Chapter XX – The Vault
The interior of the building was dark. Light filtered in from holes in the roof where time had taken its toll on the structure, and now from the open door, although this was still blocked by Berwald and the others as they quickly crowded around him to peer inside. Mathias was the first to push past them all and step inside. It was not much to look at. Rather a disappointment. Dust and filth lay in a fine coating over everything. The room in which they currently stood was lined with benches, most of which were broken or upended. Those that were not still did not appear very sturdy. Windows high on the walls had been shuttered permanently centuries ago but some of the boards were beginning to come loose.
At the far end of the room there were two doors, and as soon as he spotted them that was straight were Mathais headed. He did so recklessly and without hesitation, barely sparing a glance at the rest of the building. Clearly this room was not what they were looking for, so it did not matter to him. The others were more cautious.
"Hold on, you idiot," Aleksander complained as he began to follow their headstrong captain. "It might be dangerous."
"No," Mathias answered blithely. "It's stood this long, what are the chances? Hey, come look at this." He had already reached one of the doors at the back of the room and stopped to look at it closely. Setting his ancient axe head down on the floor he leaned against the arm as he studied the wood and waited for the others to catch up with him.
It was several minutes before the rest of them picked their way across the littered floor and stood comfortably around him. By then Mathias had gotten a good look at the door and was nodding to himself. "Doesn't this look like one of those fancy keys would fit in it?" he asked, and pointed to a strange indentation in the wood.
Aleksander leaned forward to take a look. They all did, in fact, but with Mathias and Aleksander crowded around there was not much for them to see. From inside the pockets of his coat Aleksander took out the three keys they had found so far. Sure enough, they looked like they would fit perfectly within the indentation in the door.
"How do we know which one goes where?" Tino asked curiously. He stared over Aleksander's shoulder at the three keys. To him they all looked exactly the same except for the different colored gems at their center.
"Trial and error," Aleksander replied with a shrug. Because no matter how many tests he had run on them they still appeared exactly the same. For all he knew they were fakes, or redundant.
"Then let's try one," Mathias said. He plucked one of the strange, diamond-shaped artifacts from the palm of Aleksander's hand and, before any of the others could warn caution, he had slipped it into the hole in the door. For a long, horrible moment they all held their breath in anticipation. But nothing happened. Mathias frowned and pushed on the key as though shoving it harder into the groves would help. It did not. "Give me another one," he said, not to be deterred so easily. Soon the first was pried out of the hole and he had snatched up another. This one was pressed in with equal determination and equal anticipation, but also showed no change. Mathias shoved on the key, rattled it around in the hole, pushed on the door. Nothing made any difference. The door remained firmly shut and locked. He tried the last one, now growing frustrated, but with no improvement in results.
"What in Hel," Mathias growled, pushing his entire body weight against the door in an attempt to move it, but to no avail. "Son of a bitch. None of them work."
"What do you mean none of them work?" Tino asked, and actually pushed between Mathias and Aleksander to see what was going on.
"I mean that none of them work!" Mathias exclaimed. "The fucking door is still locked!"
"We do still have one more key to find," Aleksander pointed out. The legends had said four keys for the four peoples of the galaxy. They only had three.
Mathias stared at him in disbelief. But they had come this far and they had found what they were looking for. How could they be kept from it by some ancient piece of arts-and-crafts? "Maybe we can break it down," he said slowly, turning his gaze back to the door. "Who needs keys anyway. It's just wood, right? And no one's going to mind. Swede, give me a hand."
Berwald felt like he had done more than his share of opening doors today, but he stepped forward anyway. He certainly was not going to let Mathias take full credit for getting them in if this worked.
"I don't think this is going to work," Eiríkur commented.
That did not stop Mathias from trying. Both men applied their full strength to the door, but it did not as much as groan under their weight. "Alright," Mathias grumbled in annoyance. "Time for drastic measures." He reached for the axe that he had set aside while fumbling with the door and hefted it up onto his shoulder.
"Wait a minute," Aleksander interrupted, stepping forward to stop Mathias before he could do something stupid. "Let's not be hasty. I'm sure we can find the last key, and I'm sure it will open this door."
