“But you were trying to pick the locks on the armaments locker,” said Pausert, roughly. “Now come out of there. You can come down to the bridge and do some explaining. Vezzarn, while I keep him under my gun, search him.”

“I haven’t got any weapons, truly,” said Mebeckey, wide eyed and frightened now. “And I can explain. Truly.”

“You’re going to,” said Pausert. “All of it.”

“I will. I promise.”

Vezzarn patted him down professionally, all the time keeping out of the captain’s line of fire. “He’s clean, Captain,” he announced after a very thorough search — down to the soles of the man’s borrowed boots.

Pausert holstered his weapon. “All right. Come down to the bridge and explain yourself. I want to get back to the controls. It’s not the safest place in known space out here.”

“I would much rather you were at the controls Captain. I want to get out of the Chaladoor. More than anything. I wish I’d never come here.”

“Explain exactly what did bring you here, to a burned out husk of a world in one of the most dangerous regions of space.”

“Greed. I suppose,” said the scarecrow of a man sadly. “I told you I was a very wealthy man. Well, that is true, or it was when I went to Garandool — the world you rescued me from. I don’t know if it is anymore. I doubt if Bocaj or the others will have been able to loot all of my assets, but with that fiendish thing at his side, I do not know.”

“I did understand the part about greed. The rest may make sense to you, Mebeckey. Begin at the beginning. Include an explanation of how come you pick locks. Rather ineptly, it would seem.”

Mebeckey sighed. “It began a long time back, before I was wealthy. I was archeology graduate from a small community college in the Empire. It was not a particularly wise choice, when it came to making a living. The best job I could find was as an underpaid assistant to a very wealthy and rather unpleasant dilettante. He… well, he had a habit of locking things up. He locked everything. One day I caught someone breaking and entering. A little rat of a petty thief who used to pick locks. I threatened to hand him over to the police unless he taught me. I thought I might be able to, well, relieve my employer of some of the money he didn’t pay me. I found that what he was locking up was not cash, but some of the little bits of loot he’d helped himself to from sites. Illegal items in themselves, but very much in demand with collectors. They were not particularly wonderful locks and with my new assistant thief I collected a generous share of his collection, and shipped it to myself and fled to the Republic of Sirius. It was enough to set me up as a dealer called Becker, and also as a man of private wealth called Mebeckey who had an interest in xeno-archaeology. Thereafter, I would do exactly as my erstwhile employer had done. Loot and sell through my dealer persona. I never forgot how to pick locks, and over the years the skill has been quite useful.”

“Still doesn’t explain what you were doing in the Chaladoor,” said the Leewit.

“A sequence of things. A piece of loot that came to Becker the antiquities dealer. Something that a pirate had looted off another ship, which in turn had come off a hulk they found drifting in space. Star pictures cut into the surface of two strange shaped goblets which arrived several years apart. A book which turned out to be the log of the Derehn Oph, the ship of an expedition that had ventured into the Chaladoor not long after man left old Yarthe and expanded across the galaxy. The log mentioned the finding of the world the goblets had been taken from.

“It must have been part of a much larger set, perhaps commemorating a galactic Empire of some alien life form. Some of the star patterns were quite distinctive and the log spoke of other things found on Garandool — a vast half melted fortress, cities buried in lava ash in the mountains, signs of huge war. And from the most obvious landing plain, a radio signal. An alien radio signal, still operational. Buried under a basalt flow. It’s not something that had ever been found before. Alien machinery is worth more than relics. Artifacts that still worked… That would be worth more than just a fortune. And those goblets — they were a lead to the planets of this alien Empire. The captain wrote in his log that took these particular goblets as they showed the star system that Garandool was part of, and the next one over. There were about twenty more, he wrote.

“It was simply too tempting. I set about mounting an expedition out here, following the route in the old ship’s log, with heavy drilling equipment and explosives to deal with the basalts. We had to work very secretively, and I fitted out my ship the Kapurnia with some heavy armament and some very powerful new drives. I thought back then, that the stories of Chaladoor were mostly superstition.” He shuddered. “By the time we got to Garandool, I knew that wasn’t true. But we got there, and there was the radio-beacon, sending out a repeat signal.”

He took a deep breath. “There were also signs that someone had tried to dig there. That someone had unleashed nova guns at the rock from close range.”

“How could you tell?” asked Pausert. “I mean, the range, the weapon…”

“It’s an important aspect of xeno-archeology. The damage left on alien structures — quite a lot during the Nartheby Sprite empire, some on the other alien relics we’ve found — help us to date them. Naturally, faking the damage is part of the trade. So radiation signatures to modern human weapons is well documented. And the scatter gives the range.”

“Oh, so had they taken your treasures and gone?” asked the Leewit.

“Hardly. We did a space-survey just to make sure that they weren’t still around. The world had a number of suspicious refined metal sites, above the rock melt. But careful examination showed them to be wrecks. Disintegrating wrecks. Old. Alien ships. That alone was valuable material. But deep radar showed structures still under the basalt, so we started excavations, going deeper than anyone had previously with space-guns and shovels. It took us a few months — in the meanwhile we had some members of the expedition checking out the wrecks. They were all of a similar design — Melchin or Illtraming — if the Nartheby sprite records were to be believed. The Melchin were a legendary culture, even to Nartheby sprites. The Illtraming had rebelled against them, so their ship design is similar. Anyway… They’d plainly been attacking this world with all the force they could muster. They’d literally melted the surface and sterilized the world. My crew collected quite a lot of material from the wrecks, even though they’d plainly been picked over before — they found enough to pay for the expedition twice over, and I was tempted to cut and run right then. But what had they’d been trying so hard to destroy? Greed keep me, and my people, working away with drills and geological lasers…

We’d cut a storage bay — and with sort of people I worked with, you understand I’d put a grade four safe door on it, and I kept most of the food, and artifacts in there. Pieces of alien ship. Bits of half-decayed equipment we no idea of the original purpose of… a fortune of sorts. In the meantime we kept right on excavating. Then we hit the tunnel — the walls had been made of Osmite — heat resistant, vastly expensive material. The stuff was harder than battle-armor. We couldn’t cut through it. It took us a month find the entrance. But we did. And it was still intact, under the melted rock.”

Pausert had to admit that he was enthralled. It had even dispelled his tiredness for a while. “And what did you find there?”

“The reason why someone tried so hard to destroy their enemy. And, thanks to us, they’d failed. Oh, and of course wealth untold. For an alien value of wealth.”