By Victor Milan
Submitted by Leem
Originally published in Asimov's SF Adventure Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 2, Spring 1979
Scanned using TextBridge Classic, proofread using Word 97.
Note: the title of this story, in case you hadn't
guessed, is a horribly contrived pun on Edgar Allen Poe's The Cask of
and the plot is virtually identical except that in this story the villain doesn't get bricked up in the cellar.
There's no sex here either, but there is a pretty good male freeze scene for your (hopeful) pleasure.
Incidentally, if you think the title of this story is a lousy pun, just wait till you read the ending. Arrgh!
There was more between us than the usual rivalry of Tracer and Jumper. There was hate, and hurt, and the need to set things right.
"You can get it?" he asked, leaning forward. His face was a blur but I could envision the keenness in it. "You can get to the helmet?"
I sat back trying to look cooler than I felt. "The Adarak casque," I nodded. "But it won't be easy."
He started to speak, but cut it off at the slight pop that meant someone was entering the sound-dampening field 'around our booth. He looked up suspiciously, but it was only the waitress bringing our drinks, Scotch straight up for Trago, nepenthine for me. If he noticed my choice of drink he didn't show it.
The waitress went away. She may have been pretty. The bar was dark as only cheap bars and fancy restaurants can be, but even if it had been decently lighted I woujdn't have seen her clearly. My new eyes didn't work all that well.
The damper field gave off its reassuring subliminal buzz again. Don' worry, mon, Trago said with mock-Jamaican assurance. He was born in Greater Harlem. That island accent came from hours with a tape recorder. "I do for you all that needs to be done."
I sipped my drink, needing its numbing touch. My left arm was acting up. It felt as though it belonged to someone else - which it did, being a transplant.
"The Yado Memorial Museum is equipped with an absolutely impenetrable security system," I said. "Impenetrable to any normal mode of entry. But' not to entry through Jumpspace."
It seemed his eyes narrowed. "Not possible, mon," he said. "You should know that. Surface Jumping no can be done. The lines are con fused too bad."
"It's been done. A man on one of the fringe worlds made three Jumps planetside before he went In and didn't come out." I settled my elbows on the tabletop. "Or don't you think you can do it? You're the best Tracer alive, the best since Yado himself. But..." I let my voice trail off.
He drew back as though considering it, but the tension in his posture betrayed him. The stab at his vanity had been unnecessary. Once he thought he could actually get the casque he was hooked.
They all seem to have it, that packrat acquisitiveness. Scientists think it has something to do with the mescaline derivatives Tracers keep themselves primed with, to heighten their sensitivity to the twisted back alleys between the stars. They can't resist bright things, pretty things, valuable things, and nothing was more valuable than the Adarak casque, sole relic on Earth of a long-dead race.
There'd been a pretty thing too, once, that Trago had been unable to resist. A woman I'd loved. That was why I was here.
"When do we do it, then?" he demanded.
He cocked his head. "But why, mon?" he asked, "Why you doing this for me? Thought maybe you have a grudge against me."
I fought the urge to laugh. A love lost, two of my friends dead, three years of my life spent in a rehab satellite being pieced back into a shoddy counterfeit of myself, and I owed it all to him. Why should I have a grudge?
The thing was, I knew damned well he didn't really think I bore him any ill will. He'd done nothing wrong - from his standpoint. I'd stood between him and something he desired. He had removed an obstacle: Nothing more. No hard feelings.
Control, I told myself, and forced my mouth around a smile. "Bygones and all that. This is a business proposition. Profit for me, profit for you. And you're the only man for the job."
He smiled at that. "Yeah, right, mon," he said, preening. "Tracergod is good to me, no?"
Greed and pride. Trago was the favored of the Tracers' private deity. So he thought. Greed and pride.
I felt dizzy, clutched my glass as if for support. There they were, my memories: a girl, lithe and bright and lovely. Linda. I loved her. Trago coveted her.
There'd been a newly opened world out to ward Achernar, and Trago had come to me with a Jump-pattern he claimed would get me there a week before my competition. I believed him - why not? He was the best.
So I went. Linda stayed on Earth, where Trago was.
Our eighth bounce dropped us close to the Schwarzschild radius of a black hole. We couldn't Jump out - if we'd tried that near a singularity we would have dropped out of space for good. It took twenty-seven hours' torching at a higher gee than the human frame is meant to withstand to free us.
My two partners didn't make it. I did, after a fashion. When the rescue craft answered our Mayday they found me unconscious, my muscles torn free of the bones, internal organs a hemorrhaging mess, ruptured eyeballs running down my face. But I was alive.
I'll say this for Trago. I don't think he meant us to be squeezed slowly to death. I think he never expected us to come out of Jumpspace.
