From this far out, the planet looked more like the head of Medusa than a vacation resort. I started to wonder if those topless beaches and steak dinners I'd seen in the mission briefing were real. But hey, this free vacation was just a bonus on top of the double-times-standard payment. All I had to do was break through this last layer of planetary security with my forged booking confirmation.
I picked up the intercom and dialed the tourist code from the ad. "Name: Rison Murrow. Booking confirmation: L0Q422a. Hotel Elysium." The boredom in my own voice disturbed me less than it should have.
The same smooth female voice from the job ad responded. "Welcome, Murrow, Rison, to your steak dinner salvation."
Steak dinner salvation? A translation error? She sounded as if someone had strung all the syllables together from random samples of conversation. I thought briefly of Sarai, of how she'd sounded like this in her final days of religious insanity. For a moment, her memory drove me into the past.
"Please relinquish control of your vessel," said the female voice.
"I'm not much for relinquishing. If you don't mind, I'll--"
"Please. Do not. Panic."
I felt a touch of euphoria. Then I blacked out.
I woke up in a luxury bed. The pillow felt softer than any pillow should. I could have sworn it was pulsing, breathing down my neck. As if that weren't creepy enough, there was a theological carving on the ceiling that I'd seen in way too many propaganda holo-vids. A faceless, robed humanoid with beams emanating from its arms. They could have been beams of sunlight or puppet strings.
I sat up. The room smelled over-sanitized, like too much nano-cleansing.
"Rison Murrow?" Called an androgynous voice that matched the ambiance perfectly. At the end of the room, near a door with a red X that looked like a demented hospital cross, sat the voice's owner. "Welcome to Planet Error."
"Error, huh," I said. My voice felt like I hadn't used it in eons.
The sexless humanoid shook its head. "Do you know who my people are?"
I studied it. Grey skin, hair the color of a black hole, eyes ready to cry with religious fervor at a moment's notice. Thick brow and primitive, muscular frame, but manicured and waxed to the point of abject creepiness.
"You're one of the Vilicus," I said.
The creature bowed. "Please ignore those terrible rumors about us. I'm a healer, and part of what I heal involves interspecies misunderstanding. Do you know why you're here?"
"Well, because I'm one of those misunderstanding Terrans, it kind of looks like you lured me here under false pretenses and kidnapped me."
"Please," said the healer, who honestly looked pained at the thought. I'd heard that these creatures were trained method actors. "You will grow to feel at home here. Our camp is full of Terrans and Saurians like you."
"Like me, huh?"
"We're familiar with your employment history, Mr. Murrow. You dropped out of your military academy to pursue a career of thievery."
"Professional thievery. Planetary security companies pay me to test-hack their systems," I said. I should have known the systems here were a little too yielding.
"Of course they were. You're also addicted to hedonistic vacations and . . . steak dinners."
I tested the restraints on my arms. They passed. "You directed that phony job pitch at me, specifically? I'm flattered."
The healer shrugged. "Your spiritual disease is rather prevalent in the universe. Fortunately, the love of the Zyxlar is equally prevalent."
"The Zyxlar, eh?" Telling someone to go find the Zyxlar was like telling them to jump off a bridge. The Vilicus awaited the Zyxlar's return like some crazies still awaited the rapture.
The creature came forward, picked up a mug from the bedside tray and offered it to me. It looked like water but smelled sweet. "This will help you understand us the way your fiancee did."
I smiled. If this creature knew about Sarai, there was another conversation coming down the pipeline. The necklace she'd given me that held a small bottle of her perfume remained around my neck. Evidently, the Vilicus hadn't seen it as a threat.
"If the Zyxlar loved you so much," I said, "Couldn't they have made you prettier? Let's be honest, the wax jobs and manicures aren't enough."
The glass in the healer's hand shattered. At almost the same time, the creature smiled. "Forgive me. Vilicus strive for the infinite patience of our masters, but we still have much to learn. You will be released momentarily. You will report to the main square for orientation. Or, if you wish, leave the camp and head west. Your ship is there."
