When she's like that, in that cocoon, she's upgrading and maintaining her circuits. She won't feel anything."

He turned toward the vault, but once again I pulled him back. "If you don't like it here, old man, just leave."

"Our family has lived in The Emporium for generations," Finch said. "This is our home."

I shook my head and said, "My family died in a gutter on Abydos."

"I gave your mother everything she needed to survive and build a good life for you, but she squandered it all away. She was just an ignorant slut."

"You don't know anything about my mother."

"But I'm afraid I do," Finch said. "The good captain and I were friends. Whenever he went to Abydos he would find her. I always sent him with money."

I thought that son of a bitch looked familiar. "Then you knew we were living on the street like animals."

"Yes," Finch said, "but you were free, and you had a chance to make something of yourself."

"After she died...what chance did I have then?"

"A better chance," Finch said. "If she hadn't died, she would have continued to drag you down."

"Did Rigs kill her?"

"No," Finch said. "At least, I don't believe he did. All I told him to do was to make sure you found your way into a good prison. The penal system on Abydos is hard, but those that try come out with valuable skills. We have many talented technicians on Wadi that were trained in the prisons of Abydos."

"Wadi? A planet of smugglers, criminals, and political refugees. That's the grand future you see for me?"

"You can build a good life for yoursel--"

"And he will," Sibylla said from the doorway of the vault.

I instinctively turned to her soothing voice--a little afraid of what I might find. After listening to Finch, I had a vision in my head of Sibylla that frightened me. When my eyes found her, however, I knew the monster Finch had described was a figment of his imagination. The beautiful young woman standing before me could never harm anyone. The gold necklace danced between her bare breasts with a blinding brilliance as she glided across the room. Sibylla, now no older than me, had indeed changed. Her mere presence was overwhelming.

"Styx...my children...come to me," she said.

I moved toward her without question and took her hand as she reached out to me.

"Sibylla," Finch yelled. "You have what you need. Let the boy go in peace."

She looked at me. "Do you want to leave?"

"No," I said. "You promised I could stay."

"And you may," Sibylla said. "After all, you are the new proprietor of The Emporium. My children and I...are here to serve you."

"We can play ball if you want to," Gofer said.

I looked down into Gofer's gnarly face and laughed. "Hell no," I said. "But...maybe later, after I learn how things work around here."

"Then what should we do?" Gofer asked.

I looked at Sibylla. "What would you like to do?"

She slipped her arm around my waist, pulling me close.

Oh hell yes!

"We've been stuck on this dump for fifty years," she said. "Why don't we go on the road for a while and see a little of the universe? We can stow The Emporium for transport and have a MULE here by midnight."

"What's a mule?" I asked.

"A Multi-Utility Landing and Extraction vessel," Sibylla said. "I know a couple of nice pilots that fly an independent operation. They drop in every now and then to...see me. They owe me a few favors." Sibylla then whispered in my ear, "Why don't we try Calypso Twelve for a few months? It's a water planet with two small suns." She nibbled my lobe and added, "I'd love to work on my tan."

Feeling her lips against my skin, I forgot the question. But after enough blood finally trickled back upstairs, I said, "Hell yeah. How do we call in the MULE?"

"Thaddeus," Finch yelled, "don't be ignorant. The Emporium must stay on Wadi. I've already explained that to you."

"Ignorant?" I repeated dryly. "Sorry, but I guess I take after my mother. And don't call me Thaddeus." I turned back to Sibylla and noticed that Candy had taken a seat in front of the vault door. "As far as I'm concerned," I said, "the vault door will remain open."

"Thank you," Sibylla said, squeezing me gently.

I nodded toward Finch and asked her, "Are we done with that asshole, yet?"

Sibylla smiled and said, "Entirely."

As if on cue, Candy let out a deafening snort of compressed air and leaped over our heads. If Sibylla had not been holding me, I feel certain I would have collapsed. Landing on all fours a few feet in front of Finch, Candy unhinged her jaw. Moving in a blur, she engulfed Finch's body from head to toe before he could even look up. With the tips of his shinny black shoes protruding from her mouth, Candy leaped over the bar, disappearing into the dark mist between the stacks. The whine of Candy's large pneumatic pump soon drowned out Finch's muffled screams. Whatever she was doing to him certainly required a great deal of compressed air.

"Damn," Gofer said. "I hope Candy waits until she gets him outside. She never thinks about how somebody--me--has to clean up after her." Gofer stood and trotted off after Candy. Reaching the pass-through in the bar, he stopped and turned back. "By the way," he said, "welcome to the family, Captain Styx." Gofer let out a little bark and then sprinted off into the darkness.

"Captain?" I asked, turning to Sibylla.

"We might not have engines, but this is still a class-one spacecraft," Sibylla said. "Do you want to see the laser cannon?"

"Hell yeah," I said. "If I'm the captain, can I get one of those hats with the gold braid thingamabob?"

"Anything you want," Sibylla said, and she wasn't kidding.

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