Then a voice broke into their conversation, coming from the front door of the building. "You mean this?" Ivan asked, standing silhouetted against the outside light and holding up a small object in one hand. The five pirates turned around quickly, horrified that they had been caught off guard and surprised that the police had caught up to them so quickly. Ivan merely chuckled at their reactions. "How naďve to think you could simply run away now when we've followed you this far."
"How did you find that?" Tino demanded. Even from this distance he could tell that it was the final key that they needed to open this door. There was no way Ivan and his crew could have created a fake, as far as he knew they had never seen the real thing.
"You must have a horrible radar system if you did not find it first after you got a head start on us again," Ivan said. "It was really quite simple. But I suppose that's to be expected with a ship like yours. I'm surprised the thing did not shake itself apart before getting to this planet." Ivan laughed at what he obviously thought was a good joke, but no one else was laughing. "Well, it seems like you do not have any choice now. You cannot continue without making a deal with me. What will it be? Will you hand over the rest of the keys and I let you all leave? Or do we have to do this the hard way?"
"I say Tino shoots him in the head," Mathias replied loud enough for the Russian to hear, "And we loot his dead body and then steal his ship on the way home."
"I'm okay with this," Tino replied, and shifted his grip on the rifle in his hands, purposefully readying to shoot if he should need to.
"Now, now, let's not be hasty," Ivan said, and finally something more than smug superiority worked its way through his facade. He was concerned. Though it would be an understatement to say he thought poorly of pirates, Ivan knew Tino, and he knew his reputation as a marksman. "I'm sure we can work this out in a way that benefits everyone."
"What makes you think we want to do anything that would benefit you?" Mathias asked. "Your kind do nothing but try and kill us."
"I am merely doing my job," Ivan explained. "We all have to do unpleasant things sometimes. Surely you are not completely innocent yourselves?"
"No," Aleksander said, "But we don't pretend to be, either."
"Come," Ivan entreated, "There must be some way that we can look past our differences. I'm sure you don't want to see anyone get hurt."
"I think you're wrong," Tino commented.
"So I take it you won't be taking up my offer, Tinoshka?" Ivan asked, looking to the Finn. "I never though you would be the type to chose a life like this."
"I didn't chose it," Tino told him. "But I like it a hell of a lot more than I ever liked working for you lot. You think you know me so well, so you should be able to understand that."
Ivan hummed thoughtfully. "Well, what if I say that I can get you all everything you've ever wanted," he said, stepping across the threshold and into the room with them. "I can make you rich, I can make you powerful. No more skulking in shadows and thieving. How does that sound?"
"How?" Mathias asked. It was a tempting offer, but who was this man to make such lofty promises. The outlaws had already made it abundantly clear that they wanted nothing to do with the government or the police or any law abiding organization.
"I am under the impression that most of your kind are merely cargo vessels that work outside of regulation," Ivan commented. "I can get you a shipping license. And I will put forward no record of your previous illegal pursuits."
"If you're so well versed on outlaw behavior then you should know the reason we work outside of regulation," Mathias laughed. "It's because of the regulations. I can make more selling one item of contraband than an entire shipment of legal materials. Or do you think we've never picked up that sort of job on the side?"
"Yes, I am aware, but that is hardly a reliable line of work is it? Wouldn't you much rather the security of steady work? Work that will not get you arrested?" Ivan asked.
"Sounds boring," Mathias replied with a shrug. "You'll have to do better than that."
Ivan sighed. "Well, I tried," he muttered, "But clearly you will not see reason. A pity. The service could use men like you. It looks like we are going to have to do this the hard way. This is quite regrettable." In a flash the man had with drawn a handgun from within his coat and pointed it at the men at the other end of the room. He was quite fast for a man his side, but just as quickly Tino had raised his rifle to his shoulder and was aiming it square at Ivan's head.
Tino could have shot him right then and there, but Tino did not like shooting people, even ones he hated as much as Ivan, so he waited. Waited until he was certain Ivan was a threat to them and not simply bluffing. What could one man do against all five of them, even if he managed to take down Tino first? Surely he had not come on his own.