The camp looked just as nano-sanitized on the outside. The surface of the buildings were shiny enough to use as grooming mirrors. The smell of cleaning agents from all over the galaxy reminded me of Sarai's final year, when the cleaning neurosis and religious fervor took control of her personality.
Of course I tried to leave the camp. The yellow mark around the perimeter looked harmless enough, until I stepped over it.
A tidal wave of nausea hit me. Part physical, part emotional. I felt like my life had been such a lie that I wanted to lay there and sleep it away until I starved. I started crying – not the soft tears you cry after a sad film, but the desperate bawling of a horrified child.
I clutched Sarai's necklace. Some deeper part of me clawed at the ground, pulling me back over the line into the compound. The nausea and depression faded like a bad dream.
The main square was a great slab of marble, and my fellow inmates were all Terrans and Saurians. The only open spot was next to a burly, bellicose looking Saurian, who shoved me when I bumped into him. I'd come between a few angry Saurians in the past. It's not as pleasant as it sounds.
"Excuse me," I said. He cursed up a cacophony of consonants.
Another androgynous Vilicus stood in the middle of the square.
"Welcome, new children," it said. "I am Creor, the Educator General of this compound. As of now, your names are meaningless. They represent your former savage selves. You will instead have numbers, until such time as your reeducation earns you a name."
I heard the Saurian mutter, "I will educate myself in Vilicus anatomy."
"Hello," said Creor, stepping down and striding up to the Saurian. "Did you have something to share, friend?"
I decided to distract the good general. "Are you people male or female?"
Creor smiled at me in a way that no brawny alien should ever smile at a grown man. "We serve the Zyxlar."
"I wonder who they serve, if they're still alive," I said.
Creor slapped me with strength I didn't expect.
"Forgive my lack of restraint," said the Vilicus, talking more to the sky than to me. It then turned to me and gave me another creepy, maternal smile. "One day, perhaps, I will weep for you with joy rather than sorrow."
Creor walked back to the pedestal and resumed droning.
I could hear the Saurian laughing, which is harder on the ears than com static. He slapped me on the back, which nearly knocked me on my face.
"You are amusing, Terran."
"Do not question me."
Survival instincts made me smile and nod.
After a few more minutes of droning about the Zyxlar's love, healthy suffering, and enlightenment through inhibition, Creor told us to rest. Tomorrow, we would start cleaning the statue of an ancient Zyxlar spiritual leader that faced the square. We would work on it for 15 hour shifts, with 3 hour breaks, until we cleaned it multiple times. The first step toward a healthy mind was a tired body, or some such crap.
"Tell me your name," said the Saurian, who shadowed me as I headed to the dormitory.
"Uh . . . Seymour," I said. "I'm a traveling preacher."
He grabbed me by the collar the way a kid might grab a doll. "Your lies smell worse than a Methene."
"Hey, it was a joke!"
He dropped me with all the smoothness of an avalanche. I barely kept my balance. He then laughed at full volume.
"Rison Murrow, licensed burglar. And you?"
"Good," he said. "My birth name is never pronounced properly by Terran tongues. I have taken the name of an ancient Terran figure that I respect. You may call me Shakespeare."
I wondered if my translator was failing me again. "You didn't say Shakespeare, did you?"
"You've read his writing?"
"Shakespeare is a warrior's name. Warriors do not read bedtime stories."
"You should learn a little more about your namesake."
"He died loyal to his queen. That is all I need to know. Will you die with us?"
"Excuse me?" I pointed to the translation patch behind my ear.
"Will you die with us?"
"Shh," I said, noticing a robed guard turning and staring. I led Shakespeare back toward the rest of the prisoners as they marched toward the dormitories.
He grumbled, but followed. "My brothers and I are going to charge the enemy and feast on as many of their bones as we can before they kill us."
"Suicide by Vilicus, huh?"
"A Terran would use those words."
"This Terran would. When are you and your brothers planning to do this?"
"Right now," said Shakespeare. He assumed a charging position and started bearing his teeth at the nearest Vilicus, who was mumbling prayers to the sky and spraying a bottle of Europa-cleanser over its chest.