They rebuilt me. My left arm was replaced, the muscles of my right knit back together with microscopic wire - a transplant limb never works as well as the original, and I needed full use of my right hand. New eyes were grown for me in a tank. The optic nerve join didn't take, leaving me with blurred and uncorrectable vision. But I was alive.
What more to say? I'd been reported lost. I was out of Trago's way. My lady was gone, with him, when I got back. I searched a long time, but I never saw her again. He'd discarded her like a toy he'd grown tired of. She'd been a prize, and his pleasure was its winning.
What did the ancient author say? For vengeance to be complete, there must be no way for retribution to overtake the avenger. I'd had many bleak months to think about repaying Trago. And I had new knowledge of Adarak technology that hadn't yet reached Earth.
So now I had him before me, disarming him with my easy smile. He had no thought of danger. "Tracergod is good to you," I agreed aloud.
"So let's do it, mon," he said.
"So let's do it."
The darkness in Trago's room was marred only by a candle and the glow from his seeker-unit. I sat on a hassock that bled stuffing onto the floor. My legs ached from the short walk to and from the cab.
Trago played with his console. The walls were lined with niches for the icons of the Tracers' strange religion. Incense fumes tickled my nose, made my head swim. He made a last adjustment, then sat back on his heels like one of his idols. His black eyes rolled up into his head.
How much of the Tracers' mysticism is anything more than mumbo-jumbo they no more than half-believe themselves I can't say. They claim they need the help of their god to locate Jumplines. Theirs is not a proselytizing religion - they say no one can comprehend it who hasn't been in Tracer-trance, and only those born with the right genes can enter it.
I know the principles of Tracing, though, being a Jumper. Our universe is a spiderweb construct bound together by an intricate network of - what? Probability lines? Ectoplasm? No one can say, but they're there, just beyond seeing - beyond, to anyone but a Tracer.
Not every point is linked to every other, and some paths lead nowhere but the tawny limbo between dimensions. The Tracers sense and hunt down these corridors with the aid of consoles, drugs, and their god, ferreting out routes from star to star. They Trace, then the jumpers follow' the pathways they map. That's how we hoped to get into the LaMont T. Yado Memorial Museum.
Time didn't pass. It simply was not. Trago's fingers crept spider-like across a keyboard, apparently aimless.
Sweat formed in glassy drops on Trago's forehead. I watched one crawl down his nose and drip into his lap. I watched a number of them before he opened his eyes.
"Tricky, mon," he said. "Why no one try this before. The mass of the planet, she twist' the lines bad. But we can do it, eh, mon? You as good a Jumper as I'm a Tracer - almost." He laughed hugely.
He stood up and made passes at a wall printout between niches. The idols gazed out inscrutably, vague in the candlelight. He came back shortly with long sheets covered with figures.
I studied the figures closely. Just as mass can bend light, it can affect Jumplines. A misjudgement by either of us could return us to realspace underground or inside the wall of the Museum.
Whatever else you could say about Trago, he' had skill. His Trace was tricky but short, involving only one Jump. That was lucky. The fact that we were a handful of kilometers away from the Museum meant nothing; we might have had to make a half-dozen Jumps around the globe to get inside.
Through the dimness in the room and my eyes I saw him looking at me. "Traced an escape route to coordinates you gave me," he said, and grinned. "Spacer cemetery, no?"
I nodded. I feared he might balk, but he didn't. It appealed to his sense of humor.
I didn't need much time to make the settings on my one-man Jump harnesses and slave Trago's to mine. He put his on and then helped me into my unit. With my arms the way they were it wasn't easy to do by myself.
I fit the Jumper's helmet over my head. A small yellow dot pulsed in the middle of the opaque goggles. It would be my beacon in Jumpspace.
I wrapped my hands around the control handles and took a deep breath. Would we make it? And did it matter? They tell me death is the end of pain.
We Jumped. There was a sense of discontinuity, an interphase, and then we were hanging in Jumpspace. Around us was nothing - less than nothing.
The spot on the goggles glowed white. By slight pressures on the handle I kept it lined up. I felt a resistance like wind blowing against the side of a moving car. As near as we were to the planet there was a big chance of us drifting fatally off course.
But Jumpspace is my home. I was at ease. My limbs no longer pained me and my sight was clear. I held us true till the dot flashed red.
Transition. Lacking substance, life, existence. A single monochromatic thought: whatifsomething'swrong? Then through, free and clear.
A moment' of dizziness. The hall loomed around us in a haze of darkness. It smelled of dust and oiled metal, a closed system and endlessly recycled air. The house that Yado built, home for the oddities that the first Tracer brought back from his explorations, artifacts, minerals, living beings. Priceless all, but none more so than the Adarak helmet.