"Are you going to shoot me, Tinoshka?" Ivan asked, and took a daring step forward; Tino held his ground. "No, I don't think you are. You were always soft, despite your skill." As he stepped forward into the room the female officer they had seen before came in after him. She was holding a pistol in each hand and aimed them both squarely at the group of outlaws. Now it was surely a standoff. Despite Tino's impressive skills he doubted he was fast enough to shoot two people before either of them could shoot him. "Here is how this will work," Ivan said. "In case the people of this planet were smart enough to put more than locked doors between us and their most prized possession, I want you lot to go in there first. I will throw you this key, and you will open the door. If you do not behave, Natalia will shoot Tino. Can I trust you in this?"
The others did not see that they had much choice, and now even Tino was frightened. He was outgunned. He was not used to this, and he did not like it. He knew Ivan, and he could try to predict his actions, but the woman was a stranger to him and a mystery. It made him wary. Berwald noticed this and he nudged Mathias, who looked over and merely nodded in reply. For now the best course was to play alone and hope that a moment in which they could get the upper hand would assert itself.
"Fine," Mathias grumbled. Just because it was best to behave now did not mean he had to like it. "Give me the key then."
"Good," Ivan said with a sickeningly insincere smile. He held the key up for them to see, and then tossed it over to them Mathias tried to catch it but missed and the artifact clattered to the floor. Quickly, embarrassed, he picked it up again and dusted it off. "Go on, then," the officer encouraged.
Despite his earlier eagerness to get inside, Mathias was slow to turn around and face the door again. He did not like having a gun, or three, pointed at his back, but they really had no choice except to go along with what the police wanted for now. For a moment he stared at the key in his hands, dusted it off on his pants, and then slid it into the hole.
When the key was fitted into the indentation in the wood Mathias stepped back. After three failures he was not eager for another, and yet his anticipation could not be higher. As it turned out, though, he did not need to do anything further. There was a faint glow from the gem in the middle of the artifact and then the sound of mechanisms working within or behind the door. Like gears turning and the click of a lock sliding out of place. With a groan the wooden door loosened from its frame and slid open of its own volition with little more than a creaking of hinges.
Again, Mathias and his crew crowded around the doorway to peer inside, but it was even darker than the room they were currently in. There were no windows where this door led and beyond what faint light crept in from the doorway it was pitch black.
"I hope you have brought a light," Ivan sneered from behind them. "It looks like you will need it."
"Of course we did," Mathias spat back, "Do we look that stupid to you?"
"Do you honestly want the answer to that?" Ivan chuckled.
"No," Aleksander answered quickly. As usual, Mathias had spoken without thinking. They all knew exactly what the officer thought of them.
"I've got a light," Eiríkur said, pulling an electric torch from inside his pack. He handed it over to Mathias with an unspoken understanding that he would be going first into the depths of this structure.
"So do I," Tino said, and from within his oversized jacket brought out another. This he clipped to the top of his rifle. Hopefully the two would be enough to light the dark passage before them.
"Have fun," Ivan said, and laughed again. "I will follow after you have cleared any traps our predecessors left for us."
"After we've cleared them by dying, he means," Tino muttered as he turned toward the doorway and lifted his rifle to his shoulder. The beam from the light mounted atop it cut in to the darkness, but it revealed nothing.
"This is what we wanted anyway," Aleksander said. "We can deal with the police later."
"Agreed," Mathias said. They had come all this way. One dark hallway was no going to stop them, and neither were the police on their backs. The light from Mathias' torch did little to eliminate the pressing blackness that surrounded them so he proceeded cautiously despite the desire to rush forward. Their goal was so close he could taste it. Everything they had ever wanted, what they had worked for for months now was almost within their grasp. He wanted to rush forward with the reckless abandon that he was known for, but Ivan was right to suspect traps. The Aesir had already gone to elaborate efforts just to keep them from opening this door, it made sense that they would make it as difficult as possible for anyone to get in. Booby traps were a definite possibility.