I stepped in front of him and covered his teeth, well aware of the risk.
I half-expected my hand to join his last meal. Instead, he made the ugliest snorting sound on galactic record. "Move your hand, or I will die with it in my jaws and take it to the Red Fields." The Red Fields is the afterlife that most of their warriors covet.
"Look," I said, moving my hand but standing in his way. "If I'm going to die, it's not going to be today, and it's going to be for someone much prettier than you."
"You insult me?"
"I know a way to kill more of them and survive. We can cripple the camp. Escape. Live to die in some other bloodbath."
He spat. Some of it hit my cheek and burned, but I didn't wince. "How?" he asked.
I touched Sarai's necklace, remembering the explosion that killed her. Once again, I tried to stop imagining her final moments.
"When they're serving us our slop later, sit at my table."
"My brothers and I will come."
The mess hall, or Hall of Mess, as the Vilicus sign described it, looked more like a sprawling temple. The only food they served was called Ambrosium-8, which looked like something between oatmeal and dog snot. Supposedly, it contained nutrients for the body and soul.
Shakespeare sat across from me. When it came to expressing his distaste for Vilicus cuisine, he was less than subtle. I barely dodged two holy projectiles from his mouth.
"You Terrans are famous for talking," he said. "Show me what it can accomplish. Tell me why my brothers and I sit here, listening to your perversion of our language instead of our captors' screams."
We'd turned off our translators so the Vilicus wouldn't hear us, so I had to rely on my somewhat rusty understanding of Saurian. "I already told you," I said, wiping his spittle from my chin.
"I can kill four or five Vilicus with my teeth and die properly. You say I could kill a hundred and not die at all?"
"Yes. They use a lot of artificial cleansers, many they invented themselves. Some of those can be highly explosive."
"Killing your enemies from a safe distance has little honor. A warrior kills with his hands, watching the life fade from his foe's eyes."
"Do you think our races survived this long by waiting for the light to fade from our foes' eyes?"
"Don't you remember those rumors about random servants of the Vilicus spontaneously combusting, and the Vilicus calling them acts of ordained purification?"
"Yes. Deaths with no honor or meaning."
"You have no idea. Those were chemical accidents. Their favorite cleansers, when combined, have a tiny chance of blowing up. Maybe a bigger chance if the right catalyst is around." I touched the perfume bottle embedded in my necklace.
"How do you know? You have fewer scars than a Saurian child. You survived no such battle."
"Call it agnostic's intuition." Sarai had always worn too much perfume, even more so when she contracted faith fever.
"What is intuition?"
"It's like a very heavy, very sharp axe. Only it's made up of your mind."
Shakespeare laughed. "You amuse me, Terran. Perhaps my brothers and I will let you die with us one day."
"Where are these brothers of yours?"
"They are with me, the way your sharp axe of intuition is with you."
"Ah. Well, maybe your brothers and my axe can use a cleanser cocktail blow up the force field that makes us want to kill ourselves if we try to leave."
"The shepherd walls? Those come from a machine in the warden's building. Nobody could approach there and live."
"If I were a Vilicus, I'd tell you to have faith."
His eyes went dark, which meant he was thinking it over. That's when I heard the Vilicus behind me chattering for my attention. For all their refined posturing, their native tongue sounded as clunky as Old Saurian. Pretending to scratch my ear, I turned the translator back on.
"Exactly," I said, smiling and nodding.
"You did turn your translator off for a reason?" it asked. "Were you perhaps speaking heresy?"
Everything happened at once. Shakespeare struck at the Vilicus like a bolt of reptilian lightning. Three other Vilicus, sporadically but strategically positioned throughout the mess hall, stood up. They each removed their tear-away worship robes, which concealed well polished, over-designed armor. They converged on Shakespeare, who was spitting out Vilicus blood. I intercepted one Vilicus and tackled it, just as something painful turned the world black.
Even Vilicus jail cells are clean and cheerful. The bright lights made my headache worse. I looked through the mirrored bars to Shakespeare, who stood in his own cell. Some of the bars in front of him had an overtly head-shaped dent.