Trago saw it first. I heard him gasp. I turned and almost fainted.
Since we'd Jumped in no security mechanism was aware of our presence. But my first thought was we'd alerted some terrible watchman, two meters tall and articulated like a giant insect, its head a flaring dome, fanged and horned and spiked.
Trago's relieved laugh broke the spell. An artist's reconstruction of an Adarak warrior - drone wore the casque. The Adarak had come close to conquering our arm of the galaxy with their ferocity and technology. Even in lifeless plastic their image was frightening to look upon.
"God of all the Tracers," Trago murmured.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" I whispdred, though the thing repelled me. One of two such casques ever found. It was a time dilation device of some sort, dimly understood, that slowed time or speeded the wearer, depending on your point of view. The result was a warrior with reflexes faster than the finest ballistic computer.
I'd been present when they took the other one. apart, a few hundred light-years away. They hadn't figured out how to duplicate it, but they'd gotten some idea of how it worked.
And so had I.
Trago wasted no time. He plucked the casque off the plastic skull and started to put it on his head like Charlemagne crowning himself Holy Roman Emperor. I was fast enough to twitch it out of his hands as hell broke loose around us.
"Not safe!" I howled over the alarm din. "Booby traps!" He nodded. At the hall's end doors opened and guards shouted. I touched the controls of my Jump harness. The hall washed out like an overexposed photograph. A dazzle of light from a guard's handgun went through me, but we were already out of his world. All I felt was a tingle. Jumpspace closed in...
...and we floated, starless....
Grass was beneath us, wet with dew, and the stars were hard overhead. I staggered and almost fell - we'd come out with our feet a centimeter above the ground. Trago made no move to help me.
Around us gravestones stood like blunt white teeth. Here and there a monumental statue regarded the dead with sightless dignity. The night was still.
"You fix it, mon," Trago ordered. "I want to try it."
I'll bet you do, I thought. He had no idea I saw the look of exultation cross his face as I bent over the casque. The alien metal was cool in my hands.
For some reason my fingers had little of their usual clumsiness. The necessary adjustments were quickly made. I straightened. "There."
From the corner of my eye I saw a black arm descending. I sidestepped frantically so the cosh struck sparks off my skull without putting me out. The ground smacked me wetly in the face, smelling like early spring.
Then the helmet was on Trago's head, thrumming with pseudolife as it attuned itself to its new master. The Adarak had used auxiliaries of other races, some reliable enouh to be entrusted with such weapons. The casque was an adaptable, artificial symbiote.
"I feel it!" Trago crowed. "The power - Tracergod, the, power! I'm growing, mon - I'm too big for this world!"
I rolled feebly to my side. My stomach was awash with nausea. "What about my share?" I croaked.
"Your share?" He laughed. His teeth were very white. "I'll give you your share, mon." He stepped toward me, shedding his harness as I started to my feet.
"Can't leave you hangin' 'round," Trago said, grinning beneath the sweep of the helmet. The power of the casque was upon him. He came at my swinging.
It was as though he moved through thick oil. Groggy cripple though I was, I evaded the blow easily as momentum carried him by. He turned to face me, features showing the desperate knowledge that something was wrong with him.
"What - is - this?" he asked, thickly, as though his tongue were swollen.
"They tore a casque apart on Bryan's World," I panted. "I was called in to consult as an expert in Jump mechanics." He made another grab at me. I moved back.
"They thought the t-d effect had some relation to the physics of the Jump grid. Couldn't find a link. But they did find ways to gimmick the t-d mechanism some."
His eyes were uncomprehending as flakes of volcanic glass. Muscles bunched and ground beneath his skin as he fought the terrible lethargy overcoming him. "Don'... un-der-stand," he slurred.
"I reversed the time dilation process. You're slowing down, Trago, and there's nothing you can do to stop it. In a few seconds you'll be motionless as a metal statue. But awake, aware of every endless instant." I gave him a feral grin. He tried futilely to snatch the helmet off, then swiped at me, slow as ages, as forgiving. I dodged without effort.
"You'll seem to be a statue - one among many. One more monument to the dead. My dead." Faces - I saw the faces then. The dead, the lost. Among them mine.
"I hope they melt you down for scrap, Trago," I said. '"Think pleasant thoughts, iron man, Tracer, whoreson bastard."
I turned and started walking. My step was lighter than it had been in years. Behind me I heard laborious groaning, like an unplugged tape recorder winding down. But his final words were clear: "For the love of Tracergod, mon!"
"Yes," I said. "For the love of God." And walked on.