The air within the corridor was dank and stale, thick with dust and the smell of mildew. Mathias' footsteps were heavy in the silence that surrounded him as he moved forward with bated breath. Tino followed closely behind, offering slightly more light and a measure of moral support. The others trailed behind, hovering at the doorway for as long as possible before following them inside; no one quite trusted the police not to lock them inside.
After several minutes of walking, moving at a snail's pace, Mathias realized that the passage was leading them downward, and that it was slightly curved. They were going underground. Under the structure they had entered from. The lower they went the darker and danker it became; the floor transitioned from wood to stone that was slick and damp. The abrupt change startled Mathias and he stumbled, nearly loosing his footing. When he regained it he realized that he had emerged into a room. A cavern, truly, carved out beneath the structure on the surface. A sweep of his light told him that it was also about the same size as the room above, but completely barren.
"The hell is this?" Tino asked from behind him as he too stepped into the room. He still held the rifle up to his shoulder and looked along the barrel as he looked as best he could at their surroundings.
"I don't know," Mathias said. For a long moment he thought they had come to a dead end, and he was incredibly confused. "Aleksander get up here!" he called back over his shoulder. There was the quick sound of footsteps behind them and then Aleksander stepped into the circle of light cast around Mathias and Tino, shortly followed by the other two. "We need your computer. Can you tell where we are?" Mathias asked.
"Underneath where we were," Aleksander answered dryly as he took the scanner out of his bag again.
"I know that," Mathias griped.
"That's all I can tell from this as well," Aleksander said after he fiddled with the controls for a little while. "Can't whatever these rocks are, they're blocking all the sensors. Can't see anything outside this room, except the way we came."
Mathias cursed and swept his light around the room to try and get a better look at their surroundings. Bit by bit the walls were revealed, all the same bare stone as the floor and ceiling. Then Mathais spotted the door. It was the same as the one upstairs, or at least appeared to be. The captain was quick to go for a closer investigation. Indeed, it was made out of the same wood as the door upstairs, with similar carvings. Mathias ran his hand over them curiously, but was still unable to understand what they meant. Maybe they were just decoration, but somehow he doubted it. One last time he swept his light around the room, looking for anything else they might have missed, but there was nothing. This cavernous room was completely empty save the single door.
"No way to go but forward," Mathias said with resignation. "Unless you fancy a gunfight. How many do you have, Tino? Could we take them?"
"I doubt it," Tino replied. He had two pistols that he trusted the others to use, but doubted spreading out their firepower would give them any advantage, though it would make their chances less dire. "They've got pulse guns out there. Not as accurate as projectiles, but they don't run out of ammo. Looks like a new model, too. Probably more powerful or more efficient than what we're used to. Couldn't say for sure, though."
"Damn," Mathias muttered. They would have to come up with a plan that involved more than shooting their way out, but now was not the time for that. "Onward it is, then." He stepped up to the door and pulled the keys from his pocket. As far as he could tell, this door looked exactly the same as the first. The same engravings, the same material, and the same diamond indentation in the center. The captain picked one of the keys at random and slid it into place. The door groaned and creaked, unlocking by whatever unseen mechanism kept it sealed. Then the thing opened with the sound of gas releasing from a long-sealed container. Immediately heat rushed out through the opening and the sudden change in temperature hit Mathias in the face like a splash of boiling water.
"Son of a bitch!" the man swore and leapt back. "Must be a thousand degrees in there."
The room on the other side of the door was also brightly lit. So bright that for a moment they were all blinded. When their eyes finally adjusted Aleksander stepped forward cautiously. "I'm reading forty-two centigrade," he corrected.
"Too damn hot," Mathias concluded. "How the hell is it that hot in there? I didn't feel anything through the door."
"Aesir technology," Eiríkur guessed.
Tino turned off the light on his gun and also crept cautiously toward the door to look inside. "It's the same flame as outside," he said, squinting into the brightly lit room. And he was correct. The walls were lined with torches that all burned pure white.
"How?" Mathias asked.