"I told you I wasn't interested in suicide," I said.
"That Vilicus would have slain you. I smelled its bloodlust."
"Has it occurred to you that Vilicus don't think like Saurians?"
"You think too much and smell too little."
Before I could say anything else, light flooded the room and a robed Vilicus guard entered. The guard bowed at each of us in turn.
"To demonstrate the forgiving nature of our masters, we have designated the earlier incident as a misunderstanding and pardoned you both."
"Swell," I said. Once again, I felt bored. Had I become so addicted to challenge that I needed it just to feel normal?
"Of course, we've had to implant a device in each of you that helps us guide you, should we feel it necessary. Think of it as your own personal shepherd wall, ready to improve you. We would rather persuade the universe's children to join us willingly, but we do what we must. Good day."
We spent the rest of the day and a good part of the evening cleaning the already pristine statue of the Zyxlar saint. I swiped small bottles of three different cleaning solutions. We started from the gigantic projectile weapon under its hands and worked up to the hooded head and eroded-looking face. Shakespeare applied a generous amount of spit to his antiseptic cocktail. Saurians were as famous for their saliva reserves as they were for their combat prowess.
"You may want to consider some discretion," I told him as we began our descent.
"You stink of perfume," he responded.
"Trust me, you'll appreciate the smell soon enough."
We continued our descent.
I'd discovered several new muscles in my arms over the last eight hours or so. More disturbing was my slight craving for that sanctified snot, Ambrosium-8. I didn't want to know if I had my implant to thank for that. Shakespeare was convinced there was no such thing, that he would have smelled it.
When we reached the bottom, our Vilicus chaperones debriefed us and circled around the statue to inspect it. Despite all their attempts to refine their manners and appearance, those thick brows looked better suited to breaking boulders than contemplating art.
After a few minutes, they nodded and waved us to our dorm.
When we were a few hundred feet away, I whispered into Shakespeare's ear, "You might want to wake up early tomorrow. Keep your eye on that statue, about 0600. You'll see a--"
An explosion sent us both tumbling. By the time I gathered my wits enough to sit up and look behind me, the remnant of a false dawn was fading from the sky. Smoke and rubble stood in place of the proud Zyxlar preacher we'd just cleaned.
"You said to watch the statue tomorrow morning?" asked Shakespeare.
"Yeah," I said. No point in rubbing in the fact that I'd miscalculated.
"Do you still wish me to do so?"
I turned to him.
"I was making a joke," he said. "Now, will you die with me?"
"Was that a joke, too?" I asked.
"Judge for yourself," he said. I turned and saw six robed Vilicus guards approaching us. Some of them held up their robes the way old Earth ladies used to hold their dresses as they ran.
I laughed. There were worse gestures to make in the face of death. I expected artificially induced nausea to own me at any moment. Was that bile in my throat? Had it begun?
"Some accident, huh?" I told the Vilicus. "I mean, I'd heard your cleaning materials had issues with spontaneous combustion. You should really consider a recall, you know? Bad for the worshipping business."
"Are those prayers for a safe journey into your afterlife?" Shakespeare asked under his breath.
For a moment, I shuddered at the idea of accompanying Shakespeare into the Saurian afterlife. Their Red Fields resembled Valhalla – warriors fighting and cutting each other up for fun – with an added twist of some good natured cannibalism. I was hoping more for the afterlife with seventy virgins. Terran virgins, and female. Then I thought of Sarai, and felt ashamed at the whole virgin thing.
That's when five of the six Vilicus bowed to me, knelt, and held their heads low. "Our masters have bestowed their message upon unlikely messengers, but it is not our position to doubt their meaning. No holier symbol exists than a Zyxlar statue bathing in fire, except for the one who brings such fire. Hail, Terran Rison and Saurian . . ."
"Shakespeare," he answered. Confusion added an odd, entertaining flavor to his warrior-voice.
"Hail, Rison. Hail, Shakespeare," said the kneeling five. The sixth remained standing and looked less than pleased.
Shakespeare looked at me. He always looked like he was grinning, but it was often an I could eat you for dessert and I might like it kind of grin. This one was marginally less creepy
They took me off cleaning duty and told me that, starting tomorrow, I could help them with Terran culture research. Most of that research, they explained, involved unsuspecting ways to reach Terrans.
They moved me to better quarters – better meaning more marble carvings of famous Zyxlar heads. They could not bring themselves to let me leave the camp – for my own protection, of course. I convinced them to give Shakespeare a room next door to mine.
In the morning, I woke to the sounds of Saurian screaming and thudding against my door. When I opened it, I saw him standing over two unconscious Vilicus guards.
"What happened?" I asked.
"They would not let me see you. It is urgent."
"What's wrong?" I could tell he hadn't slept much. I'd seen sleep deprived Saurians before, but I usually kept the recommended distance.
"My namesake has no sense of justice," he said under his breath. "I . . . found some of his work on the machines these creatures use to study your people."
"And you spent the night reading it?"
"For military purposes."
"Naturally," I said.
"The young male was foolish to take his own life. He should have known that his female was merely asleep."
"Are you telling me you stayed up all night reading Romeo and Juliet?" I covered my mouth. The wrong smile can offend a Saurian as easily as a bottle over the head.
"What of it?" He answered.
"Nothing at all. It's a warrior's tale, eh?"
"He should not have written it. Had I known this man, I would have killed him, taken his wife and eaten his children."
Before I could answer, the devotion bells rang across the camp. I headed outside. Shakespeare hesitated, then followed me and muttered something.
Before we reached the main square, a Vilicus stopped us and motioned for us to sit.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"You, my friends," it answered.
"That's no way to talk to your messiah," I said.
Shakespeare spat in its face. The Vilicus wiped his cheek. "I am Leior. As of this morning, I am the new warden. And, unfortunately for you, I do not worship flaming idols like some misguided offshoots of our religion."
"Those offshoots have quite a presence here," I said.
"Had a presence. Do you see those white body bags that my new sentinels carry about, preparing to launch into the deeper cosmos? Whom do you think is inside them?"
"I can guess," I muttered. I'd heard the Vilicus always sent their dead as far into the stars as possible. Home to their Zyxlar masters, said most rumors.
"I hope you understand we are not monsters," said the warden. The creature's eyes grew moist, as if it were having some kind of touchy-feely meltdown to beautiful classical music. "We love our people. Physical pain is a kindness, a purification to those of us who lost our way, whose souls were poisoned beyond other means of recovery. Death is a reward for achieving that purity."
"Then let us give you the reward you deserve," said Shakespeare.
"I'm afraid I have not yet earned it," said the warden. Then it paused, its mouth hanging open, as an explosion rattled the ground.
The control building was now a memory. Prisoners and guards were running like chickens on fire. The barrier that kept us all here, all that emotional barbed wire, was down.
I grabbed Sarai's perfume holder around my neck, now empty. "Are you seeing this, Sarai?" I whispered. "Are you watching me from beyond all jump gates, free of the Vilicus brainwashing? Or must I one day rescue you from their afterlife?"
Blood and bone fragments sprayed me from the side. I turned to see Shakespeare, grinning through the remnants of our friendly Vilicus warden. "I just saved your life. If I were not so polluted by your influence, I would claim you as my servant for the rest of your days."
I nodded. "Thanks, I think."
The further we ran from the smoking camp, the more unrest I felt. At first, I thought the Vilicus device was punishing me, drawing out my memories of Sarai. Then I wondered if I'd had such a device in me for a good part of my life, or if all Terrans had one, waiting for the right manipulator. My irreverent attitude, my boredom with success, my laughter at the least appropriate moments –– had those been my defense mechanisms?
"You are worthy of a Saurian name," Shakespeare said as we ran. "To my brothers and I, you are now Ursheik."
"Dare I ask what that means?"
"I believe in your words, it means man of perfume."
I kept my mouth shut. Rejecting a gift from a Saurian rarely results in a healthy emotional response.
"That was . . . a joke," said Shakespeare.