This time no one offered any scientific explanation. This far underground the torches should have long ago run out of fuel or oxygen to burn, yet the flames were still going strong. Cautiously, Tino stepped even closer to the threshold, his gun held loosely but ready should he need it. After the initial shock of the heat and light within the room wore off he was able to take stock of the rest of the décor. The walls were gilt golden and polished bright which only intensified the light of the white flames. He supposed it helped intensify the heat as well. Down the center of the room stood two rows of pedestals in varying sizes all decorated with carvings of the same style they had seen throughout the structure. Each pedestal was topped with an indentation, stand, or holder of some sort, but all were empty.
"It's fucking empty," Mathias said, not impressed. If anything, he was becoming more and more frustrated the further they went. If they came all this way for nothing he was going to be very angry.
"There's another door at the end," Eiríkur said, pointing to the far end of the hall.
"I guess we continue onward, then," Tino said with a shrug.
"I guess so," Mathias agreed, and strode past him toward the next door. The empty rooms were disheartening, but he would not give up yet. Not until they had reached wherever this strange collection of rooms lead. They passed through the brightly lit and decidedly overheated room and stopped before the door at the other end. There were two keys that had yet to be used, and Mathias pressed one, and then the other into the door before it opened in the same fashion as the previous two, but lead to another empty passageway.
"This is really starting to piss me off," Mathias muttered, and stuffed the keys back into his pocket as he stalked into the corridor. To come all this way and so far have nothing to show for it was frustrating to no end. And now they were being lead on what felt like a wild goose chase. Apparently it had been too much to assume it would be easy once they finally found the vault. Nothing ever went easily for them.
The five men continued down the darkening corridor, following after their captain as he strode heedlessly into the growing darkness as the light from the last room faded away behind them. This passage seemed to continue straight, not taking them downward, but simply leading them further away from the entrance. They continued along it for what felt like ages until Tino spotted a light ahead of them. "I see something up there," the gunman said, pointing ahead of them even though it could not be seen in the dark. Neither he nor Mathias had had the will to turn on their lights again.
"Where? I don't see anything," Mathias complained, squinting into the darkness.
"It's there, straight ahead of us," Tino assured him. "Just keep going." And they did not have much choice, so they did, and eventually the light grew so that the others could see it as well. It was faint still, dim, but there was clearly some source of light ahead of them. Mathias quickened his steps, going faster and faster until he was running with the others chasing behind. The light grew larger and larger, but not brighter, until they came skidding to a stop in another room. It was plain rock again, just like the first, and the light, they now saw, came from a hole in the ceiling. All of these passageways and chambers had apparently been carved straight into the rock beneath the city, and here the ceiling had been vaulted so high it became weak with time. Several holes had opened, letting in daylight. Aleksander was surprised it was still daylight outside, it felt as though they had been down here long enough for night to have fallen, but it was difficult to keep track of time in this closed off environment, even harder than on a space ship.
The room here was small, much smaller than the others, barely large enough to fit all five of them inside, despite the high ceiling. In front of them stood another of those accursed doors. Mathias was beginning to get quite annoyed with these contraptions. This one was different, though. The engravings here were different; they showed pictures of what appeared to be men building something. Across the top there were carved symbols like letters, but none of them recognized the language at all. In the front of the door not one, but four indentations were carved in the shape of the keys.
"This has to be the end," Eiríkur said. He was tired of walking, as were they all, and eager to reach the end of this quest. It had not turned out nearly as glamorous as he had expected.
"It better be," Mathias muttered. All of them were getting frustrated by now, and an unspoken fear hung over the group. Up to now there had been nothing worth finding, the vaults were emptied. Would that stay true for this room as well? Would they find nothing at all beyond this door?
Mathias fit the keys into the indentations on the door while the others waited with bated breath. It creaked open, scraping against the floor, then stopped after opening only a few inches. Mathias groaned in annoyance. It was broken. "Great," he muttered.
But Tino gave a sigh of relief. "I'm glad something down here is malfunctioning," he commented. "I was beginning to think this place wasn't actually abandoned."
"Thought you believed in magic," Mathias teased as he began to push at the door.
"I'm not stupid," Tino complained. "I know there's no such thing, but it's so perfect down here it's hard to believe this all kept working on its own while everything around it fell apart."
"Obviously they built this to last," Aleksander said. "Mathias what is taking so long? Have you forgotten how to open doors now?"
Mathias was indeed still pushing against the door, but it had moved no more than a fraction of an inch. "It's stuck on something," The captain said, "Swede, come help me."
Berwald gave a long suffering sigh and stepped up to put his body weight against the door along with Mathias'. But whatever the door was stuck on was strong. Both men leaned and pushed upon it together, and for a long while the door did not budge. Then, all of a sudden it gave way. With a snap, whatever had been holding it back broke and the door swung freely inward. It happened so suddenly that both Mathias and Berwald stumbled forward and fell into the room. Immediately the others came to look in through the doorway.
The room beyond was cavernous in every sense of the world, a natural cave in the planet's crust, the roof of which vaulted high above their heads. The floor was rough, dotted with stalagmites and columns of natural stone. A path ran down from the doorway, winding between the stone formations and down into the depths of the cavern. The path was slick and wet, but as soon as he got back to his feet Mathias was following it. The tension was nearly palpable as the crew anticipated what they would find and silently prayed that they would not face another disappointment. Single file they went carefully between the stalagmites and dripping water. Then before them a shaft of light broke through the ceiling, plunging down into the dark cavern and lighting a flat area at the bottom of the path. Water had collected there over the years, forming a wide pool around a pedestal like those they had seen in the gilded chamber. And like the other pedestals it was empty.
"No," Mathias breathed in disbelief. He leaped forward, stepping heedlessly into the water, and splashed toward the pedestal.
"Careful!" Aleksander shouted after him. "You don't know how deep that is!"
Luckily the water was only ankle deep, but none of the others followed him. Mathias stopped at the pedestal and stared at it. Then walked around it. Then ran his hands over it in search of some hidden secret. "There's nothing here!" he exclaimed finally. "There's nothing fucking here!"
"Calm down," Aleksander beseeched from the edge of the water.
"I am calm!" Mathias snapped, and kicked the pedestal in his anger.
"Mathias," Berwald attempted, and took a step forward into the water. "Getting angry's not gonna change anything."
"Okay, I'm not calm," Mathias admitted, "But I can't calm down! We came all this way, we worked so damn hard! You almost died! And for what? For nothing! We've got nothing to show for it except a giant waste of time! You know what would have been worth our time? Going for that… That wormhole thing, whatever. Like we originally planned. I should have known that chasing after treasure was a bad idea! Why the fuck did I let you guys talk me into this?" Mathias ranted furiously. He threw his hands up in the air, gesticulated wildly with the axe in his hand and paced around the empty pedestal in the center of the cavern. Immediately Berwald stepped back again to be out of the range of the captain's weapon.
"We're all angry," Berwald said, "S'not your fault I got hurt, and it's not your fault there's nothing here! We all wanted to come here."
"He's right," Tino cut in. "This is what we do; go after hopeless causes."
"But now we're stuck here!" Mathias argued. "We've come all this way with nothing to show for it! And now, outside, there are two police waiting out there who would be more than happy to shoot us on sight. The only reason they haven't is because they expect us to come out of here with some priceless treasure. What are they going to do when we show up empty handed? They probably won't want to negotiate. Shoot on sight most likely."
"And I'll shoot them back!" Tino said confidently.
"No offense, Tino, but they seem to have you outgunned. Never thought I'd see the day," the captain grumbled.
And Tino was forced to admit that he was right. "What do we do, then?" the gunman asked. "Stay here until we die of old age? There's no other way out of here."
Mathias frowned and looked around, but Tino was right. There was no way out of the cavern except through the door and back the way they had come. They had to go back and face the police eventually. "You don't think they'll just let us go if they say we didn't find anything," Mathias protested.
"No," Tino agreed. "But unless you want a shootout that could get us all killed we have to try something."
"I agree with Tino," Eiríkur said, "We should try to convince them we didn't find anything. What are the odds they'll shoot us on sight?"
"Too high for my comfort," Mathias muttered.
"But higher than our odds of survival if we stay here and try to wait them out," Aleksander argued.
Mathias sighed in defeat. "What's the use of being captain if no one listens to me?" he asked.
"It took you this long to realize no one listens to you?" Aleksander asked with no surprise whatsoever.